1) Irish literature: Medb

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

Medb sent messengers for Fer Diad […] Finnabair, the daughter of Medb and Ailill, was placed at his side. It was she who handed Fer Diad every goblet and cup; it was she who gave him three kisses with every one of those cups ; it was she who gave him fragrant apples over the bosom of her tunic. She kept saying that Fer Diad was her beloved, her chosen lover from among all the men of the world. When Fer Diad was sated and cheerful and merry, Medb said: ‘Well now, Fer Diad, do you know why you have been summoned to this tent? […] [You will be given …] permission to remain all time in Crúachu [Medb’s royal place] with wine poured for you there […] and Finnabair, my daughter and Ailill’s, as your wedded wife, and my own intimate friendship.2313
Adfét Láeg dó uile aní sin. Ro congrad Fer Báeth hi pupull do Ailill 7 Medb, 7 asber fris suide for láim Findabrach 7 a tabairt dó ar ba hé a togu ar chomrac fri Coin Culaind. Ba hé fer a dingbála leó ar ba cuma dán díb línaib la Scáthaig. Doberar fín dό íarom corbo mesc, 7 asber fris bá cáem leό-som a llind sin, ní tobrad acht ere cόecat fén leό. Ocus ba hí ind ingen no gebed láim fora c[h]uitseom de.2314

Láeg recounted it all to him [Cú Chulainn], telling him how Fer Báeth had been summoned to Ailill and Medb in their tent and told to sit beside Finnabair and that she would be given to him as a reward for fighting with Cú Chulainn, for he was her chosen lover. They considered that he was a match for Cú Chulainn for they had both learnt the same art of war with Scáthach. Fer Báeth was plied with wine until he was intoxicated. He was told that they prized that liquor for only fifty wagon-loads of it had been brought by them. And the maiden used to serve him his share of the wine.2315
Congairther dóib Láríne mac Nóiss olla n-aile bráthair side do Lugaid ríg Muman. Ba mór a úallchas. Doberar fín dó 7 doberar Findabair fora desraid. Tossécai Medb a ndís. ‘Is mellach lim ind lánamain ucut’ ol sí. ‘Ba coindme a comrac’ ‘Ní géb-sa dít ém’ or Ailill. ‘Ra mbia día tuca cend ind ríastairthe dam-sa.’ ‘Dobér immorro’ ar Láríne.2316

Láríne mac Nóis, brother of Lugaid King of Munster, was summoned to them [Ailill and Medb]. His pride was over-weening. He was plied with wine and Finnabair was placed at his right hand. Medb looked at the two. ‘I think that couple well matched’, said she. ‘A marriage between them would be fitting.’ ‘I shall not oppose you’, said Ailill. ‘He shall have her if he bring me the head of the distorted one [Cú Chulainn].’ ‘I shall do so indeed’ said Láiríne.2317
Is and gessa do Fergus mac Rόich techt ara c[h]end-som. Opaidside dano dul ar end a daltai .i. Con Culaind. Dobreth fín do 7 ro mescad co trén 7 ro guded im dula isin comrac. Téit ass íarom ό ro bás ocá etargude co tromda.2318

Then Fergus was begged to go against him [Cú Chulainn]. But he refused to encounter his foster-son, Cú Chulainn. He was plied with wine then until he was greatly intoxicated, and again he was asked to go and fight. So then he went forth since they were so earnestly importuning him.2319

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.