The feminine in early Irish myth and legend

In early Irish mythology and legend, the feminine is quite dominant in the otherworld as well as on earth. The land of Ireland and features of its landscape such as mountains, rivers and lakes were frequently associated with goddesses and other supernatural females.

Early Irish deities did not have specialised areas of influence like those of the Greeks and Romans, for instance. The same Irish goddess could be a young woman or a hag, a mother or a virgin, a warrior or a seductive temptress, depending on the occasion.

  • The Béara Peninsula was the home of the sovereignty figure, Cailleach Bhéirre or Hag of Béara, known from a famous ancient poem 'Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéirre, …'
  • The Hill of Tara commemorates the name of a queen called Téa; Knockshegowna Hill commemorates Úna, a fairy queen and Knockaney Hill commemorates another fairy queen Áine.
  • How the rivers Shannon, Boyne and Liffey were named after the females Sinann, Bóann and Life gave rise to fascinating stories of origin.
  • Legend had it that Cessair, grand-daughter of Noah, was the first person ever to set foot in Ireland.
River goddess

River goddess
Tríona de Bairéid

Goddesses symbolised the land. As ancient as the landscape, they were imagined as being restored to youth and fertility when united with a succession of their mates, the kings. The inauguration of the king of a tuath was called a 'banaisrighe' or 'wedding of the king.' He 'married' the land, represented by a white mare, sacred to the goddess. Females, however, could not be sovereigns, though they embodied or symbolised sovereignty.

Legends depict supernatural women enticing mortals to the otherworld. Niamh lured Oisín to Tír na nÓg, Clíona enticed Tadg to a similar happy haven and Bran was drawn by magical music and visions to the Land of Women.

The most spectacular supernatural women were those associated with war and death, especially the Badbh, Macha and the Morrigan, a trio of female personifications of terror and rage. In the literature they scream in the air causing panic to men in battle.

As 'shape-shifters' they could appear as young or old women seducing men or as crows or animals hovering around the battle field to gloat over the sufferings of warriors and pounce on their bodies when dead.

Because Cúchulain refused the favours of the Morrigan in the shape of a young woman, she vowed to take revenge and 'shape-shifted' to an eel winding about his legs to trip him in battle and to a wolf that stampeded a herd of cattle at him. She later landed on his dead body in the shape of a raven.

Morrigan shapeshifts to a raven

The Morrigan could
shape-shift to a raven.
Tríona de Bairéid
Death of Cuchulain

The death of Cúchulain
As represented in 1935 for GPO,
Dublin by Oliver Sheppard

The 'washer at the ford' was an omen of death for those who saw her washing bloody garments at the ford of a river. She finds an echo in the banshee of Irish folklore who is also said to give warning of approaching death.

Women were depicted as teaching warriors the arts of war and some went to war themselves. Scáthach and her rival Aífe, both women-warriors in Scotland, instructed Cúchulain in fighting skills. It was Scáthach who presented him with his magic sword, the gae bolga, while Aífe was the mother of his son, Connla, whom Cúchulain killed with the gae bolga, not recognising him in time as his son. Ness, mother of high king Conchobar Mac Nessa, who was called after her, was a champion fighter and the great epic Táin Bó Cuailgne tells the story of Medb of Connacht who led her army in pursuit of the Brown Bull of Cooley.

In several well-known love stories of Irish legend, women invite attractive men to elope and if refused, put them under a spell or geis to obey them.

Did these mythical and legendary women and men share qualities with the living women and men of the time? Were they admired? Were they seen as role models? Or were they seen as 'foolish and excessive' as some modern scholars think? What do stories tell us about the cultures that listen to them? Do popular stories, without other evidence, necessarily reflect the character of a culture?

There is little evidence that the divine and human worlds are reflections of the other in terms of gender … The religious life of Athens in the fifth century BC was focused on the all-important … goddess Athene, yet Athenian women … did not even enjoy citizenship. We can see how, in our own day, the leadership of Margaret Thatcher for more than a decade has done little for the status of women in Britain.
Miranda Greene, Celtic goddesses, London, 1997, p. 15.

However, the lively characters, plots and atmosphere of early Irish myth and legend have enlightened and entertained people down through the ages. Surprisingly undeterred by astonishing pagan activities, monks in early Christian monasteries preserved these aspects of early Irish culture.

A list of types of early Irish stories gives us some idea of their number and scope:
Destructions Adventures Loves Sieges
Cattle-raids Elopements Expeditions Conceptions and births
Courtships Slaughters Invasions Frenzies
Battles Irruptions Caves  
Feasts Visions Violent deaths  
Alwyn & Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage, London, 1961, p. 208.

A continuous chain of story telling down through the years preserved many of these stories in rural folklore, often with interesting variations. Ireland has one of the best folklore collections anywhere, partly because an immense amount was recorded through the national schools in the 1930s by the Irish Folklore Commission and placed in an archive in Dublin where it is available to researchers.


  1. What is meant by any four of the following terms used in the above text? banaisrighe, shape-shifter, washer-at-the-ford, banshee, gae bolga, ball seirce, geis.
  2. Name three important features of an early Irish goddess.
  3. Identify four shapes taken by the Morrigan.


  1. Research an Irish personal name or surname and briefly tell the story behind it.
  2. Research any place name in Ireland which has a myth of origin and briefly tell the story .
  3. Briefly relate your favourite Irish myth or legend.
  4. Role play the Morrigan.
  5. Role play a scene where someone is placed faoi gheasa (under a spell).
  6. Draw or paint any scene in the above section or any scene from Irish mythology.
  7. Write a poem about any scene in the above section or any scene from Irish mythology.
  8. Do a project on any aspect of women in Irish mythology.
  9. Research a few differences between Irish mythology and any other mythology.
  10. Interview a person who has preserved folklore and record at least one story.
  11. Research the folklore collected in your own area in the 1930s.
  12. Select any one of the following aspects of twentieth century culture and pretend to be a historian in the year 3500 AD discussing our culture:

    science fiction; thrillers; horror movies; cartoons; pornography; computer games; soaps; women's magazines; tabloid newspapers; sports pages.

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