This article is aimed at giving an overview of some of the earliest evidence:
There is an unfortunate lack of details regarding pre-Christian marriage rites, but there are a few glimpses that may be seen here and there in early medieval literature. Early medieval laws gives us a good idea of the ins and outs of how marriage worked during this time, and many of the details here appear to be hangovers from pre-Christian times, as we’ll see.
In terms of specific rites, however, the picture we get is rather unsatisfactory in many ways, especially in terms of trying to reconstruct anything relatively concrete based on the early evidence. The later evidence may help to fill in the gaps, to be sure, and in due course we will be covering as many aspects of evidence as we can. First, however, we should start at the beginning (or as near to the beginning as we can get).
The main sources to look at in terms of finding any information about pre-Christian approaches to marriage in the Gaelic world are:
- Early Irish laws – specifically the Cáin Lánamna, the ‘Law of Full Pairs,’1 thought to date to around the early eighth century
- Early medieval sources – especially the tales of the Historical Cycle, which deal with the principles of kingship and the sacred marriage to the land as personified by a goddess, as well as the Tocmarc (‘Wooing’) type tales, which give an idea of general attitudes towards love and courtship
- Comparative sources – Germanic cultures, especially, offer much to compare in terms of looking at similarities in marriage rites in order to determine a general view of marriage rites at the time
- Folklore and customs that give hints of pre-Christian hangovers and Gaelic customs
Of the four, we’ll be looking at each in turn except for the comparative evidence, since this can be used to support or shed more light on the native sources. As far as the early Gaelic evidence is concerned, we are looking at exclusively Irish material. Here, the earliest material is generally considered to be the law tracts, supported by the (somewhat later) mythology, and then the folklore, so we’ll look at them in that order.
In comparison to how marriage is today, marriage in early medieval Ireland was remarkable for two points: First, that polygyny2 was permitted (although disapproved of, in a Christian context), and second, that there were different kinds, or perhaps ‘levels’ of marriage, as we might see it, which depended on what the couple were bringing to the marriage, or the circumstances of the marriage.
In a legal context, marriage had nothing to do with love or romance, but primarily concerned itself with the exchange of property or goods, and with establishing the status and inheritance rights of any offspring, and so on.3 In this respect, marriages between two high status families are likely to have been arranged on a fairly pragmatic basis, and feelings were secondary to the point of the union. A marriage that developed into a love match, if it wasn’t based in such from the start, was all the better, since obviously that gave the union more stability, but wasn’t considered to be necessary.4 We might assume, given the many different kinds of marriage codified in early medieval Irish law, that some unions at least were formed on romantic feelings, rather than property or politics, and clearly the literature shows that love and romance were considered to both an ideal in marriage, and a danger in terms of forming the wrong sort of love matches that would be detrimental to the family, or túath as a whole (The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu details one such case, for example). To put it bluntly, marriage in a legal sense was about protecting assets and ensuring inheritance rights, and very little else.
Either way, the type of marriage determined the legal rights of each partner, the expectations placed on either spouse within the marriage, and the inheritance rights of any subsequent offspring. The Cáin Lánamna lays out these rights and expectations of a couple explicitly. In all, ten different types of marriage were considered. These were:
Lánamnas comthinchuir – ‘union on mutual contribution’ A marriage between those of equal rank and property, contributing equally to the partnership
Lánamnas mná for ferthinchur – ‘union of a woman on man-contribution’ Where the woman was supported by the man, meaning she was of lower rank than he was, and so contributed less to the marriage
Lánamnas fir for bantinchur co fognam – ‘union of a man on woman-contribution with service’ The ranks were reversed of those above, and it was stipulated that the man should work on the woman’s land
Lánamnas airite for urail – ‘union of a woman who accepts a man’s solicitation’ Where the woman goes with her husband willingly and openly, but without the consent of her family at the time of the union
Lánamnas fir thathigthe cen urail, cen tarcud, cen tinól – ‘union of a frequenting man without work, without inducement, without performance, without contribution’ An informal union where the woman remains with her kin and the man visits her with the family’s consent
Lánamnas foxail – ‘union by abduction’ Specifically, where the woman allows herself to be taken, without the consent or prior knowledge of her kin
Lánamnas amsa for faeniul – ‘union of wandering mercenaries’ As a couple of no fixed abode, they had no property to contribute to the marriage and so in legal terms they were unusual and needed to be dealt with separately
Lánamnas táide – ‘union of secrecy’ Similar to a union by abduction, but here the relationship has been carried out entirely in secret (which incurs criminal charges) or by deception on the part of the man
Lánamnas éicne – ‘union of violence’ i.e. rape, without the consent of the woman or her kin, and only a union in the sense of the recompense to made to her and/or her kin
Lánamnas genaige – ‘union of foolishness/mockery’ Where the couple are considered insane and therefore unable to consent, the union was considered to be invalid and recompense was expected for both families by the person who was supposed to have brought them together5
Of these, only the first eight were considered to be lawful, since in cases of rape no consent had been given by the woman or her family, and in the case of marriage with one or both partners insane or otherwise cognitively impaired, they were unable to legally make any contracts. In either case, such unions were only considered valid because any sexual intercourse might result in offspring, which would determine the level of compensation necessary to recompense the bride’s family.6
These unions were divided into three different categories, depending on the way in which the marriage had come about, and what was being brought into it. Generally speaking, women were not able to make contracts independently and so they were therefore dependent on a man – their nearest male kin such as their father, brother, uncle or sons, or their husband – to act on their behalf.7 This included marriage – a woman was expected to consent to her marriage to make it legally binding, and could refuse or contest the arrangements being made on her behalf, but the legal aspects of the union were organised by her family and not herself.8 As such, marriage was very much a family affair.
