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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Ancient Celtic Women: Fierce and Free? Fact or Fiction?


Is the image of a fierce and independent ancient Celtic woman fact or romantic myth?
Is the image of a fierce and independent ancient Celtic woman fact or romantic myth?

Were ancient Celtic women as fierce and independent as they are sometimes depicted in fiction? Did they really have more rights and freedom than their European contemporaries? It’s not easy to give a definitive answer to those questions. The historical information about them is sparse and most of it comes from Greek and Roman sources who viewed Celtic women as strange—and frightening—creatures. But even from those sources a couple of things are clear. Celtic women could be fierce in battle and at least some were powerful, respected leaders. And these were things Greek and Roman men were decidedly not used to.

  

But there are ways to get indications at least of the ancient Celtic view of women. These sources include Celtic mythology and ancient Irish law. Today’s post takes a look at what the classical sources say about Celtic women but also what can be inferred from Celtic sources. Some of it may surprise you. Let’s go.


The Fearsome Creatures

    

Celtic girls could and did receive an education, and not just in domestic arts. I’ll go into more detail about that below. The thing that might surprise some readers is that girls could choose to go to warrior school. and they were educated in warfare right alongside the boys. In fact, at least two Celtic women—Scathach and Aife—are reputed to have owned warrior training schools. This information comes from Irish legend, but a legend, by definition, has a basis in fact.

 

The bottom line is that the Celtic audience among whom the legend spread accepted (maybe even liked) the idea of women training men in warfare. That’s an attitude that some people in today’s most liberal societies might find a bit challenging.

    

Stand with Ukraine.
Stand with Ukraine.

But whether or not Scathach and Aife ran schools or not, the fact—as attested by several Roman sources—is that Celtic women fought alongside Celtic men. And they weren’t timid. A report of a Roman invasion of the area that is now Anglesey, Wales, tells how Celtic women terrified the Roman soldiers by essentially going savage: making faces at the Romans, dancing with wild abandon, and yelling.

    

Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, described Celtic women as ferocious. He writes they are “stronger than [Celtic men] by far and with flashing eyes…she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult." Admittedly, he may have exaggerated, but it’s obvious Celtic women made an impression on him!

    

In other reports, unnamed Roman soldiers express admiration for the courage and strength of Celtic women, saying these women can go toe-to-toe with any Roman warrior. Let’s be clear, though. The soldiers respected the fierceness of the Celtic women as fighters, but they didn’t want their women catching this fever.


Mythology: Goddesses and Queen Maeve

    

The Celtic view of women can best be seen, perhaps, in the mythology of the Celts. Yes, the Romans had Minerva (Artemis in Greek mythology) who was usually depicted wearing armor and was known for her courage and wisdom. But many of their goddesses, such as Venus (Aphrodite), wouldn’t stand a chance against Celtic goddesses.

    

Among the most powerful and renowned are the Cailleach, the Morrigan, and Brigid. I’ve written about all three at length in individual posts, so here’s the short version.

    

The Cailleach (aka Beira in Scotland) is the Celtic goddess of winter. A creator goddess, she is said to have formed the Scottish mountains, to be the mother of all Celtic gods and goddesses, and the ancestor of all Irish men (not sure why she’s not the ancestor of Irish women as well). Usually, she is depicted as a fragile old hag but don’t be fooled! She’s a shapeshifter. And this fragile-looking elderly woman carries a magical hammer with which she calls up and controls storms. She also can leap across mountains and ride storm waves. And, each year, she brings on winter. This is a woman who knows how to be in charge!

   

When Irish mythic hero Cu Chulainn met the Morrigan, a powerful Celtic goddess, he insulted her. He soon regretted it.
When Irish mythic hero Cu Chulainn met the Morrigan, a powerful Celtic goddess, he insulted her. He soon regretted it.

