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From the writings of renowned Celtic historian Peter Berresford Ellis

Text © Peter Berresford Ellis


The story of the Párliament na mBan is that the women of Ireland, fed up with the mess that men have plunged their world into, have decided to seize political power themselves, set up their own parliament and enact their own laws. One woman, opening the parliament, deprecates the former inactivity of women in political and public life - 'remaining always at home attending to our distaffs and spindles, even though many of us are no good about the house'. Other speakers point out how the eternal quarreling and fighting of men had ruined the country. 'If women had control of all affairs it is certain that things would be more settled and peaceful than they are.'

The debates and acts of the parliament follow with the women deciding that girls should be educated equally with men in the seven liberal arts and should be qualified in divinity, law and medicine and, indeed, that men's conduct should be kept under close scrutiny.

Was such a pro-feminist concept a mere literary aberration of the time? Or was it simply symptomatic of an ancient cultural tradition of female rights within Celtic society?

Can anything be read into the fact that another small Celtic country, the Isle of Man, passed a Women's Suffrage Act in 1881, granting the vote to women some thirty-seven years in advance of the United Kingdom?

For years the image of 'Celtic women' has been conjured as the totem of the emancipated female. The very phrase 'Celtic women' has evoked all sorts of imagery. There is the fearsome warrior as personified by Connie Markiewicz, the beautiful 'Red Countess', in her 'rebel' uniform and carrying her Mauser pistol, on the barricades of Dublin during the 1916 uprising, with her historic antecedents such as Boudicca of the Iceni, Gwenllian of Dyfed or Gráinne Ní Máille of Connacht or such literary figures as Scáthach, at whose military academy all the warriors of Ireland were sent to learn their skill at arms, or the tumultuous warrior-queen Medb of Connacht. There is the ambitious female as personified by Nest of Dyfed in history and Ness of Ulster in mythology. There are the beautiful, romantic heroines such as Étaine, Rhiannon, Emer, Gráinne. Deirdre, Aranrhod and countless others. There are goddesses by the score from old hags and screaming harpies to stately and beautiful goddesses of sovranty, fertility, healing and love; the wise women, the learned Druidesses and the great female religieuses and saints of the early Celtic church. The Celtic culture encompasses them all.

Margaret O'Hara and Bernadette Bulfin, in a carefully studied piece, 'Descent into Civilisation', suggested that the laws of ancient Ireland and Wales 'gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or since. Equal pay for work of equal value, "wages for housework", protection from violence, equitable separation laws, enforcement during marriage of the right of both spouses to respect and fidelity - before the English conquests, Celtic women enjoyed all this and more.' The thesis was that 'in the area of women's rights much of the long struggle is only to regain what was once enjoyed by Celtic women fifteen hundred years ago.'

One of the most famous of historical female personalities of the Celtic world is undoubtedly the first-century AD figure of Boudicca, better known in this day and age by the textually incorrect form of Boadicea. She was a ruler of her people in her own right, and accepted as a war leader against the Roman occupation forces not only by her own tribe, the Iceni, but by the Trinovantes and other neighbouring tribes who joined her, such as Coritani. As she stood in her war chariot facing the Roman army of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the military governor of the newly annexed lands of southern Britain, she had her two young teenage daughters by her side. 'This is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman.' Boudicca, the 'Victorious', went on her way to meet her fate and take her place in the history books.

A woman. A female ruler and general? Was she some aberration of her day? Was she merely an individualist, a powerful personality, able to throw off the constraints of the time to achieve her position? Or was she simply part of a culture in which women could and did achieve an equality with men?

'It is impossible to have any true understanding of either Celtic history or Celtic literature without realising the high status of Celtic women, and something of the nature of their place in society, in both Gaul and Britain,' say Celtic scholars Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick in The Celtic Realms.

The examples of the actions of Rome against clerical wives, with Pope Urban II issuing a decree that such wives could be rounded up by nobles and used as slaves and chattels, is hardly in keeping with the rosy view of the lot of Christian women which Father Márkus would have us envision: 'It seems, in fact, that they had a higher place following the introduction of Christianity.' We might allow that a member of the Dominican Ordinis Praedicatorum would attempt to argue that the Christian institutions had improved the lot of women in pre-Christian Ireland.

In contradiction to Father Márkus's views, Mary Condren's thesis, expressed in The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland, is that it was the very introduction of Christianity which accelerated the already altering coequal role of women in Celtic society; that it was after the introduction of Christianity that Celtic women rapidly began to lose their prestige and status. The teaching of St Augustine of Hippo, that 'the woman herself alone is not the image of God: whereas the man alone is the image of God as fully and completely...',certainly is hardly an attitude conducive to any improvement of women's lot in society. J.P. Mackey's conclusion in An Introduction to Celtic Christianity is that pre-Christian Celtic women did occupy a 'superior place' in their society than fell to the lot of their Christain descendants.

