Archaeology History Irish Mythology - Seanchas Military Science

Women Warriors In Celtic And Medieval Ireland

With the controversy over the supposed identification of the grave of a “female Viking warrior”, known to archaeologists as Bj 581, continuing to rumble on, I thought I’d return to the subject once again. Judging by the online animosity directed towards those academic professionals questioning the tabloid interpretations put on the results from the archaeological site at Birka, Sweden, myopic ideology seems to be trumping scholarly scepticism. Historical context is under attack by a wilfully ignorant minority who insist that advanced notions of gender equality and opportunity also existed in the European Middle Ages. Notions hidden or excised by predominantly male chroniclers and writers.

While it is natural to seek reflections of our current selves in the lives and attitudes of our distant ancestors, projecting existing mores into the past simply corrupts our understanding of the long slow and frequently unfair story of human progress. Restoring the rightful and oft neglected place of women and girls in that record does not require one to resort to pseudo-histories or instructive fictions, however well-intentioned. It does a disservice to the countless generations who came before us to make their undramatic but necessary contributions and labours seem of lesser importance. Indeed this is simply a mirror image of the historical editing it claims to challenge, elevating the martial champions at the expense of the domestic ones.

For more on the genuine place of female warriors in a Medieval Irish setting, I can do no better than quote the historian Lisa M Bitel in her essential work, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland (1996, Cornell University):

Real women were lovers, wives, mothers and kinswomen to their men while in the sagas and histories shapeshifting raven goddess haunted the battlefields, dealing terror and bloodlust to men in combat.

Despite all sorts of limits on women’s authority and status and despite the very real and constant risk of violence to women, the men and women of early Ireland were fascinated by a veritable pornography of powerful females. Their stories of women warriors, war goddesses, and witches included everything modern pornographers offer their audiences… The early Irish were obsessed with arms-bearing women warriors in contest with men, otherworldly dominatrices demanding sex from handsome heroes, insolent queens ordering soldiers around, or – best of all – any of these ill-humoured females being beaten in combat or sexually subdued by other warriors.

…tale-tellers cast their stories of women warriors in the pre-Christian past, whereas magicians, werewolves, and necromancing hags continued to haunt the Christianising Middle Ages. Women warriors rampaged through narratives and mythological histories but rarely entered either the secular or religious legal material.

Hags with magic were real to the early medieval Irish; women warriors were not.

The sexy warrior woman whom Christian authors recalled from the pagan past retained some of the goddess’ powers and some of the hag’s ferocity and sexuality. Like the princesses and the badb, who disguised themselves as hags, female warriors were cross-dressing symbols of sex and politics not historical representations of real fighting women. Nevertheless, Celticists and romantic-historians have sought vainly for the militants’ historical origins in the scrolls of prurient Greek and Roman ethnographers. But the theme of  aggressive, militaristic Celtic women is too formulaically pervasive in classical literature to be very credible. Romans and Greeks wanted an upside-down world for the barbarians, who frightened and fascinated their sophisticated neighbours, and a standard ingredient in such a world was the manly warrior woman.

Mis and badb had no historical ancestresses. In neither pagan or Christian times did Irish women go to war against men.

While I would not entirely discount the possibility of some women taking up arms, in desperation or by choice, during Ireland’s Celtic or Iron Age centuries, or even in the Early Christian or Medieval era, there is very little reason to doubt Bitel’s broad analysis of the period. Females – when not aristocratic leaders in their own right – supported their male kinsmen when they went to war, materially or emotionally. Those occasions when women themselves stood on the battlefield were extraordinarily rare, whatever their political or social standing. And Medieval Scandinavia was much the same.



6 comments on “Women Warriors In Celtic And Medieval Ireland

  1. ar an sliabh

    Reason and facts ignored, propaganda, hype, and (over-) emotional hysteria guiding the blind masses to make-believe the world matches their delusional fantasies? Say it is not so. Seems to be the mores of our time.


  2. ar an sliabh

    Very enjoyable indeed. Mixing two of my favourite subjects, beer and history. A toast to braciatrix for a job well done! Thanks for the link.


