Medb

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Queen Medb depicted on the Series B Irish pound note.
Queen Medb depicted on the Series B Irish pound note.

Medb (Meḋḃ, Medhbh, Meadhbh, Meab°, Meabh, Maeve, Maev; usually pronounced /meɪv/ in English) is queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Her father was Eochaid Feidlech, the High King of Ireland. Her best-known husband was Ailill mac Máta, although she had several husbands before him, all of whom were kings of Connacht while they were married to her. Her palace stood at Cruachan (now Rathcroghan, County Roscommon). She was probably originally a "sovereignty goddess", whom a king would ritually marry as part of his inauguration. A separate character, Medb Lethderg, performs a similar function in Tara. Her name is said to mean 'she who intoxicates', and is cognate with the English word 'mead'; it is likely that the sacred marriage ceremony between the king and the goddess would involve a shared drink.

The name "Connacht" in the Ulster Cycle appears to be an anachronism. Connacht took its name from the Connachta, the descendants of Conn Cétchathach, who is supposed to have lived several centuries later than the events of the Ulster Cycle. Cóiced Ol nEchmacht is sometimes given as an earlier name of the province.

Medb's first husband was Conchobar mac Nessa of Ulster, but that marriage didn't last. She then murdered Conchobar's next wife, her own sister Eithne, while she was pregnant. Eithne's son, Furbaide, was born by posthumous caesarian section.

Her father installed her as queen of Connacht, driving out the then king, Tinni mac Conri; however, Tinni regained a share of the throne when he and Medb later became lovers. Conchobar later raped Medb after an assembly at Tara. War ensued between the High King and Ulster. Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat, and lost. Eochaid Dála of the Fir Domnann, who had been Tinni's rival for the kingship, protected the Connacht army as it retreated, and became Medb's next husband and king of Connacht.

Medb demanded her husband satisfy her three criteria - that he be without fear, meanness or jealousy. The last was particularly important as she had many lovers. While married to Eochaid Dála, she took Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard, as her lover. Eochaid discovered the affair, challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill then married Medb and became king of Connacht.

Medb and Ailill had a daughter, Findabair, and seven sons, all called Maine. They originally all had other names, but when Medb asked a druid which of her sons would kill Conchobar, he replied, "Maine". She didn't have a son called Maine, so she renamed all her sons as follows:

  • Fedlimid became Maine Athramail ("like his father")
  • Cairbre became Maine Máthramail ("like his mother")
  • Eochaid became Maine Andoe ("the swift")
  • Fergus became Maine Taí ("the silent")
  • Cet became Maine Mórgor ("of great duty")
  • Sin became Maine Mílscothach ("honey-speech")
  • Dáire became Maine Móepirt ("beyond description")

Maine Andoe went on to kill Conchobar son of Arthur, son of the king of Britain, and the prophesy was fulfilled.

Medb also insisted that she be equal in wealth with her husband, and started the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) when she discovered that Ailill was one powerful stud bull richer than her. Fighting on her side in that campaign against the Ulster hero Cu Chulain, was Fergus mac Róich, exiled former king of Ulster and one of Medb's lovers. It is reported that it took seven men to satisfy her, or Fergus once. She had Conall Cernach kill Ailill after he had contrived Fergus's death.

In her later years she often went to bathe in a pool on an island. Furbaide sought revenge for the death of his mother Eithne. He took a rope and measured the distance between the pool and the shore, and practiced with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Medb's height from that distance. The next time he saw Medb bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese. She was succeeded to the throne of Connacht by her son Maine Athramail.

Medb's cairn at Knocknarea
Medb's cairn at Knocknarea

According to legend, Medb is buried in a 40 foot high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Ré in Irish) in county Sligo.

The LÉ Maev (02), a ship in the Irish Naval Service (now decommissioned), was named after her.

Preceded by
Tinni mac Conri
Queen of Connacht Succeeded by
Maine Aithreamhail mac Ailill Máta

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