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Women and Scotland

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Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

Women in History and Myth

Three women in the Scottish cultural landscape : Deirdre, Grainne and Medb, Three Mythological Female Characters Shaping Scotland

Céline Savatier-Lahondès

Résumé

The paper offers an insight in Antique pre-Christian and pre-Roman insular literary matter and more particularly, explores three female characters known in Ireland as well as in Scotland from ‘time immemorial’: Deirdre, Grainne and the legendary Queen Medb. The aim is to examine the common features that emerge from these mythic women: degree of independence and choice, degree of influence, warlike qualities, and sexual behaviour. The way their portrayals evolved through time enables us to sketch the picture of an ancient Scottish feminine cultural landscape, in which a comparison with Lady Macbeth, an influential woman if any, appears unavoidable.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The exile of the sons of Uisneach is the title of the tale. Yeats called his 1907 version Deirdre. (...)
  • 2 O.E.D. Online (restricted access): Dalriadan, Dalriatan: “Etymology: <Dalriada (Early Irish Dál Ria (...)

1The story of Deirdre and Naisi was known and told in Scotland in olden times as Professor Mackinnon argued in The Celtic Review of 1904: “The Tale of the Sons of Uisnech1 was well known in the Scottish Highlands and in Ireland from time immemorial. It was committed to writing at a very early stage. It was one of the ‘principal tales’, primscela, which a poet must know” (Celtic Review n° 1 6). The story was transported from Ireland to Scotland, probably during the Dalriatan2 period, maybe even before. Part of it even takes place in Scotland which is actually the place of exile of Deirdre and the sons of Uisneach. Therefore, there are two politically linked territories, separated by the sea but united by one language – Gaelic, between which culture circulated.

  • 3 In Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. III: The Lay of Diarmaid, No. 4, one story is called Th (...)
  • 4 The term “Celtic” as used here refers exclusively to language and literature, not to peoples.

2It is the same for the story of Diarmuid and Grainne. According to W.J. Watson: “The Gael carried the tale of Diarmid to Scotland, locating the scene of his hunting of the Boar and his tragic death in many parts of the North, as for instance at Beinn Laghail (Ben Loyal) in Sutherland, in Kintail of Ross-shire, in Brae Lochaber, and in Perthshire” (The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland 208).3 Ancient Celtic4 mythological tales were written down during the medieval period and continued to be popular thereafter. The subject area for the present paper is insular antiquity, with a particular focus on Scotland. Ireland remains present since the mythological corpus dealt with is Irish.

  • 5 In the Scottish MS XL, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS 72.I.40, also Gaelic XL. Th (...)

3As for Medb (or Mebv, Maeve, Meave, Meadb, Meadhbh), she was known in the Scottish land too. Among other stories, she appears in the Tain bo Fraich, “The Cattle-spoil of Fraoch”5 which was popular in Scotland, as Donald MacKinnon states: “Popular versions of the tale have been found in the Scottish Highlands in prose and verse framed upon one of the incidents in the old Saga, – that in which Oilill sends Fraoch to fetch the berries of the rowan treeˮ (A Descritpive Catalogue of Gaelic Manuscripts 155). The Glenmasan manuscript dates from the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries but J. O’Beirne Crowe, who transcribed and translated the version of this story from the twelfth century Book of Leinster argued that the episode told: “a romantic specimen of Irish life in the first century” (Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 134), which situates our material in insular antiquity. It is well known that the matter committed to writing comes from an ancient oral tradition which can be called pagan, in contradistinction to the Christian early medieval and medieval culture. The subject matter touches on an ancient pre-Christian and pre-Roman insular past that was transmitted through time, and the legendary characters of Deirdre, Grainne and Medb are part of this. Both Medb’s and Deirdre’s tales belong to the same mythological cycle in Irish mythology. The amplitude of Medb’s legacy in later works is greater than that of Deirdre or Grainne. Nevertheless, the three of them are dealt with here considering the fact that as myths were transmitted from the land of the Gaels to the kingdom of Dalriada on the other side of the Inner Seas, the shape and characteristics of these three figures, albeit in different proportions, contributed to the construction of the Scottish cultural landscape.

4It is difficult to measure to what extent ancient representations of mythic females nourished women’s representations of themselves as time went by, much in the same way as women (and men) today find models in the cinema, television or literature. But, a certain idea of Scotland and of the Scottish woman appears to be rooted in this legacy, especially concerning the expression of strength of character. After the presentation of the three female figures in their diegetic contexts, the emphasis will be laid on their particular features, and on the way their portrayals evolved through time. The depiction of a Scottish female cultural landscape will provide the opportunity to question if the much-fantasized matriarchal past has any real substance in myth or (pre) history, or if this conception only belongs to fantasy. It will also unveil the inheritance offered by Deirdre, Grainne and Medb to Scottish women today.

5Miranda Jane Green states that “The story of Deirdre and Naoise is chronicled in a ninth century text which was later integrated within the Ulster Cycle” (Celtic Goddesses 118). In the Ulster Cycle, it is compiled in the Book of Leinster (1339 olim H. 2. 18 al., twelfth century, Trinity College, Dublin), the Yellow Book of Lecan (1318 olim H. 2. 16 al. fourteenth century, Trinity College, Dublin) and the Scottish Glenmasan Manuscript (MS 72.2.3, fifteenth century, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh). Manuscripts too are present on both sides of the inner seas. Deirdre’s story begins with a revelation. Deirdre shrieks while still in her mother’s womb. Then, the druid Cathbad utters a prophecy saying that the beautiful Deirdre will destroy the Sons of Uisneach and all the Red Branch of the Ulster warriors. Her name is said to mean “alarm”. She is the daughter of Feidlimid, King Conchubor’s storyteller. Unlike Grainne or Medb, she is not a princess, but she is intended to become queen because of Conchubor’s will. The latter refuses to have her killed by his warriors in spite of the prophecy because he plans to marry her when she is old enough. Meanwhile, she is raised secretly by an old nurse. Like Grainne, she is meant to wed a much older man. And like Grainne, she rejects the proposition. When she comes of age, she refuses to abide by the king’s will. She meets the sons of Uisneach in the hills and persuades Naisi to flee with her. They all sail to Scotland where they stay for seven years, to escape Conchubor’s wrath. Then, even though Deirdre is aware of the threat, they eventually go back to Ireland, the soldiers being reassured by the king’s offer of reconciliation. Yet, once they are back, Conchubor slays the three brothers, “the three Torches of Valour of the Gael” (Glenmasan Manuscript 13), Deirdre is obliged to marry the old king and the destruction of Conchubor’s house follows.

