macha, warrior-queen or sovereignty goddess?
Updated: May 19, 2020
There are several women by the name of Macha in Irish mythology, and with the exception of King Nuada’s wife, they are all associated with the ancient ceremonial site of Emain Macha, also known today as Navan Fort (even though it is nowhere near Navan).
Emain Macha (Listen here for pronunciation) is a site much like the Hill of Tara, and shares many of its characteristics, but I’ll tell you more about that next week. According to legend, it was once the site of the provincial palace belonging to King Conchobar of Ulster, and thus associated with the tales of the Táin and the Ulster Cycle. However, archaeology has shown that, contrary to popular belief, Emain Macha was never a site of habitation, just like Tara and Cruachan and Dun Ailine.
What has this to do with Macha? Well, as you can see, the site is named after her. The most well-known story has her race whilst heavily pregnant against the king’s horses, and win. As she crosses the line, she collapses and gives birth prematurely to twins, cursing the men of Ulster with her dying breath. Thus the name of the site is said to mean ‘the twins of Macha’.
This is a pre-tale to the Táin bo Cuilnge, and is important in that it sets up the story for the Ulster hero, Cuchulainn. As she dies, Macha curses the men of Ulster to suffer the pangs of childbirth in the hour they are most needed. Thus Cuchulainn, who was not born in Ulster, remains to protect the kingdom single-handedly from the ravages of Queen Medb of Connacht.
There are three recensions of this story; in the first, the character of Macha is not named, and although she gives birth to two children, they are not stated to be twins. In the second recension, Macha is named, but the children, a boy and a girl, are still not described as twins. It is only when we get to the third recension that the word for twins, emon, is used. Thus we can see that this story has been adapted over time and made to fit the explanation of the site’s place-name.
Because she races with horses, and can outrun them, this Macha is often described as a horse-Goddess and equated with Epona and Rhiannnon. I’m not convinced, however John Waddell goes on to elaborate on this theory in quite some depth with regard to kingship rituals, the horse goddess, and Emain Macha. (Archaeology and Celtic Myth: an exploration, 2014, Four Courts Press).
My favourite story concerns a woman named Macha Mong Ruad, ‘the red-haired’. Like her namesake, Macha, wife of Nuada, she was a warrior, and she also ruled as a Queen in her own right.
Her father, Áed Rúad, shared the kingship of Ulster in rotation in seven year periods with two of his cousins, Díthorba and Cimbáeth. When Áed Rúad died, Macha Mong Ruad assumed the crown in his place, much to the consternation of the other two kings, who felt his reign should fall to them.
Macha took them on in battle, and won. Díthorba was killed, and his sons fled into Connacht. They began raiding and plundering, a lawlessness and disruption Macha as new Queen could not allow. She sent a band of warriors to deal with them, but the five sons escaped. She disguised herself and went after them.
She came upon them around their camp fire. Unaware of her true identity, they tried to have sex with her and one by one, she pretended to seduce them. Then she trussed them up like chickens for dinner, and carted them off home.
There, she decides to build her great fort, and marks out a huge circle in the ground with the pin of her brooch: the boundary of Emain Macha. She has demonstrated battle strategy, swordswomanship, courage, and determination, but here is where she shows her true genius.
The Ulstermen call for the heads of Dithorba’s sons, but instead, Macha sets them to digging out the trenches and building the enbankments which will surround Emain Macha. According to ancient law, Kings must never carry out menial work, and thus by this punishment, Macha ensures Dithorba’s sons are reduced to the status of commoners, and can never challenge her position as Queen. She then marries Cimbaeth, ensuring her progeny inherit rights to the kingship from both parents. And if all that isn’t kickass, I don’t know what is!
Thus the place-name from the site comes from eó, meaning ‘brooch’, and muin, meaning ‘neck’.
This is a much older story, and as you can see, does not follow the pattern of the sovereignty myth. It is found in a text rather romantically known as RIA 23 N IO (haha!), and is thought to have originated in the lost document known as the Cín Dromma Snechta. If anything, it seems to establish the qualities of a ruler, regardless of gender: martial prowess, military strategy, the use of force when required, knowledge of the law, mastery over lower classes, and such like, and establishes Ulster as a kingdom centred on its new capital, Emain Macha.
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