Queen Medb (modern spelling: Meave) is one of my favorite characters from the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the most impressive woman in a tradition packed with female warriors and poets. That’s not to say she is a pleasant personality, but she’s unforgettable– domineering, ornery, stubborn, and intelligent. She has a man’s force of will and unshakable self-regard. As I read the saga, I kept wondering what a character like this was doing in an ancient tale. I’m used to Greek mythology, where any woman who acts like Medb is assumed to be a monster, an offense against nature who must be destroyed. Irish mythology is more accepting of powerful women, even as it reflects masculine fears and stereotypes. In Medb’s case, one of these has to do with her sexual voracity. She is also a pragmatist who rejects the masculine code of honor.
39. Battle of the Sexes
Medb stretched herself in satisfaction when Ailill rolled off her. Though not distinguished by looks as fine as her own, he was a man who knew his business in bed. They lay back on the pillows in silence, each reverting to a state of separateness as their lovemaking ended. Then Ailill spoke.
“It struck me today that you are much better off than the day I married you.”
“Not true,” she told him. “I was well enough without you.” One of her husband’s less attractive qualities was his excessive male vanity.
“Nay, I heard little of your wealth then. Only that the neighbors were making off with your herds and plundering your stores. Obviously you had need of a man.”
“Ailill,” she said firmly. “You know nothing. My father gave me Cruachan to rule, a whole province of Éire, and I had fifteen hundred warriors in my pay. Suitors came from Leinster and Munster and Ulster to woo me. And the bride price I demanded was more costly than any woman of Éire dared ask before. I required a man as generous with his wealth as I, for it is an insult if a wife gives more than her husband: they should be magnanimous in the same degree. I required a man of spirit, for it is an insult if a wife is more courageous than her husband: they should be equally spirited. I required a man without jealousy, for I never had a man to bed without another waiting in his shadow. Nor do I harbor jealousy myself. And as for my wealth! Remember the chariot I gave you at our wedding, worth thrice seven bondmaids, and the ingot of yellow gold as heavy as your arm. You’re practically a kept man.”
“You know nothing, my dear,” replied Ailill complacently. “Every man in my family is a king. When I heard of your province, uniquely governed by a woman, I determined to come here and make you mine, and join my greater wealth with yours.”
“Greater wealth?” she sniffed. “Hardly.”
“You amaze me, wife. Nobody has more herds and gold and jewels than I, and well I know it.” He stood up and began rooting among the furs and blankets for his tunic.
“Let us inquire into this matter,” said Medb, incensed now. She clapped her hands for a servant, who entered timidly and averted her eyes from Ailill’s nakedness. “Dress me at once. My consort and I have business to attend to.”
They began by hauling out all the copper buckets and bronze cauldrons and cooking pots, then all the cups and jugs and plates and sharp butchering knives. They compared their bolts of cloth, purple and green and black and yellow, many-colored and checked and striped. Each owned goods of equal quality, in equal amounts. They counted their finger-rings, thumb-rings, bracelets, brooches and torcs of gold, and their gemstones, set and unset.
“Equality is acceptable,” declared Medb, “though I was certain that I possessed more and finer goods than you. Let us compare the stock.”
They called in their herds of sheep from the fields and meadows and plains, and measured and counted the animals, who proved to be exactly the same in number, with one powerful ram at the head of each flock of ewes. The teams and herds of horses were brought in and assessed, the stallions inspected. Finally, the cattle were herded in from the woods and wastes of all the province. All would have been equal, were it not for the great white bull Finnbennach, who had been calved from one of Medb’s cows.
“The White-Horn?” said Ailill’s chief neatherd. “Aye, he used to be of Medb’s herd, but as a young ‘un he came over to us, for he deemed it wrong to be subject to a woman, begging your pardon, my Queen.”
Ailill beamed. “There, you see, dear wife? I have the better of you. A tedious exercise, was it not? Let us go back to our chambers and dine.”
“This is an outrage,” said Medb, feeling her temper rise. A bull to match Finnbennach was not to be found in all her herds. It seemed to her that she possessed nothing: she was poverty-stricken, indigent, unbearably in need, without a true stud bull to call her own, one every bit as magnificent as the White-Horn. “Call Mac Roth to me.”
When the herald Mac Roth arrived, she said, “You are a well-traveled man. Tell me, where in the land of Éire dwells a bull as fine as Finnbennach?”
Mac Roth readily replied, “That’s easy. In Ulster dwells the Donn Cuailnge, the great brown bull who belongs to Dáire mac Fiachna. He is certainly the equal of the White.”
“The equal,” repeated Medb. I must have him. “Go to this Ulsterman,” she told Mac Roth. “Say to him that if he loans me the Donn Cuailnge for a year, he shall receive at the end of the year fifty heifers, a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and the friendship of my thighs.” Ailill will never miss the chariot, she thought. And he is not a jealous man.
Mac Roth went to Ulster and returned to Connacht in two weeks, without the Donn Cuailnge. “My Queen,” he explained, “Dáire mac Fiachna was minded to loan you the bull. Especially… ehm… after I mentioned your offer of friendship. But by an ill chance, a few of our men were drinking, and they praised Dáire to his own guardsmen, declaring that he was wise to agree, for Medb would take the Donn whether he willed it or no.”
