Macha: War Goddess of Ancient Ireland

The Celtic gods and goddesses belonged to the supernatural Tuath Dé Danann: beings from the Otherworld. These previous inhabitants of ancient Ireland became gods amongst men, fighting off the Fomorian threat and teaching their ways to those that came after. Of the Tuath Dé Danann, the deity named Macha stands out as being particularly vengeful.

From the harshness of her stride to her strong will, it is no wonder that Macha is a goddess of war. It is said that she joined forces with her two sisters to make up the Mórrígan and has since been the bane of man’s existence. However, her role in the history of ancient Ireland is much more than that of a blood-soaked deity and evidence of her overbearing influence still survives today.

Who is Macha?

macha goddess
Macha Curses the Men of Ulster by Stephen Reid

Macha is one of several Celtic war goddesses. She is one of the more common characters in Irish myth, noted for her beauty and brutality. Her symbols include crows and acorns. Whilst the crow referred to her associations with the Mórrígan, the acorns represent the fertility of this Irish goddess.

The goddess is first mentioned in the 7th-century De Origine Scoticae Linguae, more familiarly called O’Mulconry’s Glossary. There, Macha is called the “scald crow” and confirmed to be the third member of the Mórrígan. In case Macha’s reputation as a war goddess wasn’t enough to convince you of her penchant for violence, O’Mulconry’s Glossary also notes that “Macha’s crop” referred to the scattered heads of slaughtered men.

Phew – anyone else suddenly gets a chill down their spine?

What Does Macha Mean?

The name “Macha” means “field” or “a plain of land” in Irish. Though this little detail probably has to do with her role as a sovereignty goddess, there is speculation that Macha could be an aspect of the great Danu. Traditionally a mother goddess, Danu has also been characterized as the Earth itself. Therefore, the whole relation to a fertile field line up sort of nicely – if this were the case, that is.

Macha is related to the Scottish Gaelic “machair,” a fertile, grassy plain. Additionally, several locations within ancient Ireland are connected to Macha: Ard Mhacha, Magh Mhacha, and Emain Mhacha.

Macha: War Goddess of Ancient Ireland 2
The Machair towards West beach, Isle of Berneray, Outer Hebrides

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How Do You Pronounce Macha in Irish?

In Irish, Macha is pronounced as MOKH-uh. When dealing with names of characters in Irish myth, many are Gaelic in origin. They are a part of the Celtic language family, of which there are four living languages today: Cornish, Breton, Irish, Manx Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh. Both Cornish and Manx Gaelic are considered revived languages since both have once been extinct.

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What is Macha the Goddess Of?

Macha is a Celtic goddess of horses, alongside Epona, as well as war. As a sovereignty goddess, Macha is further associated with fertility, kingship, and land. Different variations of Macha throughout Celtic mythology have highlighted specific aspects of her, from her swiftness to her fondness for curses.

Is Macha One of the Mórrígan?

In Celtic mythology, the Mórrígan is a goddess of war, victory, fate, death, and destiny. Sometimes described as a tripartite, the Mórrígan could also refer to three separate war deities. Macha is thought to be one of the three goddesses that make up the fearsome Mórrígan.

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Relating to her identity as a member of the Mórrígan, Macha has also been called by the names Danu and Badb. If not one of the Mórrígan, the goddess Macha was decidedly her sister instead. She is additionally theorized as an aspect of the Mórrígan.

An illustration of Morrigan by André Koehne

What are Sovereignty Goddesses?

A sovereignty goddess personifies a territory. Through marriage or sexual relations with a king, the goddess would grant sovereignty unto him. In the case of Macha, she is the sovereignty goddess of the province of Ulster.

Sovereignty goddesses are a unique set of female deities almost exclusive to Celtic mythology. While Macha is considered a sovereignty goddess, there are other sovereignty goddesses in Irish myths and legends. Other interpretations of Irish sovereignty goddesses include Badbh Catha and Queen Medb. The Arthurian Guenevere and Welsh Rhiannon are also counted by scholars as sovereignty goddesses.

Macha in Celtic Mythology

Macha appears in a handful of myths and legends in various forms. She is heavily present in the Ulster Cycle, although some manifestation of her is present in the Mythological Cycle and the Cycle of the Kings as well.

There are several figures called Macha in Irish myth. The true Macha, regardless of myth, was certainly a member of the Tuath Dé Danann. The mythical race had tons of different abilities, from supernatural strength to supernatural speed, an ability that Macha had displayed. If not an active member of the Tuath Dé Danann, then the Machas in mythology are direct descendants.

John Duncan’s Riders of the Sidhe – Tuatha de Dannan

Macha – Daughter of Partholón

Macha was the daughter of the ill-fated king, Partholón. Having come from Greece bearing a curse, Partholón had hoped that fleeing his homeland would alleviate him of it. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, a 17th-century chronicle of Irish history, Partholón arrived in 2520 Anno Mundi, roughly 1240 BCE.

