Pronounced, Mah-ka, this particular goddess shifts characteristics and professions throughout Irish mythology; a deathly crow, a battle queen, and a winsome sidhe. She is one of 3 daughters Macha, Badb, and Morrigan, collectively known as the Morrigan, and are the daughters of Ernmas, an Irish mother Goddess, and Delbaeth, High King of Ireland. They are also the sisters of another triplicity of Goddesses: Banba, Eriu, and Fodla, Goddesses of Irish sovereignty. Where the latter three Goddesses embodied the sovereignty of Ireland, the former three protected it, through war but also through life. There are actually three Irish mythological figures named Macha, and only one is warlike: Macha Mong Ruadh (Macha of the red hair), who fought to become queen after her father the king had died. Another Macha, the wife of Nemed, who led the Nemedians into Ireland, died shortly after their arrival, but not before prophesying the arrival of the third Macha. This third Macha appeared one day at the home of a widowed farmer and became his wife, and he soon became very prosperous. When he wanted to attend the Assembly of Ulster, Macha did not want him to go, but relented on the condition that he not mention her name. Unfortunately, the farmer boasted to the King of Ulster that his wife was faster than the king’s horses, and she was dragged to Ulster to race against the horses. Macha was heavily pregnant with twins at the time, but she still managed to beat the horses. After crossing the finish line, she went into labor, delivered the twins, and then died. As her dying words, she cursed the men of Ulster, saying that in the time of their greatest difficulty, they too would suffer the pains of labor and childbirth.
Macha’s name, which means “plain” (as in flat land), resounds throughout Irish mythology and history. The first Macha, wife of Nemed, was buried at Ard Macha (hill of Macha), now known as Armagh. The place where the third Macha gave birth became the capital of Ulster, Emain Macha (Macha’s twins). The hero Cuchulainn is given a horse by Anu named Liath Macha (gray of Macha).
In more detail, the tale of Macha the Red tells of Macha who was the daughter of Aed, one of three kings who took turns ruling. When Aed died Macha rose to take his place on the throne. Dithorba and Cimbieth objected to this so Macha challenged them to battle. Macha defeated the other two kings and thus came to rule by not only inheritance, but by conquest.
At this point the tale differs, which I believe is dependent on how the word ‘cailleach’ is defined. Gods & Heros of the Celts by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt tells us that Macha came upon the men as a beautiful woman, as cailleach is translated here as ‘the local Goddess’. Other versions of the tale list that She came upon them as a hag or leper which could be resulting from a derogatory association of a crone, which cailleach is also translated as, perhaps a more modern definition to discredit the original. The tale continues that in this guise She used Her sexual wiles to lure the men, in order from the youngest to oldest, away from the others and into the forest where She bound them by Her magick. It is thus said that She bound them by Her magick and then taught them by Her magick. Afterwards the sons of Dithorba built the fort temple at Emain Macha where they remained in the service of “the Mighty Goddess” for the rest of their lives.
Emain Macha is not the only location in Ireland bearing the name and a tale of Macha. There is also the “Plain of Macha” and the “Hill of Macha”. Perhaps it is from this that the idea of Macha as a group of Goddesses arises. In “Gods and Heros of the Celts”, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt lists Macha as a group of seasonal Goddesses that were matronesses of the great feasts and the sacred sites they were held upon.
There is also a tale of Macha working with the land when the people first arrived to Ireland. It is said that the land was so densely forested that the people could not grow food and their animals could not graze. Macha came with Her Great Axe and cleared the land for the people. This further ties Macha to the forests as it was also in the forests that She bound the sons of Dithorba.
This tale and all of these land areas bearing the name of Macha and the seasonal indications bring us to Macha as land Goddess and Goddess of Sovereignty. These aspects can also been seen in the outlay of Emain Macha being based upon Macha’s cloak pin. Nicholas R. Mann furthers this association in Druid Magic where he describes a dream that leads him to the knowledge that if the sacred center of Pagan Ulster, Emain Macha, is based upon Macha’s brooch pin then the trees and landscape of Ireland would serve as Her cloak. To me, this further reinforces Emain Macha as spiritual and political center of Pagan Ulster. The sacred land would be Her mantle of sovereignty from which the chosen ruler would lead the peoples. Being that leaders previously held their role in strong connection to the land and its sovereignty, this would seem to make Macha an integral part of the landscape, the rulers and the people as well as making connections to the fertility of the land. These ideas also lead us back to her association as a Horse Goddess as the horse carries a strong tie to sovereignty for the Celtic peoples.
Perhaps the most well known attribute of Macha is as a part of the Morrighan. It is within this group that Macha is known as one of the Battle Goddesses of the Tuatha De Danann. It is interesting to note that in this group the magical abilities of Macha come to the forefront again. It is said that as part of the Morrighan Macha used no weapon, only her magic.
Her stories indicate that she is the initiator of new phases in life and also in death, which to the ancient Celts was just an extension of this life. She runs fast, acts decisively and kills without compassion. She is a goddess of far reaching power and should be honored with respect and deference, but not fear. She gives us a place to find our own strength and courage to achieve our own goals and dreams.