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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Macha, Mesrad, and Heads

  It's become an increasingly common thing for me to see people confidently stating that severed heads are the Morrigan's acorns or her acorn crop. Sometimes people do correctly identify the "crop" in question as belonging to Macha, but nonetheless keep on with the acorn part of it. In some cases, including some popular books, people get quite elaborate with this, adding in some poetic details or layering on deep spiritual significance.

  Alright, well, let's take a look at the actual material from the mythology, or to be precise the glossaries, because there is no mythic story of head taking or reference to such. So what do we actually have?
   Machæ .i. badb. nó así an tres morrígan, unde mesrad Machæ .i. cendæ doine iarna n-airlech
-          O'Mulconry's Glossary
Macha, that is Badb or one of the three Morrigans, whence Macha’s crop that is people’s heads after the slaughter.

Maiche .i. bodb; ł isi in tres morrigan .i. maiche 7 bodb 7 morrigan, unde mesrad maiche .i. cenna daoine iarna nairlech, ut dixit dub ruis. Garbæ adbae innon fil. i lomrad fir maiche mes, i n-agat laich liu i lles, i lluaiget mna trogain tres.
- Irsan, Dublin, Trinity College, MS 1337 (H.3.18), pp. 79c–83b
Macha, that is Badb, one of the three Morrigans, that is Macha and Badb and Morrigan. Whence the crop of Macha, that is people's heads after the slaughter, having said that, dark red. Rough dwellings are over there. Where men sheer off Macha’s crop, where warriors drive a multitude into pens, where the raven women cause battles.

Macha .i. badhb, no feannóg . mol macha .i. cruinniughadh badhb, no feannóg
-          O’Clery’s Glossary
Macha, that is a crow or hooded crow, the heap of Macha that is collecting of a crow or a hooded crow.

 The entry from O'Mulconry's is fairly straightforward and we see it repeated in the Irsan manuscript entry. Both use the word "mesrad" to describe the severed heads gathered as war trophies; mesrad is a general term for nuts often translated into English as masts. Mast is itself an archaic word for fallen nuts of any variety which were used to feed animals. This should create a pretty evocative image, of the severed heads of warriors being like the fallen nuts that cover the ground beneath trees, left to feed animals. Where the problem comes in, I think, is that mesrad and mast both are taken by some people to mean acorns in particular - acorns obviously being one type of common mast - even though the word used doesn't actually specify which kind of nut. In fact there are several words in older forms of Irish for acorns - daurgne and dercu for two examples - and there is a specific word for an acorn crop, corthmes. Had this term been intended to mean an acorn crop specifically it would have said so, but the fact that a general term is used instead is quite significant. It was never intended to mean acorns and to translate it as such now is a mistake; to expound on any great spiritual or cosmological connection between acorns and heads or acorns and Macha (or the Morrigan more generally) based on these references would be a serious error. 
  When we look at the, admittedly much later, entry in O'Clery's glossary the nut reference has been lost entirely and instead Macha is compared to "a crow or hooded crow*" and we are told that a "mol Macha", or heap, lump, or a rounded mass of Macha, is what is gathered or collected by crows, ie probably carrion. It is worth noting however that the word mol used here is a form of mul and is used in compounds like mulcend which means round-headed and is closely related to mullach which is a term for the head, indicating at least a tenuous connection between this entry and the earlier ones. If we were to assume that O'Clery's is in fact a confusion of the earlier expressions we might see it more properly as "the heads of Macha, that is what crows gather" which is entirely logical and in line with the idiom. However I can only speculate and as it stands the term used does literally mean heap or lump. We should also note that cruinnuighadh is a verb meaning to collect, gather, or assemble; it is not a noun for a collection or group. 
  All three entries are clearly discussing Macha, although the first two give her the title of Badb and describe her as one of the three Morrigans. The second entry makes it clear that calling her Badb is meant as a title as it is followed by listing her with Badb (as a separate being) as the three named Morrigans. The final entry does not mention the Morrigan or three Morrigans at all. The first two entryie also clearly use what seemed to have been a well known phrase "mesrad Mache" literally "masts of Macha" or "nut crop of Macha" and then explain that it is this which the severed head's of warriors are called. Based on this I think it is, at best, inaccurate to attribute the severed heads to the Morrigan either generally or specifically. They were clearly something associated with Macha in particular.
   In the end what we have is three references to Macha and terms related to death. The first two refer to severed heads as her nut-crop; the second to what a crow gathers as her "heap" although I believe its possible this is a later confusion of the earlier saying, given the similarity of the word used for heap with a related word for head. We know that severed heads were highly symbolic and meaningful  in Irish culture and can safely assume that the connection between Macha and these heads is layered and significant. In all three cases we are given some beautiful, evocative imagery relating Macha to the trophies of war and to carrion.  

