The Story of Queen Medb of Ireland
Queen Medb is one of the most striking figures in Irish legend for her ruthlessness, independence, and the many fights waged for her.
Medb, sometimes Anglicized as Maeve, was a famous queen in the legends of Ireland. Ruling over Connacht, she shared power equally with a succession of kings by her side.
Medb demanded that she be equal to her husbands in every way and that none ever express jealousy when she took other lovers. None of her four husbands were ever able to fulfill these obligations, however, and most died as a result.
The worst of Medb’s marriages was her first, to Conchobar of Ulster. The lifelong hatred between the two lead to the death of Medb’s sister and one of her husbands, her own death at the hand of one of his sons, and the strange story of a war fought over a single bull.
Medb was a ruthless queen and an even more demanding wife, but is there more to the story of her many marriages and tight hold on power?
Medb’s Many Marriages
Medb was the daughter of Eochaid Feidlich, the High King of Ireland. When Conchobar mac Nessa, the King of Ulster, killed Eochaid’s father battle, he and Medb were married.
The marriage did not last, however, and Medb developed an abiding hatred for her first husband. When Conchobar later married one of her sisters, Medb killed his new wife herself.
The Queen of Ulster had been pregnant at the time of her death, however. Her son, Furbaide, was delivered via posthumous cesarean section and never forgave his aunt for his mother’s death.
Eochaid, however, was pleased with Medb and gave her the newly-conquered land of Connacht to rule. She married the recently deposed king, but her husband died in single combat with Conchobar after the King of Ulster assaulted her.
Before she married her third husband, Medb made him swear to never be jealous if she took other lovers. He broke this vow, however, when he discovered that she was having an affair with her bodyguard, Ailill.
He, too, lost in single combat and Medb married for a fourth time. Her marriage to Ailill would be her last.
Medb asked a druid which of her children would kill Conchobar and was told that her son Maine would do so. None of her sons was named Maine, so Medb renamed all seven of them so she could be sure the prophecy would come true.
She was disappointed, however, when one of her sons killed another man named Conchobar instead of her ex-husband.
One of the most famous stories of Queen Medb is that of the war she started over a single bull.
Medb insisted that she and her husband be equals in every way, so when she discovered that he had one more bull in his herd than she did in hers she immediately set out to find another. Unfortunately, the only animal of equal quality belonged to one of Conchobar’s vassals.
Medb sent a messenger who nearly reached an agreement to purchase the bull, but drunkenly insulted Conchobar’s vassal just before the deal was finalized. The sale fell through and Medb prepared for war against her ex-husband’s men.
Medb raised an army of men from throughout Ireland to fight for her. One of her most famous captains was Fergus Mac Roiche, who was also one of her favorite lovers.
The men of Ulster, however, had been struck with a curse by the goddess Macha. All but one was too sick to take the field.
The lone defendant of Ulster was the hero Cú Chulainn, who was only a teenager at the time. The famous Cattle Raid of Cooley began with an entire army facing off against a single young man.
Medb and Ailill offered their daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who struck down Ulster’s lone combatant, but to their surprise, Cú Chulainn defeated every man who went against him.
Medb was able to steal the bull, but Cú Chulainn remained undefeated. The only man he spared in single combat was his foster father, Fergus, on the condition that Fergus yield the next time they faced one another in battle.
After several days, the armies of Ulster finally roused. Cú Chulainn sat out the battle to tend to his wounds, but rejoined to face Fergus again.
With their armies now fully engaged, Cú Chulainn made Fergus stay true to his vow to yield the next time they fought one another. Medb’s armies retreated when Fergus stood down, and the queen lost the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
Medb and Ailill remained married into old age, even after his jealousy led him to have Fergus mac Roiche killed. After many years Medb caught him having an affair of his own and had him killed to avenge Fergus’s murder.
Medb lived for several more years until one of her earliest actions came back to haunt her.
Furbaide, the son of Conchobar and Medb’s murdered sisters, came across the aging queen as she bathed in a pool. Using his sling, he shot her with the only ammunition he had on hand, a piece of hard cheese.
According to legend, Medb is buried beneath a cairn on Knocknarea in County Sligo. She was buried upright, facing her enemies in Ulster.
My Modern Interpretation
Much of the story of Queen Medb of Connacht was recorded by Christian monks, so scholars have to be cautious of mistakes and attempts to Christianize the stories.
For example, the monks who recorded the Ulster Cycle claimed that the stories were set at the same time as Christ’s life, but Connacht was named for a king who supposedly lived several centuries later.
In an even more obvious change to the story, they claimed that Conchobar died of shock upon hearing about the death of Christ in Jerusalem.
To properly interpret the stories, it is necessary to look much further into the past and into Irish culture than the Christian monks of the medieval era were able or willing to do.
In doing this, modern scholars have tended to interpret Queen Medb as a version of a sovereignty goddess.
In this ancient tradition, a king would enter into a sacred marriage upon taking the throne. As part of his coronation, be would marry a woman who represented a goddess.
These marriages were meant to symbolize the blessing the goddess gave to the king and his commitment to her. Because they were symbolic, they were short-lived and non-binding.
If Medb represents this tradition, it would explain her many husbands and her unusual, for the time, demands upon them.
Medb made her husbands promise to be without fear, meanness, or jealousy. The last demand was in relation to her many lovers, while the other requests seem like standard traits one would desire in both a king and a husband.
On a larger scale, however, this could represent the vows a king would make to the goddess upon taking power.
She also demanded an equal share of power and was given the rule of Connacht when she was unmarried. While queens rarely held such power, if Medb represented a goddess she would be able to demand an equal role to a mortal man.
Medb’s name is also a cognate of the word mead, a drink often used in rituals and important feasts in ancient Germanic and Celtic cultures. It is likely that the symbolic marriage of the sovereignty goddess would have included drinking mead as part of the ritual.
These ideas are reinforced by the fact that the character of Medb Lethderg serves the same role at Tara, the home of Ireland’s High Kings, and married nine of those rulers. Medb may have been a title for the sovereignty goddess rather than the name of a single woman.
If Medb was a sovereignty goddess, her many marriages would be the short-living rules of a succession of kings. Her great enmity for Conchobar could represent a king who was deposed and perhaps betrayed his people.
According to the legends of the Ulster Cycle, Medb was the daughter of one of Ireland’s high kings. Her first marriage, to King Conchobar of Ulster, ended with the two entering into a life-long feud.
Medb took control of the kingdom of Connacht and married two more kings, each of whom died in single combat. Her fourth marriage to a guard named Ailill lasted much longer.
One of Medb’s most famous stories is that of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The unusual war began because Medb, who insisted on complete equality with her husband, owned one less bull than Ailill.
The only suitable replacement belonged to one of Conchobar’s vassals, so Medb raised an army to take the animal. When the men of Ulster were made ill by a curse, however, the teenaged hero Cú Chulainn was the only defender against Medb’s army.
Through heroic fighting and a series of unusual events, Cú Chulainn held out against the allied forces of Medb and even forced their captain to stand down. Medb lost the bull that she had fought so fiercely for.
Eventually, Medb was killed by her own nephew, also Conchobar’s son, in retaliation for the murder of his mother.
Many scholars believe that Medb represents the ancient tradition of the sovereignty goddess, in which a ritualized sacred marriage to a goddess was part of a king’s coronation. Rather than being the story of a single ruthless queen, Medb represents the power of a goddess in a king’s rule.