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Celebrating Women's History Month: Celtic Women of Ancient Ireland

With International Women’s Day and Mother’s day all falling in the March (Women’s History Month), we thought we would celebrate all the fabulous mothers and women out there by taking a look into the Celtic women of ancient Ireland.

Do you know where the name Eire for Ireland comes from?
Eire, the Gaelic word for Ireland, is derived from an old Irish name Eriu Eriu was the name of the daughter of the mother goddess, Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the mystical pre-Celtic race of Ireland.  Mother goddess Ernmas had 3 daughters: Eriu, Banda and Fodla.  Legend has it, that when the Milesians invaded Ireland to conquer Tuatha De Danann, the daughters asked could they name the island after them.  Eriu become the most popular name out of the three, and that’s where Eire came from.

What was it like in Ancient Ireland for Women?
Celtic women were distinct in the ancient world for the liberty and rights they enjoyed and the position they held in society. Compared to their counterparts in Greek, Roman, and other ancient societies, they were allowed much freedom of activity and protection under law.

Warriors/Rulers
Ancient Celtic women served as both warriors, military leaders, and ruling queens. Young girls, and boys of course, were trained to fight with swords and other weapons.

The practice of bearing arms was relatively common among women. Women were recorded as having taken part in the final battle against Caius Suetonius Paulinus, when he advanced upon the druid stronghold on the island of Mona (now Anglesey), in present-day Wales.

In battle, women made great use of psychological tactics such as screeching, dancing wildly, and pulling at their faces. These acts frightened and distracted their opponents, allowing them to advance and gain control in battle.

Public Life
Celtic women in public life were not systematically excluded from any occupation, and played a prominent role in public life, alongside men.  Women could become poets, druids, priestesses, and healers. 

They didn’t require the consent of their husbands to carry out business. They could serve as diplomats, such as an ambassador.  Celtic women act as mediators or judges in military or political disputes. They played similar roles in mediating in their own tribal assemblies. 

Marriage and Women’s Rights under Law
The ancient celts seemed to view marriage as a partnership between men and women. Women had legal protections and could not be married against their will.  In comparison to Roman law, in which women were property of their husbands. 

Celtic women chose their husbands and owned or inherited property independently.  Jean Marale, a historian, explained that “Celtic marriage was essentially contractual, social, not at all religious, but based on the freedom of the husband and wife”.

Divorced women were not judged or looked down upon and were always free to remarry. Ancient celts were polygamous, and women including men, would have multiple partners. 


Celtic Women Worth Celebrating
Here are some of our favourite Celtic Women, Warriors and Queens…

  • Queen Medb of Connacht

    Medb (Maeve) is a notable, ancient female in Ireland who was the ruler and warrior queen of Connaught.  Medb ruled Connacht after her father, who was the king of Connacht and High King of Ireland.  She is known as the Ulster Cycle.   

    She had 5 husbands and she was said to be the reason her husbands became kings.  It was said, to be a ruler of Connacht, they had to be ‘married to Medb’.  Being married to Medb represented being married to the land.

    Queen Medb lived sometime around 50 BCE – 50 CE, and she ruled for over 60 years.  Medb was first mentioned during the 4th or 5th century CE, in the Cave of Cruachan.  The inscription on the lintel stone was in the form of Ogham.

    She is best known for her role in the legendary Táin bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley). The Cattle Raid of Cooley is one of the best loved, most enduring Irish mythological stories. (Obviously, we love this story as the Cooley peninsula is the home Celtic Wind!)

    Medb, determined to prove herself equal to her husband, organised and lead a raid into the kingdom of Ulster to capture a bull.  The bull was of the same value as her husband’s prize animal.  She successfully caught the bull, but was thwarted by Cúchulainn, and the bull escaped.  Medb fought in the battle, and legend has it, she gave Cúchulainn a nasty spear wound for opposing her war efforts.  Medb directed, made decisions on military strategies and alliances, and fought in the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

    Medb is an amazing example from the Iron Age of a strong Celtic woman ruler.  Her authority was outright, and her word was law, prevailing even over that of her husband.