* it is possibly that this entry should be read as "Macha, that is Badb, or a hooded crow. However since the second line would then have to be read very awkwardly as "a collection of Badb's or a hooded crow" it seems more likely to me that O'Clery intended badb in the sense of a crow. The reader may conclude otherwise.
Also there's a fun play on words here, as mol and cruinn (the root of cruinnuighadh) both mean rounded lump

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nemain, Goddess of War

   If you ask most Celtic pagans to name the three Morrigans a good number of them, in my experience, will say Badb, Macha, and Nemain despite the fact that Nemain is never explicitly called the Morrigan or included with the other two anywhere in Irish mythology. I personally blame this one on the multitude of modern pagan books which blithely say that the above named trio are the three Morrigan, however it can likely be traced back to Hennessey's 1870 book "The Ancient Irish Goddess of War". Hennessey put a lot of emphasis on Nemain and included her with Badb and Macha in his discussion of the Morrigan in a way that I feel led to the later conflation of Nemain with the three daughters of Ernmas elsewhere called the three Morrigans. 
   The primary source we have for Nemain in mythology is the Tain Bo Cuiligne (TBC) and this is often the main evidence peolpe point to to support Nemain as one of the Morrigan. The TBC material is pretty thin though and just shows her acting as a war Goddess, alone or with Badb. At one point in the story Cu Chulainn shouts and arouses the supernatural forces, after which Nemain appears: "Co ro mesc ind Neamain (.i. in Badb) forsin t-slóg." (Windisch, 1905). [So that Nemain, that is the Badb, intoxicated the army there]. The equating of Nemain and Badb is common and can be found in multiple sources where the two names are treated as interchangeable, athough as we shall see the two also appear together fairly often. In another recension of the TBC we see Nemain appearing with Badb and Be Neit, shrieking and terrifying the gathered army. Heijda suggests - and I agree - that is quite likely that instead of "Badb 7 Be Neit 7 Nemain" [Badb and Be Neit and Nemain] this passage should read "Badb .i. Be Neit 7 Nemain" [Badb that is Be Neit and Nemain] (Heijda, 2007). This is entirely logical as Be Neit rarely appears anywhere as an individual being and in the glossaries is usually equated with either Badb or the Morrigan, and sometimes Nemain. In point of fact the name Be Neit simply means woman or wife of battle and may be a general term used to describe war Goddesses rather than a proper name, which would also explain why in glossary entries she is so often immediately equated to another named deity. Towards the end of the TBC we see Nemain appearing alone in a similar occurance: "co ro mesc ind Neamain bar sin slóg, collotar i n-armgrith bha rennaib a sleg & a faebor, co n-ébailt cét láech díb ar lar a n-dúnaid & allongphuirt re úathgráin na gáre ra bertatar ar aird." (Windisch, 1905). [so that Nemain brought intoxication upon the army there, falling in their armor and on the points of their spears and sword-edges, so a hundred warriors of them die in the midst of the encampment and at the side of that place a time of terror the cry carried from on high]. This may be a repeat of the same behavior by Nemain, which would support her role as a war Goddess who brings terror and madness, but in fairness it could also be a scribal error where the same incident was doubled. In any event it is safe to say that in the TBC Nemain is associated with a cry which causes terror in those who hear it, and brings such panic that people fall on their own weapons or kill their comrades. 
      Heijda favors the idea of Nemain as an alternate name for Badb or as a goddess paired with Badb separate from the Morrigan. In the Lebor Gabala Erenn we are told that Badb and Nemain are two wives of Net: "Neit mac Indui sa di mnai, Badb ocus Nemaind cen goi" [Net son of Indui, his two wives, Badb and Nemain without falsehood]. In another version we are told that it is Fea and Nemain who are his wives and that they are sisters, daughters of Elcmar: "Fea ocus Nemaind: da mnai Neid meic Indai .i. da ingin Elcmar in Broga" [Fea and Nemain: two wives of Net son of Indui, that is two daughters of Elcmar of the Brugh]. Due to this Heijda suggests that Fea may be the name of Badb in the same way that Anand is for Morrigu (Heijda, 2007). Macalister agrees, suggesting that Fea and Nemain represent an earlier twin-pairing which evolved into the grouping of Badb and Nemain; he also suggests that Badb became a dyad with the Morrigu before becoming a triplicity with Morrigu and Macha (Macalister, 1940). This would suggest an interesting evolution for Badb as a primary war Goddess who formed a pairing with her sister Nemain, who she shares a father with, in some areas and with her two sisters, Morrigu and Macha, who she shares a mother with, elsewhere. 
    In contrast Gulermovich-Epstien prefers to see Nemain as one of the Morrigan although indirectly connected. This argument uses several degrees of separation in different glossaries to connect the Morrigan to Nemain. An entry in Cormac's Glossary says Nemain is Net's wife and also called Be Neit - Neid .i. dia catha. Nemon a ben sin. Ut es Be Neit (Net that is a God of battle. Nemain his wife. She is Be Neit). There are several versions of this, but all are fairly homogenous. Since Badb and the Morrigan are also called Be Neit elsewhere Gulermovich-Epstien argues that Nemain may be one of the Morrigan (Gulermovich-Epstien, 1998). Of course this is highly problematic in that "Be Neit" may not be a name at all and could just mean "woman of battle" and as such could be applied to any war Goddess. There is an entry in O'Clery's Glossary "Nemhan .i. badbh catha, no feanog" (Nemhain that is crow of battle [literally badb catha] or a hooded crow) (Gulermovich-Epstien, 1998). But O'Clery is extremely late - 17th century - and its hard to say at that point if his statement that Nemain was Badb is a corruption of earlier beliefs or legitimate, and also since "badbh catha" isn't capitalized at all it is possible he didn't mean it as a name at all but was simply calling her "a crow of battle" as he follows it with "or a hooded crow".
   O'Clery's Glossary also gives us "Nemain .i. dasacht, no 
míre" [Nemain, that is madness or insanity*] Gulermovich-Epstien, 1998). Another entry in Cormac's Glossary gives us: "Be neid .i. Neid nomen uiri. Be eius Nemon ben. Ba neimnech tra in lanamain sin" [Be Neit, that is Neit the name of the man. The woman Nemain his wife. They are a poisonous couple indeed.] In O'Mulconry's Glossary we are told: "Nemain dega .i. aibli tened, ut dicitur: nemain derga derci et reliqua" [Red Nemain, that is heat of a fire, that is: red Nemain passion and the rest]. It is interesting that O'Mulconry associates Nemain with both fire and passion, adding a layer of depth to her usual associations. It is also quite interesting that he calls her "Nemain derga" - red Nemain - as this is a common name given to Badb who is called the red Badb and the red-mouthed Badb.  Additionally we know that Nemain was a magic worker for the Tuatha De Danann, listed with the other war goddesses: "Nemain, Danand, Badb and Macha, Morrigu who brings victory, impetuous and swift Etain, Be Chuilli of the north country, were the sorceresses of the Tuatha De." (Banshenchus, n.d.)
  Another fascinating tidbit about Nemain's character can be gleaned from a passage of the Lebor Gabala Erenn which is discussing several women of the Tuatha De Danann, including the two sovereignty goddesses Banba and Fotla, Danann, the three Morrigans - Macha, Badb, and Morrigu - and Fea and Nemain:
   "Banba Fotla & Fea
Nemaind nar fodaind fathaig.
Donand mathair na ndea.
 Badb is Macha mét indbais
Morrígan fotla felbais.
indlema ind ága ernmais.
ingena ána Ernmais
(Macalister, 1940)

