The character of Queen Maeve has come to popularity in Amazon’s TV show ‘The Boys’ as a badass superhero with some… issues, not the least of which appears to be the toxic masculinity and sexism she finds herself constantly surrounded by.
For once, pop culture isn’t completely off par when dealing with Irish Mythology, because the real Queen Maeve – Medb of Cruachán, Queen of Connacht – was a badass sovereign, possibly even a Goddess, who had to deal with her own fair share of toxic masculinity and sexism back in the day.
And actually, still does, to this day.
In the original Irish legends, Medb (pronounced May-v; also spelled Maedhbh, Méabh, Maedbh, and anglicised as Maeve) came from Tara originally, where her father Eochaid Feidlech was King.
They’ll tell you she is most connected to Sligo, where the ancient site of Cnoc na Riabh or Knocknaree has been called Medb’s Cairn, Medb’s Tomb, Medb’s Nipple or Medb’s Grave… but her home (and most likely burial site) is actually in County Roscommon, at Cruachán or Rathcroghan.
Behold the grave of Medb, the fair-haired wolf-queen, assured of port: there was a day when horses would not be loosed against the daughter of Eochaid Feidlech.
Such was the glory of Medb, and such the excellence of her form, that two-thirds of his valour was quelled in every man on beholding her.
Gone is Medb, gone is her army; tall is her gravestone, far away her grave: tell ye the thing that comes thereof: speak truth, and behold!The Metrical Dindshenchas: poem/ story 128
She had a succession of husbands in the ancient stories, giving rise to the belief that she was (or represented) a Sovereignty Goddess – a supernatural woman personifying the whole island of Ireland, or a territory such as a province, ie. Connacht.
A Sovereign Goddess (or a Priestess representing the Goddess) could confer sovereignty upon a potential king by marrying or having sex with him, and this is often symbolised or sealed in the tales with her offering him a chalice or cup, which may contain an alcoholic drink.
Queen Medb’s position as a Sovereign Goddess is further supported by the root of her name, which is the same place we get the modern word for an alcoholic honey drink, Mead.
“a strong liquor made from fermented honey and water,” a favorite beverage of England in the Middle Ages, Middle English mede, from Old English medu, from Proto-Germanic *meduz (source also of Old Norse mjöðr, Danish mjød, Old Frisian and Middle Dutch mede, Old High German metu, German Met “mead”), from PIE root *medhu- “honey, sweet drink” (source also of Sanskrit madhu “sweet, sweet drink, wine, honey,” Greek methy “wine,” Old Church Slavonic medu, Lithuanian medus “honey,” Old Irish mid, Welsh medd, Breton mez “mead”). Synonymous but unrelated early Middle English meþeglin yielded Chaucer’s meeth.
Getting to those hints of sexism now, many would (and have) translated her name as ‘the Drunken One’, but Professor John Waddell of the National University of Ireland (NUI, Galway) seems to prefer the more open minded translation of ‘She Who Intoxicates’, and relates it to the sovereignty goddess connections as mentioned above… offering the sacred cup to a King.
You can get her full back story on our Queen Maeve Cheat Sheet Here, but it has to be noted that almost every time you see a mention of the ancient Medb in Irish manuscripts, some dude is putting her in a position where she has to step up hard or lose her power.
At the start of the Táin Bó Cuailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley, arguably her most important story – get the beginner’s guide here), we see her innocently lying in her own bed with her husband at the time, Ailill. Out of nowhere, he starts going on about how the lap of luxury they were lying in there was all down to him.
Spoiler: it was NOT all down to him.
Queen Medb is then in a position of having to prove her worth or lose her power, according to the legal system of the time.
And when they figure out that their wealth is even – except for a bull (because even the magical bulls were sexist and didn’t want to be ‘led by a woman’, so had trotted over to her husband’s herds) – Medb ends up having to eventually go raiding in Ulster for a bull to match Ailill’s… all of which which only came about due to the drunken bragging of a messenger guy she’d sent over to make a fair deal first off.
Time and again she has to put herself in front of the toxic masculinity bullshit (yeah, I went there) just to keep the status quo, getting betrayed (by Fergus) and disrespected (by Cú Chulainn, among many others), at every turn.
With very few exceptions, every time we see or hear anyone talking about Maeve (or Medb) even now, she is being painted as a jealous, spiteful, trouble making bitch.
It’s not the first or the last time (unfortunately) that a strong female figure got shit just for existing, of course, but the reality of this Goddess, Warrior Queen, or Iron Age Priestess, is that she doesn’t go looking for trouble.
She’s no damsel in distress, don’t get me wrong, and when they do bring trouble to her she’s pretty ruthless in her inclinations of how to sort it out (see for example the Galian men (‘of Leinster’) who she perceives as a threat when they muster with the rest of the men of Ireland to march for the raid).
