The Madness of Mis [1]

In order to order my thoughts on the Goddess in the Machine I have been exploring ideas of the Heroines’ Journey. This is a subject wonderfully covered and researched by Sharon Blackie in her book ‘If Women Rose Rooted’ [September Publishing, 2016]

Grief and anger as a stimulus for transformation

It seems that everyone knows about the wild men in Celtic mythology. The enigmatic Brittonic figure of Lailoken, who almost certainly, somewhere along the line, became conflated with Merlin, leading to the legend of Myrddin Wyllt, the wild man of the woods. Suibhne Geilt, Mad Sweeney from the old Irish tale Buile Shuibhne (‘The Frenzy of Sweeney’): the subject of a fine body of poetry which extends from Yeats to Heaney. It’s a story we seem to have seen before: everybody knows about the men, but somehow, nobody focuses on the women.

So let’s take a look at Mis, the most colourful and original wild woman of Irish mythology. (There are no great poems about Mis, but I’d like to think there will be, some day.) Mis was the daughter of Dáire Dóidgheal, a powerful ruler from Europe who set out to invade Ireland. He landed with a huge army in Ventry, County Kerry, and a fierce battle followed which lasted a year and a day. Dáire was eventually slain by the hero-warrior Fionn mac Cumaill, which ended the battle. Mis came down in the aftermath to look for her father, and found only his dead body, bleeding, on the beach. Mis was overwhelmed by grief, and flung herself across her father’s body, licking and sucking at his bloody wounds to try to heal them, just as an animal might. When this failed to restore him to life, madness overcame her and she rose up into the air like a bird and flew away into the heart of the Sliabh Mis mountains.

Mis lived in the mountains for many years, and grew long trailing fur and feathers to cover her naked skin. She grew great sharp claws with which she attacked and tore to pieces any creature or person she met. She could run like the wind, and no living thing was safe from her. They thought her so dangerous that the people of Kerry created a desert stripped of people and cattle between themselves and the mountains, just for fear of her.

The king in those parts, Feidlimid Mac Crimthainn, offered a reward to anyone who would capture Mis alive. No-one accepted, for fear of Mis, except for a gentle harper by the name of Dubh Ruis. Dubh Ruis enticed Mis out of hiding, and made love to her. He coaxed her into a pool and, over a period of days, washed away the dirt and scrubbed away her feathers and fur. He combed her hair, and fed her, and made a bed for her. And eventually, he brought her back to civilisation, and married her.

This is some of what I wrote about Mis in If Women Rose Rooted:

‘Sometimes, madness seems like the only possible response to the insanity of the civilised world; sometimes, holding ourselves together is not an option, and the only way forwards is to allow ourselves to fall apart. As the story of Mis shows, that madness can represent an extreme form of initiation, a trigger for profound transformation.

… Mis is the original wild woman, that archetypal madwoman who lives deep within each of us. She speaks for us all: for the rage which we cannot express, for the grief which eats our heart out, for the voices we have suppressed out of fear. This old story shows us a brutal descent into darkness during which all illusions are stripped away and old belief systems evaporate, and in doing so it suggests that the extremities of madness or mental breakdown, with their prolonged, out-of-control descent into the unknown, might offer us a path through which we can come to terms with the truth. Like other legendary geilta (the Irish word for madwomen) Mis is driven to extremity in her grief, shape-shifting into bird form, flying away into the hills and woods, growing fur and feathers, eating wild and raw food, leaving the intolerable world behind her. But a geilt cannot emerge from her madness and come back to the world until she has achieved some kind of personal transformation. Through her ordeal – her removal from society and her time spent in the wilderness – she must find a way to reclaim a more authentic sense of identity and belonging. She finds it with the help of a man; she finds it in the union of the masculine and feminine.’

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