Ladies of Legend: Pasiphaë and Ariadne

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariadne, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ariadne-Greek-mythology, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasiphaë, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Pasiphae.html , http://greekmythology.wikia.com/wiki/Europa, http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Ariadne.html,

Trigger warning: bestiality, suicide

Pasiphaë’s mother was Perse, eldest of the Oceanids, and her father was the sun god Helios. She had two brothers, Aeetes and Perses, both kings, and her sister Circe was a formidable sorceress. Pasiphaë became queen of Crete through her marriage to its king, Minos, and together they had eight children: Acacallis, Ariadne, Androgeus, Glaucas, Deucalion, Phaedra, Xenodice and Catreus. Her most famous child, however, was a son conceived in an encounter that makes literally everyone involved look bad.

The grip Minos had on the throne was a tenuous one at the start of his reign, with his brothers for competition, so he prayed to Poseidon to send a pure white bull as a sign of divine favour. When Poseidon obliged, Minos was intended to sacrifice the bull in his honour, but instead kept it for his own. This infuriated Poseidon, and the sea god decided to take out his temper on Minos’ wife. Pasiphaë was struck by a desperate urge to have sex with the divine bull, to the point that she forced the Cretan court’s pet inventor Daedalus to build her a wooden cow on wheels that was lifelike enough to convince the bull it was worth mating with. It worked so well that Pasiphaë immediately fell pregnant. Her son was named Asterion, but is much better known as the Minotaur: a boy with the head of a bull. As a small child, he was allowed to wander the palace freely. As he grew older, however, he grew more dangerous. Daedelus was tasked to build a labyrinth beneath the palace, where the child could grow to manhood out of sight and out of mind.

Pasiphaë’s adultery was hardly her fault; even a powerful sorceress can only do so much against the curse of a god, and it was Minos who offended Poseidon in the first place. Minos, on the other hand, was entirely responsible for his own wandering eye and Pasiphaë took measures to ensure his fidelity. She laid an enchantment on him that would turn his semen into serpents, scorpions and centipedes whenever he slept with a woman who wasn’t her. The curse was eventually overcome by an Athenian girl named Procris, who used a herbal remedy produced by Circe. I’m going out on a limb here and assuming the sisterly relationship was not a good one.

The strangest aspect of Pasiphaë’s story – and that’s a high bar to reach! – is that her mother-in-law, Europa, had EXACTLY THE SAME EXPERIENCE with a bull, only hers was really Zeus. She then went on to become the first queen of Crete, so things worked out rather better for her.

Pasiphaë has been equated with the moon goddess Selene, and there is an argument she was also a Minoan solar goddess. In Sparta, senior magistrates would sleep at her shrine in the hope of visions that would guide their governance. Her story is fragmented, circling her husband and children, but from what little there is, I know for sure she’s not a woman I would ever want to cross.

It was in this household of monsters and demi-gods that her daughter Ariadne grew up, with her feral half-brother roaming the labyrinth under her feet. Like her mother, Ariadne’s origins are a contested history. According to some, she is a weaving goddess, while others claim she was a snake goddess, or a Great Goddess of Crete. In the best known version of the myth, however, she was a princess, and the only one apart from Daedelus who really understood the labyrinth.

The city of Athens owed a tribute to Crete after the death of Ariadne’s brother Androgeus. zthe tribute was seven youths and seven maidens to be sent every seven (or, depending on the version, nine) years and sacrificed to the Minotaur. To be selected was a death sentence, until Theseus, son of the Athenian king Aegeus, volunteered to go and kill the monster. The odds of his succeeding in that would have been rather low had Ariadne not fallen in love with him and offered her assistance.

Ariadne had free run of the labyrinth. She armed Theseus with a sword to kill the Minotaur and a ball of thread to find his way through the passages, and all she asked in return was to be brought with him when he left Crete.

