‘These are ancient stories about pagan gods we’re not taught about in school because schools have a Christian ethos’
The writer says Norse gods like Loki take centre stage in the Marvel film universe and kids are taught about Greek and Roman myths, but home-grown legends are ignored.
The former PR executive was inspired by a move to Belfast and a visit to Lough Neagh to navigate millennia of fantastic tales for debut book Girls Who Slay Monsters.
She’s uncovered ancient stories of mythical women who were gender fluid or fighting back against racism and bullying.
Ellen’s also found the Boyne river was worshipped as a goddess and Lough Neagh is teeming with legends, but no one knows about them.
“The Norse god Loki is gender fluid and that’s being talked about in the Marvel universe and celebrated, and there are a lot of gods who had the power of shapeshifting.
“Ireland has Be Manna who was a gender fluid spy, who transformed from male to female for the love of it,” says Ellen.
“These are ancient stories about pagan gods we’re not taught about in school because schools have a Christian ethos, but if we’re not afraid to teach about Greek gods we shouldn’t be afraid to teach about our own.”
The 37-year-old’s book attracted huge interest from publishers in the UK and Ireland who loved her idea of swashbuckling myths about Irish women facing their foes.
Their reach spread to England where leaders like tribal queen Boudicca worshipped Celtic gods. A move from Dublin to Belfast awakened Ellen’s interest in Ireland’s ancient culture and uncovering some of the unknown myths associated with places like Lough Neagh convinced her to start writing when she tapped into a seam of stories which are buried in ancient texts.
“Living in Belfast I met people who had a really strong sense of their culture and heritage,” says Ellen.
“Working in PR gave me the confidence to write and then I visited places like Lough Neagh which was believed to be a portal to the other world, where the god Eochaid lived with his daughter Lí Ban.“When the lough flooded, and her people were drowned, rather than die she became an immortal mermaid.
“Her story is in ancient texts going back to the twelfth century but in later stories she’s caught by monks who baptised her and turned her into St Muirgen.
“Lough Neagh has a huge amount of pagan mythology associated with it.”
Ellen says Ireland is teeming with forgotten stories, like the gate to hell, which is in a cave in Roscommon, the goddess Macha who gave her name to Armagh and Boann, who was the spirit of the Boyne, all based on ancient worship of the landscape.
She’s telling their stories to inspire a new generation of young girls.
“It’s amazing to look through a contemporary lens for modern kids who can relate to these gods who were made to feel ‘other’ and there’s so much in them where they are addressing contemporary issues.
“Bé Binn was a giant who was mocked and humiliated by mortal men for her size.
“Badb Catha was a harbinger of doom who is described as ‘dark as a stag beetle’ and experienced racial abuse for it and was villainised for it.
“These stories belong to girls in Northern Ireland and to girls everywhere in the world because we took stories of goddesses and strong women and suppressed them.”
HarperCollins Ireland has snapped up her stories and loved Ellen’s passion for the past.
“There is a sense that people are prepared to read about a Greek god or an Egyptian god so why not an Irish one? This is our feminist inheritance,” says Ellen.