1) Medb: the Emblematic Figure of Sovereignty

Medb is represented in the ancient texts as a goddess of sovereignty, sometimes presiding over Leinster (Teamhair), under the name of Medb Lethderg, or presiding over Connacht, under the name of Medb of Cruachan (Rathcroghan, in Co. Roscommon).2435 They appear as separate characters within narrative texts, and yet, all the scholars agree that they are the very same figure.2436 The tradition of Medb Lethderg may be older: hence, Medb of Cruachan is highly likely to be an emanation from the former.

Their respective stories stress on impressive number of husbands they had one after the other and reveal that it was Medb who granted sovereignty to the future king by coupling with him. In the Book of Leinster, Medb Lethderg is said to have successively been the wife of Cú Corb, then Feidlimid Rechtaid, father of Conn Cétchathach, then of his grandson Art, and later still of Cormarc Mac Airt:

‘Roba mor tra nert agus cumachta Meidhbhe insin for firu Erenn air isi na leigedh ri a Temair gan a beth fein aigi na mnái agus is le conrotacht in righ-raith for taeb Temra .i. raith Medhbhe […].

Great indeed was the strength and power of that Medb over the men of Ireland, for she it was who would not allow a king in Tara without his having herself as a wife. And by her was built the royal rath on the side of Tara, i.e. Rath Medbae […].2437

Another version, from the R.I.A., says:

‘Doratsat Laighin na lann rigi do mac righ Eirenn nocor fhaidh Medb lesin mac nirbo righ Eirenn Cormac.

The Leinstermen of the blades gave the kingship to the son of the king of Ireland - until Medb mated with the son, Cormac was not king of Ireland.2438

Like her namesake, Medb of Cruachan is the goddess of sovereignty. In Cath Boinde [The Battle of the Boyne], a text dating from the early 10th c., she is explicitly referred to as the one owning the crown of Cruachain, for her father gave her the throne:

‘Eochaid Feidleach […] cuiris Meadb i n-inad rig i Cruachain.

Eochaid Feidleach […] set Meadb up in the royal seat of Cruachain.. 2439

The text also indicates that Medb married five husbands in a row: Cochonbar of Ulster, Fidech mac Féice, Tindi mac Con, Eochaid Dála, and finally Ailill mac Máta, who is Medb’s husband in the Táin B ό Cúailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’]. The important thing to note is that each time Medb chooses a new husband, this one becomes the new king of the province by her own will and consent:

‘co rob i comairle do-ronsad:- rigi Condacht d’ainmneochad d’Eochaid Dala do deoin Meadba. Do deonaid Meadb sin dia m-beith na ceili di fein agus cen et, cen oman, cen neoidi do beith and, uair ba geis disi beith ac ceili na m-beidis na treideada sin. Do rigad Eochaid Dala trid sin co roibi trell i Cruachain na cheili ac Meidb.

The counsel they decided on was to appoint Eochaid Dala to the kingship of Connacht with the consent of Meadb. Meadb consents to that on condition that he should marry her, and that he should have neither jealousy, fear, nor niggardliness, for it was a ‘geis’ [taboo*] to her to marry a man who should have these three qualitites. Eochaid Dala was crowned through this, and was a while in Cruachan, as Meadb’s husband.2440
cor gradaig Meadb é ar a sobésaib, cor æntaich ria, cor bo ceili di he tar cend Echaid Dala […] Gabais Ailill rigi Connacht do deoin Meadba da eisi sin, corob é ba rig Conacht ac rigad Chonairi Moir agus ic tobairt thosaich na tana for Ulltaib.