In one version, he failed even that, and she hung herself. In the better known account, he did take her with him, and her sister Phaedra too. The ship stopped at the island of Naxos on its journey to Athens, and Theseus abandoned Ariadne there while she slept. There are versions where the gods demanded it of him, with Athena personally leading Theseus back to his ship, but let’s face it: his personal history is basically one thoughtless act after another with the occasional act of dubious heroism thrown in for counterweight.

Fortunately for Ariadne, one of the gods had a great deal of interest in her. Dionysus, who was the god of wine-making, theatre and religious ecstasy, rescued her from Naxos and married her. Her wedding diadem was so spectacular it was set into the sky as a constellation, the Corona Borealis. She had twelve children with Dionysus: Oenopion, Staphylus, Thoas, Peparethus, Phanus, Eurymedon, Enyeus, Ceramus, Maron, Euanthes, Latramys and Tauropolis. The marriage to Dionysus was, it would seem, a happy one, but when Perseus came to Argos with Medusa’s head, Ariadne was among the guests turned to stone.

Dionysus did not accept her death. He went into the Underworld to get her back and not only succeeded, he brought his mother Semele to the surface as well. Both women became goddesses in their own right, joining the Pantheon on Olympus. Ariadne may have started out in the shadow of the Minotaur, but in the end, she was the woman who walked out of the dark and into Olympus itself. In the end, she got what she wanted: she got free.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

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Ladies of Legend: Nimue, Vivian and Ganieda

References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_of_the_Lake, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, http://www.legendofkingarthur.co.uk/legendary-characters/vivien.htm, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/women.html#Lake, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/h01.html, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, originally published in 1907) by Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005) by Howard Pyle, 

The Lady of the Lake is a figure so ambiguous in all ways that there is not even a consensus on whether she is one person or two – or, in true mythical fashion, three. ‘The Lady of the Lake’ is really more a position rather than an individual: she is the keeper and possibly maker of Excalibur, and/or the ruler of Avalon. One of the Ladies of the Lake, Viviane from the Vulgate Merlin, was also Queen of Sicily, where she was worshipped as a goddess. Other names attributed to the Lady of the Lake include Nimue, Vivien, Vivian, Elaine, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve and Evienne. One variation of her name, ‘Vi-Vianna’, implies a connection to the Celtic water goddess Coventina, while others suggest links to the Irish goddess Niamh or the Welsh goddess Rhiannon.

There is even a connection to the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana (and therefore to her Greek counterpart, Artemis) in one version of the legend. In this story, Nimue was the daughter of Diones and the goddaughter of Diana. Merlin glimpsed her dancing in the forest and fell in love on the spot. Their wedding was officiated by Diana herself – a startling irony, given that Diana is famously, and sometimes savagely, chaste – promptly followed by Merlin’s imprisonment in a bewitched castle. It doesn’t sound like a great foundation for a marriage, but hey, when it comes to spectacularly terrible relationship breakdowns, the Lady of the Lake is Arthurian legend’s true expert. There is also a version in which she was Merlin’s spurned lover, changing into the shape of a beautiful woman in order to seduce him (which does rather beg the question, what was she before?) only to trap him in amber mid-orgasm. She then transformed into an oak tree around him. That is commitment.

Different versions have her entrap him in a hawthorn tree, beneath a stone, inside a cave or a tower. What remains consistent is this: Merlin fell, and she rose.

The first Lady of the Lake who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur goes unnamed. She gifted Arthur with Excalibur and later came to his court, where she accused Arthur’s knight Sir Balin of killing her brother and Balin accused her of killing his mother – whereupon he promptly beheaded her, much to Arthur’s dismay. It was later that the character of Nimue appeared, as a mystery woman who wandered into Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding feast while looking for her dog, only to be kidnapped by a knight called Sir Hontzlake. Nimue’s cousin, Sir Meliot of Logurs, battled Hontzlake to rescue her, but was outmatched. It was Sir Pellinore who brought her safely back to court, and safe is perhaps not the right word, because Merlin immediately fell in lust with her.

