I cobbled together some articles I've written over the years on the stages of life in ancient Ireland and Britain, as well as on the Continent, and the changing (or somewhat different) ways in which gender roles were filled and portrayed in the surviving literature about their pre-Christian and early Christian times. I hope to expand and perfect this article into becoming a useful resource for discussing these matters more fully.
In the Mabinogion, Lleu cannot be his own man until he receives a name, weapons and a wife. All of these occur with the assistance of his uncles Gwydion and Math overcoming the opposition of his mother Aranrhod:
Obtaining a name, taking up weapons and seeking a wife are all parts of the Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn in the episodes about Cullan's Hound, his taking up of arms from Conchubar and his courtship of Emer:
There's the taking up of arms episode that occurs for CúChulain in the Táin. I would imagine that girls came of age in much the same way: they took up the responsibilities of a woman among their people and were most probably awarded the necessary emblems and tools of the trade (and then expected to demonstrate skill in the process). In Cú's case, he was sent out to patrol the borders. In a girl's case, she might have been given a similar task within the household: a meal, making clothes, decorating or managing the stores.
Fionn had a similar episode in his acceptance into a warrior band. This was also accompanied by a naming ceremony IIRC.
Coming of Age
Many examples have been provided where it was reported that Celts did not acknowledge their sons until they were old enough to do battle. This seems to have occurred at the same time that they "came of age" (at 17 for boys). I'm thinking that they put away their boyhood names at that time and assumed the name of their manhood. It's also said that they put of the clothing of children at that time and dressed like men.
There's no reason to think that women did not also have a parallel coming of age though it's not as well reported in the myths, stories and traditions. Being given an adult name, the tools/weapons of their trade/discipline, new adult clothing and marrying were all marks of coming to adulthood for Celtic children.
ISTM that one can also find similar parallels in the life of Fionn if one were only to look with clarity of mind and eye:
For that matter, there is also a striking similarity to the same types of events in the mythic life and legends of King Arthur: being named, receiving a sword and his marriage.
Every part of Life
In ancient Ireland, every part of life had its privileges as defined by law. Here are the six stages of life:
1. náidendact - infancy
2. macdact – boyhood (I suppose that nidacht would be girlhood.)
3. gillacht - youth or puberty.
4. hóclachus - adolescence or becoming an adult.
5. sendacht - old age
6. díblidecht - decrepitude.
These are called "The Columns of Age."
In “Immacallam in Dá Thuradh” these are mentioned by Ferchertne in answer to the question “From whence do you come?”
When it is his turn to answer this question posed by Nede, Ferchertne replies that he has come down the columns of age (the coimgne or ancient wisdom, but also the five stages of a person's life: infancy, childhood, puberty, adulthood, elderhood). Each of these also has its associated wisdom and lessons.
In the book, The Wisdom of the Outlaw, Joseph Falaky Nagy discusses some of these “columns of age” relative to Finn’s boyhood. He shows how Finn leaves his fosterers (two women) along with his macdact (boyhood) when he has learned all they have to teach him. He leaves then dressed in animal skins and goes into a period of his life where he is a “gillie” (gillacht youth or puberty). He is variously an apprentice to a smith or a poet. He gains the wisdom of smithcraft in one case and the gift of imbas from cooking the Salmon of Wisdom for his teacher (inadvertently tasting it when he burns his thumb on a bubble in the fish’s skin).
Finn’s youth ends when he is identified through either his martial skill or his expertise in fidchell and affairs of martial and political art. He is then named Finn Mac Cumhal surrendering his boyhood name of Demne. Nagy discusses ideas of leaping over flames, cooking and other skills as kind of a “coming of age” in a few examples about Finn and Derg Corra. I’ve already mentioned Cú Chulainn’s boyhood experiences of a similar nature. One episode that should be familiar to all is Cú jumping the bridge/void to Scathach’s camp. After he is there he has sex with her daughter and so “comes of age.”