There are an unusual number of names in Irish which are found to be common to both sexes and some obvious male names that were also applied to women. This is an interesting phenomenon for even when a name is the same there is usually a masculine and a feminine form of that name. It has been suggested that the androgynous names are another aspect of equality of the sexes.

Berresford Ellis' book is concerned with sketching the role of women in early Celtic society and attempting to explain the changes in that role during the encounter and conflict with the alien values of Roman and then Germanic cultures which today have all but subsumed it. We can argue that this role was by no means a passive or subservient one as emerges in other European cultures. It is true that Celtic women had a position which was not paralleled in the majority of other contemporary societies. They could govern, took prominent roles in political, religious and artistic life, even becoming judges and law-givers; they could own property which marriage could not deprive them of; they chose when they wanted to marry and, more often than not, who they wanted to marry; they could divorce and, if they were deserted, molested or maltreated, they had the right to claim considerable damages.

What we see in the early period is a society in flux and change. The role of women was diminishing as firstly encounters with the Roman empire and then the conquests of the Saxons, Franks and Normans, together with the influence of western Christianity, with its Greek and Roman moral codes, exerted pressure on Celtic society.

Professor Jean Markle, in La Femme Celte, observes:

'It would appear that the Celts had been forced to keep some aspects of former social structures, because women's moral influence had remained strong. It is difficult to discard old customs, and the Celts very likely took longer than other peoples to rid themselves of social practices inherited from earlier gynaecocratic societies. Women did enjoy a liberal sphere of influence; it was conceived and drawn up by male legislators who had the greatest possible respect for their customs in theory, but organised affairs so as to diminish their practical importance. There are a number of historical examples within Celtic societies, Welsh, Breton and Irish, that show that the laws favourable to women were not automatically applied; under the influence of Christianity they were gradually abandoned completely.'

However, in the early period of recorded history, Celtic society was undoubtedly attempting to retain an order in which women were harmoniously balanced in relation to men. It was a different concept from the repressive male dominance of classic Mediterranean society. The position of women in Celtic myth, law and early history now seems to constitute an ideal. before we can appreciate this we must examine how women appeared in Celtic myth, early history and under the law.

The Mother Goddess

The basis of the original Celtic creation myth can be rescued by careful examination of the stories and a comparison with other Indo-European creation myths, in particular, Hindu mythology. In these myths, the Celtic peoples ascribed their creation to a mother goddess.

The original Celtic creation myth lies in the story of Danu, the true mother goddess of the Celts. Her children, Tuatha Dé Danaan, appear in Irish myth as the gods and goddesses of the Celtic world. This pantheon of deities is paralleled by the Children of Dôn in Welsh mythology. Danu and Dôn are, of course, the same mother goddess entity.

The Celtic peoples are said to have evolved at the headwaters of the Danube, still bearing its Celtic name and that name being Danu, the mother goddess. The earliest known Celtic society developed here before the expansion of the Celts through Europe at the start of the first millennium.

In the beginning Danu or Dana, whose name we can make cognate with Sanskrit (the nearest we can come to our hypothesized common Indo-European), as 'Waters from Heaven', flooded from the sky to form the river named after her - Danuvius, in its earlier known form. These 'waters from heaven' fell and nurtured a sacred oak tree, Bíle. Danu and Bíle then gave birth to the being who became known as the 'father of the gods'. In Irish myth this was The Dagda, the 'Good God.' His children, the descendants of Danu and Bíle, became the gods and goddesses of goodness but, significantly, they are identified as the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the children of Danu, rather than the children of Bíle or of her son, The Dagda. The creator deity was therefore a mother goddess.

Conversely, as with all good, there must also be evil. We find that Danu, 'Waters from Heaven', has an evil counterpart in the goddess Domnu, meaning both 'The World' and 'Deeps of the Sea'. When the children of Danu reached Ireland, they had to struggle against their enemies, who were already in Ireland, the evil Children of Domnu who are also known as the Fomorii or 'under-sea dwellers'. The Irish epics contain many episodes of the struggle between the Children of Danu and the Children of Domnu, the eternal struggle of light and good over darkness and evil. But the Children of Domnu are never completely overcome or eradicated from the world. The fact that Domnu means 'the world' takes on a new significance, while Danu can only mean the 'heavenly' or spiritual aspiration of humanity.

