Equality for Women in Ancient Ireland

Equality for Women in Ancient Ireland. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Equality for Women in Ancient Ireland.
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

Last year, I wrote a piece for Irish Central based on equality of women in Irish mythology. Those of you who enjoyed ‘Warrior Women’ may find this interesting…


Queen Medb of Connacht is arguably the most famous female character in Irish mythology. Her story is told in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, or Táin Bó Cúailnge in Irish. In it, she competes with her husband, Aillil, over which of them possesses the greatest wealth, and demands the use of Donn Cúailnge, the big brown bull belonging to neighbouring King Dáire mac Fiachna. When he refuses, she has no hesitation in leading her armies into battle to get it.

The very fact that this story has survived culling at the hands of the Christian monks, who fixed the old oral tales in ink on parchment, is testament to how highly she was regarded by the Irish people. She did not escape unscathed, however; the story focusses not so much on her good deeds, but the perceived weaknesses of womanhood; she is depicted as headstrong, ambitious, promiscuous, greedy, jealous and vengeful, everything a good Christian woman should not be.

We may never know how accurate this portrayal of Medb is, but it does indicate that in ancient Ireland, not only could women be Queens, but they could lead armies, be warriors and druids, possess wealth and property in their own right, and engage in marriage on an equal footing with their husbands.

The Brehon Law corroborates this. According to legend, High King Cormac mac Airt was responsible for collating all the laws from oral tradition and establishing the Brehon Law. Cormac did not come to power until his thirtieth year, by which time he was already well known for his wisdom.

Brehon means ‘official lawgiver’, and the profession which handled matters of law were known as brithem, which means ‘judge’. In the fifth century, St Patrick distilled these laws down to five volumes, removing and discarding those which did not fit with Christian doctrine. These tomes were known collectively as the Senchas Mór. English rule in the seventeenth century finally banished these laws once and for all, replacing them instead with their own feudal system.

The Brehon Law was a system well ahead of its time. It was all about equality and democracy, and was based on a complex system of fines instead of corporal punishment. It covered everything from matters of commerce, crime, healthcare, the ownership of property to marital and family law, and equal rights.

Women were entitled to enter all the same professions as men; they could be Druids, poets, physicians, lawgivers, teachers, warriors, leaders, even Queens. The mythological stories are littered with such references to women of power.

For example, when Nuada led the Tuatha de Danann in their invasion of Ireland, his wife Macha fought fiercely at his side in both Battles of Moytura. In fact, in the second battle, when Nuada fell under the Fomori Giant-King Balor’s sword, she stood over his body and protected him as well as she could before she too was struck down. Macha is also credited as being part of the triad of the Morrigan, warrior Goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty.

It is interesting to note that Ireland’s two most legendary heroes, Cuchullain and Fionn mac Cumhall were both taught their warrior skills by women.

Cuchulain travelled to the home of Scathach, a female teacher of the battle arts, who lived on an island off the coast of Alba (Scotland). Her fame had spread far and wide, and many came to her to study and hone their military skills. She had, however, made an enemy in the form of Aoife, her sister. On one occasion, Cuchulain took Scathach’s place in a contest of single combat against Aoife, seemingly unfazed at the prospect of fighting a woman.

Fionn mac Cumhall was raised in secret in the forests of the Slieve Bloom mountains by his Druidess aunt, Bodhmall, and warrior woman, Liath Luachra. When Bodhmall had taught him all the druid lore she knew, Fionn continued his studies with the Druid Finegas on the banks of the River Boyne. Liath Luachra means ‘Gray of Luachair’, but there is very little known about her, other than that she taught Fionn how to hunt and fight, both skills for which he was renowned and unmatched. Clearly, she did a good job.

Like Cuchulain, Fionn also had quite an astonishing battle with a woman. She was Ogermach, fierce warrior-daughter of the King of Greece, and had sailed with Daire Donn, King of the World, to invade Ireland. They fought long and hard before Fionn finally succeeded in striking off her head.

