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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


  1. I was led to believe that Nemain's name translated to 'frenzy' and that she caused panic among the menfolk of Ireland.

    1. She certainly does seem to cause panic. The etymology of her name is uncertain; it could be related poison (the Old Irish for that is neim) or to frenzy which is a meaning given to her name. There is also a theory that it comes from the same Indo-European root as Nemesis which would be *nem- "to assign, allot, or to take" relating her to the idea of setting people's fate. I have also heard theories that her name is rooted in the same source as the word nemeton and Nemed and is related to the concept of sacred or heavenly.

  2. Yes the problem with Old Irish is that the spellings of words are not consistent and some words have a variety of meanings. I have made an assumption that the phonetic sound was more important to the old writers than the spelling and further confusions occur according to each particular province.
    In modern Irish too there are differences in the structure of sentences e.g. the use of 'Faoi' is often omitted in Co.Mayo.