Danu's name is to be found in many river names not only within Britain and Ireland but through those parts of Europe where the Celts once dwelt. The worship of rivers and 'divine waters' is prominent in pre-Christian Celtic religion. Was there religious symbolism when, in 222BC, the great Celtic king, Viridomar, boasted that he was a 'son of the Rhine'? The Rhine still clearly bears its Celtic name, Renos, cognate with the Irish rian, a poetic and archaic name for the oceans but one which, like the majority of other Celtic river names, would have applied to a sea goddess. The same name appears in the River Reno in northern Italy, once part of Cisalpine Gaul.

The ancient Irish bards believed that the river's edge, the brink of the water, was the only place where éisce - wisdom, knowledge and poetry - was revealed. It was also a word that meant divination.

According to Professor Jean Markle:

'The belief in the sea as mother of all life has survived into our own times. Its mystery and depth made it the supreme feminine symbol and as patriarchal ideas gained predominance its secret and forbidden aspects were increasingly stressed. It contained strange creatures, hidden palaces and hoarded treasures; only exceptional divine beings were able to live in it. But endless taboos came between the sea and (humanity). It was dangerous to probe its depths and only in particular cases were faultless heroes allowed to travel through the marvellous universe of that lost paradise.'

The waters, which were of such importance to the ancient Celts as sources of food, for transportation and even, in terms of practicality, as clan boundaries, were the domain of the mother goddess and her various personifications. In Ireland, the rivers Liffey, Boyne and Shannon are also named after goddesses who seem to appear as aspects of the mother goddess. The Severn in England is but a corrupt form of Sabrina, a name noted by Tacitus.

The Celtic myths are replete with powerful goddesses. J.A. MacCulloch has observed:

'Irish mythology points to the early preeminence of goddesses. As agriculture and many of the arts were first in the hands of women, goddesses of fertility and culture preceded gods, and still held their place when gods were evolved. Even war goddesses are prominent in Ireland. Celtic gods and heroes are often called after their mothers, not their fathers, and women loom largely in the tales of Irish colonisation, while in many legends they play a most important part. Goddesses give their name to divine groups, and even where gods are prominent, their actions are free, their personalities still clearly defined. The supremacy of the divine women of Irish tradition is once more seen in the fact that they themselves woo and win heroes; while their capacity for love, their passion, their eternal youthfulness and beauty are suggestive of their early character as goddesses of every springing fertility.'

The children of Danu serve to define the sexual roles in ancient Celtic society. They are all sexually active; some more so than others. Sexuality was a pleasurable and necessary activity in Celtic myth, entered into on equal grounds by male and female.

From the mother goddess, Danu or Dón, there are also descended several goddesses of fertility who carried on the process of procreation and who may also be deemed as aspects of the mother goddess. Of all these goddesses, or aspects, there is none so prominent and popular as the triune goddess Brigid. A ninth-century glossographer wrongly observed that all the goddesses of the pre-Christian Irish were called Brigid. While wrong, the statement confirms Brigid's exalted position. In fact, the very name means 'Exalted One', which seems to confirm that it was probably an epithet for the mother goddess.

In Ireland this triune goddess has three different functions. She was a goddess of healing, a goddess of smiths and, most importantly, a goddess of fertility and poetry. In this form, her festival became one of the four most important festivals of the pre-Christian Celts - the feast of Imbolg or parturition, when ewes came into lamb, on I February. Significantly, the saint Brigid took this festival over for her feastday and much of the goddess's symbolism has been subsumed into that of the Christian saint.

While Brigid was a goddess of healing there was another goddess who was a physician. This was Airmid, daughter of Dian Cécht, the Irish god of medicine. She helped her father guard a sacred well which restored the dead to life.

The great Celtic chieftan, Viridomar, who led his warriors against Rome in 222BC, called himself 'a son of the Rhine'. As the Rhine, named after a sea goddess, must also have been an aspect of the mother goddess, it was natural for him to hail her and describe himself as her son. We can interpret from the evidence that the Celts, spread throughout Europe at this time, considered themselves all children of a Great Mother Goddess.

Mary Condren correctly points out that the concept of the matri-centered society did survive for a surprisingly long time among the Celts.

'Throughout Irish mythology, relationships to the mother are emphasised. The Tuatha Dé Danaan were 'children of the goddess Dana'. Even the famous heroes were called after their mothers; Buanann was 'mother of heroes' while the goddess Anu was known as 'mother of the gods'. In some cases men were even called, not alone after their mothers, but after their wives.'

Anu was merely another form of Danu.