The Goddess Brigid is another example of the power of the female. Not only was she well known for her healing skills, but she was also renowned for her poetic prowess, and patron of the forge, not commonly thought of as ‘women’s work’.

Airmid was also a famous healer. Born into a medical family of the Tuatha de Denann, she was daughter of Dian-Cecht, Nuada’s physician. It was he who replaced Nuada’s arm with a replacement of silver, when the king was injured in battle. Dian-Cecht’s son, Miach, was eventually able to grow skin over the metal contraption, a feat his father was so jealous of, he attacked and killed his own son.

Airmid’s skills lay in herbal lore. She collected and studied all the herbs of Ireland, categorising them according to their medicinal properties. Unfortunately, her father came and scattered all her herbs far and wide, so that her hard won knowledge was lost.

Women could be lawgivers, too. Brigid Brethach (Brigid of the Judgements), also known as Ambue, the ‘cowless’ or ‘propertyless’, served King Conchobar mac Nessa as his lawyer. She was said to have granted women the right to inherit land from their fathers, and was also associated with various other women’s causes in ancient law.

Irish mythology is liberally sprinkled with tales of the deeds of Female Druids; Biróg is a Druidess who, in one version of the myth, was involved in saving the baby Lugh from being drowned by his grandfather, Balor; Tlachtga was the daughter of Mog Ruith, a powerful blind sorcerer, associated with the Hill of Ward and the November 1st fire festival of Samhain; Bé Chuille was a Danann Druidess who was involved in the defeat of Carman, the Celtic witch; Queen Medb was warned by the Danann Druidess and Seer, Fedelma, of the defeat of her army.

Unlike much of the rest of the ancient world, where women were considered pretty much as their husbands’ property, the women of Ireland enjoyed equal status in marriage with their husbands.

She retained possession of all her own properties that she brought with her to the marriage. She had the right to divorce him, if he did not fulfil his marital obligations, and if so, she was entitled to take with her all her own possessions and half of their joint property, plus a portion for damages.

We know from the stories we have inherited that men and women frequently chose lovers, and perhaps changed marriage partners just as often. There seems to have been no stigma in this. We can’t be sure that marriages were even intended as life-long commitments then, as they are today. Take, for example, the tradition of ‘hand-fasting’, which in Ireland dates back to the Tailten Games originally set up by Lugh to honour the death of his foster mother, Tailtiu.

Young men and women would line up either side of a wall so that neither side could see the other. The girls would put their hand through a hole in the wall, and the man waiting on the other side would take it. This indicated their promise to live together as man and wife for a year and a day. If the marriage didn’t work out, they attended the next Tailten Fair for a deed of separation. Then, if they so desired, they were free to try their luck again.

Medb herself had several husbands and many lovers. The Goddess Boann, after whom the River Boyne is named, had an affair with the Dagda while she was still married to Elcmar. She became pregnant with his son, Óengus. In order to conceal the pregnancy, the Dagda stopped the sun in the sky which made the day last nine months, so that in effect, Aengus was conceived, gestated and delivered all in one day.

High King Cormac mac Airt gave his daughter, Deirdre, in marriage to the aging Fionn mac Cumhall in order to cement their alliance. Although she agreed, she changed her mind pretty quickly when she met the far younger, handsome and charming Diarmuid, for she eloped with him on the very night of her wedding to poor Fionn.


