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Thursday, September 15, 2011


   Macha is one of the Tuatha De Danaan who appears in several different places in Irish mythology. She is a daughter of Ernmas, sister to Badbh and Anand; some people consider these three sisters to make up the triple Morrighan. In some sources Macha herself is called Morrigan (O hOgain, 2006). Macha appears in different guises in Irish mythology, once as one of the Nemedians, as one of the Tuatha de Danann, as a "fairy woman" and as a queen. This last one may or may not represent an actual historic queen or a story about the Goddess; the story itself has many mythic overtones but is not explicitly mythic so it could be taken either way. I tend to favor the view that all the appearances of Macha relate to the Goddess, but that is just my own opinion.
    In the first story she appears as the wife of Nemed, of the third race to settle Ireland, and in this tale she "dies" clearing the plains of Ireland for farming (Macalister, 1941). In alternate versions her husband cleared the land and she died there so he named it for her, or she clears the land and then has a prophetic vision of the death and destruction of the future Tain Bo Cuiligne which causes her to die of a broken heart (Green, 1992). In either case she is linked to the earth and its produce, through her death in exchange for clearing the land for farming. It is also possible that her name "Macha" may mean plain or field (Sjoedstedt, 2000). The eDIL lists several meanings for the word in Old Irish including royston crow, milking yard/field, and field or plain. In modern Irish the word means cattle field or yard, a fine group of cattle in a pasture, or, when added to brea bo, a herd (O Donaill, 1977). The connection of the word to cows and milking as well as fields and pasture, I think, also supports the connection of her as a land goddess and the symbolism of the Nemedian story.
    She appears in the Lebor Gabala Erenn where she is called a daughter of Ernmas and wife of Nuada Agatlamh ( MacAlister, 1941; Berresford Ellis, 1987). There is some supposition that it was Macha as Morrigan who joined with the Dagda a year before the second battle of Maige Tuired (Berresford Ellis, 1987). In volume IV of the Lebor translation by R. A. S. Macalister, the  translator says "Delbaeth...has three daughters, the famous war-furies Badb, Macha, and Mórrígu, the latter sometimes called Anand or Danand." (Macalister, 1941). In this appearance she is killed in the second battle of Mag Tuired but Macalister in his introduction to Section VII of the Lebor Gabala Erenn, volume IV says that it is logial to believe that this Macha and the Macha of Ard-Macha who curses the men of Ulster are in fact the same deity. At a later point in the text Macalister also posits that Macha was a later addition to the Badb/Anand(Nemain) pairing, saying, "Macha, one of the Badb sisterhood, has a certain individuality of her own, and enjoyed a special cult, probably centered at Armagh (Ard Macha), to which she bequeathed her name. Her intrusion into the Badb sisterhood may be a subsequent development, for the genealogies before us seem to suggest an earlier tradition in which Badb and the variously named third member of the group formed a dyad." (Macalister, 1941). This provides us a variety of interesting information about Macha. We learn that she is the daughter of Delbaeth and Ernmas, and sister to Badb and Anand, one of the three Morrigan. And we learn - according to the Lebor Gabala Erenn anyway - that Macha falls in battle with Nuada at the hand of Balar of the evil eye. This seems to tell us that she was actually fighting in the battle along side the other warriors.
     All of this information is supported in the "index to persons" of the Cath Maige Tuired which references her as one of the Tuatha de Danann, and agrees with the Lebor Gabala Erenn's parentage. This index also mentions that in the Banshenchus she is listed as one of the Tuatha de Danann's magic workers, and that in the first battle of Mag Tuired she acts with the other two Morrigan to use magic against the enemy, specifically by sending rain, fog, and showers of blood and fire upon the oppossing army. The second battle of Mag Tuired lists the three Morrigan as ban-draoithe, or Druids (Gray, 1983). This tells us that not only is she a warrior but also a magic user, especially of battle magic.
    Next she appears as a fairy woman who marries a peasant named Crunnchu, and becomes pregnant with twins. He goes to a festival held by the king who is bragging of the speed of his horses. Crunnchu, despite being warned by Macha not to speak of her to anyone else, brags that his wife could outrace any horse, and the furious king demands that Crunnchu bring her immediately to race or forfeit his life. Macha begs for a delay as she is in labor, but is denied and forced to race anyway. She wins, collapsing and birthing her twins  just past the finish line and curses the men of Ulster with nine days of labor pain in their greatest hour of need for "nine times nine" generations before dying (although in some versions of the story she doesn't die, but simply returns to the Otherworld because Crunnchu broke her prohibition). According to the Metrical Dindshenchas Macha gives birth to a boy and girl named Fir and Fial (Gwynn, 1924). To this day the spot carries her name, Emain