  • 6 “[The] Fenian cycle, also called Fionn cycle or Ossianic cycle, in Irish literature, tales and ball (...)

6For M. J. Green, “the tale of Gráinne and Diarmaid first appears in the […] Book of Leinster and later became part of the Fionn Cycle” (Celtic Godesses 118).6 In The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, Finn is no longer the supernatural hero. He appears as an aged king capable of extreme cruelty. The story is compiled in MS 24 p 9 (Reeves 826,739) (1651, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin), and also in the eighteenth century MS 23 L 27 (Hodges & Smith 87,556) kept in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. Standish O’Grady wrote a translation for the Ossianic Society, Dublin, in 1857.

7If Grainne was to be seen as an embodiment of the land goddess (Ériu), it would be through the appealing aspect of youth and beauty. She is destined to be Queen in virtue of her rank: Grainne is the daughter of Cormac Mac Airt, high King of Ireland. In the story, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the great warrior, has just lost his queen and Grainne is asked if she will marry Fionn. It is to be noted that it is her father who asks her, but the choice is hers. First, she agrees to marry Fionn, but when she sees that he is older than her father, she changes her mind. At a banquet, she has Fionn and all the warriors drink a sleeping potion. Then, she starts courting Oisin (Fionn’s son) and Diarmuid O’Duibhne after him. Both refuse to respond to her courtship as she is betrothed to Fionn Mac Cumhaill, but she manages to convince Diarmuid and they escape together. There begins The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne. Eventually, after many adventures, Diarmuid dies after his fight with the Boar of Boann Ghulban, an enchanted creature. The versions differ as far as Grainne’s fate is concerned, as we will see later.

  • 7 M. J. Green, Celtic Myths, British Museum Press, London, 1993, 27.

8Medb’s character is developed throughout the Leinster and Ulster Cycles since there are in fact two Medbs: Medb of Leinster (or Maedb Lethderg), to be found in the Leinster Cycle, and Medb of Connaught (or Medb Crúachna), who appears in the Cath Boinde (The Battle of the Boyne), the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), in the Ulster Cycle (to be found in the Leabharna h Uidre or Book of the Dun Cow (eleventh-twelfth century), the Book of Leinster (twelfth century), and in a section of the Yellow Book of Lecan (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries)). For lack of space and greater convenience, one character only is dealt with in the present paper, Medb of Connaught. Medb of Leinster may be seen as an “ancient version” of Medb of Connaught. Other characters have multiple embodiments, or avatars, if we may say so, like the three Machas, for instance, one of the goddess figures of the Ulster Cycle, who “share the quality of possessing both single and triple form”.7

  • 8 The Cattle Raid of Cooley is the central theme of the Cycle of Ulster, which describes the great wa (...)
  • 9 O.E.D. online at “euhemerism”: “The method of mythological interpretation which regards myths as tr (...)

9Medb is the Queen par excellence in Irish mythology. In the Táin Bó Cuailnge, The Cattle raid of Cooley8, she fights against Cú Chulainn, chief of the Red Branch Knights who themselves side with King Conchubor, the same king involved in Deirdre’s story. In the first place, Medb is a goddess of sovereignty. Miranda Jane Green insists on her euhemerized9 quality: “Medb (‘She Who Intoxicates’) is queen of Connacht, ruling variously at Tara and Cruachain, but in reality she is a euhemerised deity. Medb […] may be perceived as one of the group of the Insular goddesses of war, sexuality and territory” (Celtic Myths 26-27). As the daughter of King Eochaid Feidlech, she is given the land (some versions say after killing her elder sister) and is destined to rule. However, her task is to choose the high king of Ireland: “Medb of Connacht cohabited with nine kings, and no man could rule at Tara unless he first mated with her. A symbol of this union of divinity with mortal is the transformation of the goddess often from an old hag to a young girl of great beauty” (Ibid. 19). Medb knew several husbands and does not hesitate to break the marital bonds when her partner shows some failing in any of the ruler’s required qualities. She can be, as she pleases, benevolent or malevolent.

  • 10 Professor Mackinnon, “The Glenmasan Manuscript (with translation)” in The Celtic Review, Vol. 1, n° (...)

10Her role as prominent warrior queen is clearly defined in the Scottish Glenmasan Manuscript (fifteenth century, but is, itself, very likely a transcription of an earlier manuscript dating from 1238).10 The sovereign is endowed with the attributes of a fighter and she is learned, enjoys the arts, and is herself gifted in making lays (Celtic Review III 123). Bricne, Medb and Ailill’s ollamh, a bard of the highest rank expresses her attributes:

And Bricne spoke as follows: “The best province is Connaught. The best of kings is Oilill. The greatest of warriors is Meave,
[…]
In real power Meave is king of Ireland”, continued Bricne, “and the high king of the province is, without doubt, Oilill. Meave is the foremost [...] patron of soldiers and of ollamhs, of men of learning and of the chief poets of the world”.
Glenmasan Manuscript online §47-48

11Bricne praises his king and queen butwhat is striking is the status of Medb as “king” of all Ireland. The masculine is used here to refer to the queen. It shows that she undeniably bears the same royal qualities as her male consort.

