Two different etymologies have been suggested for Medb’s name. It is generally accepted that Medb (*medhuā-) is derived from Indo-European *médhu-, signifying ‘honey’ or ‘mead’.2304 This etymology has caused much controversy, and some scholars propose that it must be understood as ‘the Intoxicated One’ or ‘the Drunken Woman’, while others maintain that it should be glossed as ‘the Intoxicating One’, that is ‘the one who provides intoxicating drinks’.2305 There is indeed an Old Irish word medb, cognate with Welsh meddw, Breton mezzo, Gaulish meduos meaning ‘drunk’, ‘intoxicated’ (from IE *meduo-).2306 However, in Irish mythical lore, Medb is never portrayed as being inebriated after ingurgitating some alcoholic drink, whereas she is described offering intoxicating drinks to men of her own will (see below). Moreover, Tomás Ó Máille underlines that “the word [medb] occurs in the Amra Conruí, Ériu II 5, 12, in the phrase medb domun, which is glossed mesc dorcha, ‘intoxicating and dark’”.2307 In addition, he translates the third name of the province of Connacht, Cóiced (n-) Ólnécmacht, mentioned in Cóir Anmann [‘The Fitness of Names’] (§ 77), as ‘the province of the drink which renders powerless’, that is ‘which intoxicates’. And this province is also called Cóiced Meidbe (‘The Province of Medb’).2308 Therefore, for all these reasons, it is generally agreed today that her name means ‘the Intoxicating Goddess’ or ‘the Mead Goddess’. She is not the one who gets drunk but the one who makes men drunk by offering them intoxicating beverages, as illustrated in Irish mythology.
Indeed, the famous epic of the Ulster Cycle, the Táin B ό Cúailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’],2309 the initial composition in both prose and verse of which dates from the 7th c. and 8th c. AD, portrays her as a mythical queen providing intoxicating drinks to the most renowned warriors, such as Fer Báeth, Láríne mac Nóis, Fer Diad mac Damáin and Fergus, her lover, so that they should accept to fight the invincible Ulster hero Cú Chulainn (‘the Hound of Culann’).2310 The pattern is repeatedly the same: the warrior is sent to the tent of Ailill and Medb, and first refuses to fight because he is Cú Chulainn’s foster-brother, but each time Medb uses the same trickery. She offers the champion her daughter Finnabair (‘Fair Eyebrows’) in marriage and gets him inebriated with an intoxicating beverage - wine is mentioned in the text, but, originally, it was obviously mead on account of her name.2311 Under the influence of the drink, the warrior finally accepts to fight a duel with Cú Chulainn. She paints in glowing colours what they would get if they married her daughter: wealth, power and, above all, access to the forthcoming throne (kingship):‘Dobretha Medb techta for cend Fir Diad […] Tucad Findabair, ingen Medba 7 Ailella, fora leathláim. Is í ind Findabair sin no gobad láim ar ach cúach 7 ar cach copán d’Fir Diad ; is í dobeired teóra póc fria cach copán dí-sin dó ; is í no dáiled ubla fírchubra dar sedlach a léned fair. Is ed adberead-si bah é a leandán 7 a toga tochmairc do feraib in tsáegail Fer Diad. Inaim robo sáithech subach sofarbaílig Fer Diad, is and adbert Medb: ‘Maith aile, a Fir Diad, in fetair-seo cia fáth ma radgoired isin pupull sa?[…] bith a Crúachain do grés, 7 fín do dáil fort and […] Findabair m’ingen-sa 7 ingen Aililla do όenmnaí dait 7 comaid dom sliasaid-sea’.2312
By the same token, in Fled Bricrend [‘The Feast of Briccriu’], a story composed as early as the 8th c., and probably drawing on ancient antecedents, which recounts the competition, organised by Bricriu biltenga ( ‘evil-mouthed’), between Lόegaire Buadach, Conall Cernach and Cú Chulainn, to get the curadhmhír (‘the champion’s portion’), Medb is described handing cups of wine - which obviously replaced mead - to the three champions: Lόegaire receives a cup of bronze, decorated with a silver alloy bird, full of luscious wine (cúach créduma ocus én findruini for a lar […] a lán do fín aicnetai and), Conall is given a silver alloy cup with a gold bird on its bottom (cúach findruini dano ocus én όir for a lar) and Cú Chulainn is awarded a gold cup of wine with a bird of precious stone set in the goblet (cúach dérgoir dó ocus a lán do fín sainemail and ocus én do lic lógmair for a lár).2320
Interestingly, it can be observed that Medb is etymologically cognate with the Indian goddess Mādhavī, the name of which comes from Sanskrit mádhu, ‘spring’, ‘honey of flowers’, ‘honey’, ‘intoxicating beverage’ or ‘mead’ (from IE *médhu).2321 According to Georges Dumézil, the word mādhavī can be understood as either ‘spring flower abounding in honey’ or ‘intoxicating beverage drawn from honey or from this flower particularly rich in honey’, which is to say ‘mead’.2322 Therefore, her name undeniably refers to the inebriation provoked by the madhu, of which she was undeniably its embodiment like Medb. And yet, the story of Mādhavī, recounted in the fifth hymn of the Mahābhārata, does not refer to an intoxicating drink offered by the goddess to the four kings she marries.2323 The ‘intoxication’ emanating from her is not provoked by a drink but by her beauty which creates amorous desire. Anyhow, Georges Dumézil agrees that her name is inductive of some traces of an ancient religious cult glorifying the madhu, which was later personified into a goddess, Mādhavī. The existence of goddesses of mead-intoxication in Irish and Indian ancient literature is indicative of a very ancient religious pattern with regard to mead.
