"Is dethbir disi" [It is appropriate (that she behave in this way)]: applying the lens of gender parody to Medb in the Old Irish Ulster Cycle



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Texas Tech University


Medb of Connacht, a central female character of medieval Ireland's Ulster Cycle (a set of tales compiled between the eighth and twelfth centuries from earlier oral sources), is read traditionally from two critical approaches: as an example of a misogynistic, patriarchal Christian campaign to suppress and silence women in early Ireland, or as symbolic of a primordial, mythic pre-Christian goddess, exempt from patriarchal censure because her behavior is ascribed to her duties as a divine sovereignty figure who confers the right of kingship on the man with whom she mates. Even recent attempts at analyzing her character from an explicitly feminist perspective privilege one of these two traditional views, with the result that, either way, she is still read as "deviant." A reading of her behavior itself through a new lens is needed in order to transform Medb into a figure of independent agency and power.

This study presents a comparative and comprehensive character analysis of the Connacht warrior queen across numerous tales, using rhetorical/discourse analysis strategies informed by the feminist theory claiming that gender is "performative" and can be used as a form of resistance to/subversion of patriarchal norms, as proposed by Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Jennifer Coates, Deborah Cameron, and Joan Radner and Susan Lanser. Analysis through such a lens allows for a deconstruction of traditional patriarchal gender assumptions in order to redefine the concept of gender and gendered behavior. The study includes a careful re-evaluation of historical sources, in Ireland and beyond, both prior to and contemporary with the literary period of the Ulster Cycle compilation. In addition, research is presented about the general social and legal environment of Old Ireland between the ninth and twelfth centuries that sheds light on the status of women and the subtle and overt ways in which women affected family structure, legal proceedings, and other power relationships, all of which have bearing on a reading of Medb that places her in a historical and political context. This study reveals that Medb can be read as a realistically, if dramatically, drawn character, rather than an anomalous and misogynistic invention that belongs in the shady, pagan, mystical past.



Irish -- History and criticism, Epic literature, Women in literature -- Criticism and interpretation, Tales -- Ireland -- Ulster, Medb (Legendary character), Celtic -- Folklore, Criticism and interpretation, Women, Ulster cycle, Parody in literature, Gender identity in literature