One of the things I appreciate most about Celtic culture is the equal place it gives to women. A wonderful way to learn about Celtic women is through their own legends. Granted, these stories were not written down until the Irish Celts were Christianized, but not much of the excitement and entertainment appear to have been lost by the inscribing monks.
In these myths women are queens, princesses, priestesses, prophetesses, educators, and warriors, many roles of which were normally for males only. Considered the most prominent of their epic stories, the Tain Bo Cualinge = the Cattle Raid of Cuchulainn depicts Queen Medb or Maeve as a powerful, beautiful, and wealthy woman. However, it is in her role as a formidable warrior, that she illuminates the story. Queen Medb or Maeve wages battle against the township of Ulster to gain possession of the prize bull. It is believed that Queen Medb held the de facto power in Connaught. Queen Maeve was so fearsome and powerful that her mere presence deprived her opponents of two-thirds of their courage and strength. Maeve and other Queens received a third of the booty from war, and a third of fines imposed through the penal code, which were exacted in money, jewels or cattle. Until the climactic end of the epic, Medb was the equal of the protagonist hero Cuchulainn, (who by the way was tutored in combat skills by an otherworldly woman, Scathach. Then Medb gets “her gush of blood; and had to leave her war chariot. Cuchulainn came up behind her and captured her. The scene of the defeat is called Foul Medb.
Another important aspect of the Tain is where Cuchulainn falls in love with a woman. Discussed first are her intelligence and character. Only tertiary revealed is her beauty and reputation as being the fairest maiden in all the land. Clearly, not the order proscribed in other stories and other time frames.
The Celtic social structure was like most other ancient ones. Tribal chieftains made up the aristocracy. Aristocrats were ennobled either by birth or by accomplishment, usually as warriors. Powerful priests and priestesses known as druids also were aristocrats. Well-off farmers, bards, and highest-ranking artisans such as blacksmiths made up the next layer of society. On the bottom were the labors, serfs and slaves. Women were represented in each of these three main categories.
What is so remarkable about the laws and customs of the Celts is that there is an equality and harmony between men and women that were unique except for the ancient Egyptians. Women enjoyed widespread sexual freedom, and a woman even had the right to choose her husband, or what is more remarkable could choose not to marry. A woman could not be married without her consent. A great feast was organized at a propitious time of the year where all young people were invited. A young maiden would offer to wash the hands of the man of her choice. Cosmetics were used by the Celtic women, and one Roman poet reviled his mistress for “Making up like the Celts.” Some women even took more than one husband. In Wales the husband-to-be paid the cowyll or virginity fee on the night before the marriage was consummated.