The ages of life among the fostered children seem to have been (Sanas Cormac):
'columns of age' i e. times (stages of human life), viz., infancy, boyhood, puberty, adolescence, old age, decrepitude.
In fosterage the periods were split into threes and seem to correspond to these ages (Ancient Laws of Ireland p. 186):
1 - 7 Infancy
7 - 12 Boyhood, Girlhood, Chikdhood
12-17 Boys - Puberty, Young Adult (teenager?)
12 - 14 Girls - Puberty, Marriageable
The elements of “coming of age” in Irish tradition involve training/studying under a foster/teacher, graduating and receiving a new name, having adventures (one of which is finding a mate or getting married). These rituals are not unlike the ones we go through today:
1. School – Graduation
2. Putting away nicknames
3. Joining the community through family, business or serving in the military
4. Receiving a title or rank
5. Getting married and starting a family
I suspect the ancient Irish columns of age that we have presented were not very different from this modern listing for the major events in our lives. I will now discusss gender roles as they were portrayed in the surviving tales and literature so that a better understanding of how the aspects of life may have been separated and segmented for the ancient Irish.
Gender Matters and Differences
In searching for tales and traditions about womanhood or becoming a woman among the Irish, I did come across a tale about Eachtach (daughter of Grainne and Diarmuid) who sought to avenge her parents death at the hands of Fionn. On hearing of their death she has this reaction (Eoin MacNeill, Duanaire Finn, Part 1, The Lays of Fionn, XVIII, pages 149-151, Irish Texts Society, 1904):
"Out starts the spirit of womanhood that dwelt in the athletic fair-bright maid: into her comes a quick spirit of manhood when she hears the tidings.
Eachtach, raging, sends for her brothers: they come quickly, haughtily (?) at rising time on the morrow.
The deed-vaulting band come together to make a devastation: it was a devastation of mighty fame, what they had slain by evening.
For three days and full nights the spoiling of the Táin had not been greater: none to surpass them come after them until doomsday."
Later on in the same poem, we hear more of her battle feats:
"When Eachtach's golden blade touched the son of Caol of the sword-edge feats, it hewed him down with its strong stroke til it made of him two Daolghuses.
The blue keen-active blade pierced with ease through the shield of Fionn, and cuts three strong ribs in the chest of the hero.
He gave a groan of overmatching, Fionn Ua Baoiscne though a man of blood: from him fell in a mighty crash the drizzling Dripping Ancient Hazel.
Tis then that the warrior was in lamentable case at the hands of the active woman: he seemed no bigger than a half-grown boy in the shelter of his shield at the fray.
To look at Fionn in that strait the sons of Baoiscne could not bear: to his relief for the first men cam Oisin and Caoilte.
To the relief of his lord goes Lodhorn bold and handsome: slays the high-couraged maiden with triumph of exultation and achievement."
Eachtach had challenged Fionn to single combat and was clearly doing him in before the others intervened. In this part of the work, it seems that Fionn is an old man and the Fianna itself is failing. It takes nothing away from Eachtach as she was said to have "kept burning and swiftly slaying" those of the fort of Daolghus all the previous day and night.
"Fionn was seven half-years a curing that he got no wholeness, coming never among the goodly fiana from the beautiful house of Lughaidh."
This episode verges on the mythological (but the idea that a woman could be filled with the spirit of a warrior and do great deeds of battle with a sword and an army is clearly illustrated in the tale). I suspect that the practice was to have women int the Irish Celtic battle groups who had demonstrated their martial abilities. In my own family, the women are often close to six feet tall and of a strong build. I could envision any of them doing battle with a sword or other weapon. They would be very daunting indeed if filled with the warrior spirit.
The way that the warrior spirit came into Eachtach was as "the spirit of manhood" while the "spirit of womanhood" left her. I hope to find where the "spirit of womanhood" is better quantified and exemplified in the Irish texts.