Status was largely determined by your wealth and resources to hand (see Status and Irish Society), and in marriage, it could determine what each couple was expected to contribute to the union – or indeed, the type of union. More formal marriages were by betrothal (airnaidm – a word derived from arnaisc, ‘to bind, pledge, engage’9), and these include the first three unions in the list above.10
The betrothal itself was a binding contract between the two parties that outlined the specifics of what each family would contribute to the marriage, so that if anything happened the property and goods might be split appropriately once the marriage ended.11 Property, livestock, or other goods were exchanged as a surety between the couple, and it was only when the whole of the contract was honoured and further property or goods had been exchanged, that the union became a formal marriage, a lánamnas.12 Cohabitation and consummation were also considered necessary to seal the deal and make the marriage formal.13
The union was not supposed to be consummated until the marriage was finalised – no matter how long that took – but during the time of the betrothal if either of the couple had sex with someone else it was still technically considered to be adultery by the Church. It was a general expectation that this contract of betrothal was binding (hence the exchange of sureties), and that the bridegroom would assume legal responsibility for his bride-to-be from that point on (with some exceptions – such as where the wealth and status of the bride outweighed that of the bridegroom), as he would in the marriage itself.14
These kinds of unions and the betrothal that came before them were more common amongst those of higher status, since there was more at stake. As a result – because of the costs involved – those of lower rank were unlikely to be able to afford to contract such a union. While the ideal marriage was a lánamnas comthinchuir – a ‘union of equal property’ this was really only an option for those of high status, since it generally involved an equal pooling of land, livestock and household goods. In lower status marriages, the most common union was probably lánamnas mná for fertinchur, or ‘a woman on a man’s contribution’. This involved the husband renting his land on which they could work, while the wife brought the household goods into the marriage.15
A woman of wealth was encouraged to marry with her own fine – her extended family – in order to keep assets and land from being split up. If she chose to go against this and married someone of lower status, a man who was unable to contribute anything to the marriage, it was a lánamnas fir for bantinchur, a ‘union of a man on a woman’s property’. This type of marriage protected the wife’s extended family in that upon her death, her husband and even their children inherited nothing from her; everything reverted to her fine.16
Less formal unions were available where the marriage did not necessarily include an exchange of assets from the bridegroom to the bride’s family.17 Where any property did exchange, it was not in the form of a coibche and so was not subject to the laws that governed coibche and how it should be distributed at the point of marriage, or returned in the case of divorce.18
These less formal unions were by acceptance or acknowledgement (aititiu) – and in this respect implied mutual consent between the couple and the bride’s family towards the union. In formal marriages, with betrothal, the man was expected to provide a coibche, a ‘bride-price’ to the bride’s family, which might consist of land or property, livestock, or other goods and items of value. In return, the woman was expected to fulfil her wifely duties, including consummating the marriage, raising any resulting children, and assuming her household duties. The bride-price was determined according to rank, and her family accepted it on her behalf to ensure that she would not abandon her husband as soon as she received it. She was, however, entitled to at least a portion of it once it had been exchanged.19
With less formal types of marriage, the bride could expect to ‘earn’ her keep (in terms of her wifely duties), and so receive some form of payment or maintenance during her marriage, and take her due with her if the marriage happened to fail, since otherwise any assets brought into the marriage were unlikely to be of much value.20 As such, these marriages of acceptance were more common amongst those of lower status, who had less in the way of assets to protect, at least, and in cases where a man wished to acquire a second wife or a concubine.21
Finally, there were the unions by abduction (foxal), implying no consent on behalf of the bride (rape), and/or her family (elopement). These were not considered to be legal marriages, and some form of recompense to the woman was expected, depending on the circumstances of the union and her status.22
