This essay will examine references to the Queen Medb character in Irish literary sources, and explore the recorded themes. These are by no means comprehensive listings, but an adequate sampling as space allows for the purposes of a foundational essay. Further research is needed on Medb, and particularly interesting will be that which looks at the social, political, and cultural context in which her tales were recorded, and the influence that Gaelic culture wrought on the character development of the Connacht Queen.
For now though, where does Medb show up in the stories, and what themes are recorded? She is best known as a character in the ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ (Kinsella, 1970), but we see even in the pre-tale ‘How the Bulls were Begotten’, that “the other (maggot) got into the well-spring Garad in Connacht, where a cow belonging to Medb and Ailill drank it”. And in ‘The Adventures of Nera’ (Meyer, 1889), sometimes called ‘Táin Bó Aingen’, the stage is further set, as we see Medb speaking “in the manner of an oath: I swear by the gods that my people swear by, that I shall not lie down, nor sleep on down or flockbed, nor shall I drink butter-milk nor nurse my side, nor drink red ale nor white, nor shall I taste food, until I see those two kine fighting before my face”.
But before the Táin, what of Medb’s history? It is soon told.
During the ‘Pillow Talk’ in ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ (O’Rahilley 1970), we hear how she became Queen of Connacht: “my father was in the high-kingship of Ireland, namely Eochu Feidlech… He had six daughters… I was the noblest and worthiest of them. I was the most generous of them in bounty and the bestowal of gifts. I was best of them in battle and fight and combat. I had fifteen hundred royal mercenaries of the sons of strangers exiled from their own land and as many of the sons of native freemen within the province... I had these as my standing household’ said Medb, ‘and for that reason my father gave me one of the provinces of Ireland, namely, the province of Crúachu. Whence I am called Medb Chrúachna”. She hasn’t mentioned though that Cruachan was previously ruled by her sister (as stated in ‘Aided Meidbe’, Hull, 1938): “Now Clothru was queen in Cruachu before Medb took the sovereignty; that [was] by force from Eochaid”.
And what of Medb’s family? It is soon told.
The aforementioned tale of Medb’s death (Hull, 1938) also records: “The three daughters (of Eochaid Feidlig were) Eithni Uathach… (Eithni the Terrible), namely, she used to eat the flesh of infants so that the children always disliked her to be mentioned, and Medb of Cruachu, and Clothru of Cruachu”. From the ‘Ban-shenchus, The Lore of Women’ (Dobbs, 1930), we learn “Croind… was the wanton consort of Eochu Feidlech and mother of valiant Medb of Cruachan, (glorious, perverse, extravagant and liberal)… There were six daughters… Mugain, Medb the hazel-kernel, and Lothra, Derbriu, Ethni and beauteous Clothru”. And her children are named as: “The seven Mane were Medb’s great sons, the sons of Ailill who was not jealous. Three other (by whom good poetry was framed) were by Fergus, possessor of wealth. Their names were Ciar, Corc, and Conmac. They were three mighty chiefs in truth. There was Mane Mingor, Mane Morgor, Mane Mathremail who was not slow, Mane Athernail of the lies, Mane Mo Epert, Mane Mor who kept all and Mane Andoe lord of the district”. Her sons are named slightly differently in ‘The Raid for the Cattle of Regamon’ (Leahy, 1906): “Maine Morgor (Maine with great filial love), Maine Mingar (Maine with less filial love), Maine Aithremail (Maine like his father), Maine Mathremail (Maine like his mother), Maine Milbel (Maine with the mouth of honey), Maine Moepert (Maine too great to be described), Maine Condageb-uile (Maine who combined all qualities): now this one had the form both of father and mother, and had all the glory that belonged to both parents”.
What of Medb as royal host? It is soon told.
In ‘The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu’ the Ulster men “went to Connacht, to Ailill and Medb – not that this was a home for Ulstermen, but that they knew these two would protect them” (Kinsella, 1970). ‘The Battle of Airtech’ (Best, 1916), tells that on the election of a new King, the nobles of Ulster requested Fergus Mac Roch back in the fold, and he left Connacht - despite Medb’s attempted bribery using female slaves - with his wife Flidais, and stayed in Ulster until her death; “after which he went back to Ailill and Medb, for his house-holding in the East was not good after Flidais”. In ‘The Dream of Oengus’ (Gantz, 1981), Dagda brings his lovesick son “to Ailill and Medb, for the girl is in their territory”. The party was welcomed with a week of feasting and drinking, and after an adventure with the Síd dwellers… “This is how the friendship between Ailill and Medb and the Macc Oc (Oengus) arose, and this is why Oengus took three hundred to the Cattle Raid of Cuailnge”. Another Táin, ‘The Raid for Dartaid’s Cattle’ (Leahy, 1906), shows Medb and Ailill summoning a King for a Samhain feast, and he receives aid from the Síd to fit his party in splendour, and impress them in Connacht. In the ‘Cattle Raid of Fraech’ (Leahy, 1906), the hero does such a fine job of the same splendorous fitting out of his party, with the help of the Síd, that sixteen are smothered to death in the crush to view them upon arrival at Cruachan. After feasting for three days and three nights, Fraech must face a monster in a lake to prove his worth to Medb and Ailill, but then they command “a bath of fresh bacon broth be prepared… and bid them with adze and with axe the flesh of a heifer full small to mince: Let the meat be all thrown in the bath, and there for healing let Fraech be laid!", after which “he passed from their sight out of Croghan; For that night from earth was he freed, and he dwelt with his kin, the Síd-Dwellers, in the caverns of Croghan's deep Síd”.
What of Medb’s judgement? It is soon told.
