Perched atop the monolithic Irish hill Knocknarea west of Sligo town, lies Medb’s Cairn, in Irish Miosgán Médhbh, a 5,000 year old burial mound, even though no one is quite sure whose it is.
It is about 55 metres wide and 10 metres high, making it the largest cairn in Ireland outside the Brú na Bóinne complex in Meath.
It is believed to date to around 3000 BCE, and it is a protected National Monument.
In recent years, archaeologists have warned that the ancient cairn is being eroded by hikers climbing on it and moving or removing stones. Irish folklore holds that it is bad luck to damage or disrespect such tombs, and that doing so could bring a curse.
Medb’s final resting place?
Medb was queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, who is believed to have originally been a goddess. She was strong-willed, ambitious, cunning and promiscuous, and an archetypal warrior queen.
She is described as a fair haired wolf queen, whose form was so beautiful that it robbed men of two-thirds of their valor upon seeing her.
Her name is generally believed to come from the Proto-Celtic medu- (“mead”) or medua (“intoxicating”). Its meaning has thus been interpreted as “mead-woman” or “she who intoxicates” and this is thought to reflect her role as sovereignty goddess. In fact, in ancient and medieval Ireland, the drinking of mead was a key part of a king’s inauguration ceremony. In myth, a supernatural woman representing the sovereignty of the land chooses a king by offering him an alcoholic drink, thus bestowing sovereignty upon him.
However, it is also suggested that the name comes from Proto-Celtic medwa, simply “the ruler”.
In any case, as story goes, the fiery Irish queen was felled by a piece of cheese flung from an expert’s sling, Furbaide, who sought revenge for the death of his mother. He took a rope and measured the distance between a pool on Inchcleraun, an island on Lough Ree, and the shore, and practised with his sling until he could hit an apple on top of a stake Medb’s height from that distance. The next time he saw her bathing he put his practice to good use and killed her with a piece of cheese. She was succeeded to the throne of Connacht by her son Maine Athramail.
After her death she was rumored to have been buried atop Knocknarea, Cnoc na Ré in Irish.
Despite the story of Medb’s burial is strictly legend, the massive cairn on top of the hill is absolutely real.
Unfortunately, despite researchers have found a nearby depression from which most of the cairn-stones were likely quarried, no one has ever excavated the rock pile itself, so the location and eventual identity of any body has never been discovered.