The Completion of Two Irish Imbas Projects, the Start of Another

The first batch of hardcopies for Fionn: The Adversary arrived in this morning. Fifteen copies and they’re already gone, mostly committed to people who’ve helped with the production, editing, reviewing etc. I think I have a single copy left which is remaining here on the home shelf.
Even after all these years, there’s still a great thrill and satisfaction in seeing all your intellectual work captured and consolidated into physical form. Digital copies are fine but I still prefer the tactile experience of flipping pages and the tangible weight of a book in my hand when I’m reading.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the way the book has been received. Given the rush to complete it on time, I was growing too close to the final product by the last stage of edits and found it increasingly difficult to tell whether the story was working as I wanted (really need to work on those self-imposed deadlines!). In the end, I went with gut instinct and the advice of my test readers and editor and, fortunately, that seems to have worked. The reviews to date (on Goodreads – it seems to be getting increasingly harder to get reviews on Amazon) have been extremely positive so that’s a major relief.

Since the publication, I’ve done absolutely no creative writing and have been focussed mostly on editing the next Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection (due for release this week if everything comes together). The timing for this release has actually been seriously hampered by New Zealand Post losing our final edited version between the north and the south islands (despite having paid for tracking, they were unable to find it). Essentially, NZ Post has been run into the ground by the current New Zealand government over the last few years and can no longer be trusted for even the most basic of deliveries. We certainly won’t be using them again.

Apart from that our monthly newsletter will also be released later this week. I’ll be outlining my next writing projects in that and on this website in a future post.

The Surprising Truth about Irish Women Warriors

There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates to characters mentioned in Irish/Celtic mythology. To be fair, the subject’s hardly a new one. Writers and readers have been enamoured by tales of fighting women since people first started telling stories (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons, the High Medieval literary references to supernatural Valkyrie/shield-maidens etc.), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.

Obviously, that’s not to say that woman didn’t fight. There’s plenty of historical examples of women fighting to defend themselves or, more often, fighting to protect the ones they love. In terms of real female warriors however, who specifically followed the warrior path, the archaeological and historical evidence seems to indicate they were very much a rarity in ancient times.

When it comes to women warriors in the ancient Irish mythology, there’s actually quite a lot of literary references compared to other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people use this fact to argue that female fighters were common in early Irish society and that it was a far more ‘gender equal’ society but that’s a veeerrrrry big leap to make. The early writings on mythology tended to express older cultural belief systems as fiction and the authors/recorders of the time weren’t above a bit of creative license or prejudice, so you really have to take what they say with copious amounts of salt. The fact that, until relatively recently, the skill of writing (and, thus, recording Irish mythology) was almost completely dominated by male authors (often of a religious bent) created a pretty substantial bias as well.

Portrayal of Warrior Women in the Ancient Irish Mythology
It’s the latter, more than anything else, that explains why male and female warriors were portrayed so differently in the Irish mythological narratives. In the surviving literature (mostly from the early medieval period onwards), male warriors were the main protagonists and were most commonly depicted as fighting for abstracts like honour or glory. The depiction of women warriors however, was very different.
If we look at Irish mythological, the most well-known women warriors tend to include:

  • Scáthach – a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle. Based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and when he catches her with her guard down, he forces her to take him as a lover
  • Aífe – a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and subsequently bears him a son
  • Neasa (Ness) – a woman warrior forced into marriage at swordpoint by the warrior/druid Cathbad and future mother of the famous Conchobhar mac Nessa
  • Liath Luachra – a guardian of the young Fionn mac Cumhaill, briefly mentioned in the Fenian Cycle but for whom there’s very little information available

From the pattern of the first three examples from the literature, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that powerful, woman warrior characters were introduced predominantly as a device to emphasize the skill, accomplishments and sexual dominance of the male ‘hero’ (who subsequently ‘conquers’ them). With respect to the last example, Liath Luachra is portrayed as a guardian to the young hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, a relationship that is, in a sense, desexualised. There was probably a body of lore associated with this character as well but, unfortunately, it didn’t survive.
Two other female figures mentioned in the ancient Irish literature who are occasionally offered as examples of women warriors include:

  • Meadhbh (also spelt Medb, Maeve etc.) – Queen of Connacht in the Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
  • The Morríghan (or Mór-ríoghain) – a female war spirit most prevalent in ‘An Táin’

In fact, neither of these really make the cut if you look at them in any kind of detail. All the literary and archaeological evidence to date suggests the characters were personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women.

