MACHA- SOVEREIGNTY
GODDESS OF THE ULAID
The word Macha
Means ‘area of
land’.
Macha curses
the Ulstermen
Macha
• Her name is associated with prominent
landmarks in Ulster (NE Ireland).
• Armagh (Ard Mhacha in Irish).
Macha
• Also associated with the ancient pagan
site of Emain Mhacha (Navan Fort)
The ‘twins’ of Macha.
Ancient Ireland
Ulster
MACHA (1)
• Macha is one of a group of Irish
goddesses who are concerned with war,
fertility and the prosperity of Ireland.
• Like her sister goddesses, the Morrigan
and the Badhbh (Badb), Macha is
sometimes perceived as one deity,
sometimes as three. She represents the
sovereignty and fertility of Ulster (if not the
whole of Ireland)
MACHA (2)
• Macha has a number of zoomorphic
associations: she is called Macha the
Crow by the 9th century writer Cormac.
She is also linked with horses. The
goddess gave her name to Emain Macha,
the capital and royal court of ancient
Ulster.Cu Chulaind has a horse called the
Grey of Macha.
MACHA (3)
1. The first Macha is the wife of Nemedh,
leader of the third invasion of Ireland.
She prophesied the destruction that
would be caused by the Bull of Cooley
and died of a broken heart.
2. A second Macha ruled Ireland as the only
‘high-king/queen’ of Ireland as a warrior
and established Emain Macha
MACHA (4)
3. The third Macha is a divine bride who
marries a mortal man. It is this legend
which associates Macha with horses.
She puts a curse on the Ulstermen by
means of a magical paralysis (ces
noinden Ulad), so that at their greatest
danger, they will become weak for 5 days
and 4 nights.
THE LABOUR PAINS OF THE
ULAID
• She gives birth during a horse-race and
brings the noinden to Ulster warriors.
• At the heart of the story we have the tale
of how against her wishes Macha’s
husband boasts that she can outrun any
horse in the land (=the best horses are
those of the king).
THE LABOUR PAINS OF THE
ULAID
• When called upon to do this, Macha
protests that she is pregant and promises
that perpetual evil will fall on the
Ulstermen for many generations.
• She wins against the other horses, and
gives birth to twins (explaining the placename Emain Macha=the Twins of Macha).
Macha and Horses
• Macha assumes the ability of a horse
when she races against the king’s horses
at the Ulster Fair.
• When Cu Chulainn is born, two colts are
born at the same time, one is called the
Grey of Macha.
THE LABOUR PAINS OF THE
ULAID
• In fact the word Emain can mean twins or
brooch in Old Irish. The latter probably a
reference to the shape of the fortress of
EM.
• She curses all who hear her, and their
descendants to nine times nine
generations.
• They suffer the pangs of childbirth for five
days and four nights.
THE LABOUR PAINS OF THE
ULAID
• Small boys, women and the divine hero
Cu Chulainn are excepted.
• The association with horses is reflected in
other female Celtic characters:
• In Welsh myth, the woman Rhiannon is
frequently mentioned in the context of the
horse (her name can be interpreted as
‘Great Queen/Mother’.
THE LABOUR PAINS OF THE
ULAID
• Medb as well, one of the protagonists of the Tain
Bo Cuailnge, is also seen in a similar light.
• The horse was a major symbol of kingship in
early Celtic society (coins, King-names).
• This strongly suggests that at origin the figure of
Macha is a land-goddess protector of the people
of Ulster (and possibly sometimes Ireland).
Macha
She is forced to run although heavily
pregnant.
She will curse the Ulstermen for this.
THE LABOUR PAINS OF THE
ULAID
• The Continental Celtic equivalent of the
horse-goddess is the widely distributed
(=archaelogical artifacts) Epona (divine
mare).
• This concept therefore (horse-goddess
associated with kingship, territorial
protection) certainly goes back to at least
300BC.
Images of Epona
Ces noiden Ulad
• The concept of men suffering labour-pains
is obviously difficult to explain.
• Some scholars have interpreted the story
as an echo of practices through which
men tried to transfer the pangs of
childbirth from their wives to themselves.
• (couvade)
Ces noiden Ulad
• Another explanation is that the phrase is
misunderstood and should be ces
noindhen meaning debility that lasted nine
half-days.
• In essence, the idea is that the otherworld
women can drain away the strength of
warriors, as we have seen in the figure of
the Morrigan.
Summary of major motifs
• Motif: a distinctive feature or dominant
idea in an artistic or literary composition.
• Theme: the subject of a piece of writing,
an idea that pervades a word of art.
Major motifs in this story
• Macha as sovereignty goddess of Ulster
(in origin).
• The horse as symbol of sovereignty.
• Magical paralysis (ces noinden). Compare
also geis also inflicted by women against
men.
• Explanation about why the Men of Ulster
could not fight to defend Ulster in the Tain
Bo Cuaigne.