Scáthach and Cú Chulainn

Scáthach – the Shadowed – is a woman warrior who turns up in the tenth century manuscript Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer). A supporting character to the narrative adventure that focuses on Irish hero Cú Chulainn, her main purpose is to add an element of depth and context to Cú Chulainn’s legendary fighting skills and, of course some 10th century feminine (cough) “pizzazz”. In the Tomharc Emire, advised by his friends that to complete his martial training he should learn from Scáthach, Cú Chulainn immediately sets sail for Alba (in modern-day Scotland) and the fortress where she’s based.

To be honest, whenever I think of Scáthach, I have this mental image of a longsuffering professional working woman, gritting her teeth and doing her best to hide her irritation at an extended visit from her daughter’s boorish boyfriend. To imagine Cú Chulainn’s visit as a pleasing or welcome one would be to ignore the other interesting elements of the tale. Most people sadly, enamoured by the romanticised aspect of a woman warrior teaching the mythological hero, tend to limit their focus on that.

When Cú Chulainn first arrives and enters Scáthach’s domain, he inveigles his way into her fortress by manipulating the romantic passions of her teenage daughter, Úathach. Despite Cú Chulainn breaking her fingers (and the slaying of the warrior Cochair Cruibne), Úathach is so besotted she casts any loyalty to Scáthach aside, advising her new beau on how to overcome her mother while she’s resting. Following Úathach’s advice, Cú Chulainn overcomes his host, places his sword between her breasts and threatens her with death unless she grants him three wishes:

• that she trains him without neglect,
• that she pays the bride price for him to marry Úathach; and
• that she uses her seer skills to warn him of anything that might befall him.

Over the course of Cú Chulainn’s visit, Scáthach puts up with her unwelcome visitor’s regular acts of violence and trains him as obliged without comment. When Cú Chulainn attacks Aífe and forces her to have his child (Úathach has disappeared from the narrative at this point), she continues to keep her silence.

In the end however, it’s Scáthach who has the last bitter laugh. Prior to his departure back to Ireland and Eamain Macha, she draws up her seer skills and recites the events she sees in store for him, foretelling the bloody slaughter of the Táin Bó Cuailgne. Cú Chulainn, preoccupied, pays her recitation as much attention as a blind man to the cinematic trailer of a subtitled movie.

The moment passes, nothing is learned.

I’m occasionally asked why I’ve never written a contemporary version of Cú Chulainn or An Táin, given that – in some ways – he’s far more well known to non-Irish, English-speaking audiences. The truth of it is I find it hard to write about characters I don’t particularly like. For a contemporary audience, the actions of the Iron Age Cú Chulainn are difficult to get across in a way that would remain true to the original stories. Particularly as, in many of those stories, he comes across as a violent meathead (and, to be honest, a bit of a bastard).

Just like some real life heroes, I suppose.

Update on Liath Luachra: The Seeking (The Irish Woman Warrior Series III)

Liath Luachra: The Seeking has now passed 80,000 words – essentially the first eight chapters (and I’m currently working on Chapter 9). The book is planned for release later this year.

Above is a section of the new cover for this book. Below is the current draft of the back cover blurb.

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In the bleak Luachair valley, the woman warrior Liath Luachra’s seclusion is disrupted by a desperate plea to rescue a comrade’s abducted sister. Raising her ‘fian’ to pursue the raiders, this ‘Seeking’ turns out far more perilous than first imagined.

Pursuing a mysterious war party across ancient Ireland’s Great Wild, she soon finds herself confronted on every side. Old enemies seek to undermine her, new allies can’t be trusted and in the deep south-east, a dark threat rises, roused by a chilling spectre from her past.

Faced with horrors she’d thought long forgotten, Liath Luachra must revert to the worst part of herself to survive the phantoms of her past and present.

But you cannot stalk – or kill – a ghost.

Dressing Liath Luachra

DRESSING LIATH LUACHRA

This is a silly little video I threw together during a moment of whimsy while doing my monthly newsletter.

