Peculiar Pregnancies in Irish Mythology

Being a woman of a certain age, and a mother, I was wondering what it must have been like to be pregnant in ancient Ireland, so I decided to do some digging, and guess what? There’s hardly anything out there on the subject. For a society that was all about the fertility of the land, of the people and animals, that struck me as a little strange.

Then I got to thinking; all the stories of ancient Ireland we have were written down by Christian male monk scribes. Not only was the business of birthing children considered a female only ‘thing’ they might not have known much about, but they bumped women a few notches down the hierarchy scale whilst they were at it. Women were pretty much considered as lustful, evil creatures that had to be kept in their rightful place… a subservient place, that is.

The names of women in the old stories were forgotten or not considered important enough to remember (ie. the mother of Etain; the wife of Lugh wrongfully accused of an affair); or they were repainted as an insipid virtuous Christian ideal of femininity (ie Cuchulainn’s wife, Emer was said to possessย the six gifts of womanhood: beauty, a gentle voice, sweet words, wisdom, skill at needlework and chastity. Hmmm… now does she sound much like a spirited Celtic Irish woman to you?); or they were branded as a lewd and crude, sex-crazed, egotistical harlot (ie Queen Medb).

So perhaps it’s not quite so surprising after all to find such a black hole of information. However, women were good enough for one thing, and that is for birthing heroes and kings. In fact, according to the ancient stories, they were quite good at that, although often, conception did not come about through the act of sex at all, but from swallowing something they shouldn’t.

Ok… settle down. I know, far too many puns for one paragraph. But someone really should have explained the birds and bees to those poor misinformed monks! ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜‰

Anyway, onward: here are some stories from Irish mythology about unusual conceptions, pregnancies and births.

nessa, mother of king conchobar

Nessa was the daughter ofย Eochaid Sรกlbuide, king of Ulster, and was married to Cathbad, a druid and warrior. One day, she asked Cathbad what the day was good for, and he answered, “Conceiving a king.” So they did.

Nessa goes into labour on the banks of the River Conchobar whilst she and her husband are travelling to visit friends. Cathbad tells her if she can hold on till the following day (Huh? Really???), her son will be born on the birthday of Jesus Christ. So Ness dutifully sits on a flat stone like a good little woman, and held in all night the child which was ripping her apart to get out. Maybe she crossed her legs, or something. The next morning, she pops out a son she names Conchobar, after the river he was born beside.

Bear in mind that this is the same Nessa who prior to her pregnancy, single-handedly as a woman raised a war-band of 27 warriors and took off after her father’s murderers with them, intent on revenge and killing. What a creature of contrast she is!

macha, mother of twins fir and fial

Macha, daughter of Sainrith mac Imbaith, was the wife of a farmer in Ulster named Cruinniuc. One day, while watching a chariot race, Cruinniuc bragged that his wife was so fleet of foot, she could outrun any of the King’s horses.

The King was not happy to hear this, and called Cruinniuc’s bluff. A race was set up. Despite being heavily pregnant at the time, Macha duly raced the horses and won. Well, of course she wouldn’t have wanted to make a show of her husband in front of the King over a trivial little thing like pregnancy, now, would she? It is a natural state, after all. Like a good wife, she did as she was told.

However during the race, she went into labour and collapsed on the finish line, giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl, whom she namedย  Fir and Fial, meaning ‘True’ and ‘Modest’. Sadly, she died soon after, but not before cursing all the men of Ulster to suffer with her labour pains in the future… I like her style! This was later to have dire consequences when it came to the battle of the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

dechtire, mother of cuchulainn

Cuchulainn was the champion of the afore-mentioned cattle raid, but the tale of his conception and birth is a curious one.ย Dechtire, half sister of King Conchobar mac Nessa, was married to an Ulster chieftain named Sualtam.

One night, a mayfly landed in her cup of wine, and she swallowed it without realising. She fell into a deep sleep during which Lugh Lamfhada, God of Lightning, visited her, and claimed that he was that mayfly and had impregnated her. He then transformed her along with fifty of her serving women into a flock of birds and flew them to Bru na Boinne (Newgrange).

