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Wild Irish Roses
Tales of Brigits, Kathleens, and Warrior Queens
By Trina Robbins
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2004 Trina Robbins
All rights reserved.
WARRIOR GODDESSES, WARRIOR QUEENS
The Morrigan, Macha, and Badb
According to Irish mythology, the Tuatha De Danaan, a glamorous, godlike race, lived in Ireland before the Celts arrived. After the Celts landed their ships on Irish soil, there was a battle between the Tuatha De Danaan and the Celts, and the Celts won. The Tuatha De Danaan retreated to the island of Tir Nan Og, where they remained forever young, but they also moved into sidhes, those fairy hills that dot the Irish landscape, and the Irish people named them the Sidhe, after their hills. They continued to interact with the new, mortal inhabitants of Ireland for hundreds of years, even after the church demoted them to the status of fairies.
Like the Irish themselves, the Sidhe loved to fight and loved to love. Among their minions were three warrior-goddess sisters, Macha, Badb, and the Morrigan. The bloodthirsty three would take on the shape of ravens and fly above the scenes of battle, shrieking battle cries and egging their people on to victory.
Badb was the banshee, wailing over the dying. She was also the ominous Washer at the Ford, who predicted death. Sometimes a warrior who was doomed to fall in battle would see Badb as a beautiful young woman, weeping while she washed out bloody clothing in a river or stream. Then he would realize with horror that the bloody clothing was his.
All three sisters could morph into ravens, ancient crones, or comely young women. It was in the latter guise that they usually emerged from their hills to have a fling with whatever strapping young human stud caught their eye.
As did so many human women in those days, the Morrigan found herself attracted to the hero, Cuchulain, who preferred war to love and rebuffed her. Of course, it's bad luck to spurn a goddess, as Cuchulain learned. The angry goddess came against him in battle, and when the dust settled, both of them were the worse for wear.
Eventually the two became friends. Before Cuchulain's last battle, the Morrigan even tried to keep him from getting himself killed by breaking the shaft of his chariot. Cuchulain, too proud to pay attention, and also a little dim, ignored the warning and went to his death. And when he died, the Morrigan, in the shape of a crow, flew down and perched on his shoulder.
Being a natural troublemaker, maybe because she loved fighting so much, the Morrigan was also a cattle rustler. The ancient Irish held cattle to be so important that they counted their wealth in cows, and were forever stealing each others' herds. Once the Morrigan stole a cow belonging to a mortal woman named Odras, and tried to take it into her fairy hill. When Odras tried to get her cow back, the goddess turned the unfortunate woman into a pool of water.
The Morrigan outdid herself when she stole a magical cow of the Sidhe to mate with the great brown bull of Cooley. With this act, she put into motion the events that caused the great war between Ulster and Connaught known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
After mating the two animals, the Morrigan returned the cow to its fairy hill, and in due time the cow gave birth to a magical, talking calf. Shortly after that, the Sidhe went to war against the king and queen of Connaught, Ailill and Maeve. In the heat of battle, the fairy calf met and fought with Ailill's prize bull, the white bull of Connaught. Young upstart that he was, the calf lost the battle with the bull, and cried out, "If my father, the great brown bull of Cooley, was here, he'd beat you from Connaught to Ulster!" For the two bulls had been enemies before they were even born; they were reincarnations of two men of the Sidhe who had been sworn enemies in life.
When Maeve heard those words from the mouth of the remarkable calf, she exclaimed, "By the Goddess, I will neither eat, nor drink, nor will I sleep, until I see the great white bull fight the great brown bull!" Whereupon she tried to get the brown bull from its owner, and when he wouldn't give it up, she went to war with him and with all the people of Ulster.
All of this was the fault of the Morrigan, who, being a goddess, could foresee the future and knew darn well that she would cause a war.
For the Morrigan, love and war went together like a horse and carriage. One Samhain eve, before a great battle, the Dagda, king of the Tuatha De Danaan, strolled by the banks of the river Unius and ran into the Morrigan, who was bathing in the river. Naked and magnificent, with the nine locks of her hair unloosed, she stood with her right leg on one side of the river and her left leg on the other side (they were giants in those days).
The sight of her inflamed the Dagda, and as for the Morrigan, she never needed to be asked twice. The two of them went at it, then and there, on the grassy banks of the river, beneath the starry sky of Ireland. The Dagda must have been really good in bed, because the Morrigan was so delighted by his performance that she promised him victory in the next day's battle—and she had the power to do that.
Sure enough, the Tuatha De Danaan won the war. Then the Morrigan committed a gruesome act that reminds us just how long ago these tales were first told, and how savage were the people who told them. She scooped up two handsful of blood from the enemy dead and gave it to her tribe to drink!