    Read more about the Cattle Raid of Cooley here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Cattle-Raid-of-Cooley

  •  Queen Nessa of Ulster

    Nessa (Ness), Queen of Ulster, was another fiery and scheming warrior woman. 

    Nessa had a son, Conchobar mac Nessa.  Her father was Eochaid Salbuide, king of the Ulaid.

    Nessa is known to have been reared by a foster family and was originally named Assa, meaning ‘easy, gentle’, because she was such a pleasure to foster and was a gentle soul.

    Her foster family was brutally murdered by a band of fianna (landless warriors).
    In vengeance, Nessa created her own band of 27 fianna to hunt down the killer, and therefore, she becomes known as Ní-assa or Ness, meaning not easy or gentle.  Pretty bad ass!

  • Queen and Warrior Boudicca

    Boudicca (or Boadicea) was a Celtic Queen, best known for leading the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain.

    Boudicca’s husband was king of Iceni, a Celtic tribe in south-eastern Britain. When her husband, Prasutagus, died in 60AD, Boudicca became Queen of Iceni and ruled the tribe and land.

    Rome and Iceni (Britain) were allies until the death of Prasutagus, then Rome brutally attacked Iceni, violated Boudicca and her daughters, and took their lands. In her revenge, Boudicca embarks on a path of vengeance, leading a war against the Romans.  She rampaged many cities, gaining her army as she went.

    Roman commander, Paulinus, marches to Boudicca and her army, to stop her.  They meet on Watling Street (60AD), which is now known as the Battle of Wattling Street.   Boudicca was defeated by the Romans.  Her fate is unknown, but different sources say she died by wounds or infection or took poison to avoid being captured. 

    Boudicca’s name has lived on ever since.  In the 19th century, the Victorians re-invented her as Boadicea, the hero of the British Empire.  There is a statue of her outside the Houses of Parliament in London. 

  • Queen Cartimandua

    Queen Cartimandua was another notable female Iron Age Celtic leader.  She was a 1st century leader who ruled the Brigantes, a tribe of northern England, what is now Yorkshire.  She was the ruling queen of the Brigantes around 43 to 69AD.  The Brigantes were territorially the biggest tribe in Britain.

    Most information we know about Cartimandua comes from Tacitus, a Roman historian.  From his writings, she was an influentical and resilient leader.

    A contemporary of Boudicca, Cartimandua is remembered more as a traitor than a heroine for her betrayal of Caratacus, the leader of the Catuvellauni tribe. In 51AD, Caratacus came to her for help, but Cartimandua seized him, chained him up and subsequently handed him over to the Romans.  She likely did this for reasons of political expediency and rewards of great wealth, but this treacherous act turned her own people against her. 

  • Warrior, Ailbhe Gruadbrecc


    In Irish mythology, there were two famous types of warriors: Fionn mac Cumhall’s Fianna, and the Red Branch Knights of Ulster.  The women of the Fianna were known as banféinní, meaning ‘female warrior-hunter’.

    Ailbhe Gruadbrecc is one of few women warriors mentioned in the stories of Fianna.  Ailbhe (Al-va) means ‘of the freckled cheeks’.

    Ailbhe had a lover for a short time was Fionn mac Cumall, one of Ireland’s greatest legendary heroes.  Fionn’s military and hunting abilities were taught to him by two incredible women, named Bodhmal and Liath Luachra. 

  •  Warrior, Liath Luachra & Druidess and Warrior, Bodhmall - Liath Luachra was a great warrior who was skilled in training men for battle and hunting. Her name means ‘the grey one of Luchair’. She had a fierce spirit of the steadfast heart of a warrior.

    She lived with Bodhmall, a druidess, in the mountains. Bodhmall and Liath took Bodhmall’s nephew, Demne, into care and reared him in the mountains. Both ladies taught Demne wisdom, vital skills to survive in the wild, and taught him martial skills.

    These high-born, exceptional women used their knowledge and skills to make heroes and transform people, and yet, all we know about them is their names.

