the virgin births of irish myth
Updated: Aug 1
A man borne of a virgin was destined for great things.
THE INTERNATIONAL VIRGIN BIRTH
The virgin birth is not just a Christian ‘thing’… weird and wacky birth stories exist in ancient cultures from all around the world.
Buddha, for example, entered his mother’s womb in the shape of a white elephant; Athena was born from Zeus’s forehead, Dionysus from his thigh; Vishnu descended from heaven into the womb of a mortal woman and was born as Krishna; the prophet Muhammad was born of a mortal woman but had no father; Coatlicue was unknowingly impregnated by a bunch of feathers which she found and stowed in her clothing, later giving birth to Aztec god Huitzilopochtli; in Japan, Momotarō was found inside a giant peach floating down a river, and so on.
Despite all these marvellous miracles, however, the pregnancy of a chaste and virginal woman is the most enduring and beloved tale of all. And unsurprisingly, the immaculate conception almost always results in the birth of a spectacular male child who goes on to achieve great deeds as an adult.
Such stories may seem ridiculous to us now, but it’s worth pointing out that our ancient ancestors were by no means stupid; they certainly understood very well how reproduction worked. So why were these strange stories accepted and promoted throughout the ages as truth? They couldn’t possibly really have happened… could they?
45 HUMAN VIRGIN BIRTHS REPORTED IN US IN RECENT YEARS
I’m not joking… you can read the study here. Out of a sample group of 7870 young women who were followed for fourteen years, over 5000 became pregnant during the study period, and 45 of those claimed they were still virgins. Interestingly, more of these virgin mothers had previously made pledges of chastity than had non-virgin mothers. Perhaps they just didn’t want to admit they had broken their pledge.
According to this article, three quarters of Americans believe literally in the Mary and Jesus virgin birth story exactly as it is told in the bible. Anything is possible, as I am fond of saying, but then I also like to say ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ which translates here as ‘no pregnancy without nooky’.
BUT ALI, VIRGIN BIRTHS REALLY DO HAPPEN
Yes they do, but not usually in humans. It’s called parthenogenesis, from the Greek parthenos, meaning ‘virgin’, and genesis, meaning ‘creation/ birth’. It refers to the growth of an embryo from an unfertilised egg cell, in other words, a female can give birth to young without being impregnated by a male.
Species known to reproduce this way are certain types of insects, including some bees and wasps; also some types of fish, such as hammerhead sharks, amphibians, reptiles and even birds.
However, reproduction by parthenogenesis in mammals does not occur naturally, although the process is used in the lab to reproduce human stem cells. If you’re interested, you can find out more about the science of parthenogenesis here.
BUT WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS MADNESS HAVE TO DO WITH IRISH MYTH?
Irish mythology is full of sex, but it also has its fair share of virgin births. The two most famous, of course, are those of Étain, and Cuchulainn, so let’s look at those first.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CONCEPTION OF CUCHULAINN
Cuchulainn was the champion of Ulster, and most famous for his almost single-handed defence of the province against Medb, Queen of Connacht in the tale of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The tale of his conception and birth is a curious one. Dechtire, his mother, was half sister of King Conchobar mac Nessa, was married to an Ulster chieftain named Sualtam.
One night, a mayfly landed in her cup of wine, and she swallowed it without realising. She fell into a deep sleep during which Lugh Lamfhada, God of Lightning, visited her, and claimed that he was that mayfly and had impregnated her. He then transformed her along with fifty of her serving women into a flock of birds and flew them to Bru na Boinne (Newgrange).
She gave birth to a son there, and named him Setanta. The men of Ulster then came for her and escorted her home. Setanta grew up to become the hero, Cuchulainn. Without a doubt, he was a spectacular and precocious child, with battle skills and prowess to match that of any adult warrior. Although he died very young – some stories say seventeen, some say thirty years of age – he achieved fame and admiration which is still told of today.
In any case, as the child of an Irish deity and a mortal mother, he was clearly of semi-divine heritage, what the ancient Greeks called a demi-god, and destined for great things.
Of all the stories I am going to tell you, this one is the most unusual and stands out for me the most, because Étain is the only female virgin birth I have come across so far in Irish mythology.
When Midir of the Tuatha de Danann fell in love with Étain, his jealous first wife, Fumnach, transformed her into a butterfly. After many adventures, Étain fell into a cup of wine in the hand of the wife of Étar, an Ulster chieftain. Unaware, the woman drank the wine and swallowed the butterfly. She then became pregnant, and Étain was reborn, one thousand and twelve years after her first birth.
