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Literaturwissenschaft | Sprachwissenschaft
Musikwissenschaft | Kulturwissenschaft
Keltische Forschungen
Herausgegeben im Auftrag von
Brennos Verein fr Keltologie
von David Stifter
unter redaktioneller Mitarbeit
von Hannes Tauber
Kel ti sche Forschungen 3 2008
Vorwort des Herausgebers zur dritten Ausgabe 9
Editors Foreword to the Third Volume 10
In memoriam Kurt Tomaschitz 11
Birth, Looms and Irish Queens: The Power and Influence
of Iron Age Women 17
Charlene M. ESKA
Non-lawful Betrothals in Early Irish Law 33
Joseph F. ESKA
Grammars in Conflict. Phonological Aspects
of the Bergins Rule Construction 45
Die Druidinnen der Historia Augusta 63
Anders Richardt JRGENSEN
Middle Breton leiff, Middle Cornish ly Breakfast, Lunch 89
Raimund KARL
Hausfrieden. Die Siedlung als magisch-religis geschtzter Raum 103
Ronald I. KIM
The Celtic Feminine Numerals 3 and 4 Revisited 143

Bernard MEES
The Women of Larzac 169
Blanca Mara PRSPER
Some Thoughts on the Gaulish Result of Common
Celtic -mn- in Galatian 189
William SAYERS
A Swedish Travelers Reception on an Irish Stage Set
Snorri Sturlusons Gylfaginning 201
Noreia Viele Antworten, keine Lsung 221
Gustav Schirmer 245
Rezensionen 253
Ph. Freeman, The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts,
London 2006 (A. Hofeneder) 253
E.-M. Winkler, Kelten heute. Das Keltenbild in der Moderne von der Wissenschaft
bis zur Esoterik, Wien 2006 (K. Kowarik) 263
G. Thomas & N. Williams, Bewnans Ke: The Life of St Kea, Exeter 2007
(A. Bock & J. Weiss) 264
P.-Y. Lambert & G.-J. Pinault, Gaulois et celtique continental, Genve 2007 (D. Stifter) 267
B.M. Prsper, Estudio lingstico del plomo celtibrico de Iniesta,
Salamanca 2007 (D. Stifter) 291
D. Ditchburn & al., Atlas of Medieval Europe, Abingdon New York 2007 (D. Stifter) 296
J. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies, Oxford Aberystwyth 2007 (D. Stifter) 299
A. Werner, Keltische Kochbarkeiten, Stuttgart 2007 (M. Swoboda-Httinger) 304
M.E. Raybould & P. Sims-Williams, A Corpus of Latin Inscriptions of the Roman
Empire containing Celtic Personal Names, Aberystwyth 2007 (H. Mller) 307
M. Lieberman, The March of Wales 10671300. A Borderland of Medieval Britain,
Cardiff 2008 (H. Tauber) 309
Abstracts 313
Birth, Looms and Irish Queens: The Power and
Influence of Iron Age Women
Men are from Mars, Women from Venus. The battle of the sexes. A womans
place is in the home. These are all clichs that are painfully familiar. Modern
society is rife with perceptions of the sexes and their roles in society. In West-
ern society, despite the move towards equality that has occurred in recent dec-
ades, we still struggle to shake the perceptions that men are strong and women
are weak, that men should be the providers while women should do the house-
work, that men do the fghting and women need protecting. Although these are
massive generalisations and there are ever fewer who genuinely hold to these
ideals, there was a time in the not so distant past when these views were upheld
and there are still those who hold to them in the present day. In archaeology
the result of these chauvinistic views was that early archaeologists tended to
marginalize the importance of women in society and focus on the roles of men,
consigning women to the household chores, which were seen to be of little or
no importance.