Becoming a Woman or Becoming a Man
From my studies of the texts and tales it seems clear that what was usually associated with "coming of age" among the ancient Irish was becoming a woman or becoming a man.
In the Triads, becoming a woman or womanhood are mentioned in connection with chastity, being well spoken and maintaining a household. These were also associated with marrying (for becoming a wife, maintaining a household and being a woman/mother, all were associated with these actions). This is not to say that women could not or did not become warriors, poets, judges or even Druids. It seems to imply that such were the exception rather than the norm.
In the tales about Fionn, manhood and warrior spirit are directly connected. The taking up of arms defined a man in a warrior society. I'm sure it would have defined a warrior woman as well but the idea of womanhood or womanliness would not be defined by arms in that society (or even our modern society).
The taking up of one's station in life would also have defined one as an adult in ancient Irish society. That could have been seen or done in graduating from training or studies or by demonstrating a skill that was recognized by all. Most often what we have in the tales about the ancient Irish is boys becoming men by taking up arms and girls becoming women by getting married or being of an age/skill to maintain a household.
I'm not arguing for this definition as being what is supposed to define womanhood or manhood but that it is what was defined and done in the surviving texts and stories. Becoming a woman was tied directly to being old enough to marry. Becoming a man was tied to being old enough to fight for one's family.
The Triads of Ireland on Womanhood and Manhood
Here's what the Triads of Ireland have to say about becoming/being a woman or man:
¶180] Three steadinesses of good womanhood: keeping a steady tongue, a steady chastity, and a steady housewifery.
¶181] Three strayings of bad womanhood: letting her tongue,(telling stories) and [...] and her housewifery go astray.
¶233] Three whose spirits are highest: a young scholar after having read his psalms, a youngster who has put on man's attire, a maiden who has been made a woman.
The things that seem to stand out are that clothing is the mark of being a woman or a man. Womanhood is associated closely with households and marriage.
Coming of Age in Ancient Ireland from the Senchus Mor
The Senchus Mor includes an article on fosterage as it existed in ancient times (and with specific references to Ireland). Fosterage is important as it includes certain skills and requirements for a boy or a girl to "come of age" or to respectively be considered a man or a woman in the Brehon Law:
Here's one specific quote from this article:
“Tributary formations of cliental fosterage are more clearly evident in medieval Ireland and Wales, which had traditional social orders of stratified clans and clientship similar to those of the Hindu Kush and the Caucasus (Charles- Edwards 1993:78–82; Patterson 1994). Allegiance fosterage in Celtic Gaul was already apparent in Roman times, when Caesar’s observation that “Gauls do not allow their sons to approach them openly until they have grown to an age when they can bear the burden of military service” (Gallic War vi.19) exactly matches Kovalevsky’s observations of paternal avoidance during fosterage among the Ossetes. Early Irish practices of fosterage were also integrated within an elaborate system of clientship, orchestrated through contractual “cattle fiefs” (Gerriets 1983; Charles-Edwards 1993:337–63), specified in the Ancient Laws of Ireland (ALI II:146–60; see Kelly 1989:86–91 for Corpus Iuris Hibernici refs.). Fosterage from infancy is indicated by provisions for swaddling clothes (ALI I:172), and there is precise specification of the educational duties of the aite foster-father, according to the social rank of his dalta fosterling. Children of low rank were to be instructed in basic tasks of herding and farming, while noble children were taught martial and equestrian skills, together with courtly accomplishments—chess-playing for boys, dressmaking and embroidery for girls—up to an age of marriage (seventeen years for boys, fourteen years for girls; ALI II:152–56, 176).“
(ALI above refers to _Ancient Laws of Ireland_.)
In general, the version of the tradition that comes to us in the surviving texts and translations seem to imply that women had similar rights to men but were not fully invested in equal levels of status, rights or honor price. These laws did not say a woman could not achieve a high status but they seem to demonstrate a definite uphill bias against that. They were much better than other law systems at that time but not equal in all things. Land ownership, making contracts and standing before the judges are some areas where women could attain equality by their own efforts but these were not insured or promised to women as they were to men. To me this implies the same things in warfare and personal interactions.
