ladies of legend

women in celtic mythology

Of all ancient cultures, the Celts had one of the most well-rounded and interesting approaches to examining the feminine aspect of life. The mythology of Ireland is ripe with many fascinating women, be they ban sidhe ("women of the faery mounds") or human. Their stories are incredible and their characterization, simply extraordinary, each of them displaying their individual power and agency in her own unique way and none of them accepting passive roles in their lives. This blog is dedicated to paying respects to the legendary ladies of Celtic mythology, many of whom acted as driving forces in their own tales––and the tales of the men around them.

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Rosario Dawson & Shannyn Sossamon as Liban & Fann, daughters of Aed Abrat

"Thou shalt be whole, and all that thou hast lost of thy strength shall be in-creased to thee… In Mag Mell, the Plain of Delight, and now I desire to go to that other land. Thou wouldst never go hence, wert thou not under a woman’s protection.” 
                                       ─ Liban, "The Sick-Bed of Cu Chulainn"

As a pair, Liban and Fann are arguably the driving force behind the events of “The Sick-bed of Cu Chulainn.” They appear to him first in his dreams, laughing and whipping him, presumably as punishment for his pride and aggression. Liban appears to him in wakefulness later with a proposition: if he agrees to help her husband, Labraid, win an important battle against Senach Siaborthe, Eochaid Iuil, and Eogan Inber on the Otherworldly isle of Mag Mell, they will heal him and he will be given Fann, who has expressed interest in him, as consort. Liban brings Cúchulainn’s man Loeg to the isle first, then Cúchulainn comes to fight for them. After the battle, Fann has a brief affair with him, initiated and pursued by her because her husband, Manannan Mac Lir, has been absent from Mag Mell for too long. The relationship is short-lived, ending when Fann discovers Cúchulainn has a wife, Emer, and the two women realize Cúchulainn is truly at fault for his dishonesty. They part ways when Manannan Mac Lir returns to reconcile with Fann; he then gives Emer and Cúchulainn a potion of forgetfulness and passes his cloak between Fann and Cúchulainn to ensure the two will never meet again.

Rosario Dawson & Shannyn Sossamon
as Liban & Fann, daughters of Aed Abrat

"Thou shalt be whole, and all that thou hast lost of thy strength shall be in-creased to thee… In Mag Mell, the Plain of Delight, and now I desire to go to that other land. Thou wouldst never go hence, wert thou not under a woman’s protection. 

                                        Liban, "The Sick-Bed of Cu Chulainn"

As a pair, Liban and Fann are arguably the driving force behind the events of “The Sick-bed of Cu Chulainn.” They appear to him first in his dreams, laughing and whipping him, presumably as punishment for his pride and aggression. Liban appears to him in wakefulness later with a proposition: if he agrees to help her husband, Labraid, win an important battle against Senach Siaborthe, Eochaid Iuil, and Eogan Inber on the Otherworldly isle of Mag Mell, they will heal him and he will be given Fann, who has expressed interest in him, as consort. Liban brings Cúchulainn’s man Loeg to the isle first, then Cúchulainn comes to fight for them. After the battle, Fann has a brief affair with him, initiated and pursued by her because her husband, Manannan Mac Lir, has been absent from Mag Mell for too long. The relationship is short-lived, ending when Fann discovers Cúchulainn has a wife, Emer, and the two women realize Cúchulainn is truly at fault for his dishonesty. They part ways when Manannan Mac Lir returns to reconcile with Fann; he then gives Emer and Cúchulainn a potion of forgetfulness and passes his cloak between Fann and Cúchulainn to ensure the two will never meet again.

Eva Green as the Morrigan, Goddess of War & Death

"Peace up to heaven, heaven down to earth, earth under heaven, strength in every one. I shall not see a world that will be dear to me. Summer without flowers, kine will be without milk, women without modesty, men without valor, captures without a king. Woods without mast, sea without produce. Wrong judgments of old men, false precedents of lawyers, every man a betrayer, every boy a reaver. Son will enter his father’s bed, father will enter his son’s bed, every one will be his brother’s brother-in-law. An evil time! Son will deceive his father, daughter will deceive her mother.”
                                       ─ "The Second Battle of Mag Tured"

Also known as the Morrigu, “great queen” or “phantom queen,” the Morrigan has the ability to change her shape and take the form of a crow. Yet another name for her is Badb, meaning “battle-crow” though it’s sometimes translated as “air-demon.” The motif of animal transformation is known as the feth fiada, (“master spell” or “master mist”) and is a frequently recurring theme in Irish mythology. The Morrigan takes part in “The Táin Bó Cúailnge,” or “The Cattle-Raid of Cooley,” throwing in her lot as she sees fit. She has a connection to Cúchulainn, though her exact feelings toward him are unclear, and she takes great interest in his successes and failures; at his death, she and her sisters perch on his shoulders in crow form. The Morrigan is known as a triple goddess figure, taking the forms of maiden, mother and crone at different points throughout the myths. At the end of “The Second Battle of Mag Tured,” she predicts a grim future.