For years gender and feminist archaeologists alike have been calling for the
equal consideration of women in the archaeological analyses of prehistoric
society. This demand should not, under any circumstances, be misinterpreted
as a delusion that women in prehistory were of an equal social status to men;
the reality is that most likely they werent. Rather the goal of these investiga-
tions is to set aside the tendency to assume that women, evidently in some way
being the inferior sex, had little social power and any they did possess was
accorded to them only as the result of their relationship with powerful men
either through birth or marriage. In addition, gender archaeology should not
KF 3 2008, 1731
be misunderstood as the study of women in prehistory although the assump-
tion can be forgiven due to the heavy emphasis placed on the need to recognise
androcentric concepts and their role in keeping women out of prehistory
(GERO & CONKEY 1991: xi) during the initial forming of gender archaeology
as a fundamental social construct. While women play a notable role in gender
studies and will be the focus of this paper, gender archaeology is the explora-
tion of gender relations and values in the broadest sense, not only men and
women but also notions such as women as men, men as women and all man-
ner of subcategories yet to be fully realised. The extent of the literature on the
subject is now considerable and does not need extensive evaluation here, there
are however a few notable points which relate to the study of women in Iron
Age society which will be mentioned in brief.
There is undeniable evidence both in the mortuary record and the associa-
tion of prestige items, such as gold torcs, with both men and women (ARNOLD
1995) that during the early La Tne period there was a dramatic, if short lived,
increase in wealthy female graves. This seems to indicate women in this area
were capable of occupying positions or prestige and power (ARNOLD 1991).
While later periods of the Iron Age do not, in either Britain or Europe, offer
quite such spectacular examples of female power, the possibility of powerful
women should not be dismissed. Liv DOMMASNES (1982) has pointed to certain
funerary items that she believes to be indicative of women playing an impor-
tant role in agricultural concerns. In addition she notes that, given the compara-
tive lack of funerary remains we have, compared to the overall population of
the Iron Age, interment itself can be seen as an indication of prestige, which
tells us that women who received any form of burial were accorded a reason-
able social status (DOMMASNES 1982: 73).
An opposing point should also be noted: archaeologists such as Anne-Sofe
Grslund insist that there is not as much need to redress the balance as those
supporting gender arguments claim. She associates women in the Iron Age
with weaving and the loom (GRSLUND 2001: 81), which in fairness was likely
a major task of women at this time. The notion that simply because we have
identifed one task oI women, albeit a major one, we should assume this was
their only task is precisely why gender archaeology exists in the frst place.
Although this was not the intended point of Grslunds study, there are those
in the archaeological community who see womens tasks as relating only to
house and home and as such dismiss these tasks as being relatively unimpor-
tant and unworthy of thorough study.
The archaeological literature is rife with assessments and reassessments of the
Birth, Looms and Irish Queens: The Power and Infuence oI Iron Age Women
evidence in a constant bid to create more reliable and more accurate models
of social interaction in prehistory, yet the attention given to the perceived mi-
norities of society; women, children, slaves and those incapable of performing
the tasks required of their peers, is negligible. While women are clearly not in
any way a minority in terms of population, as a group they are nevertheless
frequently relegated to this status and viewed as one of the invisible groups in
archaeology (MOORE & SCOTT 1997). Most social models negate these groups
entirely or when mentioned it is only in passing. For example a recent study by
Raimund KARL (2007) of early feudal society in Wales, as a basis for a model
of Iron Age society is extremely good as far as it goes, however it completely
lacks any consideration of where women fell in the social order. In this case,
the model in question is based largely on early medieval literature and as such,
evidence for the roles of women is scarce as they receive comparatively little
mention in the texts and as such it would be diIfcult to include them.
It is the scarcity oI solid inIormation available to us concerning the specifc
roles and right of women that have lead to the perception of their invisibility
in the archaeological and literary record (MOORE & SCOTT 1997). For many
studies, such as KARL`s (2007) this invisibility renders it very diIfcult to build
a model for the precise roles of women in society. There are however, those
who use this as a convenient excuse Ior not Iully considering the infuence oI
these invisible groups. GRSLUND (2001: 82) has commented that the ques-
tions of prehistoric womens visibility depends on the capability of archaeo-
logists and their desire to acknowledge or identify women and understand the
whole context of the record. Something is only invisible as long as it is unseen.
Clearly these groups have been seen and the need to pay more attention to them
hardly a new observation.