Please note the skills itemized for girls and boys up to the age of marriage:
Noble class boys and girls were taught martial and equestrian skills with the boys also being taught things like chess playing while the girls were taught dressmaking and embroidery.
Children of lower rank were taught basic tasks of herding and farming.
The expectation seems to be that those who were of the noble class would be more involved in martial affairs while those of lower class were taught to produce foods and goods. The particulars and possible differences are not outlined in these laws to my current level of study and understanding. History seems to imply a male dominance in affairs of war and tribal conflicts while women are seen as mainly representing verbal skills and ruling the hearth (general impression).
ISTM that a thesis level article or two is required to add additional substance above modern or ancient gender bias to such things. As always, facts should trump opinions. I look forward to reading the thoughts and discoveries of scholars in this area of study.
The Roles of Women in Celtic Society
I know there were some Celtic women who were warriors. I haven’t said there weren't in this article. I've looked long and hard into the sources years ago for them and had come up with a short list with the name of several Celtic warrior women (like Scathach, Ainge, Boudiccia, Creidne, Maccha, Grace O’Malley, etc.).
I thought I'd cobble together and post excerpts from some of my earlier articles about the roles of women in Celtic society to better establish my attitude and approach on this topic for those who may not know me very well:
An excerpt from "The Celtic Women" - One of the Celtic Workshops I created on CompuServe in 1993 and 1994.
Celtic Workshop #15 - "The Celtic Women"
This workshop deals primarily with the role of Women in ancient Celtic life. I tried to give a feel for the position and the interrelationships of Women with Men during the early times. Women were much more "liberated" and powerful in Celtic society than they were in other European civilizations of the time and up until quite recently. This equality was due to the exercising of their own Power on the part of the Women IMVHO. It was not given to them, they demanded their rights and they earned them. This system of rights went all the way to the top of society from the bottom and included the Power to rule. Marriages and relationships were particularly equal and treated fairly by the Brehon laws.
Celtic women were many things: warriors, queens, mystics, prophets, poets, Druids, musicians and mothers. In all that they did, they matched or exceeded their men as they worked, loved, fought and embraced life in their joy at being themselves. The Celtic women we shall discuss tonight are those that lived before Christianity was placed about their necks like a yoke. I will tell you the tales of those noble Celtic Women, the women of ancient Ireland, Britain, Gaul, Scotland and Wales. Let us start with a quote from the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus found in Nora Chadwick's book "The Celts":
"A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance who is usually very strong and with blue eyes; especially when, swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing her sallow arms of enormous size, she begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult."
It was the custom of Celtic women to go into battle alongside their men (a custom that lasted until around 700 CE in Ireland). Even when they were only performing a supporting role, as mentioned by Plutarch in a reference to a battle between the Cimbry and the Romans, they were very fierce. The Cimbric women were in the camp preparing a meal when the fleeing Cimbric men arrived pursued by the Romans:
"Here the women met them, holding swords and axes in their hands. With hideous shrieks of rage they tried to drive back the hunted and the hunters. The fugitives as deserters, the pursuers as foes. With bare hands the women tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, enduring mutilating wounds. Their fierce spirit unvanquished to the end."
Women were accorded a high status in ancient Ireland. They are commonly mentioned as filling the positions of Druids, poets, physicians, sages, and lawgivers. Even Amergin, the Bard, son of Mile, and chief Druid of the Gael asks for the aid of the wives of Breas and Buaigne to aid him and the Mileseans in reaching Eirinn against a Magical storm raised by the Tuatha de Danann. The high regard for women is also seen in the fact that many times a person might be referred to as the son or daughter of the mother rather than the father. The great king in the Tain of Ulster, Connor mac Nessa is an excellent example of this (with the wise advice of his mother, he is able to secure election as the King of Ulster.) The Picts even went so far as to pass inheritances through the female. This extended up to the ruling family which was matrilocal as well as matrilinear. It was not, however, matriarchal.
