Posts Tagged ‘Medb Lethderg’

Britta Irslinger (University of Freiburg) presented, “Medb ‘the intoxicating one?’ (Re-) constructing the past through etymology.

For almost 120 years, the name of Queen Medb has been explained as being cognate with the Old IIrish words medb ‘strong, intoxicating (of alcoholic beverages)’ and mid ‘mead’. Medb from *med u/a/ ‘the intoxicating one’ has been assumed to be derived from Proto-Indo European *med u– ‘mead’. Ever since, this etymology is part of the standard inventory of any scholarly discussion of the literary figure of Medb, according perfectly with her character and behaviour as described in the Táin. But its explanatory capacity is not limited to medieval Irish literature. Medb has been interpreted as an original goddess, who bestowed sovereignty on kings during the ritual of hieros gamas comprising the draught of mead. However recently, these views have been seriously questioned by a new etymology by Pinault (2007) comparing the name of Medb to the several Gualish names and deriving all of them from the Indo-European root *med– ‘to govern’.
I will discuss both etymologies in relation to the extralinguistic facts which have been adduced to support them. Furthermore, I will show how, for modern scholarship, the traditional ‘mead’ etymology became an important feature for the interpretation of the literary figure, although ‘Medb’ probably was not a transparent name for medieval audiences. Finally. I will question the role and the methods of those scholars who reconstruct the concepts and beliefs of medieval and archaic societies.

The handout for this presentation is extensive and because of that my notes are minimal. Britta is asking whether Medb was a goddess, and if so what were the rituals associated with her. There appears to be a conditional association with a king’s mental and physical well-being. It is agreed that Irish Kingship displays the concept of sacral kingship: hieros gamos — the king marries the local fertility goddess. I am typing up the bulk of her handout, but I encourage anyone interested in the details of these proceedings to purchase Ulidia 4 when it comes out.


1. Medb as allegorical personification of sovereignty (Ó Máille 1928)
1.1 Narrative: Medb, as Queen of Connachta says in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, “I was never without one man in the shadow of another.”
1.2 Genealogical: Medb of Crúachain, daughter of king Eochaid Feidlech, was married to 4 kings. Medb Lethderg, daughter of king Conán Cualann, was married to 4 kings (belonging to different generations). In LL 380a53 : “Great indeed was the strength and power of that Medb over the men of Ireland, for she would not allow a king in Tara without his having herself as a wife…
(the inauguration ceremony banais ríghi ‘wedding of kingship’)

2. Medb as a goddess (Thurneysen 2930, 1933, Bowen 1975, MacCana 1982, Egeler 2012 et al.)
Her sexuality and promiscuity are noted (Fergus Mac Róich as lover), as well as her family connections (Father: Eochaid Feidlech; Sisters: Clothra, Mugain, Eithne; Husband: Ailill ‘spectre’; Daughter: Findabair ‘white phantom’). She also shapes the landscape with the Fúal Medba: (LL-TBC 4831) “Medb passed her water and it made three great trenches in each of which a household can fit. Hence the place is called Fúal Medba”.  Birds are mentioned on her shoulder in (TBC I 3206-7), and she fights in battles (war goddess).

3. Etymology of Medb (Stokes 1894, Zimmer 1911, Ó Máille 1928, Thurneysen 1930, McCone 1990, et al.)
I can’t write out the flow of this etymology, but the key words are ‘mead’ from Old Irish, Welsh, Breton; ‘strong, intoxicating’ from Old Irish; ‘drunk’ from Welsh and Breton. Some derived nouns include the middle Irish medbán (the name of some edible plant), modern Irish meadhbhá(i)n (megrim, whirling in the head, intoxication; a stimulating sea-breeze; an succulent wild plant that causes intoxication; an edible sea-weed dried and seasoned). Old Irish Medb (the intoxicated one, the intoxicating one; mead woman).

4. Further evidence includes medieval sovereignty allegories. Echtra Mac Echdach Mugmedóin (Níall and his brothers are searching for water, they meet a hag guarding the well who demands a kiss in exchange for water, Níall kisses her, and she is transformed into a beautiful young woman who identifies herself as sovereignty. The five sons of king Dáire Doimthech is another example, as is the Baile in Scáil (Conn Cétchathach, the king, is brought to an otherworld dwelling where he meets a beautiful girl, the Sovereignty of Ireland, who distributes drink from a vat and says, “Upon whom shall this golden cup with red ale be bestowed and whom shall drink it?” Flaith ‘sovereignty’ ~ derg(f)laith ‘red beer/sovereignty’ – Red Sovereignty

5. The flaith – laith metaphor
Art will drink it after forty nights, a mighty hero He will die at Muccruime.
Corpre of combats will drink it with the truth of sovereignty.
To drink by the light of candles of pure wax in Dinn Ríg for the famous king — safe is the lord of the hills by means of that — the ale of Cuala, games at Carman.
Which is best of the drinks of sovereignty? where ale is drunk, frenzy of liquor. He will not be a king over Ireland, unless the ale of Cuala comes to him.
Medb Lethderg=daughter of Conán Cúalann (see above number 1).

