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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Medb and Menstruation in the Tain Bo Cuiligne, a translation

The following excerpt from the Táin Bó Cuiligne is about an incident towards the end of the cattle raid, where Medb and her troops are retreating. Medb's menstraul period begins and she has to stop to relieve herself; while doing this Cu Chulain comes upon her and will not attack her, because of the vulnerable position she is in. Because he spares her she asks that he grant her a favor, by guarding the retreat of her troops, which he promises to do. He is so angry at having to safeguard his enemy's retreat that afterwards he knocks the tops off of three nearby hills with his sword, and Fergus is so unhappy about the situation that he comments that this is what happens to troops who follow a woman. 

It's an interesting piece to translate because in many of the existing versions the menstruation aspect is ignored. Instead the texts tend to imply she needed to urinate which, in my opinion, changes the tone of the passage considerably from that of a woman with an uncontrollable physical issue that she must deal with to one who simply can't hold her bladder and puts her whole army at risk. However the words 'fúal fola' together seem to be an idiom for menstruation*, 'blood urine' or 'blood water' [fúal = urine or water, fola = blood] There may also be some cosmogenical significance to Medb's creation of the 'three trenches' with her menstrual flow.  

The original Old Irish is as follows:
Is and drecgais a fúal fola for Meidb, .i. sciath díten dar éís fer n-hErend, go ro síblur-sa mh'fual úaim. Dar ar cubus, ar Fergus is olc in tráth & ní cóir a denam. Gided ní étaim-sea chena, bar Medb, daíg ni dha bheo-sa mení siblur-sa m-fúal uáim. Tanic Fergus & gebid scíath dítem dar éis fer n-hErend. Siblais Medb a fual uathi, co n-derna tri tulchlassa mora de, co taille munter in cach thurchlaiss, conid Fúal Medba atberar friss.
Ruc Cuchulaind furri ac dénam na huropra sain, & nirra gonastar-sum ní athgonad-sum na diaid hí. Ascaid dam-sa úait indiu a chuchulaind, bar Medb. Gia ascaid connaige, bar Cuchulaind. In slúag sa bar th-einech & ar do chommairgi gorrosset dar Áth mor síar. Gondnoim-sea ón omm, bar Cuchulaind. Tánic Cuchulaind i timchell fer n-hErend & gebis scíath diten din dara leith díb d'Imdegail fer n-hErend. Tancatar ferchutredaig fer n-hErend din leith aile. Tanic Bedb na hinad féin & gebis scíath diten dar éis fer n-hErend, & rucsat leo bhan coir sin fir hErend dar Áth mór siar.
And-sain diriacht a chlaideb d'indsaigid Conculaind, & rabert béim dona trib máelanaib Átha lúain i n-agid na trí Maela Mide, go ro ben a tri cindu díb.
And-sain ra gab Fergus ac tachim in t-slúaig ac dula a Áth Mór síar. Rapa chomadas in lá sa indiu ám i n-diaid mná. Conrecat lochta ra fulachta and-so indiu ra Fergus. Ra gattá & ra brattá in slúag sa indiu. Feib théit echrad láir rena serrgraig i crích n-anéoil, gan chend cundraid na comairle rempo, is amlaid testa in sluag sa indiu.
- excerpt from the Tain Bo Cuiligne, E. Windisch, 1905

My translation:
There it was advanced on Medb her bloody fluid, that is [then she said to Fergus]  "bring about a safeguard covering the troop of the men of Ireland, until my water flows from me"
"By my conscience", said Fergus "It is a bad time and not proper for you to do."
"Not by my choice, however," said Medb, "because I will not yet be living unless my water flows from me."
 Fergus came and set a safeguard covering the troop of the men of Ireland. Medb let flow her water from her, making three great trenches because of it, with the amount of a household in each trench, with Fúal Medba [Medb's Water] called on it.
Cu Chulainn overtook her in the act of this peculiar exploit, and would not kill her; he wouldn't attack her again from behind. 
"A favor for me, a little thing, today, oh Cu Chulainn", said Medb. 
"What favor are you seeking," said Cu Chulainn. 
"The host supported by your reputation and for the sake of your protection until we are past the Áth Mor [great ford] to the west."
"I promise that indeed," said Cu Chulainn. 
Cu Chulainn went around the men of Ireland and maintained a safeguard covering one of two sides of them with his protection on the men of Ireland. A complement of men of the men of Ireland went on the other side. Medb went to her appointed position herself and maintained a safeguard covering across the band of the men of Ireland, and carried peacefully along side with the men of Ireland across Áth Mór to the west.
Then Cu Chulainn pulled his sword for attacking, and wielded a blow against the three unlucky flat hillocks of Átha Lúain against the faces of the three Maela Mide [bald ones of Meath], taking off their three heads from them.
Then Fergus took in the nearby marching of the host going west to Áth Mór. "Indeed today has been a suitable day following in the rear of a woman. Shortcomings on supporting have joined here today" thought Fergus. "Carried off and robbed is the host today. Going the way of horses with a mare in front of her foals in a strange territory, without a battle-leader negotiating with intent before them, thus is the lack on the host today".


*there is to my knowledge no single word known in Old Irish for menstruation, but this word pairing makes sense as an expression for that. 

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