  • Warrior, Scathach - Scathach (Ska-ha) was a Scottish female warrior who ran one of the most prominent military training schools in Gaelic mythology.  Her military training academy was called Dún Scáith, meaning ‘fortress of shadows’, on the Island of Skye.  Dún Scáith is known today as Dunsgaith Castle.

    She trained the most famous Irish legend, Cúchulainn, who went to fight complete armies alone and perform other great things.  As Cúchulainn’s martial arts teacher and trainer, Scathach gave Cúchulainn a spear called Gae Bulg, meaning ‘spear of mortal pain/death’.

    Scathach’s female rival, Aife (or Aoife), was considered one of the fiercest warriors alive.

    Scathach and Aife are rumoured to be twin sisters, as they both have the same father, Airdgreme of Lethra.  Both women led armies and fought heroically in battles.

  • Warrior, Aife - Aife was a warrior Queen of Scotland.  Aife and Cúchulainn were lovers, and had a son, Connla, and Connla was Cúchulainn’s only son.  Aife prowess as a fighter matched those of Cúchulainn, one of the greatest warriors of Irish myth.

    Aife was such a deadly warrior, in battle, Cúchulainn had to turn to trickery to defect Aife.

    Aife was trained by her sister, Scathach, but they became enemies and had many wars with one another.  Aife means ‘beauty’ or ‘radiance’.  In Irish mythology, she is known as ‘the handsome’ or the ‘greatest of female warriors’.

  • Warrior, Muirisc - Less is known about Muirisc, who was a female warrior.  One thing we do know, is that she possibly ruled over a territory called Mag Muirisce, what is now known as Co. Mayo.

    She was given rule of this area by her father, Úgaine Mór, also known as Hugony the Great.

    Úgaine Mór was the 66th High King of Ireland, according to the Annals. Muirisc had 22 brothers and 2 sisters. Her father divided Ireland into 25 portions, giving a portion to each of his children.

    Muirisc was known as a sea captain and a warrior.  She had her fortress located close Clew Bay, in the shadow of Cruachan Aigli.  Cruachan Aigli is now known as Croagh Patrick (‘The Reek’), and is located close to Westport, Co. Mayo.

    She was famed for being daring and bold as she was for her beauty and snowy hands.

  • Warrior, Macha

    There isn’t much information about Macha.  She was a warrior who joined her husband, Nuada Argetlam, in many battles.

    Most known story was when she joined Nuada Argetlam as he led the invasion of the Tuatha Dé Danann against the Fir Bolg, to claim Ireland. Macha was killed defending her fallen husband, who was defeated by the Fomori giant-king, Balor of the Evil Eye.

  • War Goddess, Morrigan

    Morrigan is known as the Queen of Battles and the dominant Goddess of Europe, called the Great Goddess.  There is little information about Morrigan, but she represents the circle of life, associated with both birth and death.   She is known to be a transporter between life and death, and she moved the soul through these cycles.

    She is best known for her ability to foretell doom and death in battles, during which she used her shapeshifting powers to fly as a crow above the skirmish. She had premonitions of warriors’ deaths and outcome of wars.

    Morrigan is wrote in texts to be among the Tuatha Dé Danann, which was a mythical race living in Ireland, who were said to be descended from the goddess Danu.

    As well as being a war goddess in which she helped to protect her people from invading armies, she was also linked with land and livestock.  Her shapeshifting abilities represents her connection with the entire living universe.

  • Goddess of Beauty and Grace, Etain

    Etain is the Goddess of beauty and grace.  She was initially a Sun Goddess before becoming a Moon Goddess, and one of the ‘White Ladies’ of the Fae.  She is known as the ‘Shining One’, her name literally means ‘Shining One’. She is associated with healing and transmigration of souls.  Elements sacred to Etain are the sea, sun, rain, water, dawn, butterflies, apple blossoms and swans.

    She teaches us that we can regain our shining light even when beauty, wealth, and position fade.  Etain is a specific symbol of fertility, vitality, and life of all growing things, including the cycles of the seasons.