Gender and feminist archaeology is often seen as, and sometimes even used as,
an attempt to give the women of prehistory a more prominent role, to somehow
empower them, imbue them with a social or political importance, which in
reality more than likely never existed. General perceptions of women as be-
ing powerless has had the unfortunate result that when we are presented with
evidence of powerful women in prehistory they tend to be seen as exceptional,
for example the princess of Vix (EHRENBERG 1989: 168169; MEGAW 1996),
or Boudicca the warrior queen (BERRESFORD-ELLIS 1995). As a result, claims
that women in Iron Age societies could be powerful have come to be seen
as being exaggerated (KELLY 1988) and unsubstantiated by the evidence
(MRKUS 1992). The mythology of Ireland and Wales is rife with powerful
women, not only goddesses such as Brigit but also Queens like Mebd and
ordinary women like Deirdriu. These characters are generally dismissed as
having no bearing on reality, due in most part to their mythological status, but
also the belief that any assertion of women holding power is somehow mis-
Seeking to redress the balance is all well and good, however the balance in
question is not the power dynamics between men and women, but rather the
attention paid to their roles. This paper seeks to pay a little more attention to
those roles and hopefully demonstrate that a fuller understanding of the power
and infuence oI women is entirely possible without the need to turn them into
warrior queens. In addition the evidence will be used to put forward a sug-
gestion for where the notion of those queens may have originated. In order to
do this a case study will frst be presented in the Iorm oI the western Apache
tribe of America.
There are two interesting points of comparison to be made between the Apache
Indians, the eagles of the southwest (WORCHESTER 1979) and Iron Age Celt-
ic` societies. The frst is ethnographic in nature, as the kin-orientated groups
of the Apache are loosely comparable to those of which Iron Age societies are
generally assumed to have been comprised. Secondly both the Apaches and
the Celts are viewed broadly as warrior cultures; the war-like tendencies of
the native inhabitants of America are legendary, as are the classical depictions
of the Celts, most notably by Caesar (KOCH & CAREY 2003: 2025), as formid-
able and relentless warriors. In addition the roles of women in the mythology
of both the Apache and the early Irish accounts we have of Iron Age mytho-
logy place women in prominent and powerful roles. This is not in any way to
suggest these sources should be used as a historical model of behaviour, but
rather seeks to point out that, since mythology is an intricate part of the human
psyche (FREUD 1919: 15) it can be seen as an important aspect of a societies
From an ideological stand point and in keeping with the gender issues raised in
this paper, the study of the women of the Apache has been greatly neglected,
the frst solid publication on the topic being Henrietta Stockel`s Women of the
Apache Nation: Voices of Truth, published in 1991. In the forward to this vol-
ume, Dan Thrapp notes the indespensible roles that women in Apache so-
ciety had and their neglect in historical studies. Stockel presents an informed
Birth, Looms and Irish Queens: The Power and Infuence oI Iron Age Women
and detailed view of the women of the Apache nation, both past and present,
without falling into the trap of overcompensation, to which many seeking to
redress the balance of the sexes have succumbed.
While many anthropologists have described Apache society as patriarchal it
has been pointed out by historian Michael Durrow that this was a superfcial
patriarchy, and that women held an extreme amount of power when it came
to decision making. In addition the social units of the Apache revolve around
the women and their family (STOCKEL 1991: 1011). That said, the Apache
women still have a subordinate role in society, only being the equal of their
husband in a few activities, such as drinking, dancing or gambling and yet the
many duties women were expected to perform can be seen to be labour inten-
sive and physically demanding. These duties included domestic chores such
as meal preparation, as well as readying the mens horses and fetching wood
and water, not to mention creating all the implements, such as baskets and uten-
sils, required for these tasks, as well as the clothing worn by every member of
the group (STOCKEL 1991: 17). It was also the job of the women to determine
where the best place to camp would be and to erect the wickiup (BLEEKER 1972:
1820). Women were also responsible for the education of children, although
boys were given to their fathers once they reached puberty to be trained in
masculine endeavours (STOCKEL 1991: 18).