Nimue felt no interest in return, but used his attraction to pump him for knowledge. They were travelling companions, leaving England for the lands of King Ban, father of Lancelot. By the time they returned to Cornwall, Merlin was actively pursuing Nimue for sex and she had no further use for him. She walled him up behind an enormous rock with her magic and left him there, buried alive. It was an act of quite astonishing cruelty.

And then, in so many ways, she became him.

When Morgan le Fay’s lover and conspirator, Accolon, got his hands on Excalibur and attacked Arthur with it, Nimue forced Accolon to drop it, ensuring Arthur won the battle and the sword was restored to him. When Morgan le Fay sent a poisoned cloak as a ‘reconciliation’ gift, Nimue suggested Arthur force the messenger to try it on first, and so the unlucky handmaiden died a painful death instead. A sorceress named Annowre abducted Arthur, hoping to win him with her obsessive love, and would have killed him in the wake of his rejection had Nimue not brought his knights for a timely rescue. She claimed Annowre’s severed head like a trophy.

Nor was her loyalty limited to Arthur. Young Sir Pelleas fell in love with a woman who played with his heart, and Nimue’s way of resolving that situation was to enchant the girl to love him while simultaneously enchanting Pelleas to hate her. Nimue then took the knight as her lover and later, her husband. When Guinevere was accused of murder, Lancelot fought for her, but it was Nimue who cleared her name by identifying the true murderer. And Nimue was there at the very end, one of the sorceress queens who came for Arthur to bear his body away after the final battle.

Different translations of Malory’s work imply Nimue may have been two different women, Nimue and Nyneve. This may explain the marriage to Pelleas, who also appears twice-over – Pelleas the young, heartbroken knight, and King Pelleas of Corbenic, father of Elaine, grandfather of Galahad, guardian of the Grail. The Nimue married to Sir Pelleas bore him a son, Guivret. The Lady of the Lake, in her different personas, had another son; after the death of King Ban, she raised Lancelot as her own and taught him the art of chivalry. He was known, because of her, as Lancelot of the Lake.

If Nimue is a figure of wisdom, Vivian is ambition. She appears in some versions of the legend as a separate character, a girl taught – essentially weaponised – by Morgan le Fay. Vivian came to Camelot to study magic with Merlin and who deliberately seduced him into teaching her everything he knew. While her ruthlessness should certainly not be underestimated, there is an astonishing amount of sexism behind the idea that this lord of magic and prophecy was helpless before her; his lust was his blind spot, and she exploited it, in the same way he exploited Igraine’s faith in her husband Gorlois. In some versions, she entombed him. In others, he was her prisoner in a hidden tower.

This Vivian became an enemy of Camelot, cursing Arthur’s knights for her amusement, sending them to their deaths when it suited her. Howard Pyle paints Vivian as a classic temptress, surrounding her with beautiful handmaidens in a hidden castle. She was not an ally to Morgan le Fay; Vivian was entirely her own woman. Neither was she friendly with Nimue, who played a far less morally ambiguous role with Vivian in the narrative.

Of all these sorceresses encircling Merlin and Arthur, there is a third distinct character: Ganieda, Merlin’s twin sister. An alternative spelling of her name is Gwenddydd. In these stories, Ganieda and Merlin’s father was named Morfryn. Ganieda was wife to King Rhydderch, which made her sister-in-law twice-over to Merlin’s wife Gwendoloena. Merlin was a seer and ‘fool’ at Rhydderch’s court. He predicted three deaths for the same boy, which drew scorn from his audience. Merlin went to live in the wilderness, and in time the threefold death came true. The only time he returned to Rhydderch’s court was when his estranged wife remarried; Merlin stabbed her new husband with a pair of antlers.

Ganieda came to live with Merlin after the death of her own husband. She had a house built for them, with seventy doors and seventy windows, through which Merlin could watch the stars and foretell the future. Merlin later sought a cure for his madness in a healing spring, accompanied by Ganieda and the young poet Taliesin. When Ganieda drank the water, she became a powerful seer herself.