6. Themes of the sovereignty myth and sovereignty goddesses (O’Rahilly 1946c, MacCana 1955-56, 1958-59, 1982, Carey 1983, Clark 1991, Maier 1991)
The Sovereignty goddess theme includes examination of candidates, bestowal of kingship by intercourse and/or by the presentation of a drink, the unrightful candidate fails/dies/does not get the drink. The appearance of the sovereignty goddess is of an ugly old hag / a madwoman / a poor woman if the rightful king is absent, but she transforms into a beautiful young woman by intercourse with the king. She is presented as the mother of the heir / the dynasty / a saint / queen of the otherworld. Her family and relations themes are that she has many suitors if a king’s daughter, she has several husbands or lovers if a queen, her husband dies / she abandons him / commits adultery / is abducted or raped by a rival. Scant mention is made of the presentation of a drink. Sovereignty goddesses (O’Rahilly 1946c, MacCana 1955-56, 1958-59) are:
Territorial Goddesses: Áine, daughter of Manannán; Anu; Caillech Bérre “hag of Bérre’;  Ébliu / Éblenn; Ériu / Banba / Fótla; Grian ‘sun’;  Macha;  Medb;  Mór Muman / Mugain;  Mórrígain ‘great queen’; Tailtiu
Mythical Women of the Otherworld: Eithne, Tháebfhota, Étaín, Sabd daughter of Bodb
Other: Órnat / Deoch ‘drink’, Suithchern, Mis, Créd, Mes Búachalla, Deirdre, Gráinne ‘ugliness’
Allegorical: Flaith, Flaithius ‘sovereignty’, Gormlaith ‘brilliant sovereignty’

There can be little doubt that Deirdre – in common, it might be said, with virtually all the other heroines of medieval irish literature– is an adaptation in human terms of the archetypical goddess figure.” (MacCana 1982, 522)

“… the centres of the Lughnasa festival are associated with a god who was himself closely connected with a goddess representing the fruitfulness of the land and the sovereignty of the territory. And, as in India, it seems to me that in Ireland a great deal of this mythology of the land must represent a continuity from the pre-Indo-European–in other words pre-Celtic–culture of the country.” (MacCana 1988, 334)

7. Reconstructed beliefs include “The Celtic goddess” as female personification of the territory, the female partner in the hieros gamos (sacred marriage), bestows the sovereignty upon the king, during a ceremony involving the presentation of an intoxicating beverage, name *Medua ‘the intoxicating one’ / ‘mead woman’.

8. The etymology of Medb in scholarly works:

Medb, …, can mean either ‘the drunken one’ or ‘she who intoxicates’. Drunkenness, at least in this context, would not have been seen as degenerative behavior, but as a king of ecstatic state in which a human was lifted out of himself and might hope to achieve contact with the divine. .. Thus the king’s ritual drunkenness at the inaugural feast might be interpreted as an image of the sacred orgasm in which he was united with the goddess.” (Bowen 1975, 21)

Medb’s name means the ‘intoxicating one’, and she is a form of the goddess who is various cultures is seen providing the king or hero with a libation, a drink necessary for him to continue his reign.” (Condren 1989, 235, fn. 40)

“One of the ways the goddess signaled acceptance of a would-be king was to offer him a drink: this aspect is conveyed in Medbs very name, which has been explained as a derivative of the word med ‘mead’, meaning ‘the intoxicating (or intoxicated) one.” (Kelly 1992, 78)

“Her name means ‘intoxicating’ or ‘she who intoxicates’; she offered then drink of dominion from her own fertile body. But in Táin Bó Cuailnge, first written down around the eighth century, Medb’s drink, like too much alcohol, could also rob a man his virility.” (Bitel 1996, 70)

“Today, the most frequently quoted reason for attributing a mythological background to the literary figure Medb is probably the etymology of her name.” (Egeler 2012, 68)

9.  Medb and the presentation of drinks:  Medb intoxicates Fer Diad; Medb poisons Lugaid Laígse; Medb bestows the ríge laéch n-Erend ‘the sovereignty of thee warriors of Ireland’ (Three main Ulster heroes come to the court of Ailill and Medb to receive a judgement on the question who of them is the superior warrior. Medb tells each hero secretly that he is the best and gives him a precious cup filled with wine and decorated with the figure of a bird at the bottom. However, the cups are made of metals of different value. Back in Ulster, they discover, that Cú Chulainn has received the most valuable cup. The decision is not accepted by the two inferior ones, who accuse Cú Chulainn to have bought it.); the very name of Connacht–Cóiced Medba / Cóiced (n-)Ól n-écmacht (They were called Cóiced Ól nÉcmacht. It is not difficult [to explain]. A feast was offered to them and to Clanna Degad in the house of Domma the druid. The Connachta arrived first and they did not divide fairly the ale or the food with Clanna Degad, but consumed fully two thirds of it. So the druid said at that time: “the drinking that you do is impossible”, i.e. it is beyond capacity, i.e. it is ill-conceived. That is why [the name] Cóiced Ól nÉcmachta has stuck to the province of Connachta ever since.)