Macha, where for a long time festivals and assemblies were held, especially at Lunasa (McNeill, 1962). It is from this story that her associations with horses, childbirth, pregnancy, justice and, again, the produce of the earth - by marrying a peasant - are seen. Also in this story it is said that Macha's other name is Grian: "her two names, not seldom heard in the west, were bright Grian and pure Macha" and "in the west she was Grian, the sun of womankind." (Gwynn, 1924). The word Grian itself has multiple meanings including and all relating to the sun; some meanings are given in the eDIL as sun, shining, bright, radiant, and luminary. I wonder if this may be an attempt by the Dindshenchas to connect Macha and the fairy queen Grian of Cnoc Greine in county Limerick; if so its a tenuous link as there are no other references to this or connecting Macha to the sun in anyway. Grian is more often connected to Aine. As already mentioned There seems to be a clear connection between this Macha and the Macha of the Tuatha de Danann.
   In the final story we see her connection to sexuality, sovereignty, and battle. She is Macha Mog Ruadh, Macha Red-Hair, daughter of one of three kings who share the rulership of Ireland, each ruling for seven years in turn. This Macha is listed as the 76th ruler of Ireland and said to have ruled around the 4th century BCE (Berresford Ellis, 1987). When her father dies, Macha steps up to rule but is challenged by the other two kings who do not want to co-rule with a woman. She battles them and wins, and when her seven years are up she refuses to turn leadership over to the others since she is Queen not by blood but through victory in battle. One of the two kings dies, leaving five sons who would challenge her, so she goes to them in the appearance of a crone or leper and seduces them one by one, tying them up afterwards and thereby defeating them and enslaving them. In some versions of the story she forces the five brothers to build her fort at Emhain Macha. Finally she marries the last of the original three kings, Cimbaeth. This story has the most tenuous link to the Goddess on the surface, but I have always seen a lot of mythic symbolism in it. The number of kings and years, as well as Macha going to the five sons disguised as either a crone or leper, and then her marrying the final king to give him full sovereignty have always struck me more as echos of the older tales about the goddess of the land choosing the king through trials.
  Traditionally the severed heads of enemy warriors were called "Macha's acorn crop" another sign that she was a warrior goddess  (Sjoedstedt, 2000). Macha is particularly associated with Ulster, Armagh (Ard Macha) and Navan Fort (Emain Macha). She is also often strongly associated with horses possibly because of the story where she races and wins against the king's horses; Cu Chulain also had a horse named Liath Macha, "grey of Macha", which wept tears of blood before Cu Chulain's final battle.  Horses and crows are animals often linked to her; in Cormac's glossary she is called "Macha the crow" (Green, 1992). This may be a reflection of her role as a soveriengty goddess, with the horse as a symbol of the rulership of the king (O hOgain, 2006).
    My own imbas is that in each story when she "dies" she is actually just returning to the Otherworld from whence she came, having accomplished what she intended in our world. I'm with MacCulloch (quoting from Celtic Mythology) on this one: "Pagan gods are mortal and immortal; their life is a perennial drama, which ever begins and ends, and is ever being renewed – a reflection of the life of nature itself."
    From a purely personal perspective I have found her to be fiercely loving and protective of those she calls her own, with a strong "mother" energy to her, but she can be very no-nonsense and unbending as well. She always appears to me as a red haired warrior woman wearing a cloak of black feathers and riding or walking next to a black or white horse, sometimes both.  To me she is a goddess of the sovereignty of the land, a protector of the weak, and goddess of women and women's issues, especially pregnancy and childbirth. Certainly her position as sovereignty and rulership goddess are particularly interesting in light of her relationship with Nuada Argatlamh, king of the Tuatha de Danann. She is also a goddess of battle and warriors, death, magic (especially battle magic), Druidism, and prophecy. Green posits that Macha represents the soveriegnty and fertility of Ireland and can be vengeful when the land or she herself is wronged (Green, 1992). O'hOgain sees her as a mother-goddess and goddess of sovereignty and war,with a strong connection to horses as symbols of kingship (O'hOgain, 2006).
Gray, E. (1983) Cath Maige Tuired. Published by the Irish texts Society.
Macalister, R. (1941). Lebor Gabala Erenn, volume IV. Published by the Irish Texts Society.
Green, M., (1992). Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend
McNeill, M., (1962). Festival of Lughnasa
Sjoestedt, M. (2000) Celtic Gods and Heroes. Dover Publications
Berresford Ellis, P., (1987). a Dictionary of Irish Mythology
O hOgain, D., (2006). the Lore of Ireland
O Donaill (1977)., Focloir Gaeilge-Bearla
Gwynn (1924) the Metrical Dindshenchas

*this version was edited and had material added to it on 4/15/12

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