Based on the type of union, the Cáin Lánamna goes into details of how the marriage would work. The most desirable and common form of marriage was the first one on the list, a union of equal contribution, and this entitled the wife to have a say in any contracts that were made during the course of the marriage, and she might object to any that she felt did not benefit the household.23 Each spouse in this kind of marriage was referred to as a cétmuinter, or ‘head of the household’ – someone who is “equally good and of equal birth,”24 and in the event of a divorce the property and assets of the household were divided as equally as the law allowed, with each partner taking back what they had provided.25 In the second kind of marriage, however, ‘a woman on a man’s contribution,’ the woman has no say in the contracts that might be made by her husband.26 It was possible for a woman of lower status to marry above themselves, but not without considerable cost, since the bride’s family would be expected to compensate the husband for her lower status and lack of prestige (and political influence).27
A man might contract further marriages with other women, but these unions would have to be of a different type to that of his first wife. Therefore, a man might have a lánamnas comthinchuir with his chief wife, a cétmuinter, and a less formal arrangement with his concubine, such as a lánamnas fir thathigthe. In this case the concubine would remain with her kin and would be able to choose whether she wanted to be under the rule of her husband, sons, or kin, and she would be referred to as a ben aititen (a woman of acknowledgement). The chief wife, and any other secondary wives who were betrothed to the husband before a formal marriage was contracted, had no choice in the matter, and were always under the rule of their husband.28
The Church took a dim view of polygyny but the law text Bretha Crólige29 made an effort to justify it at least somewhat within a Christian framework: “There is a dispute in Irish law as to which is more proper, whether many sexual unions or a single one for the chosen [people] of God lived in plurality of unions, so that it is not easier to condemn it than to praise it.”30
Aside from disapproval and discouragement, however, there was little the Church could realistically do other than wait until the practice fell out of favour.31 By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Church had begun to make concerted efforts in bringing Irish marriage practices – which were largely (and stubbornly) secular – under their auspices.32 These efforts brought only a limited amount of success, and even in the thirteenth century there is reference to Pope Alexander III offering Áed Ó Conchobair the kingship of Ireland, if only Áed agreed to give up his six wives and renounce his sin of adultery (Áed refused, for the record, although the account is likely to be apocryphal).33 Put simply, especially amongst those of higher status, multiple wives allowed multiple political connections to be made through marrying women of other influential families in the area, and so establishing familial bonds and obligations between the two parties. This was a political tool that many were reluctant to give up, in spite of the disapproval they faced from the Church.
In the meantime, it was encouraged that the concubine(s) or secondary wives should be recognised properly, while at the same time ensuring that the cétmuinter always had a special status above that of subsequent wives (and the son of a cétmuinter was always favoured legally over the son of a concubine).34 Thus the concubine (adaltrach – taken directly from the Latin adultera, ‘adultress’) was of inferior status to the chief wife, but received some protections in law nonetheless, and any sons she bore would be considered to be legitmate.35 In forcing men to take on a financial responsibility for their women – as marriage in any form effectively did – it effectively discouraged the practice on financial grounds, if not the moral grounds as the Church was primarily concerned with.36
The practice also sought to protect the chief wife herself: If a man abandoned her for another woman she could choose to leave him and begin the proceedings of a divorce. Alternatively, she could choose to stay, and force her husband to fulfil his obligations to her. In addition to this, if a husband brought a secondary wife (ben airnadma) into the household, the chief wife was entitled to receive the secondary wife’s coibche (bride-price, which was set according to the bride’s status) assuming she was still fulfilling her wifely duties to her husband. The secondary wife might also have to pay the honour-price of the chief wife, presumably in reparation for the chief wife’s injured pride and dignity.37 The chief wife was also allowed to beat the secondary wife for the first three nights after she was brought into the house, and while she was not allowed to kill her rival, almost anything else was allowed. The secondary wife, for her part, was allowed to defend herself only so far as scratching, hair pulling, or verbal abuse.38
On the whole, early Irish marriage laws were similar to those elsewhere in Europe.39 In particular, incest between siblings and parents and offspring were considered to be taboo, but otherwise marriages between close kin were not uncommon (especially in higher status families) because it ensured that a family’s wealth stayed within the family and amongst trusted members. Otherwise, marriage between those of equal, or at least relatively equal, status was encouraged because it not only made the contracts of marriage simpler, but it also kept the distribution of wealth stable.40