The Brehon laws of early Ireland also insured women a near equally with men, though, at times, truly superior women forced the ancient Gaels to admit the superiority of women to men in many cases. Bridget, the lawgiver, Medb of Connacht, or Emer, wife of Cuchullain, are just a few examples of such superior women. In the Crith Gablach, a set of rules covering the privileges of the noble classes, the right of every wife to be consulted on every subject by her husband is mandated. Women were considered to have an equal footing with men in regards to property acquired after their marriage. Voluntary consent of both was required to dispose of marriage property. The wife remained sole owner of any property she held prior to the marriage. Men were given preference for the inheriting of land but daughters were given coibche, marriage portion, in the form of gold, silver, animals or household items. If there were no sons, the daughter inherited all. If a woman held the land and did not go into battle as was required by law, she had to provide and pay for a warrior to go in her place.
It was at the Synod of Tara in 697 CE that St. Adamnan established the Cáin Adamnan that exempted women from warfare. It is with the rise of the power of the Christian Church that the rights of women seem diminished in Irish history, but that is another story for another workshop. I suggest reading Mary Condren's book "The Serpent and the Goddess" for information on the oppression of women by the Christian Church. Tonight I want to tell the tales of heroic, brave and beautiful Celtic women!
(In the above quoted article, I went on to discuss Macha, Scáthach, Boudica, and Brighid as portraying these kinds of roles for women in Celtic society.)
In another article on this topic, I developed addition thoughts and information concerning the roles of women as Druids in early Irish society as a kind of counterpoint to the Cáin Adamnan’s Medieval Irish male-centric view about women.:
"Chaith seisean an chéad sheacht mbliana dá shaol ag foghlaim draíochta agus gintlíoocta i Sí Charn Breachnatan faoin MBANDRAOI Banbhuana iníon le Deargdhualach."
- Forbhais Droma Dámhgháire, the Book of Lismore -
In Lebhar Gabála, Bé Chuille is identified as a sorceress or druidess (LG 314, 345, 369; also in Keating's _History of Ireland_, Volume I i:218-219).
Birog was a Bandraoi who helped Cian to visit Ethné, daughter of Balor, thereby causing the inception and birth of Lugh.
According to James Bonwick, Cormac's Glossary references a female Druid known as Serb, daughter of Scath of Connaught. He also gives these names for Bandariothe: Geal Chossach of Inisoven, Donnegal; Milucradh from Loch Sliabh Gullin. He also says that such places as Kildare, Tuam and Cluan-Feart may have originally been retreats for Bandraiothe (though this is certainly open to conjecture). I suspect that a reading of "The Druids" by Peter Berresford Ellis would provide better references for female Druids.
Now there are also those who are mentioned as being Banfilidh or Banfáidh, such as Fedelm in "Táin Bó Cuailgne," or Scáthach in the "Wooing of Emer." These are clearly distinguished from the Bandraoi in the tales. Though they are not cited as often as their male counterparts, the female Druids clearly do exist in the Irish traditions and tales as Bandraoithe, Banfilidh or Banfáidh, which corresponds to the three divisions of the Draoithe that you've mentioned: Draoithe, Filidh, Fáidh.
I suspect that the smaller (apparent) percentages of women to men in these areas may have been due to a social bias, as I'm inclined to believe that the abilities cross gender lines equally. I suspect that in matters of court function and etiquette that the male centric society would have demanded more exceptional abilities from Bandraoithe, in much the same way that modern business seems to make the same demands of women.
