While the law codes have much to say about women and their rights and status in society, additional information can be found in the literature from the time:
Tain
Early Irish Myths and Sagas
The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Airt
Niall of the Nine Hostages
The Instructions of Cormac Sovereignty Goddesses and the Banfeis

For an analysis of the realities behind the women in the myths, read IRST 30319 - Final Paperx.pdf. This paper presents a look at what facts can be found within the fiction of Irish mythology. The focus of the analysis is on the women of the myths.


The Táin Bó Cúailnge is one of the most famous and most important epics from medieval Ireland. A few key women are featured in the story:

Queen Medb - wife of Ailill, and Queen of Connacht. It is believed that Medb is a humanized representation of a sovereignty goddess from the early Irish pagan religion. Her name means "intoxicator", and sounds like the English "mead".
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Because of this distinction, she can not necessarily be used as an exemplar of the women of the time, however, there are certain aspects of her character which can be used to demonstrate aspects of ancient Irish life.

From the opening chapter of the Táin, "The Pillow Talk and its Outcome", it can be determined that the two had a marriage of common contribution, Lanamnas Comthinchuir, as they go through a list of each of their belongs, matching them evenly. The only point of difference is Ailill's bull, to which Medb owns no equal. Because Medb is especially prideful, she sets out to gain for herself another famous bull, from Ulster. Her desire to be entirely equal with Ailill leads to the remainder of the epic, which focuses on winning the Donn Cúailnge (the Brown Bull of Cooley) from Cú Chulainn and the Ulstermen. She is displayed in a very negative light throughout the epic, perhaps representing a negative view that men held of women, as mirrored in The Instructions of Cormac.

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Fedelm - a poetess from Connacht, who has the "Second Sight", and is able to make predictions for Medb. She tells Medb of Cú Chulainn, and warns that the Connachtmen will be defeated, but her advice is ignored by Medb as she continues on her quest for the Donn Cúailnge. As described in the Táin, Fedelm travels the land unaccompanied by anyone aside from her charioteer, and armed, just as any male poet would do. She is a clear example of the presence of banfili in Irish socety.

Finnabair - daughter or Medb and Ailill, the princess of Connacht. Finnabair is used by her parents as a bargaining chip in order to convince soldiers to fight Cú Chulainn. For her hand, many warriors sacrifice their lives -- not only is she appealing because of her beauty, but additionally, she comes with the promise of land and power.


Other women of myth - while Medb is the main female character of the Táin, there are numerous other legends mentioned throughout the epic. For example, some lesser characters include: Nemain, Badb, and Morrígan the Battle Goddesses, Dechtire, Aífe, and the bean sídhe.

Nemain, Badb, and Morrígan - known collectively as the Mórrígana, and may all be representations of the same goddess, though they appear separately in the epic. Nemain is described as "assailing" the warriors of Connacht, frightening them until Medb pacifies them. Similarly, later the Badb calls out "from among the corpses" during Cú Chulainn's fight with an unknown man.
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(Illustration of the Morrígan, for Thomas Kinsella's translation of The Táin, 1969)

Dechtire - becomes impregnated while dreaming of a man, and is ridiculed by the people of Ulster for having a child with an unknown father. After getting married, she is ashamed of being pregnant, and loses the baby. Miraculously made virgin again, she goes to bed with her husband and bears him a child with the name planned for her original son. Her story represents the view of unchaste women in the society, who were seen as shameful. Additionally, her story emphasizes the importance of virginity, as discussed in the Hibernensis.
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Aífe - a warrior-woman who is one of Cú Chulainn's many lovers. Her presence in legend demonstrates that perhaps women were not restricted from becoming warriors, but in fact had many of the same career opportunities as males in the society.

The bean sídhe - fairy women who lived in the síd, entrances to the Otherworld, called "fairy-mounds". This phrase has been adapted into English vocabulary as "Banshee".
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Early Irish Myths and Sagas:
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"The Labor Pains of the Ulaid & The Twins of Macha"

In this legend, Macha is a representation of the horse goddess, perhaps a version of Epona ("Great Horse"). She is challenged to a race against a horse, and she wins, due to her divine powers. At the end of the race, however, she bears twins, and curses the Ulstermen to experience her labor pains once a year for nine generations. Women are excepted from the curse, perhaps because they experience their own labor pains during childbirth. While it is difficult to determine a deeper meaning from this story, it may be seen as a commentary on the power that women hold over men -- while she was with Crunniuc she brought him great prosperity, but when she became displeased, she brought harm to all the men in the land.


