Once Upon A Time….

Once upon a time, I believed that the past was filled with women warriors and there was a great deal of evidence for it especially among the Celtic cultures. Oh, a minority for sure, but there was so much evidence. Such as Boudicca, whose story is told in this video (from the BBC shorts Horrible Histories), Scáthach, Aoife, Medb….the list goes on especially from Ireland, as well as the Cáin Adamnáin. After all, warriors wouldn’t follow a woman if they didn’t have faith in women as warriors, there wouldn’t be all these stories if there were no women warriors, there would be no need to outlaw women warriors if there were no women warriors…..

Now I no longer believe that. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I believe there were Celtic women warriors. What I stopped believing was that there is any good evidence.

It took me a long time to get here and even when I was I was at first a bit reticent about it. After all, I AM writing a book on the Gaelic warrior path for women. The slowness was in part due to the fact that many renown Celticists have supported the that this is evidence, usually just in passing and often citing such evidence as noted above. For example Nora Chadwick stated following noting the Cáin as well that, “Taking what we’re told of Gaulish women warriors by classical writers, together with Boudicca, Cartimandua and Maeve, and with these stories, we cannot but wonder whether there was not some such institution among the most ancient of Celtic people.” (The Celts pg. 136, see below) She is hardly alone in such statements.

As I started up Teh Project again, however, I couldn’t let things go “just in passing.” I actually had to face the evidence issue, because it is something that we must confront and be truthful about. That there is no good evidence, yet I whole heartedly do still believe there were some women warriors in the early Gaelic cultures.

My belief is based simply on the simple fact that no matter how misogynist and repressive a culture is, there are always some women who are of a warrior nature. They may not be accepted as part of mainstream armies or able to openly show themselves to be both women and warriors. They may have been forced adopt the guise of men. They may have been pirates, highwaywomen, outlaws of some kind. And Outlaw in the Gaelic form is something we’ll discuss in a moment.

This puts me in lonely place in the on going debate within both Celtic studies and the Pagan Community about women warriors. Because one side continues to use this evidence, while the other refutes it as evidence or even claims that because because these women warriors typically have supernatural powers it means that there never could have been any women warriors (one would think they never heard of Fionn Mac Cumhail and Cú Chulainn or seem to think that their skills are common among men?). Those who take this view, and there are too many to cite here (go on nearly any “Celtic” email list and dare to write the words “women warriors” and you’ll find them), often also include a deep seated belief that women are inherently unable to be warriors, for example Michael Enright’s unsubstantiated (in a book otherwise filled with obsessive citations) long ranty footnote about how women are constructed in such a way as to not have any ability to fight at all. (Lady With a Mead Cup, pg. 211) It should be noted his evidence for women as Seers, and only Seers, in the warbands mostly consists of exploring stories with some mix of history, when it comes to the Irish tales he only considers to Feidelm, not, for example, Scáthach who was both warrior and Seer).

So here’s the problem with the “evidence” in a nutshell (yeah, I’m going to make you wait to see if I finish Teh Project for more details nah nah nah nah nah):

A lot of women have led armies who have no experience with warfare in history, for instance Joan D’Arc; others have been rulers who sent armies into war, pretty much any ruling queen. (Fraser, The Warrior Queens) Boudicca may have been a trained warrior or she may have been a symbol of hope through horror who male warriors fought for but had never fought herself, we actually do not know. Those who tell us of her, Tacitus and Cassius Dio had only others’ tales to repeat. There is good propaganda, which we’ll also consider in a moment, for a patriarchal culture to have an enemy who supposedly said “”We Britons are used to women commanders in war; I am the daughter of mighty men.” (see also The Agricola and The Germania)

Nor do they tell us anything about whether other women fought under Boudicca or not. The idea is pervasive, but we don’t have evidence. All we have is a bit of logic and the knowledge that during times of crisis, during uprisings and civil wars, women often did take up arms even if it was not the norm. Often they were the push aside and their stories seldom told. (Goldstein, War and Gender)

Other Roman’s such as Ammianus Marcellinus and Diodorus Siculus tell us of Celtic women as big as the Celtic men and as or more courageous and formidable in a fight. The problem with these accounts, however, is that it’s a common tactic for for patriarchal cultures to paint the enemy males as effeminate by claiming their women are masculine and not in proper control, therefore, fighting. (see Goldstein, War and Gender). Again, it may or may not be true, but you can’t use the source as actual proof.