Early Irish marriage laws and customs were, however, considered to be more liberal in some areas – especially in dealing with divorce. A woman was allowed to divorce her husband on several grounds – if he spread false stories or satire about her, was indiscreet about their sex life, if he failed to support her, if he tricked her into marriage by sorcery, or if he struck her hard enough to leave a blemish (though he may otherwise hit her in order to correct her). She may also have sought a divorce if it could be shown that her husband was unable to provide her with children (presumably by showing that previous sexual relationships on his behalf had not resulted in any offspring either), or if he was impotent or otherwise unable to fulfil his obligations in this respect (i.e. if he became too fat to be able to have sex, or had taken holy orders and therefore an oath of celibacy). A woman could also seek divorce if she could show that her husband had spurned the marriage bed in favour of having sex with boys.41 A marriage was also considered to have ended if a partner was taken into captivity or enslaved, since the spouse no longer lived at the marital home. Inscuchad (the end of cohabitation) effectively broke the marital bond.42
In cases where divorces occurred at the fault of the husband the coibche (bride-price) was kept by the bride’s family, but if the woman was found to be at fault then the bride-price had to be returned to the husband.43 He could seek divorce if his wife was not pulling her weight and fulfilling the duties expected of her, if she was unfaithful, had induced an abortion to rid herself of a child, smothered her child, brought shame on her husband’s honour, continually thieved, or was “without milk through sickness.”44 Clearly, the marriage laws enshrined expectations that both the husband and wife’s physical, emotional, and even sexual needs were reasonably fulfilled, so there was at least some consideration of more than wealth and status.45
In principle, then, plenty of opportunity was provided for divorce even though (again) the Church disapproved of such a practice that went against canonical law. In 1074, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, sent a complaint to the Irish king Toirdelbach Ua Briain about such liberality and lobbied for reform:
“However among many things that please us some things have been reported to us that displease us: namely that in your kingdom every man abandons his lawfully wedded wife at his own will, without the occasion of a canonical cause; and with a boldness that must be punished takes to himself some other wife who may be of his own kin or of the kindred of the wife whom he has abandoned, or whom another has abandoned in like wickedness, according to a law of marriage that is rather a law of fornication.”46
Lanfranc’s complaints are telling in several respects – firstly, that his concern was not just that men were divorcing willy nilly, but also that they were remarrying to women who had themselves already been married. A woman’s fidelity was important to make sure that any offspring were indeed that of her husband’s, and in the Church’s view marriage was for life except in a very few circumstances. In marriage, virginity was considered to be a virtue of a bride at least in the sense that there would be no doubts over the paternity of any resulting offspring that were conceived on the wedding night. While attitudes towards sex in early medieval Ireland do seem to have been more liberal (in comparison to the Victorians, at least…) it does seem that first wives of high status in particular were expected to be virgins at their marriage. A triad that describes the three ‘drops’ of a cétmuinter lists: a drop of blood, a drop of sweat, and a tear drop. The blood presumably refers to the breaking of the hymen on consummation of the marriage.47 Lanfranc’s criticism, then, may be seen to show that he disapproves of the loose morals and fornication that he sees in the blithe setting aside of women, who may then go on to make good marriages to someone else regardless of their virtue.
Notably, however, Lanfranc is more concerned that men are setting aside their women too easily, not vice versa. Given the attitudes towards women at the time, this certainly would have provoked some comment if this had been the case, so it seems clear that while women were given many reasons to legitimately divorce, in practice it was unlikely to have been so simple.48 Because women were inherently reliant on their husband or kin to support them, and act on their behalf in a legal capacity,49 there was not always a place for them to go if they left their husbands since their family may not have been in a position to take them back.
Looking at the legal side of things is all well and good, but it doesn’t give us much insight into the rites and ceremonies associated with marriage (or, indeed, betrothal). In fact, there are no surviving descriptions of a typical wedding ceremony from early medieval Ireland at all,50 but there are suggestions in the literature of certain elements that may have been involved.
