‘…It struck me,’ Ailill said, ‘how much better off you are today than the day I married you.’ ‘I was well enough off without you.’ Medb replied. – Táin Bó Cúailnge
Here in County Donegal in the North West of Ireland, there is a hill called Meskanmeave with a neolithic cairn that sits on the very top, near the village of Carrowkeel (Kerrykeel). Its elevation above sea level is at 272 metres, another neolithic cairn known as Meskanmeave, some 49 kilometres away sits on Muckish mountain at 666 metres above sea level, Aleister Crowley would only love those metres. However nothing sinister here, but a recognition of the Goddess Medb/Meave. The Irish meaning is ‘Meascán Mhéabha’ which means ‘Medb’s Dish’ or ‘Medb’s Lump’, so it is like an upturned bowl sitting high on the mountain. Erected there to honour the Goddess Medb, as a symbol of her overlooking the land or perhaps for ceremonial purposes on the very lunar type landscape on the mountain. Ten years ago the loose stones of her cairn on Muckish were formed into a point, now it makes two points, from people placing a stone on its peak as a way of marking that they reached it’s summit.
In the distance in Co. Derry and Co. Tyrone, where there is Samhail Phite Méabha (Sawel Mountain), which means ‘the likeness of Méabh’s vulva’, the highest peak in the Sperrin Mountains, with its summit being 678 metres. Not too far away is Bovevagh (Medb’s huts) in County Derry. I’ve never seen any academic writing done on the worship of Goddess Medb in Donegal or Derry, yet we are surrounded by monuments to them. I researched older maps, talked to native Irish speaker friends to reaffirm these place names, as well as hiking these mountains, seeing the views and getting a sense of these places. This is very much the Landscape of the Goddess Medb.
All of these are in Ulster, which would have been known for the worship and birth place of Lugh Lámfada of the Tuatha Dé Danann, whom some would have seen as the God of light, a mighty warrior, a king and much more. So perhaps this is why Medb is overshadowed and forgotten by some. There are two other Medb’s cairns in Ireland, one in Roscommon and of course the most well known being in Sligo, which is said to be the grave of Queen Medb, known as ‘Miosgán Médhbh‘. This one is a 12 metre high stone cairn on the summit of Cnoc na Ré (Knocknarea), where it is said that Medb is buried upright with spear and shield facing their enemies in Ulster.
In Co Antrim, there is a town land called Baile Phite Méabha (Queen Maeve’s Vulva), along with others such as Barnavave (Bearna Mhéabha – “Medb’s gap”) in County Louth and Knockmaa (Cnoc Meá, “Medb’s hill”) in County Galway. There are many well documented configurations of the body in the landscape. With the Paps of Anu in County Kerry being the most well known as the Breasts of the Goddess Anu. I have also read of the Goddess Brigid landscape, yet here in what was once known as ‘Slí Lugdach / Cenél Lugdach, a pre-christian tribal name, the people were thought to have worshipped the god Lugh, as this was their realm.
I am not claiming I have discovered an illuminated map or sacred grid of Medb, it is more of a sacred centre, in front of us everyday. The history of pre-Christian Ireland was written by Christian monks who swayed our thinking. Much like going to school within the Roman Catholic Cult, the priests who taught me, taught their principles through shaming. So the church, much like a dog claiming their territory, built churches where ancient sacred sites once stood or still stand. So on Muckish mountain a large cross sits across from the neolithic cairn of Medb. So why weren’t we told that our ancestors worshipped the goddess Medb, or their significance in the land in school. In school we are only told of the heroic deeds of larger than life male warriors of Fionn mac Cumhaill or Cú Chulainn. It is obvious when the cairns of Medb sit overlooking this landscape, all the way from Cloughaneely in County Donegal to County Tyrone, that she is in a way like the Goddess Gaia from Greek mythology, Medb being the spiritual embodiment of the earth, or like a Mother Earth figure. Making these neolithic cairns like temples of stone in honour of them on mountains that can be seen throughout most of the landscape.
