Celtic Women

CELTIC WOMEN WERE DISTINCT IN THE ANCIENT WORLD FOR THE LIBERTY AND RIGHTS THEY ENJOYED AND THE POSITION THEY HELD IN SOCIETY. ALTHOUGH POLITICAL AND PUBLIC LIFE WAS LARGELY THE DOMAIN OF MEN, THEY WERE NOT EXCLUDED FROM ANY OCCUPATION AND THEY HELD POSITIONS OF AUTHORITY. WOMEN SERVED AS CHIEFTAINS, DRUIDS, WARRIORS, POETS AND HEALERS; THEY SERVED AS DIPLOMATS AND JUDGES; AND THEY SERVED AS ARBITRATORS, MEDIATING IN POLITICAL AND MILITARY DISPUTES AND IN TRIBAL ASSEMBLIES...

j w waterhouse.  Gustav Klimt.  Aoife by John Duncan.

Celtic society was hierarchical and tribal, so the role of women, and men, was dictated by their place in the social hierarchy and the customs which varied according to tribe. Still, compared to their counterparts in Greek, Roman and other ancient societies, Celtic women were allowed much freedom of activity and protection under the law; they were held in high regard and had influence. We know this because Classical authors tell us about how different Celtic women were from the women with whom they were familiar.
Marriage seems to have been viewed by the ancient Celts as an equal partnership between man and woman. By contrast, Roman law dictated that a woman was the property of her husband. Although marriages were arranged, Celtic women could not be married against their will and were free to make their own choice of husband, or they could choose not to marry. In some Celtic societies, women took more than one husband. Within marriage, women could retain their own name and were allowed to own and inherit property. If a wife had a greater fortune than her husband she could control their combined property. Dowry systems varied among the different Celtic groups. One custom was for each party to bring an equal sum to the marriage and the combined amount left to accrue a profit.

Queen Maeve by J C Leyendecker.   The Bridesmaid by Millais.  Druid priestess.

Women’s economic rights in law afforded them protection and independence in the event of divorce or a husband’s death. If one partner died, the surviving partner would receive his or her original share of the dowry and the profits accrued. If the couple divorced, each partner got his or her original contribution and profits were divided. Married women could pursue legal cases without the consent of their husbands; and in some places the custom was to name the children after their mother and not their father.
Divorce for the ancient Celts was relatively easy and could be requested by either party. The year-long trial marriages that began at the festival of Samhain could be dissolved if they proved impracticable. Women who divorced retained their share of the property and were free to remarry. If a husband was guilty of adultery, then his wife could immediately obtain dissolution of the marriage.
Celtic women possessed the right to bear arms and this was common practice. Wives often accompanied their husbands into battle. In battle, they made great use of psychological tactics to disconcert the enemy, such as screeching and dancing wildly. There are numerous accounts of Celtic warrior women and their achievements in battle. The Greek historian, Ammianus Marcellinus (c400AD) gives an animated description of Celtic women warriors: “A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance. She is usually very strong, and with blue eyes; in rage her neck veins swell, she gnashes her teeth, and brandishes her snow-white robust arms. She begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.”

William Russell Flint.  Boudicca.  

Some Celtic women were ruling queens and military leaders. Boudicca (or Boadicea), is probably the best known. She became ruler of a Celtic tribe called the Iceni and led the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. In Ireland, Medb (or Maeve) was Queen of Connaught and her authority over nine kings was absolute. Some women became teachers of the art of war such as the warrior Scathach, who trained the greatest hero of Irish legend, Cúchulainn. Scathach’s female rival, Aoife, was considered one of the fiercest warriors alive. Both of these women led armies.
Women in Celtic mythology are honoured for their intelligence and character. They’re portrayed as brave, resourceful, clever, beautiful and enchanting - certainly not damsels in distress. There are also many accounts of extraordinary women such as Brigid, beloved goddess and saint of the Celtic people. She was a female druid before she converted to Christianity. Then she became a priest and the first female bishop. Brigid was instrumental in merging old Celtic and new Christian traditions. She founded a monastery, ‘the Church of the Oaks’, in Co.Kildare, and both men and women were part of the religious community.

The Magic Circle by J W Waterhouse.  Queen Maeve & druid by Stephen Reid.  Queen Macha by Stephen Reid.

So, it’s clear that women in Celtic society were much more than caretakers of home and children: they were able to govern and they played an active role in political, social and religious life; and they had a standing which women in the majority of other contemporary European societies didn’t have - testament to the high regard in which they were held. Today, they continue to serve us by offering women of the present an inspiring and intriguing example of powerful womanhood from ancient times.