She gave birth to a son there, and named him Setanta. The men of Ulster then came for her and escorted her home. Setanta grew up to become the hero, Cuchulainn.

the nameless mother of etain

Dechtire wasn’t the only woman to become impregnated after swallowing something; Irish mythology is rife with it. When Midir of the Tuatha de Danann falls in love with Etain, his jealous first wife, Fumnach, transforms her into a butterfly. After many adventures, Etain falls into a cup of wine in the hand ofย ย the wife of ร‰tar, an Ulster chieftain. Unaware, the woman drinks the wine and swallows the butterfly. She then becomes pregnant, and ร‰tain is reborn, one thousand and twelve years after her first birth.

findchoem, mother of conall cernach

Findchoem was barren for many years, until finally she sought help from the Druids. The Druids raised their magic and sang spells over a well. Findchoem then bathed in the well and drank from its enchanted waters. With the water, she accidentally swallowed a worm, and thus Conall was conceived.

shapeshifting and birth

In the Tale of Two Swineherds, Friuch and Rucht are minding livestock belonging to the Gods Ochall and Bodb, when they begin to quarrel. A fight breaks out, in which they assume many animal forms in order to gain mastery of each other, finally becoming two worms. These are promptly swallowed by two cows grazing nearby, which then give birth to the two bulls Finnbhennach and Donn Cรบailnge, around whom the Cattle Raid of Cooley was fought.

So there you have it… weird and wonderful pregnancy tales from Irish myth! Which was your favourite?


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53 Comments on “Peculiar Pregnancies in Irish Mythology

  1. From some accounts of how the ancient Irish church needed reform, it sounds like the monks may have been better informed about pregnancy than their modern brethren. Like others, I think my favourite story if the one about Findchoem – sounds like a holy well origin myth in the making.

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  2. Personally I have always been partial to Dechtire;)…. With Conchubhar for a brother, and Nessa as a mother, and being mother to Cuchulain, and married for a year and a day to Lugh but already wed to Sualtim….her story got shortened and changed for sure… and as rare as immortality actually is, the disapearence of the Sidhe always fascinated me, so Lugh for sure existing in so many time periods simply makes me believe in a title with a name for him;). I always think of him as a raider, kidnapping Dechtire more or less, right from out under Ulster’s nose, and the Fianna having to come up for a pretty good excuse why the King’s sister was pregnant considering she was already married;). I’d assume the marriage with “Lugh” didn’t end up an unwilling one in the end, since Lugh is protective of Cuchulain all his life…So, “uh, she swallowed a moth” seems as good as any;p

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    • Absolutely! And believing in reincarnation and transformation, such things would not have seemed so impossible or fantastical as they do to us. I also cant imagine many women fighting Lugh off! Lol! I love the women’s stories which emerge in the old stories, but you are right, they have been belittled during the ages, until little but their names, if even that, remains.

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  3. Brilliant post, Ali. I think horse racing with the twins is my favourite (seeing as I had twins myself and know how difficult it is to run whilst pregnant on them – I also had a two and a half year old to chase after at the time. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. Fascinating Ali! I was a peculiar pregnancy – I either ate or absorbed my twin… Also just traced back my ancestry to High Kings of Tara at the Salt Lake City genealogical museum.

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  5. It never ceases to amaze the different topics you are able to find and expand upon ~ and this one is so very interesting beyond the “…women were good enough for one thing, and that is for birthing heroes and kings” ~ what an incredibly difficult life they must have had back then.

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  6. I tell you what, this makes me bloody glad I’m a vegetarian!!!! lol. Can you imagine if every time you ate a piece of meat you got preggo?! ALL WOMEN EVERYWHERE would be veggie! hahaha

    p.s. love Macha

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  7. Nessa sitting on a stone and crossing her legs to delay childbirth is certainly remarkable. Amazing the child was not brain damaged! I think you are right that the monks are at the center of what is and is not known. Women surely had it hard in those days – prized for producing children but chattel in every other respect.I doubt I would have survived very long…my mouth would have gotten me in trouble.

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  8. It’s not just the fascinating myth but your tongue – in – cheek comments that set it off so well and raise a laugh in me.
    We must always remember we are tribal creatures carrying a huge evolutionary baggage. Men have hunted and fought while women have procreated it’s only been turned on its head quite recently.

