Queen Maeve of Irish literature - fact or myth?

Queen Maeve illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker
Queen Maeve illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker | Source
Conemara or Connacht as it was known in the days of Queen Maeve.
Conemara or Connacht as it was known in the days of Queen Maeve. | Source

Irish Literature

As you look over the landscape of Connacht, Ireland you may hear in the distance the clash of swords and battle axes, the shouts of warriors as they fight and die, and the chariot charging in with Queen Maeve (Anglicized) or Medb (Old Irish) yelling the battle cry. You would be hearing the intoxicating power of warrior Queen Maeve of Ireland.

She was a passionate Queen whose warriors fought passionately for her. They were willing to die for her cause because of her intoxicating beauty, passion, and strength.

They are the ghosts of long ago that inhabit the rich Irish history and lore. They tell the story of the fierce Celtic people that early ruled the island of Eire or Ireland, as we know it today. And, Queen Maeve was the most revered and written about queen in Irish history.

Her Old Irish name of Medb meant "mead"a popular beverage in Old Irish days, so Maeve became known as "she who intoxicates." And a marriage between a king and queen certainly would involve a shared drink.

And, it is Queen Maeve, seen upper right, that sat imperially on the throne of Connacht, Ireland, with her direct eye piercing gaze. Was she the true Warrior Irish Queen or was she just a myth, a goddess of Irish lore?

The stories of Queen Maeve are some of the most powerful ones in Irish literature and she has been described by poets and scholars as the image of woman's power and sexuality. She had many husbands and lovers and ruled for many years.

Was she the Priestess of a sovereignty Goddess who rose to power or simply an enchanting Irish story put together and verbally handed down generation after generation until her story was finally written? Is she historical accuracy or Irish myth?

The most widely read and famous story of her exploits is the Tain Bo Cuailng, or known today as the Cattle Raid of Cooley, which was written in the Ulster cycle of Irish literature. The story is epic prose of the war against Ulster by Queen Maeve and her husband, King Ailill. The action takes place in the first century AD in the pre-Christian heroic age of the Celts or Gaels as they were known in Ireland.

The first written evidence of Queen Maeve is in Old Irish manuscripts, copied by the monks in the the 8th century during the days of ancient Eire, (Ireland) when the High Kings ruled the land.

Historians throughout history have looked at these stories of Queen Maeve as reminiscent of classical Celt society in Gaul, Galatia, and Britain and they contain authentic Celtic traditions from the Iron Age. So the stories do contain genuinely ancient material.

Therefore, the story of Queen Maeve does reveal the Celtic nations' societal rule that women's rights equaled those of men and that Celtic women were able to own property and held powerful positions within society. Also, Celtic women were not bound by the confines of monogamy even within marriage.

Queen Maeve was infamous for her beauty and sexual prowess and she had an array of lovers, most of whom were the officers in her armies, thereby, insuring the loyalty of her troops.

It is written that her bravest warriors were granted sexual favors so the men fought hard and courageously on the battlefield for a chance to enjoy Queen Maeve's "willing thighs." And that is exactly how it is written on the Old Irish version of her stories.

The teenage Cu Chulainn who battled Queen Maeve.  Illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker.
The teenage Cu Chulainn who battled Queen Maeve. Illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker. | Source

the Cattle Raid of Cooley

Maeve's father, High King of Ireland, Eochalb Feidlech, gifted Maeve the area of Connacht, Ireland for her to rule and she became Queen Maeve of Connacht, Ireland. She ruled from Cruachan known as Rothcroghan, County Roscommon, today.

She had many lovers and husbands over the years, but the husband written about in the Ulster cycle is Ailill mac Mata. He becomes her King Consort and only has power to rule because of his marriage to Maeve.

Now, Celtic culture had it that in marriage, whoever came into the marriage with the most wealth dominated the marriage and ruled the household whether it was the man or the woman. So, the Cattle Raid of Cooley actually started in bed!

After a session of passionate and strenuous lovemaking, Maeve and Aillil were laying in bed and began talking of their individual wealth. They both were comparing the property they owned, the amount of money they owned, the jewels they owned and they found that they were on equal terms. But, Ailill had one thing that Maeve did not have and that was a prize stud bull.

Therefore, Ailill claimed he dominated the marriage. Maeve, the competitive woman she was, and along with her her pride, would not allow Ailill to dominate the marriage and be ruler of their household. She had to find a prize stud bull of her own to have equal wealth with her husband.

She looked all over her lands of Connacht, but there was no stud bull to be found. The only rival to Ailill's bull was a bull that belonged to Daire mac Fiochna and he lived in Ulster.

Maeve approached mac Fiochna and offered to buy the bull for twice its worth, but mac Fiochna refused to sell the bull to Maeve. She then offered him more money, lands and her sexual favors and still he refused to sell Maeve the bull.

Maeve, furious that she could not obtain the bull decided to kidnap or steal the bull from mac Fiochna. She raised and army and prepared for war against all Ulstermen. Because of a strange divine curse on the Ulsterman, her invasion was only opposed by the teenage Ulster hero, Cu Chulainn, who held up the army's advance by demanding single combat with Maeve at the fords.

