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The Shieldmaiden Blog

Jan - 14

Macha: She would not stand down

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 becomesMacha 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.

18 comments on Macha: She would not stand down

  1. Cheryl says:

    I love this blog post. I whole-heartedly agree with your viewpoint on the conflicting sources and unreliability of sources when it comes to Macha and many other Gods and Goddesses. I have always thought that it was almost silly and vain of us to try and make deities fit into a neat little category. Even humans are many things all wrapped up into one. A woman, for example, was once a girl, and can be a wife, a sister, a mother, an artist, a singer, etc.–so why wouldn’t a Goddess be able to be more than just one thing, more than one category. And as people change and grow over time, I would expect a Goddess to change with Her people, to meet the needs of the time and teach the lessons that that time calls for.

    I could go on and on, but I will just say that I enjoyed reading this post, and it warms my heart to discover others who are as touched by the Morrigan as I have found myself to be. Where I live it is extremely rare to find someone with like experiences. I will definitely be reading more of your blog!

  2. Carrie says:

    Coming onto this discussion a bit late but had to comment.
    I don’t see why it is so difficult for people to accept the varied personality traits of a deity when we posses the same qualities ourselves. Also mainstream christian society has no problem accepting a god who is warlike while at the same time passing himself off as a god of love (and let’s face it, most of us believed that story at one time in our lives). This is what happens when folks try to compartmentalize life. Life is not like that. It is messy and confusing and gloriously chaotic. I have no problem believing that my gods and goddesses are the same.

  3. Ken says:

    I wonder if the conflict between epithets comes from the commentators view Macha.

    If the commentator views Macha as unreal and as some personification of “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” and views “battle, slaughter, and carnage” as a separate personification, I can see why they might view this as inconsistent. Their worldview might skew the first set as good and the second as bad and cause an apparent conflict of interests.

    I also speculate that could be born from the fact that in our current society, it is not as common for the average person to experience all of these things on a day tot day basis.

    Exellent post and thank you for a new archaeological source of knowledge.
    Once I’m on a network that wont block podcasts, I’ll investigate further.

  4. Valiel says:

    Thanks for the resources, and the following meditation.

  5. Jessica says:

    Thank you. Life is complicated. Why would our Gods not be? It’s meaningful to see a Goddess who is associated with bright things like wealth, fertility, land also be the same Goddess that holds the association with battle, carnage, and death. And it is not another face of this Goddess. It is the SAME face, the same one that holds those bright things. This is juicy and interesting and I love it!

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thanks, Jessica. I’m reminded of a phrase I sometimes see in the scholarly literature where, for example, the war Goddess is described as “the land Goddess in Her war mien”, or similar. I like that term because it suggests that we’re looking at the same face, but expressive of different moods, or modes of action.

  6. Sylvie Kaos says:

    I have to work to see where there is a conflict between Goddess of Life and Goddess of Death too. Maybe its a Pagan thing. Maybe Pagan God’s should be essayed from a Pagan worldview.

  7. Lisa H. says:

    I think it quite possible that They can show such seemingly disparate personalities to different individuals or groups (such as various tuatha), yet still be a single entity and all these epithets quite “correct”. Certainly this makes sense if we think they are, or can be, humanlike; humans show different faces or play different roles in different groups all the time. I think it still makes sense if they are essentially very dissimilar to mortal men, too, in the way that rain patterns or the shape of the land can be very different even for people living quite close together geographically. Interaction between patterns, spheres, energies, whatever can look different from different points of view.

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thanks for these insights, Lisa. I think you’re right on target here. If the Gods are embodiments of greater forces and powers, one would expect Them to have room for complexity.

  8. Amy Hale says:

    As ever, you raise some great points here. I think it’s also useful to keep in mind that the literary traditions surrounding deities or deity type figures may present a different aspect of character and focus that we might find documented in religious practice. For instance, in the case of Aphrodite, her literary depiction and her cultic activity frequently show a different emphasis. Also, the categories that ancient peoples had were often vastly different than our own, so it can be hard for us to get our heads around these seemingly contradictory ideas that seem so fixed. With all the literary materials in particular we are dealing with numerous complex contexts for cultural production and also for scholarly interpretation.

    1. Morpheus, this is just great. Thank you. I appreciate the call to question our assumptions, our sources, and to fully engage to listen and look for deeper lessons.

      I think we need to do this with text, with handed down story, and with our own experiences. To do this is to continue a living tradition, one that has arms outstretched and eyes open. One that is grounded and seeks the Mystery.

      As for life and death, as I just wrote today in my piece on abortion for the 41st anniversary of Roe v Wade:

      “I honor the cycles of life. I honor the cycles of death. I honor my power, as a priestess, to hold out a hand to both. I clasp those hands, bringing life and death together.”

      Excluding life from death or death from life leads us to dis-integration.

      And sometimes we have to fight for the life we love.

      (if anyone is interested in the RoevWade piece:

      1. Didn’t mean to leave this as a comment to Dr. Hale – who also makes great points.

      2. Morpheus says:

        Great piece, Thorn, and thanks for your comments here too. All this is reflective of something that is often apparent to me, that we moderns have a peculiar desire to compartmentalize human experience, and particularly anything to do with death. To the extent that we can put ourselves in the mindset of ancient peoples, they don’t seem to have experienced the world this way.

        1. Helen says:

          I think that we moderns, in particular Americans, have a differing view on war/carnage. And, w/the development of technology, the scope of war has changed/become engorged. So, our difficulties w/ accepting that both faces can be the same Face is reflecting our difficulties w/ these different topics.

          Mayhap this is part of the path to peace…..meaning less wars. Tho it seems that currently it’s meant that war happens “away”/exported: where the literal fighting takes place.

          Perhaps become more peaceful is like many a parent teaches their child “use your words”.

    2. Morpheus says:

      Thanks, Amy. I think the point you mention about contexts for cultural production is an important one that is often missed. All of these documents were produced for particular reasons, often contemporary political ones, and for particular audiences. That’s seen most easily in things like the Annals of Kings, but these influences are more subtly present in the sagas and mythological texts as well. The motivation of the chroniclers is always present.

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