But I’m not writing about Gauls or Britons, I’m writing about Gaelic women warriors, there are tons of them, right? Indeed. In the Irish literature. In fact, along with the well known Medb, Scáthach and Aoife, as well as the Warrior Goddesses, Badb, Macha and Morrígan, who is Anann, there are others. The problem is, they are all stories, some not very flattering to the women warriors. It’s as simple as that.

And people do write, and even fear, things that aren’t real, (think Aliens, for example) so while the fact they’re fiction does not prove women warriors didn’t exist, although I’ve seen such claims actually made on “Celtic” mailing lists, on the basis that the women tend to have supernatural capabilities yet no one claims that stories of the amazing abilities of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhail prove there were no male warriors, it also doesn’t really prove they did. It’s inspirational, it’s hopeful, it’s not proof. And while some may call them myths and proclaim they are a “window” to the Pre-Christian ways, that has been refuted by current scholars. (see, Mallory, ed. Aspects of…, McCone, Pagan Past.., Nagy, Conversing with…)

But certainly no one would make a law forbidding something that wasn’t taking place and the Cáin Adamnáin outlaws women warriors. Well, the citation thing here is getting dense for a blog post, so I’ll let you go looking for silly laws, some are just silly things to have laws about but others just aren’t going to be an issue. But the problem here is that that’s not what the original law Adamnán, or someone, issued. The Lex Innocentium or “Law of the Innocents,” was a much shorter proclamation that clerics, women and children were not to be harmed during warfare, as non-combatants and the punishments if one did. The prologue where the Saint and his mother see butchered women and she forces her son to protect them, actually claims that in Pagan times all Irish women were slaves, the best of them forced by their husbands to fight against each other, not glorious, autonomous warriors. It becomes a problem to claim this shows there were women warriors unless you want to claim those women warriors were slaves. (Kelly, …Early Irish Law and Bitel, Land of Women, pg. 85, 103-110, 211, 223)

What about archaeological evidence? As far as I’ve been able to find, after much looking, and I’m still trying to get more resources on this, there hasn’t been any. And it’s always a problematic evidence where it is found. Burial practices vary a lot, sometimes cremation was used, sometimes there are artifacts and sometimes not and we don’t really know when there are if they were used in life or indicated something else.

Female burials with weapons are often credited with being warrior women (Davis-Kimball and Behan, Warrior Women), but in some cases this may not be correct. As Deborah J. Shepherd points out in “The Elusive Warrior Maiden Tradition: Bearing Weapons in Anglo-Saxon Society” (in Carman and Harding, eds. Ancient Warfare pg. 222-224) in Anglo-Saxon culture it was known that sonless men would name their daughter as a surrogate son and she’d carry weapons as a symbol of that position, but seemingly never would be trained with them. It’s been pointed out that we need osteoarchaeological study of remains to determine if someone buried with them used them in life; perhaps we need to do so in order to see if those not buried with weapons might have trained as well. (see Hanks, “Reconsidering Warfare, Status, and Gender,” iLinduff and Rubinson, eds. Are All Warriors Male? pg. 15-34, see the rest of this book for various views on various cultures)


Meave painting by J.C. Leyendecker 1907
So what the hells am I doing here, championing the concept of a modern Gaelic warrior path for women, I believe there is no evidence, if I in fact refute the evidence so many believe in? Well, sometimes I wonder. ~;p But really, it’s simple, as I already noted, I still believe there were women warriors, based only on circumstantial evidence as it were. Including the very personal knowledge that no matter what, some women just are called to this path, no matter what their culture might dictate. It may be a small number, but we exist and it’s unlikely there weren’t a few in any culture. “Few” never means “none.” It might make them hard to find, however.

Goldstein estimates the number of women warriors as 1%…that is both 1% of warriors are women and 1% of women are warriors…on average through the world and time. At the moment he estimates it’s about 3% although he’s noting only within the military, not LEO or others who may be described as warriors. (Goldstein, War and Gender, pg 10-11) And he notes not all of these women are in combat positions (although, of course, many non-combat personnel see combat these days…something that’s been true a lot throughout history). Given this, it’s not always hard to hide that 1-3% and can be very difficult to find.

So, I don’t believe there were a LOT of women warriors, but there were some. I also believe that they may not have been part of the culture, that is, I in the regular tribal groups there may only have been male warriors. I think the place female warriors might have existed is Outside, in the Outlaw warrior bands. While we can’t take it, obviously, as actual proof, it’s interesting that the words for “woman warrior” are, from what I’ve found, either a form of ban-fhénnid or bangaisgedh, which tend to indicate an Outlaw Warrior.