Contemporary Portrayal of Irish Warrior Women

Over the last forty-plus years or so, the representation of women warriors has become far more prevalent, particularly in the fantasy fiction genre and, naturally, reflect more modern-day social values such as gender equality, cultural diversity etc. Generally speaking, the fictional women warrior characters we read today are far more rounded and well developed, they’re often the main protagonist in a story but even when they’re not, they tend to get equal treatment to their male counterparts.

Given the prevalence of woman warriors in the Irish mythology, over the years there’s also been a tendency to ‘borrow’ Irish characters for alternative fictions. Thankfully, the contemporary representations are far more positive than they used to be but I often wonder if the authors are aware of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the originals.

Note: This is an updated version to an earlier article from last year

The Truth About Irish Woman Warriors (Irish Mythology)

There’s a lot of fantasy out there when it comes to women warriors, particularly where it relates back to those in the Irish or Celtic realm. To be fair, the subject is hardly a new one. Since the development of literature itself, writers and readers have been enamoured by tales of fighting women (particularly Herodotus with his notes on the inaccurately-named Amazons), probably because they’re such a rarity in ancient warfare, an area generally dominated by men.

That’s not to say, of course, that woman don’t or didn’t fight. There are numerous historical and contemporary examples of women fighting to defend themselves or, more often, fighting to protect the ones they love. And, in most cases, that’s the key difference. Men were most often portrayed as fighting for abstracts like patriotism or glory. Women, less so. Women’s role in ancient warfare obviously differed within cultures but, in a (very) general sense, women were portrayed as fighting only when it was absolutely necessary or when it was necessary for some other element in the tale. People have different opinions on whether that’s a product of biology, society, upbringing or something entirely different. Either way, it’d be foolish to ignore the patterns of millennia across ancient (and modern) societies.

irish-woman-warrior

When it comes to the concept of women warriors in the ancient Irish mythological context, there’s certainly a lot more literary references compared to other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people use this fact to argue that female fighters were common in early Irish society and that it was a far more ‘gender equal’ society but that’s a pretty big leap to make. In general, most academics tend to agree that this discrepancy is simply due to the fact that the Irish mythological narratives (and here you can loosely use the term ‘Celtic’ as it also covers modern-day Scotland) were much more successively conserved in Ireland than they were in the other, more directly colonised countries.

Whatever you believe, the ancient tales still have to be treated with a lot of caution. The writers/recorders of that time were not above a bit of creative licence or prejudice. People forget that just because something was written a long time ago, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

If we look at Irish mythology then, the best known women warriors tend to include:

  • Scáthach – a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle who was based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and when he catches her with her guard down, is forced to take him as a lover
  • Aífe – a rival of Scáthach who Cú Chulainn forces to lie with him at swordpoint and subsequently bears him a son
  • Neasa (Ness) – a woman warrior forced into marriage at swordpoint by the warrior/druid Cathbad and future mother of the famous Conchobhar mac Nessa
  • Liath Luachra – a guardian of the young Fionn mac Cumhaill, briefly mentioned in the Fenian Cycle but for whom there’s very little information available

In the first three examples, one gets an overpowering impression from the literature that the character of the powerful woman warrior was created specifically to highlight the sexual accomplishment and domination of the male ‘hero’ who subsequently overpowers her (a pattern also found with other women warrior characters in the mythology). With the third example, Liath Luachra is actually a guardian to the young hero, a relationship that, in a sense, is desexualised.

Other women mentioned in the ancient Irish literature who are often offered as examples of women warriors include:

  •  Meadhbh (also spelt Medb, Maeve etc.) – Queen of Connacht in the Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
  •  The Morríghan (or Mór-ríoghain)

In fact, neither of these actually make the cut if you look at them in any kind of detail. All of the literary and archaeological evidence to date suggests the characters are personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women. Articles or literary works suggesting that they are, generally indicates the author hasn’t done his/her homework or is pushing an argument that’s probably driven more by wish fulfilment than fact.

Over the last twenty years or so, representation of women warriors has become much more prevalent, particularly where entertainment aligns with more contemporary underlying themes of gender equality etc. Given the prevalence of characters in the Irish mythology, there’s also been a tendency to ‘borrow’ them for contemporary fictions but without any real consideration of the underlying cultural context. This occasionally results in works that are not only overly romanticised but which ignore some of the strong negative gender undercurrents associated with the characters, something of which the authors often seem – disturbingly – unaware.