Muimme naFiann: Foster-mother of heroes
When the subject of women warriors come up, Scáthach, Cú Chulainn’s teacher, is one of the first noted, along with Medb. Yet even more so than Medb, Scáthach’s story is not her own but a very brief part of Cú Chulainn’s. Much of what is “known” about her today is embellishment. The idea that she is the eponymous Goddess of the Isle of Skye, [i] is a Goddess of War, the dead and even blacksmiths is found repeated within Pagan sources.[ii] However, while some of these concepts, like the association with Skye, did come about late within Gaelic culture, the others appear to have developed even later outside of the culture, primarily within the Pagan community.[iii]
What we do know about her is that she taught warriors, most notably Cú Chulainn, and had a gift of prophecy. And in this she is not alone, for Finn Mac Cumhail’s lesser-known foster-mother(s), especially Bodbmall, shared similar traits. Nagy stated, “…it would seem that Bodbmall, Búanann, and Scáthach are all multiforms of a supernatural martial foster-mother figure who appears in various contexts.”[iv] We have no stories for Búanann. Scáthach is called Scáthaig Buanand in one version of the Táin Bó Cúalnge, which O’Rahilly translates as “Scáthach the victorious.”[v] The name, however, appears in the Sanas Cormaic (“Cormac’s Glossary”) described as “muimme nafiann” (“foster-mother of heroes”) and related to the role of Anann as mother of the Gods.[vi] Anann is one of the Daughters of Ernmais, the one usually identified as the Morrígan.[vii]
Read moreMany scholars do read these foster-mothers as supernatural beings, although seldom as actual Goddesses. [viii] Certainly, Scáthach’s distant and hard to reach land and Finn’s fosterers’ wilderness hide-outs as well as their powers both as a warriors, often seen as unnatural for women, and as seers indeed mark them as Otherwordly.[ix] Scáthach’s title of “Búanann,” and the name’s connection with the Goddess Anann, may make Scáthach seem to be the Goddess. Likewise, a possible etymological relationship between the names Bodbmall and Badb raises the question as to whether she is supposed to be this War Goddess.[x]
Copyright © 2014 Saigh Kym Lambert
[i] There are a multitude of examples. Caitlin Matthews directly uses these words to describe her in several books, for example The Elements of the Celtic Tradition, Element Books, 1989, pg. 76.[ii] I will not pick out one source for much of this, as where any of it came from originally is impossible to say. A quick online search brings up thousands of websites, often directly repeating each other with no further sourcing.[iii] Isle of Skye part has shown up even in somewhat academic sources. (James MacKillop. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pg. 410 for example) How old a connection this was and when Scáthach became connected to the MacDonald fort Dun Scaith is difficult to determine. The earliest reference I found to that she was on Skye was in Macpherson's “Ossian” inventions of the mid-18th century where he places her at the site and gives Cú Chulainn the Dun in another tale.(James Macpherson, The poems of Ossian, tr. by J. Macpherson. To which are prefixed dissertations on the era and poems of Ossian, Oxford University Press, 1805, pg. 149; Macpherson, Hugh MacCallum, John MacCallum, “Conlaoch,” An original collection of the poems of Ossian, Orann, Ulin, and other Bards, who flourished in the same age, Watt, 1816, pg. 153-158; John Gregorson Campbell also includes this location in recounting Macpherson’s version of “Conlaoch” in The Fians: or Stories, Poems & Traditions of Fionn and His Warrior Band, Elibron Classics, 2005 (org. pub. Date 1891), pg. 6) Stokes determined that the similarity between the Gaelic term for the Isle of Skye (An t-Eilean Sgitheanach) and Scythia (Scithia) was all that caused this connection, which he notes as popular at the time. (Whitley Stokes, “The Training of Cúchulainn,” Revue Celtique 29, 1908, pg. 109 https://archive.org/details/revueceltiqu29pari).[iv] Joseph Falaky Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, pg. 264, footnote 13 following from pg. 102.[v] Cecile O'Rahilly, trans. Táin Bó Cúalnge from Book of Leinster Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1967, pg. 95, 231 Irish http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G301035/index.html English http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T301035/index.html[vi] John O'Donovan, ed. and trans. (with notes and translations from Whitley Stokes) Sanas Cormaic Calcutta: O. T. Cutter for the Irish Archeological and Celtic Society, 1868, http://books.google.com/books?id=rX8NAAAAQAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s pg. 17;Whitley Stokes, ed., ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ in Three Irish Glossaries, London: Williams and Norgate, 1862 http://www.ucd.ie/tlh/text/ws.tig.001.text.html pg. 6; see also Nagy Wisdom of the Outlaw, pg. 102; Angelique Gulermovich Epstein, “War Goddess: The Morrígan and her Germano-Celtic Counterparts” dissertation, University of California in Los Angeles, 1998 ch. 2.[vii] Epstein, “War Goddess,” ch.1; Kim Heijda, “War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word badb in early Irish literature” thesis, University of Utrecht, Feb. 27, 2007 http://igitur-archive.library.uu.nl/student-theses/2007-0620-200703/UUindex.html pg. 34; Robert A. Stewart MacAlister, ed. and trans., Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Vol IV. Dublin: Irish Text Society, 1941 http://www.archive.org/details/leborgablare04macauoft pg. 103, 130-131, 160-161, 188-189, I also discuss Anann as the Morrígan in “Musings on the Irish War Goddesses,” Nicole Bonivusto, ed. By Blood, Bone and Blade: A Tribute to the Morrigan Asheville, North Carolina: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2014, pg. 103.[viii] Proinsias Mac Cana mentions Scáthach briefly under the heading of “Goddesses of War” on page 86 of Celtic Mythology, NY: Peter Bedrick Books, 1987, yet refers to her as “supernatural” on page 102; Rosalind Clark. The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from The Morrigan to Cathleen ni Houlihan, Savage, MD: Barnes and Nobel Books, 1991 pg. 28.[ix] Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, New York: George Braziller, 1996, pg. 149; Nagy, The Wisdom of the Outlaw, pg.109-111.[x] Epstein, “War Goddess,” ch 2.