In most cases the Dindshenchas describe how features that are already there get their name. In some cases, though, they describe how features come into existence and in almost all of these examples it is the result of a goddess or female spirit’s actions. Sometimes lakes are created as a result of a grave bursting forth with water, perhaps in some way relating to the tears of grief that are shed over someone so beloved that the water fills up and forms into the lake (metaphorically speaking, that is; it’s not explicitly stated). In these stories the grave can be that of a man or a woman, but sometimes in the versions with the grave of a man springing forth a lake, there are alternative explanations giving that involve a woman, suggesting that these might be later. With the overwhelming majority of tales giving goddesses responsibility for creating or shaping the landscape, it seems safe to assume that these are more likely to be the ‘original’ tales.
Probably the best known of them is the Dindshenchas of Boann. Her name and even her association with the river Boyne is old, with the second century map of Ptolemy recording a river named ‘Buvinda’; in linguistic terms the name draws on the exact same roots as Boann’s name – *Bou-vindā, meaning ‘cow’ and ‘white’ respectively, placing her as a deity with one of the longest historical record of all of them.
There are a few different versions of the Dindshencas, which give differing reasons for her approaching the well that subsequently rises up and chases after her before she is overcome by the waters. In the version below it is said that she approaches the well because ‘noble pride uplifted her’; an alternative version describing the same reasoning has her walking around the well three times widdershins, suggesting or emphasising ill or wrong intent. In the second version of the Metrical Dindshenchas she is said to have gone to the well to wash herself of the sin of adultery she had committed with the Dagda, which resulted in the birth of Oengus mac Óc. In all cases there are definite misogynistic overtones to the story – the sin of sex, the sin of an uppity woman with thoughts beyond her meek and mild station…But like the Dindshenchas of Sinann, which features the exact same well, there are associations of wisdom in the waters that she approaches. One might think that her quest for knowledge may be a more likely reason for her approaching the well, and in her quest she is either overwhelmed or must sacrifice herself to bring the gift from its Otherworldly source into this world.
I’ve chosen to post this version because it gives an interesting pedigree about the names of various parts of the river, which seem to hint at other mythological associations; that the waters are linked with rivers far beyond Ireland is interesting too, and this Celtica article (pdf link) has lots to say about the motivations behind that.
- Sid Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here,
the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid,
from which flows the stainless river
whose name is Boand ever-full.
- 5] Fifteen names, certainty of disputes,
given to this stream we enumerate,
from Sid Nechtain away
till it reaches the paradise of Adam.
- Segais was her name in the Sid
10] to be sung by thee in every land:
River of Segais is her name from that point
to the pool of Mochua the cleric.
- From the well of righteous Mochua
to the bounds of Meath’s wide plain,
15] the Arm of Nuadu’s Wife and her Leg are
the two noble and exalted names.
- From the bounds of goodly Meath
till she reaches the sea’s green floor
she is called the Great Silver Yoke
20] and the White Marrow of Fedlimid.
- Stormy Wave from thence onward
unto branchy Cualnge;
River of the White Hazel from stern Cualnge
to the lough of Eochu Red-Brows.
- 25] Banna is her name from faultless Lough Neagh:
Roof of the Ocean as far as Scotland:
Lunnand she is in blameless Scotland —
or its name is Torrand according to its meaning.
- Severn is she called through the land of the sound Saxons,
30] Tiber in the Romans’ keep:
River Jordan thereafter in the east
and vast River Euphrates.
- River Tigris in enduring paradise,
long is she in the east, a time of wandering
35] from paradise back again hither
to the streams of this Sid.
- Boand is her general pleasant name
from the Sid to the sea-wall;
I remember the cause whence is named
40] the water of the wife of Labraid’s son.
- Nechtain son of bold Labraid
whose wife was Boand, I aver;
a secret well there was in his stead,
from which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.
- 45] There was none that would look to its bottom
but his two bright eyes would burst:
if he should move to left or right,
he would not come from it without blemish.
- Therefore none of them dared approach it
50] save Nechtain and his cup-bearers:
— these are their names, famed for brilliant deed,
Flesc and Lam and Luam.
- Hither came on a day white Boand
(her noble pride uplifted her),
55] to the well, without being thirsty
to make trial of its power.
- As thrice she walked round
about the well heedlessly,
three waves burst from it,
60] whence came the death of Boand.
- They came each wave of them against a limb,
they disfigured the soft-blooming woman;
a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye,
the third wave shatters one hand.
- 65] She rushed to the sea (it was better for her)
to escape her blemish,
so that none might see her mutilation;
on herself fell her reproach.
- Every way the woman went
70] the cold white water followed
from the Sid to the sea (not weak it was),
so that thence it is called Boand.
- Boand from the bosom of our mighty river-bank,
was mother of great and goodly Oengus,
75] the son she bore to the Dagda — bright honour!
in spite of the man of this Sid.
- Or, Boand is Bo and Find
from the meeting of the two royal streams,
the water from bright Sliab Guaire
80] and the river of the Sids here.
- Dabilla, the name of the faithful dog
who belonged to the wife of Nechtain, great and noble,
the lap-dog of Boand the famous,
which went after her when she perished.
- 85] The sea-current swept it away,
as far as the stony crags;
and they made two portions of it,
so that they were named therefrom.
- They stand to the east of broad Breg,
90] the two stones in the blue waters of the lough:
Cnoc Dabilla is so called from that day to this
from the little dog of the Sid.