Parthian Red

On several occasions in my novel, the renamed Raiding Cooley, I made several references to “Parthian Red” with reference to both Deirdre of the Sorrows and Emer, the unhappy spouse of Cú Chulainn. The Middle Irish text, Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel)* includes a rather lengthy and colourful depiction of Étaín, in which Parthian Red also features, as in the following excerpt

As white as the snow of a single night her wrists; as tender and even and red as foxglove her clear, lovely cheeks. As black as a beetle’s back her brows; a shower of matched pearls her teeth. Hyacinth blue her eyes; Parthian red her lips. Straight, smooth, soft and white her shoulders; pure white and tapering her fingers; long her arms. As white as sea foam her side, slender, long, smooth, yielding, soft as wool. Warm and smooth, sleek and white her thighs; round and small, firm and white her knees. Short and white and straight her shins; fine and straight and lovely her heels.

So, where and what was Parthia?

Parthia, it turns out, was an ancient empire of Asia, in what is now Iran and Afghanistan.

The Parthians were of Scythian descent, and were excellent horsemen and archers. In battle, mounted Parthians often discharged their arrows back toward the enemy while pretending to flee; this is the origin of the phrase “a Parthian shot.”

About 250 BC the Parthians from eastern Iran founded an independent kingdom that, during the 1st century BC, grew from the military outpost of Al Hatra into an empire extending from the Euphrates River to the Indus River and from the Oxus (now Amu Darya) River to the Indian Ocean.

After the middle of the 1st century BC, Parthia was a rival of Rome, and several wars occurred between the two powers. Despite resisting Roman invasions, in AD 224 Ardashir I, king of Persia and founder of the Sassanid dynasty conquered Parthia. Ctesiphon, in modern Iraq, was the winter residence of the Parthian kings, the capital of the Parthian kingdom, and later the capital of the Sassanid dynasty of Persian kings, noted for the remains of a great vaulted hall of the Sassanid period.

The site was soon ruined and abandoned. Modern excavations, however, have uncovered many artifacts from Parthian times.

Plundered by the Arabs in 637, the city was abandoned when the Abbasid caliphs made their capital at nearby Baghdad.

The main Parthian cities – all long forgotten to everyone but specialists in that historical period – were Seleucia, Ctesiphon, and Hecatompylos.

So, you might well ask, what has all of tghe above to do with Celtic Trivia.  I mentioned sometime ago, how interconnected Iron Age Ireland was with both Britain and Atlantic Europe through a variety of trade routes as ast my character, Breoga was a trader and merchant from northern Iberia, it seems more than likely, to me anyway, that he would have had contact, either through Roman outposts or through direct links with the Meditterranean area.  Go ahead, prove me wrong!

*Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (Recension II), ed. Eleanor Knott (1936).



Author: serkeen

I am Irish, currently living in West Australia. I have a degree in Old & Middle English, Lang & Lit and, despite having worked in Kuwait, Italy, Malaysia, USA, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong over the last 40 years, I have a strong interest in Ireland’s ancient pre-history and the heroes of its Celtic past as recorded in the 12th and late 14th century collection of manuscripts, collectively known as The Ulster Cycle. I enjoy writing historical novels, firmly grounded in a well-researched background, providing a fresh and exciting look into times long gone. I have an empathy with the historical period and I draw upon my experiences of that area and the original documents. I hope, by providing enough historical “realia” to hook you into a hitherto unknown – or barely glimpsed - historical period.

2 thoughts on “Parthian Red”

  1. This is the second time I have come across the phrase “Parthian red”, but what does red have to do with Parthia?


  2. Hi Margie
    Apparently Parthian ladies were noted for the vividness of their plump lips, enhanced with fresh mare’s blood drunk at most festivities. The Parthians were nomadic and lived off their mounts, which provided transport, food, nourishment, clothing and shelter for them.


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