Whatever form they take – goddess, enchantress, temptress, mother, sister, queen – the Ladies of the Lake are women who exist outside of boundaries. Theirs is a changeable neutrality; while they each have certain loyalties, in the end they are always their own side. And that is the side that usually wins.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Hippolyta and Penthesileia

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/penthesilea/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolyta A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penthesilea, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otrera

Trigger warnings: references to incest, rape, necrophilia

This post may be slightly influenced by the existence of the Wonder Woman movie, which contains comic book Amazons backflipping off shields and whacking people with axes. It is not faithful to Greek mythology, obviously, nor is it intended to be, but it’s nonetheless a delight to see my ladies of legend on the big screen. Especially when they are setting things on fire.

The Amazons were a race of warrior women, believed to be a real civilisation in ancient times. They originally lived beside the Amazon River, led by their matriarch Lysippe, but Aphrodite took against Lysippe’s son Tanais for favouring war over love. Spitefully, Aphrodite caused him to become obsessed with his own mother. Tanais threw himself in the river, and Lysippe led her family away into the mountains, where they founded the city of Themiscyra.

The set-up of Amazonian society was strictly divided by gender. The Amazons were said to abandon their sons at birth, only keeping the girls. When men were tolerated, they were confined to the domestic sphere and to ensure their obedience, the legs of boys were broken while they were very young. The women fought and ruled. 

The Amazons were supposedly the first to use cavalry in battle. Lysippe and her daughters founded an empire and later Amazonian queens – including Marpesia, Lampado and Hippo – continued that tradition by conquering their way across Asia Minor. At one point they seized the city of Troy, though they were in the end unable to hold it.

They worshipped Ares, the god of war, and the hunting goddess Artemis. They carried bows and half-moon shields, and performed shield dances in Artemis’ honour. It was said that they cut off their right breasts to improve their skill at archery, which I feel only makes sense if your baseline assumption is that archers shouldn’t have breasts at all.

One of the most famous Amazon queens was Hippolyta. She was the daughter of Ares and Otrera, who was daughter of the east wind and a queen of the Amazons herself. It was, in fact, a family of queens – Hippolyta’s sisters Antiope and Melanippe ruled with her over the three principal cities of their land, and her other sister Penthesilea became her successor after Hippolyta’s death.

As a symbol of her authority, Hippolyta wore a golden, jewel-encrusted girdle, a gift from Ares himself. One day the Princess Admete, daughter of King Eurystheus, decided she would quite like to own that magical girdle, and as her father just so happened to have the hero Heracles in his service at the time, the odds of her getting her wish were quite high. Heracles was undertaking labours as a penance for killing his family. The labours usually involved killing other people. Nobody has ever claimed the Pantheon are consistent in their morality. Heracles brought a band of warriors into Amazonian territory to either convince or force Hippolyta to give up her treasure.

At first, it seemed Hippolyta might give up the girdle of her own free will, after she took a fancy to Hercules’ muscle-bound body. So the goddess Hera, who compelled Heracles to start his twelve labours and work for King Eurystheus in the first place, decided to stir up some trouble. She disguised herself as an Amazon and spread a rumour that Heracles and his warriors had really come to kidnap Hippolyta. The queen’s warriors attacked.

In one version, Heracles gave up his pretence at diplomacy, killed Hippolyta and seized the girdle. In another, Melanippe was the sister held captive by Heracles, and the girdle was a ransom Hippolyta paid to get her back. In a third, Hippolyta fought Heracles, and died rather than surrender.

Theseus of Athens (killer of the Minotaur, future king, reliably a cad towards women) was present in Heracles’ company of warriors. Among the plethora of alternate stories is one in which Theseus declared a passionate love for Hippolyta and took her away with him to Athens. They had a son together, Hippolytus. When Theseus decided, inevitably, to put Hippolyta aside and marry Ariadne’s sister Phaedra instead, the outraged Amazons descended upon the wedding party. During the confusion, Penthesileia delivered Hippolyta an accidental killing blow. There is also an account in which Heracles and Theseus are not involved at all; Hippolyta was hunting deer with Penthesileia when the gods sent a capricious wind, and Penthesileia’s spear struck her sister instead.