While clerics were happily writing tales of tribal matters, the stories of the Fianna, which when mentioned in saints tales were interchangeable with díberga, weren’t recorded until later (McCone, “Werewolves, …”). While we know that young males, prior to attaining their adult rights, would be in these bands, which is also shown in the tales of Fionn, Red and black Pictish Wolf by Aaron MillerMcCone finds it likely that there were men who were never given inheritance who remained. In the tales Fionn is an example. He doesn’t speculate about women in the bands, but Nagy notes those associated with Fionn himself, especially his fosterers. (The Wisdom of the Outlaw) In most of the tales we have of women involved, with the exception of Fionn’s fosterers and Aoife, who is so named (Scáthach isn’t, but is clearly a woman warrior who is Outside the culture in question), the women likewise are only ban-fhénnid for the time they must be for revenge. (Nessa and Creidne, for example) If women remained in the wilderness throughout their lives, how would we even know about it?

Another hint might be that although the early Christian Irish laws tended to see women as incapable of harming any but children and other women, there was concern over female werewolves. (confail conrecta, “a woman who likes to stray in wolf-shape, from Bitel, pg. 219-220, Carey, “Werewolves” pg. 64-68) McCone has made the connection between werewolves and the Outlaw Warriors, of course. (“Werewolves, Cyclopes,….”). It is a connection which intrigues me greatly.

Unfortunately, this is purely speculative and based on the stories. I hope we do get the archaeological evidence someday, but until then, my theory is that we should look to the stories for their inspiration. Many are uninspiring, with the women not shown in good light. I think it’s reasonable to retell these to ourselves in more positive ways, with the constant caveat that it’s not the way the stories went. We find inspiration in modern stories.

Stories, ancient or modern, inspire us, stories let us build our own stories, stories become true for us if we make them so. That’s why I am doing this.


Lisa Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996

John Carey, “Werewolves in Medieval Ireland,” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 44 (Winter 2002)

John Carman and Anthony Harding, eds. Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives, Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing, 2004

Cassius Deo, Roman History

Nora Chadwick, The Celts: A Lucid and Fascinating History, New York: Penguin Books, 1971

Jeannine Davis-Kimball and Mona Behan. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History’s Hidden Heroines, New York: Warner Books, 2002

Michael Enright, Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007

Antonia Fraser. The Warrior Queens: The Legends and the Lives of the Women who have led Their Nations in War New York: Vintage Books, 1990

Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001

Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (School of Celtic Studies), 2001

Katheryn M. Linduff and Karen S. Rubinson, eds. Are All Warriors Male? Gender Roles on the Ancient Eurasian Steppe, Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2008

Kim McCone, “Werewolves, Cyclopes, Díberga and Fíanna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, issue 12, 1986

Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, Maynooth: An Sagart, 1990

J. P. Mallory, ed. Aspects of The Táin, Belfast: December Publications, 1992

Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, Book 15. London: Bohn, 1862

Kuno Meyer, Cáin Adamnáin: an old-Irish treatise on the law of Adamnan, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905

Kuno Meyer, Fianaigecht :being a collection of hitherto inedited Irish poems and tales relating to Finn and his Fiana, Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co., 1910

Joseph Falaky Nagy. The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985

Joseph Falaky Nagy, Conversing with Angels and Ancient: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997

Diodorus Siculus The Library of History

Whitley Stokes, trans, “Scéla Conchobair maic Nessa/The Tidings of Conchobar son of Ness,Ériu vol. II. London: David Nutt, 1908

Tacitus, The Annals of Tacitus

Tacitus, (M. Mattingly and S. A. Handford, trans.) The Agricola and The Germania, New York: Penguin Books, 1970

copyright ©2011 Kym Lambert
Meave painting
by J.C. Leyendecker 1907 for Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Ancient Irish Sagas”
Pictish Wolf reproduction © 2002 Aaron Miller

13 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time….

  1. I really want to prove you wrong. But you already covered everything I can think of. Except what about the Picts it seems clear they did have women warriors even if the Celts didn't. Maybe the stories are based on them?