The average age Ior a woman to marry was between fIteen and eighteen, while
Ior men it was twenty to twenty-Iour, as they were frst required to prove their
ability to provide for a family by participating in at least four raids (BALDWIN
1978: 143). Initially Apache custom was for one wife to a husband, however
later losses in war resulted in a reduced number of men and practicality forced
a change in custom, which was not without its problems. Even after this shift
in customs it was not uncommon for a man to have only one wife and remain
with her even when she had fallen into the sere and yellow leaf of old age,
especially if she had borne him healthy children (CREMONY 1868: 249).
The single most important ceremony to the Apache is the girls Puberty Cere-
mony, a Iour-day rite at the time oI a girl`s frst menstruation, which ushered the
girl into womanhood. During this time the girl receives a great deal of attention
and is considered to be the dispenser of the good power of the White-painted
Woman, a powerful supernatural being in Apache mythology. While not par-
ticipating in the ceremony resulted only in pity, as these girls were doomed to
sickly health, poor disposition and early death, performing the ceremony with
prior sexual experience could result in banishment (HALEY 1997: 134135).
Part oI the ritual involves the blessing oI others with fowers Ior luck, iI a girl
was not chaste when she took part in this, it was seen as assuming the power
of the white-painted woman fraudulently and was considered very bad luck to
those she affected.
Two years after the start of her menstrual cycles another ceremony is per-
formed to mark the girl as being of marriageable age. This lasts several days
depending on the wealth of her father and at its end the girl may be courted.
Apache women are fully responsible for their choice of husband (CREMONY
1968: 244247) and while men kept contact with their families they join their
new wifes gota (a small family group) and become responsible for providing
for the group if he showed himself capable of this and to be of even temper
he would quickly be welcomed (BASSO 1969: 2223).
The social structure of the western Apache, while evidently more complex than
the brief overview of female status given here, can be seen to demonstrate a
certain respect held for women, their domestic function and most especially
their ability to procreate. The importance placed on the beginning of a girls
menstrual cycle, her progression into womanhood, and consequential elevation
to marriageable status clearly indicates that, while having a subservient role in
the social structure, a womans role in society was of extreme importance. Not
only were the women responsible for the domestic side of life, their function in
this regard was essential to the continuation of the responsibilities of men, to
say nothing of the continuation of the people.
While it can be seen that these roles are mostly domestic, the dismissal of
women as Iulflling nothing more than domestic` responsibilities is a vast un-
derestimation of the importance of these roles. As women have undisputed
power and infuence when it comes to childbirth, a role that is essential to the
continuation oI the people and one that men are simply incapable oI Iulfll-
ing, their choices and actions are far more consequential than simple domestic
chores. While a child can obviously not be conceived without both a woman
and a man, in the physical act of giving birth, women hold a form of power
men can never hope to emulate.
Women in archaeological studies of Iron Age societies are, in general, re-
marked upon in passing, or discussion is limited to the exceptional cases such
as Boudicca, Cartimandua and the burial at Vix (for example CUNLIFFE 1997;
EHRENBERG 1989; JAMES 2005). The classical sources include references to
Birth, Looms and Irish Queens: The Power and Infuence oI Iron Age Women
women, notably Caesars descriptions of marriage, which will be discussed in
further detail, as well as the scandal they caused in the Roman empire for their
apparent promiscuity (JAMES 2005: 66). We know very little about fundamental
forms of social identity, especially concepts of male and female (CHAMPION
1995: 89). The settlement record does not offer any obvious expression of
social difference (ARNOLD 1995: 43) and, given the lack of written sources on
the general status of women in Iron Age societies we know very little. As a re-
sult, questions about social organisation are much more problematic than those
surrounding material culture or technology (CHAMPION 1995: 85), which results
in descriptions oI women`s power and infuence, as with their general discus-
sion, being limited to the exceptional examples and the noblewomen (JAMES
2005: 6669). Most notable are cases where sections of books or articles pro-
test to detail Celtic Women, (e.g. ARNOLD 1995; JAMES 2005; BERRESFORD-
ELLIS 1998) yet generally disregard the average woman in Iron Age societies,
despite the fact they comprise the majority of the female population. These
exceptional women have been well documented and as such will not be the
main focus of this study. Instead we will turn our attention to these average
women, those generally associated with the home and the loom (GRSLUND
2001). While we have no direct evidence for the precise role of women in Iron
Age societies it seems more than likely these assumptions are, to a great ex-
tent, correct (LORENTZEN 1993; BURMEISTER 2000) and the intent is not to argue
against them in any way but rather to look at them a little deeper.