In ‘Fled Bricrenn’ (Dillon, 1948), Medb commands “that women go out to meet the (arriving Ulster) warriors, and that beds be made ready and tubs of cold water prepared, so as to appease their frenzy”, then feasts them for three days and three nights, after which she tests them (all of which is reminiscent of Fraech’s visit), when “three ferocious cats from the Cave of Cruachain were set loose against the three warriors”. When Aillil refuses to judge the warriors, she upbraids him for cowardice and does it herself, tricking them each into thinking himself the winner and packing them off home to Ulster. Medb is again seen as a decision maker in the tale of ‘The Battle of Magh Mucrama’ (Stokes, 1892), when she was counting the pigs that could not be counted – “Medb was in her chariot. One of the pigs jumped across the chariot. ‘That pig is an extra one, Medb’, said everyone. ‘It won’t be this one’, said Medb, seizing the pig’s shank so that its skin split on its forehead and it left the skin in her hand along with the shank and it is not known where they went from that time onwards”; while in ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’ (Stokes 1905), we see brief reference to a poet’s robe being conferred by Medb and Ailill. And again, in ‘The Driving of the Cattle of Flidais’ (Leahy, 1906), when Fergus comes to Ailill with a problem regarding another man’s wife (Flidais) who loves him, Ailill says “we will consider this in counsel with Maev”, who then proposes how they should proceed.
What of Medb’s many lovers? It is soon told.
‘The Battle of the Boyne’ (O’Neill, 1905) is also called ‘Medb’s Men’, and tells a long tale of the husbands of Medb, but her husbands end with Ailill, who “assumed the kingship of Connacht thereafter, with the consent of Meadb”. In “The Melodies of Buchet’s House” (Dillon, 1948) there is reference to “Medb of the Red Side, the wife of Art, who took the Kingship (of Kells, the ‘Royal Seat’) after Art’s death, and did not suffer Cormac”. In the ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’ (O’Rahilly, 1970), we see her demands of a husband are quite high, and why: “… a husband without meanness, without jealousy, without fear. If my husband should be mean, it would not be fitting for us to be together, for I am generous in largesse and the bestowal of gifts… If my husband were timorous, neither would it be fitting for us to be together, for single-handed I am victorious in battles and contests and combats… If the man with whom I should be were jealous, neither would it be fitting, for I was never without a man in the shadow of another”. In ‘The Death of Fergus Mac Róich’ (Meyer 1906), she seems to be having a rather agitative sexual encounter: “As Fergus entered the lake, all there was of gravel and of stones at the bottom of the lake came to the surface. Then Medb went till she was on the breast of Fergus, with her legs entwined around him, and then he swam around the lake. And jealousy seized Ailill. Then Medb went up”.
So, what of Medb’s womanhood? It is soon told.
Her menstrual cycle is noted: “Then her issue of blood came upon Medb and she said: ‘Fergus, cover the retreat of the men of Ireland that I may pass my water’. ‘By my conscience’ said Fergus, ‘It is ill-timed and it is not right to do so’. ‘Yet I cannot but do so’ said Medb, ‘for I shall not live unless I do’… Medb passed her water and it made three great trenches in each of which a household can fit”. And at the end of it all, even Fergus seems to turn against her: “‘This day was indeed a fitting one for those who were led by a women’ said Fergus. [untranslated 7 words] said Medb to Fergus… ‘As when a mare goes before her band of foals into unknown territory, with none to lead or counsel them, so this host has perished today’”.
And what of Medb’s death? It is soon told.
In ‘Aided Meidbe: The Violent Death of Medb’ (Hull, 1938), “They say indeed that Medb killed her (sister, Clothrú) and that through her side the swords brought forth Furbaide… Medb assumed the kingship of Connaught and took Ailill into sovereignty with her… Medb happened to be bathing herself early in the morning in the well… "Who is that?" Furbaide asked. "The sister of your mother," all answered. He was eating a piece of cheese. He did not then tarry to seek a stone. He put the piece [of cheese] in the sling. When Medb's forehead was towards them, he let fly the piece [of cheese] and it struck her on the crown of the head so that he killed her by the one cast in vengeance of his mother. That is the death of Medb”.
Have we seen the Medb character here as a warrior, a sovereignty figure representative of the land, a guardian, an initiator, or a sexual and arrogant Queen - as per the surviving vernacular view? Arguments could be made for Medb representing any of those functions, using the examples above, but this is not the full picture. Further research is certainly needed to explore whether the character of Medb was written throughout Gaelic culture as an educational tool, or to preserve the details of older beliefs and mythology. Or, perhaps Queen Medb fulfilled both functions?
Meyer, K. (1906), The Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
Leahy, A.H. (1906), Heroic Romances of Ireland, Vol. II. London: David Nutt.
Dillon, M. (1948), Early Irish Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kinsella, T. (1970), The Táin. New York: Oxford University Press.
O'Rahilly, C. (1970), Táin Bó Cualnge from the Book of Leinster. Dublin.
Gantz, J. (1981) Early Irish Sagas. London: Penguin Books.
Meyer, K. (1889) ‘Echtra Nerai (The Adventures of Nera)’. Revue Celtique, 10: 212-228.
Stokes, W. (1892) ‘The Battle of Mag Mucrime’. Revue Celtique,13: 426-74.
Stokes, W. (1905) ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’. Revue Celtique, 26: 4-64.
O’Neill, J. (1905) ‘Cath Boinde’, Eriu, 2: 173-185 (or, Medb’s Men).
Best, R.I. (1916) ‘The Battle of Airtech’, Ériu, 8: 170-190.
Dobbs, M. (1930), ‘The Ban-shenchus’, Revue Celtique, 47: 283-339.
Hull, V. (1938), ‘Aided Meidbe: The Violent Death of Medb’, Speculum, vol. 13 Issue 1: 52-61.