“And Dáire mac Fiachna changed his mind,” finished Medb. “Mac Roth, our men are right. No need to shine up the knobs and knots in this matter. The Donn will be mine, whether the Ulstermen will it or no.”
The day was bright, thought Medb, and boded well for her enterprise. She looked out across the ranks of warriors, gathered together from four provinces of Éire. There was her own personal army, united with that of Ailill, and Ailill’s kingly brothers with their men, and the Ulster exiles led by King Conchobar’s son Cormac and by the king’s half-brother Fergus mac Róich. She didn’t trust the exiles. An Ulsterman once, an Ulsterman always. And they are proven traitors. One of them, long dead now, had stolen Conchobar’s bride Deirdre, a woman so beautiful that men wept at the sight of her. Blood had been shed in plenty, and a group of Ulstermen had departed their homeland forever.
“No doubt some among our men curse me today,” she told her charioteer. “Especially those who are leaving behind their lovers to fight my war.”
“Wait, then. I’ll turn the chariot to the right, sunward, to draw down its power for our safe return.” But as they completed the circle, Medb saw another chariot blocking their way. In it stood a young woman with delicate dark lashes and lips the color of imported cinnabar. Her hair was elaborately dressed in three locks. Two were wound about her head, and the long plait of the third fell to her calves. She wore an embroidered tunic and a cloak that glinted in the sunlight. The cloak was girt with a swordbelt, and a shield lay across her back.
“What is your name?” she demanded, curious to learn why this slip of a girl was here. Does she think to join my army? To Medb’s mind, one warrior woman was enough. She herself commanded the men’s respect because she was unique in Éire. The presence of another woman would change that.
“I am Fedelm, poet of Connacht,” replied the girl calmly.
A woman poet? This was something again. “From where have you come?”
“I learned verse and vision in Alba, then returned here to my home.”
“Have you the Sight?”
Fedelm nodded. “That is why I have come.”
“What do you see concerning our army?”
“I see it bloodied. I see it red,” said the girl.
“That is impossible. My spies declare that in this, his hour of greatest need, Conchobar of Ulster and his men lie weak with women’s pangs, under the curse of Macha, Lady of Horses.” Up to nine generations she had cursed them, had Macha, for they forced her to run a race against the king’s horses when she was heavy with child and feeling her pangs. After besting the king’s swiftest horses, she lay on the finish line and her twins came to the shores of light. From time to time, Macha sent pairs of horses into the land of men from the Otherworld, and these had no rival as chariot teams. Medb smiled to think how the men of Ulster must rue their sorry state, forced to share the pangs of womanhood. She hoped their troubles would endure for a hundred generations.
“And yet, I see the army bloodied. I see it red,” repeated Fedelm.
“No. Look again, for Celthair the Handsome is gone away to Dún Lethglaise with a third of the men of Ulster.”
“I see it bloodied. I see it red.”
Medb began to feel aggrieved. Our success is certain; how could it be otherwise? “Listen to me, Fedelm, poet of Connacht. Fergus mac Róich and three thousand exiles of Ulster are with us. Ulster has very few men, and those who remain are too weak to stand. Look one last time and tell me what you see.”
The girl sighed deeply. Her eyes lost their focus, and she began to chant.
I see a man of beauty, whose weapon-feats
Surpass all others, a man of many wounds.
From his forehead virtue shines unceasing,
His swordpoint is unsheathed in hero-light.
His face, unequalled, stuns the female heart,
Yet on the field of battle, he is a dragon.
This man may be Cúchulainn of Muirthemne.
Four swords he wields, two in each hand;
A spear to deal death, a spear of many barbs.
Lo, he strikes from the left, over the chariot;
Take care, Queen, lest there be destruction,
A thousand severed heads in the Speckled House,
Cut by the Warped Man, the Hound of the Forge.
I, Fedelm, do not conceal this doom.
“Cúchulainn?” said Medb, searching her memory. “I have heard of this man. He is young, they say, though no doubt an impressive warrior. And by your account, a comely man, worthy to mount the bed of a queen. Yet Fedelm,” —she laughed— “one man, though he be the finest chariot-chief in Éire, cannot stand against an army. Yes, this man will draw his share of blood. But he will not keep me from my goal.”
The girl bowed her head and turned away. Even as she took up the reins, her team of two black horses sprang forward, and soon she was gone from sight.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: This chapter marks the beginning of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” the great epic of Cúchulainn. Medb is his implacable adversary. It’s an odd pairing: a warrior who is barely more than a teenager against a much older woman. I have simplified the account of Medb and left out most of her backstory. She had husbands before Ailill, including Conchobar, the king of Ulster. The enmity arising from their failed marriage fed into Medb’s desire for war with Ulster. Medb also had many sons. The Cath Bóinde (“The Battle of the Boyne”) tells how Medb asked a druid which of her seven sons would kill Conchobar. The druid answered, “the one named Maine.” So Medb renamed all of her sons “Maine.”