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48 thoughts on “Equality for Women in Ancient Ireland

  1. Queen Medb reminds me a lot of Wu Zetian. She is the only Empress in Chinese history.
    Most of the records about her had been tainted by the so-called historians who were Confucian to the max (meaning they thought that a female leader was something very unnatural)
    She did have some flaws (who doesn’t???), but I think most bad stories about her had been strongly exaggerated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it was a very similar thing here Hari, but it was the Christians who didn’t like powerful women. They left women out of the stories, or focused on their weaknesses, or changed them into weak pious creatures with no spirit or backbone. So sad.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I dont know… I dont watch TV, except for Game of Thrones. I read or write or research. Or sleep! TV corporations think they give audiences what they want, but like the big book publishers, I think they dictate what we watch/ read. Hehe! Just reread your comment again… Dull dribble, love it! I tell you, history and mythology is more fantastic than any script writer can imagine! 😁

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      1. We’re pretty well unplugged these days – but so many aren’t and the younger crowd are watching this bland bombs thinking these are something instead of less than nothing. That downward expectation and acceptance isn’t good. Some day wit and wonder will return again….waiting for Game of Thrones.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So this is weird. The other week you had a post that said there weren’t that many warrior women, yet, on the other hand their laws were fundamental pro equality – has the research involved in this post made you re consider the ‘why’ of why warrior/queen women were so underrepresented in the bulk of myths? Fascinating stuff Ali – clearly a complex society.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the why is that in later years, the collators and writers of these stories where Christian monks whose beliefs didn’t allow for the importance of women, let alone that they could be considered equal. So they got dropped from the stories, or ignored. Well thats my theory, anyway.

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  3. Hi Ali, yes it was queen Meḋḃ, Meaḋḃ, Meadhbh, Méabh, Medbh, Maebh, Maeve, Maev or Maive, or however you’d like to say it.
    I think an ogham inscription in the Cave of the Cats just below the entrance refers to her by her son. I understand it reads: ‘Fraoch, son of Medb’.
    It would be very interesting to talk to Fraoch about his mum.
    In this webpage, the writer says no one can deny she existed in the Rathcrogan area:
    https://books.google.com.au/books?id=hj4IAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=ogham+inscription+cave+of+cats&source=bl&ots=vBNXmiQQwI&sig=pb4tVCHruv-g-Nc-T45rXn7dqGg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiE4o-R0rLLAhUGxGMKHe-7C5gQ6AEIKzAD#v=onepage&q=ogham%20inscription%20cave%20of%20cats&f=false
    The cave is not far from where you live and I also think you should have a look at it – although you may not want to desecrate an important ancient site even just by simply entering inside.
    What do you think about that idea?
    All the best and you’re churning stuff out like a professional blogger on a mission.
    Colin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol thank you! I love blogging about all this stuff. I will definitely get there this year. And I have no qualms about it. I am respectful of these places and those associated with them, and I think they know that. I think they like to be remembered. Sometimes I feel that I have to earn the right to be there, but I don’t mind that either. Its only right. You must think I’m mad! 😂😁😄

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      1. I don’t think you’re mad at all, Ali. There should be a lot more people like you around. You’re a good link to what happened in the past in Ireland and as you say they (be they be fairy folk or whoever) would appreciate the fact someone still admires them a few millennium down the track.If you entered Oweynagat, i don’t think the spirit world would mind in the least. They may even fill your mind with a few stories to tell when you leave 🙂 Thank you for going to the trouble of answering people who leave comments on your stories.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. One of the best things about blogging is the people it brings together. I love chatting to all the people who comment on my blog, the world is full of wonderful people and we are lucky we live in the digital age and can make friends across the miles with never having met face to face. A few years back in our own lifetimes, that could not have happened… look at us now!

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  4. I love these stories, Ali! Cultures around the world have stories of powerful women, and it seems only to have been the advent of modern religion that has taken so much of our power away. It says something for our tenacity that we have managed to claw so much back, yet there is still a way to go. This is a great reminder that women, just like men, can be all things: warrior, priestess, healer, parent, lover.