[Banba, Fotla and Fea,
Nemain wise in poetry,
Danand mother of the Gods.
Badb and Macha rich in wealth
Morrigan powerful in sorcery
They encompass iron-death battles
the daughters of Ernmas.]

    Overall it seems clear she was associated Badb and Fea, and was called both Badb and Be Neit herself. She does often appear acting with Badb though, suggesting that when she is called Badb it is being used as a title, rather than that she herself is Badb. We know she was one of the "sorceresses" of the Tuatha De Danann and also that she was said to be wise in poetry and "without falsehood", and Cormac's Glossary calls her poisonous. When we see her appearing in stories in an active role she is a bringer of "mesc", that is drunkenness, intoxication, and confusion which is directly associated with her terrifying cry. She is madness, insanity, frenzy, and perhaps the passion of battle. Whether or not she was one of the Morrigan, per se, she was without doubt a Goddess of war and battle, and strongly associated with Badb. It does seem likely when looking at the total of the gathered material that Nemain originally formed a war Goddess pair with Badb, as the two are often associated with each other and act together, and Nemain is given the title of Badb. Certainly she has been considered one of the Morrigan grouping for centuries now and deserves a portion of the title in a modern sense, if only as one of the great Irish war Goddesses. 

Heidja, K, (2007). War-Goddesses, Furies, and Scald Crows:the use of the word badb in early Irish literature
Gulermovich-Epstien, A., (1998) War Goddess: the Morrigan and her Germano-Celtic counterparts
Windisch, E., (1905). Tain Bo Cuiligne 
Macalister, R., (1940). Lebor Gabala Erenn
Bannshenchus, (n.d.)
Entries from Cormac's Glossary and O'Mulconry's Glossary courtesy of

All translations from the Irish presented here are done by myself. 

*dásach is a term which can mean fury, frenzy, violence; the related word dásacht is applied to rabid animals, but it can also mean ecstasy or war-like rage. It carries implications of a sudden uncontrolled fit of emotion. 
míre is a form of mer and means demented, crazy, rash, but can also be used in a positive sense to mean spirited or lively
It would be equally accurate to translate this passage as "Nemain, that is fury or terror" however I feel my translation uses the two words in a synonymous sense which seems to have been the intent of the original.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Articles, Manuscripts, and Essays, oh my!

