Having been named after a warrior-princess from Gaelic myth of my beloved Éire (i.e. Ireland, land of the sovereign Goddess Ériu), I have always had a special interest for mythology and how it shapes our perception and identity, especially of women. Ajahn Sujato wrote extensively about this subject in his book “White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes”, but does not specifically go into the myths of Irish, pre-Roman, mythology. I am not nearly as good in writing as Ajahn Sujato, nor did I make a thorough study of the subject, but I used to love reading the tales of the strong women of old.
Éire was a land ruled by the sacred feminine. Goddesses, fays and female spirits ruled the land and sea. Men were very respectful to these sacred forces that could take their lives at every turn. People lived with a great respect for nature; a feminine force that could bring life, but also take it away.
Aoife was a warrior-princess who could not be defeated in combat by any man. She and her sister Sgathaich ran training schools for warriors on the islands west of Scotland and their students were feared and famed as the most accomplished of warriors. Aoife was finally defeated, not by force but by trickery. It is a fairly long story but she eventually took her revenge and left the male hero of the story as a broken man for the rest of his life.
What is striking in all these stories is that women basically had the same status as men in that they could divorce, have lovers, inherit property and be present on the battle field just as men did and often determine the outcome of battles. In the Ulster Cycle, a group of legends set in the 1st Century BC. Queen Medb ruled Connacht, in her own right, as the title of sovereign was passed to her through her father. Medb ruled for 60 years, and is the sole reason that her five husbands gained the title of “King.” Medb was a woman that was not to be trifled with. She is the main protagonist the legend of “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” which describes a conflict between Connacht and Ulster.
The following article is an interesting analysis of the role and power of women in Irish mythology, illustrated by the tales of the epic The Táin:
What I find especially striking is this part of the “curse of Macha”:
“Although you may develop sophisticated doctrines of rebirth; although you may have taken on yourselves the right of life and death; although your efforts may seem logical and plausible in the light of a patriarchal culture; your efforts cannot but be doomed to failure as long as they are based on the subordination of women.”
Set several centuries before Christ, this is an extraordinary statement on various accounts and I will let you draw your own conclusions from it. The concept of rebirth is also interesting here. Although we do not know much about these beliefs, Julius Caesar was recorded as saying that the Celts were so fierce because they held this belief and were not afraid to die in battle as a result.
There are many stories of very powerful women in Irish mythology but of course we also have to look at how these stories came to be. At the time of the Celts and pre-Celts, there was no written language and many of these stories were eventually written down in medieval times by Christian monks. So these stories and their impact on our perception has been a subject of debate and although we cannot draw definite conclusions from this, I think it is fairly safe to say that women’s roles were far more emancipated than in the later Christian era.
Now what does that mean for me personally?
Our perception of ourselves, our identity, is for a large part shaped by the conditions that we grew up in and the experiences we have had in this life. The concept of rebirth, as it was briefly touched upon above, is something that has survived as a pagan/folk belief in many Celtic countries, from Ireland to Brittany, until far into the 20th century. Many of the old folk still believed in this and together with the myths, there was a strong belief that we are the people of old, reborn again now. That also meant that our identity was partly shaped by that, feeling that somehow these are not merely the entertaining stories of our ancestors, but in some real sense, the stories of our own lives in the past, and of our own strengths.
The women in these myths were far from perfect, driven by greed, hatred and delusion. So identifying with them too literally is also not something we should aspire to. But myths usually have a more subtle meaning and are not just stories of real events. It is about the struggle of the mind. The Buddha was a conqueror, not of Kings and countries, but of the “armies of Mara”, the defilements in the mind. So also, the tales of epic battles and the women who fought them are echos of our own struggles to do battle with our defilements, that dark force inside of us. In the Suttas, there are many passages where Mara appears to a nun and confronts them with these perceptions of womanhood, the perceptions of the culture:
“That state so hard to achieve
Which is to be attained by the seers,
Can’t be attained by a woman
With her two-fingered wisdom.”
The battle we have to fight is against these wrong views, in our own culture, but to begin with within ourselves, and to come out victorious, as did the nun Soma:
“What does womanhood matter at all
When the mind is concentrated well,
When knowledge flows on steadily
As one sees correctly into Dhamma.
“One to whom it might occur,
‘I’m a woman’ or ‘I’m a man’
Or ‘I’m anything at all’—
Is fit for Mara to address.”