Celtic Women: Victims and Victimizers
Women of both Irish and Welsh Celtic mythology are integral parts of the stories they inhabit, however unflattering their portrayals may be. Even in stories where they are unnamed, imprisoned, or have little to no actual dialogue, the entire plot can hinge on a single action by the woman in question. However, how these separate mythologies portray these women could not be more different or polarized.
The first woman who stands out is Medb, the goddess/queen of Connacht from The Tain. She is arguably the catalyst for the events of the entire story. Her vain and competitive nature causes her to strike a bet with her husband, Ailill, to see who has the most wealth. When she comes up slightly short in the comparison, she launches a war to steal the prize bull of Dáire mac Fiachna (The Tain 58). It is this ruthless, blind ambitiousness that compels her character throughout the tale, and drives the fates of every man, woman, and child caught up in her wake. While Medb is clearly a very “strong female character” (a term I personally hate. You would never refer to Cu Chulainn as a “strong male character”), her degree of selfishness and willingness to throw her own people into a “warp spasm” meat grinder over and over again for a minor gain in wealth casts her in the role of the villain in this story. While Cu Chulainn is a trickster hero, Fergus is the Voice of Reason, and Ailill is the obedient husband, Medb’s heartlessness casts her as the sole legitimate antagonist in the book. What makes Medb intriguing is that her character is not portrayed as being being much different from a male. Unlike most modern female villains, she is not shown as a femme fatale of unsurpassing beauty. While she is not afraid to use her sexuality to get what she wants, she makes it clear that this is literally at her pleasure. You are left with the impression that she puts sex on the table more because she would like to bed the man in question than she thinks it will sincerely help manipulate him. Her sexuality is so completely within her control that she even outright states that one of the reasons she married Ailill was his lack of jealousy, for “if I married a jealous man that would be wrong too: I have never had one man without another waiting in his shadow.” (The Tain 53). Unlike so many other stories we have read, Medb has no fear of retribution for extramarital dalliances. She is also clearly in charge on the battlefield, if not particularly honorable, and her armies follow her in spite of some extremely questionable decisions. Clearly, there is some precedent set to instill that degree of loyalty. It is only at the end that they question her ability to lead (The Tain 251). She is determined, she is strong, she is flawed, and she is one of most real female characters we have read in both the Celtic and the Norse mythologies. The unsavory nature of her personality only serves to put her on equal footing with the men of the story, who are not much more honorable in most cases. She is painted as neither virtuous womanhood nor a spiteful bitch goddess. She is a person first, a woman second.
Contrast this with a character like Branwen from the Second Branch of The Mabinogion. Branwen is a paper doll character. She has no dimension or desire, no personal ambitions or personal quirks. She exists simply as a reason for war. She is a pawn in the games of men. When Matholwch shows up out of the blue to seek her hand in marriage, the entire proceeding is treated as if he and Llyr were trading livestock. Matholwch has not even seen Branwen at this point. When she is finally introduced, we are only told of her beauty, nothing more. She does not even speak until close to the end of the story, and then it is only in response to questions posed her about the invading Welsh armies. The very first words we hear her speak are “Though, I am no “lady” (The Mabinogion 29). Her abnegation of her status (intended ironically or otherwise) is glaring in light of her helpless enslavement and persecution as Matholwch’s chattel. We know her by the things that are done to her, not the things that she does. Her character drives the plot, not because she is at the helm or because of any manipulation on her part, but because she plays the same role as the coveted bull in The Tain. The horses that were mutilated by Efnysien play a role that is almost equal in importance to the plot (The Mabinogion 23), and receive almost as much description as Branwen .
We can see that the juxtaposition between these two women is striking. The fact that both manage to influence their stories to the degree they do despite their clear differences is interesting in light of the fact that they both come from cultures of Celtic origins and the stories were both written down around the 11th-12th century. The Irish Medb is an empowered, if not always likeable, queen who’s ambition propels the story forward. Branwen is a puppet, and a victim to her circumstances who’s presences propels the story forward. These disparate women serve as good examples of how women are portrayed in their respective mythologies as well as how their mythologies treat their women.