  2. I'd love you to! Or for me to…trust me, no one wants to find evidence more than I do.

    I'm afraid that there is no Pictish evidence either, but other than stories told by Romans, the Irish or the English, the last was much later, there is nothing regarding women and that's mostly the whole "matrilineal" thing. We know essentially nothing of the Picts as pre-Christians, but do during their Christian period. But the women are almost totally unknown, which puts a damper in the women's high status theory. Again, I'd love to be proven wrong. my Picts article

  3. One thing that springs to mind is that many of those warrior women from the tales are portrayed as Otherworldly – or having, at least, Otherworldly traits. There's the whole idea of things being opposite in the Otherworld,* so in that sense maybe it makes sense that it's women warriors like Aoife and Scáthach that Cú Chulainn is tutored under? Cú Chulainn himself is kind of Otherworldly/semi-divine. And just plain speshul. So maybe that's where the women warriors come in for him. And the Morrígan, and so on.

    Medb you could argue that she's trying to assume a kingly role in the absence of an appropriate king as her consort (Ailill is weak, so she goes looking elsewhere etc, and tries to fill the void in the meantime). If you subscribe to that sort of view. I suppose Boudicca too, but on a more practical "you just killed my husband and raped my daughters, you bastards, you're gonna pay 'cos this is personal."

    Just some thoughts. In the debates I've had in the past, it's always been a tentative, almost reluctant acknowledgement that women warriors probably existed, but the ones we know from the literature are generally exceptional in some way or another, and not necessarily representative of the societal reality.

    *I think that's mentioned in O Cathasaigh's article, The Semantics of Síd.

  4. Yes, some are, and as you note, Cú Chulainn, like Fionn, has Otherworldly, um, tendencies too. I don't think there is an explanation in the Otherworld is opposite theory. There are totally, rather than just somewhat, Otherworldly male warriors too…Ailen, etc. I do think that the Otherworld was seen as (probably actually is) a place where laws, morals and such were a bit different, a bit twisted, a bit loser and so a place where, yes, women warriors might abound. Um, not unlike the wilderness.

    I believe also that the male warriors in the tales aren't exactly "representative of the societal reality" either. We don't tend to tell stories of people who are, then or now. ~;)

    As for Medb, I think that her story and the agendas behind it are complex and varied. I do think that one agenda was an attempt to show the folly of a woman leading war, but there are little hints to me that maybe some telling the tale some didn't quite believe it and snuck stuff in others might not notice. (Okay, I can't imagine any group of people who dealt with horses very heavily, ALL missed that actually a mare leads a horse herd…but some men are so stuck that they always do. You still get sexist cowboys today who say that the stallion leads, most who are not around horses often truly believe it, but real observant horsemen may have seen a joke in Fergus' analogy…..I'm just saying).

    The Sovereignty Goddess never finding a true king thing may have influenced but also isn't a whole of the story either and I find insulting, making her passive. I think the best study of Medb's complexity is Diana Veronica Dominguez's dissertation/book "IS DETHBIR DISI" [It is appropriate (that she behave in this way)]: Applying the Lens of Gender Parody to Medb in the Old Irish Ulster Cycle/Historical Residues in the Old Irish Legends of Queen Medb: An Expanded Interpretation of the Ulster Cycle. I've not yet gotten the book, but have corresponded with her and I think it should even have more.

    Medb is often accused of being frivolous in her starting the Táin. Most who explore her story seem to forget that she would want revenge against Conchobair for raping her and killing her son. As Dominguez points out is that the writers of Medb's tales would have been educated and known of Boudicca. This may well be evident in some of her motivation.

    Thank you for your comments, this helps me pull thoughts together.

  5. I have nothing to argue. You stated pretty much what I already knew…and as I said in another group in reference to a discussion on this blog, women warriors are as they were an exception. I like being an exception. 🙂

    My only criticism of the article is the placement of references. The parenthesis with the full reference listed within the article cuts into the flow of reading it for me personally. There were times where I would specifically have to go back to a sentence to re-read it ignoring the citation to fully understand your point.

    My suggestion would be a works cited "page" either within footnote number format or within the traditional format i.e. within the article(Smith pg 48) than elaborate with full name, title, publisher and copyright year.

    Just my 2 cents. 🙂


  6. Yeah, I didn't think I'd shock you much, Blackbird. ~;) I do appreciate your thoughts and I know that if you come across anything that offers more evidence I'll hear about it. And that's what I want!

    I don't mind being a minority, I think we're in a time where that is changing in some respects, although we do see others kicking and screaming and trying to get us back into our "proper domestic role" (as if we can't do both…as if men can't do both, for that matter).

    I will see about editing the references so it's more readable. I admit it, it was just the laziest way to do it. But now that I've passed my exam I guess I have some time. Thank you!

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