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…