Medb (pronounced [mɛðv])—later forms Meḋḃ, Maedhbh ([mɛɣv]) and Méabh ([mʲeːw]) and also Maeve—is queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Her husband in the core stories of the cycle is Ailill mac Máta, although she had several husbands before him who were also kings of Connacht. She rules from Cruachan (now Rathcroghan, County Roscommon). She is the enemy (and former wife) of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, and is best known for starting the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley") to steal Ulster's prize stud bull Donn Cúailnge.
Medb is strong-willed, ambitious, cunning and promiscuous, and is an archetypal warrior queen. She is believed to be a manifestation of the sovereignty goddess. Medb of Connacht is probably identical with Medb Lethderg, the sovereignty goddess of Tara, and may also be linked with the Morrígan. She may be the inspiration for the fairy Queen Mab found in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and other media.
Her husband is Ailill mac Máta, although she had several husbands before him who were also kings of the Connachta.
Medb and Ailill had seven sons, all called Maine. They originally all had other names, but when Medb asked a druid which of her sons would kill Conchobar, he replied, "Maine". She didn't have a son called Maine, so she renamed all her sons as follows:
- Fedlimid became Maine Athramail ("like his father")
- Cairbre became Maine Máthramail ("like his mother")
- Eochaid became Maine Andoe ("the swift")
- Fergus became Maine Taí ("the silent")
- Cet became Maine Mórgor ("of great duty")
- Sin became Maine Mílscothach ("honey-speech")
- Dáire became Maine Móepirt ("beyond description")
Myths & Legends
How Medb came to power in Connacht and married Ailill is told in the tale Cath Bóinde ("The Battle of the Boyne"), also known as Ferchuitred Medba ("Medb's man-share").
Her father, Eochu Feidlech, the High King of Ireland, married her to Conchobar mac Nessa, king of the Ulaid, because he had killed Conchobar's purported father, the former High King Fachtna Fáthach, in battle. She bore him a son, Glaisne, but the marriage was a bad one and she left him. Eochaid gave Conchobar another of his daughters, Eithne (or Clothru), but Medb murdered her while she was pregnant; her son Furbaide was born by posthumous caesarian section.
Eochaid deposed the then-king of Connacht, Tinni mac Conri, and installed Medb in his place. However, Tinni regained a share of the throne when he and Medb later became lovers. Conchobar raped Medb after an assembly at Tara, and war ensued between the High King and Ulster. Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat, and lost. Eochaid Dála of the Fir Domnann, who had been Tinni's rival for the kingship, protected the Connacht army as it retreated, and became Medb's next husband and king of Connacht. Medb demanded her husband satisfy her three criteria—that he be without fear, meanness, or jealousy. The last was particularly important, as she had many lovers. While married to Eochaid Dála, she took Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard, as her lover. Eochaid discovered the affair, challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill then married Medb and became king of Connacht.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
Medb insisted that she be equal in wealth with her husband, and started the Cattle Raid of Cooley when she discovered that Ailill was one powerful stud bull richer than her. She discovered that the only rival to Ailill's bull, Finnbennach, was Donn Cúailnge, owned by Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal of Conchobar's. She sent messengers to Dáire, offering wealth, land and sexual favours in return for the loan of the bull, and Dáire initially agreed. But when a drunken messenger declared that, if he had not agreed, the bull would have been taken by force, Dáire withdrew his consent, and Medb prepared for war.
An army was raised including contingents from all over Ireland. One was a group of Ulster exiles led by Conchobar's estranged son Cormac Cond Longas and his foster-father Fergus mac Róich, former king of Ulster and one of Medb's lovers. It is reported that it took seven men to satisfy her, or Fergus once. Medb's relationship with Fergus is alluded to in the early poem Conailla Medb míchuru ("Medb has entered evil contracts") by Luccreth moccu Chiara (c. 600); it asserts that Medb wrongly seduced Fergus into turning against Ulster "because he preferred the buttocks of a woman to his own people".
Because of a divine curse on the Ulstermen, the invasion was opposed only by the teenage Ulster hero Cú Chulainn, who held up the army's advance by demanding single combat at fords. Medb and Ailill offered their daughter Findabair in marriage to a series of heroes as payment for fighting Cú Chulainn, but all were defeated. Nevertheless, Medb secured the bull. However, after a final battle against Conchobar's assembled army, she was forced to retreat. Donn Cúailnge was brought back to Cruachan, where it fought Ailill's bull, Finnbennach, killing him, but dying of his wounds.
Vengeance and Death
Out of jealousy for his affair with Medb, Ailill had Fergus killed. In his old age, after Conchobar's death, the Ulster hero Conall Cernach came to stay with Ailill and Medb, as they were the only household capable of supporting him. Medb tasked him to keep an eye on Ailill, who was seeing other women. Finding Ailill in flagrante, she ordered Conall to kill him, which he was happy to do in revenge for Fergus. However, the dying Ailill sent his men after him, and he was killed while trying to escape.
In her later years she often went to bathe in a pool on an island. Furbaide sought revenge for the death of his mother. He took a rope and measured the distance between the pool and the shore, and practiced with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Medb's height from that distance. The next time he saw Medb bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese. She was succeeded to the throne of Connacht by her son Maine Athramail.
According to legend, Medb is buried in a 40 feet high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Ré) in County Sligo. Supposedly, she is buried upright facing her enemies in Ulster.
Because she is the wife of a succession of kings of the Connachta, it is possible that Medb may have once been a "sovereignty goddess", whom a king would ritually marry as part of his inauguration. A separate character, Medb Lethderg, performs a similar function in Tara. Her name is said to mean 'she who intoxicates', and is cognate with the English word "mead"; in many Irish legends which appear to reflect the sovereignty goddess myth, the marriage ceremony involves a shared drink.
The presence of the Connachta in the Ulster Cycle is an apparent anachronism: the cycle is traditionally set around the time of Christ, but the Connachta are said to have been the descendants of Conn Cétchathach, who is supposed to have lived several centuries later. Later stories use the name Cóiced Ol nEchmacht as an earlier name for the province of Connacht to get around this problem. However, the chronology of early Irish historical tradition is an artificial attempt by Christian monks to synchronise native traditions with classical and biblical history, and it is possible that the cycle has been chronologically misplaced.
- A. H. Leahy (ed. & trans.), "Tain Bo Fraech", Heroic Romances of Ireland vol. II, 1906.
- Joseph O'Neill, "Cath Boinde", Eriu 2, pp. 173-185
- Vernam Hull, "Aided Meidbe: The Violent Death of Medb", Speculum vol. 13 issue 1, Jan 1938, pp. 52-61
- Kuno Meyer, "The Cherishing of Conall Cernach and the Deaths of Ailill and of Conall Cernach", Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie vol. 1, 1897, pp. 102-111
- New Methods in the Research of Epic, p.156
- Kuno Meyer, "The Death of Fergus mac Róich", The Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes.
- Francis J. Byrne, Irish Kings and High Kings, Four Courts Press, 2001, p. 50.
Tinni Mac Conri
|Queen of Connacht