Next, Maeve and Ailill (for some unknown reason he helped Maeve in her raid) offered their only daughter, Findabar, in marriage to a series of her warrior heroes as payment for fighting Cu Chulainn, but they all were defeated by Cu Chulainn.

Maeve had several battle encounters with Chu Chulainn in which he killed her pets or hand maidens. By this time Maeve was furious. The Ulster warrior, Chu Chulainn, does defeat Queen Maeve and King Ailill in a bloody battle on the lands of Connacht. At the end of the battle the lands were flooded in blood and the dead bodies of many of Maeve's warriors covered her lands far and wide.

Maeve's anger only intensified. So, Maeve raided the lands of mac Fiochna and obtained the bull, Donn Cuailnge, by herself. The bull was brought back to Connacht to fight Ailill's bull. Donn Cuailnge bested Ailill's bull and killed it but then died of its own wounds.

Thus, is the story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley and Maeve's and Ailill's household was equal at last.

Queen Maeve's burial site.
Queen Maeve's burial site.

In your opinion, is Maeve a true Irish Queen or myth and legend?

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The Aftermath

Now that the household of Queen Maeve and King Ailill was on equal terms, life returned to normal in Connacht. Both Maeve and Ailill took lovers, but out of jealousy, each had each other's lover killed.

Maeve finally took control and had Ailill killed while en flagrante with a lover. Maeve lived to be quite old, but was finally killed by her sister's son, Furbaide, in revenge for Maeve having killed his mother years ago.

He killed her with a piece of cheese. Yes, a piece of cheese. As she was bathing in a lake, Furbaide took a slingshot and an old piece of hard cheese and slung it at her head, killing her instantly. What a way to go.

According to history or legend, Maeve is buried in the stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea Mountain in County Sligo. There she is buried standing upright facing her enemies of Ulster. I find it interesting that her tomb has never been opened.

Her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon is also a potential burial site. There is a slab/tombstone named "Misgaun Medb" and is believed today to be the most likely location of her burial.

It is said if you climb Knocknarea Mountain which overlooks Sligo town between it and the sea to visit the stone cairn and Maeve's tomb, that if you take a good sized stone to leave on top of the cairn you will receive good luck. If you take a stone away from the cairn back down the hill, you will experience bad luck. Queen Maeve still rules!

Although there is historical fact in the stories of Queen Maeve, we also know that the Celts loved embellishing their tales with drama and magic. In legend, supernatural powers were attributed to Maeve.

So was Maeve a mortal woman who was exalted to the status of Goddess or was she a Goddess whose story was watered down over the years making her a mere mortal? Or could it be both?

Since the Celts did not keep written records of their history and legends, we will never know for certain.

So, what does the legend/history of Queen Maeve mean to us? Maeve, is the intoxicating power of passion; the passion we feel in love, desire and sex as well as in anger and in battle.

Perhaps there really is only a thin line between love and hate and sex and violence as Queen Maeve and her exploits illustrate.

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Comments 28 comments

Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

How interesting...and what a life! Some really took life serious didn't they? Well it does make for better stories for sure than a Queen sitting around buffing her nails. I guess killing and blood back then was second hand stuff like it is getting to be today! Great article. ^+


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Jackie: Thanks so much for reading this. I love the strong Celtic women. Maeve and Boudicca just took no prisoners and certainly went after exactly what they wanted. I know not every Celtic woman was like this and these women are larger than life - but WOW what lives they lead and probably embellished to become legends.


Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

Very interesting and lively story Suzette. Queen Maeve was definitely a formidable woman.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks, John and I am glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I wouldn't want to get in her way, that's for sure! LOL!


grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 2 years ago from Philippines

That Maeve was one feisty woman. It's nice to hear lore about strong women who ruled for reasons other than their lithe sexuality. The Celtics have raised the bar on the level of cool.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

Wow, fascinating! I had of course heard of her, but knew absolutely nothing about her! Do I believe she was real? yes, in a way, I think she was probably a real queen, just normal but over the years the myths started and made her into something special, bit like our King Arthur, great hub suzette! voted up and shared! nell


travmaj profile image

travmaj 2 years ago from australia

All hail Queen Maeve - what a woman with passion, desire, anger, passionate, competitive, What fun. I enjoyed reading about Maeve. Real or mythology she rules. Thank you. Voting up.


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

An informative and unique hub. A woman with such greatness.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Suzette....So fascinating! This hub is a winner. Enjoyed reading about Maeve, whether real or myth; she was quite the woman to be reckoned with!

I understand her story is a mystery, but I'd like to think she was real....and her life story became more & more embellished through the years.. I agree with you that it is strange that no one has ever suggested her alleged remains be explored.