"The Wooing of Etáin"
Etáin is described as being the most beautiful woman in the land, and thus it is no surprise that Mider seeks her hand in marriage. He requests that Macc Oc find her and bring her to him. From the ensuing interaction with Etáin's father, Ailill, a reader can begin to see how marriage was carried out in medieval Irish society. For example, after being asked for Etáin, Ailill denies Macc Oc's request, instead stating that he will need to be paid for her hand. He gives Macc Oc numerous seemingly impossible tasks to complete, but once they are completed he fulfills his end of the bargain and allows Macc Oc to take his daughter. In essence, she has been sold to him, albeit for a very high price due to her status in society as well as her virginal nature.

Additionally, this story reveals the presence of polygyny in Irish society, for when Mider returns home with Etáin, his first wife, Fúamnach awaits them. Using her knowledge of sorcery, she transforms Etáin into a pool of water. The first wife, or cetmuinter, did in fact have a right to be somewhat cruel to a secondary wife, though clearly Fúamnach took this to the extreme (see Marriage and Divorce for additional information on this subject, specifically the During Marriage section).





The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Airt:[6]
Preference for virginity in marriage:"Eógan summoned the girl [Monchae] to him unto his bed, and she was given to him for she had no children until then." (p 124)
Arrangement of marriage setup - initiated by father, not daughter:
"'Fortune would be propitious,' said the servant, 'if you would but give yourself to the king.' 'I am unable to do that,' said the girl. 'Wait! My father will...'" (p. 125)






Niall of the Nine Hostages:[7]
Primary versus Secondary wives:
Mogfind was queen and mother of four sons, but Cairenn was the second wife, and mother of Niall. Mogfind made Cairenn do physical labor, even when she was pregnant, causing her to give birth outside by the well. She left the child behind because she was so afraid of what Mogfind would do to him. (p 38-39)

Sovereignty goddesses and the banfeis:
The ugly hag guarding the well becomes a beautiful sovereignty goddess when Niall sleeps with her, giving him to rights to the kingship. For more on how kings were chosen, see Kings.





The Instructions of Cormac:
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A negative view on women:
"How do you distinguish women?"...They are crabbed as constant companions, haughty when visited, lewd when neglected, silly counselors, greedy of increase...better to crush them than to cherish them..." (p. 29-35)
The full text of this excerpt can be found at Project Gutenberg Sovereignty Goddesses and the BanfeisSoveignty goddesses frequently appear in early medieval Irish myths. They were women who were symbolic of the earth and could offer the kingship through their bodies. Whenever any woman offers to sleep with a prince who wants to be king or if a queen offers to sleep with anyone but her husband, the character is probably symbolic of a sovereignty goddess. For example, Medb in the Táin is generally thought of as a sovereignty goddess, offering the kingship along with her body to a couple different men throughout the tale. Another example is the old woman by the well in the story of Niall. Niall and his brothers, all princes, come across a well and wish to drink from it, but an old woman will only allow them to get a drink if they sleep with her (or kiss, if it's the children's version). Niall is the only one of his brothers who is willing to do so. Afterwards, she names him king. That is a sovereignty goddess..The banfeis was directly related to sovereignty goddesses as the act they committed of sleeping with a candidate for the kingship, or any man, and naming him king afterwards. Surprisingly the banfeis was not only something from literature, but something that was actually done (we believe) to name a king. A candidate for king slept with a woman picked to symbolize the land and was named king afterwards. No one is sure how this process worked, how they picked the woman, or many details of th process in general. What we have is this vague description of the act taking place and why. For more information, see the Becoming a King page.
  1. ^ (2008). The Táin: A New Translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge . New York: The Penguin Group. p. 209.
  2. ^ The Táin, p. 23, 40, 218, 219.
  3. ^ The Táin, p. 215-216.
  4. ^ The Táin, p. 219
  5. ^ Gantz, J. (1981). Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: The Penguin Group. p. 37-59, 127-129.
  6. ^ Ó Cathasaigh, T. (1977) The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Airt. Dublin Institute for Advanced Study. p. 124-127.
  7. ^ Dillon, M. (1946) "The Cycle of Niall of the Nine Hostages." The Cycles of the Kings. Oxford University Press. p. 38-41.
  8. ^ Meyer, K. (1909). The Instructions of King Cormac Mac Airt. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & Co., Ltd. p. 29-35.