It seems reasonable to assume that some sort of celebration accompanied the formal or informal contracting of a union,51 and indeed, in the poetry attributed to Gormlaith, the wife of Cormac of Cashel (amongst others), who both lived in the tenth century, she illustrates this as she laments the mourns her own fate:
“The din of a wedding in yon house, to whomsoever it bring glee, there is one to whom it brings sorrow, while listening to every loud voice.
Though yonder woman rejoices at the binding of her contract, alas for one whom the world cheats – I once got the like.”52
The poetry itself is found in a sixteenth century manuscript, and while its origins and authenticity of age may be uncertain, the sentiments fit the general idea of feasting and celebrating a marriage that we see in other sources. The details are generally lacking because these settings of wedding feasts tend to provide a backdrop for other events, but still we get something, at least.
One of our biggest source of information is looking to the mythology surrounding a king’s inauguration, and the fact that it was commonly referred to as a banais rígi, or ‘royal wedding.’53 The term used for his inauguration feast (feis) also reinforces the point, as feis has the same roots as the term for marriage (banais). Banais is a compound of two words squished together – ban ‘woman’ and feis ‘feast,’ which naturally gives us ‘woman-feast.’54 We might think of it in terms of celebrating a woman’s marriage, but also in a more overtly sexual, even crude (depending on your point of view), sense. The word feis itself is a verbal noun from the Old Irish word fo-aid, which can be translated as ‘to spend the night with,’ or ‘to sleep with,’ and the phrase feis la mnaí can mean ‘to sleep with a woman’ and ‘to marry a woman.’55 The underlying sexual elements in the words for inauguration (banais rígi), marriage (banais) and a marriage-feast in the king’s honour (feis) for his inauguration are therefore clear. Even today, a marriage is only considered to be ‘official’ if it is consummated.
A key element of marriage – and kingship – was the consummation of the relationship, then.56 There are clear indications in the literature that a king’s rule was considered to be a sort of hieros gamos (ίερός γάμος), a sacred marriage between the king and the goddess of the territory he was to rule over.57 Byrne gives one example of the concept being explicitly stated in 1310:
“Fedhlimidh son of Aedh son of Eoghan was proclaimed in a style as royal, as lordly and as public as any of his race from the time of Brión son of Eochu Mugmedón till that day. And when Fedhlimidh son of Aedh son of Eoghan had married the province of Connacht, his foster-father waited upon him in the manner remembered by old men and recorded in old books; and this was the most splendid kingship-marriage ever celebrated in Connacht down to that 58
The tone of this commentary is keen to establish Fedhlimidh’s legitmacy as a ruler in mythological, traditional terms, and appears, in fact, to reference a tale that was concerned with just such an issue. The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon describes the struggle between the five sons of Eochaid Mugmedon, who are vying to establish their right to succession. During the course of the tale an old hag, hideous and ugly to behold, propositions each of the sons for a kiss in exchange for some water from her well. It is the youngest son, Niall, who agrees to her demands and even more – he says, “Besides giving thee a kiss, I will lie with thee!”59 Instantly, she transforms from hideous hag to beautiful, young woman and proclaims herself to be the Sovereignty of Erin, and tells Niall, “And as thou hast seen me loathsome, bestial, horrible at first and beautiful at last, so is the sovereignty; for seldom it is gained without battles and conflicts; but at last to anyone it is beautiful and goodly.”60
In effect, the hag – the Sovereignty – has tested each of the sons, and finds that only Niall shows the good judgement (and physical perfection) required of a king. Thus she acknowledges him and accepts him as ruler over his brothers because he has seen beyond her appearance and showed true judgement, and has also shown himself to be capable of “successful interaction” with her, that will ultimately lead to the prosperity of the land and people.61
The fact that a well is involved in all of this, however, in addition to the granting of some water from it, is also significant; the connection between goddesses and wells or water is well-established – Boand and Sinann, for example – and so gives a clue as to the hags true identity. It also hints at another aspect of a king’s sacred marriage to the goddess, though, in that there is a common theme of a libation being given by a woman to the king in acknowledgement of his position. The Sovereignty tells Niall, “smooth shall be thy draught from the royal horn, ’twill be mead, ’twill be honey, ’twill be strong ale.”62
One of the best known figures in Irish mythology is the queen of Connacht, Medb, from the Ulster Cycle. She is typically seen as a sovereignty goddess and her name comes from the same root as the English word for mead, ‘mid‘. Her name means ‘intoxicating one’ (sometimes given as ‘she who intoxicates’, or ‘intoxicated one’),63 and Kim McCone notes that it “must once have signified something like ‘mead-woman’.”64 This indicates her origins as a goddess – the connection with intoxicating and mead both referring to the wedding feast of a king.65 The libation itself represents her acceptance of the king, and is therefore symbolic of their marriage.66 We find this concept articulated explicitly in a seventeenth century poem on Leith Cuinn:
“Her breast [given] to Cairbre of Meath and to Fiachna Sraibhtine, the prosperous reign of Muireadhach after then, for this care poor is her requital.
