Irish transfunctional goddess; usually identified with the Morrigan or named as her sister. She is apparently a goddess of sovereignty.
There are several figures named Macha in Irish mythology, several of whom are identified as the origin of the name of Emain Macha. The earliest references to her identify her as one of the sisters of the Morrigan.
Some form of Macha appears in each successive "invasion" group, as well as appearing in the Ulster cycle.
Arguably, the earliest reference to her is in the 8th century glossary O'Mulconry's Glossary, which has an entry for her:
Machæ: .i. badb. nō asī an tres morrīgan, unde mesrad Machæ .i. cendæ doine iarna n-airlech.
Macha: that is, the scald-crow; or the third Morrigan; Macha's crop: the heads of slaughtered men
Of course, "badb" is also given as the name of one of the three sisters making up the Morrigan, Bodb, who could change into a crow on the battlefield. This is the Macha identified as daughter of Ernmas (see below).
Macha, daughter of Partholón
Macha is listed among the ten daughters of Partholón. Now, Macha wife of Cruinniuc is listed as daughter of "Strange, son of Ocean"; Partholón's name may mean "son of the sea", which neatly parallels the latter Macha's ancestry. Nothing is known of this Macha otherwise, and the people of Partholón are wiped out in a plague.
Macha, wife of Nemed
According to Geoffrey Keating, Macha was wife of Nemed (Neimheadh), whose name ultimately means "holy one"; she dies during the twelfth year after coming to Ireland; and to this Macha Keating gives the naming of Armagh. The Annals of the Four Masters also confusingly names Macha not just the wife of Nemed, but also the name of the wife of Iarbhainel the Prophet son of Nemed. As wife of "the holy one" and wife of "the prophet", she likely represents the "first function" in Irish (and Indo-European) society, the priestly function.
Macha Mong-Ruadh: "red-haired". According to Do Flathiusaib Hérend and Geoffrey Keating, she was the daughter of Aedh Ruadh (i.e. "Red Fire"), and takes the sovereignty of Ireland from her father's two co-kings Cimbaeth and Dithorba, who would not recognize her right to rule after his death. Upon winning, the sons of Dithorba rebell, and are put down by Macha. she then takes Cimbaeth as her husband. Disguised as a leprous woman, she hunts down the sons of Dithorba who were hiding in Connacht. They each attempt to sleep with her in this form; instead, she tis them up in turn, and brought them back to Ulster to be slaves as punishment. They mark out the boundaries of Emain Macha with her brooch, thus deriving "Emain Macha" from eó muin "brooch [and] neck"; the same derivation is found in Sanas Cormaic. The Annals of the Four Masters also names her as a fostermother to Ugaine Mor. She ruled seven years. The Annals also states that she was slain by Rechtad Rigderg (Red-king). He, in turn, was slain by Ugain Mor.
The Metrical Dindsenchas conflaits this Macha with the wife of Nemed and with the wife of Cruinniuc (see below).
This Macha obviously exhibits traits of the warrior and kingly "second function".
Macha, wife of Cruinniuc
Noínden Ulad: "The Debility of the Ulstermen"--here, Macha is daughter of Sainreth mac Imbaith ("Strange son of Ocean" or "Nature of the Sea"), and wife of Crunnchu mac Agnoman (Agnoman better known as father of Nemed), who extracts from him a promise that he will tell no one about her existance. Crunnchu unwisely boasts that his wife is faster than Conchobor's swiftest horses. She's forced to run a race against these horses while pregnant, and gives birth to twins after running the race. She curses the Ulstermen with experiencing birthpangs during their worst hour, and demands that the land be named for her--hense Emain Macha, "the twins of Macha", now known as Fort Navan. She also gives her name to the city and county of Armagh, from Ard Macha, "high [place of] Macha". It is from this story--her race against horses and giving birth to twins--Fir and Fial, a boy and girl--just after a horse race--that gives the association between Macha and the Celtic horse goddess, such as the Gaulish Epona and the Welsh Rhiannon.
It's worth noting that her father here is connected to the ocean, just as Partholón is. Rhiannon, of course, marries Manawydan ap Llyr--"son of the Sea", and elsewhere her son Pryderi is raised by (and probably fathered by) Terynon Twrflian "Lord of the Raging Sea", who finds the boy in a stable at the same time his horse is foaling. We can then imply that Macha may be the mother of Cuchulain. In one version of the story (there are two very different versions), Conchobor is hunting a flock of birds, and spends the night as the guest of a man and his wife, who go unnamed. He lays with the wife, though doesn't have intercourse with her as he normally would, as she is pregnant. As the woman gives birth, a mare standing outside the doorway gives birth to twin foals; in the morning, everyone--the man, his wife, the birds--disappears except for Conchobor and his men, the twin foals, and the baby, who is Cuchlain. He is given to Conchobor's sister to be raised with her son Conall Cernach, who acts as Cuchulain's twin. Of the two horses, born at the same time as Cuchulain, one is stronger than the other and is named "Liath Macha"--the Gray of Macha--and when Cuchulain dies, it runs off to the sea. However, one recension of Lebor Gabala Erenn states that the horse was named for Macha daughter of Delbaeth, identical with Macha daughter of Ernmas. Again, Macha is identified with horses, strengthening the identification with horse goddesses like Epona.
The Metrical Dindsenchas, in the entry on Ard Macha, names her father as Midir, and also calls her Grian, "the sun of womankind". The divine twins in Indo-European mythology are often closely related to a sun goddess, sometimes a mother or sister, sometimes a consort.
As the wife of the farmer and a mother--closely associated with childbirth, in fact--she seems to embody the "third function" of fertility and relation to the divine twins.
Macha, daughter of Ernmas Ernmas is called "the farmer"; Keating specifically names her and her sisters Badh and Morrigan as goddesses.
This Macha embodies the elements of the other three:
The Morrigan is undoubtedly a sovereignty goddess, and the traits of Macha strengthens this.
Horses and Kings
Why is Macha so tied up with kingship or the settling of Ireland? It's obvious that she's a sovereignty goddess, and more than that a horse goddess. There is, of course, the famous story of Gerald of Wales, regarding the ritual of kingship recorded in his Topographia Hibernica III.25, where he details how a white mare was lead into the midst of the crowd gathered for the inauguration. The king apparently "comports himself like a horse"--i.e. has sexual intercourse with it, though whether real or fake isn't known, and Gerald was certainly going for the worst possible view of the Irish. The mare is then butchered and cooked, with the king sitting in the broth and drinking it, while he and the people consumed the flesh. This ritual--if Gerald is at all accurate in his description--parallels rituals in India and Rome, pointingn to a common kingship ritual involving horse worship and sacrifice. What's even more interesting is that Gerald's description places the ritual in Ulster--where, of course, the land is named for Macha herself.
Annals of the Four Masters. Anno Mundi 2850, 4532.
Ford, Patrick K. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: Univeristy of California Press, 1977. p. 7-9.
Gray, Elizabeth A. Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired Irish Texts Society, 1982.
Keating, Geoffrey. Foras Feasa ar Éirinn. Book I, section 7, I.11, I.28.
Mallory, JP. The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis, 1997. p. 279-280.
Stokes, Whitley. "O'Mulconry's Glossary". Archive fur celtische Lexikographie. vol. I. London: David Nutt, 1900. p. 271.
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Mary Jones © 2008