  3. Remember, there is next to no good reason to use the term ‘Celtic’ in relation to Ireland. There is not the slightest evidence of any ethnic Celtic input in Ireland, very few truly Celtic artifacts, latest research indicates that no Celtic language was spoken in Ireland until the first century AD (and it was Brythonic, not Celtice), and the Irish never described themselves as Celts. Ireland’s Celticity is overwhelmingly based on misunderstanding a language classification, Romantic era fiction, and the 18th-19th century English racial classification. It should be noted that the Irish only began using the term when they ceased speaking Gaeilge and therefore losing touch with their own heritages. Its taken decades to unravel this in Ireland, given its endorsement by the revolutionary generation, and is still very prevalent in the Anglosphere (I cite yet another incorrect use of the term in the otherwise fine Irish DNA Atlas –

    Yet “there is no obvious ‘Celtic’ component in the material culture, settlement or religion of Iron Age people living in Cork’. Similarly, his question: ‘Are Cork people, or for that matter the Irish, Celts?’ is met with a resounding ‘No’. This will, of course, come a no surprise to most archaeologists, but may be something of a shock to the wider public and O’Brien is to be congratulated for stating the case so frankly.”


    • The Irish language is a Celtic language, its origins existing within both the spectrum of Insular Celtic and West European Q-Celtic.

      There is no evidence of any other language in Ireland before the Irish language. All theorised linguistic substrate, be they Indo-European or exotic non-Indo-European, are highly debatable and largely untenable. The hypothesis, if anything, points towards Continental derivatives brought to Ireland by Proto-Celtic speakers.

      All nomenclature, toponyms, etc. as far back as we can go are Irish, on the Goidelic stem.

      Define what is distinctly “Celtic” in material terms? There is a broad continuity in terms of society and culture across pre-historic Celtic Europe, with notable regional variations, differences and complexities. Suggestions of some sort of Irish segregation from the rest of Europe, an aboriginal non-IE society with a veneer of Brythonic Celticness simply does not stand up to even the mildest scrutiny.

      Chappel writes a good blog, and is a fine archaeologist, but his arguments are last generation revisionist ideology. A sort of anti-Celtic reaction to the earlier overly-Celtic enthusiasm of the generation before him. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

      In addition, I wish he would learn the benefit of paragraphs! 🙂


      • Gaeilge is Celtic by modern linguistic classification. But why should a modern linguistic classification define ethnicity? It does not for German, Romance, Slavic, or any other language family. In any case a majority of Irish no longer speak it. Going by that, does it mean we are no longer Celts but Germans? Au contraire!
        There is evidence for pre-Celtic Irish languages, surviving as late as AD 500. It is outlined by Mac Eoin in 2007,, and in 2014 and 2015 by Schrijver,, which concludes that there was no Celtic language spoken in Ireland untill the first century AD. Its hard to take in, and I still find it difficult to believe, but his arguments are robust, he is an expert on the subject, and so far no one has refuted them.
        At no point in their history did the Iron Age Irish describe themselves as Celts because (1-they couldn’t; see above (2-they didn’t, otherwise their would be some trace of them in the same way the Celtici and Celtiberians are recorded in Iberia. (3 – nor did the medieval Irish, who used plenty of terms to describe themselves, but never Celt. The latest genetic research does mention the dreaded term, but the Bronze Age intrusion they speak of happened a full thousand years prior to the earliest attestation of the Celts. And the Bronze Age people concerned originated in northern Gaul, whereas the Celts and their languages originated in south-eastern Gaul. In any case, no linguist supports the idea of Celtic spoken in Ireland that far back. And speaking to one of the authors, its plain they got this part of an otherwise fine paper very, very wrong.
        I am not for a moment suggesting Ireland was so segregated – archaeology, linguistics, and now genetics prove otherwise. But all of these, and history, demonstrate that the people exercising the most profound influences on the peoples of Ireland was not the Celts, Romans, Norse, Normans, English, or British, but the Irish themselves. Not always, I grant you, but generally.
        Cheers, and Merry Christmas!


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