But something had started to occur in Celtic culture in the centuries before the birth of Christ. A father of the gods was replacing the mother of the gods in Celtic perceptions. Patriarchy was beginning to replace matriarchy in society while the society remained matrifocal. Sir John Rhŷs, in order to explain this change from feminine deities to masculine ones, claimed that the supremacy of the goddess was a pre-Celtic conception, a notion which 'the masculine oriented' Celts incorporated. But MacCulloch has rightly dismissed this as nonsense. 'It is too deeply impressed on the fabric of Celtic tradition to be other than native, and we have no reason to suppose that the Celts had not passed through a stage in which such a state of things was normal. Their innate conservatism caused them to preserve it more than other races who had long outgrown such a state of things.' MacCulloch speaks unfortunately with the complacency of masculine arrogance, implying that a female oriented society was primitive and a masculine one was a more mature state of affairs. Early Celtic society was matriarchal but was turning into a patriarchal one long before the arrival of Christianity. The change was certainly not made because it was 'the natural order' of things, as MacCulloch states. It began with the clash of Celtic culture with those of Greece and Rome from the middle of the first millennium BC. The Celtic world, spread from Ireland in the west to the central plain of Turkey (Galatia) in the east, and from Belgium in the north to southern Spain and northern Italy, it was a close-knit one. Ideas spread swiftly through the lands of the Celts even to the insular Celtic cultures of Britain and Ireland.

In Ireland perhaps the symbolic beginning of 'male dominance' can be seen in the naming of the great centres and festival sites. Each one of them is named after a goddess who has been raped and/or dies in childbirth. There appears a surprising number of stories which result in the defiling of the goddess by rape, beginning with the principal goddess of love and fertility, Aine, meaning 'Radiance' or 'Splendour'.

The rape of the goddess occurs in the legends of the sites of Tailltinn, Tlachtga, Teamhair, Macha, Carmán and Culi. Mary Condren implies that the status of these goddesses was destroyed by the symbolism of rape in which the goddess gave birth to children who became famous warriors. Thus the warrior society triumphed over the culture of the wise women.

Tlachtga was a goddess, daughter of a solar deity, who was, significantly, as the story is set down by Christian scribes, raped by the sons of Simon Magus. She produced three sons by the three different fathers at one birth and then died. She was buried on the hill of Tlachtga, now the Hill of Ward, near Athboy, Co. Meath, where the annual Samhain festival was held. Her three sons became famous warriors. Carmán, remembered in the Leinster festival also on I August, gave birth to three ferocious warriors, Calma (Valiant), Dubh (Black) and Olc (Evil). It is recorded that death 'came upon her in an ungentle shape'.

Is it coincidence that the deities representing war, death and battles among the ancient Celts are personified in female form?

The major goddess of war, The Mórrígán, whose name means 'Great Queen', embodies all that is perverse and horrible among the supernatural powers. Any male who sought her assistance had to sleep with her beforehand. The Dagda accepted sex with her in return for the destruction of his enemy Indech, son of the Formii goddess Domnu. But if any male rejected her sexual advances, she was a terrible enemy.

The Mórrígán of Ireland seems to be a collective form and is usually represented as a triune goddess, interchangeable with Macha, Badb and Nemain. Of the three, Macha is the more humane. Ireland, over the centuries, has been known by the names of the three main goddesses of sovranty, Éire, Banba and Fótla. They were three sisters, goddesses of the Children of Dana. Éire was the wife of Mac Gréine (Son of the Sun), a son of Ogma and grandson of The Dagda. Banba was the wife of Mac Cuill, another son of Ogma. Fótla was the wife of the third son Mac Cécht. All three gods were slain in the Milesian invasion. And when the Milesians were victorious, Éire and her sisters greeted them and hailed their victory. Amairgen, the chief Druid of the Milesians, promised that the country's principle name would be Éire while the names of Banba and Fótla would also be used. In fact, Banba and Fótla are still used in poetic reference to Ireland, but Éire remains its principal name.

Well known through the poem 'Mise Éire' (I am Ireland) is the Cailleach Beara, the Old Woman, or Hag, of Beara (the peninsula in southwest Ireland). Known as both Buí (Yellow) and Duineach (Strong), she appeared as a triune goddess with her sisters Cailleach Bolus and Cailleach Corca Dhuibhne. She was acclaimed not only as a wife of the god Lugh Lámhfada but as having married seven husbands and having fifty foster children who founded many tribes and nations.

The attitude of nations to the gender accorded to the deity representing sovranty, demonstrated by the split between 'motherland' and 'fatherland', marks certain martial attitudes. Most empires seem to emanate from 'fatherlands'. Ireland's perception of a 'motherland', represented by sovranty goddesses, was countered by the English perception of a 'fatherland'. During the nineteenth century England conceived of Ireland as a female, a 'recalcitrant harlot' who needed England's male 'John Bull' to tame and civilise her.