I have really not done well keeping up with the blog this month and I apologize. I'm gearing up for the second annual Morrigan's Call retreat next month and have also been in the middle of several larger writing projects. 
  I recently finished up my 13th manuscript, a book for the Pagan Portals series. This one, like my Fairy Witchcraft and Morrigan books, is meant to be a basic introduction to a topic in this case the topic is Irish Reconstructionist Polytheism. the final draft is with my publisher and I'm hoping the book will be released in October, although I haven't gotten a date yet. Meanwhile I'm still plugging away at book #14, a full length book on Fairy Witchcraft to expand on the Pagan Portals introduction. I am also working on my own full translation of the Cath Maige Tuired and as part of that have translated all of the appearances of the Morrigan within that story; from that I wrote a 5,000 word article which I've submitted to the CR journal Air n-Aithesc for their fall issue. I'm pretty excited about that article actually, as I think its one of my best to date. I'm also working on a second piece on ritual sacrifice and feasting in Iron age Ireland for the same journal as well as an essay on Macha as a goddess of sovereignty for an anthology due out the end of this year.
   So I've been rather busy and as tends to happen the blog is showing signs of neglect. Hopefully I'll have a smidge more time soon to get more written over here. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Describing the Morrigan

A common question that I hear people asking is what does the Morrigan look like. There really isn't a simple answer. Generally when she appears in mythology she is not described in much detail. Instead we get passages like this one from the Cath Maig Tuired:
"Gongair an Unius la Connachta frioa andes. Conaca an mnai a n-Unnes a Corand, og nige, indarna cos di fri Allod Echae .i. Echumech, fri husci andes, alole fri Loscondoib, fri husce antuaith. Noi trillsi taitbechtai fora ciond. "
(The Unish of Connacht calls by the south. The woman was at the Unish of Corand washing her genitals, one of her two feet by Allod Echae, that is Echumech, by water at the south, her other by Loscondoib, by water at the north. Nine plaits of hair undone upon her head.) 
Similarly when she appears in most versions of the Tain Bo Cuiligne* (TBC) it simply says "Is ann sin tainic in Morrigan ingen Ernmuis a Siodaibh" (Then came the Morrigan daughter of Ernmas from out of the Sí) without adding any physical details. There are a few appearances which are described however.
    In the Táin Bó Regamna (TBR) we are given this: "Bean derg hissin charpat ocus bratt derg impi ocus di braí dergai lé ocus a brat eter di feirt in charpuit síar co sliged lár ina diaig..." (A red-haired woman with red eyebrows was in the chariot with a red cloak around her shoulders; the cloak hung down at the back of the chariot and dragged on the ground behind her.) This description of a red-haired woman** may be the most detailed description we ever get of the Morrigan's physical appearance and it is the only one where we are never told that she is in disguise or in an assumed form. In my own opinion this is most likely to be her true appearance, but other people may have different conclusions. 
    In the Cath Magh Rath she is described as:
Fuil os chind ag eigmigh
Caillech lom, luath ag leimnig
Os eannaib a narm sa sciath
Is i in Morrigu mongliath

(Bloody over his head, fighting, crying out
A naked hag, swiftly leaping
Over the edges of their armor and shields
She is the grey-haired Morrigu)
This description is somewhat similar to another of the Morrigan's appearances in the TBC: "And-sin tánic in Mórrígu ingen Ernmais a Sídib irricht sentainne(then came the Morrigan daughter of Ernmas from out of the Sí shaped as an old woman). However this passage makes it clear this is not her natural appearance but a "richt", a guise, form, or assumed shape. The idea of the Morrigan taking on other shapes or disguises is a common one, and in fact in the Metrical Dindshenchas she is called "samla día sóach" (a phantom, the shape-shifting Goddess) making it clear that her form is fluid and changeable. 
   It is debatable whether or not the brief description of the Morrigan in disguise as "Buan's daughter" in the TBC reflects her true appearance or is, as with her form as an old woman, merely a disguise. In this passage, which does not occur in all versions of the TBC she is described as "in n-ócben chuci co n-étuch cach datha impe ocus delb roderscaigthe furri" (the young woman with a garment of every coloring around her and a form fiercely beautiful on her). Personally I'm a bit suspicious because of the phrase "delb...furri" that is "a shape...on her". It is possible that it's just an expression, or perhaps it could be an allusion to the fact that the Morrigan has assumed this alluring disguise as part of her attempt to trick Cu, who has of course seen her red-haired form in the TBR previously. 
   She also has several animal forms which are described in the TBC as "escuinge slemne duibi" (a smooth, black eel), "saidhi gairbi glasruaidhi" (a rough, grey-red bitch), "samhaisci finne óderge" (a white, red-eared heifer) and in the TBR we see these forms echoed in her threats to Cu Chuluinn: "esccung" (an eel), "sod-sa dono glass" (a blue-grey*** wolf-bitch), and "samuiscc-siu finn áuoderg" (a white, red-eared heifer) as well as "hén-si dub" (she, a black bird). In the Lebor na Huidre she is also described as taking the form of a bird "in Mórrigan són i ndeilb eúin" (the Morrigan, she in the likeness of a bird). It is interesting to note that most of these animal depictions come with a specific color.
   The Morrigan is clearly capable of assuming many forms to serve her purposes, and we have descriptions of many of them. I have only touched on some here to illustrate what we generally know about her appearance. It may be that her true form is of a a red-haired woman dressed in red, as we see in the TBR, but certainly she is not limited to that. She comes to us in many shapes and forms, through many guises and many means. Ultimately she is what she chooses to seem to be to each viewer, whether that is black bird or white cow, naked hag or fiercely beautiful young woman.
  She is Herself. 