One thing is certain: Hippolyta died, and Penthesileia inherited her crown.

Penthesileia was a great archer (the trick to it being that she cut off both her breasts). She was also credited with inventing the battle-axe. The fact that Hippolyta’s death was an accident did not stop the Furies from pursuing her killer, so Penthesleia took refuge in the city of Troy. During the war with the Greeks, she fought to defend the city. So formidable a warrior was she that even Achilles fell back when she took to the field.

In the end, he was the one who killed her. Just to make the whole thing unbearably creepy, he fell in love with her the moment he stabbed her, and in one version, had sex with her corpse. A Greek warrior called Thersites then gouged out her eyes, and Achilles responded to the desecration by punching him so hard he died. Thersites’ cousin took revenge on Achilles by throwing Penthesleia’s body in a river.

She was buried eventually – in one account, by Achilles, in another, by the grateful Trojans. Achilles made sacrifices to Apollo, Artemis and Leto in penance for Penthesleia’s death.

As with so many women of myth and legend, Hippolyta and Penthesleia’s stories have sad endings. But myths, you know, have a special immortality: with every different version that is told, they live again. And so the Amazons are reborn, battle-axes and all.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Isolde

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iseult, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/tristan.html,

Trigger warning: references to rape

Well, it’s probably still Tuesday somewhere. This is over two weeks late – sorry! – but as I’ve been sick for about a month straight, anything I get done at this point is getting counted as win.

When it comes to famous tales of tragic love, June’s Lady of Legend is up there with the big guns. ‘Tristram and Isolde’ are two names bound together in the same way as ‘Lancelot and Guinevere’, and in fact predate them, being originally separate from the Arthurian cycle. There are two distinct versions of their legend: the early romances and the Prose Tristran. I shall begin with the Prose.

Women in Arthurian legend have a certain tendency to come in threes. The ancient Welsh myths reference three different Guineveres; in Le Morte d’Arthur, Igraine has three daughters; and in the story of Tristram(/Tristran) and Isolde (alternative spellings include Iseult, Iseo, Yseult, Isode, Isoude, Izolda, Esyllt and Isotta) there are three royal women bearing the same name. The heroine is Isolde the Fair, who was named for her mother, Queen Isolde of Ireland. The third Isolde is Isolde’s rival in love, a woman she never met. For their stories to make sense, you need a little background on the man who spectacularly screwed up all of their lives; and for him to make sense, you need some background on his mother.

Tristram (also known as Tristran) was the son of King Meliodas of Liones and Elizabeth of Cornwall, the sister of King Mark. According to Le Morte d’Arthur, Elizabeth was pregnant with Tristram when a sorceress kidnapped her husband and imprisoned him. Elizabeth went to get him back. She never reached Meliodas; she went into labour in the forest and died there. Tristram’s name means ‘sorrowful birth’. He was found by his father’s barons, who would have killed him for the power if not for Elizabeth’s companion, a lady-in-waiting so persuasive she got a majority vote for Tristram’s continued survival. The same lady-in-waiting brought the queen’s body home to her husband, who was released from his prison by Merlin (too late to be of any use; that’s Merlin for you.)

It was not a good start.

When Tristram was seven, his new stepmother tried to win a crown for her own children by poisoning him, and it was only through Tristram’s pleading for her life that she was kept from the pyre. After that, bizarrely, it was Tristram who had to leave home. He went to France for his education, which was very thorough and knightly. And fortuitous, because his uncle Mark was in a spot of financial and political bother. Cornwall traditionally owned truage to Ireland, but had not paid up in seven years. King Anguish of Ireland, upon being told he was never going to get his money, decided to settle the question with a duel of champions and sent his brother-in-law Sir Marhaus to Cornwall. This being Isolde’s uncle. Do you see how this gets very messy very quickly?