Early Medieval Irish sources, while somewhat controversial as Iron Age analo-
gies, can nevertheless provide us with valuable information. In particular the
law tracts hold a considerable wealth of detail on the legal rights and privileges
of women at this time. Fergus Kelly is perhaps the least biased author on the
subject of women, fully acknowledging the tendency of scholars to exagger-
ate the power and freedom of women in Irish society, due to their prominent
depictions in Old and Middle Irish literature (KELLY 1988: 68). Kelly focuses
solely on the position of women under early Irish Law. Despite the comparative
lack of information we have on women in other areas, in legal terms we have
direct evidence for the rights and privileges of the women of this time. The
Triads of Ireland praise reticence, virtue and industry as the most admirable
qualities in women, a steady tongue, a steady virtue, a steady housewifery are
given as the three most dependable features of womanhood (KELLY 1988: 69).
The most well documented legal rights of women are those of marriage, which
fully accepted concubines and could be polygamous. Kellys detailing of the
legal rights of married women shows they were in some regards reasonably
well off on a legal footing. Moreover it appears to have been possible for them
to gain the upper-hand, so to speak, in relationships with their husbands. The
standard form of marriage in early Ireland was joint marital property, with
both partners contributing equally to the union. Either party can contribute
more, in terms of wealth, to the marriage and a woman in a union of a man
on a womans property had considerable rights (KARL 2004: 478; KELLY 1988:
70; THURNEYSEN 1936: 5763). While women could inherit on the event of their
fathers death, should there be no male heirs (KELLY 1988: 104; DILLON 1936),
the marriage laws indicate that a woman did not need to inherit to gain a certain
measure oI power and infuence.
The coupling of men and women is a fundamental aspect of all human society,
whether in the form of marriage or a less formal arrangement. The legalities
oI marriage described in Early Irish Law ft closely with those Iound in Early
Welsh texts concerning marriage (CHARLES-EDWARDS 1980), and both the Irish
and Welsh descriptions oI marriage refect those given by Caesar (b.g. 6, 19.1
2). The clear parallels between the Irish, Welsh and Gaulish demonstrate the
viability of the Early Medieval Irish descriptions of marriage as a broad anal-
ogy for Iron Age marriage customs, at least in Britain. This is not to suggest a
direct transference of these descriptions onto all Iron Age societies, but rather
that the core features of marital law, in this case the rights of women, may have
been common features in some, if not all Iron Age societies.
The social structure of the Western Apache demonstrates that there is a form
of power to be held by women, which is not only unattainable for men, but
also very different to masculine forms of power. Childbirth is an inescapable
aspect oI womanhood, one that defnes the biological Iemale sex. While not all
women choose to have children and some are incapable of doing so, whether a
woman is physically capable of having a child or chooses to do so is irrelevant
to the fact that, biologically, giving birth is still an inherent aspect of the female
sex. Here the distinction between biology and social construction of gender is
of supreme importance. Women who chose not to have children are still cap-
Birth, Looms and Irish Queens: The Power and Infuence oI Iron Age Women
able of having children and women who are incapable of having children are,
for the most part, still born with the physical attributes needed to give birth,
although they may not function in the way they should. As such, childbirth is
common to all women in all societies and while the specifc rites and rituals
surrounding menstruation and childbirth may differ from culture to culture, the
consequence is always the same.
Taking what we know of the legal rights of women in Early Medieval Ireland,
and coupling it with the importance of childbirth demonstrated by the Apache
case study, we can begin to see that women were not nearly as powerless as
some scholars would have us believe. It has been previously stated that social
age, gender and personal abilities were the main factors in determining the
status of any individual in Iron Age communities (KARL 2007). While it is pos-
sible that a woman could inherit after her marriage it is also possible she had
personal abilities, such as skills at crafts or knowledge, which allowed her
to make an additional contribution to a marriage union and thus elevate her
status through means having no bearing on anyone other than herself. From
a legal perspective a womans contribution to a marriage would have been in
monetary wealth. If however we consider what we have seen of the importance
placed on a womans ability to give birth, it is conceivable that bearing healthy
children was considered a form of contribution to a marriage. While this most
likely had no legal effect on a womans status, the production of multiple living
children, may have accorded a woman a certain measure of social respect.
