2) Intoxication and Sovereignty

With regard to this subject, it is worth mentioning that a reference to ‘mead’ is contained in the name of the great banqueting hall of Tara, which is in Old Irish Tech Midchuarta and in Late Medieval Irish Teach Miodhchuarta, literally ‘the house where the mead went around’, i.e. ‘the mead (miodh) circling (chuarta) house (teach)’ or ‘the circular house of the (mead-) feast’ - cuairt meaning a circular visit -, belonging to the myth of Cormac mac Art, the fourth husband of Medb Lethderg.2451 This name is highly likely to have been a fanciful interpretation by an Old Irish writer of the prehistorical structure - which is actually rectangular - unearthed at the sacral site of Tara, where religious ceremonies were undoubtedly held as shown by the archaeological evidence.2452 Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that a mythical celebration, anciently known as Feis Temro (‘Feast of Tara’), was held at Tara, which was the centre of the cult of sacred kingship presided over by Medb. Known in Irish literature as banais ríghe (‘wedding-feast of kingship’), with banais or ban-fheis, literally signifying ‘sleeping with a woman’, this feast was celebrated by each king during his reign and symbolised his union with the goddess of sovereignty, who embodied the territory over which he ruled.2453 An episode contained in Cath Boinde, mentions this festival in Tara organised by Eochaid Feidleach, gathering the provinces of Ireland, which could not be held without the presence of Medb:

‘Gnithis feis Temra la h-Eochaid Feidleach co cuicedaib Erend imi acht Meadb agus Tindu. Hirailid fir Erend ar Eochaid Meadb do breith sa n-aenach. Cuiris Eochaid Searbluath a bain-eachlach ar cend Meadba co Cruachain. Teid Meadb arna marach co Temraid cor cuiread graifne in aenaich leo co cend cæcaisi ar mis.

The festival of Tara was held by Eochaid Feidleach, with the provinces of Ireland about him (all) except Meadb and Tindi. The men of Ireland bade Eochaid bring Meadb to the gathering. Eochaid sent Searbluath, his female messenger, to Cruachan for Meadb. Meadb goes on the morrow to Tara, and the fair-races were run by them for a fortnight and a month.2454

The link between this feast and the goddess of mead-intoxication and the name of the banqueting hall of Tara, which directly refers to mead, must indicate that mead was consumed on very specific religious occasions, for instance in the context of ritual and sacral kingship, which ultimately implied the connection and participation of the divine world. The celebration was undeniably a drinking feast, celebrating the new representative of the gods, that is the king, in which sacred mead must have played an important role in contacting the otherworld - as mead was ritually drunk at the funerary ceremony of the Prince of Hochdorf.2455 It may be that the king, in drinking the sacred beverage, symbolically swallowed the goddess, this marking his union with the goddess of sovereignty and conferring him his divine powers of king.

The pattern of the lady bestowing sovereignty on the future king by offering him a cup of alcoholic drink undoubtedly lays behind the early legend of the foundation of Massalia (Marseilles) related by Aristotle in the 4th c. BC. This text relates that Petta, the daughter of Nannus, King of the Segobriges, had to choose the man who would become her husband, i.e. the future king, by offering him a drink. It is significant that her name, Petta, means ‘a portion (of land)’. This indeed indicates that she is the very representation of the land-goddess. Therefore, this early classical text echoes Irish mythology and attests of the antiquity of the Celtic belief of the goddess of intoxication embodying and purveying sovereingty. The legend is the following:

‘As Nannus was celebrating his daughter’s marriage, Euxenes happened to arrive, and he was invited to the feast. The form of the marriage was thus – after the meal, the maiden was to enter and to give a bowl of drink which she had mixed to the man preferred by her among the assembled suitors. He to whom she offered it would be the bridegroom. When she came in, the maiden gave the bowl – whether by chance, or by design, to Euxenes. Her name was Petta. At this, her father considered that she had acted in accordance with divine will. Euxenes took her as wife and lived with her, changing her name to Aristoxene, and even still there is a family-line descended from this woman in Massilia.2456

