As illustrated in “The Tain.”
The level of equality that men and women shared within Irish culture was extremely unusual in the world of ancient and medieval Europe. Since before the times of early Greeks and Romans, women were considered second class citizens. But not in Ireland. Celtic women enjoyed the same freedoms as Celtic men did, despite the repression of women’s rights in the rest of Europe. Nothing can stand as a better testament to Irish culture then the tales and epics they passed down from each generation, first orally and eventually chronicling their tales in writing.
One tale in particular, the great Irish epic The Táin, outlines the dominant role of women clearly within its narrative. In the Táin, women use their sexuality, power, physicality, wealth and even some supernatural abilities to prove that they’re as equal a member of society as men. Although men in the Táin are typically portrayed as the strongest and most important, their power becomes weak under the woman’s influence. The male heroes of the story, Cú Chulainn, Ailill and Conchobar would have achieved nothing if it wasn’t for the efforts of the females Medb, Macha and Fedelm. The Táin clearly illustrates one surprising point about Irish culture: societal influence was split between men and women, if not leaning more towards the matriarchal side. Irish women were just as strong physically and emotionally as men.
The Táin, otherwise known as The Cattle Raid of Cooley, is a legendary epic from early Irish literature. A part of why women held such a dominant role within the story can be associated with the fact that this literature is pre-Christian. Christianity brought with it several restrictions to a woman’s way of life. Christian women could not remarry and adultery was punishable by death. This was certainly not the case in Ireland. Sexuality was much more celebrated by the Celts as it was free from the sexual restraints and taboos that a Christian society fostered. Women could divorce their husbands if they wanted and were not punished if they were found to be adulterous. One of the main female characters, Queen Medb, had been married twice before she was married to the to the character we know as her current husband King Aillil of Connacht. During those previous marriages she had plenty of extramarital affairs and was known to take several lovers when not married. Yet despite all these acts that would have been considered barbaric and sacrilegious in another European culture, Queen Medb holds quite a strong position of power and influence which sometimes even rivals that of her husband King Ailill. The relationship between the King and Queen is very much a struggle for power, despite different genders. “Her words were sharp they cut him deep, in a war between the sheets.”
Queen Medb is described as beautiful, powerful and wealthy. Her role and influence is on par with the King Ailill. At one point they take the time to compare their assets. To Medb’s displeasure she finds out that her value (from her wealth and assets) is one less than her partner King Aillil. One Brown Bull of Cooley less. This is where the Táin begins, with the frivolous pursuit of Medb to share wealth exactly equal to her husband. She embarks on a quest, with an army to back her, to steal Donn Cualinge the prized Brown Bull of Cooley, from the couple’s enemies the people of Ulster. During this quest for the possession of the famed bull Medb and other females use their powers to direct the conflict in their favor and illustrate the importance of women in Irish culture.
Sexuality and beauty is a major tool at the disposal of the women of the Táin and is used throughout to conquer the men. Medb uses her beauty and that of her daughter Finnibair to control men with their desires. Finnabair was used by her mother as a bargaining chip to motivate soldiers to fight the enemy Ulster hero Cú Chulainn, the main protagonist of the story. Queen Medb offers Finnabair’s hand in marriage to whomever could slay Cú Chulainn. By her beauty, Finnabair unintentionally manipulates hundreds of soldiers to fight and die in her honor. However her virtue stays intact. That’s what is special about this character; her personality and morales are reminiscent of the mindset of many Irish women. Finnabair sweet talked many a soldier, convincing them to take up arms for her, for a chance to lay with her, but yet she keeps her virginity. Finnabair has love for only one man, Roachad, and feels incredibly guilty when she finds out about the men who died in her name. She’s so overwhelmed by the “harsh, hideous deeds done in anger at Ulster’s high king, and little graves everywhere” from her teasing seduction that she dies of shame on the battlefield. Finnabair shows that Irish woman did value purity and abstinence in some capacity. However this innocence was a quality only present in the character of Finnabair, for Queen Medb used her sexuality in consciously devious ways. Could Queen Medb’s contrasting virtues represent the way males viewed females in Irish societies?
