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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

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.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

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. 

Copyright Morgan Daimler

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.

Copyright Morgan Daimler

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.

Copyright Morgan Daimler