Here is an essay that I wrote some time ago, as an introduction to Book One of “Herself Long Ago”
“What was it like being a woman a thousand years ago? The strong clear voices of these Irishwomen inform us about their lives, their hearts and minds. They impress us powerfully across the centuries.
The women here are all accomplished poets, and in early Ireland, a poet was the most revered person in the society, next to the chieftain.
Liadan of Corkaguiney, we are told, was a qualified member of the poets guild, and there is no reason to suppose that other women were not. The high status of women should not surprise us, since Irish myths and legends teem with strong women who can dish it out every bit as good as they can take it.
A good gauge of the degree of equality of the sexes is to ask of the body of myth and legend: “Would a young girl find as many substantive role models as a young boy?”
The answer has to be “Yes!”
The earliest inhabitants, the Tuatha De Danann, are “the people of the goddess Dana.” The goddesses Eire, Banba and Fodla provide the classical names of Ireland. We find mother goddesses; warrior queens; royal rustlers; magicians; shamans; local divinities; goddesses of battlefields, rivers, feastdays, animals.
And martial arts experts: the female warrior Scatach trains the great hero Cuchullainn, givings him the secrets of invincibility.
And we find plenty of forceful and colorful personalities: take Queen Maeve of Tain fame, with her long list of royal men, whom, we are told, “This imperious person reduces to the rank of mere confederates.”
And she knows how to pick ’em: one pal, Fergus, “eats the food of seven men, has the strength of 700; his nose, mouth, and penis are seven fingers in length, his scrotum is as big as a sack of flour.’
Maeve wants that Brown Bull of Ulster, and offers the owner her famous “thigh friendship” (–say no more). The same thigh of friendship is ‘extended’ to those assisting her in battle. No man can be king unless he has been married to Maeva, echoing the fact that all the kings of Ireland had to marry the goddess, from whom they derived their sovereignty.
Or Queen Macha. Denied her reign of Ireland, she takes on two kings in battle and routs them.
Or Tailtiu, who cleared all Ireland with an axe. For her, Lug, her foster son, sets up the festival of Lugnasa, which is observed from parish to parish in the Garland or Pattern days right down to today.
The Celtic queen Boudicca, “Huge of frame…a great mass of red hair fell to her knees”, spear in hand, terrorized the Roman soldiers. Another fierce Celtic woman helps her husband in battle: “…very strong, with blue eyes…swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, brandishing enormous arms, (her) blows mingled with kicks, like so many catapult missiles.
[In the next section, I explain –among other things– why there is no Irish Goddess of Love. Hint –it’s probably not what you’re thinking.
Do let me know if you have any questions or comments.]