Burial evidence from Baden-Wrttenberg suggests that women in this area
were most likely to be accorded rich grave goods during their reproductive
years (BURMEISTER 2000: 208). This has previously been assumed to be due to
the age difference between women and their husbands, as women tended to
marry at a considerably younger age than men (KARL 2004: 478). The problem
with this assumption is that, while a womans wealth decreases considerably
on the death of her husband, as his share goes to the children, the womans
share of a joint marriage would not in itself decrease on his death, though
she would undoubtedly loose status due to the loss of their combined wealth.
The woman would be left in a position to marry again and, if she had gained
a higher social standing during the frst marriage she would, in theory, be able
to marry a wealthier man with higher social standing than her frst husband.
Once married there would be nothing to stop her from continuing to increase
her contribution to the second marriage as she had done with the frst, thus
gaining an even higher standing in the union, which itself was already consid-
erably more socially elevated than her frst. It seems highly unlikely any single
woman would be able to do this continually due to the unfortunate constraints
of time. That said, when we consider that women often married at a younger
age than men it seems entirely possible that a woman could be widowed while
still in her reproductive years and take another husband.
Given the association of many Celtic deities concerned with the natural world
as providers of fertility (GREEN 1998: 54) it does not seem unreasonable to
suppose fertility played a prominent part in Iron Age societies. If nothing else,
the ability to prove her own fertility through children from a previous marriage
could aid a woman in Early Medieval Ireland in divorcing her husband on the
grounds of his infertility (KELLY 1988: 74). The question then would be why a
man would take an older women when he could, presumably, have a younger
one who had more years of youth and fertility ahead of her in which to bear
children. It is here that the possibility of status accorded to women with healthy
children comes in iI a woman had borne living, healthy children in her frst
marriage she would have already proved her fertility and worth as a mother,
which could be appealing enough for a man to overlook her slightly older
years. Although there is a modern view that younger is in some way better,
this is generally due to the perception that younger women are more physically
attractive. The opinion that men in prehistory would prefer younger women is
not mentioned here as an infiction oI the modern obsession with physical ap-
pearance onto the past, but rather intended to illustrate that the need for healthy
children was of seminal importance in a time when many infants, not to men-
tion their mothers, died due to illness or complications during labour.
The notion of the importance of fertility to the status of women raises fur-
ther questions, such as the extent oI the infuence oI those women who had
gained status by bearing healthy children. In Early Medieval Ireland it seems
most likely that this power was usually restricted to the confnes oI the land
owned by her and her husband (KELLY 1988: 7677); however the idea that
this would render such power superfuous in any way is misguided. For the
majority oI women the ability to have infuence over the decisions involving
a large household and extensive land would be considerably more power than
they could expect. Under early Irish Law a woman could sever a contract made
by her husband if she was against it through their sons. The position of head
wiIe` accorded a woman with even greater infuence (KELLY 1988). In both
the household and any land owned a woman in this position would have been
of a higher station than all dependents, including slaves and tenants, male or
female (KARL 2006: 64159, 399413). If we concede the point that Early Irish
Law can be used as an analogy for the Iron Age, which given the correlations
Birth, Looms and Irish Queens: The Power and Infuence oI Iron Age Women
between Irish, Welsh and Gaulish marriage customs is a distinct possibility, it
is clear that Iron Age women could in theory have accumulated a considerable
amount of power. While this would not have been the same form of power
as her husband it was power nonetheless and would still have placed her in a
higher social position than all others on her land, save her own husband.
Observations on Iron Age women attaining power or infuence are usually
clarifed with comments like 'under certain conditions (ARNOLD 1995: 44),
or and at least sometimes did (JAMES 2005: 67), which gives the distinct
impression that this was the exception rather than the rule. In fairness most
scholars when discussing female power in the Iron Age do so with regard to the
exceptional` cases, making the latter comments justifed as the level oI power
demonstrated by fgures such as Boudicca, Cartimandua or the Vix burial can
be seen as exceptional, in the sense that they are, to a large extent, unequalled.
