Macha, the Morrígan, and the Curse of Ulster

Imagine this: you’re a peasant farmer living in Ulster, in Northern Ireland.

Your wife died young, leaving you with small brood of children. Your house is in shambles; the kitchen’s a disaster, the beds are all unmade.

The children need baths…

Maybe tomorrow, you think as you crawl into bed, too tired to take your boots off.

Maybe tomorrow…

*

The next morning comes, and you head off to the farm.

Working until sundown, you head home, expecting to find the usual disaster.

However, from the distance, something seems to glow about the house.

You enter slowly, carefully.

To your shock, the house is completely clean.

There’s dinner on the table.

The children have been washed, their clothes changed.

And standing in the center of it all is a radiant woman.

“My name is Cruinniuc, and this my home. Who are you?” you ask, barely above a whisper.

“I know who you are. I am called Macha, and I choose to be your wife.”

*

There are many appearances of Macha in Irish mythology and folklore, and the academic consensus is that these are all tales of the same ancient Sovereignty Goddess* known as Macha.

*[Sovereignty Goddess is a term used primarily in Celtic studies to denote those Goddesses who confer territorial power onto a king through sex or marriage]

In addition to conferring sovereignty, Macha has a darker side, as seen through her connections with the Morrígan.

*

The Morrígan

War looms,

and a crow flies overhead

Is She is Badb?

Crying out the names of those

soon to be torn asunder?

Is She is the Morrígan?

Have you dreamt of Her washing your blood stained armor?

Triple Goddess of the Battlefield,

The Sister’s Three:

Babd, Macha, and the Other

Behold Macha,

She who boasts the Mesrad Machae*,

The mast of severed heads…

[* this attestation of Mesrad Machae can be found in O’Mulconry’s Glossary, a thirteenth-century compilation of glosses]

*

In almost no time, Cruinniuc grew wealthy. His household was happy, and soon Macha was with child.

Macha who was swifter than a horse, whose feet moved so quickly that they couldn’t be seen.

When the King of Ulster announced a festival, Macha warned Cruinniuc not to go; however, if he had to go…

He was not to mention her to anyone.

At the risk of losing her forever.

*

Beer.

The men started bragging about their wives, but Cruinniuc was silent.

More beer.

The men keep bragging about their wives, but Cruinniuc remained silent.

Still more beer.

The King brought up his brand new horses. He challenged any living creature in Ulster to outrace his horses.

Beer. More beer. Still more beer.

Cruinniuc spoke up.

“My wife can beat your horses.”

No more beer.

*

The King’s men went to fetch Macha.

Though she was heavy with child, they forced her to come under the threat of Cruinniuc’s life.

And they forced her to race.

“Don’t you all have mothers? Show mercy for a mother!” she pleaded with the men, but none would defy the King.

And so she raced, heaving under the wight of not one – but two – children.

She beat the King’s horses, giving birth on the finish line.

Some accounts have the children being stillborn…

Either way, Macha was understandably vengeful:

*

For nine generations, she cursed the men of Ulster to be weak.

Weak “as a woman in childbirth”,  leaving Ulster open to invasion.

Then she gathered her children, and leapt overhead, to lands unknown…

*

Motherhood; Sovereignty;

Warfare; Domestic Bliss.

And a generational curse on a land and a people.

There’s a lot going on in a fairly short tale, which is probably why it’s survived.

There’s even a place-name, Emain Macha, meaning Macha’s twins, commemorating the spot where they disappeared.

Navan_Fort,_County_Armagh_-_geograph.org.uk_-_43871
Navan Fort, County Armagh. Navan Fort, aka Emain Macha, ancient capital of Ulster. Picture by Patrick Brown, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9169647

That name would also be used as an honorary title by future Kings of Ulster.

A title, and a reminder.

A reminder, and a plea:

May the Morrígan have mercy on us all…

Macha
“Macha Curses the Men of Ulster”, Stephen Reid’s illustration from Eleanor Hull’s The Boys’ Cuchulainn (1904)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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