Medb is the queen of the Connachta in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Her husband in the main stories of the cycle is Ailill mac Máta, although she had several husbands before him who were also kings of the Connachta. She rules from Cruachan (now Rathcroghan, County Roscommon). She is the enemy (and former wife) of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of the Ulaid, and is best known for starting the Táin Bó Cúailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley") to steal Ulster's prize stud bull.
Marriages and rise to power
How Medb came to power in Connacht and married Ailill is told in the tale Cath Bóinde ("The Battle of the Boyne"), also known as Ferchuitred Medba ("Medb's man-share"). Her father, Eochu Feidlech, the High King of Ireland, married her to Conchobar, king of the Ulaid, because he had killed Conchobar's purported father, the former High King Fachtna Fáthach, in battle. She bore him a son, Glaisne, but the marriage was a bad one and she left him. Eochu gave Conchobar another of his daughters, Eithne (or Clothru), but Medb murdered her while she was pregnant; her son Furbaide was born by posthumous caesarian section.
Eochaid deposed the then-king of the Connachta, Tinni mac Conri, and installed Medb in his place. However, Tinni regained a share of the throne when he and Medb later became lovers. Conchobar raped Medb after an assembly at Tara, and war ensued between the High King and the Ulaid. Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat, and lost. Eochaid Dála of the Fir Domnann, who had been Tinni's rival for the kingship, protected the Connachta army as it retreated, and became Medb's next husband and king of the Connachta. Medb demanded her husband satisfy her three criteria—that he be without fear, meanness, or jealousy. The last was particularly important, as she had many lovers. While married to Eochaid Dála, she took Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard, as her lover. Eochaid discovered the affair, challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill then married Medb and became king of the Connachta.
Medb and Ailill had seven sons, all called Maine. They originally all had other names, but when Medb asked a druid which of her sons would kill Conchobar, he replied, "Maine". She didn't have a son called Maine, so she renamed all her sons as follows:
- Fedlimid became Maine Athramail ("like his father")
- Cairbre became Maine Máthramail ("like his mother")
- Eochaid became Maine Andoe ("the swift")
- Fergus became Maine Taí ("the silent")
- Cet became Maine Mórgor ("of great duty")
- Sin became Maine Mílscothach ("honey-speech")
- Dáire became Maine Móepirt ("beyond description")
The prophecy was fulfilled when Maine Andoe went on to kill Conchobar, son of Arthur, son of Bruide — not Conchobar of the Ulaid, as Medb had assumed the druid meant. Medb and Ailill also had a daughter, Findabair.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
Medb insisted that she be equal in wealth with her husband, and started the Cattle Raid of Cooley when she discovered that Ailill was one powerful stud bull richer than her. She discovered that the only rival to Ailill's bull, Finnbennach, was Donn Cúailnge, owned by Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal of Conchobar's. She sent messengers to Dáire, offering wealth, land and sexual favours in return for the loan of the bull, and Dáire initially agreed. But when a drunken messenger declared that, if he had not agreed, the bull would have been taken by force, Dáire withdrew his consent, and Medb prepared for war.
An army was raised including contingents from all over Ireland. One was a group of Ulster exiles led by Conchobar's estranged son Cormac Cond Longas and his foster-father Fergus mac Róich, former king of Ulster and one of Medb's lovers. It is reported that it took seven men to satisfy her, or Fergus once. Medb's relationship with Fergus is alluded to in the early poem Conailla Medb míchuru ("Medb has entered evil contracts") by Luccreth moccu Chiara (c. 600); it asserts that Medb wrongly seduced Fergus into turning against Ulster "because he preferred the buttocks of a woman to his own people".
Because of a divine curse on the Ulstermen, the invasion was opposed only by the teenage Ulster hero Cú Chulainn, who held up the army's advance by demanding single combat at fords. Medb and Ailill offered their daughter Findabair in marriage to a series of heroes as payment for fighting Cúchulainn, but all were defeated. Nevertheless, Medb secured the bull. However, after a final battle against Conchobar's assembled army, she was forced to retreat. Donn Cúailnge was brought back to Cruachan, where it fought Ailill's bull, Finnbennach, killing him, but dying of his wounds.
Out of jealousy for his affair with Medb, Ailill had Fergus killed. In his old age, after Conchobar's death, the Ulster hero Conall Cernach came to stay with Ailill and Medb, as they were the only household capable of supporting him. Medb tasked him to keep an eye on Ailill, who was seeing other women. Finding Ailill in flagrante, she ordered Conall to kill him, which he was happy to do in revenge for Fergus. However, the dying Ailill sent his men after him, and he was killed while trying to escape.
In her later years she often went to bathe in a pool on an island. Furbaide sought revenge for the death of his mother. He took a rope and measured the distance between the pool and the shore, and practiced with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Medb's height from that distance. The next time he saw Medb bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese. She was succeeded to the throne of Connacht by her son Maine Athramail.
She was probably originally a "sovereignty goddess", whom a king would ritually marry as part of his inauguration. A separate character, Medb Lethderg, performs a similar function in Tara. Her name is said to mean 'she who intoxicates', and is cognate with the English word 'mead'; it is likely that the sacred marriage ceremony between the king and the goddess would involve a shared drink.
The presence of the Connachta in the Ulster Cycle is an apparent anachronism: the stories are traditionally set around the time of Christ, but the Connachta, are said to have been the descendants of Conn Cétchathach, who is supposed to have lived several centuries later. Later stories use the name Cóiced Ol nEchmacht as an earlier name for the province of Connacht to get around this problem. However, the chronology of early Irish historical tradition is an artificial attempt by Christian monks to synchronise native traditions with classical and biblical history, and it is possible that the cycle has been chronologically misplaced.