No matter how much she lusted after some guy, the Morrigan was never nice. Her sister Macha, on the other hand, who was so nasty that the heads of warriors cut off in battle were called "Macha's acorn crop," made the mistake of sacrificing her fierce nature when she fell in love with the mortal, Crunden. Crunden was a poor but handsome widower, who lived in a lonely cottage in the Ulster hills. In her attempt to become the kind of woman he might go for, Macha gentled herself into a mortal woman. In the form of a beautiful woman, she marched through the astonished man's door one day, and commenced to make up the fire. She then swept the dust bunnies off the messy floor (Crunden, no house-keeper, had let his home go to seed), milked the cow, and whipped up some tasty oat cakes, all without saying a word. He must have thought he had died and gone to heaven, because that night she climbed into his bed, too. He awoke the next morning to discover she'd already chopped the wood, rounded up the cattle, shod his horse, and prepared him a steaming bowl of porridge.
They lived together happily after that. Crunden was too delighted with his good luck to ask questions, and anyway, Macha didn't supply any answers, because she never said a word. She must have eventually started to talk, though, because one day there was to be a big fair in Ulster, and Crunden announced his intention to go.
"Don't do it," she said.
"And why not?" he whined. "All the other guys are going. If I don't go, they'll say I'm henpecked."
Macha sighed. Men could be such children! "Go then," she said, "but at least promise not to mention me to anyone."
"No problem," said Crunden. And he went to the fair.
The most exciting part of the fair was always the annual chariot race, and this time it was won by the king's own stallions. While listening to the poets and minstrels praising the royal horses, Crunden couldn't keep his big mouth shut. He'd seen his wife perform some remarkable feats, and though she had told him nothing about her past, he knew that she was no ordinary woman.
So he spoke up. "That's nothing. My wife could outrun those horses."
There was a sudden silence, and everyone turned to stare at him. Already Crunden regretted having spoken. The king ordered, "Seize that man."
When the king's guards arrived at her cottage door, somehow Macha was not surprised. She knew that she shouldn't have let that handsome lout go anywhere by himself.
"What kind of trouble has he gotten himself into?" she asked.
"You'd best come with us," they replied.
Macha was nine months pregnant, but she gathered up her skirt, threw a shawl over her shoulders, and followed the guards to the fair, where the king and all the people waited for her.
"This man"—the king pointed to Crunden, cowering wretchedly in chains—"said that you could outrun my prize horses. Is this true?"
"And what if I can?" replied Macha.
"Then you must do it now," said the king. "Or your husband dies."
Macha threw off the shawl and displayed her big belly. "How can I run now, and me being nine months with child?" She demanded, "Have pity on me, and at least wait until my baby is born."
"Then put the man to the sword," ordered the king.
Macha appealed to the watching crowd. "Help me, people of Ulster, for every man of you had a mother."
But the crowd stood silent, waiting for the big show, and there was nothing to do but to race, pregnant as she was. Macha outran the horses, of course—after all, she was a goddess—but at the finish line she sank to her knees in the dirt and gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Goddess or not, she was in great pain, and screamed in her labor, and as soon as they heard her scream, all the men of Ulster were overcome with labor pains.
Macha cursed them. "For nine generations, you men of Ulster shall pay for what you did to me. When you most need your strength, when you're threatened by enemies, you'll be weak as a woman with child, and suffer the pangs of childbirth."
Thus the ancient capitol of Ulster, where this story took place, was called Emain Macha, or "the Twins of Macha." Some sources say that Macha died after this, but, as she was a goddess, that's pretty unlikely. No one recorded what happened to her babies. I think she left them with Crunden and departed in a huff to her fairy hill, vowing to have nothing more to do with mortal men.
THE OTHER MACHA
If we are to believe the monks who recorded Irish history in the seventh century, there was also a flesh-and-blood Macha, who lived in the fourth century. She was a warrior queen, and because of her flame-colored hair she was called Macha Ruadh, or Macha the Red. Her father, Aedh, was one of three brothers who took turns at ruling Ireland for seven years each. When all three king had served their terms, Aedh died, and Macha claimed his turn at the throne as her birthright. Her two uncles, Dithorba and Cimbaoth, refused to let her rule because she was a woman, so Macha solved the problem by marrying Cimbaoth and going to war against Dithorba. Defeating Dithorba, she ruled for seven years until another problem popped up: Dithorba's sons, now grown, wanted the throne for themselves.
Fiery as her hair, Macha was not one to give in. Disguised as a leper, she went looking for the five sons. She found them sitting around a campfire in the forest, after a day of hunting. Macha's beauty must have shone through her disguise, because leper or not, after sharing their food with her, one by one the brothers took her into the forest with sex on their minds. What they got was overpowered and trussed up like pigs, while Macha went to fetch the next brother. Then she dragged the lot of them back to Ulster, where she forced them to build a fort for her.
Macha unfastened the brooch that held her cape, and with its pin, she marked out the boundaries of the fort she wanted built. Thus, goes the story, her fort was called Emain Macha, or "Macha's brooch." You have your choice of etymologies for the phrase.
Maeve and Findabair
Maeve, the scandalous queen of Connaught in ancient Ireland, was a warrior queen. In her gilded chariot she led her people to battle against the men of Ulster during that great war called the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Findabair was Maeve's lovely daughter. Maeve was no slouch in the looks department herself, as her many lovers would have told you, and she was a fierce woman, used to being in control. She certainly lorded it over her henpecked husband, King Ailill, telling him that no husband of hers could be jealous, because she always had one man in the shadow of another. Ailill knew full well that he was king only because of Maeve, for she had been married three times before, and each of her husbands had owed their kingship to her. You couldn't be king in Connaught unless you were married to Maeve.
