This post is about the monument known as Medb’s Heap, Medb’s Cairn, Medb’s Tomb, Medb’s Nipple or Medb’s Grave (and sometimes the name Medb is anglicized as Maeve).
In Irish it’s called Miosgán Medb, from the old Irish word mescán – mass, lump, heap.
Now, you’ll likely have heard tell of the one in County Sligo, the famous “Maeve’s Grave” that sits on top of the 327 metre (1,073 ft) hill called Knocknarea, just to the West of Sligo town.
That may be what you’re looking for… but did you know there are 4 other sites that bear the name “Medb’s Heap’ too?
Stay with me now here, for a few minutes, and let me show you some of what I’ve found while researching my new book: ‘The Irish Queen Medb: History, Tradition, and Modern Pagan Practice’.
So, I was sorting through the Cruachán (Rathcroghan) sites associated with Medb specifically (because that’s where she lived and ruled from, never mind that oul Sligo connection, for now).
There are two large stones named for her that lie directly between the Rathcroghan Main Mound, and Ráth Beag, a high status burial mound directly across from it. They are called Miosgán Medb (again, Medb’s Heap) and Millín Medb (Medb’s Knoll, related to the modern Irish meall – knoll, mound, or a lump of butter).
As expected, so far.
However, when I looked the name up on Logainm.ie (the Irish placenames database), I got a surprise.
These references are for Cairn monuments in the areas of Raymunterdoney, Meentaghconlan, and Clonmany. And if you look these places up on the map, you’ll there’s none of them very far from that upper NorthWest coastline.
I looked them up on the map already for you. Here…
The placement of these sites struck me as VERY interesting because they form a boundary against an area that is traditionally a direction which Otherworldly forces might have come from: The NorthWest Sea, and specifically Tory Island, which has links to the Fomorians.
This ancient enemy is NOT from the same time period as Queen Medb, story wise. They are from the Mythological Cycle, while her stories are set in the Ulster Cycle.
Was there a different Medb, a local ancestor or Goddess whose name survived there?
Was our Queen Medb being evoked against general Otherworld/ocean concerns, by the people of a community who may have carried some ancestral memory of foes from that direction, and a powerful guardian who could protect against them?
Unfortunately, we may never know for sure… but I will be exploring this (and more!) further as I continue to write this book.
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Here we’ll look at the basics on Maedbh, the ‘Celtic’ warrior queen of Connacht (yes, that’s the correct spelling – ‘Connaught’ is the later anglicised version) – her home, family life, relationships, ruling from Rathcroghan, burial, and the cultural inspiration she has become.
It depends on which version of Gaeilge, the Irish language, you are using.
Medb (the Old Irish spelling) – in Middle Irish: Meḋḃ, Meaḋḃ; in early modern Irish: Meadhbh; in reformed modern Irish Méabh, Maedbh, Medbh; sometimes anglicised Maeve, Maev, Meave or Maive (all modern versions are pronounced May-v).
Most notably, the warrior priestess queen of Connacht, the western province of Ireland.
It is said that her father gifted her with Connacht, and no king could rule here unless they were married to Queen Maedbh. She had many husbands, and ruled for many years.
Maeve appears in much of the literature of the Ulster saga tales, and our most famous epic literary tale, the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) features her strongly as the protagonist. Or is that the antagonist…?
Historically, she would have lived sometime around the years 0 – 100AD, if she existed as a real flesh and blood queen. And that is the question – was she real?
A queen, or a Goddess of the land? A priestess of a sovereignty Goddess, who rose to power? An archetypal figure, representing… what? These are some of the riddles of Queen Maedbh.
Meadb of Cruachan, daughter of Eochaid Feidleach, another of Conchobar’s wives, mother of Amalgad, Conchobar’s son, so that Conchobar was Meadb’s first husband, and Meadb forsook Conchobar through pride of mind, and went to Tara, where was the High-King of Ireland.