* Book of Leinster version
** literally the text says "bean derg" a red woman, however in Irish this is how hair color is usual given. See Audrey Nickel's "Color Me Irish" blog post for more on this
*** for those who are interested in the use of color in Irish material its given here as glas, or literally green, but green which can be anything from a light green or blue to a blue grey.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review - A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality

 I have to start by saying that I met Lora O'Brien at Pantheacon 2015 and was fortunate enough to be able to take several of her workshops. I found that she and I had a very similar perspective on most things relating to Irish paganism, the Morrigan, and the Fair Folk. I decided to review her book A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality: Sli Aon Dhraoi because I read it when it was first released (long before meeting her) and liked it and wanted to offer a positive book review for the blog today. As always I will approach this book review in an honest manner and please trust that I like her book on it's own merits, however I'm acknowledging a potential bias up-front.

   The book is written in an engaging manner, with the author often writing as if she were speaking directly to the reader. This is a style that I personally enjoy very much and it reminded me strongly of one of my favorite neopagan books, Lilith McLelland's Out of the Shadows *. I tend to read a lot of academic material so it's really refreshing to read something with a friendlier tone that manages to find that balance between being down-to-earth without feeling too simple. The book is also written with a dry humor and hint of sarcasm that personally appeals to me, although I can't say how others might take it.
   The text is broken up, aptly enough, into three sections each with three chapters. The first section is centered around the "World of Earth" and includes chapters on ancestry, ancient places, and sacred cycles. The second section, the "World of Sea" has chapters on the sidhe, gods & goddesses, and otherworld journeys. The final section is the "World of Air" with chapters on magical crafts, literature, and priesthood & community. Each chapter covers the author's thoughts and opinions on that particular topic, in some cases very direct and strong views and in others more reserved and encouraging the reader to decide for themselves. For example the chapter on holidays - "Sacred Cycles" - offers some basic information, some insight into the author's own experiences and practices, and encourages the reader to take a hard look at what they already know and how they personally connect to the cycle of the year. In short, this chapter urges the reader to examine their own sacred cycle and relationship to the pagan holidays, rather than filling them up with rote information and how-to's. In contrast the chapter on the sidhe takes a very no-nonsense approach, including solid traditional material and blunt modern views which seem (and rightly so as far as I'm concerned) meant to get the daft new age idea of twee little fairies out of peoples' heads.
   Each chapter starts with a bit encouraging the reader to stop and write down what they know or think about the topic of that section, and in fact there is a great deal of encouragement throughout the book for the reader to journal their thoughts and experiences. It then goes on to include the author's thoughts, opinions, and research, which is all very well done and referenced although I wish the book included a bibliography. Each chapter also includes a guided meditation suited to the topic. The meditation combined with the urging to journal give the text a feel of a workbook that could be very good for beginners or those looking to re-invigorate their spiritual practice. This book isn't just about learning what Irish paganism is, it's about actually living it.
   Overall I really enjoyed this one. I don't agree with everything the author says, but that usually comes down to differences of opinion on some details of belief. I love the amount of scholarship woven into such a practical hands-on style book, and I like that the author doesn't pull any punches, for example her blunt reproach to people mucking up historical sacred sites with candle wax, fire pits, non-degradable offerings, and general litter. There are very few modern Irish pagan books that fall into the neopagan category that I can or would  unequivocally  recommend and this one falls solidly on that short list.**

*Sadly long out of print although it is now available in ebook only.
** I also really like the author's earlier work Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch which came out in 2005. That one makes it on my short list for books I'm willing to recommend on the subject of modern Irish witchcraft. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Meiche, Three Hearts, Three Serpents

I'm still doing a lot of translation, and I'd like to keep sharing it but in ways that are interesting to you. So here is the story, as we have it, of the Morrigan's son Meiche and how the river Barrow got it's name:

13. BERBA.

Berba, canas ro ainmniged?
Ni ansa. Meiche mac na Morrigna is and robatar na tri crideda,
corot-marb Mac cecht im-Maig Mechi. Mag Fertaigi
dano a ainm in maige co sin. Amlaidh badar na cride sin, co
ndelbaib tri nathrach treithib. Meni torsed dano bas do Mechi
arforbertais na nathracha ind & focnafed ana faigbet béo i nHérinn.
Roloisc iarum Mac cecht in[na] cride sin im-Maig Luathat,
coro la al-luaith lasin sruth, conid romarb eas in tsrotha,
[&] coro marb cach n-anmanda roboi ann, & coro m[b]erb. Nó
combad i n-Aird Luaithrid [noloisc]. Unde Berba dicitur &
Mag Meche & Aird Luaithrid.
Nó coma[d] Berba .i. ber nó bir & ba .i. balb. Unde Berba
dicitur .i. usce balb.

