Like most Irish deities Áine has a complex and sometimes contradictory mythology. She is said in some sources to be the daughter of Manannan Mac Lir and in others to be the daughter of Manannan's foster son Eogabail, a Druid of the Tuatha de Danann (Berresford Ellis, 1987; ). No mother is listed for her. Some sources say that her sister is Finnen, whose name means white (Monaghan, 2004). Her name likely means "brightness" or "splendor" and she is often associated with the sun (O hOgain, 2006; Monaghan, 2004). In fact not far from her hill of Cnoc Áine is another hill, Cnoc Gréine, associated with the goddess Grian (literally "Sun") who is also reputed be a fairy Queen; MacKillop suggests the two goddesses might represent the summer and winter suns respectively and some sources list them as sisters (MacKillop, 1998; Monaghan, 2004).
There is some confusion in modern mythology where Áine is seen as an aspect of Anu or the Morrigan, but Berresford Ellis sees this connection as unlikely (Berresford Ellis, 1987). Interestingly Grian is similarly seen as a possible aspect of Macha, probably due to a reference to Macha in the Metrical Dindesenchas that gives an epithet of Grian to her. While I disagree with these associations, I admit that I find it fascinating that Áine and Grian are strongly associated with each other and a possible division of the year, and each is also associated with the Morrigan and Macha respectively. There is also a trend at describing Áine as a moon goddess, although there is nothing in myth or folklore to support that.
In much of her later folklore Áine is reputed to have love affairs with mortals and several Irish families claim descent from her. The most well known of these human descendants is the third Earl of Desmond, Gearoid Iarla. It is said by some that Gearoid did not die but was taken into Loch Guirr and would return one day (Berresford Ellis, 1987). Other tales say that he lives still within the lake and can be seen riding beneath the water on a white fairy horse, while still other stories claim that Áine turned him into a goose on the shore of the lake (Berresford Ellis, 1987). She was also said to have been raped by the king Aillil Olom, on Samhain, who stories say she either bit an ear off of or she killed in punishment (Monaghan, 2004; Berresford Ellis, 1987; O hOgain, 2006). The child of this union was Eogan whose line went on to claim rulership of the land through their descent from the goddess (Monaghan, 2004).
Áine is associated with fertility, agriculture, soveriengty, and the sun, as well as love (Berresford Ellis, 1987; Monaghan, 2004). She is associated especially with red mares, with some people claiming she could assume this form (MacKillop, 1998; Monaghan, 2004). She may also be associated more generally with horses, and possibly with geese and sheep as they appear in her folklore. The hill of Cnoc Áine is one of the most well known places associated with her, said to have been named after her during the settling of Ireland when she used magic to help her father win the area (O hOgain, 2006). Midsummer was her special holy day and up until the 19th century people continued to celebrate her on the eve of Midsummer with a procession around the hill, carrying torches of burning straw in honor of Áine na gClair, Áine of the Wisps (Berresford Ellis, 1987). Áine is also sometimes called Áine Chlair, a word that may relate to wisps or may be an old name for the Kerry or Limerick area (Monaghan, 2004; O hOgain, 2006). On midsummer clumps of straw would be lit on her hill and then scatterd through the cultivated fields and cows to propitiate Áine's blessing (O hOgain, 2006). In county Louth there is a place called Dun Áine where people believe that the weekend after Lughnasa belongs to Áine, and in some folklore she is said to be the consort of Crom Cruach during the three days of Lughnasa (O hOgain, 2006; MacNeill, 1962). Additionally there is another hill called Cnoc Áine in county Derry, and a third in Donegal (O hOgain, 2006). In Ulster there is a well called Tobar Áine that bears her name.
Whether a goddess or fairy queen Áine has been much loved, even up until fairly recently. Her mythology is convoluted but fascinating and any who feel the need or desire to honor a solar goddess within an Irish framework would do well to learn more about Áine. I have honored her on midsummer for many years, and am glad I do. As they say, she is "the best hearted woman who ever lived" (O hOgain, 2006).
Berresford Ellis, P., (1987). A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
O hOgain, D. (2006). The Lore of Ireland
Monaghan, P., (2004). The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore
MacKillop, J., (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
MacNeill, M., (1962) Festival of Lughnasa