Q is for Queen Medb

Queen Medb (otherwise known as Maeve, or the Queen of the Faeries), was Queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology (the Red Branch). Although her husband was Ailill mac Mata, she actually was said to have several husbands prior to him, who were also kings of Connacht. She ruled from Cruachan (modern-day Rathcroghan in County Roscommon) and was the sworn enemy of one of her former husbands Conchobar mac Nessa, the King of Ulster.

However, Medb is probably best known as the woman who began the great battle Tain Bo Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley). One needs to remember that in Celtic times a woman could own property (in fact women were highly regarded in Celtic society, owners of property and business), and the main sign of wealth in those times was cattle – the more cattle one had the wealthier you were. There was a great deal of equality amongst men and women in those days but when Medb found out her husband had one powerful stud bull more than her she was incensed. So she asked Daire mac Fiachna for the loan of his extremely fertile bull the Donn Cuailnge (the Brown Bull of Cooley), in return for money, land and sexual favours. At first Daire agreed but then changed his mind and with that Medb prepared for battle. So started the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Queen Medb was probably originally a ‘sovereignty goddess’, who a king would ritually marry as part of his inauguration to symbolise his weddedness to the land. Her name supposedly means ‘she who intoxicates’ as it is derived from the English word for ‘mead’, a highly intoxicating drink made from heather and honey, and it is probable that the sacred marriage ceremony of the king and the goddess would involve the sharing of this drink.

So where does her connection with the faeries come in? Well, if we see Medb as symbolic of a Goddess attached to the land, and take into account her warrior-like status, her manipulation of people with land, sexuality and wealth we can see that she was indeed a force to be reckoned with – a woman who had rather otherworldly qualities. Moreover, she had a sacred grove known as Bile Meibe and two of her ‘guides’ are the squirrel and the raven who perched on her shoulders. In another legend she mates with Fergus mac Roich, Son of Great Horse, who has a huge sexual appetite and he satisfies her.

A violent life and a violent end – Medb had rather a sorry end as she was murdered in revenge by her own nephew with a slingshot of hard cheese while she was bathing in a lake. According to legend she is buried in a 40 feet high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea in County Sligo, where she is buried upright facing her enemies in Ulster. Although another potential burial site is at her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon.

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