13. Berba

Berba, why this name?
Not difficult. Meiche was a son of the Morrigan and he had three hearts, until he was killed by Mac Cecht at Maige Mechi. Maige Fertaigi was the name of the plain before that. This way were those hearts, with three forms of three serpents. Moreover if not for the death of Meiche, the serpents would have grown to the end and consumed therefore all life in Ireland. Then Mac Cecht burned the hearts there at Maig Luathat, throwing the ashes in the course of the river, so that the rapids in the stream died, and brought death to every animal there and boiling. Or else he may have destroyed them in Ard Luaithard (or he burned them). So Berba is said and Mag Meche and Ard Luauthrid.
Or its called Berba, that is ber or bir – water – and ba that is balb – silent – whence Berba is called silent water.

   So from this short entry in the Rennes Dindshenchas we learn that the Morrigan had a son named Meiche, and that Meiche had three hearts which contained serpents who, if allowed to grow, would consume all life in Ireland. Serpents often appear in Irish myth as symbols of destruction and the description of the serpents here follows that, since if they are freed from the hearts they will consume and take all life in Ireland (Green, 1992). Because of this Dian Cecht killed Meiche and burned the three hearts to ash, destroying the serpents. Interestingly Dian Cecht appears in other stories also fighting serpents, and in another tales also battles and defeats a monstrous serpent or dragon near the river Barrow (O hOgain, 2006). It is likely that his appearance here, as the person who had to kill Meiche, is significant as well and could indicate that the three snakes may have represented plagues. Even in death though the snakes were deadly and when Dian Cecht threw the ashes into the Barrow river they stilled the waters and killed all the living things in the river, emphasizing the danger they represented.

O hOgain, D., (2006) The Lore of Ireland
Green, M., (1992). Animals in Celtic Life and Myth

Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: Feast of the Morrigan

I’m doing this book review for Christopher Penzcak's Feast of the Morrigan a little bit differently. This is a book that is often brought up and that people really like, and it has its good points for modern practice. The author is very clear that his own approach, and that of the rituals and meditations he provides, is based in Wicca and neopagan witchcraft and for people utilizing that style I’m sure what he offers is quite valid. However there are some important issues with the book, specifically inaccuracies in the mythology, that make it problematic. It also badly needed an editor, preferably one familiar with Irish, but I’ll leave that aside as well, except to say that there are numerous spelling errors throughout. It’s the details from the myths I want to discuss here, with the understanding that the book’s sections on practice and modern experience are not at issue. My approach will be to first offer the passage or comment that is inaccurate and then the correct material with citation.

Chapter 1, page 17 – The author states that the Morrigan is never explicitly called a Goddess in the mythology.
Reality: The Morrigan is called a Goddess at least twice that I am aware of. In the Metrical Dindshenchas, poem 49 which can be found here:
Which says: “dosrocht ben in Dagda;ba samla día sóach” (Arrived the wife of the Dagda; a phantom is the youthful/shapechanging Goddess)  In the Tochmarch Emire we also have this: "‘H-i Ross Bodbo .i. na Morrighno, ar iss ed a ross-side Crich Roiss& iss i an bodb catha h-i & is fria id-beurur bee Neid .i. bandee incatæ, uair is inann be Neid & dia cathæ’. ("In the Wood of Badb, that is of the Morrigu, therefore her proven-wood the land of Ross, and she is the Battle-Crow and is also called the woman of Neit, that is Goddess of Battle,because Neit is also a God of Battle.")  I have quoted them in the original language to illustrate that the word used in is fact “goddess” (dia/dee), however both are also available in English translations, and one of the sources that Penczak has in his bibliography is a dissertation by Gulermovich-Epstein that I know includes the fact that the Morrigan is referred to as a Goddess in the Irish material.

Chapter 1, page 21 – the author states that Tuatha De Danann literally means “Children of Danu”
Reality – Tuatha De Danann most likely means People of Danann (aka Danu) but may mean People of skill as well. Either way the word Tuatha does not mean children.

Chapter 1, page 22 – the author states that the Morrigan had to be petitioned to gain her advice and aid in the second battle of Moytura
Reality – although a very common belief there is nothing in the actual mythology which states this.

Chapter 1, page 23 – the author says that during the Cath Maige Tuired the Dagda sought out the Morrigan and found her washing her clothes with her red hair in 9 tresses. He connects the clothes washing to washer at the ford type activity. 
Reality – In the story, which can be found in English here  the Dagda and Morrigan have an arraignment to meet on the same day every year - Bai dno bandal forsin Dagdae dia bliadnae imon samain an catha oc Glind Edind. (The Dagda was to meet a woman on a day,yearly, about Samain of the battle at Glen Etin.) So he did not seek her out,rather it was a prearranged meeting. She was not washing her clothes but rather was washing her genitals and her hair color is never mentioned.

