Gender Equality – What We Glean From Myth

“To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.”

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

The vernal or spring equinox is the next celebration in the eightfold of the Celtic Druid year in the northern hemisphere (autumn equinox in the southern hemisphere). An equinox is an astronomical event that happens twice in the year, once in spring on the 20th or 21st March and once in autumn on the 22nd or 23rd September. During Equinoxes the tilt of the Earth (with respect to the Sun) is at zero degrees resulting in both day and night having equal length i.e., 12 hours.  The etymology of the word equinox means ‘equal night.’ This is the time when the forces of light are equally balanced with the forces of darkness and this symmetry in nature has got me thinking about equality and of gender equality in particular.

I love these interjections in a year, there is a joy in following the seasons and in looking to nature and to mother earth for guidance and solace. In my reflections and my rituals at this time I always keep the three resolutions of every Druid foremost in my mind, those of wisdom, creativity and love. Wisdom comes from those who went before, the ancients and the ancestors and deeper than that, there is wisdom in nature, in the whisper of the winds, the crash of the wave, the spark of flame, the sod of earth. The most famous tale of wisdom in Irish myth is that of the Salmon of Knowledge “An Bradán Feasa.” To glean wisdom, we are called to the source, the well spring, the place of inspiration. I think the answer to inner peace that illusive state, lies in balance and we all pivot on that fulcrum.

Queen Maeve by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

What do we glean from ancient myth about equality? Now it is true to say that most of our epic sagas record heroic tales of the mighty warriors and the noble kings. There are many accounts of female warriors too women like Tailtu, Macha, Scáthach and Queen Maeve, the latter whose tale told to is in The Tain is the penultimate battle in gender equality really. In the myths men were most often portrayed as fighting for abstract causes such as patriotism or glory. These texts being led by the exploits of the mighty Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and the battles of formidable warriors like Cú Chulainn. Women are most likely depicted as fighting to defend themselves or, more often, fighting to protect the ones they love.

The women in ancient Irish society could own property, get a divorce, be a priest, a judge, a doctor, a poet, fight in battle and even own her own fighting school. In fact, there existed in Celtic society a specific class of female warrior known as a ‘Ban Gaisgedaig’ (young female warrior) and the ‘Ban Feinnidh’ (band of female warriors). The lives of these women could teach us a lot about equality today. Women were admired as much for their mind as their sexuality. Not only could they be rulers and warriors they could also enjoy the same sexual freedoms as men without fear of reprisal.

Druids were the intellectual elite in Irish society, there was no sexual discrimination among their ranks because both men and women were able to become Druids. Their education was broad, varied, and lifelong – covering subjects like history, poetry, astronomy, and law. Druids played a pivotal role in society, being the celebrants of religious ceremonies as well as being advisors to the sovereign rulers.  

Mawie Barrett

Women enjoyed equality within marriage, divorce was an option that they could avail of too, and they were allowed to own property in their own right and retain it after the fact. Women and the role they played were greatly respected, and their unique position of life givers was highly revered, and thus they were seen as the embodiments of sovereignty. While the men occupied the great epic tales of heroism, the women were often seen as otherworldly and divine.

The ‘flaithius’ or power of sovereignty was ultimately deigned by the supreme deity, the Goddess.  More than that though, if the power once imparted was abused in anyway, the tribe or the ‘Tuatha’ would ultimately pay the price, one that was very high indeed. A good Kings’ tenure was one that was favoured by the Goddess, he paid tribute to her, and consequently the land was fertile, there were no disasters and peace prevailed.

Many of the warrior women depicted in the texts are presented as allegorical figures who were at once human and divine. They were a deeply ecological source, the spirit of earth, the anima mundi as it were. The ancient rite of Kingship in Ireland was not one where we see ceremonies where the king was crowned, rather a ceremonial rite of marriage took place, known as the ‘banais ríghi’ between the King and the Goddess. This was a very sacred marriage, where the King vowed to uphold and protect both the land and his people and in return the Goddess bestowed her gifts of abundance, rich harvests etc.  There was a real balance of equality in this arrangement, an equality of partnership – between feminine and masculine, Goddess, and King, between the land and her people and between nature and culture. When the balance was harmonious life was good but if the scales were tipped there would be anarchy.

The Goddess was deemed to be sacrosanct. At her most gracious she is presented as benevolent, earthy, fertile and the archetypical beautiful, mystical, sensual woman. Once crossed however, she could display a darker side that was unpredictable and dangerous, ugly, and lethal.  

The Cattle Raid at Cooley gives us an account of one of the greatest battles for equality in our ancient myths, between Queen Maeve (Medb) of Cruchan and her husband Aillil. Both were equal in birth, status, and power. One evening after Aillil had enjoyed the wisdom of Maeve’s thighs they began to tease each other about who held the greater status. To settle the matter, they counted out all their belongings and Maeve was to discover that Aillil had a magnificent, white-horned bull, and she had nothing to compare to him, and this edged her slightly behind her husband. This was a travesty as Maeve was unable to occupy a position that rendered her subservient to her husband. The Brown Bull of Cooley was identified as a beast to match her husband’s bull and she set out to claim ownership of it, and so began the famous ‘Tain Bo Cuailnge’, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’

Maeve reads as being a treacherous opponent and a strong and independent character, one who was not above using foul means to achieve her objectives. She is no shrinking violet and is not one to stand back from her duty. Maeve brings the war and proves her might and valour. Whilst depicted as alluring, beautiful and sensual she could also be vicious and scheming and possessed a will that had to domineer at all costs.

Macha is another such battle Goddess and has many inceptions in myth. She is depicted as the only queen on the list of High Kings of Ireland, and it appears she held that title in her own right.  When she is dishonoured, she curses the men of Ulster to feel the pains of labour in the hour of their greatest need.

These mythological tales see the voices of women ring loud and shrill and true. They teach us the beauty and the benefits of balance and of the dangers inherent in tipping the scales.  I dream of a world in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender. For me the answers of equality do not lie in a battle of wills, though I am grateful for the strength of character inherent in these ancestral women. They remind me of my own, give me the option to flex my muscles in the cause of equality. True equality will only come when all genders acquiesce to the true benefits of equality. A matriarchy would be as inherent with flaws as the patriarchy is.

Adherence to light must be balanced by embracing the dark. That is what the equinox teaches us, not once, but twice in the year. Nature shows us that whilst in the round or wheel of the year the scales get tipped, they balance equally again. Isn’t that a lovely thing? It gives us elbow room, a bit of space, all in the knowledge that we will all return to an even keel again. We stand atop the fulcrum, as a Colossus really, and as such we bear much responsibility. We are required to be wise about it, creative with it and bring our best game in love and peace and reverence.

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