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Medb, the Morrigan, and Place in Ancient Ireland
I dedicate this paper to Patricia Monaghan, whose love of place, and especially Irish place, was profound.
Queen Medb – an ancient Irish goddess of sovereignty transposed into mortal queen – and the Morrígan, a goddess with Neolithic roots, were two Irish goddesses connected deeply to the land of Ireland. In Ireland, the earth was the divine feminine. Instead of a global force, this was a power of a specific place, and it was a power of space, rather than one of time, according to Walter and Mary Brenneman. Here, power arises from configurations of the landscape: the well, the tree, the stone. The sites themselves radiate this energy. To this power of the particular rather than the universalizing, of otherness rather than sameness, the authors give the term loric, and they believe that these characteristics are at opposite poles to what is called the sacred. The sacred and the loric are complementary, and the place-oriented particularizing tendencies of the Celtic earth-based religion are complementary with later Christianity in sacred places such as the Holy Wells of Ireland. (Brenneman and Brenneman 1995: 42-43; 70) On the other hand, on a continuum rather than a polarity or complementarity, place can have its own sacrality.
Proof of this connectedness to place is found in the Metrical Dindshenchas, literally the metrical ‘lore of the hills’ (Quin: D: degra-dodelbtha 124.70 ff; S 177: 42 ff), early Irish poems which recount the (supposed and sometimes made-up) origins of place names and of traditions concerning events and often mythological characters associated with these places. The Dindshenchas root the deepest connections of these mythological figures to the land. In one poem, the Underworld goddess, the Morrígan, came
out of the cave of Crunchu, [her] suitable home . . .
(Metrical Dindshenchas “Odras” 56: a húaim chrúachan cubaid.)
Thus, the Morrígan lived deep within the earth, in a cave – that most chthonic of places. When she was on the land, she was a battlefield goddess, similar to the crow-goddess Badb. Because she could bring death, she was feared. She was
“the horrid Morrígan”
(Metrical Dindshenchas “Odras” 55: in Mórrígan úathmar.)
Horrid she may have been, but she was sexual as well. The Morrígan represented the earth in a tale which illustrates her sacred sexuality. In the Battle of Moytura, she helped the “People of the goddess Danu,” the Túatha Dé Danann, to defeat their enemy, the Fomorians. Just before this great battle, and near the time of Samain, when the veil is the thinnest, the Dagda, the great chieftain god of Danu’s people, met the Morrígan in Glen Etin, near the river Unius. There the two made love. Afterwards, the Morrígan prophesied to the Dagda, telling him where the Fomorians would land, and that he should summon the warriors of Erin to meet her at the Ford of Unius. She would then go to destroy the king of the Fomorians. She later gave two handsful of the enemy’s blood to the Dagda’s hosts, which were waiting at the Ford of Unius. The Morrígan came to the battlefield and heartened the People of the Goddess, so that they fought the battle fiercely, routing the Fomorians. After the battle was over, the goddess proclaimed that battle and its victory throughout Ireland. (Dexter 1990: 174) The Morrígan was not just helping a lover in battle. She was the land of Ireland, giving it/herself to the Dagda and to the Túatha Dé. She, just as other goddesses, here represented the sovereignty of the land, and one could not become the new (male) ruling force of this land without engaging in a sacred marriage ritual with her. (The goddess, to be sure, may not be denied; if one refused to sleep with her, he lost his kingdom and usually his life; thus King Conaire and the mysterious Sheela na gig-like woman whom he refuses. See Dexter and Goode 2002: 12)
The Morrígan was a sorceress, again similar to Badb; both figured in male rites of passage. The Morrígan fought Irish heroes and shapechanged in the process: she was a white heifer with red ears, a slippery eel, a grey-red she-wolf (Taín Bó Cúalnge (TBC), “the cattle raid of Cooley,” 1992-2001), and in the presumably earlier Taín Bó Regamna, in which she predicted these shape changes, she was also
a bird … upon the branch nearby
(Taín Bó Regamna 5: hen-si dub forsin craib ina ḟarrad.)
In fact, she was a carrion-bird, just as Badb, the “roysten crow” (Dineen 1927: 68.). The “blood-red-mouthed” (that is, red from eating flesh on the battlefield; Taín Bó Cúalnge 3431: Baidbi béldergi) Badb haunted battlefields and prophesied the deaths which would occur thereon. In the battles of the Taín,
The Badb will shriek [at] the ford.
(Taín Bó Cúalnge 2808: áth fors ṅgéra in Badb.)
That is, Badb will shriek when there is a death in battle.
Nemain, whose name means ‘battle-fury, warlike frenzy’, ‘strife’ (Quin 1953-75, fascicle N, 32), also was represented as a bird. She brought confusion to the armies in the Taín (2133-34, et passim).