For the pre-Christian Celt, the essence of the universe and all its creativity was female. The mother goddess, and all her personifications of fertility, sovranty, love and healing, was an essential basis of their very role in the world. Therefore, when the Christian movement, at the Council of Ephesus in AD431, made Mary officially the 'Mother of God', the Celts turned to her enthusiastically as the replacement 'mother goddess', seeing in her the goddesses of fertility, love and healing. The early Celtic Christians pictured Mary as the eternal mother figure, encouraging men and women to turn to her in times of trouble.

For a while, during the early period, other Celtic goddesses vied with Mary in the perceptions of the people; for example, the fertility goddess Brigid, whose cult had been absorbed into that of Brigid of Kildare. Brigid then became 'Mary of the Gael'. By the eighth century, the cult of Mary had become widespread in the Celtic world, and nowhere more so than in Ireland. Poets chanted her praise.

The pre-Christian Celts believed that the soul dwelt in the head. It is obvious that this belief was not overturned immediately. Eventually, however, the image of Mary had been changed in Celtic perception from the mother goddess to an untouchable ideal, an image of frigidity rather than fertility. Now statues of Mary appeared with her crushing a snake under one foot.

In Celtic myth, the serpent was a feminine symbol, an aspect of the mother goddess. It was not, of course, an evil symbol. But, by accepting the Hebrew symbolism, and having Mary, as the Mother of God, stepping on the snake, the Christians were demonstrating their victory over the competing liberated feminine attitudes of pre-Christian times.

Only after the Celtic church was entirely subsumed by Rome did the veneration of Mary as Virgin, Mother of Christ, present a new role model for women - wife, mother and faithful follower but completely asexual. In other words, in recent centuries the Roman image of Mary turned into a positive barrier to feminine fulfillment: women were forced to stifle their sexuality and their independence, and become simply slaves to men. Mary was no longer the mother goddess but a passive, eternally suffering vehicle through which the male God could enter the world.

Women in Myth

Women feature prominently in Celtic mythology. There is not only a pantheon of goddesses but numerous mortal women who display a range of characters and positions in society. They are all fully developed human characters. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Celtic myths is that there are no empty-headed beauties. As Moyra Caldecott, in Women in Celtic Myth, remarked: 'One of the things I find refreshing in the Celtic myths is that women are honoured as much for their minds as for their bodies. The dumb blonde would not stand much of a chance in ancient Celtic society.' Mind and body were not separate issues in the myths but complementary sides of the whole person. Women of Celtic myth, unlike their Greek sisters, were indeed representative of the realities of early Celtic society.

One of the reasons that we may take the mythological figures as representative of people in historical Celtic society is that their actions and positions are not contradicted by the early Celtic laws and the strictures placed on them. Even female warriors existed into historical times and it was not until AD590, when Colmcille introduced a law exempting women from military service, that an attempt was made to exclude women from warrior society. The change in status did not immediately happen; in AD697 Adomnán had to revive the law and incorporate it with his famous Lex Innocentum which was enacted at the Synod of Birr and which forbade women to take up the profession of arms.

Medb (Anglicised as Maeve) is perhaps the best known of Celtic mythological heroines. She is certainly the most written-about Irish heroine and most quoted by those arguing for the equality of women in early Celtic society. The name, and its variants such as Meadhbh, Meadhbha and Méabh, means "She Who Makes Men Drunk' or 'Intoxicating One'. It became one of the twenty most popular names in medieval Ireland. There is confusion between the heroic Medb, queen of Connacht, and a Medb who seems to be a goddess of sovranty. Two distinct Medbs existed. The goddess of sovranty is Medb Lethderg (Red Side) whom it is necessary for a king to ritually marry in order to reign legitimately. It is recorded that this Medb was wife to nine High Kings of Ireland, including the father of Conn Cétchathach (of the Hundred Battles), Conn himself, Conn's son Art and Art's son Cormac.

Of the many fascinating women who feature in the Irish romantic tales, some of the best-known are - Emer, Étain, Deirdre, Gráinne and Créd. All have very different characters, so they are representative of the many types we find in the myths.

Emer was the daughter of Forgall Manach, lord of Musca, whom Cúchulainn desired to marry. He falls in love with her at first sight. Glancing at her breasts, he says: 'I see a sweet country. I could rest my weapon there.' But her father tries to prevent the marriage. The young hero is set a number of tasks to perform. He does so but finds more constrictions placed in his way. Finally, frustrated by the delays, Emer and Cúchulainn elope, to the fury of Emer's family. We find that the Celtic custom of female choice of sexual partners is observed here and that Emer has control over her future sexual union.

Deirdre is not a martyr but she is certainly a victim of attractiveness to men. Deirdre of the Sorrows was the daughter of Felim Mac Doll, an Ulster chieftan. At her birth, Cathbad the Druid prophesied that she would be the fairest of all the women in Ireland but that only death and ruin would come upon the land because of it.