With a name literally meaning “the intoxicater,” Queen Medb’s uses her beauty to get what she wants by offering “her own friendly thighs” to Dáire mac Fiachna, the owner of the Brown Bull. She essentially is willing to prostitute herself for the sake of material possessions. The fact that she goes to these lengths to acquire the Brown Bull of Cooley says a lot of things about her character. Medb uses her sexaulity as a weapon and the men of both Ulster and Connacht fall victim to it. She’s very prideful and is determined to achieve equal status to her husband. She’s violent and takes what she wants. Queen Medb raises an army in determination to see her goals fulfilled. She’s also physically strong, skilled in combat and present on that battlefield. This hints at some roles that women may have played in Irish warfare. Woman were around on the campsites and battlefields of Ireland’s army and were as much a part of the military movement as the men. One of Cú Chulainn’s many lovers, Aife, was a warrior woman who loved her chariots and her horses. Her story also suggest that women were not restricted from the same career opportunities as men. Cú Chulainn’s own combat trainer was a woman by the name of Scathach. Queen Medb’s presence during the battles and even in a personal duel with Cú Chulainn also connotates a woman’s power as a leader in Ancient Ireland. Indeed in Celtic culture if a king died, his wife would inherit all the wealth along with the power and authority. Many powerful female figures and deities arise out of Celtic mythology and history. One example is that of Boudica who was a female druidess who defended Britannica from waves of invading Romans. Celtic women, as illustrated by these tales, were just as fierce as the men. One thing this says about Irish and Celtic culture is that while beauty was important, men valued intelligence and prowess greatly in women.
A woman’s intellectual ability was a trait long sought after in women by Irish men because it was only by looking beyond someone’s physical appearance that the men showed true integrity. It’s actually a common motif in Celtic mythology where young men sleep with unattractive or very old women for their intellect and find out later that they’ve actually coupled with beautiful goddesses in disguise. The character of Fedelm embodies that quality. She’s a poetess that has the gift of “Second Sight,” which grants her precognition and foresight of future events. She uses this gift to make accurate predictions of the future for Queen Medb and her army, “”I see it crimson, I see it red.” Fedelm’s supernatural ability is a metaphor for the smart intellect of Irish women and the ability to use their brains to overcome obstacles.
The Táin also alludes to the notion that women have a subtle but focused controlling effect on the minds of men. This can be observed in the story of Macha, or the horse goddess. In the Táin, Macha curses all the people of Ulster to experience the pains of her labor, rendering them useless and vulnerable to Medb’s forces. This unique and unexpected plague is an homage to the suffering that women have to go through during childbirth. It’s also serves as a commentary for the power that women held over men. In fact Macha says it quite plainly after the curse: “Although you may develop sophisticated doctrines of rebirth; although you may have taken on yourselves the right of life and death; although your efforts may seem logical and plausible in the light of a patriarchal culture; your efforts cannot but be doomed to failure as long as they are based on the subordination of women.”
No matter how tough a man is, it’s hard to resist the soft tone of a woman’s voice. This subconscious feminine power and the easy subjectability of the male psyche can also be observed through the character of Morrigan, another goddess. With her supernatural shapeshifting abilities, Morrigan is able to trick, confuse and thwart the plans of Cú Chulainn. She trips him up in battle by turning into an eel, leads a charge of cattle towards him, and eventually perches on his dead body in the form of a raven. All evidence suggests the Irish held the role of being a woman to a much higher standard than most cultures of the time. Sure Cú Chulainn has supernatural like combat abilities and an immunity to Macha’s plague, but his powers pale in comparison to the forces of the sacred feminine.
The actions of the females in the Táin also help convey the idea of the existence of female druids in Ancient Ireland. Druids, or badrui, were members of the priestly class and were said to have supernatural powers as well as being very highly esteemed members of society. They healed the sick, held lectures, practiced alchemy and blessed the dead during public funeral ceremonies. Several of the characters in the Táin reflect clear examples of druidism duties. Conchobor’s mother Nessa was a druid and the enchantress Scathach is explicitly called one. Fedelm’s gift of precognition and the fact that she’s a prophetess also strongly suggests that she is a druid. With her claims of possessing an all-encompassing illuminating knowledge, men bend to her will. Not only did women hold positions of immense political power, but they also held seats with religious authority.
In a time where religious persecution and strict gender roles ravaged across Europe, women enjoyed a unique level of distinction in Irish society, as illustrated by the Táin. Women in Celtic culture could be warriors, doctors, judges, priestesses, artists and in Medbs case, a royal leader. Women and their rights were protected by law. The Táin does indeed tell the story of the fearless male warrior Cú Chulainn who courageously rides into the battle. It is the tale of men and brothers who band together to defend their homeland. But first and foremost it’s a tale about the power of women. Medb’s petty pursuit, and the hundreds of deaths caused by it, is a clear example of how effective women are at getting what they want, no matter the cost. The real heroes in this story are the women. The entire conflict in the Táin was created by, facilitated and eventually ended by Medb and other supporting female characters. Men are just pawns in the hands of a prideful Medb, a vengeful Morrigan, a cruel Macha and a manipulative Finnabair. Whether used for evil or beneficial intentions the women in the Táin exhibit great strength. The epic tale of the Táin showcases the ancient celtic woman as intellectual, defiant and most importantly in a role equal to men within the culture of Ireland as a whole.