  • Goddess of Spring, Brigid

    Brigid is the flame-haired Irish Goddess of Spring & fertility, and of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. There are many stores of Brigid but is thought she is the daughter of the Dagda, wife of High King Bres and mother of Ruadan. Her name means ‘exalted one’.  Brigid’s birthplace is in Faughart, Co. Louth and she founded a monastery in Kildare.  Her holiday is 1st February and is known as Imbolc.  It marks the beginning of spring.

    Brigid was the master of healing and smithing, and she was admired by many poets. Many wells and waterways in Ireland are dedicated to Brigid.

    Brigid was transformed to St. Brigid about 453 CE by the church.  St. Brigid is known as the patroness of farm work and cattle, and the protector of the household from calamity and fire.  One of her most common names in Gaelic is Muime Chriosd, meaning ‘Foster-Mother of Christ’.

    She is associated with wisdom, excellence, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, blacksmithing, healing ability, and druidic knowledge. She was particularly well loved for her kindness and gentleness.

  • Gifted Healer and Goddess of Healing and Herbs, Airmid

    Airmid (Airmedh) was an Irish goddess, gifted healer, and skilled herbalist.  She was the daughter of the divine physician, Dian Cecht, and sister of Miach.

    She was one of the members of Tuatha Dé Danann, the tribe of the goddess of Danu, the most ancient of all Celtic deities.  The people of Tuatha Dé Danann were the people who originally inhabited Ireland.

    There are many myths associated with Airmid, all of which represent a knowledgeable, empathetic, and generous woman.

    Airmid was an enchanter who was able to resurrect the dead by singing over the well of Sláine.

    Airmid was an herbal healer and healed many injured soldiers after battles.   Airmid’s brother, Miach, was killed by his own father.  When Airmid visited his grave, hundreds of plants with healing properties grew up through the soil over Miach’s body.  Some say the goddess’ tears watered all the healing herbs of the earth. Airmid is associated with family, nature, gardening, and loyalty.

  • Lawgiver, Brigid Brethach - Brigid Brethach (Brigid of the Judgements) was a lawgiver in Ancient Ireland.  Brigid was known as Ambue, the ‘cowless’ or ‘propertless’.  She served as a lawyer to King Conchobar. It is said that she granted women the right to inherit land from their fathers and was also associated with different women’s causes in ancient law.

 

Why we love Celtic Women
Celtic mythology has been lost through time, leaving us with conflicting texts and lack of information. However, there is one thing we all cannot argue: that Ancient Celtic women remain an inspiring example of womanhood from the past and always will. 

This is why we wanted to celebrate and share what we do know about these queens, goddesses, trainers and warriors; to keep their spirit alive and to celebrate all the queens and warriors of today, YOU!

 

References

http://www.celtlearn.org/pdfs/women.pdf

https://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com/post/warrior-women-of-ireland

https://druidry.org/resources/morrigan

https://blog.providentmetals.com/the-celtic-lore-series-welcomes-the-morrigan.htm#.YDZo-Oj7Q2w

https://feminismandreligion.com/2014/01/30/etain-the-shining-one-celtic-sun-goddess-by-judith-shaw/

https://heartofthewitchspath.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/abcs-of-celtic-mythology-etain-esus/

https://www.ancient.eu/Boudicca/

https://www.ancientpages.com/2018/02/02/airmid-irish-goddess-of-healing-and-herbs-and-one-of-the-tuatha-de-danann/

https://legendsoflove.wordpress.com/2019/07/22/aife-or-aoife-the-beautiful-warrior-queen-of-scotland/

https://bardmythologies.com/aife/

https://peoplepill.com/people/muirisc/

http://www.queenmaeve.org/

https://talesfromthewood.ie/airmid-the-irish-goddess-of-healing/

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Cartimandua-Cartismandua/

https://www.herstory.ie/mythicwomen/2019/6/19/liath-luachra

https://mythicalireland.com/myths-and-legends/brigid-bright-goddess-of-the-gael/

https://mythopedia.com/celtic-mythology/gods/brigid/

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