Women’s Ways and Men’s Ways
There were women's ways and men's ways among the Celts. This does not mean that they were completely segregated or that a woman could not engage in what was normally considered a "Man's way." It's pretty much the same situation today, though not as blatant. I'm not for segregation except where it promotes fairness (since, on the average, women have the physical potential to be 90% the strength of the average man) . This means that some women are physically superior to many men. One need only watch a professional volleyball competition to be impressed by this relationship. If I consider sports today on a collegic and professional level, I see segregation for fairness. This does not mean that women and men should be completely segregated, hence there are opportunities like the space program and an increasing role for women in the military. Women who think they can compete in the sports should have that opportunity IMO. In this, I think I'm in line with what our ancestors considered. If one reads the tales, then about one warrior in a hundred was a woman, unless it was a matter of an attack on the entire tribe. In that case, the entire tribe fought with whatever weapons they had (both men and women). As one escapes from physical matters and goes into mental and spiritual matters, the playing fields become much closer, until there is no reason to distinguish a man's involvement from a woman's.
The Essence of a Person
I think that Druids valued the mind and spirit above physical or social characteristics. As such, I think the essence of a person remains the same no matter what their sex may or may not be. Does an idea or a philosophy involve sexual orientation? Let that be your guide in your search for meaning in Draíocht is my advice. There are three cauldrons within every person. It how they are oriented and aligned to the ways of being that determines a Druid.
I hope that these brief quotes from articles I have written in the past help to clarify my opinions and ideas about the roles of women in Celtic society. Often, I encounter people on message boards and forums who do not know me and who project their expectations onto my words rather than reading what I am actually saying.
Gender Roles and Reported Norms
My remarks to date (and based on several sources) have centered around the norms that have been reported in the surviving traditions and literature. If anyone knows or has additional sources on this topic, then I'd love to see them.
My general impression regarding gender roles in Celtic society is that martial roles were normally filled by men but were not excluded to women. That's also the way it seems to be for Druids and others of the Aos Dana. Women were not excluded from these roles either but were not mentioned as often in the surviving tales and literature in those roles.
Too often I see people battling for their right to express and be themselves in social structures that oppose that individuality and also that tends to suppress one group or another. Often what happens is those who are most attentive to the details of power usage and influence come out on top with the danger of then either becoming like the source of the problem or becoming even more polarized as the source of the repression. I'd like to hopefully discover some forms of dialog and discussion that allows everyone to realize a society that encourages the many gifts with which each of us are born (at least in potential).
I'm also interested in discussing the ways that the female and male minds differ (if they actually do and science seems to indicate this). In my own short life, I've seen where a person's strengths and weaknesses tend to change who a person originally was. By this I mean that those who are incredibly smart sometimes avoid emotional growth by using the intellect. Those who are physically gifted don't always improve their intellectual and nurturing sides because everything comes to them with ease and without having to think. Those who enjoy or who are emotionally talented modify the world around them with their own unique gifts.
Working Together and Communicating Across the Barriers
The mix of genders, skills, gifts, orientation and focus of attention makes the world a very dynamic and sometimes explosive place. Communication across all barriers and along all the gift ways and waves seems to be called for but represents a risk to the ego in most people (me included). I sometimes think that there should be emotional and personal perspective training given publically along with arts, science, crafts and technology training as we develop. Parents traditionally have done this but since the Industrial Revolution, it seems that the State is preempting this role in the family.
I'm concerned about the ways that the pendulum of historical action and reaction swings as society and people make adjustments for the lack in the ways that current social systems allow a person to be a person. It can easily get completely outside the boundaries of moderation and nurturing no matter who thinks they have the reins of life in their hands.
There are millions of individuals throughout history who have not been allowed to contribute their talents to the world because of the way our civilizations and cultures have formed and evolved. I hope that future evolutions and corrections in society are more emotionally, mentally and spiritually liberated and enlightened, rather than repeating the mistakes of the past as the same-old-same-old with perhaps a different set of clothing and nothing of substance. The future is too important to waste in endlessly repeating past mistakes or sustaining prejudices. The greatness of humanity depends on a human world in which all humans contribute their best efforts, thoughts and creations.