The unavoidable effect of such comments however is the general assumption
that because power and infuence at such a high level was exceptional, any
Iorm oI Iemale power and infuence was exceptional.
While it is highly likely that the majority of women in Iron Age society were
living relatively politically passive lives looking after domestic affairs, it is
also highly likely that there were some women who went beyond this. If a
woman could increase her status, and thus her power and infuence, by means
of inheritance, marriage or personal abilities, what of those women who proved
to be exceptionally giIted at social advancement? II the infuence oI a woman
was limited only by the extent of the land shared with her husband, what of
the wives of those in the early stages of feudal society (KARL 2007) who had
considerable power and infuence? II we take into account that the original
meaning of queen is in fact wife is it not possible that such women could be
the origination of the powerful queens, such as Medb (KINSELLA 1970), found
in the early Irish sagas? Viewed from this perspective it is possible to see how
the early mythology of Ireland can be used to gain a better understanding of
the social structure of Iron Age society. Rather than taking these legends as
the starting point and attempting to seek powerful individuals in the archaeo-
logical record, we should take them for what they are: the end result. It is not
inconceivable to suppose that, given the very minor number of women who are
likely to have achieved such status, their exploits became somewhat legendary.
As with many legends exaggeration and embellishment are highly likely, the
initial factual basis however can perhaps still be glimpsed: women were cap-
able of gaining the upper hand in a marriage. While for most, this will have
only meant a very localised increase in status, for those whose husbands were
of prominence in social hierarchy it would have had more far reaching conse-
quences. In this regard these exceptional women would not have been so very
different to the average woman, their status did not make them exceptional
but rather more successful than most.
The notion of giving more consideration to the roles of women in society is
hardly new, however it can be seen that it is possible to gain a much better
idea of the ways in which women could achieve status. As we can see from the
example of Apache society, women can be quite capable of attaining power in
their own right, although it is a decidedly different form to that held by men. In
Early Irish Law women were capable of inheriting property and, as discussed,
gaining a considerably higher status as a result of it. There is no way to know
how many, if any, women were able to achieve a higher level of status through
marriage, however there is no legal reason why any woman could not have
done so. As recent studies (BUTLER 2007; KARL 2005; PARKER-PEARSON 1999)
have shown the early Irish sources can provide valuable insights into Iron Age
society, in Britain at least, particularly regarding law and it seems likely that
the early Irish Laws were very similar to those of the late Iron Age. Given what
we have seen of the similarities between Early Irish, Welsh and Gaulish mar-
riage practices it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that comparable forms
of female power might also have been available to Iron Age women. The evi-
dence seems to indicate that a woman could accumulate power and infuence
through marriage by utilising personal abilities to contribute more to the mar-
riage than her husband. Clearly more attention needs to be paid to the personal
abilities that may have allowed women to increase their social status. Given
the possibility that the queens of early Irish mythology may have originally
been ordinary women who succeeded in doing just that, it would also seem
that these myths need to be revisited to determine if there is more we can learn
about women in Iron Age society.
We must also consider those who managed to take this increased infuence
further still. Social models of Iron Age society as a rule do not give any consid-
Birth, Looms and Irish Queens: The Power and Infuence oI Iron Age Women
eration to the women, or for that matter, to the perceived minorities of these so-
cieties in general. It has been amply demonstrated that not only is it possible to
reconstruct models of childhood behaviour, it is also likely that children were
active agents in Iron Age society (KARL 2005). If social models focus solely
on the obvious groups in society the warriors or farmers, or even the pas-
sive women at the loom, they cannot be considered to be wholly accurate.
Clearly the semantics of female social status deserve more consideration, for
while they may not have been joining the men on the battlefeld their activities
certainly deserve more credit than they currently receive: birth and the loom
may have been the agents of Irish Queens, rather than Queens being the excep-
tions to weaving and childbirth.
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Hazel Butler
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