10. Expression of ‘drunkenness, intoxication’ and ‘drunken, intoxicated’ in Ol Irish. I have a note that says medb was already obsolete in Old Irish. mescae ‘intoxication’; i mmescai ‘intoxicated’; medb ‘strong, intoxicating’; medb ‘bitter, acid’

11.  Alternative Etymology (Pinault 2007)
PIE root *med– ‘take the appropriate measures to face a difficulty, solve a problem’
*med- ‘to measure, to care for observance, to look after’
‘to rule’
‘to heal’
‘to judge’
‘to measure’
Gaul. Epomeduos ‘he who conducts / governs the horses’ (instead of ‘intoxicated by the horse’)
Old Irish. Medb < *med-ua ‘she who rules’, ‘(female) ruler, sovereign’

Two Gaulish goddesses (Lambert 2006): Meduna, Comedovis Augustis
‘rules, evaluates’
‘lord, ruler’

12.  Reconstructed Cults:
Medb as a sun goddess or goddess of dawn (‘solar mythology” – under influence of Max Mueller and gods as personification).
Medb herself, married first to Conchobar, then to Ailill, is to be classed with what I may, in default of a better term, goddesses of dawn and dusk, who are found at one time consorting with bight beings and at another with dark ones. They also associate themselves commonly with water…” (Rhys 1888, 138f.)

Mebd as epithet of PIE *h2-eusos, goddess of dawn and sovereignty goddess – The sovereignty myth is not restricted to Celtic religion but Proto-Indo-European. (McCone 2112)


Medb as Indo-European river goddess (Olmsted 1994) Comparison with Continental place names and tribal names containing the element *med– ‘mead’. Medb is linked to a ritual bull killing (like the Great Mother is Rome) (Olmsted 1994). Medb as a horse goddess (McCone 1990, Mallory / McNeill 1991) Connection of the sovereignty myth hypotheses with the inauguration ritual of the Cenenel Connaill, Ulster described by Giraldus Cambrensis; the ceremony that involved the ritual marriage of the king with a mare and/or some form of horse sacrifice. Parallel with Old Indic ‘horse sacrifice’, where in the Indic ritual the king’s wives have intercourse with a sacrificed stallion.


“The points raised above constitute a substantial dossier of varied evidence, including some remarkably circumstantial correspondences, for an Indo-European institution, ideology and mythology of sacral kingship. This was based on the widely attested notion that the well-being of society and nature flowed from a ritual marriage between a goddess and the new ruler to emerge after appropriate tests. The former might be called *Med h w-i or *Med h w-a after the draught of mead (*med h u) involved in the ceremony, which apparently centered upon an equine ritual and associated feast. “ (McCone 1990, 120)

“…the royal family which was supposed to be still practicing this sacred bestiality had been Christian for at least six centuries and supplied (among other churchmen) twelve abbots of Iona.” (Hutton 1991, 172)

Medb as mead goddess, Medb as a goddess of intoxication; one of several Celtic goddesses of intoxication (Meduna, Comedovis, Latis..); there was a Celtic cult of ‘ritual intoxication’ to get into contact with the divine world; ‘ritual intoxication’ is linked to healing, war, and sovereignty.

13.  Other mythologic backgrounds of the Táin (not involving Medb): Cú Chulainn as a vegetation god or ‘year spirit’ (vegetation deity) (Ó Broin, 1961-63); Cú chulainn lives one year with (goddess) Fedelm Noíchride / Foltchaín after having mutilated her companion; bull fight of the Táin as a Proto-Indo-European cosmogonic myth (Lincoln 1981) The ‘divine bull’ as a cult animal among the Celts (Ross 1992).

-There is no evidence that Medb was understood as ‘the intoxicating one’ within the native tradition.
-The etymology Medb ‘rule’ has semantic parallels with other theonyms.
-It is compatible with a sovereignty goddess, but not with a mead cult or mead ritual.
-The sovereignty allegory with the presentation of a drink in the Irish tradition may be due to the flaith~laith-metaphor (only in Irish, not in Brittonic).
-Reconstructions of archaic rituals which are mainly based on etymologies of theonyms are doubtful.


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