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    • Lol! Sometimes my mouth runs away with me. ๐Ÿ˜ Glad you enjoyed the post. Its true, women of the last century fought hard to gain some independence for women, and we shouldn’t take it for granted. However, Celtic women and certainly women from ancient Ireland enjoyed a great deal of independence, and could be found in positions equal to men, such as warriors, physicians, druids, law-givers, and were pretty equal in marriage too, with the freedom to divorce a husband if he didnt pull his weight in the marriage, even if he didnt fulfil his sexual obligations! Lol! All of that disappeared in medieval times. But yes, for biological reasons, at some point even in an equal relationship, we are forced to revert to more traditional roles. I chose to give up my job after having children, even though Conor and I were in similar positions at work, and not because I thought I would be a better parent than him, it was something in me that chose to give everything else up to nurture my babies. I reckon it has always been the same throughout history, and then we need the male to be provider and protector.

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  9. An excellent post, dear Ali… so interesting… sad to know that women were placed in such a quite unfortunate place in the social hierarchy and often remember according to their social links concerning a male figure.
    I think that Machaยดs story might be considered a sort of reply to such misfortunes, undeserved stereotypes… After defying their mates she made it through the raced and gave birth to twins whilst cursing all the men of Ulster to suffer with her labour pains in the future…there is something noble and feministic in this character; without any doubt! (I see why you say you like her style too!).,… thanks so much for sharing!… wishing you a great week from Mendoza, Argentina (where I am in vacation!)… Aquileana ๐Ÿ˜€

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  10. Hey Ali, WordPress isn’t letting me use the like button on anyone’s sites today… strange. In any case, I loved this post. I have to say that Nessa’s story has to be my favorite due to its total disregard for how giving birth works, not that the others are better at that. ๐Ÿ™‚ I totally laughed out loud about the part of her sitting on a rock to prevent labor. Sounds like the monks scribing her story felt pretty threatened by the power she had and were simultaneously ruefully ignorant. They probably, err, never encountered the birds and the bees in the first place. And at least what I know about our ancestors, natural processes were just accepted ordinary parts of life. The Christians put the shame on much that was mostly neutral. Maybe swallowing butterflies, etc, has spiritual significance in the myths, though that’s harder to argue for in the worm stories. ๐Ÿ™‚ Anyway if Nessa’s husband had actually insisted on her stalling labor, I’m pretty sure she would have been more than capable of fending for herself . . . it sounds like she had plenty of her own clanspeople to help care for the child and see to everything else she might need. Hope you’re doing well, Ali.

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    • Hi ร‰ilis! I’ve missed you! How are you keeping? What have you been up to… I’ve not seen any blog posts from you in ages. Hope you are keeping well and happy. Yeah, Nessa was a pretty feisty character, I’m sure even more so during the travails of childbirth. Do you know, Conchobar apparently fell, or was born, into the river, and his dad pulled him out of the water. I wonder if our ancient ancestors understood the benefits of water birth? No birthing pools then, but why not a river? I’m so intrigued by this whole subject, I really have to try and find out more. ๐Ÿ˜Š Lovely to have you back!

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      • About water birthing, why not? They knew about all sorts of stuff. Interestingly, everyone I can think of to ask fathered children or never had any. It’s a great question.
        I’ve missed you too! Yes, I have been pretty absent from blogging. I can’t keep up. I can only follow one or two people — you’re always one of those people! I’ve been working to find work and volunteering every day, even on weekends. Getting pretty worn out after the last eleven straight days of that. But I’m happier than I’ve been in a long, long time. Too much to share in a comment. I won’t be going back into academia anytime soon, I am open to changing so don’t want to say never, but it’s looking like it will at least be decades out if at all. I’ve been out learning a whole new world beyond university life, it’s been like finding myself again after a long time of being off course with things. Which is another reason for not blogging: not just little time, but I’ve been in too much transition to even write much for myself, let alone blog it. Hopefully I can aim for two or four posts a month. But that is if I can channel my creativity into the putting into words, rather than solely into living the journey. We’ll see. You have not been far from my mind though and I am always hoping that you and Carys are well. I have to run off now and finish a grant proposal I volunteered to write for someone but hopefully I will have a bit of space again tomorrow to log back on. ๐Ÿ™‚

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        • Well that all sounds very exciting! I have lots to tell you too, but not for comments. I’m so glad to hear how happy you are, that’s such great news! ๐Ÿ˜™๐Ÿ˜™๐Ÿ˜™

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  11. Well, despite not finding much about the subject, you’ve certainly come up with some great stories, Ali. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to race horses while heavily pregnant, but well done for that wonder curse.
    I remember my stepfather once asking my mother to try and hold on giving birth to my half brother when she went into labour. He wanted him to be born on his birthday, June 13th. My mother gave birth on May 21st! She was in no mood for waiting around.

