Stories, Myths & Legends

The Pillow Talk of Medb and Ailill

Ailill and Medb were in their royal bed, 'Is it not a fine thing for a woman to be married to a rich man?' he asked.  Medb smiled agreeably and said 'Yes, but what makes you say that?'

'Because you are rich now because of me' he said.

'That is not true,' said Medb 'I was well off before I ever met you.'

'At one time, maybe,' Ailill replied 'but wealth is a relative thing, you were robbed many times.'

'There is nothing wrong with our army,' Medb replied becoming annoyed.

'No one can afford constant losses, your lands were impoverished' continued Ailill.

'My father, was in the high kingship of Ireland and he had six daughters, and of those six I was the most noble.  I was the best endowed and bravest in battle.  Do you know how many mercenaries I had hired from abroad?'

'Yes, you have told me many times before' sighed Ailill.

'I had fifteen hundred and all of royal blood, and another fifteen hundred from my own province.  Each one of them had ten men, and each of them had nine men and each of them had eight men...'

And Medb enumerated her limitless army while Ailill turned his eyes skyward.

'And for that reason, my father gave me one of the Provinces of Ireland, Cruachu and I was known as Medb Cruachu, and still am!' she said.

Ailill groaned quietly as she went on.

'They sought my hand in marriage from the five Provinces of Ireland, but I wanted a special kind of man, I wanted  a man who was brave in battle, who was generous to a fault and who was not jealous as I have many lovers... and such a man was yourself Ailill Mac Ross and so it was you I married, but It was I that made you a wealthy man with my dowry.

Ailill tried to intervene but Medb kept on talking 'So then if I am a fortunate woman, why indeed you are a most fortunate man.  You have a dowry such as only I, Medb Cruachu could give; The raiment of twelve men; the finest chariot; the breadth of your face in red gold and the weight of your left arm in white bronze.  No one can claim anything from you that I did not bring you because you are dependent on my marriage portion.'

'That is not true,' Ailill replied 'my brothers are kings, Cairpre is in Tara and Find is ruler over Leinster, and that is proper as they are older than I am, and that is why I came to Connaught as my mother was Mata of Muresc daughter of Mago and therefore through my mother I claim the right to rule Connaught.'

Medb turned to face him full of anger and he said hastily 'And what better queen could I have than you, who are the daughter of Eochu Fedlech the high king of Ireland!'

'Still, my property outweighs yours!' she replied.

'I wonder you can say that' Ailill responded 'when it is obvious that I have more wealth than anyone in Ireland!'

'We will see who has the most possessions' Medb replied and she clapped her hands to summon her servants.  When the servants arrived Medb instructed them to bring the least valuable of their possessions so that they could be compared.

'You will see that even in small things, my goods outshine yours' said Ailill.

The servants brought forth the wooden cups and utensils, and wooden vats and the iron cooking pots and Ailill and Medb looked at them and could find no difference in either's goods.

'Bring something better, our precious jewellery' said Medb.

Their rings and bracelets, their torcs and thumb-rings and hair-ornaments, and all their gold treasures, goblets, ladles, plates and ceremonial gear were all brought in and compared and still they could find no difference in the quantity or quality of their goods.

'We are equal,' said Ailill 'let's go back to bed!'

'No, I must be satisfied we are truly equal' replied Medb 'bring my purple dress' she ordered her servants.

'Bring my garments also' said Ailill.

All their clothing was brought forward and each had a match for the other in splendour and colour; in blue, and black, and green and yellow and multi-coloured and grey, brown, checked and striped.

Medb was still not satisfied, she crossed to the window and surveyed her lands, 'Bring in all the sheep' she ordered and the servants looked up agape but still ran to do her bidding.  The sheep were herded in from the outlying plains and assembled on the front lawn below her window.  They were counted and compared and for each one of Medb's there was one equal in size and age in Ailill's flock.  Among Medb's flock was a splendid ram but an equally splendid ram was found in Ailill's flock.

Medb was getting more and more furious 'Bring in all my horses' she demanded.  The horses were brought and compared and there was found a splendid stallion in Medb's possession but then Ailill also had a splendid stallion in his possession to equal it.

Then Medb ordered her pigs to be brought in they were all counted and found equal, and Medb had a special boar in her herd and thought she had the better of Ailill but it was found that he had a splendid boar in his herd to equal hers.

'Well, now' said Ailill 'there's nothing left but our great herds of cattle, I suppose you'll want to drag all them in as well!' and he laughed.

'Now, that you mention it, I don't mind if I do' Medb replied.

So all the cattle were brought in droves from the woods and plains of the entire province, and they were counted and found to be equal in number and in size and in quality.  However among Ailill's herd there was a special bull of the sidhe his name was Finnbennach.

'That is my bull, he was born of one of my cows.' said Medb.

'Well, he does not wish to belong to a woman, and so he has joined my herd,' replied Ailill.

'In that case I will just have to find a bull to match him!' said Medb.  'Fetch Mac Roth the herald' she ordered.  'I will not be unequal to my husband in this matter or in any matter!'

When Mac Roth arrived she demanded of him, 'Where in Ireland can a match for the Finnbennach be found?'

'There is only one to match him in the whole of Ireland it is Donn Cuailnge and he belongs to Daire Mac Fiachna of Ulster' replied Mac Roth.

'Then I will ask Daire Mac Fiachna for the loan of his bull for a year and in return for it I will give him fifty heifers, and if that does not please him he shall have a plot of land on Magh Ai equal to his own in Ulster, and if that does not please him he shall have also a splendid chariot similar to the one I gave Ailill on our marriage day, and even more tell him if he accompanies the bull to Connaught himself he shall have the knowledge of my most willing thighs...'

