Maeve (Medb) was one of the daughters of the king of Tara, who killed her pregnant sister. Maeve then married Aillil and took over the territory of Connacht, which would have belonged to her sister had she lived. She was most famous for her role as the queen of Connacht during the Battle for the Brown Bull of Cooley, but she also has many mystical qualities, which mark her out as one of the many Celtic goddesses. She was the goddess of sovereignty and territory, as can be seen from her independent and territorial character. She refused to let any king rule at Tara who had not first mated with her, and she was generally depicted as extremely promiscuous. Her name has strong links to the word ‘mead’ and her constant seducing of different men is related to the intoxicating effects of this drink.
Stories of Maeve:
One evening, Maeve and Aillil began to tease each other about which of them had the higher status. Their teasing quickly grew earnest, as each vied to prove their superiority in the relationship. They were equal in birth, equal in status, and equal in power. To settle the matter, they counted out all their belongings, and the only difference between them was that Aillil had a magnificent white-horned bull, and Maeve had nothing that could compare to it. Unable to bear a subordinate role in her own marriage, Maeve sent messengers to search all of Ireland for a bull as splendid as Aillil’s. There was only one: the Brown Bull of Cooley. Maeve sent messengers to the bull’s owner, Dara of Cooley, offering gold and lands if he would agree to let her have the bull. He was initially inclined to grant her request, until he heard one of her messengers drunkenly boasting that if he would not sell it, Maeve would surely take it by force. Dara resented being dictated to, and refused to part with the bull.
So began the famous Táin Bó Cuailnge, the “Cattle Raid of Cooley”, in which Maeve assembled a great army of her allies from all over Ireland to invade Ulster and take the bull. Thanks to the Ulster exiles in her ranks, Maeve knew all about the curse of Macha, which would put the Ulster warriors out of action for nine days and nine nights. During that time, only the young warrior Cú Chulainn stood between the invading army and the defenseless province. His skill as a warrior was so great that the army were in terrible trouble.
Maeve negotiated with Cú Chulainn, through Fergus MacRoich, to fight in single combat against one of her champions every day, allowing the army to move while the fight was on, and stopping once the fight was over. He made such short work of her champions that she send a small band of raiders north to Cooley to steal the bull. She persuaded her greatest warrior, Ferdia, to fight against Cú Chulainn, who was his foster brother, and this led to the death of the last champion of Connacht. Her followers were then heard to repent that they had ever been guided by such a vengeful woman. On the eve of the final confrontation between the two armies, the Brown Bull of Cooley was smuggled into Connacht where it bellowed on entering new pastures and was heard and set upon by Aillil’s White-Horned Bull. The two animals gored each other to death, symbolizing the wasteful conflict between Connacht and Ulster. Maeve re-invaded Ulster in later years, taking vengeance on Cú Chulainn for the devastation he had wreaked on her army and killing him. Maeve was ultimately killed herself by the son of her murdered sister, and it was thought that she was killed by a sling shot bearing a piece of cheese!
Maeve was a strong and independent character, with a knowledge of magic and sorcery. She never shirked her part of the work, and knew well how to encourage and lead her followers. She was definitely the stronger partner in her marriage with Aillil. She was always depicted as beautiful but was often seen dressed for war, leading the charge in her own chariot. At times she was depicted as laughable, but she was a strong woman who was not to be crossed. She could be harsh and domineering, and was willing to go to great lengths to assert her rightful status.