Word Portrait of Medb hErenn
Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien
well defined word portrait is not only an asset for storytelling and illustration, it is also part of what is necessary to properly protect a fictional character from unauthorized use. When deciding whether a particular character deserves protection beyond the story itself, a court considers as one factor whether a "literary character . . . has been delineated to the point at which its behavior is relatively predictable so that when placed in a new plot situation, it will react in ways that are at once distinctive and unsurprising." To that end, the appearance and personality of Medb hErenn has been meticulously worked out and continues to evolve.
No character in the Táin [Bó Cúailnge] is drawn as perceptively as Medb. She is so full of life and color that even Cuchulainn seems pale beside her. . . . The "massive figure" of Medb dominates the Táin as does no other woman in any epic we have left to us. In the Iliad Helen makes her cameo appearance; in the Aeneid Dido has an interesting supporting role. But the only women in classical literature who impel the story forward are to be found in Greek drama [of the fifth century B.C.]: Clytemnestra, Antigone, Medea. . . . [These plays] grew out of the seasonal liturgies of an agricultural people and magnified the conflicts of their social life—thus the necessity of significant female characters. But one cannot imagine a woman in Greece's heroic age . . . standing on the Trojan battlefield or traveling with Odysseus. Just as unthinkable would be a woman traveling with Aeneas. At the end of the Táin, its ostensible moral is uttered by the vaguely omniscient Fergus. . . . Medb does not appear after this judgment on her, but even this "last word" seems ontologically overshadowed by her personality.
© Thomas Cahill
How the Irish Saved Civilization
For more detailed information on Medb's appearance, please see the Artist Guidelines page.
Medb hErenn's appearance comes solely from the imagination of Kevin L. O'Brien. It is, however, inspired by a passage in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, where a warrior describes to Cú Chulainn the appearance of the person who mortally wounded him: "A tall, fair, long-faced woman with soft features came at me. . . . She had a head of yellow hair and two gold birds on her shoulders. She wore a purple cloak folded about her, with five hands' breadth of gold on her back. She carried a light, stinging, sharp-edged lance in her hand, and she held an iron sword with a woman's grip over her head — a massive figure. It was she who came against me first." Cú Chulainn's reply: "Then I'm sorry for you. That was Medb of Cruachan."
While the final appearance of Medb hErenn does differ from this description in a few key points, Kevin L. O'Brien did take it as the basis for his character development, particularly the reference to her being "a massive figure". However, an integral part of character development is coming up with explanations for why a character is the way she is. In the case of Medb's physical appearance, Mr. O'Brien decided to base it on her parentage. Her mother was a Tuatha Dé Danann while her father was a Fir Bholg. The Danann were tall but spare, with long faces and limbs, sharp facial features, long, straight wheat-gold hair, milk-white skin, and sapphire eyes. They are the closest thing in Irish mythology to the Elves of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, and in fact they became part of the Faerie aristocracy when finally driven into the Otherworld by the invading Gaels. The Fir Bholg on the other hand were short and squat, with round faces and thick muscular limbs, soft facial features, short, curly black hair, dung-brown skin, and chocolate eyes. They are the closest thing to dwarves in Irish mythology, though not as powerfully built, and in fact they were driven underground by the invading Gaels. Medb ended up inheriting her mother's frame and her father's bulk, with mixed hair, skin, and eye color.
As a result, Medb hErenn is taller than most men; in one story she is described as being two meters tall, which would be six and a half feet. She is physically well-endowed; statuesque and voluptuous would be appropriate adjectives. Her breasts and buttocks are large, firm, and well-rounded; she has thick arms and thighs, and broad shoulders and hips, yet her mass comes from slabs of muscle, not fat. Her musculature is not evident from the front, but from the back her strength is unmistakable. She also has a narrow waist and a hard, flat stomach.
Her face is a long, narrow oval, and too strongly featured to be considered beautiful, though she is nonetheless reckoned to be quite handsome. Her most striking feature are her emerald eyes, which are usually described as hard and cold. She wears little makeup, but she dyes her eyebrows jet black and paints her lips and nails a bloody scarlet. Her skin is the color of adobe mud and her complexion is flawless. Her straight hair is the color of gold-tinted bronze, and she wears it long and loose, except for two braids that hang from either temple down her front to her belt.
Except in stories set in the modern age and the future, her clothing is mostly the same, a simple, one-piece, loose-fitting gown with long, full sleeves and an ankle-length skirt. Only the material, color, and decoration change. It is designed like a tube and slips over head; she then closes it at her shoulders using leather ties, though for fancier gowns she will use cloth or silk ties, metal clips, or brooches. Over this she wears a woolen, plaid cloak. She wears no hat, but she can drape a fold of her cloak over her head as needed. She always wears a belt, from which hang bags containing her combs and other toiletries, money, and a sling and stones. She wears hard-soled shoes when traveling, and soft-soled slippers when lounging. However, she is not self-conscious about her body, and while she understands that most societies have taboos against nudity, whenever conditions permit she is likely to go naked.