When the updated cover for Fionn 2 (FIONN: Traitor of Dún Baoiscne) was being developed, the artist put together a series of cover versions for the different clothing options he’d come up with for Liath Luachra. I happened to come across the files again last week and, as I was flicking through them, I found it had an amusing ‘film’ effect.

Anyway, judge for yourself but prepare to be underwhelmed. For some reason, the transfer to You Tube seriously diminished the quality of the images and, deep and meaningful, this is not.

 

The Woman Warrior Branches Out

After many (many!) hiccups trying to take it off the Amazon exclusive list, the second book in the Irish Woman Warrior Series (Liath Luachra: The Swallowed) is finally available on:

Apple (iBooks)
Kobo
Barnes and Noble
Smashwords
Google Play; and
Amazon

Instead of posting another picture of the cover, I’ve decided to celebrate with this gorgeous image of Liath Luachra by artist Vin Hill (and if you like this image, I’d highly recommend giving his site a look at https://vinhillart.wordpress.com/ ).

For those of you unfamiliar with the character, Liath Luachra (which means The Grey One of Luachair) was a woman warrior who had a very (very!) small role in Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn).

In that narrative, she was one of two guardians to the mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill when he was just a child and she’s a great character to write.

The Truth About Irish Woman Warriors – What They Never Tell You

Lagertha, from the television series: Vikings - often misrepresented as 'Celtic' or 'Oirish' warrior online

[Pic: Lagertha, from the television series: Vikings – often misrepresented as a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Oirish’ woman warrior online]

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 enamored 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 probably 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.

LIATH LUACHRA : THE PURSUIT being released tomorrow (or… today)

LIATH LUACHRA : THE PURSUIT

Depending on which side of the planet you’re on, the short story LIATH LUACHRA : THE PURSUIT is due for release tomorrow.

Or,… er, the day after.

This follows the adventures of the character best described as “The thinking woman’s warrior!”

A New Liath Luachra Story Coming Shortly

After two pretty shocking workload months, we’re finally at a point where we can actually release some new writing. This short story (The Pursuit) should be selectively available at the end of next week (before we close down for the month of August) and more widely in September.

The story takes place sometime after the events in Liath Luachra: The Grey One. It’s a stand-alone short story but will form the first chapter of the next Liath Luachra book in 2018.

To be honest, even now it still surprises me how fiercely people like this character. When I first introduced her, I didn’t think honestly believe many readers would relate to a Gaelic, sword-wielding, gay woman. I should have got some inkling however, when despite the much smaller role planned for the character, she took on a life of her own (to the point where she ended up completely dominating the first book in the Fionn mac Cumaill series).

And then of course there was the review feedback:

“The thinking woman’s warrior.”

“An intriguing female protagonist unlike any I’ve come across before. Intelligent and competent, she’s also tragically damaged and vulnerable and yet somehow manages to cling to her fragile moral core.”

“Tough, tenacious and unflinchingly truthful, Liath Luachra is an admirably strong female protagonist. Her own inner conflict – between her past and present self, her loyalty to Bodhmhall and her own sense of right and wrong – is as engaging as her woodland exploits, and her fighting scenes are stark and exhausting.”

“A female heroine who is commanding and fascinating.”

“In the legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Liath Luachra is an intriguing name with minimal context, but in Brian O’Sullivan’s adaptions she becomes a most fascinating and formidable character in her own right.”

“In Fionn’s aunt, Bodhmall, and her lover Liath Luachra, O’Sullivan has created an intruiging warrior women who each provide their own strength to the narrative. I could continue reading a series about just them without any difficulty.”

Etc.
Etc.
Etc.

As a writer, you really can’t get more positive or more affirmative feedback than that and I’m extremely grateful to all of those who made the effort to write those comments. At the end of the day, I guess that as long as people enjoy those stories, I’ll keep writing them.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.