17 March 2012

Women Who Ruled: The Conundrum of Maedb

By J.S. Dunn

Her tale was already ancient when first written down around 1106 CE, how she envied her husband Aillil for his fine white bull, the one item he had that surpassed her own wealth when the two compared their possessions. Maedb desired to have her own great bull to equalize the situation and she set in motion the epic Cattle Raid of Cooley, also called The Tain (Ir. Tain Bo Cuailnge). 
   Now strip away the layers of misguided “Celtic” imagery that have accrued in recent versions of this saga, particularly those on book covers and druid-wannabe websites. Dispel and delete the kitsch image of Maedb dressed in a metal bustier like Madonna with missile-shaped breasts over a ludicrously diaphanous gown and with a Max Factor complexion and Clairol blond locks (or worse, flaming red hair in a noxious stereotype of “Irish”) and all topped with an anachronistic jeweled gold crown. Worse, Maedb topped by a Nordic helmet with horns; there actually is an image like that on the web.
The real Maedb most likely was dressed in a beautifully woven fabric tunic and multicolored sash, topped with a well-stitched leather or woolen cape with a hood to keep out the famous Irish rain. She most likely lived in the late Bronze Age, and not in a Cecil B. DeMille production. Throw away the tacky golden chariots; they didn’t have those in the Isles. She might well have had her own round bronze shield and a good spear, though.
Life was hard but not for a woman or man of the upper strata of that hierarchical society. The privileged class had by law the upper hand in all matters. Below them toiled those who made music, cooked the food, herded the animals, spun fibers and wove the fabrics, tanned the leathers, dug the latrines. You get the picture. The worker bees.
The Tain depicts a hero-worshiping society where those lucky few at the top – no need to call them gods or royalty nor is that accurate – did not have to work much or fight often. So how would a clever woman like Maedb fill what must have been very empty days? By starting a war, of course. Her offer of sexual favors to the owner of the only bull on the island that can rival Aillil’s bull is rebuffed. She summons fighting men loyal to her and marches off to raid for her prize.
In this very early tale from the Ulster or hero-cycle of Irish myth begins a model of female assertiveness that would be unknown in early Greco-Roman tales of gods and goddesses. The figure of Boudicca from several centuries later in the Isles’ history is a reincarnation of Maedb for bravery and intelligence and fighting spirit. Sad to say, the battles do not end well for either heroine figure.
Later royal heroines of the Anglo-Saxon and Continental variety pale by comparison and their male dominated social order constrains their role to an extent that Maedb would have found intolerable. But we can’t all be heroes and heroines.
Many women have no desire to be royalty or the rather underfed and notably undereducated celebrity females touted by current media. Are those the only female role models for the 21st century? Fighting for equality occupied a great deal of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ time and energy. Yet women are still held to a different standard in many arenas. At some point, the social structure lost the plot it seems. 

J.S. Dunn is the award-wining author of Bending the Boyne, which took first place in the Next generation Indie Book Awards 2011