  • 11 And p. 119: “I am alarmed at the cloud which I see in the air” or “I have a sign for you”.

12Deirdre and Grainne do not stand any comparison with Medb. They are not fully perceived as goddesses; however, their status can be seen as supernatural. Deirdre is endowed with the gift of clairvoyance. On multiple occasions, she has visions of the awaiting fate of the sons of Uisneach: “Naisi, look on your wraith, / which I see in the air; / I see over green Emain/ a great cloud of crimson blood” (Glenmasan Manuscript, Celtic Review I n° 2 117).11 M. J. Green argues that “Deirdre not only had a strong personality but that she also possessed powers of perception denied to Naoise. […] It is difficult to ascertain whether she was goddess or human, but there are undoubted elements of the supernatural about her and her story” (Celtic Goddesses 119). Indeed, the prophecy uttered at her birth is one of them. As for Grainne, she gained immortality in the forest of Duvnos, by eating berries. Besides, “[her] character alone demonstrates her supernatural status: she was able to cause two powerful heroes to break their honour-codes and thus proved herself to possess greater potency than both of them” (Ibid.). This quote applies to Grainne, but it is also relevant to Deirdre. She too was able to drive men away from their honour-codes.

  • 12 Cath Bóinde (The Battle of the Boyne) or Ferchuitred Medba (Medb’s Husband Allowance), from the Boo (...)
  • 13 Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, trans. Cecile O’Rahilly, available at: https://celt.ucc. (...)
  • 14 See G. Dumézil, Mythe et épopée I.II. III., Gallimard, Paris, 1995, biographie, p. 32 and F. Le Rou (...)
  • 15 Available at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T800012/index.html, op. cit., (accessed 24/04/19). A (...)
  • 16 M. J. Green, Celtic Goddesses, op. cit., 38.

13A few characteristics now emerge. Firstly, the woman masters her choice. She chooses her partner and will not accept his refusal. Deirdre flees from Ireland after choosing and compelling Naisi. Then, she confronts her destiny in going back to Ireland. Grainne is able to refuse her suitors, and her father accepts her decision. After courting two young men, she finally chooses Diarmuid. Although it didn’t prevent her from being raped once by Conchubor (Cath Bóinde 179)12 (after which she waged a war in retaliation), Medb chooses her husbands too, the future kings, to determine who will be the best rulers. She tests them and has them compete with each other. Specific criteria apply: the king must be without jealousy, without fear and without avarice. She claims to have all the necessary qualities for a ruler herself: “I was the noblest and worthiest of them [i.e. her brothers and sisters]. I was the most generous of them in bounty and the bestowal of gifts. I was best of them in battle and fight and combat” (The Cattle Raid of Cooley 137).13 These qualities illustrate the tripartite ideology in Indo-European societies. According to George Dumézil, and Françoise Le Roux and Christian J. Guyonvarc’h after him, three functions merge in a well-balanced society.14 The first is sacerdotal, the second warlike and the third comprises production, peace and prosperity. Medb, possessing these three qualities, is able to choose the right king. She is a goddess, produces lays (The Cattle Raid of Flidais 113), is a warrior and her name, linked with “mead” is related to the generosity of the king who offers drink to his vassals. As such, her court is most generous and magnificent (Glenmasan Manuscript online §59).15 Besides, as a woman she is related to fertility and the land.16 Therefore, assuming the functions of ruler, soldier and purveyor, the queen proves nothing less than the preserver of social balance.

14Secondly, the women’s influence upon men is considerable. Deirdre and Grainne both manage to drive faithful soldiers into betrayal, “imposing upon them a more compelling issue of honour than that which held them back” (Celtic Goddesses 118), M. J. Green writes. Medb very often uses her influence to motivate men to fight: “Meave summoned marvelous courage when she perceived the confused state of matters under the chiefs” (The Cattle Raid of Flidais, Glenmasan Manuscript, Celtic Review n° 4 209). She acts as a true military general, and her men are “the great predatory hosts of Meave” (Glenmasan Manuscript, Celtic Review n° 3 311). These female characters have a voice which is performative in that it augments and provokes action.

15Thirdly, the three women, capable of authority, determination and choice also have the right to sexual freedom. We know that Grainne courted two men before finally choosing Diarmuid. In the story compiled in the Glemasan Manuscript, Medb has an affair with Fergus while reigning with Aillil. The latter does not cause any scandal since he possesses the qualities of a king, including a prohibition on jealousy. He simply confiscates Fergus’s sword and replaces it with a wooden one, thus depriving his rival of his manly attribute, both in the proper and in the figurative senses (phallic symbol of the sword). Then, Medb gets to sit with a man on each side at banquets. The text says: “Nevertheless they were (themselves) a heavy burden upon Connaught during that time, not to speak of the wives and children and attendants. And to meet the honour of Fergus was to Meave the greatest burden of all, for everything that Fergus promised she had to pay for” (Glenmasan Manuscript online §59-61). In the ancient insular society, “monogamy was the rule, although concubinage was practised, particularly in Ireland” (Celtic Goddesses 25), according to Green. The myth shows that polyandry is also to be considered as far as Medb is concerned. Deirdre, Grainne and Medb prove to be free in choosing their own sexual life.

  • 17 Preserved in the Book of Leinster, and also in a Scottish manuscript: Aided Meidbe. Ed., with trans (...)
  • 18 In The Book of the Lays of Fionn, Part I, Irish Texts with Translation into English by Eoin Mac Nei (...)

