Women and rebirth in Gaelic myth

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.”


What a lovely post! Thank you, @Aoife!



Thanks, that’s really lovely.

I’m not familiar with the Tain, so it’s been a pleasant diversion this morning to read up on it!

I’m wondering about the rebirth thing: it’s quite a common belief in cultures ancient and modern, so it’s not unexpected here. But the phrasing in that quote sounds distinctly modern: I wonder what the original says?


From the Wikipedia entry on the myth of Macha:

'…this is combined with the sexual aspect in a specific manner which reappears in other myths, the male partner or partners being dominated by the female…"[20] [link]

@sujato, have you come across the above pattern in Indic myths? Maybe they were more male dominant?

with metta

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I’m glad you like it. If you want to have another few happy mornings reading the Táin Bó Cúailnge, in Irish Gaelic and English translation, then be my guest (but the translation is over a century old so a bit archaic):


The language used here is not surprising. There are two ways in which these stories have been preserved. The first and foremost is the oral tradition which has persisted for over 2000 years. The second is the written medieval manuscripts, transcriptions of these folktales by Catholic monks. So their history is far different from for instance the Pali texts and although these stories are similar in broad lines, there are many variations and differences in details. Moreover, these monks also gave their own interpretations to these texts and “christianised” them. For instance, in one manuscript it says that Macha’s twins were stillborn, in another that they were born safely with the help of God. The latter statement is of course ridiculous and clearly the scribe’s own invention; the Celts did not believe in a creator-God and Macha herself was one of the Goddesses of the land.

The oral traditions have passed these stories on from parents to children in their own words. This went on for a long period of time before the medieval monks started writing them down so already there is a large variation, but the oral traditions have continued separate from the written texts after that too.

The fact that the word “rebirth” appears here makes me suspect that this is a text from oral tradition only. We have no textual evidence in any of the medieval transcriptions about the notion of rebirth among the Celts. We only have what the Romans recorded about it. Most scholars seem to attribute this lack to the freedom of the Catholic scribes, for whom the notion of rebirth among men (other than supernatural beings) would be blasphemous.

The belief in rebirth itself however is something that has survived in the oral tradition and some studies have been done in various Celtic countries to that extend. But of course it being a pagan belief, especially in Catholic Ireland, these things kept very much underground.

In any case, some of the manuscripts have been digitized and some transcriptions and translations of this legend "Ces Noínden Ulad" can be found here:
(the links to the manuscripts don’t work but you have to find collection from the dropdown)

In regards to their history, we cannot draw many definite conclusions from these texts except from the broad lines in which they are similar. I therefore think it is fairly safe to say that there was a far greater level of equality between men and women in pre-Roman times than thereafter, but I find it going a bit too far to conclude that it was a matriarchal society. After all, there have been strong women throughout history; England has seen a number of very powerful Queens on the throne while the society at large was still patriarchal.

I believe that Queen Medb probably existed as an actual historical character, but Macha was a Goddess and therefore belongs in the realm of the spiritual. If the sisters Aoife and Sgathaich were actual people or not is open for debate. I can equally see the arguments for and against. They could just as well have been nature-fays; the message being clear: don’t try to trick nature because you will regret it in the end, a message we could still learn from today.

As for my own story, I can see many parallels with the story of Aoife. I also took up martial arts and I too was defeated, not in a fight but tricked through my own gullibility (drugged with Datura). In some way I also took my revenge by forgiving. Rape is not about sex but about power and by forgiving I took that power back onto myself, like Aoife took the life she had given back from the man who tricked her. Besides, in the end nature always comes with it’s own revenge through the laws of Kamma and I’ve seen this very clearly when I went back to confront him. In such a way, stories of Aoife and other women can be seen as the embodiment of Kamma as a feminine force that you can never double-cross. Of course my story has nothing to do with the tales of Aiofe, but I can dream, and ultimately, that is where those myths come from.


Perhaps that was one of the reasons that our ancestors told these stories. So we can dream/connect with things hidden in the heart of myth, and see our own elemental aspects - the roots of the wholesome and unwholesome as Buddhist tradition would say - so we can have power over our own humanity by knowing it, rather than being enslaved to its/our nature.

You’re story is truly inspiring Aoife. Thank you so much for sharing it and showing how you found your own way forward, armed with love and courage.

I love hearing about the ancient Celts!



Thank you @anon29387788. That is beautifully said!

In Buddhism, we also see this in the Jataka stories. The Jataka stories seem to address a need for a different kind of discourse, other than the normal, more rational, philosophical discourse of the Suttas. There seems to be a need to address a different part of our consciousness; a need which cannot be expressed in words that easily.

Every Jataka is made up of two stories: the story of the past and the story of the “present” (i.e. the story during the Buddha’s own life). The events in the present seem to be more personal, set at a specific place and time, while the events of the past are more mystical and magical. These stories of the past seem to be able to adapt themselves to things that happen here and now and everybody can find something in them to identify with; the messages in them are more universal. So we can draw parallels with the events in our own lives and use these tales to illustrate our own stories.

So in this way mythology plays and important role in our development so we can learn to become whole if we open ourselves up to the underlying messages they try to convey.

I think the same holds true for the Jatakas. The Jatakas are not the Buddha’s words and are partly pre-Buddhist stories and partly written after the time of the Buddha. And there are certain passages in them that really make me cringe because it feels like ‘wrong view’ when taken literally. We should never take them literally but understand the underlying messages that cannot be expressed in words and use them to address those, maybe more feminine and more intuitive, parts of ourselves and learn how to integrate those within our being.

And I think you @Aoife, have done just that. Thank you.

Bhante @sujato: would you classify the story of The Tain as a dohaḷa story (i.e. Queen Medb’s irrational desire to possess a priced bull)? How common are dohaḷa-stories outside the Jatakas?


I don’t think so, she’s far too active for that.

In a dohala story, she would have lain in bed, swooning, so that Ailill felt all concerned for her. Then she would have said, “I need the bull, Finnbennach”. And Ailill, even though the only purpose of getting the bull was so that she could be as rich as he, would have been compelled to go out and wage war at great cost, only to bring back the prize that confirmed her sovereignty. It’s so much easier that way!

As it is, she had to go out and do all that fighting, only to end up being killed by a piece of cheese in the bath. :cheese:

They’re common enough in the Indic traditions, but I’m not sure about outside that.


It is interesting that you should bring up the word “dohaḷa” here. The dictionary defines it as “longings of a pregnant woman” (sounds like wanting gurkins with vanilla icecream). But in the stories the women are usually not pregnant and their longing is for wisdom, or more importantly for the integration of the “male” and “female” in order to become whole and find the Dhamma.

I’ve been reflecting on this concept for some time and maybe I will work it out in another post a bit more, but there are times when I feel that I really want to lie down and just die, feeling a strange longing for something indefinable. These times begin almost always about a week before my menstruation and although unpleasant, these times always lead to some quest to find meaning and understanding of something within myself, of finding the Dhamma. So these periods are always enriching and enlightening in the end. Sometimes I also enlist the help of others, usually men, to help me in my quest. But mostly it is something I have to do on my own. While part of me is pining away in bed, another part is trying to find this hidden gem, this truth, and in doing so has to brave all kinds of hidden traps in my being. It is an inner journey that is difficult but extremely rewarding. It is this same quest that has also brought me here, to this forum, to write my story. But this quest is not yet at an end …