Marhaus arrived outside Tintagel Castle and Mark regretted all his life choices, as nobody at his court was willing to fight a celebrated knight from the court of Arthur himself. Tristram, full of youthful fervour, asked his uncle to make him a knight in order to take on the duel. While he was busy getting ready for his big Knightly Moment, he received word from King Faramon of France’s daughter, who fell in love with him during his time abroad. Tristram was not interested, and the poor girl died of sorrow.

And Marhaus didn’t even want to fight Tristram, he thought he was too young and tried to send him home. The battle that eventually ensued was brutal. Marhaus received such terrible head injuries that he ceded the field, returned to Ireland and died there with a piece of Tristram’s sword embedded in his skull. His sister kept that fragment after Marhaus’ death, and ached for revenge. Her daughter did not have an uncle any more, so that Tristram’s could escape his debt.

Tristram did not escape the duel without injury. Marhaus’ spear was poisoned and in consequence, Tristram’s wounds would not heal. A ‘wise lady’ advised that Tristram seek help in the land of the venom’s origin. Having no better ideas, that was what he did. Which is how he ended up outside the castle of King Anguish, Queen Isolde and their very beautiful, reknown surgeon of a daughter. Surgeon being Malory’s word, by the way.

Tristram’s skilful harping caught the attention of the court. He called himself ‘Tramtrist’, because that’s just what he’s like as a person. Pretending he was injured fighting on behalf of a lady, he finangled his way into Anguish’s circle of knights and into the care of Princess Isolde, who cleaned his wound properly. In return he taught her to play the harp. There was flirting of the courtly, deceptive variety. Isolde, however, already had a serious suitor at court: Sir Palamides the Saracen. Like Marhaus, Palamides was a knight of King Arthur’s court, and he was head over heels for Isolde, sending her gifts every day, even planning to convert to Christianity for her sake.

For all that, Isolde was not interested in him. With Tristram more or less recovered from his injuries, she urged him to compete in an upcoming joust. Palamides was an excellent jouster, but Tristram was the Hero of the Story and therefore not only defeated his rival, he forced him to give up the trappings of war for a whole year and give up on his courtship of the princess. Which one would assume was her intention.

She was certainly delighted by his victory. Together, she and the queen prepared a bath for him. Unfortunately, Tristram left his sword in his chambers; the same sword he used to kill Marhaus, with a tell-tale piece missing. Queen Isolde put two and two together, and came up with rage. She picked up that sword and marched off to run Tristram through with it.

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Ladies of Legend: Queen Medb

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Legends of the Celts (HarperCollins, 1994, originally published 1989) by Frank Delaney, http://www.queenmaeve.org/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medb, http://www.bardsongpress.com/Celtic_Culture/The_Intoxicating_Warrior_Queen.htm, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Medb, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire

Trigger warning: references to rape

Welcome to May and this month’s Lady of Legend, the Irish warrior queen Medb (also spelled Medhb, Meadhbh, Maebh or Anglicised into Maeve). Translated, her name means ‘drunken woman’ or ‘she who intoxicates’. If you haven’t heard of her yet, you are missing out.

As is the case with many mythological women, she may have originally been a goddess of sovereignty (it being said that the ruler of Connacht had to be ‘married to Medb’, as if married to the land itself) or a goddess of war. Her sacred tree was the bile Medbh and she was often depicted with a squirrel and a bird sitting on her shoulders. In the stories that depict her as a human queen, the squirrel and the bird became her pets.

Her father was Eochaid Feidlech, the High King of Ireland, and her mother was Crochen (or Cruachú) Crobh-Derg, a handmaiden to Etain. It was partially through her mother that Medb claimed a right to rule over Connacht. Eochaid married Medb to Conchobar Mac Ness, the king of Ulster, as a recompense after Eochaid killed Conchobar’s (alleged) father in battle; not the most promising of starts to what would become a hellish marriage. Medb had a child with Conchobar, a son named Glaisne, but took a strong enough dislike to her husband to leave him, political reconciliation be damned.

