The other night, I was listening again to one of the excellent Story Archaeology podcasts – the episode on Macha. And by the way, I highly recommend the entire Story Archaeology podcast series. I don’t always agree 100% with their intepretive angles, but the podcast and associated blog provides a wealth of wonderful detail and depth on Irish mythology, including original translations of some key early Irish poems.
Anyway: Macha. In the discussion, the podcasters cover Her deep associations with the land as living pasture, wealth and fertility, horses as embodiment and vessel of wealth, status, sovereignty, as well as connections to fire and the sun. They then wonder, if these qualities of brightness, life, land, and wealth are who and what She is, why is She also spoken of in connection with battle, slaughter, and carnage? Their conclusion on this question then seems to be that Macha’s bloody epithets don’t fit with the rest of Her identity, and are therefore incorrect.
You can probably guess I’m going to disagree. But I also think that the entire question is worthy of a long look. Because like the best questions, it is a fertile one: it spawns a whole new generation of questions after it. About theology, about scholarship, about how we source our understandings of the Gods.
Can Macha be both life and land, as well as battle and blood? Must the Gods necessarily be rational and consistent in Their qualities and spheres of action? If They’re not, how do we identify Them? How do we filter and interpret the information we receive from history?
For myself, I have no trouble embracing the idea that Macha would be called the Sun of Womanhood, and embody the bright, fertile field, the wealth and power of the royal horses it nourishes, and the ordering and civilizing function of sovereignty, AND that She would be one who revels in the slaughter and harvests the bloody heads of the slain like acorns. I actually have to work to see where there is a conflict here. Because the fields that grow the shining grass, the fields where the royal horses run, become the fields of battle too. Because land becomes territory, and territory is tribal politics, and tribal politics is war. Because in ancient Celtic society, kingship is in large part warlordship, and the horse is ever the symbol of this: the ubiquitous title attached to many of the ancient kings in the mythological cycle, Eochaid, means ‘horse-lord’ . Because the sacredness of horses in Celtic society cannot be decoupled from elite/royal status and from their function as animals of warfare. We have etymological and mythological evidence suggesting this as a historical transformation of early Celtic Goddesses such as Macha from primarily land-Goddesses to territorial, protective, and warlike Goddesses. Eventually we also see the semi-historical heroine Macha Mongruad carrying the name, and a story that is all about territory, sovereignty, and battle, in which the horse has disappeared. Somewhere Macha becomes one of the Morrígna – sometimes given as a sister of the Morrígan, sometimes as another name of the Morrígan Herself.
I think Macha’s mythology can serve to remind us that all mythologies are collected images and stories, from traditions that necessarily contain huge amounts of variation, diversity, and that evolved over time. This is especially true of tribal-oriented societies like the ancient Celts, for whom national identity as ‘Irish’ or even ‘Celtic’ was probably far secondary to tribal identity, and we have to imagine that the attributes and stories of the Gods varied from tuath to tuath. We should never expect to be able to fit tribal Gods into consistent pantheons, with rational and consistent attributes, without overlap and blurring of functions and domains, or without theological paradox.
Her story also forces us to contemplate the sources of our theological lore, and to explore all those questions about how we evaluate those sources:
If we have lore purporting to describe mid-Iron age heroic sagas, written down by 8th-10th century Christians, how do we measure that against apparently conflicting lore about early Iron Age mythological literature, written down by 12th-13th century Christians? Against data from folk-stories about the history of the land? From early medieval annals of kings?
If a piece of information appears in a text we consider a primary source because of its age, is it automatically correct? Is it possible for data we receive from our source texts to be wrong? Misunderstood or misinterpreted by the chronicler? How would we know?
If all of our text sources were written down by Christians recording the parts of older Pagan Celtic mythology that they had already abandoned theologically but still thought worth recording, can we actually say that we have any primary source texts at all?
If all of our Irish mythological literature comes through the voice of Christian scholarship, what is actually the difference between a primary text source and a secondary source or an interpretive literature? Is archaeology our only primary source material? Wait, doesn’t that rely on the interpretation of the archaeologist?
If we have no sources for information that are direct and primary, how do we make sense of apparent conflicts in the lore? Whose voice is authoritative?
I think the intelligent position to take when reading the complex lore of a figure like Macha, is not to say “this piece of lore must be wrong because it doesn’t seem to fit my image of Her.” At the same time, I also think we have to be more sophisticated in our understanding of the sources than to treat them all as some kind of unquestionable gospel. What we must do is read them as what they are: the voices of medieval people who were themselves musing, contemplating, and exploring the traditions of their ancestors. We must try to see them as a collection of different voices, telling these stories from a range of human perspectives. To remember that each of these voices is filtering a collection of human experiences and traditions – the way this or that tuath related to Macha, in this or that time period, as remembered by this or that storyteller. This voice here tells of a love of peace, order, sovereignty, the fertile body of the land, the sleek shining horses. This voice here tells of the bloody carnage wrought by petty medieval kings in their lifetime, and how they still felt Her presence in those fields, red instead of golden. This voice here hints of the rituals their ancestors once practiced – the ceremonial horse races, the kingship rites, the sacrifices, the women’s birthing rites. This voice here tells of a people clinging to the folk memory of a bright battle leader and proud Queen.
Finally, it comes down to your own voice, doesn’t it? We don’t get to passively receive this lore. We have to engage it, find our own way into it, make sense of it in a conscious act of interpretation. We have to walk into the stories and meet Macha in Her own realm, search out what Her face looks like to each of us, how She lives and speaks to us now. Macha who gave birth to the twins also brings us face to face with contradiction and paradox. She challenges us. She will not let us stand down.