Eva Green as the Morrigan, Goddess of War & Death

"Peace up to heaven, heaven down to earth, earth under heaven, strength in every one. I shall not see a world that will be dear to me. Summer without flowers, kine will be without milk, women without modesty, men without valor, captures without a king. Woods without mast, sea without produce. Wrong judgments of old men, false precedents of lawyers, every man a betrayer, every boy a reaver. Son will enter his father’s bed, father will enter his son’s bed, every one will be his brother’s brother-in-law. An evil time! Son will deceive his father, daughter will deceive her mother.”

                                        "The Second Battle of Mag Tured"

Also known as the Morrigu, “great queen” or “phantom queen,” the Morrigan has the ability to change her shape and take the form of a crow. Yet another name for her is Badbmeaning “battle-crow” though it’s sometimes translated as “air-demon.” The motif of animal transformation is known as the feth fiada, (“master spell” or “master mist”) and is a frequently recurring theme in Irish mythology. The Morrigan takes part in “The Táin Bó Cúailnge,” or “The Cattle-Raid of Cooley,” throwing in her lot as she sees fit. She has a connection to Cúchulainn, though her exact feelings toward him are unclear, and she takes great interest in his successes and failures; at his death, she and her sisters perch on his shoulders in crow form. The Morrigan is known as a triple goddess figure, taking the forms of maiden, mother and crone at different points throughout the myths. At the end of “The Second Battle of Mag Tured,” she predicts a grim future.

Natalie Dormer as Emer, wife of Cúchulainn

"The woman to whom thou dost cling is in no way better than I am myself! Yet fair seems all that’s red; what’s new seems glittering; and bright what’s set o’erhead; and sour are things well known! Men worship what they lack; and what they have seems weak; in truth thou hast all the wisdom of the time! Oh youth! Once we dwelled in honor together, and we would so dwell again, if only I could find favor in thy sight!”
                                       ─ "The Sick-Bed of Cu Chulainn"

The name Emer translates roughly to the word “granite,” suggesting that she is actually an earth goddess figure related to the sovereignty goddess archetype. In the role of a sovereignty goddess, Cúchulainn must win her approval during “Cúchulainn’s Courtship of Emer” in order to reach his full potential as a warrior and earn his right to lead. She gives him a series of incredibly difficult tasks to complete before he can finally have her hand in marriage. When she discovers her husband is having an affair with the fairy woman Fann, Emer takes a knife and fifty of her friends to confront the pair of them. However, rather than fight over Cúchulainn, Emer and Fann realize they have both been fooled by him and start up friendly negotiations, each insisting the other should have him. Neither of them cares to hear Cúchulainn’s opinion on the matter (much to his confusion).

Natalie Dormer as Emer, wife of Cúchulainn

"The woman to whom thou dost cling is in no way better than I am myself! Yet fair seems all that’s red; what’s new seems glittering; and bright what’s set o’erhead; and sour are things well known! Men worship what they lack; and what they have seems weak; in truth thou hast all the wisdom of the time! Oh youth! Once we dwelled in honor together, and we would so dwell again, if only I could find favor in thy sight!”
                                        "The Sick-Bed of Cu Chulainn"

The name Emer translates roughly to the word “granite,” suggesting that she is actually an earth goddess figure related to the sovereignty goddess archetype. In the role of a sovereignty goddess, Cúchulainn must win her approval during “Cúchulainn’s Courtship of Emer” in order to reach his full potential as a warrior and earn his right to lead. She gives him a series of incredibly difficult tasks to complete before he can finally have her hand in marriage. When she discovers her husband is having an affair with the fairy woman Fann, Emer takes a knife and fifty of her friends to confront the pair of them. However, rather than fight over Cúchulainn, Emer and Fann realize they have both been fooled by him and start up friendly negotiations, each insisting the other should have him. Neither of them cares to hear Cúchulainn’s opinion on the matter (much to his confusion).