The reason that the High-King of Ireland gave these daughters to Conchobar was that it was by Eochaid Feidleach that Fachtna Fathach had fallen in the battle of Lettir-ruad in the Corann, so that it was as his eric these were given to him, together with the forcible seizure of the kingship of Ulster, over Clan Rudraidhe: and the first cause of the stirring up of the Cattle-raid of Cuailnge was the desertion of Conchobar by Meadb against his will.
Eochaid Feidleach, Father, High King of Ireland at Tara
Crochen Crobh-Derg, Mother, Handmaid to Etain
Well, they weren’t, not originally, but Maedbh and Ailill did end up with seven sons, all called Maine.
Back when they all had other names, Maedbh asked a druid which of her sons would kill Conchobar (king of Ulster), and he replied, “Maine”. A little bit concerned that she didn’t have a son called Maine, she decided to rename all her sons as follows:
The prophecy was fulfilled when Maine Andoe went on to kill Conchobar, son of Arthur, son of Bruide — not Conchobar, son of Fachtna Fathach, as Maedbh had assumed the druid meant.
Maedbh and Ailill also had a daughter, Findabair. She got to keep her own name, but was offered around as a prize during the Táin – Maedbh was bribing Connacht warriors with marriage to the fine Findabair if they’d go against the Ulster warrior CúChulainn in single combat.
Cruachú Crobh-Dearg (the spelling varies, as ever in our wonderful collection of tales) is remembered as a handmaiden of Etain, appearing in the love story of Etain & Midir.
She may have an older, sovereignty or tribal Goddess function, which is being remembered and carried through the later legends.
Listen, ye warriors about Cruachu!
with its barrow for every noble couple:
O host whence springs lasting fame of laws!
O royal line of the men of Connacht!
O host of the true, long-remembered exploits,
with number of pleasant companies and of brave kings!
O people, quickest in havoc
to whom Erin has pledged various produce!
Manly in battle-rout multitudinous
is the seed of noble Brian, with their strong fleets:
in express submission to them have been sent
hostages from all Europe to Cruachu.
If we stay to recount its fame for every power,
we shall not be able to pour out the lore of noble science
for Cruachu, holy without austerity,
whose foemen are not few.
Known to me by smooth-spoken eulogy
is the designation of powerful Cruachu:
not slight the din, the uproar,
whence it got its name and fame for bright achievement.
Eochaid Airem — high career!
when the fierce, generous man was at Fremu,
the man who cherished feats of skill,
holding a meeting for horse-fights,
There came to them noble Midir
(he was no favourite with the gentle prince)
to carry off Etain in dreadful wise,
whence came lamentation of many tribes.
Ill-favoured was the man who bore off
Etain and hardy Crochen
the queen and her handmaid,
who was right lowly, yet ever-famous.
Westward Midir bore the fair captives
after boldly seizing them as booty,
to Sid Sinche of the ancient hosts,
because it was noble Midir’s hereditary possession.
Till three days were out he stayed
in the radiant noisy Sid:
after fruitful enterprise it is custom
to boast at board and banquet.
Then said strong Crochen
What fine house is this where we have halted?
O Midir of the splendid feats,
is this thy spacious dwelling?”
The answer of the famous man of arts
to Crochen blood-red of hue:
‘ Nearer to the sun, to its warmth,
is my bright and fruitful home.”
Said Cruachu the lovely,
in presence of the spacious tribes,
“O Midir, yet unconquered,
shall my name be on this Sid?”
He gave the fine dwelling as reward for her journey
to Crochen, a fair recompense:
by Midir, report says, northward at his home,
by him her name was given to it as ye hear.
Hence men say Cruachu,
(it is not hidden from kindly tribes,)
since Midir brought (clear without falsehood)
his wife to Sinech of the Side.
As for Midir, he was no sluggard thereafter,
he went to Bri Leith maic Celtchair:
he carried with him the bright indolent lady, whitely radiant,
whom he bore off by force from Fremu.
Eochaid at the head of the numerous ranks
of his brave troop,
…was on the track of Midir, the great champion.