However, she had no recollection of her previous existence, and much of the story is concerned with how Midir wins her back from her mortal husband through typical manly pursuits such as challenges and gambling.
That said, it is actually a very beautiful and moving story. You can read my impressions of it here.
What is interesting here is not the presence of a divine being as father – there isn’t one – but the swallowing of some other living creature which penetrates the mother’s womb and impregnates her. Possibly remnants of a pagan belief in reincarnation, shape-shifting, and ancestor worship perhaps.
THE WORM TURNS… INTO A MAN
This is the story of warrior and hero Conall Cernach. His mother, Findchoem, and father, Amairgin mac Echit, had a childless marriage until advised by a Druid to visit a certain holy well. Findchoem bathed in the waters, and drank from them, but unbeknown to her, she swallowed a worm lurking in the precious fluid. It entered her womb and impregnated her with Conall.
Naturally, he went on to become a mighty Ulster hero. Sadly, though, he suffered from leprosy in his later years, and went to Medb of Connacht, his enemy, for treatment. Whilst there, he agreed to Medb’s request to kill her husband, Aillil, for having an affair. This satisfied his desire for revenge, for Aillil had killed his friend Fergus mac Róich, a much admired Ulster warrior.
He in return, was killed for his crime by the men of Connacht, at the ford of Ballyconell in Co. Cavan.
Nessa was the daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, king of Ulster, and was married to Cathbad, a druid and warrior. One day, she asked Cathbad what the day was good for, and he answered, “Conceiving a king.” So they did. But not in the normal messy way, oh no! She also swallowed worms in a drink of water, and thus she conceived.
Nessa gave birth on the banks of the River Conchobar as she traveled with her husband to visit friends. Cathbad told her to hold on till the following day so that her son would be born on the birthday of Jesus Christ… I’m detecting a bit of Christian interference here… oh, you too? 😁
So Nessa dutifully sat on a flat stone as she was bid and held in all night the child which was ripping her apart to get out. for god’s sake, Nessa, just cross your legs and hold him in till morning, can’t you? The next morning, she popped out a son she named Conchobar, after the river he was born beside. Which he fell into as he was born, apparently. Or maybe the power of water birth was well known to our ancient female ancestors.
Bear in mind that this is the same Nessa who prior to her pregnancy, single-handedly as a woman raised a war-band of 27 warriors and took off after her father’s murderers with them, intent on revenge and killing. What a creature of contrast she is!
Of course Conchobar goes on to be the famous King of Ulster around whom the tales of the Ulster Cycle revolve.
THE POTENT POWER OF HOLY WATER
Beware, ladies, you don’t even need to swallow a worm to get pregnant. Just the holy water on its own is powerful enough. And how! King Diarmuid had a wife who was barren… yes, of course the problem was hers, its never his, right? She, poor thing, was not even worthy of recording her name… maybe she never had one.
Anyway, one day Wife of Diarmuid (as we will call her) was given a drink of holy water by St. Finnian, and lo! Her belly was filled with life! She gave birth to… wait for it… a lamb! Naturally, Diarmuid was somewhat disappointed with this… he had been hoping for a son and heir, not a tasty dinner.
So St Finnian gave Wife of Diarmuid another drink of holy water, but this time she birthed a trout, although other versions say it was a salmon. Regardless, it definitely wasn’t the desired boy-child.
Never mind, third time lucky, said St Finnian, who by this time must have been doubting his ability to perform miracles, or else God was having a laugh at his expense. Wife of Diarmuid drank a third draught of wretched holy water, and this time she really did pop out the much anticipated son and heir.
He was named Aed Slaine, and what do you know, but he grew up to become High King of Ireland in 594 AD, and founded a dynasty of great kings. Wonder what became of his older siblings, Lamb and Trout…
Manannán mac Lir, the Sea-God, was well known for being a bit of a prankster, and causing mischief and mayhem when the mood took him. Although he didn’t normally approve of meddling in the affairs of mankind, when it came to sex with beautiful mortal women, it seems he was willing to let his self-imposed rules slide a little.
In any case, he fancied Cáintigern, the wife of sevent- century king, Fiachnae mac Báetáin. Fiachnae was away on a military campaign against the Saxons which wasn’t going so well, and Manannán persuaded Cáintigern to sleep with him by promising to lend aid to her husband on the battlefield.