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  5. I absolutely love when what I’ve been told validates our known history. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post again, Ali, I enjoyed reading it a second time and might even go back and read it again. We have such a strongly legacy of powerful women, even in written memory, some of the freedom they enjoyed is, in some ways, something we are still working toward reclaiming in the present time. Interestingly somewhat fluid marriage arrangements were as accepted as was gender fluidity, male/female was the norm in identity but there was everything in between and no one thought twice about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. norm as in meaning common, not norm as in meaning culturally conventional. I’m after attempting to find another word to replace “norm” in English, it does more confusion and is more problematic than it’s worth.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Well that last couple of lines opened my eyes, Éilis! Lol! I suspected that marriage was less ‘set in stone’ than it is today, but I wasn’t sure. I also didn’t know about the gender fluidity. Thats very interesting, and something I was completely unaware of. Thanks Éilis! 😊

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  6. A great post, Ali, makes my heart proud to read it and how powerful the women were before the advent of Christianity. -sighs- I wonder where we would be now if it had never happened, I`ll take a guess, probably a lot better off.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Reintroducing that kind of equality for women could mean they’d be a good balance for the male dominated politics of today. I used to think that having females in charge might mean a more peaceful existence but now hearing how many were warriors, I’m not so sure.
    xxx Gigantic Hugs Ali xxx

    Liked by 2 people

  8. The dreaded P word again. Or the C word. Christianity spent a goodly part of its first 1000 years of existence beating anything resembling equality and justice out of the beliefs of ‘converted’ peoples. Funny, isn’t it?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Not sure that funny is the right choice of word! But Christianity emerged from the middle east where women had always suffered inequality so it’s hardly surprising that the new religion harboured such a distrust of women, and then when the Romans got their hands on it, they reinforced it with their own disregard for women. But I think in the very very early days, Christianity was peaceful enough. I’ve seen Celtic Christian ceremonies over here which bear more resemblance to pagan ceremonies than anything else.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that’s an interesting point you make there. There seems to be quite a lot of evidence for the Celtic fringe having a less rigid variant of Christianity that got them into trouble with Rome. There have been Celtic Christian Revivals apparently since the Middle Ages. It’s not just modern New Agers who feel drawn to the old version.

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  9. This is all fascinating. I love that women were esteemed throughout history in many parts of the world. It still amazes me that we voted for the Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S.A. more than forty years ago and it has yet to be ratified by enough states to make it into the Constitution.

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  10. Hi Ali, in your opinion did the warrior queen exist, or not?
    Is the mention of her in the inscription inside the Cave of the Cats proof she once lived?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Colin, do you mean Medb? I have no doubt that she existed, but I suspect the stories about her are grossly exaggerated. I dont know about the inscription, I’ve never yet been to the Cave of Cats, but I doubt it can prove anything. The way I see it, there’s no smoke without fire; the fact we have all these stories about her indicate to me that someone special must have inspired them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just one more thing, Ali. I’m fascinated by your queen Medb. We’ve got no stories like that in Australia that I’m aware of and Aborigines have lived here for 40,000 years – which makes your Brú na Bóinne quite modern 🙂
        Evidently, the cat cave is where Medb was born:
        “The goddess-queen of Connaught was born in this cave. Étain, a woman of the sidhe reborn as a mortal, was fleeing from her human husband with her sidhe lover Midir. They stopped to rest at Oweynagat with all of Étain’s companions, including her maidservant Crochan Crogderg, whose name means ‘blood-red cup’. At the end of their stay, Crochan so loved the place that she begged to stay. Étain and Midir agreed, and so it was there that Crochan’s daughter Medb was born.”
        Which just makes it more confusing about her mortal Medb was, however it’s good to see Rathgroghan is on a tentative list of World Heritage places in Ireland, to add to the two already there.
        Colin

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh wow Colin, I didn’t know that story. Owenygat is on my list of places to visit. I tried to get there last year before Samhain, but it just didn’t work out. I’ll definitely get there this year. I reckon it’s a couple of hours drive from here, so I could do it in a day. I’ve had no field trips so far this year, the weather has been so wry and cold, so I’m dying to get out there! 😊

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