Monday, April 23, 2012

Strong women of The Tain

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“Probably the greatest achievement of the Tain and the Ulster cycle is the series of women, …on whose strong and diverse personalities the action continually turns…” (xv). Although the men are portrayed as the more powerful, domineering sex of the Irish oral epic Tain Bo Cuailnge, there are several women in The Tain who possess great emotional and physical power. However strong the male characters in the Tain are, they become weak under the women’s influence.

Medb, the main female character in the Tain, is equally if not more powerful than her husband Ailill, the King of Connacht. It is Medb who decides to take the Brown Bull of Cuailnge. It is Medb who seems to be more in command of the army instead of Aillill. Medb is the major instigator and cause of the battles of the Tain and she manipulates many men for selfish reasons of proving to her husband that she has greater wealth. She uses her power of persuasion on many warriors by promising them incredible wealth, property, Finnabair’s hand in marriage and even her “own friendly thighs on top” so that they would agree to go against Cuchulainn. Medb In the incidence of her manipulation of Ferdia, Cuchulainn’s foster brother, she uses her skill of deceit by telling Ferdia what Cuchulainn never said “He said he wouldn’t count it any great triumph if his greatest feat of arms were your downfall” (16). Medb uses her sexual power by seducing Fergus. Ailill has no objection to this. In fact, he calls her actions “fair enough” because “she is justified. She does it to keep his help on the Tain” (10). Medb is also one of the few women in the epic that is able to physically fight in the battles and successfully injured Cethern. “She carried a light, stinging, sharp-edged lance in her hand, and she held an iron sword with a woman’s grip over her head � a massive figure. It was she who came against me first” (08). The only moment of weakness Medb shows in the epic is at the end of the final battle when she is injured and begs Cuchulainn to spare her. He does spare her because he “not being a killer of women” ; although ironically it is Medb who sends the various warriors to kill him.

Beauty is one of the predominant powers of several of the women in the Tain and this beauty is successfully used to conquer the men of the Tain as well. Finnibair, Medb and Aillil’s daughter, is the most beautiful woman in Connacht. She uses her beauty by enticing all the men her mother brings her to battle Cuchulainn by promising herself to them, although she has no intention on doing so. In contrast to Medb however, Finnibair only gives herself to one man, Roachad, the man she truly loves. Furthermore, Finnibair shows remorse by falling “dead of shame” upon hearing the news of the seven hundred men who died in battle because of her empty promises unlike Medb who never shows remorse for any of her evil actions. Derdriu is another character in the Tain who’s beauty is so powerful that it causes “harsh, hideous deeds don in anger at Ulster’s high king, and little graves everywhere” in Ulster. However, Derdrui’s power of beauty is something she does not intentionally use to cause death and destruction to others. Emer, Cuchulainn’s wife, also uses her power of beauty to make Cuchulainn perform great feats in order to win her. “Cuchulainn caught sight of the girl’s breasts over the top of her breast” (7). In their banter, Cuchulainn persists “in that sweet country (Emer’s breasts)” he will “rest my (his) weapon” however he loses this banter and performs the tasks that she demands of him.

Several female characters in the Tain possess supernatural powers. Macha, who “screamed out that all who heard that scream would suffer from the same pangs for five days and four nights in their times of greatest difficulty” was the first female introduced in the Tain with supernatural powers. Due to the might of the curse she places on the men of Ulster, none of these men were able to assist Cuchulainn against Medb and Aillil for many days. The most dominant supernatural power the females in the Tain possess in the power of prophecy. When Medb encounters Fedelm “a woman poet of Connacht”, Fedelm foretells the future of Medb’s army. “I see it crimson, I see it red” (61). Fedelm has the power to see the great victories of Cuchulainn and heeds warning to Medb and her army. Morrigan, the goddess of war and the primary supernatural female character in the Tain, is able to change form and deceive Cuchlainn several times throughout the story. She goes to Cuchulainn as “a young woman of noble figure…wrapped in garments of many colours” and tells him she loves him. Due to his refusal of her, she later on changes into three different animals to attack him “the shape of an eel and trip you in the ford”, “the shape of a grey she-wolf, to stampede the beasts into the ford against you”, and “the shape of a hornless red heifer and lead the cattle-herd to trample you in the waters” (1). Morrigan also appears throughout the story as a crow foretelling of what battles and bloodshed is to come.

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Traditionally in medieval literature, women were portrayed as inferior beings if portrayed at all however the female characters in the Tain are shown to have great strength, whether this strength was unintentional or intentionally used for evil.

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