Said his druid to Eochaid,
“Thou shalt not be fortunate all thy life long:
lamentation for evil has come upon thee
for the loss of Etain of the golden tresses:”
“Come from the judgment-seat of Fotla
without warning, without royal proclamation;
bring with thee thereafter to Bri Leith
thy host — no cowards they — to sack it.”
“There shalt thou find thy wife
in noble beauty, beyond denial:
be not faint-hearted for long, O warrior;
bring her with thee by consent or by force.”
This is a beginning, with famous perils,
for the proud Wooing of Etain,
though it be a pithy tale to hear,
the tale when men came to Cruachu to listen to it.
It was Crochen of pure Cruachu
who was mother of Medb great of valour:
she was in Cruachu — it was an open reproach-
awhile with Etain’s spouse.
Ok, well, how long have you got? Yes, there were a serious amount of men who were getting it on with the Queen. She was a woman of large appetites.
There’s a whole Irish text devoted to this very topic called ‘Medb’s man-share’ (Ferchuitred Medba). The text was also called ‘Medb’s husband allowance’, ‘Medb’s men’, or Cath Boinde (the Battle of the Boyne), and you can find the translated version HERE. It originally comes from the Yellow Book of Lecan manuscript.
“Go there, Mac Roth,” orders Medb. “Ask Daire to lend me Donn Cuailnge for a year. At the end of the year he can have fifty yearling heifers in payment for the loan, and the Brown Bull of Cuailnge back. And you can offer him this too, Mac Roth, if the people of the country think badly of losing their fine jewel, the Donn Cuailnge: if Daire himself comes with the bull I’ll give him a portion of the fine Plain of Ai equal to his own lands, and a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and my own friendly thighs on top of that.”
For a really interesting examination of Maedbh as a Lover, Initiator, and Intoxicator, you won’t go far wrong with this book.
The author is a Jungian Psychoanalyst, looking at the Maedbh myth in the context of her modern practice, which is a fascinating angle that makes for exploration of Queen Maedbh in directions we’d never thought of.
Publisher: Nicolas-Hays; 1 edition (October 2001) – it’s still available on Amazon HERE. (affiliate link)
Awww, she’s Dead? How?!
In her later years, Maedbh often went to bathe in a pool on Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), an island on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery in County Roscommon. Furbaide, who’s mother she had killed (so it is said), sought revenge, and set about planning her demise. He was quite dedicated about it. But I suppose it’s the type of thing that you’d really want to get right.
First, he took a rope and measured the distance between the pool and the shore, and practiced with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Maedbh’s height, from that distance. The next time he saw Maedbh bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese.
Yes cheese. Queen Maedbh was killed by cheese. Her son, Maine Athramail (he who was originally Cairbre, and most ‘like his mother’, ascended to the throne of Connacht in her place.
But buried in Sligo, right?
Well, not exactly. Maybe. ‘Maedbh’s Cairn’ in Co. Sligo, is the best known burial site of Queen Maedbh, but it is one of three possible sites. According to some legends, she is indeed buried in the 40ft (12m) high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Rí in Irish, Hill of the King/Queen) in County Sligo. The story goes that she is buried upright, facing her enemies in Ulster.
In Bronze or Iron Age burials though, it would be common enough to hack an important dead person apart and bury bits of them along different boundaries, for protection and guardianship. Another story goes that she is buried in the hill of Knockma (Cnoc Medb in Irish, Hill of Maeve), near Belclare in Co. Galway, which is also where Fionnbharr, King of the Connacht Sidhe, holds court. The Fairy connection is an interesting one, and maybe related to her later associations with Mab, the English Fairy Queen? The boundary theory holds here too though, as the views from the top of Knockma are spectacular. Very convenient for a guardianship position, I’d say.
Her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon is the third, and most likely burial site, with a long low slab named Misgaun Medb being given as the probable location. In the ‘she got chopped up in bitty bits and buried’ theory, this is where her soul (most likely to be contained in her head, according to thinking of the time) would be.
Or possibly her heart. Whatever bit of her was deemed the most important part would have stayed at home, with other bits spreading out at lesser sites along the boundaries.