Nothing daunted, Eochaid gave Conchobar another of his daughters – depending on the version, either Eithne or Clothru – but when the unfortunate second wife fell pregnant, Medb is said to have murdered her. The baby (a son, Furbaide) had to be taken from her dead body. There is, however, another version of events in which Furbaide’s mother drowns in a river and it is Lugaid mac Conor, Furbaide’s brother, who is responsible. It seems probable that Eochaid, at least, did not believe Medb killed her sister, given that he deposed the king of Connacht to put Medb on the throne. The erstwhile monarch, Tinni Mac Conri, made the best of the situation by winning a spot in the new queen’s bed.

Conchobar showed his true colours after an assembly at the High King’s seat of Tara, when he raped Medb. War broke out between the High King and Ulster, and Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat. He lost. Eochaid Dála, Tinni’s rival for the crown of Connacht, managed to extract Medb’s army from the battle and became her next husband.

Being Medb’s husband came with conditions. Any man she married had to be without fear, meanness or jealousy – basically, she wanted a good-natured big spender for an open relationship and said so upfront. She was a beautiful, powerful woman known for sleeping with her best warriors and Eochaid Dála was fine with that up until he found out she was sleeping with Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard. He challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill became the new king of Connacht.

Together, Medb and Ailill had two daughters, Findabair and Cainer, and seven sons. Upon being told by a druid that one of her sons would kill Conchobar, and that son would be named Maine, Medb renamed all her sons to increase the odds. Therefore Fedlimid became Maine Athramail (“like his father”), Cairbre became Maine Máthramail (“like his mother”), Eochaid became Maine Andoe (“the swift”) and was also known as Cich-Maine Andoe or Cichmuine, 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”). And the strategy paid off! Maine Andoe did indeed kill Conchobar…just not the Conchobar Medb was expecting.

I’m disappointed, I can’t imagine how she felt.

And her luck with men continued to prove terrible. Aware he was only king through his marriage to Medb, Ailill had insecurity issues. One night after sex, he wrecked the afterglow by announcing that she’d been terribly lucky to get him what with all the wealth and prestige he’d brought to her. Medb laughed. Her retort was that her wealth far outstripped his and he was her ‘kept man’. This kicked off the sort of marital argument that begins with comparing all of your possessions to find out who really has the financial upper hand and ends (after Medb found out her own prize bull had refused to stick around in her herds, choosing to plough through the fences into Ailill’s fields because he couldn’t bear being owned by a woman, what the actual hell) with a legendary cattle raid and a whole lot of bloodshed.

You see, there was only one bull in Ireland to match Ailill’s. It belonged to Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal to the unfortunately still surviving Conchobar. To her credit, Medb did try to buy the bull, but her messenger got drunk and told everyone that she’d just take the bull if Dáire wouldn’t sell it to her…so he didn’t sell it to her. And she did come to take it. Look, she had a POINT to prove.

Also, it could not have been a more perfect time to attack. A curse had been laid upon the men of Ulster, leaving them weak and unable to fight (the curse, incidentally, originated from a mistreated pregnant woman and they brought the entire damn thing on themselves). Medb was fast and strong and her very presence on the battlefield made her army feel invincible.

Among Medb’s forces was Fergus mac Róich, the former king of Ulster and one of Medb’s more worthwhile lovers. It was said that it took seven men to satisfy her in bed, or Fergus once. She had two children with him, Ciar and Cormac. He was a reluctant ally, but an ally just the same – and as it turned out, Medb needed him very much, because the one man left standing in Ulster was the unstoppable Cuchulainn, a hero so powerful he could take on an entire army on his own. Even the promise of the very beautiful Findabair’s hand wasn’t enough to attract a champion who could overcome him. He was also an old friend to Fergus. The two of them came to a deal that Cuchulainn would pretend to run away, so that they wouldn’t have to fight, if Fergus would return the favour at a time of Cuchulainn’s choosing.