She expended then her festive drinking on Eochu Muighmheadhón, her wine unlocks not the joy today that she once found with Eochu’s seed.”67
Further reinforcing the connection between intoxication, marriage, and sovereignty, is the close relationship between the Old Irish words for sovereignty ‘flaith‘, and beer, ‘laith.‘68 In Baile in Scáil (‘The Phantom’s Frenzy’) – dating from the eleventh century69 – Conn accidentally sets foot on the stone of Fál after “overthrowing the kings,” clearing setting the scene for his claiming the kingship of Ireland.
Hearing the stone cry out, Conn asks his druids what it means, and he is eventually told that the number of cries corresponds to the number of kings who will rule until Judgement Day. Shortly after, Conn finds himself shrouded in a dense mist, and is taken to the house of Lug where he meets a woman wearing a gold crown, attending a silver and gold vat that is full of red ale (called dergflaith in the text, meaning both ‘red ale’ and ‘red sovereignty.’70 The red colour presumably reinforces the Otherworldly nature of the ale, the place, and ultimately the source of sovereignty itself). She is Flaith Erenn,71 the Sovereignty of Ireland, and she asks Lug to whom she should give her cup. Lug proceeds to prophesy the names of each king who will come after Conn as their phantoms magically appear for the Sovereignty to serve her ale. When she has finished, the cup is left in Conn’s hands giving a clear indication that he has been accepted as the current king.72
Given the close relationship between inauguration and drinking, it could be seen that part of the king’s inauguration involved his intoxication (at the hands of the goddess, in the process of their marriage), resulting in drunken ecstasy. An archaic legal poem lists the many things that a good king should be knowledgeable of, which include:
“If you are a king you should know
the prerogative of a ruler,
refection according to rank,
contention in the host(?),
cudgels in the ale-house,
contracts made in drunkenness…”73
This last line seems to refer to his inauguration as well as other exchanges of contractual agreements that were also made with the help of good strong ale or mead, served by the king’s wife. Goddess or woman, the queen was effectively the “mediatrix of authority”74 in this sense, acting as agent of approval amongst the king’s men.
This ritual drunkenness during the inauguration, then, opens the king up to “a kind of ecstatic state in which human was lifted out of himself and might hope to achieve contact with the divine.”75 On a more basic level, though, given the closeness between the words laith and flaith, the drink itself is representative of sovereignty, and so accepting the drink being served was the same as accepting the kingship.76
Medb’s daughter, Findabair, also shows similar traits as her mother, where her relationship with Fer Diad, whom Cú Chulainn is ultimately pitted against in combat in the Táin is emphasised by the fact that she “used to lay her hand on every goblet and every single cup for Fer Díad.”77 This act clearly indicates her choice of suitor, after she had been offered to many by her mother.
The relationship between cup-offerings and marriage is not unique to Ireland, however. Miranda Green, noting that Gaulish iconography of ‘divine couples’ found in Burgundy frequently shows the male figure holding a cup of wine, perhaps indicating that he has received the libation cup from his consort.78 More specifically, however, we learn from the foundation tale of Massilia, a Greek outpost in the south of what is now France, that the local king’s daughter, Petta, chose a Greek trader named Euxenos – ‘Good Guest’ – as her husband by offering him a bowl of wine. That Petta is clearly supposed to represent sovereignty – thus legitimating the establishment of the Greek outpost at Massilia by her choice of a Greek man for her husband – is indicated by her name, which is likely to be related to the Pictish word pit (or pet), a parcel of land, the Welsh peth, ‘thing’, and Old Irish, cuith, ‘share, portion.’79 Her relationship to her territory is clear.