There is therefore a very strong correlation between mead, the goddess of intoxication, and sacred kingship; a pattern which is present in many Irish medieval literary accounts belonging to the Cycle of the Kings.2457 The earliest and most relevant examples are as follows: Baile Chuind Chétchathaig [‘The Frenzy of Conn of the Hundred Battles’], an obscure 8th-century text listing the High Kings of Tara in the form of prophecies, describes various kings ‘drinking’ the sovereignty, which is identified by significant female symbols.2458 In Baile in Scáil [‘The Phantom’s Frenzy’], composed at the beginning of the 11th c. AD, King Conn Cétchathach met Lugh Lámfhota and an otherworld lady, wearing a golden crown and seated on a crystal throne, who revealed herself as Flaith Érenn, ‘the Sovereignty of Ireland’. While pouring the red ale (derg-laith), she asked to whom the cup should be offered, and Lugh answered by naming every monarch from the time of Conn onward.2459 This personification of sovereignty is generally identified as the land-goddess Ériu.2460 This legend reflects the close relationship bewteen flaith ‘sovereignty’ and laith ‘ale’, a pun referring to the double function of the goddess of sovereignty, who simultaneously embodies the intoxicating drink and confers kingship on the future monarch by handing him a cup of ale. Similarly, in the early 11th-century legend entitled Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedóin [‘The Adventure of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón’], Niall Noígiallach and his brothers met a hideous hag guarding a well, whom Niall accepted to kiss in return for water. The hag immediately turned into a beautiful lady, who identified herself as in Flaithius, ‘Sovereignty’.2461 A similar story is recounted in the c. 13th-century Cóir Anmann [‘The Fitness of Names’] about the five sons of Dáire Doimthech, each called Lugaid, who all except Lugaid Laígde refused to lie with a frightening hag who offered them ale. The following morning, the hag transformed into a beautiful maiden and declared “I am the sovereignty, and the kingship of Ireland will be obtained from you” (missi in flaithius 7 gébthar ríge nÉrenn úat).2462 The pattern is also reflected in the goddess figure associated with the Beara Peninsula in west Cork: Cailleach Bhéarra (‘the Hag or Old Woman of Beara’). Significantly indeed, in a poem dating from the 8th c. or early 9th c.,2463 entitled The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, which describes her as an miserable ugly old woman bemoaning her past youth and beauty and cursing her decay, she relates that she possesses her own ale, that is mead and wine, which she used to drink with the kings of Ireland:

‘A-minecán ! már-úar dam; / cech dercu is erchraide. / ĺar feis fri caindlib sorchuib / bith i ndorchuib derthaige !
Rom-boí denus la ríga / oc όl meda ocus fína; / in-díu ibim medcuisce / eter sentainni crína.
Rop ed mo choirm coidin midc / …………. / oc do guidi-siu, a Dé bí, / ……….. fri feirg.
I am cold indeed; / every acorn is doomed to decay. / After feasting by bright candles to be in the darkness of an oratory !
I have had my day with kings, / drinking mead and wine; / now I drink whey-and-water / among shrivelled old hags.
May my ale be cups of whey / …………. / praying to thee, O living God / ……….. against anger.2464

In this passage of the poem, she is clearly represented as an emanation of the land-goddess conferring sovereignty on the future king through the offering and consumption of mead, like Medb. Cailleach Bhéarra is undoubtedly a land-goddess in origin, more particularly associated with west Cork, and embodying the obscure or negative aspect of the earth goddess, like the Mórrígain. In the introduction to the poem, she is indeed described as the mother or ancestor of peoples, like Danu, and as having several husbands, like Medb:

‘Is de ro-boī Caillech Bērre forre: coīca dalta dī a mBērri. Secht n-aīs n-aíted a ndechaid co dēged cech fer ēc crīne ūade, comtar tūatha 7 chenēla a hui 7 a īarmy, 7 c[h]ēt mblīadna dī fo c[h]ailliu īarna sēnad do Chuimíniu for a cend. Do-sn-ānic-si āes 7 lobrae īarom. Is ant is-rubard-sii.