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  12. ‘Conceiving a King.’ Well, if that isn’t a line, I don’t know what is! LOL It worked, too! At least he didn’t leave her up a tree, I guess.

    Those monks have a lot to answer for…

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    • Lol! I was just saying to ร‰ilis, the monks said the baby Conchobar fell into the river when he was born, but I’m wondering if he was actually born in the river, and that this was an actual water birth… could women in those times have been aware of the benefits of water birth?

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  13. Fascinating, Ali, and great comments. I’m partial to Etain’s story too. The transformation to a butterfly sounds mythical to me – reminds me of Zeus and all his shenanigans. Extraordinary births seem to go along with great destinies as if every king had to have some sort of astonishing magical start. I wonder if all the swallowing things was, at times, a way to explain away a pregnancy from an affair that wouldn’t have gone over well. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Yes indeed! Well, marriage and relationships were certainly more fluid in those days. Monogamy seems to have been a christan invention… not that they all had more than one spouse at a time, that doesnt seem to be the case. But it appears to be acceptable to replace a spouse when you’re tired of him/ her, or someone more attractive comes along, and although this often caused jealousy, leading to some great stories, ie your Etain story, there does not seem to have been any stigma attached. Also, children seemed to belong to the clan and the foster parents more than the actual blood parents, and love-children seem to have been accepted without issue. So perhaps the swallowing of some creature has more to do with transformation, or something spiritual, rather than hiding one’s indiscretions, but it’s really hard to say.

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  14. The Roman Catholic church changed many names of female goddesses into male ones, keeping the practices and rituals the local people were used to. They also constructed stories/fantasies to serve as bridges between what people knew as oral history, which would serve in later generations to replace true history. According to historians our entire history of the past 2000 years has been forged and is fake. So what is true. Irish legends speaking about tall women, possibly giants, teaching humanity about growing grains and agriculture, capable of carrying those gigantic boulders, or all the nonsense none of us can really understand. Then again science does make a claim of fertility to have started in humans with some kind of virus. The earliest peoples could have been hermaphrodites capable of parthenogenesis. If so of course those monks could neither conceive of this or tell that to the people. I can’t remember what age it was. But in earlier time it was believe that men planted an homunculus, a totally formed baby into the uterus, only needed to grow bigger, of a woman. Biblical stories refer to Lilith creating hundreds of Adams for Adam of planet earth. In an ufo perhaps? With IVF and artificial wombs are we catching up to what was once possible for more advanced beings?

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  15. The quirky pregnancy of Macha and her birthing twins at finish line of the race stands out for its extraordinariness. The quirkiness in liaisons and pregnancies is a common feature in mythologies everywhere. In the Ramayana, there is Hanuman, the monkey god. He was conceived by his mother Anjana through potency of Shiva conveyed to her by Pavan, the wind god. The realm of mythologies is all about the supernatural, where the momentum of events mostly dwells in direct proportion to hyperbole and fancifulness. Nice presentation, Ali…

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    • Thank you, Raj. You know, I really enjoy all the snippets of mythology you tell me… I really need to get myself a book, can you recommend one? You’re right though, it’s very fanciful. But, for Irish stories, at least, I think they give us a brief snapshot of what life may have been like for our ancestors. But it’s all guesswork. ๐Ÿ˜Š I do love it, though! ๐Ÿ˜