Gráinne is another heroine who is not a placid martyr like Emer. But she is certainly no loyal lover, like Deirdre. She is a shallow person, wilful, ruthless, sexually passionate and somewhat neurotic. She is the daughter of Cormac Mac Art, the High King. She is promised in marriage to Fionn Mac Cumhail, the commander of the king's élite warriors, the Fianna. On the night before the wedding Gráinne decides to 'play the field' because she is not really interested in the elderly Fionn.

Étain is an entirely different personality from the other heroines. The name seems to mean 'Jealousy' and there are many Étains in the early literature of Ireland, including the goddess, daughter of Dian Cécht, god of medicine, who is also a healer in her own right and wife to Ogma, god of eloquence.

Another interesting woman, who has passion but believes in honour and obedience to law, is Créd, sometimes given as Creide. She is the daughter of Guaire Aidne, king of Connacht. She married Marcán, an elderly chieftan of Uí Maine, but she did not love him. It was a political marriage and he already had a wife and a grown-up stepson named Colcú. The annals record that during the reign of the High King Aedh Slaine (d. c.604) a prince from Skye, Cano Mac Garnait, came to Ireland. At Guaire's court he met Créd and fell in love with her and she with him.

She refused to make love with him while he was under the laws of hospitality. He gave her a stone which he said contained his life. He would leave Ireland and return home, thus removing himself from the obligation of the laws of hospitality. Before he left he had arranged a meeting with her at the lake which later became Loch Créd. Her stepson, Colcú, whose sexual advances had been rejected by Créd, thwarted the plans. In anguish, Créd dropped the stone which Cano had given her and it fragmented. Cano died three days later.

Créd is certainly the subject of a cycle of romantic tales, surviving mostly in fragmentary form. She is the prototype Iseult with Cano in the Tristan role and Marcán taking the same name role as Mark (Marc'h of Cromwall). Like Marc'h, Marcán mac Tomaini, king of Uí Maine, was an historical ruler and is recorded as falling in battle against the Uí Briúin kings Cend Fáelad mac Colgan and Máenach mac Baíthín in AD653.

A rather evil and ambitious lady emerges in the person of the daughter of Fidach of Munster, Called Mongfhinn. She became the first wife of the High King Eochaidh Muigemedon and stepmother to Niall, who became Niall of the Nine Hostages. Niall's mother was Cairenn Chasdubh, Eochaidh's second wife. Mongfhinn forced her to do every menial task in the palace even while she was in late pregnancy. In fact, Cairenn gave birth to Niall while she was working. In the story of Mongfhinn, the evil-minded lady makes several attempts to kill the boy but finally succeeds in killing herself by accidentally taking the poison that she had prepared for him. She became the personification of evil in Irish folklore and, in Munster, old women in the nineteenth century used to say prayers to ward off her evil presence.

Another lady who did not believe in taking a passive role in her love affairs was Moriath, daughter of the king of the Fir Morca, the lover and wife of Móen. When Móen was courting her, it was said that her mother's two eyes never slept at once. One eye was always watching her daughter so that she would know no man. Moriath told Móen's harpist, Craiftine, how to play special music which would put her mother and father to sleep so that she and Móen could meet and make love undisturbed. she was also instrumental in curing Móen's dumbness, which had been caused by the shock of his parents' death when he was a child and by being made to eat their flesh by his evil uncle.

The Welsh myths also possess some fascinating women. Rhiannon, 'Great Queen', is one of the most interesting. Rhiannon's story is a journey through womanhood. She starts as a beautiful maiden who marries and has a son. Unjustly accused by her husband, she becomes wise in the ways of men. Then, with a mother's love blinding her to danger, she stumbles, forgetting her wisdom, but is rescued through the support of her second husband, who is prepared to sacrifice himself for her.

Perhaps one of the most famous Celtic women of myth in terms of popular world culture is Gwenhwyfar, who has become better known as Guinevere, the wife of Arthur. Her beauty and abduction bring betrayal, war and ultimate disaster, placing her as a counterpart of Helen of Troy or Persephone. The basis of the medieval Arthurian tales are clearly rooted in Celtic myth. Based on a fifth-century historical Celtic warrior, the tales of Arthur were worked and reworked in the years after his death, with considerable borrowings from the earlier Irish tales of Fionn Mac Cumhail.

Enid, the daughter of Ynwyl, a chieftan fallen on evil days, is presented as a rather patient young lady. When Geraint marries her, he is constantly demanding that she prove her love and loyalty to him. She, like Guinevere, has become known to the wider English-speaking world through the works of the poet Tennyson. Enid is one of the 'Three Splendid Maidens' of Arthur's court.

