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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. 
  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 entries 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


Copyright Morgan Daimler

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