The bird-motif brings the goddesses far back in time, to the European Neolithic, around 7000 BCE. (In Northwest Europe, the Neolithic began later, around 4500 BCE.) Bird/woman hybrid figurines were an exceptionally common motif throughout Europe in the Neolithic (Gimbutas 1984, 1989, 1991, 1999), and the avian epiphanies of Badb and the Morrígan, just as those of many goddesses throughout related Indo-European cultures, those of the Near East, and elsewhere (1990a), probably date back to this era. The Morrígan and Badb, in their original forms, were very likely associated with the wholeness of the prehistoric goddesses, fulfilling the functions of birth-bringers, goddesses of the fullness of life, and those to whom one returned at death, but by the time the Indo-Europeans assimilated with the indigenous peoples of the area, goddesses such as Badb and the Morrígan occupied the nether-realms and the battlefield: that is, they became associated with the death-aspect of the divine.
Other Irish goddesses also figured in male rites of passage: the goddess Scathach introduced the young hero Cú Chulainn into the realm of the warrior, and the goddess Flaith, “sovereignty,” introduced men into the kingship. A female figure much related to Flaith, who fulfilled both the realms of war and sovereignty, was the goddess-turned-mortal-(anti) heroine, Queen Medb. Medb, just as Badb and the Morrígan, had bird-associations. During the battle for the brown bull of Cooley, the hero Cú Chulainn cast a stone from his sling at Medb
so that it killed the pet bird that was upon her shoulder.
(Taín Bó Cúalnge 1272 ff.) Cú Chulaind …Meidb…coros ort in petta n-eóin buí fora gúalaind… [cf. Stowe 1312-1313])
After that, the place where Cú Chulainn killed the bird was called Méde ind Eóin, “the Neck of the Bird.” (Taín Bó Cúalnge 1277-1278)
In the warrior realm, Medb was a queen
of fiery power
(Metrical Dindshenchas “Ath Luain” 17: co mbrig brotha)
Further, just as the Morrígan, Medb was a warrior in her own right – that is, she was not just an advisor to warriors in the manner of a Greek Athena. In the Taín Bó Cúalnge, she was the
best…in battle and encounter and contention
(Taín Bó Cúalnge 16: ferr im chath 1 comrac 1 comlund)
Queen Medb was the instigator of the battle for the Brown Bull of Cooley. She wished to own this bull because, in her “pillow talk” with her husband Ailill – when the two were in bed, comparing all of their separate property – she found out that she had exactly equal property to him – save one bull. Ailill has the white-horned Finnbennach and she does not have its equivalent. Because of this, according to Old Irish law, she would be subservient to him. (Dexter 1985; 1998; 2011) In Ulster, to the North, in the territory of Cooley (Cúalnge), there was a bull which was the equivalent to Finnbennach, and, fortunately for Medb, ancient Ireland reflected matri-patrilinear inheritance patterns and she was quite wealthy from inheritance. (Dexter 1998; 2011). Medb was able to use her inherited funds to wage war on Cooley in order to gain ownership of the brown bull.
Medb: she was capable, out of her house(hold), of plundering Cooley, a hundredfold. (Metrical Dindshendchas, “Ath Luain” 41-42: Medb, ropo thúalnge ó thaig, for argain Chúalnge chétaig)
Medb used that wealth to gather an army of her Connachtmen to fight for this bull – really, to fight to steal this bull. Because of her power (after all, she really was a goddess), even her husband Ailill supported her. In fact, Ailill supported everything she did, including her sleeping with Fergus mac Roich (or ro ech), “Warrior Hero, son of Great Horse,” a stallion-like warrior who had a penis “seven fistlengths,” (Stokes 1908-1910: 26: secht n-artim na luirg; Dexter 1998, footnote 24); thus Medb induced Fergus to fight on the side of Connacht. (This is the same phenomenon as the Morrígan sleeping with the Dagda; the goddess sleeps with the warrior or the man to be king, even if, as in Medb’s case, the warrior does not win the battle.) Early in the Táin, Medb declared the rules of her marriage to Ailill:
I asked for a wonderful bridal gift which no woman ever before had asked
of a man of the men of Ireland, that is, a husband without stinginess,
without jealousy, without fear.
(Taín Bó Cúalnge 27-28: Dáig is mé ra chunnig in coibchi n-ingnaid
nára chunnig ben ríam remom ar fer d’ḟeraib Hérend, .i. cen neóit, cen ét, cen omon.)
If the man with whom I should be were jealous, it would not be proper,
for I was never before without a man [waiting] close by in the shadow of another.
(Taín Bó Cúalnge 36-37: Dámbad étaid in fer ’cá mbeind, níbad chomdas béus,
dáig níraba-sa ríam can fer ar scáth araile ocum.)
Unfortunately, the battle for the brown bull of Cooley was doomed. Before the battle, Queen Medb was driving along in her chariot, when she came upon a lovely young woman. Medb recognized her as the prophetess Feidelm, and she asked the prophetess to prophesy the outcome of the conflict.
Oh, Prophetess Feidelm, how do you see our army?
(Taín Bó Cúalnge 205 ff: a Ḟeidelm banḟáid, cia ḟacci ar slúag?)