So Mac Roth gathered together nine other messengers and they set off for Ulster to the camp of Daire Mac Fiachna.

When they arrived at Daire's camp they were given a gracious  welcome, and Mac Roth was given a welcome in the private chambers of Mac Fiachna.  He explained the quarrel between his queen and his king and requested the loan of the Brown Bull of Cooley, Donn Cuailnge and as Daire hesitated a little he told of the promised gifts from Queen Medb and when Daire heard of her offer of intimacy he shook himself with glee so hard on his feather mattress that he burst the seams and flock flew all about his chamber.  Then Daire agreed to lend the bull and offered the messengers great hospitality and they were entertained with strong wines and mead and sumptuous foods.

However as they got more and more inebriated their tongues got looser and their propriety got weaker and they started to talk loudly amongst themselves.

'Our host is very generous is he not?' one said.

'He is indeed' said another.

'The most generous man in Ulster' slurred another.

'He is not as powerful as Conchobar, he is but a servant to him' said another.

'But the Donn Cuailnge is a great prize, it would have taken all our armies to have taken it by force, and he gave it to us willingly.'

'Ha! not at all we would have taken it by force easily if he had not lent it to us' said another.

And so they all joined in the argument, one side saying how generous Daire was, the other saying that he would not have been able to stop them if they'd a mind to take the bull by force.  While they were thus engaged one of Daire's servants entered the room quietly and wasn't noticed, and he overheard all the arguments.  He turned around quickly and headed straight for the chamber of Daire Mac Fiachna.

'Master,' he said 'how could you give away our prize bull, the pride of all Ulster, to those drunken louts in that other room, who are at this very minute insulting us and saying how if they had not been given the bull straightaway they would easily have taken it by force?'

'What?' exclaimed Mac Fiachna, 'How dare they insult my hospitality!  Never worry they'll not have that bull now without a fight, by our gods!  The nerve of the scoundrels to abuse my house in this manner!'

In the morning when Mac Roth innocently went to ask for the bull he received a very cold welcome from Daire.  'What is wrong?' he asked.

'As if you do not know, and your fellows boasting that if they were not given the bull they would have taken it by force!' said Daire furiously.

'But sir, it was only the mead talking, it was drunken bluster, you should pay it no mind...' flustered Mac Roth.

'Enough!' shouted Mac Fiachna 'You have all abused my hospitality, you ate my food and drank my wine and then slandered my good name!  You will not have the bull, leave my house immediately, only for you have the protection of being heralds I would have slain the lot of you.'

So Mac Roth and the other messengers left Ulster and headed back empty-handed to Medb in Cruachu.

Mac Roth told her what had transpired.  'Well if we cannot have it peacefully, then we will indeed take it by force' said Medb.  Messengers were sent to all the corners of Ireland and thousands and thousands of men were assembled  and all came into the service of Queen Medb.

Medb went to consult her druid Calatin to see what the outcome of the conflict would be.  He told her that whatever else happened she herself would return alive.  It was not really the answer she wanted.  'What of the men who travel with me?   Their wives and children will curse me if they do not come back alive' she said.  Calatin just reassured her again that she would return, that whoever fell it would not be herself.

Medb pondered this answer it was not the same as being told she would be unconditionally victorious.  She went into her chariot and caught sight of a young woman approaching.  She was wearing a fringe of red-gold, holding the threads in her hand as she walked.  She had on a speckled green cloak with a circular heavy brooch holding it at her breast, and she was very beautiful.  Every part of her was perfect from the curls of her golden hair to the sharp pink tips of her long white feet.  She had a clear bright skin with sparkling eyes and thin red lips enclosing shining pearly teeth and her sweet voice was like music.  Medb could see her luminosity as she approached and how her hair reached to her lower calves.

'Why are you here?' asked Medb warily.

'I am a bond-maid of your people, and I wish to see you successful in your mission to carry off the Donn Cuailnge,'  she said.

'What is your name and where do you come from?' demanded Medb.

'I am Feidelm, the prophetess, and I reside in the Sidhe of Cruachu, I see your army covered in red.  I see crimson!'

'Conchobar, is in his pangs' Medb replied 'I have sent my spies out and they have informed me of this, he cannot fight, so how do you see our armies now?'

'I still see red.  I see crimson,' replied Feidelm.

'Mac Conchubuir is also laid low,  my spies inform me' Medb  glared  'how do you see our armies now?'

'I see red.  I see crimson,' said Feidelm.

'Mac Durthacht has retired to Rath Airthir.  We have nothing to fear from the Ulstermen.  So tell me truly how do you see our army?'  

Unmoved Feidelm replied, 'I see red.  I see crimson.'

'Mac Cuthechair has locked himself in his fortress.  We have nothing to fear.  So now, how do you see our army?' said Medb with desperation.

'I see red, and I see crimson' snapped Feidelm impatiently.

Medb did not want to hear this and went to go past Feidelm in her chariot but Feidelm stopped her.  'I see a fair man who will perform many battle-feats, He wears a red mantle and a hero's light shines in his eyes, he has seven pupils in his eyes and is handsome to look upon, in battle however he is transformed into a monstrous shape and he carries many weapons one is the gae bulga whom none can resist.  And he will turn your armies red, it is he who will crimson your men.'

'Who is this hero?' asked Medb.

'It is Cúchulainn of Muirthemne, I see' said Feidelm  'And many will die at his hands.'

'Just one man, could ravage the armies of Ireland?  I'm not so sure of that' said Medb in her pride and she went on her way still determined to go to war.

Source: The Táin Bó Cuailnge - for one version of 'The Pillow Talk' see Thomas Kinsella, The Tain, Oxford University Press, 1970. pp: 52 - 58.

see also: The Táin Bó Cuailgne translated by Cecile O'Rahilly (external link)


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