Welsh myth is not short on tales of determined women; women such as Goleuddydd, the mother of Culhwch, who, pregnant and knowing she is about to die, goes into the forest to give birth. She makes her husband Cilydd promise that he will only remarry when a briar with two heads grows from her grave. It is in the seventh year that such a briar grows.

In Breton tradition we have several determined women who choose their own lovers. A Breton king has fallen in love with a mystic princess and despatches his best warrior, Efflam, to find her. Efflam encounters many adventures and has to overcome many obstacles. He then arrives at the girl's fortress and states the king's case. The girl, in order to determine whether he is worthy, demands three tasks of him. He must spend one night in a lion's cage, the next night in an ogre's den and the third night sorting a pile of wheat. When Efflam succeeds in the tasks, the girls agrees to go with him to see the king. The king is old and the girl has already fallen in love with Efflam. The girls suggests to the king that she possesses magic and that if he will allow her to kill him she could then restore him to life as a twenty-year-old. The king is vain and eager with desire. He agrees. She kills him and then her intention becomes clear. 'Since he is dead, let him remain so, and the warrior who took all the risks and won my heart may receive the reward.' She marries Efflam who then becomes king. The moral of the story is obvious.

As Rome asserted its hold on Celtic Christianity, many of the stories featuring women were changed to a new morality. According to Professor Markle: 'The process of debasing women and banishing them, with a great show of morality, into prohibited areas is particularly apparent in the successive changes made to old legends that retain no more of the original myth than its outline dressed up with circumstantial detail.' The story of Ker-Ys, the city of the depths, is about Gradlon, a king of Cornouaille, in Brittany, who built a town for his daughter Dahud. Dahud appears to be an interesting young lady: by the time the Christian scribes set down her story, they accuse her of being a rebel against Christianity and a nymphomaniac who led a life of debauchery. Along came St Guénole, the sixth-century abbot, known also in Cornwall as Winwaloe (Gunwalloe), who founded the great monastery at Landévennec in Cornouaille in Brittany. He cursed the town of Ker-Ys for its impropriety and debauchery. God, in the tradition of Sodom and Gomorrah, caused the sea to rise up and engulf it. King Gradlon, previously warned by Guénole, escaped on horseback. Dahud tried to join him on the same horse but it became engulfed in the waves and started to sink until Gradlon, with a burst of self-preservation overcoming his parental concerns, knocked his daughter off and she sank into the sea. Guénole, obligingly, allowed her to become a mermaid.

This sort of story became popular throughout the Celtic world. A similar tale appears in the Irish story of Lí Bán, not the sister of Fand and wife to Labraid Luathlam ar Cledeb, but the daughter of Ecca who wound up as a mermaid in Lough Neagh where, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, she was captured in AD558. The Welsh tale of Maes Gwyddneu preserves a similar original theme which seems to have missed the Christian censor. SeithyninVeddw (the Drunkard) rapes a young girl who guards a mystic well. The water then rises up and envelops the land of Cantre'r Gwaelod where SeithyninVeddw comes from.

There is another group of powerful women who appear in Celtic myth and pre-history stories. These are Druidesses: Here we use the word not in its original sense which signified the intelligentsia caste of ancient Celtic society, but in the sense intended by Christian scribes who depicted them as enchantresses, prophetesses and witches. The Celtic tradition of female Druids' existence is quite explicit. They feature in many Irish epics and there is even reference to the office of Chief Druidess of Ireland, held by a lady called Gáine, mentioned in the Metrical Dinnsenchus.

At Cluain Feart (Clonfert) there was said to dwell a whole community of Druidesses who could raise storms, cure diseases and kill their enemies by cursing them. Fionn Mac Cumhail was raised by Bodmall the Druidess. Smirgat, a Druidess, prophesied that if Fionn drank from a horn he would die, so he was always careful to drink from a goblet or bowl. The Druidess Milucrah was able to transform Fionn into an old man at Loch Slieve Gallion, while in Donegal there lived a beautiful Druidess, Geal Ghossach (White Legs).

Perhaps the two most compelling Druidesses in the Irish sagas are Fidelma and Sín.

In the epic the Táin Bó Cuailgne, Medb consults Fidelma, who is sometimes described as being an Otherworld spirit from the sidh of Cruachan. Her more usual role is as a Druidess and daughter of Medb. Asked by Medb if she possesses the imbas forasnai, the light of foresight, Fidelma says she does and has just returned from studying Druidic lore in Britain. Medb asks Fidelma if her army will be victorious over Ulster. Fidelma prophesies its defeat at the hands of Cúchulainn.

