Cultures are founded on historical events, stories, and folklore. Before writing was widely practiced, most of the world’s history was taught through word-of-mouth. This is how legends like Queen Maeve, the Irish warrior queen were born.
It could be said that some of the best storytellers come from Ireland, which actually used to be known as the land of Saints and scholars recording centuries of history dating back to the start of civilization. It is therefore no wonder that some myths have been passed down and preserved through generations.
To better understand Irish mythology, it is beneficial to know that the folklore is divided into 4 major stages, known as the four cycles of Irish mythology. Beginning with the Mythological Cycle, then the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and lastly, the Historical Cycle. With so many stories of varying degrees of fiction and fact, this is the easiest way to characterize everything concisely. For Queen Maeve of Ireland (the main topic of today’s article), the Ulster cycle is the period in which her story lies.
Etymology of the name Medb
Did you know that Medb means ‘intoxicating’ and ‘she who rules’? Quite a fitting name for a Celtic warrior queen and supposed god of land, sovereignty and intoxication!
Banríon is the Irish word for queen while rígan is an older celtic word for the same title. Banríon derives from two Irish words, bean, meaning ‘woman’ and rí meaning ‘king’.
Queen Medb Ireland’s Royal Warrior’s Early Life
Medb was born into royalty, her father was the king of Connacht before becoming the High King of Ireland. When this happened Maeve became the ruler of Connacht. It is thought that Medb would have lived from the year 50BC to 50AD
Maeve had five known husbands and ruled for over 60 years, an extremely impressive stint for that period of time.
Medb was believed to have many children. A druid foretold that one of her sons named Maine would fulfil a prophecy to defeat her greatest enemy (and former husband) King Conchobar. To ensure this would come true Medb renamed all of her sons Maine. She also had at least one daughter called Finabair who plays a pivotal role in some versions of the Cattle raid of Cooley, which we will discuss below.
Medbs rise to power is detailed in the tale of Cath Bóinde or ‘The Battle of the Boyne’
Queen Medb’s Relationships
During the life of Queen Medb, Brehon laws of ancient Ireland existed. These laws recognised that men and women were equal. Women could own property, lead armies, participate in the legal system and pick their own partners. Marriage was seen as a contract, not a sacrament and so separation was a commonplace idea.
As you may know the Brehon laws date back to the 7th century, a long time after it is thought Medb existed. So how is this possible? It is thought that this may have been chronologically misplaced by monks in early Christian Ireland. Monks were the first people to transcribe the folklore of ancient Ireland but they often altered details to synchronise native traditions with biblical history.
Medb’s first marriage to Conchobar, the king of Ulster was arranged by her father. He did this to appease the king, whose father he murdered. They had a child together, but they separated thereafter and Medb’s father offered her sister Eithne to Conchobar. Medb was furious and killed her pregnant sister but unbeknownst to her, the child survived and would later seek revenge.
After this Medb began her reign over Connacht and would begin a relationship with the previous king of Connacht Tinni mac Conri. Their relationship ended when Conchobar killed Tinni in a single combat challenge after he had attacked Medb.
Queen Maeve of Connacht’s third husband Eochaid Dála of the Fir Domnann was a rival of Tinni for the kingship of Connacht before Medb took over. Medb demanded three things from all of her husbands; that they be fearless, kind, and without jealously. The third aspect of this requirement was often tested due to Maeve’s romances outside of her marriage.
This marriage ended when Eochaid discovered that Maeve was having an affair with her bodyguard Aillill mac Máta. Maeve was open about her relationships but sooner or later the jealousy would be too much for her husbands.
Aillill mac Máta married medbh and became king of Connacht. He and Medb were two major characters in the Cattle raid of Cooley.
Many years later Ailill finally became jealous of an affair Maeve had with a man named Fergus and had the man killed. Maeve then caught Ailill having an affair, ordered him to be killed.
The Stories of Maeve warrior queen of Connacht
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
Historians to this day are not sure if Queen Maeve ever lived, however the location of the stories are real places. If Queen Maeve had lived, it’s believed that it would have been around during 50 BCE. The stories of Maeve lie in most of the early literature of Ireland. She is described as a vivacious woman with many partners and husbands. Not only that, she was a strong female warrior with pride.
The stories say that Queen Maeve was in search of a man to exceed her status, and her power. She was a strong warrior queen therefore, she wanted a man worthy of her. Along came King Ailill. They were married and ruled the Connacht area together for many years.
Queen Maeve’s journey begins in what is now known as Roscommon. The first writings of Queen Maeve were found in the Cave of Cruachan in Ogham writing. Ogham is an ancient Celtic alphabet.