Amongst German tribes, a cup offering between a lord and his men indicated the sealing of a contract, but when it was between a lord and an unmarried woman it could indicate the act of marriage. Enright also notes that according to the Historia Langobardorum, a cup-offering was essential to a Germanic marriage rite.80
Considering the evidence, then, both comparatively and from Ireland specifically, the offering of a drink from bride to bridegroom may be seen as a feature of pre-Christian inaugurations and marriage rites, ultimately having Indo-European origins. According to the Irish annals and genealogies, several queens were married to subsequent kings, suggesting that there was an element of the sovereignty goddess motif expressed in at least some historical royal marriages.81
Bearing in mind that it was permissible for a man to have more than one wife, a king would presumably be able to symbolically marry more than one sovereignty goddess if he governed over more than one territory. This perhaps explains why Lug is named as having four different wives (Echtach, Englic, Nás and Búi) in a Dindshenchas poem, who all appear to be sovereignty goddesses. In Tocmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’), Lug is said to have held a banais rígi – a royal wedding-feast – at Taillne when he succeeded as king upon Nuadu’s death.82
Feasting appears to have been an integral part of the proceedings, as one might expect. In the Ulster Cycle, we are told that the Feis Temro, the inauguration feast of the kings of Tara83 lasted for seven nights in total – starting three days before Samhainn and finishing three days after.
What of the inauguration ceremony, then? We might presume that it involved a form of marriage rite involving a woman giving a drink of mead or ale to the king in recognition of his status, but other than that we have little else to go on in the early sources, aside from the feasting implied in the names for both the inauguration and marriage celebrations in general. Later sources are problematic in terms of their reliability, such as Giraldus Cambrensis’ description of an inauguration ceremony in a remote part of Ulster, and do little to shed any useful light on the subject at hand – that of gleaning any information about marriage rites.84 It is now time to look elsewhere for evidence elsewhere.
So far we have seen a number of elements in marriage rites. On the one hand, as a contractual matter, marriage simply involved the agreeing of terms and then the mutual consent of the couple. At least among kings and champions (such as Fer Diad), the acceptance of a husband by the woman was symbolised by the offering of an alcoholic drink, and he in turn accepted her by accepting her drink. Feasting and further drinking and general celebration then followed.
The terms on which the marriage was agreed generally involved the exchange of goods, the wife bringing with her livestock, land, household goods and more to make her an attractive prospect to the husband and his family (a dowry of sorts). In return, the husband gave her family a coibche, or bride-price, and the laws gave protections to both parties in the event of divorce to ensure that they took their fair portion of what they brought with them, as well as a portion of the profits they had generated during the union.
Naturally the primary purpose of marriage at this time was to provide the next generation and protect the inheritance rites of the families involved. The union itself was therefore affirmed by the consummation of the couple’s sexual relationship, and the legal bonds between the bride and her family were considerably weakened once she bore her husband a son.
Not all marriages were contracted on a formal basis, and some unions weren’t even legal, except in terms of determining the appropriate compensation for the injured parties. It is to these informal unions that we will now be turning to, and looking at the evidence in both Ireland and Scotland.
1 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p17-18.
2 Specifically, in other words, that men were allowed to take on more than one wife.
3 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, 1998, p39.
4 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, 1998, p39.
5 The order listed is taken from Cáin Lánamna. The order, translations and interpretations of the terms are somewhat confused in the secondary sources, so I’ve pieced them together as appropriate from Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p20-21; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p70; Power, Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland, 1973, p28-29.
6 Cáin Lánamna.
7 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p17-18.
8 Ó Córráin, ‘Marriage in early Ireland’, in Cosgrove (Ed.), Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p15.
9 Ó Córráin, ‘Marriage in early Ireland’, in Cosgrove (Ed.), Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p15.
10 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p21.
11 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p71.
12 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, 1998, p43.
13 Ó Córráin, ‘Marriage in early Ireland’, in Cosgrove (Ed.), Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p15.
14 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, 1998, p43.
15 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, 1998, p114.
16 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, 1998, p114.
17 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, 1994, p293; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p73; Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland, 1998, p43.
18 Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p145.
19 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p20-21; Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, 1994, p298; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p72.
20 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p21.
21 Ó Córráin, ‘Marriage in early Ireland’, in Cosgrove (Ed.), Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p15;p17.
22 Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p145; Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd).’The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p20.
23 Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200AD, 1995, p128.
24 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p33.
25 Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200AD, 1995, p128.
26 Cáin Lánamna.
27 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, 1994, p191.
28 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p71; Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p146.
29 Findon, A Woman’s Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p112.
30 Hughes, ‘The church in Irish society 400-800,’ in Ó Cróinín (Ed.), A New History of Ireland I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, 2005, p315.
31 Power, Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland, 1976, p63.
32 Cosgrove, ‘Marriage in Medieval Ireland,’ in Cosgrove, Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p25-26.
33 Cosgrove, ‘Marriage in Medieval Ireland,’ in Cosgrove, Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p28-29.
34 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p40.