Sín is perhaps one of the most 'human' of the Druidesses in the sagas. Her story is recounted in the Leabhar Buidhe Lecain (Yellow Book of Lecan). It starts when the high King Muirchertach Mac Erca, an historical king c.AD512-33, is out hunting. He meets a beautiful girl and becomes infatuated with her. He is already married, of course, with children. But he asks her to become his mistress and live at his royal palace of Cletach (Clettyon the Boyne near Rosnaree). Sín is no pushover for the romantic advances of the king. She knows exactly what she wants. She will agree to become Muirchertach's mistress on certain conditions: that the king will submit to her will in all things and that no Christian cleric will ever set foot in the palace while she resides there.

Desire is the overriding factor and the king agrees but not before asking her name. She replies, giving a clear symbolic warning of what is to come, for she presents a list of synonyms for her name: sigh, rustling, storm, rough wind, winter night, cry, tear and groan. In fact, in Old Irish, the word sín signifies 'bad weather' or 'storm'. The girl is therefore warning the wretched man of 'the storm' to come. Later, realising that the girl is possessed of supernatural powers, the king hesitantly asks whether she believes in the god of the Christians. She replies emphatically:

Never believe the clerics
For they chant nothing save unreason.
Follow not their unmelodious stave.
Cleave not to the clerics of churches,
If you desire life without treachery.
Better am I as a friend here.
Let not repentance come to you.

Once installed in Cletach, Sín demands that Muirchertach eject his wife, Dualtech, and his children. They rush off to Cairnech, the local Christian bishop, and demand that he do something about the High King's infatuation. Cairnech orders Muirchertach to send the girl away. The king refuses and Cairnech curses him in a ritual that seems more Druidic than Christian. The High King's entourage are now worried about the extent to which Muirchertach will go to pursue his passion. The girl performs some feats of magic to impress Muirchertach and presumably 'keep him in line'. Curiously, it has an opposite effect. Muirchertach now begins to worry about his soul and rushes off to Cairnech the bishop to confess his sins. He promises to throw Sín out but when he returns, she evokes a vision which mesmerises him.

We now arrive at the moment of truth in the story. Muirchertach awakes, after once more satiating his lust, and finds his fortress ablaze. Seeking to escape, he climbs into a vat of wine and drowns. At this point we learn that Sín's entire family, her mother, her father, her sister and cousins, have all been slaughtered by Muirchertach during the battle of Atha Síghe (Assey) on the Boyne. Sín has planned her vengeance on the king using her Druidical powers to ensnare and destroy him.

Finally we can turn to women in a rather unusual role. Where Celtic myth departs from Greek and Latin myths is in the tales of great female warriors and warrior queens. Women warriors even appear on early Celtic coins as a common iconographic theme. The place of female warriors in the myths is a prominent one.

What is interesting in Irish myth, however, is the appearance of female warriors who are not queens but professional warriors. The best known among them is Scáthach (Shadowy One) whose school of martial arts was situated on the Isle of Skye, Sgiathanach in modern Scots Gaelic. All the famous warriors of Ireland, at the time of the Red Branch epics, were said to have been trained by her.

Many other female warriors appear in Irish sagas: Creidne, who had been sexually abused by her father, learnt martial arts and became one of the relentless warriors of the Fianna; Fionn Mac Cumhail's own daughter Credha; Erni, Medb's personal female warrior who guarded her treasures; and Mugháin Mór, the warrior queen of Munster. In fact, in the Rennes Dinnsenchus several female warriors are listed including one called Etsine, who appears in the story of 'The Frenzy of Suibhne', and another named Breifne from whom, it was recorded by the Dinnsenchus, the ancient kingdom of Breifne took its name.

Nessa, the daughter of Eochaidh Sálbuidhe of Ulaidh, is described as a female warrior in several texts. The myths and sagas demonstrate that women went to war in the ancient Celtic world and took command of men. Specific titles were given to these classes of female warriors such as ban-gaisgedaig and ban-feinnidh. The first word combines ban (woman) and a derivation of gas which means a young warrior. The second combines ban with feinnidh, 'band of warriors', so it seems that women warriors were classed according to age and experience.

From this brief sketch of some of the women who appear in the Celtic myths, it will be seen that they are varied and rich in character. There are no shallow stereotypes. Each character is delicately and carefully drawn and their motivations are as complex and tangled as any that we encounter in reality. They are not there in supporting roles for the handsome, male heroes. Indeed, the men in the myths also provide a rich profusion of characters. Women take their place in the myths in their own right, as thinking people with their own minds and incentives. Nor are they second-class citizens. The women of the Celtic myths are a reflection of the historical women of early Celtic society with all their problems, loves, heartaches and triumphs.

Women in Early History

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Tigh Na Feidh: The Second Druidic Seat