Surprisingly, she wears little jewelry. Most of the time, she uses a bronze brooch to secure her cloak, and a bronze buckle to secure her belt. When occasions permit, however, she will switch to brooches and buckles made of findruine (generally translated as white or silvered bronze), silver, or red-gold. She doesn't wear any rings, armbands, necklaces, or the like, but she does wear a headband of findruine and a torc or neckring of heavy, twisted yellow-gold tipped with large, uncut, red gems. (The former was a symbol of Tuatha Dé Danann royalty, the latter of Fir Bholg royalty.) Finally, she always weaves a handful of yellow-gold balls into the tip of each braid.
She wears no armor, not even a helmet, but she does use a shield. Made of oak three centimeters thick, it is circular, with a diameter of one meter, covered with hardened leather, and reinforced with a rim of steel. Four spokes run at right angles along the face of the shield to its center, to merge with a large steel boss. She only uses it when faced with a heavily-armed opponent, especially when using her sword or knife; usually she prefers more freedom of movement.
She is almost never without a weapon of some kind. Her favorite is the spear, of which she uses two types. One is a four-foot javelin with a steel spike. She usually has four to six attached to a special rack on the back of her shield on either side of the handle. The other is an eight-foot fighting spear with a variety of blade-heads. The one she uses most commonly is a spade-shaped blade with a serrated edge, but she also uses sword-shaped blades and leaf-shaped blades, all double-edged. She has trained herself to use her fighting spears like staffs, to take full advantage of both the blade and pole in close-quarter, personal combat.
Though she has used a large number of different sword types, and is partial to the Japanese katana and the Mycenaean pakana, her favorite is a Celtic design with a pointed, double-edged, leaf-shaped, cloth-yard-long blade. It narrows about a third of the way up from the hilt, but it widens again about a third of the way down from the point. Its primary mode of attack is slashing, and it requires a lot of room to use properly. However, its shape allows it to chop as well, and the point permits stabbing. Medb's strength makes it possible for her to wield it as easily as others would a short sword, while its length gives her greater reach. Though she doesn't need to, she sometimes wields it two-handed.
She prefers knives over daggers, particularly killing knives with large, heavy blades. She almost always uses them with swords or alone; her usual tactic is to maim and incapacitate with the sword, then use the knife to deliver the coup de grâce. (Alternatively, when fighting with a knife by itself, she can use it to both maim and kill.) She has no personal favorite, but she is partial to a double-edged dirk with a foot-long blade or a Bowie knife. She rarely throws them, except in desperation; instead, she prefers to use a sling when she cannot use a javelin. She uses a wide variety of sling stones, including some of her own design.
She never learned how to use a bow and arrow, and she considers firearms to be barbaric, but she has used a crossbow at certain times in her life. She has also used a host of unusual weapons in different parts of the world, such as shuriken, blowguns, and whips, but once she leaves a certain area, she tends to leave the unusual weapons behind.
She is a master of unarmed combat, but truth be told, she learned the various martial arts to integrate them with her weapons combat. When she started out, she was actually a clumsy fighter. For the most part, she depended upon her preternatural speed to stay out of her opponent's reach, and her strength to batter him into submission. Still, occasionally she lost, and one such occasion led to the most humiliating experience of her life. After that, she vowed to learn whatever was necessary to become the best warrior possible. She sought out the greatest warriors in Ireland to teach her, and during her exile, while she toured the world, she sought out any master of unarmed combat she could find. The result was that her weapons combat became more precise, fluid, and graceful, and she became virtually unbeatable. However, while she does use some of the techniques she learned when engaged in hand-to-hand combat, she prefers to use a mixture of various forms of boxing, wrestling, and street fighting, and she fights dirty. Mostly, her martial arts training gives her an advantage of discipline, control, and balance, as well as a knowledge of blocks and holds, but for the most part she still depends upon her strength, speed, and endurance.
Though more details will be presented in the essay on Irish magic, Medb was trained in three systems. The first was druidry. She is a master of the earth-based magic of the Fir Bholg and the nature lore of the Heidhbernigh, but she also knows some Danann air-based magic and Fomóraigh water-based magic. As well, she learned a smattering of aether-based magic from the Sons of Mileadh. However, she knows almost nothing about fire-based magic. The second system she was trained in was sorcery. She is well-versed in a number of disciplines, including alchemy, divination, daemonology, and necromancy, but she is a master of thaumaturgy, which is the magic inherent in sounds, signs, and gestures. The third system she was trained in was Faerie magic, especially the art of illusion. Also, she received some training in musical magic, as well as in such applied metaphysical disciplines as ontology, and what we would call hyperspatial geometry. Finally, she is well-versed in the Cthulhu Mythos; in fact, it could be stated that all the magic she knows is based, in one form or another, on Mythos "magical" technology.
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