The Táin Bó Flidhais, or The Book of the Driving of Flidais’ Cattle, is the main source of information about the goddess Flidais. This story has been preserved in two versions, a shorter version in the Book of Leinster, and a longer one in the Yellow Book of Lecan.
It is set in Connacht, where Medb was queen with her husband, Ailill MacMáta. Among their guests was Fergus mac Roich, who had fought and killed many Ulster chieftains, so that he was hiding out in Connacht. Medb fell for him, and since he was as promiscuous as her, they began an affair. It, like the similar story told of Fraoch‘s cattle, is an introductory tale to the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle-Raid of Cooley.
Bricne, a famous Irish troublemaker, decided to end the affair, and he went off to visit the goddess Flidais, who was staying at one of her forts, Dun Flidais, while her husband was at the other. They had large herds of cattle (in those days, wealth) at each one, but Flidais’ special cow, Maol, was at her fort.
She and her women feasted the guest from the queen’s fort with great ceremony, and Bricne set out to specially praise Fergus, to the point where Flidais fell for this great hero. She then commanded Bricne to get Fergus for her, promising to bring her cow and treasure. Bricne told her she would be sorry if she chose Fergus, but she insisted, and sent him back to win Fergus for her.
When Bricne got back he told Fergus all about it, and Fergus raised an army to meet Flidais. The two were a good match: Fergus was so virile he needed seven women to satisfy him, or else Flidais. (No wonder Medb liked him so much.)
Next, of course, Fergus set out with his supporters to take Flidais as his own. Her husband, Oilill, met them and asked if Fergus had come to take his wife, and Fergus had to admit that he was. The two fought, then their supporters fought, and finally 1000 men were killed. Fergus, whose sword had been stolen by Bricne, ended up in Oilill’s dungeon.
Another version of the story has Flidais try to restore peace by waving her cloak over the two combatants:
Fergus threw his shield over Dubhtach. The former [Oilill] thrust his spear at the shield of Fergus so that he even drove the shaft right through it. Fergus mac Oen-laimi comes by. Fergus mac Oen-laimi holds a shield in front of him (the other Fergus). [Oilill] struck his spear upon this so that it was forced right through it. He leaped so that he lay there on the top of his companions. Flidais comes by from the castle, and throws her cloak over the three.
After that she tended to the wounded men. In the other version of the story, Fergus was tied to a pillar in the dining-hall, and there the company would mock him while they ate their meals.
Back in Connacht Queen Medb was not pleased that her favourite lover was imprisoned, and she sent another army to free him. Medb bribed the other side, the Gamhanraidh, to come over to her, and they did, to a man. Oilill still managed to hold her off, but Flidais got him drunk that night, freed her lover, and then sent word to Medb to attack.
Even then Oilill might have escaped but he was betrayed and killed. Fergus was given his head, which he brought back with him on a lance. For all his womanizing, he seems to have known very little about women. When he presented Flidais with her husband’s head he only meant to show her she was free, but Flidais was overcome with remose at the sight, and made sure that Oilill had a proper funeral.
The Magical Cow and the Táin Bó Cúailnge
Fergus went off with her, along with her magical cow the Maol, which could feed 300 men with her milk, and her herds of cattle and deer. Her story then ends with a feed into the more well-known Cattle Raid of Cooley, or Táin Bó Cúailnge :
And after these things had been done, Flidais went to Fergus mac Róg according to the decree of Ailill and Medb, that they might thence have sustenance (lit. that their sustenance might be) on the occasion of the Raid of the Cows of Cualgne. As a result of this, Flidais was accustomed each seventh day from the produce of her cows to support the men of Ireland, in order that during the Raid she might provide them with the means of life. This then was the Herd of Flidais.
She is mentioned in the actual story, as well (Táin Bó Cúailnge (from The Book of Leinster):
Then came Flidais Fholtchaín, the wife of Ailill [Oilill] Find, who had slept with Fergus on Táin Bó Cúailnge, and it was she who every seventh night on that hosting quenched with milk the thirst of all the men of Ireland, king and queen and prince, poet and learner.
Bricne and Maol
Getting the cow so it could feed Medb’s troops was no easy matter, though. The end of the Táin Bó Flidhais tells that Fergus had a rough-and-ready attitude towards Flidais’ magical cow, as well as women. It refused to go with Oilill’s killer, and he struck at it, so that its groaning could be heard all over Ireland. He got fed up and set Bricne to talk it around, which he did, with the following verse:
Rise, marvellous cow,
Maol Flidais whose milk is sweet…
For the wife of Ailil [Oilill] also comes…
And if report be true,
You and she came together out of fairy dwellings.
The Maol is thought to be an early version of the Moylies or hornless cows, since maol means ‘hornless’. (Bell: 7) It is perhaps fitting that the same troublemaker who caused all the slaughter should be tasked with talking round an intractable cow.
There are variants on this ending: in one, Fiidais went with Fergus “for a season”, but after that she took her attendants and the Maol to Lake Letriach and no one saw her after. A folklore version says that Flidais went with Fergus until he came to a river, where he decided that he could not trust a woman who betrayed her husband; and drowned her. The river that flowed out of the lake was called the Munchinn after her. (MacLeod: 4)
Táin Bó Flidhais or The Driving of the Cattle of Flidais:
The Metrical Dindshenchas, poem 49:
Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster:
Flidais, Celtic Earth Goddess, Lady of the Forest and Much More by Judith Shaw
Bell, Jonathan 1985: ” Last Sheaves, Ancient Cattle, and Protestant Bibles,” Béaloideas 53: 5-10.
Greenwood, E. M. 1992: “Manchín’s Cowl in ‘Aislinge Meic: Con Glinne’,” Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society 15/1: 36-49.
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
MacLeod, Sharon Paice : “Representations of Flidais in Irish Literary Sources: Authority, Abundance and Concepts of Female Power”, (Unpublished research paper originally presented to the Harvard Celtic Colloquium).
Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise 2000: Celtic Gods and Heroes, Dover Publications (Kindle Edition).
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