Other Spellings: Machae
Associations: plains, crows, horses, sovereignty, sacrifice, pregnancy
Land Specific Associations: Emain Macha/Navan Fort, Ulster, Armagh / Ard Macha
Known and Suspected Family: mother Ernmas, sister Badb, sister the Morrígan, father Partholon, husband Nuada Argatlamh, twin children Fír and Fíal, father the Dagda (?), father Áed Ruad Ró-fhessa, father Midir
Etymology: possibly plain or field; “In modern Irish the word means cattle field or yard, a fine group of cattle in a pasture, or, when added to brea bó, a herd.” (Daimler, page 12.)
- Lebor Gabála Érenn / The Book of the Takings of Ireland / The Book of Invasions
- Cath Maige Tuired Cunga / First Battle of Moytura
- Cath Maige Tuired / Second Battle of Moytura
- preluding stories to Táin Bó Cuailnge
- Book of Femroy
- Dá Derga’s Hostel
- Wooing of Emer
One of the debated aspects of Macha is if every Macha is the same Macha. Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from one to four Machas in lore. Morgan Daimler writes,
“Although some people feel that only the Macha of the Tuatha Dé Danann is the Macha who is of the Morrigan others, myself included, feel that she appears several times in myth under teh same name, but in different roles.” (page 12.)
We get our first appearance of the name “Macha” in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, where she is listed as one of the daughters of Partholon. Nothing else is given, and we can assume she dies with everyone else in that part of the book. She appears later in the book as the wife of Nemed, the third race to settle into Ireland, who dies clearing the plains of Ireland for farming. Lastly in Lebor Gabála Éreen, she appears as one of the Túatha Dé Danann, listed as a daughter of Ernmas and sister to the Morrígan and Badb. It is also at this part of the tale that she is speculated as wife to Nuada Argatlamh, since they both battle and die along side each other. Also, she is listed along side Badb and the Morrígan in both Battles of Moytura as wielding magic against the opposition to the Túatha Dé Danann.
Next time we see Macha is in one of the prelude stories to the Táin Bó Cúailgne. In this tale, she marries a farmer or chieftan named Crunnuic (sometimes spelled “Crunnchu”). In the tale she gives birth to twins. As she does, she curses the nine generations of the men of Ulster to suffer the pains of child birth during their most needed hour for nine days. The place she gave birth is now called Emain Macha– “Twins of Macha.” These twins are sometimes given the names Fír and Fíal.
This curse Macha laid on the men of Ulster becomes a pivotal point in Táin Bó Cúailgne, as it gives reason to why Cú Chulainn had to defend all of Ulster from an army while the men of Ulster withered in pain for nine days.
Lastly, a princess named Macha Mog Ruadh–“Macha Red-Hair”–is sometimes connected to the goddess Macha. In this tale, there are three kings of Ireland who all rule in rotation. When Macha’s father dies, she takes up his turn as successor to the throne. The other two kings take offense to co-ruling with a woman, so she fights them. On the battlefield she wins her right to rule, but then when her rotation is up she refuses to let it go–claiming she won the right through battle not through the agreement her father had. There is more to the story, but the gist is that she was a ruler in a pseudo-history. However, as Morgan Dailmer points out:
“Although this story is often seen as pseudo-historical it has many mythic overtones, including the numbers of kings, years, and sons, as well as Macha going to the sons disguised as a leper. The Metrical Dindshenchas conflates this Macha with Macha the fairy woman and Macha daughter of Nemed (Jones, 2008). This supports the idea, at least, that historically there did not seem to be a clear, sharp division between the different Machas — instead they often seemed to have been seen as different manifestations of a single being.” (page 17.)
A main association Macha has in folkloric sayings is severed heads; enemy warriors’ severed heads were called “Macha’s acorn crop”.
Macha’s associations with horses is both because of the story in which she races the king’s horses, as well as Cú Chulainn having a horse called Liath Macha or Grey of Macha. In other instances, Liath Macha belongs to Macha herself.
An association with horses furthers her association with sovereignty, as horses are a symbol of kingship. Indeed, rituals of sacred kingship often involved horses. Her relationship with sovereignty is also attested by the number of places that are associated with her, such as Emain Macha. It is seen that, though often tied to the land in some way, it’s very territorial and less about fertility. Coru Cathubodua gives a quick warning to associating her with the archetypal Earth/Fertility Goddess:
“It should be understood, however, that in Macha we are not dealing with the simple archetypal ‘Earth/Fertility Goddess’. Instead what She embodies is the wealth and power of the land as a sovereign and even political force, in the shape of a queen.”
Crows, too, are linked to her. In Cormac’s glossary, she is called “Macha the crow” and her name sometimes is used to refer to crows.
One should also not overlook her strong associations with war and warfare, as “Macha’s acorn crop” and her parts in the Battle of Moytura attest to. Morpheus Ravenna also writes to the complexity of Macha:
“Macha, for all her identification with land, wealth, and sacral kingship, also remains a battle Goddess, and her complex symbolism speaks to the relationship between fertility and war in Celtic thought. She has a clear and well-developed tutelary mythology relating to territorial Ulster, but from the earliest sources she is also seen at least loosely identified with the group of war Goddesses.” (page 95.)
Again and again Macha pops up in texts with the other Morrígans. Be when they fight in the Battle of Moytura, or during Dá Derga’s Hostel where her name is given by the cursing hag Cailb, or described in the Dindshenchas as “the raven of the raids.”
Daimler, Morgan. The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens. N.p.: Moon, 2014. Print.
Coru Cathubodua. “The Morrigan.” Coru Cathubodua. Coru Cathubodua, n.d. Web. 09 Jan. 2016.
Ravenna, Morpheus. The Book of the Great Queen. Richmond CA: Concrescent, 2015. Print.