Chapter 1, page 23 – further on discussing the same story the author says that the Morrigan promised to take“the heart’s blood and testicles” from a Fomorian king – this is repeated in Chapter 6, page 111
Reality – I suspect this confusion comes from a source used by the author, but since none are cited I can only guess. The passage actually says “crú a cride ocus airned a gailie” she will take the blood of his heart and kidneys of his battle-ardor. The crux of this confusion is the word airned which means kidneys, but is used in an idiom for testicles with toile, which means among other things will power and sexual desire (so airned toile, literally sexual kidneys). However, the passage does not say airned toile, just airned – so kidneys is what it means, not testicles.

Chapter 1, page 23 – continuing with the same story, the author states that the daughter of the Fomorian king is name is Boand.
Reality – the Fomorian king’s daughter is never named in the passage in the Cath Maige Tuired.

Chapter 1, page 24 – the author states that the Tuatha De Danann arrived in Ireland as a flock of blackbirds;this is repeated in Chapter 7 page 125
Reality – this is found in the Cath Maige Tuired Cunga here it was a vision of a Fir Bolg king, not an actual occurrence: “He told his wizard, Cesard, that he had seen, a vision. ‘What was the vision?’ asked Cesard. ‘I saw a great flock of black birds,’ said the king, ‘coming from the depths of the Ocean.” This vision is then interpreted as an omen of invasion.

Chapter 2, page 36 – the author states that Badb spread the news of the Gods’ victory after the battle with the Fomorians in the form of a crow
Reality – again from the Cath MaigeTuired
there is no indication of this. Badb is mentioned in relation to spreading the news after the battle, but there is no mention of her doing so in the form of a crow

Chapter 2, page 36 – the author states that badb is also a term for sacrificial victims
Reality – I have never heard of this before and cannot verify it any Irish or Old Irish dictionary.

Chapter 2, page 38 – the author mentions that the lines towards the end of the Morrigan’s final prophecy seem like a “possible admonition against homosexuality”
Reality – again this is less an issue with the author specifically but rather of the translation being misunderstood. The passage says “Ragaid mac i lligie a athar. Ragaid athair alligi a meic.” (The son will go lay down instead of his father. The father will go lay down instead of his son.) Grey gives this however as “the son will enter into his father’s bed. The father will enter into his son’s bed”. The passage is not condemning homosexuality however, which the Irish did not seem overly concerned with, but rather condemning incest. The next lines are:  Climain cach a brathar. Ní sia nech mnai assatigh. (In-law each to his own kinsman. A person will not seek women out of his house.)

Chapter 2, page 40 - the author states that term "molmacha" means a flock of crows.
Reality - I have thus far been unable to find this "term" in any Irish dictionary. There is an entry in O'Clery's glossary which mentions "mol macha" however it is not a term for a flock of crows. Mol means a heap, lump, or rounded mass in Sengoidelc, and a heap or multitude in modern Irish. The full entry in the glossary is: Macha .i. badhb, no feannóg . mol macha .i. cruinniughadh badhb, no feannóg 
(Macha, that is a crow or hooded crow, the heap of Macha that is a collection of a crow or a hooded crow.) 
While on the surface it may appear that you could read this as saying a multitude of Macha is a gathering of crows it simply can't be translated that way because crow and hooded crow are always in the singular throughout the entry. It would have to be "multitude of Macha that is gathering a crow or a hooded crow" which should obviously make no sense. Also note that the "heap of Macha" as a gathering or collection (the word used is a verb by the way) is described in the exact same way - as "a crow or hooded crow" as Macha herself is at the beginning of the entry. 

Chapter 2, page 43 – the author expounds on Macha’s acorn crop and its possible connection to druids, oaks, and ritual sacrifice.
Reality – Possibly a quibble on my part. Again this is a language issue. There are several words for acorn in Old Irish -  daurgne, dercu, and mesóc,however the phrase the author is discussing – mesrad Machae – is talking about mesrad which is a word that means any nut or tree-produce – although it can and does apply to acorns it is not exclusive to that type of nut and the phrase,which is found in the Sanas Cormac is using mesrad as part of analogy “mesrad Machæ .i. cendæ doine iarna n-airlech” (Macha’s crop, that is men’s heads after the slaughter). It is usually given in English as “mast” but I have seen it translated as acorn, however that is like taking the word nut and saying it means acorn, if you follow what I’m saying.