Even though Medb assured Feidelm of the superiority of the Connacht warriors, Feidelm replied, several times,
‘I see brilliant red upon them, I see red.’
(Taín Bó Cúalnge 207 ff.: ‘Atchíu forderg forro, atchíu rúad.’)
Again, the red is the red of blood spilled in battle, in this case Connacht blood. Thus women, mortal as well as idealized, then as now, warned of the ruin that would be caused by war.
Along with the warrior-function goes the function of sovereignty – the one who battles for the land may also rule the land. Queen Medb, in both her Connacht and Leinster forms, was the key to the sovereignty of Ireland – it was she who held the place, the land, and no man could be king of Ireland unless he married her (this is why she had many husbands serially; her husband in the Táin, Ailill, was young enough to be her grandson (Ó Máille 1927: 134; Dexter 1998: 104; 2011: 5), so he was marrying her because she was the key to the throne – not for her nubility. Medb married every man who was worthy enough to be king of Ireland. Indeed, when Ailill had attained the proper age for kingship, he had to fight Eochaid Dala
for the kingdom and for his wife.
(“Cath Boinde Andso,” ed. O’Neill (1905) 182 [Book of Lecan:351b-353a]: na rigi 1 a mna.)
Medb was the epic form of the Irish sovereignty goddess, Flaith. A text bearing upon sovereignty, The Book of the Dun Cow (LU) 51 a 15), tells us that Connacht was given to Medb before every other province; here Medb is used synonymously with Flaith. (Cf. Ó Máille 1927: 144-145)
Medb’s name comes from the Indo-European word for honey, and it probably refers to an Indo-European horse-ritual (confirming sovereignty) involving drunkenness due to an intoxicating honey-drink. (See Dexter 1990: chapter 8, endnote 33; Dexter 2011). Medb’s associations include equine as well as honey-connections. Toward the end of the Táin (Book of Leinster, Taín Bó Cúalnge 4846-4851), when Medb’s warriors are losing badly, the hero Fergus, the man-built-like-a -horse who had enjoyed Medb’s graceful thighs, comments that the Connacht warriors followed the behind of a misguiding woman, and he compares her to a mare. (The literati who wrote the Táin turned Medb into an epic scapegoat. See Dexter 2011) Thus, both Medb and her lover are associated with horses; in addition, Medb is associated with mead, and her hippomorphous and honey-associations comprise a recipe for sovereignty. (See Dexter 1990b; 1997) Just as Medb is associated with fermented honey, Flaith too has an alcoholic connection; the word flaith means not only “lordship, sovereignty, rule” (Quin  F:160) but “ale.” (Quin F:161; cf. Dineen 1927: 462). Again, one received sovereignty though a ritual associated with drunkenness, with either ale or mead. Medb too was associated in text with ale;
The Leinster Medb the daughter of Conan of Cuala.
(Book of Leinster 6416: Medb Lethderg ingen Chonáin Chualand )
it was said that
[A man] will not be a king over Ireland if the ale of Cuala does not come to him.
(Binchy, ed., Scéla Cano Meic Gartnáin; 1963: 452-453: niba rí aran Érind
mani toro coirm Chualand.)
Medb indeed was the daughter/ale of Cuala, without whom a man could not be king, and thus she was an epiphany of the sovereignty-goddess, Flaith.
Medb, the Morrígan, Nemain, and Badb continued the legacy of the prehistoric bird goddesses, the first as a mortal (anti)-heroine, and the others as goddesses confined to the realms of the battlefield and the Underworld. Probably all of these goddesses had the overarching functions and powers of all realms and all life cycles in their earlier avatars, but by the time the monks wrote down the Irish tales, these goddesses were only of the land and the Underworld, no longer of all realms. Medb’s huge functionality as bestower of sovereignty, warrior goddess, and fount of sexuality degenerated into the functions of a bad queen, a losing warrior, and a woman whose sexuality must be ridiculed.
The connection of Medb, the Morrígan, and Badb to the land is further underscored by their naming in the Metrical Dindshenchas; they were of the land and they gave their names to the land, representing specific places in numinous, sacred geography.
All translations by the author.
Miriam Robbins Dexter, Ph.D. is an Indo-Europeanist (this includes comparative linguistics, ancient Indo-European languages, archaeology, and comparative mythology). Her first book, Whence the Goddesses: A Source Book, in which she translated texts from thirteen languages, was used for courses she taught at UCLA for a decade and a half. She completed and supplemented the final book of Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses. Her latest book, co-authored with Victor Mair, Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia, recently won the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology Sarasvati award for best nonfiction book on women and mythology. Miriam is the author of over thirty scholarly articles and nine encyclopedia articles on ancient female figures. She has edited and co-edited sixteen scholarly volumes. For thirteen years, she taught courses in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit languages in the department of Classics at USC. She has lectured at the New Bulgarian University (Sophia, Bulgaria) and “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University (Iaşi, Moldavia, Romania).
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