7. The Ancient Horse Goddess

Questions to consider . . .

  • What elements of the Sovereignty Goddess’ myth do we find in Madhavi’s story?
  • How is Madhavi’s story a reaction to patriarchy?
  • What does Madhavi’s perpetual virginity mean?

Parts of Madhavi’s story could be very ancient. The similarities she shares with figures in Celtic culture could suggest what the older Proto-Indo-European myth looked like.

Stories of virgin births abound in world mythology. But this isn’t a Christian story, although Mary certainly expresses a similar, general theme.

As we have seen, the abundant Goddess has a particular relationship to the human realm, being neither fully in nor out of mortality.

Her story is meaningful in many ways. It’s not only about a mortal woman (although it certainly is that in one sense), but also about a divine principle that she embodies.

What does it mean that Madhavi changes through the different stages of virgin and mother, until she finally rejects the world of men (literally) and retreats to live in the wild? What divine principle does she evoke in this?

Further Reading

Danielle Feller’s paper is available to read on academia.edu. There is also a link to a very interesting paper on Hecate, a Greek goddess who also appears to have very ancient Indo-European roots.

Danielle Feller, ‘The Strange Story of Princess Mādhavī’

Hecate: A Transfunctional Goddess?

Notes and References

The Mahabharata


  • Danielle Feller, ‘The Strange Story of Princess Mādhavī’ in On the Growth and Composition  of the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas ed. Mislav Ježić (August 2008):

I call this story strange, because, as we shall see, the way in which Mādhavī is treated and/or behaves violates practically all the rules concerning the correct treatment and be- haviour of women. Yet neither Mādhavī herself, nor those who inflict that treatment on her, are ever blamed or said to act in a way that is contrary to dharma

Vivmitra turns to his student Glava, who has been serving him with unfailing devotion during all those years, and tells him that he is now free to leave. But Glava insists on first giving him his teacher’s fee . . . , till inally, somewhat vexed with Glava’s obstinacy, Vivmitra tells him to bring him “eight hundred horses, white like the moon, with ears that are black on one side”.

Hearing this, poor Glava is plunged into the deepest depression. After lamenting for a while and contemplating suicide, [a friend suggests he ask a king for help and he goes to King Yayti, but] . . .  King Yayti’s fortune has dwindled, and he does not have anything left to give. Instead, he puts at Glava’s disposal his beautiful daughter Mdhav whom he will be able to exchange against the desired horses. 

Agreeing to this plan, Glava first takes Mdhav to king Haryava in Ayodhy. Glava offers Mdhav to the king in exchange for a [bride-price] consisting of the eight hundred  above described horses. The king is sorely tempted, desiring progeny and seeing Mdhav’s beauty. But he owns only two hundred horses corresponding to this description.

Then Mādhavī speaks for the first time. She says that she has received the boon to become a virgin again after each birth. She suggests that Gālava should in turn give her to four kings, collect two hundred horses from each, in exchange for which each king would get a son from her. Gālava is only too happy to follow her advice, and king Haryaśva agrees to give her back to him after the birth of a son.

In time [a son] is born. Glava then picks up Mdhav, who has become a virgin again, and goes with her to king Divodsa, king of the Kāśis. Again, this king owns only two hundred black and white horses, and the same bargain is struck. Mdhav gives the king a heroic son named Pratardana.

Then Gālava offers her to king Auśīnara of the Bhojas on the same conditions. Mādhavī gives the king a son named Śibi . . . then follows Gālava again. [A friend advises Gālava to give up on the final part of his errand and instead] should offer Viśvāmitra the six hundred horses he has already obtained, and Mādhavī in lieu of the two hundred remaining ones, and let the sage also produce a son in her.

Gālava obeys at once, and proposes the deal to his former guru. Viśvāmitra accepts, and Mādhavī bears him a son named Aṣṭaka . . . Then Gālava takes her back to her father Yayāti. Yayāti organises a [meeting of suitors from which Mādhavī should choose a husband]. But instead of choosing one of the suitors, Mādhavī chooses the forest and goes off to live in the woods like a deer, observing chastity . . . 

The name Medb is etymologically connected with that of Mādhavī, deriving from *medhuā, “intoxication” or “the intoxicating one”. Like Mādhavī, queen Medb is the daughter of a famous father, Eochaid Feidlech, the supreme king of Ireland, who represents the type of the Universal King, who stabilises and enlarges his kingdom by means of his daughter’s sons. Like Mādhavī, queen Medb has in turn four, sometimes, depending on the texts, five husbands—all kings. According to Dumézil’s analysis, Medb and Mādhavī are representatives of the royal sovereignty—Flaith in Ireland and Śrī-Lakṣmī in India—who, it is well-known, tends to be fickle and goes from one king to the other.