British Fighting Women, Matriachy and Gimbutas

by Jani Farrell Roberts. c2000

An extract from her book "Seven Days: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender."

There is evidence that in the British Isles and Ireland, a male dominated society replaced not a matriarchy but of a society in which women and men worked together as equals with safeguards and pledges to possibly control an innate male aggressive tendency - as is still the case in some Australian Aboriginal communities, despite the cultural damage inflicted by white society.

According to ancient legends the kings of Ulster had to pledge that they would look after the women's rights. Specifically they had to pledge that the harvest would be provided every year to the families, that there would be no lack of supplies of cloth dyes to the women and that medical supplies and midwives would be provided so that no women need die in child birth. If they broke this pledge they could apparently be deposed.

In the days of hunter-gathering and in the early days of agriculture in these islands, it seems that the prevalent image was of a female deity who was, as Gimbutas found in central Europe, the Mother who fed and watered her people with her crops and springs. In Ulster this Goddess was known as Macha who warmed the earth, making it fertile, bringing the people their food. Armagh is named after Macha's hills. ("Ard Macha"). An image of Macha is still preserved in its cathedral. But Macha was seen as being born between the tides "of the strange one of Ocean" - and this may have reflected the ancient concept that the creating energy had to possess both gender energies even while having a female gender identity.

But a strong female warrior tradition also once existed in the British Isles. This could as Gimbutas suggested, have developed when traditional societies were being threatened by invaders or even as a counterbalance to the development of more male dominated and aggressive Iron Age cultures. In the great mythological Irish saga known as The Tain, the Celtic women were leaders in battle and known for strength and battle progress -38 of W of Celts. The great warrior Cuchulainn was trained in the arts of warfare by a woman, Scathach the Shadowy One, who lived in Alba (Britain). She taught him to outfight all male warriors but when he was sent against her enemy, the woman Aife, he could only win by trickery, not by force of arms. There are also the warrior queens, Melb, Cartamundu and Boudeccea. p27.

The old stories seem to show that women failed to hold their own in the face of Iron Age male aggression reinforced by a religious culture that sanctioned this aggression. The Irish legend known as "Pangs of the Men of Ulster" seems to have come from such a period. Macha was no longer the unchallenged Mother of Life, the Goddess of Sovereignty. She was a Goddess but had only the social status of a wife of a boastful man who agreed foolishly to a challenge from the king. The king could make her, who represented womankind and whose symbol was the horse, race against his horses.

The king knew that she was heavy with child - and thus hoped to defeat her. He refused to honour her request to giver her time, asked "in the name of the Mother". He was determined to defeat her and this seemed a good time. But she demonstrated that she was still supreme in speed, magic and skill. She raced against his horses, defeated them, and then gives birth to twins. She then cursed the men of Ulster in the name of the Mother to feel the pangs of child-birth for 7 generations. Men were challenging women so it appropriate for them to share in women's troubles! But the very fact that a king could force her as a mother to race reveals the weakness of women in that society.

Celtic society then evolved a head collection culture, perhaps because, in overthrowing the power of the mothers, the head had replaced the womb as the mythical source of life . (As it had with the Greeks ref. above p.). The Celtic warriors sometimes slept with the severed heads of enemies placed between their thighs in a crude imitation of a woman in childbirth. They may have seen this as giving them the power of the mothers.

Women often had to fight in the wars of this period when hill and cliff top forts were built throughout the land. They thus needed a Goddess of the Battlefield to protect the wounded, convey the dead to the next world, and confuse the enemy - as did the men (thus their talk of the harvested heads being "the mast" or food of Macha) - and so the women had to call on the warrior aspect of the Mother - and found The Morrigan into which Macha was subsumed as part of a triple Goddess with her two sisters, Badb and Morrigan. In Britain she was probably better known as Morgan. The Morrigan was feared by men who dreaded the female power she represented - so she became depicted by them as a hag - or as the three hags as in Shakespeare's Macbeth.

But the Morrigan was more that the fighter of men. She offered to help Cuchalain in his battles. She was the healer of the wounded and of the taker of the spirits of the dead into the next world. She was depicted as the Sacred Cow whose milk was an antidote to the poison of weapons. She became the Mother on the Battlefield as well as the Warrior - perhaps reflecting in this the mixed roles then played by women.

When She fought, She did not normally use the war weapons of which the Gods were so proud, but instead used the powers of magic including of shape shifting. These powers were usually deployed to defeat the plans of the men of war, to trick them into doing the will of the Goddess, to demoralise the armies or to force an army to kill its own men. Women warriors may have trained the men - but the Goddess when she fought used her wits, her knowledge of men, her bond with other creatures and the magical powers that she possessed - because of her bond with the land.

The time when men took over in the British Isles may well have generated the many Irish myths about Goddesses who were even raped. The Goddess Tlachtga was pack-raped by the three sons of a man she had gone to in order to learn his magic - and she then died giving birth to male warriors. Macha became of even lower status as a daughter of the son of the god Neid rather than his consort. But then Irish culture may have become more gender balanced for the popular image of the Goddess became more that of Bride or Bridget. As Goddess of inspiration, healing and smithwork she was a role model for women suitable for an Ireland of a less warlike civilisation. A poem of mine about the changing images of my people's Goddesses is included in the appendixes.

In short, women and warrior energy, fighting Goddesses and healing Goddesses, priestess and warrior, are utterly reconcilable concepts of very ancient history. Women may use different tools, may have different aims, but women like men have a duty to fight to protect children, the home and the greater home, the earth herself.