As the story goes, Maeve was in bed one evening with her husband, King Ailill. They were discussing who was more worthy or of higher importance. They came from the same power, they were equally wealthy and gifted. It wasn’t before long that the two decided to account for all of their belongings. The competition was close, however King Ailill had something that was unmatchable, a white bull. Seeing as how Queen Maeve had no such thing, King Ailill won their little argument.
Only it wasn’t a “little” argument, it sparked a whole war.
In order for Queen Maeve to measure up to King Ailill, she sent messengers all over Ireland in search of a competitor to the white bull. When a messenger stumbled upon a brown bull in Cooley that could rival Allills, Queen Maeve requested that the bull be given to her. The owner, Dara of Cooley, originally agreed to part with the animal and was compensated fairly.
However, Dara overheard from one of Queen Maeve’s drunk messengers that the famous Queen Maeve would have taken the animal by force if necessary. Enraged, Dara withdrew from the deal. This in turn began the “Cattle Raid of Cooley”. Queen Maeve assembled an army out of all of her friends and allies in Ireland and attempted to storm Cooley and kidnap the bull.
After many failed attempts to capture this bull, and many lives lost, Queen Maeve came to an agreement with the Cooley region. This agreement was said to be proctored by Fergus MacRoich. The terms of the new agreement was to have one major battle between the best soldier of Queen Maeve’s army and a warrior of the Cooley region. However, Maeve had a trick up her sleeve. While the warriors fought each other, Maeve and her small army would travel north and finally capture the bull.
Fergus is an interesting character, he was formerly the king of Ulster before Conchobar tricked him and took his throne. He and Medb shared a mutual hatred of the king and would become a couple in future myths.
The Ulster warriors fell ill from a magical illness cast by the goddess Macha, who wanted to help Medb to get revenge on the king of Ulster. Macha sought revenge as Conchobar had forced her to turn into a horse and race while pregnant. Luckily for Medb, The king had many enemies.
The only person fit to fight in Ulster was Cú Chulainn, who was just a teenager at the time. He was actually helped (and hindered) by the gods too, the Morrigan, sister of Macha and member of the Tuatha de Danann, sabotaged Cú Chulainn, while Lugh Lamhfhada or Lug, revealed himself to be the boy’s father and healed his life-threatening wounds.
The reason Cú Chulainn was fit to fight was because the spell Macha cast affected all men, he was only 17 and not yet considered an adult. An interesting image of a child standing alone against a full army is created, and it is hard to know which side to root for.
Maeve offered up the Champion of Connacht, Ferdia (Fergus’s son and foster brother of Cú Chulainn), to fight the legendary warrior from Cooley (Cú Chulainn), who had invoked his right to fight single combat, defeating the soldiers one by one. The pair were actually foster brothers The fight resulted in the death of Ferdia, however it distracted the opposing side long enough for Maeve to steal the brown bull.
Medb’s daughter Findabair features in this part of the story. Her hand in marriage was offered to soldiers to fight Cú Chulainn one-on-one. His supernatural powers and strength could easily defeat a mortal man, and so the only way to persuade warriors to fight was to use Findabairs beauty to manipulate them.
In variations of the story Ferdias husband is killed by Cú Chulainn, and Medb then offers her hand to him. In other variations Ferdia dies fighting Cú Chulainn to be with Findabair, alongside countless soldiers and royals who died for the chance to be her husband. After realising how many people died in her name Findabair dies with shame, another victim in a war with no victors.
The battle finally ends when Cú Chulainn and Fergus agree to stop fighting after the teenager spared his step fathers life.
Queen Maeve returned to her husband with the bull. In order to determine who’s bull was more valuable, the couple had the bulls fight one another. Unfortunately, this fight ended up killing both of the animals.
In the end, this is quite a comical amount of effort for such a lackluster result. Both Queen Maeve and King Ailill were left without their prized possessions, that they both fought so hard to keep. With the amount of catastrophe and death surrounding this tale, the ending is somewhat underwhelming.
It is ironic and saddening that the ignorance of the couple caused so much grief and loss, and that while Maeve won the battle, the death of both bulls meant neither the King or Queen won their debate. One lesson you can learn from this story is that there is no winner in war, everyone in the story lost something and previously healthy relationships between family, friends and kingdoms were damaged beyond repair.
Do not mistake this story as the end of Queen Meabh There are many stories of her sprinkled all over Ireland. Her passion, grit, determination, stubbornness and beauty are not to be discounted either. Perhaps the best part of Irish Mythology is the variations and different perspectives you can find in the literature.
Another version of the Cattle Raid of Cooley
As you can see in this story, the main elements of the Cattle Raid of Cooley remain the same but the details are different. Which version do you prefer?
Scáthach plays a role in this version as the person who trained Cú Chulainn. Our article describes her life as a fierce female warrior who would train one of the most powerful heros in Irish mythos. Why not read our article about Scáthach after you finish article.