Medb couldn’t let Cuchulainn go, however, and Cuchulainn himself was not the type to stay away from a battlefield. He slaughtered her armies, her pets, one of her handmaidens and one of her sons before finally dying of his many wounds – but first he gave the word to Fergus to flee, so that Medb’s army would follow and the war would be over.

Nevertheless, Medb got her bull. As soon as it was put in with her husband’s, the two beasts killed each other, so all those people died for no reason whatsoever, but the important thing to take away from it all was that Ailill couldn’t lord it over Medb any more. Out of jealousy, he had Fergus killed. Medb got her own back when Conchobar finally did everyone a favour and died, leaving the Ulster hero Conall Cernach to come spend his retirement in the Connacht court; Medb set the aged hero to watch Ailill, who was sleeping around himself, and with her support, Conall avenged Fergus by killing the king. Aillil lived just long enough to set his own men on Conall.

And Medb lived on. She’s said to have ruled for over sixty years. As an older woman, she made a habit of bathing in a pool on the island of Inchleraun, also known as Inis Cloithreann. Her nephew Furbaide, blaming her for his mother’s death, practiced with the slingshot until he was certain of his skill. The next time she went to bathe, he killed her. With a piece of hard cheese.

Legend has it that Medb was buried in Rathcroghan, under a long slab called ‘Misgaun Medb’. There is, however, a second possible burial site in a stone cairn atop Knocknearea, where her body is supposed to stand upright, still facing her enemies in Ulster. Medb was not the type of woman to let go of a grudge. She was a terrible enemy and not even that great a friend – but she lived loud and fast and fierce, and even her death sounds like a tall tale. Who could ever resist the larger than life warrior queen of Connacht?

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – The Rebirth of Rapunzel

The Rebirth of Rapunzel – Kate Forsyth

FableCroft Publishing, 2016

In this mythic biography, Australian author Kate Forsyth traces the famous fairy tale of ‘Rapunzel’ from its earliest recorded origins down through centuries of retellings into the inventive, irreverent and exciting incarnations of the modern day. How well do you really know the maiden in the tower?

I was given a hardback of this book, with its gorgeous cover by Kathleen Jennings, as a Christmas gift from my sister, because she knows me well and  fairy tale biography. It is a brilliant concept that Forsyth has researched meticulously and presented in a way that is immensely readable. Though I disagreed with some of her interpretations, the history and context of this fairy tale’s growth and change is so well presented that it allows the reader to form their own opinions based on those facts. Included in this book are some of Forsyth’s other essays about fantasy, science fiction and writing. There are spoilers for her ‘Rapunzel’ retelling Bitter Greens, so I would advise reading that first. I love fairy tales and have strong feelings about ‘Rapunzel’ in particular because I wrote a retelling of it myself; The Rebirth of Rapunzel is a book I am delighted to have on my shelf, and I would be thrilled to see more ‘mythic biographies’ like it.

Ladies of Legend: Helen and Cassandra

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandrahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_of_Troy

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

It all began with Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and the original bad fairy at the christening – or in this case, at the wedding, showing up at the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus to make everyone simultaneously regret not inviting her and remember exactly why they didn’t by riling up the three most powerful goddesses in the Pantheon and starting one of the most famous wars in myth and legend. She brought with her a golden apple (never ever trust a golden apple) with an inscription on it reading ‘for the fairest’. Zeus, who might be all kinds of terrible but was smart enough to realise that was a mess he wanted no part of, hastily foisted the role of judge onto Prince Paris of Troy. Thanks to an ominous prophecy made at his birth, Paris was living as an anonymous shepherd at the time, in ignorance of his birthright. All that was about to change.

The three goddesses who felt the strongest right to the apple were Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister and queen of the gods; Athena, goddess of wisdom and war; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Each offered Paris an appropriately extravagant bribe depending on her governance. Hera promised power and riches, Athena assured him of good fortune in battle, but Aphrodite swore that he would have the most beautiful woman in the world as his own and Paris awarded her the apple – thereby making himself two implacable enemies, and an ally as fickle as she was powerful.

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