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 of women warriors is hardly a new one. Since the development of literature itself, writers (usually male) 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.
The role of women in ancient warfare certainly differed between different cultures but in ancient Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Manx societies – a far more physical society than today – warfare was generally left to the men. That’s not to say that women didn’t fight, of course. The histories of these countries are full of examples of women fighting to defend themselves, fighting to protect the ones they love, or fighting each other. In terms of recognised warrior status warrior in actual warfare context however, this would have been a rarity indeed.
When it comes to women warriors in the ancient Irish mythological context (i.e. not historical), we certainly seem to have more references in the surviving literature than other contemporary societies of the same period. Some people mistakenly 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.
As an Irish person I’d LOVE to boast that ancient Ireland was the role model for gender equality but I think it’d be pretty dishonest of me if I did. At their most basic level, people don’t tend to change too much. Human societies have always been based around the established holders of power and, in ancient Ireland, most of that power was held by men.
Whatever you believe, the mythological tales still have to be treated with caution and never treated literally. The writers/recorders of that time were not above a bit of creative licence or prejudice and people often forget that just because something was written a long time ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
The Pattern of Women Warriors in Irish Mythology
If we look at Irish mythology then, the most well-known women warriors referred to in the literature tend to include:
- Scáthach– a woman warrior who appears in the Ulster Cycle who was based in modern-day Scotland. She instructs the hero Cú Chulainn in a number of martial feats and (depending on the version) 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 who 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
The surviving literature is very limited when it comes to these characters but with the first three, there’s an overpowering impression that the character of the powerful woman warrior was created specifically to highlight the sexual domination and military prowess of the male ‘hero’ who subsequently overpowers her (a pattern also found with other women warrior characters in mythology).
The final figure (Liath Luachra) is the only one that doesn’t follow this pattern. This is predominantly because as a guardian to the much younger hero (Fionn mac Cumhaill), any relationship between them is desexualised.
Other figures in Irish Mythology cited as Women Warriors
Other female figures from Irish mythology occasionally offered up 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)
Again, if you look at either of these in any detail, you’ll immediately find that neither actually make the cut. All of the literary and archaeological evidence to date indicates that these figures were personifications of female deities as opposed to warrior women. Articles or literary works suggesting that they were warriors usually indicates that the authors haven’t even done the most basic of homework or they’re pushing an argument driven more by wish fulfilment than fact.
Irish Women Warriors in Literature
For a long time, Irish women warriors pretty much lingered as an ‘interesting’ footnote in the republications of old academic works on Irish mythology. Over the last thirty to forty years however, representation of women warriors has become far more prevalent in commercial fiction, particularly in the fantasy genre where mythological characters occasionally end up “borrowed” for contemporary stories.
The final products are usually fine from a basic entertainment perspective even if, from a cultural perspective, things can get a little … ‘iffy’, when creators miss the underlying cultural context. Unfortunately, with Irish warrior women, this can particularly result 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.
Note: This is an updated version of an older article published on this website and later published on the Fantasy Hive.