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Of all the Machas that appear in Celtic mythos, the daughter of Partholón is undoubtedly the most mysterious. And not the cool, edgy sort of mysterious, either. No, this Macha was one of ten daughters; one of thirteen children in all. Otherwise, her possible accomplishments and ultimate fate are entirely lost to history.

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Macha – Wife of Nemed

The next Macha of Celtic myth is Macha, wife of Nemed. The people of Nemed were the third to settle in Ireland. They arrived a whole thirty years after the remaining descendants of Partholón were wiped out in a plague. For reference, Partholón’s descendants lived in Ireland for roughly 500 years; the year would now be 740 BCE.

Thought to be a saintly woman, loyal wife, and wielder of magic, Macha died twelve years (or twelve days) after Clann Nemed came to Ireland. Regardless of when she died, her death rocked the community since she was the first to die since their arrival.

Macha – Daughter of Ernmas

As the daughter of Ernmas, a prominent member of the Tuath Dé Danann, this Macha was the sister of Badb and Anand. Together, they made up the Mórrígan. The three fought in The First Battle of Magh Turedh with magic. Eventually, Macha is killed alongside the first king of the Tuath Dé Danann, Nuada, who is thought to be her husband.

Macha Mong Ruadh – Daughter of Aed Ruadh

The fourth Macha in Irish mythology is Macha Mong Ruadh (Macha “Red-Haired”). She is the daughter of red-weaponed Aed Ruadh (“Red Fire”). Macha stripped the power from the co-kings, Cimbaeth and Dithorba, that refused to acknowledge her right to rule after her father’s death. The rebellion staged by Dithorba’s sons was swiftly put down and Macha took Cimbaeth as her husband.

Pretty much, she’s winning and making power moves left and right. Politically, Macha had all her bases covered. The people of Ulaid, the Ulstermen, loved their co-rulers and Macha proved herself to be a capable queen. There was only one issue: the sons of the now-dead Dithorba were still alive and could lay claim to his position as one of the Three High Kings despite their treason.

The sons of Dithorba were hiding out in Connacht, which Macha couldn’t let stand. She disguised herself, seduced each one, and…tied each of them up to return them to Ulster for justice, Red Dead Redemption style. After their return, she enslaved them. On the list of the High Kings of Ireland, Macha is the only queen.

Macha – Fairy Wife of Cruinniuc

The final Macha we’ll be discussing in Celtic myth is Macha, the second wife of a wealthy Ulsterman cattle farmer, Cruinniuc. You see, Cruinniuc was a widower that generally minded his own business. That is until he found a beautiful woman just hanging out in his house one day. Instead of doing what most normal people would do, Cruinniuc was like “this is great, totally not weird or anything” and married her.

As it turns out, Macha was of the Tuath Dé Danann and by extension, pretty supernatural. She soon became pregnant. The couple has twins, named Fír and Fial (“True” and “Modest”), but not before Cruinniuc ruins his marriage and the Ulstermen are cursed. Let’s just say whatever happened was a slippery slope.

What Was the Curse of Macha?

The curse of Macha, or The Debility of the Ulstermen, was bestowed by Macha, wife of Cruinniuc. While attending a festival held by the King of Ulster, Cruinniuc bragged that his wife could easily outrun the king’s prized horses. No biggie, right? Actually, Macha had specifically told her husband to not mention her at the festival, which he promised he wouldn’t do.

The King of Ulster took grave offense to the comment and threatened to kill Cruinniuc if he could not prove his claims. Someone and we’re not naming names, but someone blew Husband of the Year. Also, since Macha was super pregnant at the time, Cruinniuc also blew Father of the Year. Big oof.

Anyways, since Cruinniuc would be killed if Macha didn’t race the king’s horses – oh yeah, the King of Ulster had zero chill – she obliged. Macha raced the horses and won. However, she went into labor and birthed twins at the finish line. Since Macha was wronged, betrayed, and humiliated by the men of Ulster, she cursed them to become “weak as a woman in childbirth” during their time of greatest need.

In all, the curse was said to last nine generations and the supernatural weakness would last five days. The curse of Macha is used to explain the weakness of Ulster men during the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). Well, all the Ulster men save for the Hound of Ulster, the demi-god Cú Chulainn. He was just built different, if we count the ability to turn into a raging monster as being “built different.”

The Cattle Raid of Cooley
The Cattle Raid of Cooley

What are the Cycles of Celtic Mythology?

There are four cycles – or periods – in Celtic mythology: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Cycles of the Kings. Scholars have used these cycles as ways to group literature dealing with different periods of time in Irish legends. For example, the Mythological Cycle is composed of literature dealing with the mystical Tuath Dé Danann. By comparison, the later Cycles of the Kings handles Old and Middle Irish literature detailing the ascensions of legendary kings, establishments of dynasties, and harrowing battles.

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