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  16. You make a good point about monks hardly wanting to dwell on women’s business when they transcribed the stories. I wonder though if pregnancy and motherhood was ever considered making a fuss of in early times given the likelihood of death in childbirth, stillbirth, death in early infancy. Woman had to be hard as nails to cope with that, so I’m not surprised they didn’t paint pregnancy in the rosy sugary colours we do nowadays. Also, I imagine stories were almost always written or told by men. Pregnancy, like conception, birth, death was just part of the cycle of life, and they probably took it for granted. If you wanted to make a big deal of a conception or a birth, make it weird and wacky was probably their motto ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • You’re right, they probably considered it a normal life event. But. I’m sure it must have held some magical or miraculous element to it, since they believed so much in bountiful nature, the earth goddess… or did they? And also, the life of a newborn child, and that of the mother in labour were so fragile. It must have been celebrated if they both made it through alive and well. I’m also pretty sure stories were told by women too… after all, Brigid was the patron of bards and the light of poetic inspiration. It would be surprising if there werent female bards, just as there were female Druids and law-givers. Hmmm… might have to investigate that…

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  17. First, don’t be too hard on the monks, after all if they hadn’t written the stories down when they did then then we wouldn’t have them today.

    Butterflies have been regarded as disembodied souls throughout Europe for millennia, the idea of swallowing one and getting pregnant is clearly a version of this.

    Finally what a wonderful excuse for an unmarried mother – ‘Of course I haven’t had sex, I must have swallowed a fly.’

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    • Oh dont get me wrong! I love those monks for writing down all those stories! I really do. But their spin on them is amusing, and a little frustrating too at times. I also have a huge amount of admiration for them; the skill and hard work they had to put in before they even started to write anything, ie producing parchment, vellum, ink etc… I wrote about that in my post How to write a best seller like the ancient bards. I also wrote about the butterfly, and I think you’re right, it could well be an extension of that. ๐Ÿ˜Š

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  18. After reading your description of Queen Medb, I want to read a story about her. Demure and proper doesn’t make for good stories. It’s actually a shame what the world’s religions have done to stories and history over the years.

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    • No you’re right, it doesnt. Yet Emer with all her six virtues raised a fianna of women and came down to the sea armed with knives, intending to kill Cuchulains lover. That was a good story! Again, a woman of contrast, just like Nessa. Those monks weren’t particularly consistent when it came to describing women. I can get you a link for the Queen Medb story, how would you feel about reading a translation of the old text? If you’re not keen, there are many versions of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, its one of Ireland’s most wrll known myths. Actually, you’d think there were only 3… this one, the children of Lir, and Diarmuid and Grainne. The others rarely get told, and arguably, there are much better ones.

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  19. oh my!! Love them all but especially Etain considering the life time of a butterfly is very short she certainly beats the odds and now I’m wondering about all her adventures!

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    • You mean you don’t believe they’re true, David??? Surely not! Or is it just a clever pun on the theme of the Cattle Raid? Lol! You’re funny, either way! ๐Ÿ˜ Hope you’re keeping well. How’s the budgie? Is he talking yet? Has he become a little friendlier of late? Hope so. He was damn cheeky at times! ๐Ÿ˜ Humongous hugs back at ya, David!

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      • They have to be true Ali. Ireland is the last repository of the history of the faerie people and the leprechauns wouldn’t lie.
        I’m OK thanks. The budgie thrives, mainly because he keeps out of reach of my hands. He’s talking, but unfortunately it’s all in budgiespeak since he refused to speak English other than the odd Joey Joey attempt to pacify me. He’s no friendlier and twice as cheeky. Still, I love him.
        xxx Unlimited Hugs xxx

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  20. You wrote about a very good topic, Ali. Those monks’ slant on things certainly makes them have a lot to answer for – they are still trying to write their own history for what they have to answer for today! In regards to the Conchobar birth. He married Medb, but I thought she lived before Christ (50BC). Do you think the monks made up that pregnancy story about Conchobar’s mum waiting to deliver her baby on Jesus’s birthdate because it sounded good to them?

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    • I absolutely do think that, Colin! They wanted to give him an auspicious birth, because he became a great king. They often dropped such litte nuggets of Christian gold into their re-writing of the stories. Like the children of Lir being transformed back into their human form after hearing the bells of a church and then being baptised, when in fact the original version had something to do with a wedding feast, if I remember, and to be honest, was just as nonsensical. And how King Cormac refused to be buried at Newgrange with all the other pagan kings. And there’s more… I guess it was a good policy which worked for them.

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