16The three women also radiate a regal aura and Medb is even endowed with warlike attributes as we have seen. Paradoxically enough, though, in a tale entitled Aided Meadbe17 (The Death of Meadbe), she is killed by her nephew who throws a piece of hard cheese at her with a sling. What an inglorious death for a great queen! In Deidre and Grainne’s stories, it is the death of their male consorts which triggers the capacity for violence in the heroines or their descendants. During Diarmuid’s last fight, against the wild boar, he is mortally wounded. Finn first refuses to help him. When he finally agrees to do so, it is too late: the young man is dead. Versions differ as regards the ending proper. In the oldest version, the story ends with Diarmuid’s death. In other variants, Grainne swears to avenge Diarmuid with the help of her children, or she dies of sorrow. In O’Grady’s translation from late manuscripts Grainne reconciles with, and marries, Finn. But in the Lay of the Daughter of Diarmaid18, the young girl challenges Fionn in single combat, thus showing her determination and echoing Medb’s warlike abilities. As for Deirdre’s death, it is very violent. Versions differ as far as the ending is concerned, but in the oldest one, Deirdre marries Conchubor after Naisi’s death, and smashes her skull against a rock, thus showing the diehard determination of the character in choosing her fate, in refusing to abide by anybody’s will. It also shows her potential for violence.

17Autonomy, independence, choice, courage, and potential violence, all tend to characterize these three mythic women. This contrasts with the vision of ancient classic authors such as Plutarch who considered a woman should be “accommodating, inoffensive and agreeable” (Moralia Vol. II 315). To a certain extent, modern societies have inherited both the Roman conception of the wife’s role, and the Christian view of it. However, an ancient Irish, British, or Gaulish woman could act more or less autonomously. It must be noted that a difference emerges between myth and the law-texts. As M.J. Green states, in the society, “women’s legal status is defined in the law-texts in terms of their relationship to male relatives, and the Irish and Welsh laws both suggest that women were subject to men” (Celtic Goddesses 24). Yet, she also asserts: “It is clear from the comments of Classical observers that Celtic women in Gaul and Britain, unlike their Greek sisters, were not shut away from public life. They played more of a part in society and in theory they could, in Britain at least, rise to the highest rank” (Ibid. 22). In myths at least, and in history to a certain extent, they could select their partners, divorce, change, and even lead a war. However, through time, the image of these women evolved, as well as their representations.

18In The Celtic Review of 1904, Professor MacKinnon indicated of Deirdre’s tale that “[…] several versions are to be met with in Ireland and Scotland in modern MSS” (The Celtic Review n° 1 6), which shows that the story has been popular through time. With the Celtic Revival at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the representation of characters such as Deirdre’s underwent a striking development. The symbol of an identity claim, she paradoxically tended to lose her genuine strength according to some critics, merely acting as the foil to Irish male figures. Deirdre went from being the great queen to becoming a weak woman and a national symbol:

Theatrical renderings of the mythology that played such a large role in the Revival project of Irish self-fashioning tended to soften representations of these female characters. Instead, nationalists preferred to put forward the figure of the woman-nation who could return to Irish men a sense of their own masculinity by standing as a passive ideal in need of their rescue.
Doyle 33-34

  • 19 J. M. Synge, Collected Works, Volume IV, Plays, Book II, Ed. Ann Saddlemyer, Oxford University Pres (...)

19 For Maria Elena Doyle, Deirdre kills herself because she proves incapable of living without Naisi, and this is how she may be perceived in the modern era. However, the figure of the great queen which emerges from the naïve country girl in Synge’s play, Deirdre of the Sorrows,19 counters that of the “dependent and self-destructive” heroine depicted by Doyle. The sea imagery, frequently used in the 1909 play, enables Deirdre to appear as the influential, charismatic character that will bring change to Éire. In the Scottish Fiona MacLeod’s version, Deirdre is seen as “the great wave [that] can lift Eiré” (MacLeod 39). Scotland too kept an eye on Deirdre through the centuries.

  • 20 Although he is concerned with politics, Hunter uses the word “obsession” to qualify the amount of a (...)

20Thus, in the awakening of the modern era, Deirdre appears as the symbol of a nation about to engage on the path of change and autonomy, however hazardous it may be (tensions and fights between Irish and British). Deirdre is the woman who chooses to meet her fate. According to René Agostini, this feature is one of the characteristic traits of the “Celtic” hero, in contradistinction to the Classic hero who struggles to escape his destiny (Agostini 22). Once again, after centuries, her determination shows. She is the figure of the “woman nation”, that is to say the woman who embodies her nation, but she is not the meek female in need of rescue. On the contrary, she is the woman leader, who compels men to face their own destiny. Although Scotland’s own awakening lagged behind that of Ireland, the Scots paid acute attention to the unfolding events on the other side of the inner seas.20

  • 21 Available at: http://womenofscotland.org.uk/about (accessed 28/02/17).
  • 22 Available at: http://womenofscotland.org.uk/women/deirdre (accessed 28/02/17).

21Today, the web womenofscotland.org project which has undertaken the mapping of memorials dedicated to women who “helped to shape Scotland”21 has a page on Deirdre.22 It is specified that a place near Inverness used to bear Deirdre’s name, while others have been considered as places of refuge for the doomed couple while they stayed in Scotland. The legend is still inscribed in the landscape, and Deirdre is considered as a character that helped forge part of the cultural scenery of the country.

  • 23 Available at: https://www.jimfitzpatrick.com/shop/celtic-irish-fantasy-art/diarmuid-and-grainne/(ac (...)