Medb’s name may also be linked to the notions of power and sovereignty. Pinault, studying the Gaulish proper name Epomeduos (‘the one who masters horses’), points to the homonymy between the IE roots *medwo-, ‘drunk, intoxicated’ (from *medhwo-) and *medwo-, ‘master, the one who rules’, which gave the verbal theme med- ‘to rule’ and the word medu-, ‘mead’ in Celtic.2324 Lambert infers from Pinault’s analysis that the name of the goddess Medb can refer both to the intoxicating drink and to political power.2325 The Ancients must have cultivated the ambiguity between the two homonymic words, because, as will be demonstrated, sovereignty and intoxication were interrelated: it was the drink, personified by the goddess, which granted sovereignty. The play on words between laith, ‘ale’ and flaith, ‘sovereignty’ in the Irish texts supports that idea. Various supernatural ladies are described offering the ale (laith) which confers sovereignty (flaith) on the new king. The name Gormfhlaith or Gormlaith, ‘Black Blue Sovereignty’ or ‘Black Blue Intoxicating Drink’, borne by many early Irish abbesses and noblewomen, and notably by the wife of King Brian Bóramha (AD 926-1014), are good examples of that equivocality.2326 Queen Medb is thus both the ‘Intoxicating Goddess’ and the ‘Ruler’; two functions which she clearly embodies in the literature, as will be developed at the end of this chapter.
Dumézil, 1995, p. 330 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 165 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 339.
For more details about the differing opinions, see Dumézil, 1995, p. 330 and Weisweiler, 1943, pp. 112-114, who gathered and analyzed the various opinions. Cf. for example Zimmer’s interpretation of the name Medb as ‘die Betrunkene’, i.e. ‘the Drunken One’.
Delamarre, 2003, pp. 222-223.
Ó Máille, 1928, p. 143.
Ó Máille, 1928, p. 144 says that “Écmacht is from ē-cumacht, the negative prefix (n) + cumacht ‘power’”. Dumézil, 1995, p. 340, note 2, indicates that this interpretation was contested by O’Brien, 1932, pp. 163-164, who proposed for Cóiced (n-) Ólnécmacht, ‘the province beyond the impassable tract of land’; Connacht being separated from Ulster by impassable lakes and swamps.
It is the longest and most important tale of the Ulster Cycle. It is preserved in three recensions. Recension I is the oldest manuscript version, edited by O’Rahilly in 1976. For an account of the story and a bibliography, see Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 488-492 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 396-399, 422-423 ; Beck, 2003, pp. 98-125.
For details about Cú Chulainn, see Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 137-146.
Mackillop, 2004, pp. 227, 260, 262.
O’Rahilly, 1976, pp. 78-79 [2577-2601].
O’Rahilly, 1976, p. 196.
O’Rahilly, 1976, p. 54 [1750-1754].
O’Rahilly, 1976, p. 174.
O’Rahilly, 1976, p. 56 [1818-1824].
O’Rahilly, 1976, p. 177.
O’Rahilly, 1976, p. 76 [2501-2504].
O’Rahilly, 1976, p. 193.
Henderson, 1899, pp. 74-79, § 62. For an account of this story, which is part of the Ulster Cycle, see Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 48-50 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 237-238 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 166 ; O’Rahilly, 1946, pp. 16-17.
Stchoupakn, N., Nitti, L. & Renou, L., Dictionnaire de Sanskrit-Français, Paris, Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient, 1972.
Dumézil, 1995, pp. 328-329.
For an account of the story, see Dumézil, 1995, pp. 316-327.
Pinault, 2007, pp. 291-307. The proper name Epomeduos is engraved on an Averni coin (IIPOMIIDVOS), see RIG IV, 166. Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 339 suggests that his name could refer to a specific rite, linking kingship, mead and horses. There is a text which has Medb racing against horses, see Gwynn, 1924, pp. 366-367, 473.
Lambert, 2006a, p. 1522.
Mackillop, 2004, p.259 ; Trindade, Ann, ‘Irish Gormlaith as a sovereignty figure’, in EC, 23, 1986, pp. 143-156 ; Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín, ‘On Gormfhlaith daughter of Flann Sianna and the lure of the sovereignty goddess’, in Smyth, A. P. (ed.), Seanchas: Studies in early and medieval Irish archaeology, history and literature in honour of Francis J. Byrne, Dublin, 2000, pp. 225-237 ; Ní Mhaonaigh, Máire, ‘Tales on three Gormlaiths in Medieval Irish Literature’, in Ériu, 52, 2002, pp. 1-24.