The Sea-God kept his word, and thus saved Fiachnae’s life, however Cáintigern got a bit more than she bargained for; she ended up with a bellyful following her liaison with Manannán, and nine months later gave birth to a son she named Mongan.
The child went to live with his divine father in the Otherworld until he was sixteen years old, where he learned magic and the art of shape-shifting. During this time, Fiachnae was killed by Fiachnae mac Demmáin… yes, I know, they share a name, but trust me, this is another Fiachnae who was only King of Ulster for one year from 626-627. However, the Ulstermen demanded that Mongan return to be their leader, which he did. He married Fiachanae’s daughter, then later kills his father-in-law to avenge his mortal father’s murder. Confused?
There are two interesting things about this story; one is that these characters feature in the Irish annals, although nothing is recorded about Mongan save his death in 625 AD. The annals, however, conflict with this story by recording both Fiachnae’s deaths after Mongan’s.
The other interesting fact is that Mongan is said to be a reincarnation of legendary Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhall. He thus was indeed a most intriguing and spectacular character, but in the end, he was killed by a thrown stone.
SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL WITH THIS VIRGIN BIRTH PHENOMENON ANYWAY?
Well, it’s central to the representation of important and powerful men. These men possess qualities which place them above other men. They are not the same as ordinary men. Therefore, they can not originate from the same humble beginnings.
Powerful and important men could not originate from the same humble, messy beginnings as ordinary men.
In Ireland, though, the stories are… ahem… a bit more realistic. No matter how special, these men were born of mortal women; they didn’t spring fully formed from the innards of a giant peach, no matter how womb-like it may appear.
The uterus and the birth canal it is, then. The stories may not even have recorded the mother’s name, as she formed only the vessel. Her importance, once birth had taken place, was over. But she had to be seen as pure and untainted in order to be a worthy enough vessel to carry such an exalted personage.
NB> Here is an original thought you might like, suggested by Jane Dougherty: Not having a father is a huge help. There’s no one to be measured up to, no brothers to dispute your claim, no history except your mother’s, (and that is pretty secondary). You start with no baggage, nobody could point the finger at ancestors who might have been not up to snuff, just your own talents.
In medieval Christian times, sex was seen as a huge evil, usually instigated by women. The Church was obsessed with sex, or at least with abstinence, and the holiness of resisting. I’ve just spent the last semester studying the Law Tracts and Penitentials of Early Medieval Ireland and Wales, and to go into that much detail over sexual offences definitely constitutes some kind of unhealthy obsession!
So the mothers of these exalted men conceived by swallowing other living creatures, or by drinking holy water, or were forced/ manipulated/ misled by Gods, who of course must be submitted to.
Virgin mothers were an enigma, creatures of paradox who set a standard impossible for ordinary women to aspire to.
It should be remembered that in those days, the application of the word ‘virgin’ is different to how we understand it today. A woman could have had several husbands, lots of sex, borne many children, then become a nun and abstain from sex, and still be referred to as a virgin.
These virgin mothers are something of an enigma, creatures of paradox: both virginal, yet bearers of children; unspoiled by sex, yet still mothers; pure, yet submissive wives. They set a standard for ordinary women which was impossible to achieve. They always give birth to exceptional men, never women, who are powerless and valueless like themselves.
Yet there are exceptions: the wife of Étar gives birth to Étain, a woman, after swallowing Étain in her form as a butterfly. Étain does nothing special, like the men of such births do, but goes on to give birth to a daughter, who in turn also gives birth to a daughter, who gives birth the High King Conaire Mór.
In this case, his mother conceives him when a strange man flies into her room through the window in the guise of a bird. According to ‘the rules’ of all the other virgin birth stories, there is no purpose to the virgin birth of Étain, unless that part of the story was abandoned, and lost… perhaps because it showed a woman in a position of power and strength. Étain is extraordinarily weak and subservient in the story as it now exists.
Similarly, I can’t help but wonder at this portrayal of violent and bloodthirsty Nessa, who raised and led a warband to avenge her father’s murder. Here, she is relegated to little more than a sacred virginal vessel for the birth of Conchobar; she meekly obeys her husband’s outrageous and impossible command to delay a birth that had already begun, simply so that the child would be born on a more auspicious date… a woman like Nessa in the pangs of labour was more likely to tell him to f*** right off! 😁 Or worse, if there was a weapon handy.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of virgin births, this article is an excellent place to start.
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