The Morrigan, the Irish triple goddess of war, destiny, and rebirth is another shapeshifter. One of her favorite ways to appear is as a crow flying above battlefields, helping those warriors she likes and hurting those she doesn’t. Famed Irish mythic hero, Cu Chulainn, got on the Morrigan’s bad side on the way to a battle. He didn’t survive. And as he sat propped up against a stone, slowly dying, she came in the form of a crow and sat on his head.

    

She is thought to be the inspiration for Morgan le Faye of Arthurian legend fame.

    

Brigid, the young and beautiful goddess of fire, summer, and a long list of other things seems, at first glance, to be a kinder and gentler goddess. But each year, Brigid battles with and overthrows the Cailleach to rule the light half of the Celtic year. So, she’s no snowflake.

    

Queen Maeve was not a goddess. She was mortal—but she was mighty! Possibly based on a historic woman, Maeve is best known from Irish mythology, especially from the Táin Bó Cuilnge (aka The Battle Raid of Cooely).

    

Maeve is queen in her own right of Connacht, one of the four ancient provinces of Ireland. She has her own army which she leads in battle. Over time, she goes through six husbands. During the Battle Raid of Cooley, she is married to Ailill mac Mata. One night, they tease back and forth about who has the most and best possessions. It turns out they’re about equal—except for a prized white bull that Ailill has acquired.

    

In ancient Celtic society, the spouse who had the most value in possessions was the head of the house, even if that spouse was a woman. Maeve, who was queen above Ailill, can’t tolerate Ailill having the edge over her, so she has to get something more valuable than his bull.

   

Queen Maeve triumphantly shows off her new (stolen) bull.
Queen Maeve triumphantly shows off her new (stolen) bull.

In the province of Ulster, there is a brown bull that is gaining fame as a stud. So, Maeve sends her warriors to steal—excuse me—acquire it. This sparks a war between the two provinces with Ulster championed by Cu Chulainn (yes, the same one who ends up with the Morrigan sitting on his head). He gives Maeve and her army a pretty rough time of it but, ultimately, she gets the brown bull. Her bull fights her husband’s bull and kills it, but eventually dies of the wounds sustained in that battle. So, Maeve and Ailill end up equal in terms of possessions.

    

But when she finds him in bed with another woman, she kills him.


Mythology and legends reveal the values of a society, and Celtic myth and legend make clear that the Celts were good with a woman being powerful, independent, and someone you’ll regret messing with.  


Education: Warriors, Brehons, and Druids

    

As mentioned above, Celts girls could receive an education. This is different from what women experienced in Greek and Roman societies. In both of those ancient cultures, the education of women was discouraged. Educating women was considered both a waste of time and a potentially dangerous thing to do. The ancient Celts thought differently.

    

In addition to becoming warriors, women could be ambassadors, rulers in their own right, healers, judges, and—to the surprise of many—druids.

    

Ancient Celtic women could reach the highest level of society by becoming druids.
Ancient Celtic women could reach the highest level of society by becoming druids.

Druids were the most highly educated and powerful members of Celtic society. Not just religious leaders, they were philosophers, poets, seers, and teachers. To become a druid, a Celt had to go through a rigorous nineteen-year education that included the study of astronomy, astrology, and magic as well as philosophy and theology. And ancient Celtic women had the opportunity to achieve this education—and standing in society—equally with their male counterparts.


Ancient Irish Law and the Rights of Women

    

To finish up this discussion of Celtic women, just a brief mention of a few of their rights. A big one was the right to divorce her husband. This is a right that most women in the Western world did not have up until partway into the 20th century. And, in ancient Irish law, if a married couple ended their marriage, the woman had a right to the full value of the property she had brought with her to the marriage.

    

I’ll finish with a couple of my favorites from Brehon law (ancient Irish law). A) A man must visit his wife in her bed. If he doesn’t, he’ll be fined. B) A man must obtain for his pregnant wife whatever she craves or he will be fined. Not the most earth-shattering of women’s rights, but they demonstrate that a Celtic woman’s desires counted.


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Slán go fóill


     All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.



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