Chapter 3, page 53 – The author states that the names Morrigan and Morgan sound similar, which supports a connection between the Irish Morrigan and Welsh Morgana le Fey
Reality – the modern Anglecized version of these names do sound somewhat alike. However the names in the original languages do not. I recommend this article for clarification“Concerning the Names
Morgan, Morgana, Morgaine,Muirghein, Morrigan, and the Like” by Heather Rose Jones
The short version would be that in the original languages Morgan was pronounced mor-GANT while Morrigan was pronounced MORE-ih-guhn

Chapter 3, page 57 – the author states that the Tuatha De Danann retreated beneath the land rather than risk it’s destruction in a battle with the Milesians
Reality – when the Milesians arrived they fought an epic battle against the Gods before winning the right to live in Ireland. This story can be found in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, volume 5 which can be read online here

Chapter 4, page 66 – the author states that the flag of Connacht has a griffon on it
Reality – the flag of Connacht has an eagle on it

Chapter 4, page 69 – the author states that the “goddess of the land” meets and marries the invading Gaels
Reality – Again from the Lebor Gabala Erenn, volume 5 which can be read online here
 when the Milesians first arrive they do encounter each of the three sovereignty goddesses in turn and make agreements with them – but there is no marriage involved.

Chapter 4, page 75 – the author states that Connacht has no physical locations associated with the Morrigan
Reality – Uaimh na gCat is located in Connacht and is one of the most well-known sites associated with the Morrigan.

Chapter 5, page 86 – the author states that our knowledge of the animals associated with the Morrigan comes mostly from the Morrigan’s stories and says that justifies looking to other cultures to understand these animals
Reality – we have a fairly rich amount of animal lore from and Irish and Celtic perspective surrounding crows,ravens, wolves, cows, horses, and somewhat less about eels. These animals appear in many myths and stories separate from the Morrigan. Glynn Anderson has a book on Irish birds in myth and folklore and Miranda Green wrote book about animals in Celtic myth, for two examples.

Chapter 6, page 89 – the author states that the Morrigan appears to Cu Chulain as a three teated cow that he drinks from
Reality – in the Tain Bo Cuiligne the Morrigan appears as an old woman with such a cow, but she is not the cow herself.

Chapter 6, page 114 – the author states that in an interaction between the Morrigan and Cu Chulain where she appears with a cow, he challenges her and she disappears but leaves behind a crow
Reality – in that story, the Tain Bo Regamna, the Morrigan transforms into the crow and continues trading insults and incitements with Cu Chulain.  The story an be read here

Chapter 6, page 114 – the author states that the Morrigan attacks Cu Chulain as a wolf who causes a stampede of cows to attack him.
Reality – this occurs in the Tain Bo Cuiligne, but conflates two different events. The Morrigan attacks Cu Chulainin the form of a wolf and injures his arm, and then returns in the form of a cow and causes a stampede. there is a version of the Tain by Dunn which does mention cows stampeding when she attacks him as a wolf, but nonetheless it is the wolf biting him that is the actual attack even in that version, not the wolf driving the cows against him. In the majority of versions I have read the wolf comes against him alone and the cows are a separate event entirely. 

Chapter 7, page 122 – the author states that he cannot find anything in Irish myth about the Morrigan having a son with three hearts filled with serpents that must be killed
Reality – this story appears in the Rennes Dindshenchas under entry 13 Berbas which can be found here

Chapter 7, page 122 – the author states that Badb and Nemain have no children
Reality – Badb has at least two children according to the Lebor Gabala Erenn: Ferr Doman and Fiamain

Chapter 7, page 130 – author states that Bres ruled for 7 years until Nuada’s arm was replaced with one of silver
Reality – although somewhat ambiguous in the Cath Maige Tuired it seems that Nuada’s arm was replaced with a silver arm early. He resumed kingship after the silver arm was replaced with the original, healed, arm.

Chapter 7, page 130 – the author states that the Dagda is not a king
Reality – the Dagda was one of the kings of the Tuatha De Danann and is listed as such in the Lebor Gabala Erenn: "Now Eochaid Ollathair, the great Dagda, son of Elada, was eighty years in the kingship of Ireland."

Chapter 7, page 133 – the author states, and repeats, that Lugh’s mother is the Fomorian goddess Tailtiu
Reality – Lugh’s mother is the Fomorian goddess Ethniu. Tailtiu, who is listed among the Fir Bolg, was Lugh’s foster-mother.This information is found in the Lebor Gabala Erenn. From the source: "Taillte daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg... and Cian son of Dian Cecht, otherwise called Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, Lug to wit. Eithne daughter of Balar was his mother."

Glossary, page 183 – Banba is said to be a goddess who is one of the Morrigan or called Morrigan
Reality – Banba is part of a triplicity of sovereignty goddesses with her sisters Eriu and Fotla. She is a sister to the Morrigan but is never, herself, called Morrigan.

So it should be clear from this that there are many issues with the mythology as presented in this book. There were also some other small points which I did not get into as they may be more issues of interpretation, however I think the ones that are discussed here seriously compromise the value of the book. Sadly I am all too aware that many people will never read the original myths and stories and instead rely on secondary sources such as this book, and I believe it is very important because of that for books like this to strive to be accurate in what they present. These are not, for the most part, issues in how one looks at the stories or what one takes away from them but are problems with the myths and other information being wrong. Inarguably, factually, wrong. We can do better than this, moving forward as Irish pagans. The rituals and modern practical material may very well be fine and speak to many people, but it is vital that we get the mythology and facts correct to go along with them.