I thank you, suzette for sharing this entertaining & educational story with us...Up+++


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States

Great story! I think that many of the stories and people we call mythological are based on reality. The film pointed out how information can be buried under newer ideas as society changes. And the fact that oral traditions are just so darn old makes them seem unreal to modern people.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

grand old lady: I agree with you about Maeve. It is a shame in regards to women's role in society that we followed the Romans. But. then they were the conquerors and I suppose he who wins decides the rules. Can you imagine how further ahead we would have been as a nation if we had the women's societal roles that the Celtish women did for all these years. I think the world would be a better place, but then I guess I am prejudiced. LOL! Thanks so much for your visit and comments. Most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Nell: When I started to look into Irish myths and lore this is what I found first. Maeve was something else. I, too, think she is based on a real person and the myths and legends grew up around her over the years. I always think there is a kernel of truth about these people. What a live Maeve led. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and thanks for your comments.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi travmaj: I know, with a character like this in Irish literature it certainly would not be boring to read. LOL! Can you believe her exploits? She is a coloful figure whether real or not and I enjoyed writing about her. Thanks so much for your visit and comments. Most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

DDE: Thanks so much for your comments. I am pleased you enjoyed reading this. Yes Maeve was quite a woman in Irish literature. Thanks so much for your visit. Most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi fpherj: Isn't Maeve's story amazing? I always think there is a kernel of truth at the center of it all. I have a feeling she was real and then the myth and lore was written about her and enlarged her story. I think her story is fascinating and to be killed by a piece of cheese that is almost too funny. That has got to be myth, but then the truth sometimes is stranger than fiction. Thanks so much for your visit and I am glad you enjoyed reading this.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Dolores: I agree with your astute comments. I have a feeling Maeve was a real Queen and then the myth and lore and embellishments to the story happened over the years. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this and I appreciate your comments.


mochirajackson profile image

mochirajackson 2 years ago from Liverpool, United Kingdom

Thanks for sharing this interesting hub. I'm half Irish so was drawn to read this and I thought it was great. I think that she could have been real but her story was exaggerated, just like those films that were based on a true story but jazzed up for entertainment value! X


Genna East profile image

Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

True story or myth, the story of Queen Maeve is fascinating. I always find tales of women in roles of leadership and/or power who somehow managed to survive in their male-dominated worlds, interesting. Maeve is no exception. “Perhaps there really is only a thin line between love and hate and sex and violence as Queen Maeve and her exploits illustrate.” I agree. Voted up and shared.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

mochirajackson: So Queen Maeve could be in your blood! I'm not Irish at all, but I am an English literature major so when I looked into early Irish literature there was Queen Maeve and her life story. So interesting, I had to write a hub about it. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and I agree with you. I think she was real but her story became exaggerated and embellished so much it became a myth. I think there is a kernel of truth there.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Genna: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. I find strong women so interesting to, especially in times when men dominated. But, the Celts were different about women. They pretty much were on equal ground with me. Once a Queen always a queen and she was certainly ruthless. Thanks so much for your comments and visit. Most appreciated.


torrilynn profile image

torrilynn 2 years ago

I know not much of Irish Literature, even though I am part Irish. Which reminds me that I should brush up on a bit of it. Anyway, I enjoyed your hub very much. thanks. voted up.


ocfireflies profile image

ocfireflies 2 years ago from North Carolina

Suzette,

You never disappoint. Your hubs are always so nicely done and so very interesting. Once again, I get to learn about a culture and whether Maeve is myth or real, she led a rather interesting life. It is also fascinating to me how some women of the past held so much power.

And so is this hub-powerful. V+/Share for Sure

Blessings,

Kim


word55 profile image

word55 2 years ago from Chicago

Interesting story suzetten. I'm not surprised that people fought over the silliest things like they do today and even lose lives. Fighting over bulls. Yes, that's a bunch of bull!

Thanks Kim for sharing this :-)


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

torrilynn: I am pleased you read this and enjoyed it and I hope it adds understanding to your ancestry. You have the 'luck of the Irish' being part Irish. Thanks so much for your visit and your comments. Most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Kim, so nice of you too visit and read this. Maeve was quite a woman. I tend to believe she was a real person and the myths and legends grew up around her. Can you imagine stealing a bull so two bulls can fight - and having a war over it. I can think of better things to fight about. LOL! You have to choose your battles! Anyway, thanks so much for your kind comments. I hope all is well with you!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

word55: Thanks so much for you comments and yes it is a bunch of bull! I am so pleased you enjoyed it, but as you said we fight over the same things today. LOL! Thanks so much for visiting and thank you Kim for sharing this hub!


chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

Thank you suzette. I think many of these old myths and legends have some roots in fact but it's virtually impossible to verify them, find hard evidence and so on. The stories themselves are powerful enough and to my mind, fascinating sources of inspiration.

Queen Maeve was an impressive woman by the sounds of it, using whatever she had at her disposal to stay in power. There are some great images in your text, controversial and spicy, and I'm sure the old storytellers could hold their audiences in a spell when re-telling them.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Chef-du-jour: I have to agree with you. I think many of these legends and myths have a kernal of truth to them. I do think Medb was a real person, possibly a Celtic goddess and the embellishments began there. Anyway, it all makes terrific stories to tell and read about. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and thanks for your interest.

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