Meadb loved him [Ailill] for his virtues, and he was united to her, and became her lover in place of Eochaid Dala. […] Ailill assumed the kingship of Connacht thereafter, with the consent of Meadb ; and it is he who was the king of Connacht at the time of the crowning of Conaire the great and the beginning of the cattle-raid against the Ulstermen.2441

In addition to these various literary references, it has been observed that Medb’s name can be derived from two homonymic Indo-European roots, respectively meaning ‘intoxicated’ and ‘master, ruler’.2442 Her name thus directly refers to the notion of sovereignty, like the meaning of her two epithets. Indeed, as regards Medb Lethderg, her epithet means ‘Half-Red’ or ‘Red-Side’ - Old Irish derg and Gaulish dergo- mean ‘red’ as well as ‘bloody’.2443 This would hint that kingship was sometimes ‘bloody’, either because the sovereign had to fight to preserve or gain territory, or because there might have been bloody contests to gain access to the throne.2444 As for Medb of Cruachan, her epithet may be derived from crú, genitive cró, ‘blood’ and thus signify ‘With Red Skin’ or ‘Bloody Red’. Ó Máille proposes that Cruachan could designate a place of sun-worship and blood-sacrifices in ancient times, but this remains conjectural.2445 At any rate, both Medbs have epithets which refer to the red colour, which obviously connotes blood, violence and war, which is to say sovereignty and the protection of the territory.2446 And Medb is clearly portrayed as a war-like female figure in Irish mythology. Moreover, it should be added that the red colour is generally used to refer to the supernatural forces in Irish medieval literature.2447 This epithet consequently indicates that Medb was a divine personage in the origin, even if she was euhemerized as a mythical queen in the Irish texts.

According to this series of traditions, it is significant that Medb represents the sovereignty of Ireland and it is she only who grants kingship. These texts do not mention an intoxicating drink or a cup given to the forthcoming kings. Nonetheless, we have seen that, in Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’], she is pictured offering intoxicating drinks to the potential future sovereigns. Therefore, in view of these elements, it can be maintained that the libation*-element is implied by her name in those tales portraying her as the personification of sovereignty. Medb being the embodiment simultaneously of drink and sovereignty, it can be inferred that sovereignty was symbolically granted by an intoxicating drink - mead on account of her name. To support this idea, Ó Máille alludes to a difficult and corrupt poem contained in the 9th-century prose tale Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin [‘The Story of Cano son of Gartnán’], which says that:

‘niba ri ar an Erind . mani toro coirm Chualand.2448

he will not be a king over Ireland, unless he gets the ale of Cualu.2449

And it might be significant that Medb Letherderg is called ingen Chonain Cualann, that is ‘the daughter of Conān of Cualu’ in the Book of Leinster, for it would mean that Medb is ‘the ale of Cualu’ which bestows kingship.2450


See the section on ‘Territorial Goddesses’ in Chapter 3.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 340 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 327.


Ó Máille, 1928, pp. 137-138 refers to the Book of Leinster (LL) 380 a 53.


Ó Máille, 1928, p. 139 refers to R.I.A . 23 H 6, 199a (=ZCP XI, p. 40ff).


Ó Máille, 1928, p. 131 ; O’Neill, 1905, pp. 178-179.


O’Neill, 1905, pp. 182-183.


O’Neill, 1905, pp. 183-185.


ILN - V.1, p. 62, n°662.


Delamarre, 2003, p. 140.


Ó hÓgáin, 1999, p. 134 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 339 ; Ó Máille, 1928, pp. 142-143 ; Dumézil, 1995, p. 337. For another interpretation, see Wong, 1996, p. 240.


Ó Máille, 1928, p. 146 ; Dumézil, 1995, p. 337.


Dumézil, 1954, p. 11.


See the legend of Togail Bruidne Da Derga [‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ ] - derg means ‘red’ - which is an otherworld hotel or banqueting hall in Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 97-98 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 409-410. Many legends, such as theTáin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’], refer to cows with red ears, which indicates that they belong to the supernatural world, etc.


Anecdota from Irish MSS. I 14.


Ó Máille, 1928, p. 145.


Ó Máille, 1928, p. 145 ; Book of Leinster (LL) 380 a 53.