One of Medbs sons, Cet mac Mágach who she called Maine Mórgor (which means ‘of great duty’) fufiled the prophecy by killing Conchobar many years later. Conchobar appeared in many famous storie sin Irish mythology, including Deidre of the Sorrows, a famous Irish tale.
Queen Medb, a Gaelic Deity?
Queen Maeve is believed by some to be a manifestation of the sovereignty goddess of the Tuatha de Danann. She is very similar to Medb Lethderg the sovereignty goddess of Tara, and is also linked with the Morrígan, the three sisters and goddesses of war; Badbh, Macha and the Mórrigan. The names of the 3 sisters change quite often depending on which story you are reading, so its possible that Macha, the goddess of war and sovereignty, is also an interpretation of Medb.
Medb or Macha is known as the goddess of sovereignty, the land and intoxication. Some theories state that Maeve is almost a reincarnation of the goddess in human form, but one of the joys of folklore is that it changes to suit the need of a story, there is no definitive answer!
The three figures mentioned share common personalities and traits such as bring strong willed, stubborn and ambitious as well as cunning and promiscuous; they are all seen as an archetypal warrior queen.
Some of the mystery surrounding Queen Maedbh is what makes her so interesting. Was she a real queen or sovereignty goddess? Was she a benevolent leader or harsh ruler? Queen Maeve is one of the most three dimensional characters in Irish mythology; her strengths and flaws make her interesting.
Medb doesn’t fight for the greater good, or embody evil, she simply seems to be someone who acts in her own self interest, which creates many interesting moments. She is one of the earliest female characters in mythology who is represented as independent and appears as the main protagonist in stories, not just a romantic interest or tragic figure for a male counterpart.
Real life Locations named after Queen Maeve
The story of queen Maeve takes place all across Ireland and features real locations that you can visit today. Place names include:
- Konckmaa or Cnoc Méa (Maeve’s Hill) in Co. Galway
- Milleen Meva or Millín Mhéabha (Medb’s knoll) in County Roscommon
- Rath Maeve or Ráth Medb (Medbs success) near the Hill of Tara Co. Meath
There are many other placenames throughout Ireland that refer to Maeve!
We have an article about the meaning of all of the 32 county names in Ireland as well as the 4 Provinces of Ireland, if this interests you!
Queen Medb’s Grave
The death of Queen Medb happened when Furbaide, son of Eithne and nephew of the warrior finally avenged his mother. Maine Athramail succeeded his mother as the king of Connacht.
It is believed that Medb is buried in Miosgán Médhbh a tall stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea in Co. Sligo. The legend says that she is buried upright facing her enemies, with her spear in her hand, ready to fight.
Other theories claim that the warrior queen is buried in County Roscommon in her hometown of Rathcroghan at a long low slab named Midguan Medb.
A note on the spelling of Maeve
Maeve has had many spelling variations over the years. Medb was the old Irish name which later became Meḋḃ or Meaḋḃ, and then Meadhbh, Méibh, Meabh and Méabh, as well as the anglicised version of Maeve. In this article you may see the name spelled in one of these ways, be it queen Maeve, queen Maebh, queen Meave or simply just medb!
Each variation is pronounced the same way, ‘May-v’
Queen Maeve in modern Pop Culture
Queen Maeve makes a cameo appearance as a character in the Harry Potter universe as a famous witch on a chocolate frog card which is a trading card that depicts the most famous witches and wizards in the fictional universe.
A character called Queen Mab is a fairy referred to in William Shakespeare‘s play Romeo and Juliet and may have been inspired by the Irish queen Maeve.
Now that we have answered the question ‘who is queen Maeve’ you may find yourself asking many more questions. Such is the joy of mythology!
However, it is important to note that when it comes to Irish mythology, factual events have been passed down from person to person, and have evolved into the folklore that we know of today. There are numerous variations, from little details changed to significantly different endings, this is one the results of writing stories down hundreds of years after they have been told, and quite honestly it adds to the charm of mythology. The same story feels different when told by different people, some families may have passed down a version of the story from generation to generation and in their eyes, the story they tell is the ‘real’ version. The differences aren’t important, what’s really vital is keeping up the tradition of story telling for future generations to cherish.
If Celtic Queen Maeve and the folklore of Ireland interest you, you can read more about her and other Irish legends in our list of Irish Kings and Queens. Folklore includes some legends that are more factual than fictional. After all, someone had to live in all of those castles scattered about the country. The queen Maeve mythology however, is shrouded in a layer of mystery and magic which makes it all the more exciting!
The next time you go to visit your favourite ancient ruin, or walk into an old castle resort, take the time to appreciate the history behind these magnificent buildings. The stories, myths, and legends will not disappoint you as Ireland is filled with mythical and magical tales.