22 Jim Fitzpatrick’s 1984 painting entitled Diarmuid and Grainne23 offers the vision of a couple in the full strength and beauty of their youth (as they are described in the myth). The motifs and vivid colours depict a mythic, surreal world and mark a specific cultural atmosphere that is reminiscent of the psychedelia 1970s. The characters have long loose hair, which reveals a certain degree of freedom in their behaviour. They look as though they are teasing each other, thus laying the emphasis on their sexual power of attraction. Their clothes, especially Diarmuid’s, open on his chest, favour this interpretation too. Although Grainne appears to be manipulative and in control, and despite Diarmuid’s visible anger, the lovers remain physically close together. An inescapable bond ties Diarmuid to Grainne. This painting, clearly produced in the later part of the twentieth century, shows the marked impact of ancient Irish – Scottish literature in the contemporary period, long after the Celtic Revival at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.

  • 24 Ann Dooley and Harry Roe, “A chronology of Fenian Tales in Ireland and Scotland” in The Tales of Th (...)
  • 25 Barbara Ker Wilson, Fairy Tales from Scotland, Illustrated by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, Oxford Universit (...)
  • 26 Norah and William Montgomerie, The Folk Tales of Scotland, The Well at the World’s End and Other St (...)

23In today’s Ireland, numerous places are called Diarmuid and Grainne’s bed. They are usually Stone Age monuments. Many dolmens are associated with graves of famous giants or warriors in the Irish mythology. This phenomenon illustrates the presence of the ancient literary corpus in today’s Irish culture. Albeit anachronistic– the monoliths date from the third millennium B.C. – the references to the tales are deeply rooted in the Irish landscape. Besides, Ann Dooley and Harry Roe pointed out that “Fenian ballads and songs continued to be sung and recited in Gaelic-speaking Ireland and Scotland down to the twentieth century” (Dooley and Roe xliii).24 The story of Diarmuid and Grainne is actually to be found in contemporary collections of Scottish tales: Fairy Tales from Scotland (1999)25 and The Folk Tales of Scotland, The Well at the World’s End and Other Stories (2013).26 The latter identifies the story as originating from the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. Variations and appropriations were the norm in living oral culture but they also live on in a literate one.

  • 27 In Scotland, the legendary character of Beira, the Queen of Winter, presents exactly the same chara (...)
  • 28 “Nous savons maintenant depuis longtemps, en dépit des interrogations de quelques celtisants (et no (...)

24The figure of Medb took on far more complex turns. What is different from the other two characters is her clear involvement in magic. If Deirdre and Grainne’s voices possess some performative power when they utter the words which tie their lovers to them, and if Deirdre can be assimilated to a seer, Medb goes a step further in the field of magic. She adopts the daughters of Calatin and raises them as witches in order to prepare for Cú Chulainn’s downfall. Green specifies: “Like other sovereignty-goddesses, Medb had her dark side, as a wielder of death. She could shape-shift from girl to old hag-form and thus present her dualism as a symbol of young life or dying old age” (Celtic Goddesses 80). A possible hypothesis is that the ambivalent characteristic of the goddess, from old hag to young beautiful woman27 separated into two distinct branches as time went by. The multiple yet unique figure of the Irish goddess underwent a transformation according to the Christian dichotomy of good and evil. In Mythe et épopée, George Dumézil writes that because of the instability of kingship, Medb has little by little inherited “l’orientation cynique d’une carrière de grande débauchéeˮ [ “the cynically orientated career of a highly debauched woman”] (Dumézil 1004). The sense of debauchery can only be supported in the light of the Christian view. Dumezil’s “little by little” refers to the evangelization process in the Irish and British isles. Even if the mythic Medb is not that, Guyonvarc’h and Le Roux are clear about it,28 her status as goddess of sovereignty could not be understood by the new Christian conception, and her changing husbands (she knew nine) was bound to be considered as debauchery.

  • 29 http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/robert_the_bruce/ (accessed 04/03/16).
  • 30 Terry Jones’s documentary on “The Damsel”, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcoWPpE0EiE (...)

25Historical female figures such as Boudica and Cartimandua corroborate the vision of the pre-Christian insular woman depicted in the Irish and Scottish tales: a determined woman, capable of physical violence. In thirteenth century Scotland, Marjorie of Carrick, the notable mother of Robert the Bruce, is said to have abducted her husband. Robert Bruce’s parent, “His mother, Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, brought him an ancient Gaelic lineage. Descended from the Gaelic Earls of Carrick, she was a formidable operator who apparently held Bruce’s father captive after he returned from crusade, refusing to release him until he agreed to marry her”.29 The woman capable of choice as far as men are concerned is one of the major characteristics which emerged from our study. Marjorie’s lineage was issued from the pre-Christian insular tradition. The legendary strength of character of mythic women seems to have persisted, and according to Terry Jones30, Marjorie was not a unique case.

26However, one must not be tempted to indulge in the delusive belief in a matriarchal past, according to Dumézil. For him, the oldest Indo-European societies were founded on male lineages. Therefore, “les conduites de la fière Medb […] ont peu de chance de nous reporter à la nébuleuse du matriarcatˮ [the behaviour of the proud Medb […] has little chance to lead us to the matriarchal nebulaˮ] (Dumézil 1021).

  • 31 Mary Gleeson attempted a study entitled “Celtic undertones in Macbeth”, in Proceedings of the II Co (...)
  • 32 Raphael Holinshed, The Historie of Scotland, George Bishop, London, 1577, 244. Hector Boece, Scotor (...)

