If you’ve ever read about the relationship between mythology and history, you’ll notice some trends. Many of heterosexual relationships feature men in dominant positions over women. There is a double standard in the acceptance and portrayal of hypersexuality in men versus women. Take Greek mythology, for example. One of the most famous couples was Zeus the philandering rapist and Hera, his supposedly vengeful, jealous wife. There’s the hero Agamemnon, who despite expressing entitlement to Achilles’s lover, chastised his wife Clytemnestra for taking a lover in Aegisthus. When Ares and Aphrodite engaged in their affair, they were caught by Hephaestus, and only Aphrodite was humiliated by him.
Ailill was Medb’s primary relationship in the Celtic Ulster Cycle, was aware of her polyandrous nature, and had no issue with it. In fact, she made it clear to him that she’d “never had one man without another waiting in his shadow.” Ailill was made to promise to not give in to jealousy, a vow he mostly managed to keep. He was one of the multiple husbands of Medb, while he was apparently only linked to her. Ailill didn’t have the same liberty though, as Medb did not react well to Ailill having any other romantic relationships.
Queen Medb wasn’t even unusual in how many partners she had. Her story reflects the values of her time, which, under the Brehon Laws of ancient Ireland, held that women were equal to men and marriage was a contract, not a sacrament. There’s even an entire text describing some of her relationships, Ferchuitred Medba, or Medb’s Man-Share.
This contrasts a lot of mainstream historical laws and attitudes towards men’s extramarital relations versus those of women. Even Biblical figures like Abraham, David, and Solomon had up to 700 wives. This is in stark contrast to the conservative and monogamous standards set by both Judaism and Christianity, which prohibit adultery through the Seventh Commandment. A similar attitude is seen in the laws of Ancient Greece; while adultery was forbidden, men took the liberty of sexual relations with enslaved females and prostitutes. These values are reflected in some Greek and Roman mythology, as seen when the goddess Artemis fell in love with Orion, and Apollo tricked her into killing the mortal because he was protective of her virginity.
Despite traditional mythological stories of female sexual subservience, warrior Queen Medb was both the more sexual one in her marriage and the dominant one in regards to the power and authority she wielded. The Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) states that rather than Ailill choosing Medb for his wife or Medb being kidnapped (think Hades and Persephone) or being sold off to him in some kind of arranged marriage (Aoife to Lir, in which the former is offered by her father to the latter), she chose him.
Better yet she didn’t choose him because of his strength or ability to best her, as with Queen Hippolyta and Heracles, or Demon Lord Sumbha and Mother Goddess Parvati, but rather, she had “exacted a singular bride-gift, such as no woman before me had ever required of a man of the men of Erin, namely, a husband without avarice, without jealousy, without fear. ” (Táin Bó Cúailnge).
She also wouldn’t tolerate him being superior to her in any way. Her philosophy was, as she told Ailill, “as I am great in largess and gift-giving, and it would be a disgrace for my husband if I should be better at spending than he.” In fact, she went to war just to ensure they would be equally wealthy. When Ailill owned a valuable stud bull and Medb did not, she commanded the soldiers of Ireland to invade the kingdom of Ulster and steal its prized bull, Donn Cúailgne, the Brown Bull of Cooley, leading to the eponymous cattle raid of the epic.
As a Celtic warrior queen and an Irish sovereignty goddess, Medb was a woman of her time and shared many similarities with other warrior goddesses from myths all over the world. She was independent, territorial, ambitious, and her relationship with her husband was delightfully subversive of much of the relationships of mythology.
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