by Daniel Hansen, Msc.D.
The history of the ancient Celtic world is one covered in blood. Roman historians often referred to the Celts as very war-like. They were feared and respected for their individual valor and bravery. They seemed to spend more time raiding each other than in any major wars. On the mainland of Europe the Romans practiced the "divide and conquer" method to finally subdue the Celts. It wasn't until the coming of Christianity that the rest of the Celtic world became more "peaceful." This being a nominal term for the Celts who continued with their blood-feuds right up to the end of the 19th Century.
In 697 c.e., there was a gathering of Christian clergy and laymen who met at the High King's palace at Tara in central Ireland. There they established the Cain Adamnan, which prohibited women and clerics from taking part in war. Some people cite this as one of the benefits of Christianity, since it freed women from the arduous necessity of attending a military society. This, of course, presupposes that before this time it was a legal requirement for women, presumably those of high birth, to join a military society. This makes one curious what kind of historical precedence there is for this kind of assumption.
One Roman historian wrote that Celtic women's conditions were quite miserable because when the men were seized with the passion of war, they abandoned the cultivation of the land and left it to the women. This was not always the case. We know Celtic women went to war from such historians as Polybus who said that Celtic women followed their husbands to the battlefield in wagons. Ammeanus Marcellinus said that Celtic women also took an energetic part in melee. It was said that a Celtic man with his wife could hold off an entire troop of Roman soldiers. It was not recorded if women went naked into battle as the men did nor if they wore armor and helmet or carried shields. However, within the Celtic world, women had equal rights with men. They could inherit wealth with full rights of ownership and could be elected to any office. Tribal queens, such as Boudicca and Cartimandua, show prominately in the historical records. Women were admitted to war councils and were clearly influential.
In Irish mythology and later Arthurian tales, women warriors teach the famous heroes chivalry, mystical wisdom (possibly Druidic lore), and feats of arms. The wooing of Emer is one such tale. Scáthach nUanaind taught the great Irish hero Cúchulainn, on the Isle of Skye, how to fight. Skye was one of many schools or academies of martial arts run by women. The myths say it takes these women a year and a day to train a hero.
These women warriors are called banaisgedaig, ban feinnidi, and bantuathaig and they are credited as having the magical power of transformation, somewhat like berserker rage, where the face is flush red and the neck and arms swell. On the whole, these female champions are described as both beautiful and courageous. These heroines were not all muscle and no brains; they were also accomplished in the arts and sciences. Sometimes referred to as Ban-faith or "prophetess" they were experts in divination and supernatural wisdom.
If these female heroines were indeed Ban-faiths, then it these warrior women were also a subclass of the Druids, just as the Faiths and Ovates were a subclass of the Druids. If this is true, then it doesn't explain why they were not exempt from military service as the male Druids were. We are not sure, but then they could have been holy warriors such as the goddess Brigid's known as "Brigand" and such were a special case. Anything is possible.
This material is © Copyright 1997 by the author identified. Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick posts this article on the Internet by permission of the author. It may not be republished or reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author or Keltria Journal. Links to this page may be established.
This material was first published in Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magic. For a copy of the issue that this article ran in, send $3.95 to Keltria Journal, P.O. Box 1060 Anoka, MN 55303-1060 and request the issue identified at the top of the page. For other subscription and ordering information, see our Order Form.
Back to Keltria Issue 34 Beltaine/Summer 97 Table of Contents