For anyone who is writing about the Irish Queen Medb (who, by the way, is VERY different and unrelated to the English ‘Fairy Queen’ Mab… don’t mix them up!), I would leave you – I hope – with the urge to look at her stories with fresh eyes, instead of the same old jaded tropes.
It’s past time ‘Queen Maeve’ got her dues… speak truth, and behold!
Lora O’Brien’s new book – Queen Medb: History, Tradition, and Modern Pagan Practice – is due out with Eel & Otter Press in June 2020.
Make sure you’re on the mailing list below for the first news on the release…
Faolín sighed and shifted her weight, earning herself kicks from her sisters, still sleeping, for her trouble. How could they sleep on this day?
But this was their way, to sleep the day and emerge in darkness, through darkness, to the world beyond. On this night of nights. Full of restless energy, Faolín rose as quietly as she could, though not quietly enough to spare her another sleepy kick from the eldest of the three. She left the chamber and sought her father.
Airiteach was tight in talks with his Draoí so she waited, her mind shifting from one topic to the next, fleet darts of thought that would not settle or sink in. At last he was finished, and she slipped in to wait by his great seat, until he turned and noticed her presence. His great brow broke clear of its darkened demeanour when his golden eyes rested on his youngest daughter, his heart’s joy.
Just as was their way, they spoke of the night’s work ahead, for though Faolín was youngest of the daughters of Airiteach, she was the cleverest and most conscientious. She had earned her father’s respect, and his trust too, on many occasions when their work in the Other World may have gone very differently, had it not been for Faolín’s quick wit and cunning.
Right then though, her head was not concerned with the ancient pact, the agreement that kept the world borders clear. For although her family had been charged with collecting the pact tribute for as long as the Elders could remember, it was what came after that inspired her eyes to light.
The Great Revel. Back in her own world, senses washed clean of the filth of her necessary journey, she got to stay here in her kingdom, for another whole year, and best of all… the music! The lights, the dancers, and the wondrous magic of music stirred her like nought else could.
Last night, when she and her sisters had ventured to the Other World for their first foray, she had heard an unusual thing, for that place. The harper Cas Corach had called the sisters and entranced them with his playing, for a short time. Their senses were too fine tuned for his sometimes fumbling fingers, he lacked the finesses of her own folk… but for one such as he, it was extraordinarily lyrical. Perhaps they would meet again this night, for she would enjoy to experience more of his talent.
Eventually, her sisters slouched from sleep, still grumpy and sniping at each other, but gradually that wore off and the excitement of the Wild Hunt grew upon them. They relished it more than she, truth be told, though there was a certain something to be said for the thrill of the chase, the power of thumping loam pounded by paws and claws.
When the time came, Airiteach released his daughters, and their pelts picked up a coating of clay mud as they sleeked through darkness of cave and stone, through to the world of men.
Emerging, her middle sister first picked up the smell of prey beasts. Not far from the entrance and sitting downwind, their stupid bleating a clarion call through the gloam of Samhain night. The three followed the trail, moving as one, until cresting a rise they came again upon the human harper Cas Corach, sitting in the lee of an ancient mound of men. When they appeared to him, he began to play, and called to them to come, to listen.
With soft words he spoke, timing speech to the enchanting notes he plucked on strings of finest metal wire. He sang the wolf sisters of the beauty that only human ears could hear, and convinced them to change form, all the better to hear him with. Faolín, the keenest, saw no harm, but when all three shifted, sat relaxed and trusting, the warrior Caílte stepped forth with Samhain spear and ran the sisters through from breast to breast, then took their heads before the last breath died, with one swing and sweep of sword.
And so the ancient pact was broken by the ignorance of men, with much more to the record than has made the history books… but sure, they’re all stories for another day.
Based on the Story of the She-Wolves of Cruachán – very general info (it’s wiki be careful!) here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cas_Corach
Translated Version here: http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Post/846115&authorid=15504
(Those are affiliate links, so we’ll get a few cents per copy if you click through and buy, at no extra cost to you… Thanks!)
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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Tara in the Middle (Meath), Navan Fort in Ulster (North), Dún Ailinne in Leinster (East), Cashel in Munster (South), and Rathcroghan in Connacht (West), were major seats of the Kings and Queens in Iron Age Ireland, while Uisneach is the traditional ‘Navel of Ireland’, where all provinces met.
Activity at these sites stretches from deep roots in the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age, to the height of power during the Iron Age, and even on into Medieval Christian times. Modern spiritual seekers still gather at the sites which are accessible today.
Their presence in the landscape was commanding, sited at strategic and elevated positions, and each grew organically through many phases of use, but always with a similarity of form – as is clear from the Circles and Avenues image – and a distinct spiritual and ritual focus.
What ancient Irish Kings and Queens were inaugurated and lived, were born or buried at these Royal Sites?