It was hard enough for Findabair to have such a domineering mother, because this beautiful princess—her name meant Fair Brow—was also a feisty gal. But it was worse when Maeve tried to meddle in her daughter's love life.
Froech was only half-mortal. His mother was one of the Sidhe, the godlike fairy folk of Ireland, and she had given her son a gift of twelve red and white cows from the shadow world. In a land where cattle were highly valued and cows were even worshipped as goddesses, these cows were very special. They gave the sweetest milk in all of Ireland.
Findabair had heard tales of Froech's beauty, and she fell in love with him without ever having seen him. She talked to the right people, who talked to the right people, and word got to Froech that the daughter of Queen Maeve was in love with him. He loaded his chariots with gifts of gold and silver and precious stones, and, with his men and horses and hounds and harpers, set out for Maeve's castle in Connaught.
When the people of Connaught saw Froech and his band coming up over the hill to the castle, all that gold and silver dazzled their eyes. But Maeve's eyes were especially dazzled by the handsome young Froech, and after graciously accepting his gifts, she pulled out her golden chessboard with silver chess pieces, and invited him to play. They played chess without stopping for three days and three nights, and Froech was careful to let Maeve win every game.
Finally, Maeve returned to her senses, and called for meat and drink. After three straight days of chess, she was starving, and, holding a joint of venison in one hand and a drinking horn brimming with ale in the other, she got around to asking the purpose of Froech's visit.
"I've come to ask for the hand of your daughter," replied Froech.
Maeve was disappointed. She had wanted this magnificent specimen for herself, so she slumped back in her throne, sulked, and said nothing. Finally, Ailill spoke up. "You can have Findabair if you pay the bride price I ask."
"Name your price," said Froech.
Ailill was feeling greedy. After all, he reasoned, this part-fairy suitor should be able to give them anything they wanted. So he said, "Sixty gray horses with gold bridles, and your twelve red and white cows, with a white calf for each cow, and all your men and musicians to aid us in our battle with Ulster." For Maeve and Ailill were already preparing for war.
Froech was appalled. "I wouldn't give that much for Maeve herself," he exclaimed, and stomped out of the hall.
Froech walked down to the river to calm himself, and who should be bathing in the water but fair Findabair? He immediately recognized her, because only Maeve's daughter could be so lovely, and she of course knew by his otherworldly beauty that he must be Froech.
"Your father's giving me a hard time," he told her. "Let's just run away together."
"Run away with you indeed," cried Findabair. "And I a king's daughter? It's a proper wedding we'll have, as befits a princess, the finest Ireland has ever seen. Don't worry, Daddy will come around. And meanwhile, here's a token of my love."
She took a gold ring off her finger and gave it to him. "It was a gift from Daddy but if he asks, I'll say I lost it."
They didn't know that, watching from the topmost tower of the castle, Ailill could see his daughter take something shiny off her finger and give it to Froech, who put it into the leather pouch he wore on his belt. He had a pretty good idea as to what it was.
"Our daughter gave that boy my ring," he told Maeve. "She's going to run off with him, and we'll be disgraced."
"Then we'll simply have to kill him," replied the ever-practical Maeve.
The next day Maeve and Ailill acted like nothing had happened. Along with Findabair, they took Froech hunting. Around noon, they escaped the heat of the day by resting in the cool shadows of a grove of trees that grew around a dark lake in the forest. Maeve said, "I hear you're a good swimmer, Froech. I would love a branch of those red berries that are growing there, on the other side of the lake. Will you get them for me?"
Maeve knew that a serpent lived in the lake, an Irish version of the Loch Ness Monster. Clueless Froech stripped and jumped into the water. Findabair, watching, had never in her life seen anything as beautiful as his perfect body, and she resolved that, no matter what her parents tried, she wouldn't let him come to harm. As Froech swam to the other side of the lake, Ailill picked up his leather pouch, shook out the ring, and tossed it into the water. He turned away then, and didn't see a big salmon leap from the water and swallow the ring, but Froech did, and he caught the salmon in his hands and hid it under some bushes by the lakeside. Then he swam back with a branch of berries, which he presented to Maeve.
Disappointed that the monster hadn't shown up, Maeve gave it one more try. She finished the berries and exclaimed, "These berries were so delicious! Could you bring me just one more branch?"
Doing his best to make Findabair's mother happy, Froech jumped into the water again. This time he was out of luck; the monster surfaced and attacked him. Froech, wrestling with the monster, called out, "A sword! A sword!" but none of the king's men dared help him, so they just stood there in silence. Not so Findabair. Quickly she pulled off her clothes, and, sword in her teeth, dove into the water and swam as close as she dared. She tossed the sword to Froech, who sliced off the monster's head and carried it to shore.
Excerpted from Wild Irish Roses by Trina Robbins. Copyright © 2004 Trina Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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