This is why she was called the Old Woman [or ‘Nun’] of Beare: she had fifty foster-children in Beare. She passed into seven periods of youth, so that every husband ued to pass from her to death of old age, so that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were peoples and races. And for a hundred years she wore the veil, after Cuimíne had blessed it and placed it on her head. Then age and infirmity came to her, and she said. [The poem follows here].2465

Admittedly, this early poem can be interpreted in various ways. Anne-Marie Chalendon indeed explains that:

‘The dying old woman symbolizes the Sovereignty of Ireland, whose lovers (the pagan kings) died without leaving heirs. The poem, a reflection of the inexorability of the passing of time, emphasizes the painful passage to Christianity, all the more so as the old woman is depicted as a religious figure, for the word cailleach derives from the Latin pallium, which signifies ‘veil’, and originally designated a nun.2466

The passing of time and the passage from paganism to Christianity are undeniably essential themes, but it cannot be denied that the ancient pattern of the land-goddess conferring sovereignty on kings by serving them an intoxicated drink is reflected in this early poem about Cailleach Bhéarra. From all of this, it follows that the Celtic goddess of intoxication must originally have presidedover the religious ceremonies celebrating the new king and personified all the rites and cults attached to it. The early account of Athenaeus and the various surviving Irish medieval accounts lend support to this theory.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 470 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 401 ; Mahon, (unknown date), p. 86. Cormac Mac Airt belongs to the King Lore. He is the most famous mythical king of Ireland and his reign is put down to the period 227-266 AD by medieval historians. For more details, see Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 121-129.


Rafferty, 2006, pp. 63-68 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 470 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 401.


Mac Cana, 1955-1956, p. 86 ; Ó hÓgáin, 1999, pp. 133, 469; Mackillop, 2004, p. 33.


O’Neill, 1905, pp. 178-179.


O’Rahilly, 1946, pp. 14-15 and note 3. InTochmarc Emire [‘The Wooing of Emer’], § 47, refers to the banais rígi made by Lugh on his succeeding to the kingship after the death of Nuada. See Meyer, 1890, § 47. Similarly, in Mesca Ulad [‘The Intoxication of the Ulstermen’], Conchobar’s accession to kingship of Ulaid is signalized by a ‘banquet of kingship’ (coibled rígi), for which one hundred vats of liquor were provided. See Hennessy, 1884, p. 8. The access to the kingship was celebrated by a feast (fled, coibled) which was largely a matter of drinking (comόl), which explains the often quoted phrase ic ól na fleide ‘consuming (literally ‘drinking’) the feast’.


Athenaeus 13.36 (576 - quoting Aristotle) & Justin 43.3. See Ó hÓgáin, 2002, pp. 27-28, 243 ; Koch & Carey, 1997, pp. 32-33.


Mac Cana, 1955-1956, pp. 84-86 & 1958-1959, pp. 50-65 ; Enright, 1996 ; Dillon, 1946 ; McCone, 1990, pp. 108-110 ; Byrne, 1973, pp. 7-69 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 301-302.


Murphy, 1952, pp. 146-159 ; Thurneysen, 1912, pp. 48-52.


Meyer, 1901, p. 459 & 1921, p. 373 ; Dillon, 1946, pp. 11-14, 22.


Mac Cana, 1958-1959, p. 63 ; O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 14.


O’Grady, 1892, vol. 1, pp. 326-330 & vol. 2, pp. 368-372. See Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 377-379 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 168-169 ; McCone, 1990, p. 109 ; O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 17.


Stokes, 1897, pp. 316-323. The same story is recounted in Gwynn, 1924, pp. 136-145.


Murphy, 1953a, p. 84.


Murphy, 1953a, pp. 100-101.


Murphy, 1953a, pp. 83-84.


Chalendon, 1994, p. 308.