It is not unusual to fall victim to the idea that women did not hold roles of power in history, or that they did not hold equal positions to that of men in society until more modern evolutions of civilization. (With the exceptions of well known monarchs and religious figures) But before women had to march, there were women making men march: into battle and otherwise. So often forgotten is the history which precepts what most of us grow up studying in school. Before Christianity spread throughout western Europe, and laid the foundations for what we now know today, there lived many women that ruled over men. These stories fall under the category of myth, which naturally denotes them to falsehoods. Certainly, there are some, stories of gods and goddesses that tribes performed rituals for and in the name of. But there are also rulers and reigns; real people with real stories.
In the first century of Ireland, then known as Eire, there lived a queen known around the land as powerful, brave, and even promiscuous. She was the daughter of the High King of Ireland, Eochu Feidlech, and is said to have ruled somewhere between 50 BC and 50 AD. This is the myth of Queen Medb.
In order to be considered the King of Connaught, a man had to be wedded to Medb, meaning he had to consummate the marriage to be considered King. She had upwards of five husbands. In the most well-known stories, two husbands played leading roles. Her first husband was King Conchobar Mac Nessa, the King of the neighboring province Ulster; and her second husband was Aillil, with whom she bore seven sons. She left Conchobar not long after they were married, claiming it to be a bad partnership. To make amends, Medb’s father married his other daughter Eithne, or ‘Clothru,’ to Conchobar. Medb resented the situation, and went on to kill her own sister when she was late in her pregnancy. By everyone’s surprise, the child in the womb would go on to live. Seeking vengeance, Conchobar raped Medb at an assembly in Tara; a battle soon broke out between Medb’s lover at the time Tinni, and Conchobar. Tinni would die fighting for Medb’s honor.
Conchobar was her sworn enemy for the rest of her life; and when she was told a prophecy by a druid that her son ‘Maine’ would kill her enemy—having no sons of that name—she changed all seven of her sons names with Aillil to ‘Maine,’ just to cover her tracks. This prophecy would come true when her son, ‘Maine Andoe’ (the swift) would go on to kill Conchobar.
Perhaps the most returned to tale of Queen Medb is a warning story. In an argument with her husband Aillil, the two couldn’t conclude who was the more powerful of the pair. Words soon became action, as they gathered all their material wealth to compare. They were equal: in birth, status, and wealth except for one thing. Aillil had a beautiful white-horned bull, and Medb did not.
She sent message around all of Eire, seeking out a bull equal to that of her husbands. When she found one, under the property of Daire Mac Fiachna, she offered money, land, and even bodily pleasures for the bull. At first accepting the offer, Fiachna later changed his mind, resenting how Medb was dictating him. Try to come get it, said Fiachna. Enraged, Medb rounded up an army to storm his land, and take the bull. Táin Bó Cúailnge, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’ would soon commence.
Due to the Ulster exiles in her ranks, Medb knew she could plan a strike because of the Curse of Macha: a curse placed on the men of Ulster that plagued them for nine days and nine nights with the birthing pains of a woman. This hex befell them due to their cowardice when the goddess Macha was forced to race a horse when she was nine months pregnant. At the end of the race, she gave birth to still born twins, and placed the curse in her grief. These pains would affect the men when they most needed their strength, with the one exception of Ulster warrior Cúchulainn. His skill was unmatched, and he alone tested the power of Medb’s entire army. Under pressure and feeling afraid, Medb went to negotiate. The new agreement would be that Cúchulainn would fight the men of Medb’s army in single combat, until one warrior could prevail. While the men dropped dead like flies, Medb was conspiring behind the scenes of battle. She led a small group of warriors around the contests, walking while they fought, and stopping in the interim. She managed to reach the bull and stole it, breaking the agreement that she created. She returned home with her new trophy, and placed him in the pasture alongside her husband’s white-horned beast. But almost immediately, the two animals gorged each other to a bloody death. This tale served as a representation of the pointless hostility between Ulster and Connaught.
There is no question that Medb was a woman of great rank and valor, albeit with many flaws. Perhaps her greatest being the jealousy that overtook her and led to the murder of her own sister. That jealousy would be her end, as her nephew, Furbaide, grew into a young man with a vengeance against his aunt. He practiced with a sling every day until his accuracy reached a nine out of ten. While Medb was bathing one day, Furbaide used his weapon to kill his aunt, and did so successfully. Later renditions of the story would add in the oft quoted weapon of a flung piece of ‘hard cheese,’ but it is believed that this was added in to humiliate the queen later on. An unlikely way out, for a woman of such great stature.
Medb was not only a queen, but considered a priestess representing the sovereign goddess. This is why she could bestow sovereignty to a potential king by wedding (and bedding) him. This exchange is often symbolized with a woman offering a man a drink from a chalice, often an alcoholic beverage. The name Medb, Medbgh, or the anglicized Maeve, comes from the word mead: an alcoholic honey beverage, and now translates to, ‘she who intoxicates.’ I think it’s safe to say the Irish have always upheld a good drink; and Medb was more than upheld, she ruled. Today, she serves as a symbol of female power and prowess, and is associated with the color red.
However mythical the stories we may tell, they are the lens that allow us to understand what humanity— long, long ago—held up in society. What lessons? Values? People? When we allow ourselves to deep dive into history, we allow ourselves to sear through what has been taught to us, and distinguish between what is learnt and what is instinct. And the instinct that prevails all of us —especially the Irish—is the instinct to tell stories.
We remember Queen Medb, and all women in history that were born to rule. And we welcome those that come next, maybe this time, with less bloodshed.
You can visit where Mebd ruled today in the Hills of Tara, in what is now Galway, Sligo, Roscommon, and Leitrim. She has three possible burial grounds, the most likely being in Sligo in the high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea, where she is said to be buried standing upright facing her enemies to the north in Ulster. Another possibility is in her home of Rathcroghan in County Roscommon, beneath a long low slab named Misgaun Medb, known locally as Medb’s Butter.