27One cannot but notice the evolution over time in the depiction of Irish and Scottish mythic heroines. The Christian faith dealt with an avenging god sending people to heaven or hell. Such imagery was unknown to the ancient faith. The dichotomy between the two religious systems persisted within the Renaissance period in the British Isles. In Shakespeare’s Scottish play, Lady Macbeth may be associated with the ancient pagan past which shows on the surface of the play (the weird sisters, the walking forest motif…).31 She has a powerful influence over her husband. This is all the more striking in Shakespeare as she acts on her own to entice her husband into murdering Duncan. In the chronicles, Holinshed’s and Boece’s,32 for instance, Macbeth’s men organize the murder with him and she acts as a surplus motivation. In Shakespeare’s play, she is the one who leads her husband toward his fate, no matter what may occur. Like Deirdre, she will see the project through to the end. However, her intention is utterly dark. She supplements the prophecies of the weird sisters in the sense that she helps to make them come true. Her madness and suicide may appear as a redemptive pattern, in conformity with a Christian view, but her dark undertones are associated with the representation of what came to be a sombre pre-Christian past.

28As Green advocates: “It is significant that where Irish mythic women possessed real power, this is frequently presented as being a bad thing: thus deities such as the Morrigán, queen-goddesses such as Medb and heroic mortals such as Deirdre, are all represented as destroyers, bringers of sorrow and disharmony” (Celtic Goddesses 70). However true this statement is in the light of the characters’ stories, such a conception forgets that these traits correspond to the women’s necessity to confront their fates. In order to face the ordeals to which they are submitted, they are endowed with exceptional will and strength of character and can even lead men in combat as far as Medb is concerned. Furthermore, the latter is also skilled in the arts, and therefore appears as a complete ruler. The recognition of Medb standing as a protector of the social order requires an in-depth analysis, as we have seen with the tripartite ideology. The numerous cultural filters of the Christian scribes who committed these stories to writing have to be delicately lifted to expose the deeper strata, in this task of literary archaeology. The process reveals a vision of women who, although not living in a matriarchal society, show an impressive degree of skill, independence and control. To finish with, it is striking to see that the ancient insular mythology evoked here has had repercussions over the years in history, literature and the arts until today in contemporary representations. Albeit less known and widely valued than Classical mythology, this heritage contributes to the construction of Scottish female, and male, identities.

Bibliographie

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Aided Meidbe, “The violent death of Medb”, Vernam E. Hull (trans.), in Speculum xiii., 1938, 52-61.

Aided Meidbe, “The Edinburgh Gaelic MS. Xl”, Kuno Meyer (trans.), in Celtic Magazine xii. 211-12, 1887.

Boece, Hector, Scotorum Historiae English, Heir beginnis the history and croniklis of Scotland, John Belleden (trans.), Edinburgh: Thomas Davidson, 1540.

The Book of the Lays of Fionn, Part I, Eoin Mac Neill (trans.), London: The Irish Texts Society, David Nutt, 1908.

Cath Bóinde (The Battle of the Boyne) or Ferchuitred Medba (Medb’s Husband Allowance), O’Neill, Joseph (ed. and tr.), Ériu 2, Dublin: School of Irish learning, 1905, 173-185.

The Cattle raid of Cooley: Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, trans. Cecile O’Rahilly, Dublin: first edition Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1967, 1970, 1984.

The Cattle Raid of Flidais, Glenmasan Manuscript, in The Celtic Review Vol. IV, 104-121, 202-219. The Glenmasan Manuscript, Donald MacKinnon (tr.), The Celtic Review: Vol. I, n° 1, 1904, 3-17, Vol. I, n° 2, 1904, 104-131, Vol. II, 1905- 1906, 20-33, 100-121, 202-223, 300-313, Vol. III, 1906-1907, 10-25, 114-137, 198-215, 294-317, Vol. IV, 1907-1908, 10-27, 104-121, 202-219.

Holinshed, Raphael, The Historie of Scotland, London: George Bishop, 1577.

Jonson, Ben, A Satyre, in The workes of Beniamin Jonson, London: Will Stansby, 1616.

MS XL, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS 72.I.40, also Gaelic XL.

Macleod, Fiona, The House of Usna, Portland, Maine: Thomas B Mosher, 1903, reproduced by Leopold classic Library.

Plutarch, “Advice to Bride and Groom” Moralia Vol. II, Babbitt, Franck Cole (tr.), Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Synge, J.M., Collected Works, Volume IV, Plays, Book II, Ann Saddlemyer (ed.), London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Tain bó Fraich, O’Beirne Crowe, J., (Ed. and trans.), Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Irish MSS series, 134-171.

Secondary Sources

Articles

Doyle, Maria Elena, “A spindle for battle: Feminism, Myth, and the Woman Nation in Irish revival Drama”, in Theatre Journal, 1999, 33-46.

Gleeson, Mary, “Celtic undertones in Macbeth”, in Proceedings of the IIConference of the Society for English Renaissance Studies, S.G. Fernández-Corugedo (Ed.), Oviedo: Universidad de Oviedo, 1992, 131-143.

Hunter, James, “The Gaelic Connection: The Highlands, Ireland and Nationalism: 1873-1922”, in The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 54, n° 158, part 2, Edinburgh University Press, Oct. 1975, 178-204.

Mackinnon, Donald, in The Celtic Review n° 1, Edinburgh, 1904, 3-17.

Reeves, W.P., “Shakespeare’s Queen Mab”, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 17, N° 1, The John Hopkins University, 1902, 10-14.

Savatier-Lahondès, Céline, “The walking forest motif in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: origins”, in Notes and Queries: Volume 64, Issue 2, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, 287-292.

Books

Agostini, René, Deirdre, variations sur un mythe celtique, La Gacilly: Artus, 1992.

Dooley, Ann, Roe, Harry, The Tales of The Elders of Ireland, A New translation of Acallanna Senórach, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Chambers, E.K., The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. III, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951 (1923).

Dumézil, Georges, Mythe et épopée I.II. III., Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

Green, Miranda Jane, Celtic Goddesses, London: British Museum Press, 1995.

– , Celtic Myths, London: British Museum Press, 1993.

