Maeve and Rhiannon: Never Underestimate a Celtic Woman
Tangling with a Celtic woman is unwise. Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, described them as “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." While this is hyperbole from a Roman who is writing (in his view) about a barbarian, Celtic women are known for their warrior spirits. They are strong and they know it.
Even in ancient times, Celtic women had more power and rights than women in other European societies did. They could be druids, bards, lawyers, even warriors, and could rule in their own right as queens. In addition, they could divorce their husbands at will, retaining any independently owned property. The woman also received back the value of the property and money she had brought to the marriage plus interest.
There are many remarkable women in Celtic history, myth, and literature. Two of my favorites are Maeve and Rhiannon. Here are their stories.
Queen Maeve of Connacht
Maeve was the daughter of Eochalb Feidlech, the King of Connacht, one of the four ancient provinces of Ireland. For diplomatic reasons, he gave her in marriage to the King of Ulster, Conchobar Mac Nessa. aka Conor. Eochalb had killed Conor’s father and he thought giving Mac Nessa his daughter, who was renowned for her beauty, might ease tensions. He was wrong. Maeve detested Conor and made no secret of it. She divorced him—which was her right—and returned to Connacht. Her father then sent one of his other daughters, Eithne, to Conor as a replacement.
Apparently Maeve’s actions didn’t upset her father too much since, after he became High King of Ireland, he gave the rule of Connacht to Maeve. She was a great success as queen. Her beauty, it is said, was intoxicating. More importantly, especially in Celtic culture, Maeve was a fierce warrior. She created her own army and led them in battle. The soldiers respected her and were steadfastly loyal to her. Rumor spread that they were so devoted because she rewarded her most heroic soldiers with sexual favors. This may have been vicious slander from her enemies…or it may have been true. In ancient Celtic culture, it was perfectly acceptable for women to take as many lovers as they wanted, even after marriage.
Speaking of matrimony, Maeve was married a total of six times. Her best known spouse is Ailill mac Mata. He became King of Connacht but only as Maeve’s consort. She remained the dominant ruler in Connacht. But Ailill, at one point, decided she should acknowledge him as the ruler in their marriage. Their discussion on the topic and the events which followed are told in Táin Bó Cuilnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), one of the most famous pieces of Irish literature.
One day, the couple began teasing back and forth about which one was the richest. They discovered that they had nearly an equal amount of wealth except for one thing. Aillil had a valuable prized stud bull. As cattle were one of the main measures of status as well as wealth in Celtic society, this meant Ailill was greater than Maeve. Well, there was no way Maeve was going to stand for that!
Daire mac Fiochna of Ulster had a stud bull of great renown, so Maeve traveled to Ulster to buy the animal. She offered to pay Fiochna twice what the animal was worth but he turned the offer down. Desperate, she offered more money, lands, even sexual favors, but he steadfastly refused to sell the bull. Enraged, Maeve returned to Connacht, gathered her warriors and returned to Ulster, determined to take the bull by force. This was no easy task, and Maeve went through a lot trying to get that bull. For the sake of brevity, however, suffice it to say that, after great difficulty and most of her warriors being killed by famed Irish hero, Cu Chulainn, Maeve got the bull and brought it home with her.
Once home, she challenged her husband to another competition: a fight between her bull and his to see which was superior. Ultimately, Maeve’s killed Ailill’s then died from injuries sustained in the fight. Still, the queen viewed this as a win. In the end, she reasoned, she and Ailill were finally on equal footing in regards to wealth. She was still Queen of Connacht, and he was just her consort.
There is much more to tell about Maeve as she is one of the best known queens in Irish history / mythology. Scholars debate whether she was a real person or not. I like to think she was. She was a woman who let nothing stand in her way. Here is one last story to illustrate that. At one point, Maeve ran into her first husband, King Conor and he raped her. She asked a druid to prophesy which of her several sons would avenge her by killing Conor. The druid said, “Maine.” She had no son with that name, so she went home and added “Maine” to all her sons’ names.
Singer-songwriter, Stevie Nicks, used to introduce her most famous hit by saying, “This is a song about a Welsh witch.” The Rhiannon of mythology wasn’t a witch however. She was an enchantress and a goddess.
While her story has roots in oral tradition, she makes her first appearance in literature in the medieval Mabinogion. King Pwyll of Dyfed is out riding with his buddies one afternoon when he notices a beautiful young woman in the distance. She is riding a white horse. He gallops towards her but discovers that, no matter how fast he rides, he can’t catch up to her even though her horse seems only to be walking. He gives up and goes home but can’t stop thinking about her. The next day, he returns to the same place and again sees her, chases after her, and still cannot catch up. On the third day, he tries again with the same results until, finally, he calls out, asking her to stop and wait for him. She complies.
When Pwyll comes alongside her, Rhiannon chides him, saying she would have stopped sooner, if he’d only asked. Seeing her up close, he is taken aback by her beauty. He is astonished further when she says she has decided to marry him. He is delighted! But there’s a complication.
Rhiannon explains that she is betrothed already to Gwawl ap Clud. She says he tricked her into the engagement but she has a plan to get out of it. She wants Pwyll’s help to carry out her plan and promises, if they succeed, she will marry him. Pwyll says the old Welsh equivalent of “cool.” Unfortunately, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Rhiannon’s plan works but, at the pre-wedding party for her and Pwyll, the groom-to-be is approached by a stranger. In front of guests, the stranger begs a favor of the king. Pwyll says, “Sure. Anything.” The stranger, who is Gwawl, says he wants to marry Rhiannon. Since, he gave his word, Pwyll has to agree to this.
Infuriated, Rhiannon denounces Pwyll as a fool but she has another plan. At the feast for her marriage to Gwawl, Rhiannon has Pwyll dress as a beggar and instructs him and his men to wait in the orchard. She gives her preferred groom a bag which she has enchanted so it is impossible ever to fill completely. During the dinner, Pwyll enters, approaches Gwawl and begs to be given just enough food to fill his bag. Gwawl grants this. After a ton of food has been piled in, Gwawl decides to investigate the bag and Pwyll traps him in it. On signal, his men come into the hall and begin beating the trapped Gwawl until he agrees to let Pwyll marry Rhiannon.
Initially, the couple have a good marriage. Rhiannon becomes pregnant and has a boy. The kingdom has an heir and there should be a happy-ever-after ending. But there’s not. After giving birth, Rhiannon goes to sleep, leaving her son in the care of her maids. The women, however, fall asleep too and awaken to find the baby has disappeared. Fearing for their own safety, the maids smear animal blood on Rhiannon. When she awakens, she finds herself accused of infanticide. Pwyll’s nobles call on him either to set her aside or execute her. Rhiannon asks to be allowed to do penance instead. Pwyll agrees.
For the next year, Rhiannon must sit by the castle gate, tell her story to passersby, and offer to carry them on her back like a horse. She does her penance faithfully. Pwyll shows his love of her by having her, each night, eat dinner seated beside him as queen. Years later, a young boy who resembles Pwyll is brought to court by a horse lord who claims to have rescued the boy from a monster. Rhiannon’s reputation is redeemed. She names her son, Pryderi, which means “loss” or “grief.”
Intriguing to the end, later in life, Rhiannon receives news that her son is trapped in a magical tower. She rushes off to rescue him but those accompanying her later report that she, Pryderi, and the mysterious tower suddenly were enveloped by a mist and vanished.
Although Stevie Nicks says she had not read the story before writing her song, her lyrics fittingly describe Rhiannon as “a woman taken by the wind.”
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Slan go foil!
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