Queer Folklore: M Is for Macha, Mythical Irish Queens of Misandry

There are numerous mythical women named Macha in Ireland. None of them were good news for the men they encountered.

Macha, wife of Crunniac

This Macha was a fairy woman with the poor taste to fall in love with a human peasant. She announced this love by turning up in his house one day and acting like they were married. Apparently he just rolled with it. Crunniac by all accounts wasn’t very bright. Now being married to a fairy woman in Celtic myth was a guarantee of wealth until you did something appallingly stupid and made her angry (which the human husband always eventually did), and Crunniac got accordingly rich. Then, just to round off his blessings, she got pregnant with twins, with a due date falling just after the annual agricultural festival and market.

Crunniac happily trotted off to the festival, after first promising his magic wife that yes, he would keep her existence a secret. He then got wildly drunk and boasted to the king of Ulster about his wife who was faster than the king’s horses. Horses being the sports cars of the day the king wasn’t exactly happy about this and, apparently being a bit of a bastard, decided that he was going to have the lady run a race against his horses and execute her husband if she lost. Upon being summoned she asked, quite reasonably, if she could just wait until after she’d given birth but the king wasn’t having it; she was to run immediately or default on the race.

So the lady ran, won the race and immediately went into labour and died. But before she died she laid the best curse in history onto the men of Ulster; that for the next nine generations they would spend five days of the year experiencing what it was like to be in labour, and that it would always happen at the least convenient time.

Moral of the story: don’t be a dick to pregnant people. Obviously. You shouldn’t need a morality tale to tell you this.

Macha Mong Ruad

Though no official rule was in place to keep women from attaining the kingship in practice it was pretty much impossible. Unlike most places with a king, Irish kings, rather than inheriting the position, were actually elected from a pool of candidates with a qualifying blood tie to the throne. Now, while Ireland was better than a lot of its contemporaries when it came to women, their social position and legal rights, no one was voting for a girl to take the kingship. It just wasn’t happening.

Enter Macha Mong Ruad (Macha the red head) who decided, fuck it, if they weren’t going to give her candidacy serious consideration because she was a woman then who needed democracy anyway? Macha’s father had been involved in a very unwise timeshare kingship deal with two of his cousins, Díthorba and Cimbáeth, and when he died Macha declared that she was the king now and everyone who didn’t like it could bite her. Her co-kings, not about to pass up the chance to extend their throne time and really not willing to share with a girl, immediately started a war.

They lost.

She killed Díthorba but, in a genderswapped twist on the classic legitimisation tactic, married Cimbáeth. This came with the additional bonus of qualifying her children for kingship in the future because of the bizarre patrilineal way inheritance worked.* Technically she made him her co-ruler but when your army has been smashed to pieces by your spouse how much ruling are you actually going to be doing?

Now Díthorba’s sons were understandably upset and this is where things gets obviously mythical. Depending on whether you find the idea of a female ruler seizing power plausible this is either a fairly classic case of divine attributes being attached to a prominent mortal ruler as their mythology grows over the centuries, or it proves that Macha had never been a real woman in the first place and was instead a sovereignty goddess euhemerised by Christian monks.

Having apparently failed to learn anything from the crushing defeat of their father and his cousin the three boys made war on her and lost. Unlike the last time when she was content to let them go on their way, presumably foreseeing regular irritating warfare if she didn’t, she chased them down into the wilderness disguised as a leper who nonetheless managed to seduce all three of them. But, instead of having sex with them, she tied them up, dragged them back to Ulster and made them build her a palace because that’s what you do when you’re as out of fucks to give as Macha Mong Ruad.

Moral of the Story: Look, if a woman defeats you in battle, you really just need to give up and admit that you lost. Otherwise things are going to get embarrassing for you. Also maybe vote for women to be high king sometimes.

Macha the Morigna

One of the earliest versions of the Morrigan in her triad form featured Macha. Sister to Anand (who also gets to be known as Morrigan individually for some reason) and Badb, together as the Morrigan they raise hell during the war with the Fir Bolg (Ireland’s race of monstrous beings). Macha is killed during this war though, and later replaced by Nemain.

Moral of the Story: Oh look, there isn’t really one. Just don’t be stupid and don’t be rude to any old ladies standing near a river, especially if they’re washing bloodied clothes.

Some people say these Machas were all one goddess, governing horses, war and kingship. I think this is a bit like how that one pope decided all the women in the bible called Mary were the same person. While it’s clear that a lot of the figures called Macha in Irish myth were related to each other in some way (the above are just a selection) that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were all the same goddess or even that Macha Mong Ruad wasn’t a real woman named after one (note: this is not a good argument to make in a scholarly essay. Do not cite me). Draw your own conclusions, fight the idea that historical women are all fictional and kick exactly as much ass as the Macha of your choice.

*Women could inherit but they could only pass ten percent of their possessions on to their children, the rest passing back to their own father’s family along with any titles. This was because you only counted as a member of your father’s family, not your mother’s, even if your mother was an heiress with a big ass army. The belief that Celts lived in a matriarchy is sadly not an accurate one.

Siobhan has degrees in information management and medieval history making her lots of fun at parties. She's written for Dirge, Biscuit and Diva and is currently working on a book on the supernatural women of Ireland for Wolfenhowle Press (and if you want to help feed her while she works on it you can check out her patreon here.

Siobhan has written 34 articles for us.

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