We know from our old manuscripts that a king would ritually marry Medb as part of their inauguration. So as such, they were marrying the land when becoming king. The banquet hall on the ancient ceremonial and inauguration site, the Hill of Tara in County Meath was known as Tech Mid Chuarda (“house of the circling of mead”). Here we would imagine a sacred ceremony between the king and the goddess involving drinking the alcoholic honey drink mead. The word mead derived from the Proto-Celtic *medu-(“mead”) or *medua (“intoxicating”). So it is thought the name Medb means “she who intoxicates”. It has been written that from this ritual inauguration that we are told Medb is a sovereignty goddess. Whereas as we see Medb personifying the land by the older names and sites around us.
In Irish mythology, at the Hill of Tara, Medb was said to be the wife or lover of nine kings in succession. This Medb’s full name is Medb Lethderg, there can be confusion between this the goddess and Medb, the legendary wolf-queen of Connacht (50 BCE – 50 CE), though the stories are very intertwined, as Medb queen of Connacht embodies the goddess. This Queen Medb was a daughter of the king of Tara and is well known for the story of An Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), where they insisted that they be equal in wealth with their husband, Ailill. Medb is very well known for starting a war when finding out that Ailill was one powerful bull richer. It is also written of Medb’s insatiable sexual appetite, by how many lovers they had. These stories were written down by monks, and this is how I learnt of them in school. So I wonder if they were trying to depict a warmongering ‘harlot’, when all Medb was asking for was an equal status in a patriarchal world.
‘…no woman before me had ever required of a man of the men of Erin, namely, a husband without avarice, without jealousy, without fear. For should he be mean, the man with whom I should live, we were ill-matched together, in as much as I am great in largess and gift-giving, and it would be a disgrace for my husband if I should be better at spending than he, and for it to be said that I was superior in wealth and treasures to him, while no disgrace would it be were one as great as the other. Were my husband a coward,’twere as unfit for us to be mated, for I by myself and alone break battles and fights and combats, and ‘twould be a reproach for my husband should his wife be more full of life than himself, and no reproach our being equally bold. Should he be jealous, the husband with whom I should live, that too would not suit me, for there never was a time that I had one man in the shadow of another.’ – Medb (Táin Bó Cúailnge)
Going to an Irish school run by priests, all I knew was Medb was greedy and an enemy of Cú Chulainn, so they must be bad. When in reality she wanted an equal status, which led to a war. I feel the same ‘shaming’ was written of her death. It is all how the story is told. While bathing in a lake, she was murdered by slingshot. Showing that her enemies still feared her even while she was naked with no weapons. It took her killer to sneak up and kill her from quite a distance while she was bathing in an island pool on Lough Ree. The killer practiced for three days so they would kill Medb with one strike. It is joked that she was killed by a hard block of cheese that was in the slingshot to the head. I’ve drawn two peering eyes ready to kill, behind the standing stone in the drawing of the goddess above.
Many of the beliefs that play a fundamental role in our worldview are largely the result of the communities in which we’ve been immersed. So here of course it is Christianity, which pushed so much shame. Here we have a primordial goddess perhaps preceding gods, who is swept to one side. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas has written of the Newgrange Passage Cairn in County Meath as being a representation of a womb, centred around a goddess oriented culture. So perhaps that is what these cairns represent. Being so high up, do the cairns link Medb with moon phases or nature itself, there will always be loads of questions. With Samhail Phite Méabha (Sawel Mountain), referring to Medb’s vulva, then all of the landscape is Medb. So if Medb represents earth they are here in our plants, trees, mountains, etc.
I know some people will define and give you answers on all this with great certainty. However, we can only surmise through what we have. It is all all open to interpretation, but to me Mebd was very much about being all inclusive. Christianity couldn’t exclude her from our history, due to such strong belief by the people. However some of these place names have been forgotten due to the mountain crosses being put where ancient cairns stand, as well as the anglicisation and decline of the Irish language. However Medb’s cairns still sit high on the mountains, to where you feel small when looking up at them, yet still feel very much part of everything, where you never feel alone. I am lucky to live at the base of Muckish mountain, so look up at Medb most everyday. I love being up early as the sun is just appearing and I can look up towards the cairn and get a great sense of grounding from Medb and nature.
More of Seán’s work at https://linktr.ee/seanfitzgeraldart