VAGANTES: “I See Red: Language of Blood and Feminity in Táin Bó Cúailnge

“I See Red: Language of Blood and Feminity in Táin Bó Cúailnge

Elizabeth Kempton, Department of English (Saint Louis University)
Summary by
“Blood will flow from heroes bodies” ~ Medb 

Medb is an emblem of male mysogyny – a model of bad female behaviour. She represents fertility, menstruation, a Goddess/human/Queen figure. She is approached by Fedelm – a seer, before her battle. There is a duality  to Medb – the natural world and preternatual. Medb’s unusal behaviour has been made sense of by saying she is more of a Sovereignty Godess figure. Her behaviour is unique and not human but more in line with an other worldly Goddess; for example, she has three pupils and dresses in a manner that is usual for other worldy figures. Medb sets the conditions for her husband – generosity, no jealousy, bravery. She sets the standard of what she wants in a mate.

Fedelm is defined by her profession as a female seer. Seers, like Fionn mac Cumhaill, are typically human but free to move through liminal spaces and connected to the preternatural world.  Medb and Fedelm parallel each other. She protests and counter argues Fedelm’s prediction of “seeing red”. Fedelm fortells the ultimate failure of Medb’s military campaign. Fedelm preforms the duties of the masculine honour code. The language of redness and blood is common throughout the Táin but it is unique in the conversation between Fedelm and Medb. Medb responds to her prophecy four times and tries to refute it. Medb associates this blood with fertility and birthing. She inverts the roles of men and women with this arguement. Medb argues that more blood just means a continuation of masculine violence and war, not her defeat.

Medb and Fedelm share a moment of bonding over the sexual desire of the bloody figure of Cúchulainn. Fedelm’s prophecy of Cúchulainn is sexual renders him no agency as she controls her sexual gaze over him. Cúchulainn withdraws from Medb as an aversion of her menstrual blood – it is the wrong type of blood on the battlefield and therefore repellent to him. The audience of the text was already aware of the end of this story.

The Táin demonstrates inversion of gender roles and although Medb is not the only female warrior figure in Irish literature, Medb and Fedelm are rather exceptional women and very liminal figures. Boudica is also an exception. Most law tracts from early Ireland demonstrate a much more traditional place for women in Irish society. Medb as the sovereignty goddess makes her exceptional and unlike the usual woman. In the end, the text supresses her power and her militaristic ambitions. She also is portrayed as misinterpreting the masuline code of honour.

In comparison to Greek seers – there are not as many in the Irish tradition. There are more male seers by far. All seers are liminial, and not necessarily just women. Fedelm is unique to the Táin and shows up nowhere else. Her name means “one who sees”. It seems that she was created for the Táin specifically to have this conversation, a woman, where there are a list of male seer figures that could have been used but weren’t.

Men experiencing birthing pains – Agamemnon has them and leaves the battle field. She recounted the story of Macha, an otherworldy woman, forced to race against a horse to prove her other worldliness. Macha curses the men of Ulster to suffer the pains of childbirth once per year for subjecting her to this indignity. They will suffer for generations – except Cúchulainn.

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