Women in Irish Mythology: Characters & Folklore

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Women, from the terrifying to the heroic, were instrumental in ancient Irish mythology. Their strong character and powerful presence has set the tone throughout Irish history, and persists even today.

The Women of Irish Myths

Irish mythology, which is basically synonymous with Celtic mythology, is packed with legends, symbols, and meaning. From the leprechaun to Saint Patrick, Irish stories brim with adventure, power, danger, and horror. However, of all the legends and myths of the Irish, the ones featuring the powerful, beautiful, and terrifying women of the land are the most unusual and interesting.

Just think of all the ancient legends of kings and knights. While they are fun and interesting, they all follow many of the same idealized quests and show women in the same weak, in the background fashion. But, in ancient Irish tales, it is the women who are brought to the forefront as goddesses, who hold sway over kings and their lands, are warriors who fight bravely, and even monsters who devour in the night.

In this lesson, we will summarize the major female motifs in Irish mythology, examine some of the major female characters, and look at how the Iris Celtic culture viewed these powerful feminine figures.

A line drawing of the Banshee, an Irish mythical creature whose scream was a harbinger of death.

The Power and Splendor of Irish Goddess

Mythological stories are generally about something that is not about the reality in which we humans live. It's a type of escape from the normal, by imagining how things could be in another world, or perhaps a world not too far from our own. This is where Irish mythology really shines, especially when it comes to their view of certain female figures.

The women in Irish myths vary from the goddesses of destruction and war to those of creativity and prosperity. Primarily, they are concerned with three matters: war, power, and agriculture. Among these three aspects, there is some overlap, however, each category still can be recognized as a primary attribute of the goddess in question. It should also be noted that almost all goddesses included sex as part of their power.

Goddesses associated with war were said to fly over battlefields, influencing the battle for whichever side she favored. Generally, this favor was presupposed in tales due to a sexual encounter with the winning king. As many of these myths were written by men, this is not unexpected. However, there was usually another aspect of the agreement included such as offerings and worship to the goddess who gave her aid.

Power was also sought by kings of the Irish. Again, an agreement was usually sealed with a sexual ritual, that would be struck between the king and the goddess. This agreement would secure land rights for the king and a mass of worshipers for the deity.

Agricultural goddesses followed much the same line of encounter and worship with the exception of taking multiple sexual partners. They were seen as goddesses of fertility versus ones of control and domination.

Altogether, the favor shown by the goddesses came at a cost, and sometimes they were seen as unreliable, with wars and crops coming and going as they often do.

Painting of Queen Mebd in battle with Cuchulain. She was often represented as a crow, gliding over the battle and offering her favor. This was a common representation among the Irish goddesses.
Mebd with Cuchulain

An Irish Queen

Probably the most recognizable figure among women in Irish myths is Queen Medb. She is originally noted as the wife of an Irish warrior king named Ailill, whom she incites to battle against Ulster, in order to capture and keep a prized bull she desires to have. The war is long and bloody and she is seen as not only the reason for the war but an incredibly evil character. She manages to twist and turn events in order to make the war as terrible as possible. She uses sex to manipulate events and is said to have had at least nine lovers.

Call of the Banshee

The legend of the Banshee is twofold. The original concept of the Banshee was based on the singing of sorrowful songs sung by women after a loved one's death. However, over time, this developed into the legend of a monstrous woman who keened (Irish caoine) with a loud scream or wail to announce an imminent death.

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