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