Johnson, Samuel, and Steevens, George, The Plays of William Shakespeare in Fifteen Volumes, the Fourth Edition, Revised and Augmented, London, 1793.

Ker Wilson, Barbara, Fairy Tales from Scotland, Illustrated by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 (1956 as Scottish Folk-Tales and Legends).

Le Roux, Françoise, Guyonvarc’h, Christian-J., Les Druides, Rennes: Ouest France Université, 1986.

– , La Société celtique, Rennes: Ouest France Université, 1991.

Mackinnon, Donald, A Descriptive Catalogue of Gaelic Manuscripts in the Advocates’Library Edinburgh and Elsewhere in Scotland, Edinburgh: William Brown, 1912.

Montgomeris, Norah and William, The Folk Tales of Scotland, The Well at the World’s End and Other Stories, Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2013 (2005, 1975).

Watson, William J., The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, Edinburgh, London, 1926, reprinted 1993 by Birlinn, Edinburgh.

Wentz, Walter, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, its Psychical Origin and Nature, Rennes: Université de Rennes, 1909.

Filmography and Sitography

Outlander, Season 1, episode 10 “By the pricking of my thumb”, written by Ira Steven Behr, directed by Richard Clark, Sony Pictures, 2015.

– , Season 1, episode 11, “A devil’s mark”, written by Toni Graphia, directed by Mike Barker, Sony Pictures, 2015.

BBC.co.uk, Robert the Bruce, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/ articles/robert_the_bruce/

Boar of Ben Laighal (the), in Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. III: The Lay of Diarmaid, available at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/pt3/pt310.htm

Cath Bóinde (The Battle of the Boyne) or Ferchuitred Medba (Medb’s Husband Allowance), O’Neill, Joseph (ed. and tr.), Ériu 2, Dublin: School of Irish learning, 1905, 173-185. Available at: https://archive.org/details/riujournalschoo00acadgoog/page/n186 (accessed 24/04/19).

Cattle raid of Cooley (the): Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, trans. Cecile O’Rahilly, Dublin: first edition Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1967, 1970, 1984. Available at: https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T301035.html (accessed 24/04/19).

The Fenian Cycle, Global Britannica, available at https://global.britannica.com

Fitzpatrick, Jim, available at https://www.jimfitzpatrick.com/shop/celtic-irish-fan- tasy-art/diarmuid-and-grainne/

Glenmasan Manuscript, CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork, Ireland (2009), available at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/ T800012/index.html

Jones, Terry, “The Damsel”, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcoWPpE0EiE

Plutarch, “Advice to Bride and Groom”, 22 Moralia. Available at: http://penelope. uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Coniugalia_praecep- ta*.html

Oxford English Dictionary online, restricted access: http://www.oed.com.ezproxy. stir.ac.uk

“Tain bó Fraich”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Irish MSS series, 134- 171, available at http://www.archive.org/stream/irishmanuscripts0101royauoft#page/134/mode/2up

womenofscotland.org project, available at http://womenofscotland.org.uk

Notes

1 The exile of the sons of Uisneach is the title of the tale. Yeats called his 1907 version Deirdre. John Millington Synge used the title Deirdre of the Sorrows when he rewrote the play in 1909.

2 O.E.D. Online (restricted access): Dalriadan, Dalriatan: “Etymology: <Dalriada (Early Irish Dál Riata/ˌdaːlˈriadə/; Irish DálRiada, Scottish Gaelic DàlRiada), the name of an early medieval kingdom encompassing part of the northern coast of Ireland and (later) large parts of the western coast of present-day Scotland + -an suffix.”

3 In Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. III: The Lay of Diarmaid, No. 4, one story is called The Boar of Ben Laighal, available at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/pt3/pt310.htm (accessed 03/03/17).

4 The term “Celtic” as used here refers exclusively to language and literature, not to peoples.

5 In the Scottish MS XL, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS 72.I.40, also Gaelic XL. There are other versions of the tale in the Book of Leinster, the Yellow Book of Lecan and the Egerton Manuscript 1782 (1516-18). Donald MacKinnon, A Descriptive Catalogue of Gaelic Manuscripts in the Advocates’Library Edinburgh and Elsewhere in Scotland, William Brown, Edinburgh, 1912, 155.

6 “[The] Fenian cycle, also called Fionn cycle or Ossianic cycle, in Irish literature, tales and ballads centering on the deeds of the legendary Finn MacCumhaill (MacCool) and his war band, the Fianna Éireann. An elite volunteer corps of warriors and huntsmen, skilled in poetry, the Fianna flourished under the reign of Cormac Mac Airt in the third century ad. The long-established Fenian lore attained greatest popularity about 1200, when the cycle’s outstanding story, The Interrogation of the Old Men, was written down”, available at https://global.britannica.com/art/Fenian-cycle (accessed 12/02/17)

7 M. J. Green, Celtic Myths, British Museum Press, London, 1993, 27.

8 The Cattle Raid of Cooley is the central theme of the Cycle of Ulster, which describes the great war between Ulster and Connaught for the possession of a huge bull, the Donn (‘Brown’) of Cuailnge, in Ulster. Medb decides to wage a war to capture the bull because she wants to compete with her husband Aillil who himself owns a great white-horned bull, the Findbennach. See Miranda Jane Green, Celtic Myths, British Museum Press, London, 1993, 21.

9 O.E.D. online at “euhemerism”: “The method of mythological interpretation which regards myths as traditional accounts of real incidents in human history”. Restricted access: http://www.oed.com.ez-proxy.stir.ac.uk (accessed 05/02/17).

