Macha: One Face of the Morrigan
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Posted: October 16th. 2011
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Macha is a Goddess who appears in several different places in Irish mythology. She is a daughter of Ernmas, sister to Badbh and Anand/Nemain; in mythology these three sisters are the triple Morrighan. O’Mulconry’s glossary calls her “machæ .i. badb no asi an tres morrigan”, meaning Macha, a scald-crow, or the third Morrigan, which clearly identifies her as one of the Morrigan (Stokes, 1898) .
Macha appears in different guises in Irish mythology: as one of the Nemedians, as a 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 tale 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. In alternate versions her husband cleared the land and she died there so he named it for her. 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) .
She appears in the Lebor Gabala Erenn where she is called a daughter of Ernmas. 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 logical 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 opposing 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.
To this day the spot carries her name, Emain Macha, where for a long time festivals and assemblies were held, especially at Lunasa. 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. 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. 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. 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 the story. 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 echoes 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) . My unverified gnosis 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.
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 - which is definitely a form of battle.
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.
Sjoestedt, M. (2000) Celtic Gods and Heroes. Dover Publications
Stokes, W. (1898 ) O’Mulconry’s Glossary
Copyright: Portions of this article were previously published in the quartelry magazine Eolas in 2011; this version has been revised and expanded from the original.
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