35 Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p146; Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd).‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p33.
36 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p38.
37 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p36.
38 Findon, A Woman’s Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p112; Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, 1994, p298.
39 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p41.
40 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, 1994, p289.
41 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p74. Notably, however, the language suggests that homosexuality on the husband’s part was tolerated, so long as he provided enough opportunity to produce heirs.
42 Ó Corráin, ‘Marriage in early Ireland,’ in Cosgrove (Ed.), Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p20.
43 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p72.
44 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p75.
45 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, 1994, p311.
46 Findon, A Woman’s Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p112.
47 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p72-3.
48 Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Meek and Simms (Edd). ‘The Fragility of her sex?’ Medieval Irish Women in their European context, 1996, p32.
49 Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200AD, 1995, p128.
50 Patterson, Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, 1994, p298.
51 Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender From Early Ireland, 1998, p44.
52 Bergin, ‘Poems attributed to Gormlaith’, in Bergin and Merstrander (Eds.), Miscellany Presented to Kuno Meyer, 1912, p347.
53 Dillon and Chadwick, The Celtic Realms, 1973, p125-126.
54 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, p17.
55 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p118.
56 Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p69.
57 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p110; Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, p17; Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ p134-5.
58 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, p17.
59 The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon.
60 The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon. The same idea is echoed in the Dindshenchas poem of Cairn Máil, where Lugaid Laigde chooses to meet the demands of a hideous and ugly hag, who threatens a painful death on each man present otherwise. In agreeing to sleep with her, unappealing though she is, the hag is transformed into a beautiful young maiden, who identifies herself as the Sovereignty of Erin and Alba (Ireland and Scotland).
61 Sessle, ‘Misogyny and Medb: Approaching Medb with Feminist Criticism,’ in Mallory and Stockman (Eds.), Ulidia, 1994, p137.
62 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p75-76.
63 Clark, The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan, 1991, p126; Sessle, ‘Misogyny and Medb: Approaching Medb with Feminist Criticism,’ in Mallory and Stockman (Eds.), Ulidia, 1994, p137; Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p75-76.
64 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p109.
65 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p120.
66 Clark, The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan, 1991, p127.
67 Walsh, Gleanings from Irish Manuscripts, 1933, p38-39.
68 Enright, Lady With a Mead Cup, 1996, p264; Clark, The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan, 1991, p126-7.
69 Green, Celtic Goddesses, 1995, p73.
70 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p75-76.
71 Not listed in the online, abridged tale, but see Green, Celtic Goddesses, 1995, p73.
72 Baile in Scáil.
73 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p357.
74 Enright, Lady With a Mead Cup, 1996, p88.
75 Clark, The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan, 1991, p126-7.
76 Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p67.
77 Enright, Lady With a Mead Cup, 1996, p264.
78 Green, Celtic Goddesses, 1995, p136.
79 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p849; Enright, Lady With a Mead Cup, 1996, p268.
80 Enright, Lady With a Mead Cup, 1996, p83.
81 Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, 2000, p69-71.
82 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p6.
83 The issues surrounding the Feis Temro are far too complicated to go into here, and I’d recommend having a look at Binchy’s ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara’ for more details on this.
84 See Koch, The Celtic Heroic Age, 1995, p268. Cambrensis describes a lurid account of a ritual mating between the king and a white mare, which is then ritually slaughtered and cooked in water. The king then bathes in the resulting broth, and drinks of it. For our purposes, it’s tempting to draw parallels between the mating and cup-offering from a sovereignty goddess, and the king mating with the mare and then drinking its broth, but there are many angles to look at, and many problems with Cambrensis’ personal bias in the way he tells the story which would wander quite a distance from the point of this article. Suffice it to say that the episode is notably used to comment on the fact that the Irish were barbarians and pagans, and one of the prime excuses for the Anglo-Norman invasions of Ireland was to bring them back into the Church. Cambrensis also doesn’t appear to have witnessed the rite, which is conveniently situated somewhere remote and backward and so it becomes suspect because it would have been essentially impossible to prove. He was also a man with a vested interested in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, since his own family stood to gain a lot from it – painting the Irish in a positive light was not in his interests for several reasons. See Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1976, p18. However McCone, for one, notes that the description may not be entirely off-base, pointing to certain similarities in Cambrensis’ outline with Indian kingship rituals and Indo-European kingship rites as a whole. See McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p118-120.