10 Professor Mackinnon, “The Glenmasan Manuscript (with translation)” in The Celtic Review, Vol. 1, n° 1, 1904, 6.

11 And p. 119: “I am alarmed at the cloud which I see in the air” or “I have a sign for you”.

12 Cath Bóinde (The Battle of the Boyne) or Ferchuitred Medba (Medb’s Husband Allowance), from the Book of Lecan version (fifteenth century), with variants from MS Rawlinson B512 (fifteenth-sixteenth centuries). Reference page available at: https://archive.org/details/riujournalschoo00acadgoog/page/n192 (accessed 24/04/19).

13 Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, trans. Cecile O’Rahilly, available at: https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T301035.html (accessed 24/04/19).

14 See G. Dumézil, Mythe et épopée I.II. III., Gallimard, Paris, 1995, biographie, p. 32 and F. Le Roux, C.-J. Guyonvarc’h, Les Druides, Editions Ouest France Université, Rennes, 1986, 36, 421.

15 Available at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T800012/index.html, op. cit., (accessed 24/04/19). A Christian interpretation or judgment is to be taken into consideration here. It must be reminded that the text was committed to writing in the middle ages. Even if mythological events were retained, the Christian influence was inevitably there. Indeed, the text ends with the word “Amen”.

16 M. J. Green, Celtic Goddesses, op. cit., 38.

17 Preserved in the Book of Leinster, and also in a Scottish manuscript: Aided Meidbe. Ed., with transl., from this MS. and Edinb. MS. xl, p. 6, Ed. by Vernam E. Hull: “The violent death of Medb”, in Speculum xiii. 52-61, 1938. Ed., with transl. by Kuno Meyer: “The Edinburgh Gaelic MS. Xl”, in Celtic Magazine xii. 211-12, 1887.

18 In The Book of the Lays of Fionn, Part I, Irish Texts with Translation into English by Eoin Mac Neill, The Irish Texts Society, david Nutt, London, 1908, 149.

19 J. M. Synge, Collected Works, Volume IV, Plays, Book II, Ed. Ann Saddlemyer, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.

20 Although he is concerned with politics, Hunter uses the word “obsession” to qualify the amount of attention granted to Ireland, especially at the time of the Easter Rising: “an obsession – and obsession is not too strong a word – with Ireland”. James Hunter, “The Gaelic Connection: The Highlands, Ireland and Nationalism: 1873-1922”, in The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 54, n° 158, part 2, Edinburgh University Press, Oct. 1975, 198.

21 Available at: http://womenofscotland.org.uk/about (accessed 28/02/17).

22 Available at: http://womenofscotland.org.uk/women/deirdre (accessed 28/02/17).

23 Available at: https://www.jimfitzpatrick.com/shop/celtic-irish-fantasy-art/diarmuid-and-grainne/(accessed 13/02/17).

24 Ann Dooley and Harry Roe, “A chronology of Fenian Tales in Ireland and Scotland” in The Tales of The Elders of Ireland, A New translation of Acallanna Senórach, O.U.P., Oxford, 1999, p. xliii.

25 Barbara Ker Wilson, Fairy Tales from Scotland, Illustrated by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999 (1956 as Scottish Folk-Tales and Legends), p. 185, “The Death of Diarmaid”.

26 Norah and William Montgomerie, The Folk Tales of Scotland, The Well at the World’s End and Other Stories, Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, 2013 (2005). First published 1975 by The Bodley Head (this edition with illustrations by Norah Montgomerie from the 1956 Hogarth Press edition). Available at: https://books.google.fr/books?id=LbC8BQAAQBAJ&pg=PT182&lpg=PT182&dq=tale+of+grainne+in+Scotland&source=bl&ots=UEZS4Hto8l&sig=KDmnxqxag4EvUcLyVFuQJj_cUl8&hl=fr&sa=X-&ved=0ahUKEwir69Xay7LSAhWJXBQKHaGZDUkQ6AEIODAD#v=onepage&q=tale%20of%20grainne%20in%20Scotland&f=false. This shows that the story was popular throughout the twentieth century and still is in the twenty first.

27 In Scotland, the legendary character of Beira, the Queen of Winter, presents exactly the same characteristics.

28 “Nous savons maintenant depuis longtemps, en dépit des interrogations de quelques celtisants (et non des moindres) que la reine Medb n’est ni une hétaïre, ni une femme s’adonnant à la boissonˮ in Françoise Le Roux, Christian-J. Guyonvarc’h, La Société celtique, éditions Ouest-France Université, Rennes, 1991, 152. [Despite the interrogation of a few Celtic scholars (some of them prominent), we have known for a long time now that queen Medb is neither a hetaera nor a woman devoted to drinking] English transl. CSL.

29 http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/robert_the_bruce/ (accessed 04/03/16).

30 Terry Jones’s documentary on “The Damsel”, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcoWPpE0EiE, mn 8’42-10’08, (accessed 04/03/16).

31 Mary Gleeson attempted a study entitled “Celtic undertones in Macbeth”, in Proceedings of the II Conference of the Society for English Renaissance Studies, ed. S.G. Fernández-Corugedo, Universidad de Oviedo, Oviedo, 1992, p. 123. See also Céline Savatier Lahondès, “The walking forest motif in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: origins”, in Notes and Queries: Volume 64 (2): Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017, 287-292.

32 Raphael Holinshed, The Historie of Scotland, George Bishop, London, 1577, 244. Hector Boece, Scotorum Historiae English, Heir beginnis the history and croniklis of Scotland, trans. by John Belleden, Thomas Davidson, Edinburgh, 1540, p. £lrriiii. Manuscripts preserved in the Library of Innerpeffray, Scotland.

Auteur

Currently finishing her PhD under the joint supervision of Professor Emerita Danièle Berton-Charrière (Université Clermont-Auvergne, France) and Professor Emeritus John Drakakis (University of Stirling, U.K.). Her thesis subject is “Transtextuality, Sources and Transmission of the Celtic Culture through the Shakespearean Repertory”.

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