Macha is a goddess of ancient Ireland, associated with war, horses, sovereignty, and the sites of Armagh and Eamhain Mhacha in County Armagh, which are named after her. A number of figures called Macha appear in Irish mythology, legend and historical tradition, all believed to derive from the same deity.
A poem in the Lebor Gabála Érenn mentions Macha as one of the daughters of Partholón, leader of the first settlement of Ireland after the flood, although it records nothing about her.
Various sources record a second Macha as the wife of Nemed, leader of the second settlement of Ireland after the flood. She was the first of Nemed’s people to die in Ireland - twelve years after their arrival according to Geoffrey Keating, twelve days after their arrival according to the Annals of the Four Masters. She is said to have given her name to the city of Armagh (Ard Mhacha—”Macha’s high place”) – where she was buried.
Macha, daughter of Ernmas, of the Tuatha Dé Danann, appears in many early sources. She is often mentioned together with her sisters, “Badb and Morrigu, whose name was Anand.” The three (with varying names) are often considered a triple goddess associated with war. O’Mulconry’s Glossary, a thirteenth century compilation of glosses from medieval manuscripts preserved in the Yellow Book of Lecan, describes Macha as “one of the three morrígna” (the plural of Morrígan), and says the term Mesrad Machae, “the mast [acorn crop] of Macha”, refers to “the heads of men that have been slaughtered.” A version of the same gloss in MS H.3.18 identifies Macha with Badb, calling the trio “raven women” who instigate battle. Keating explicitly calls them “goddesses”, but medieval Irish tradition was keen to remove all trace of pre-Christian religion. Macha is said to have been killed by Balor of the Evil Eye during the battle with the Fomorians.
Macha Mong Ruad (“red mane”), daughter of Áed Rúad, was, according to medieval legend and historical tradition, the only queen in the List of High Kings of Ireland. Her father rotated the kingship with his cousins Díthorba and Cimbáeth, seven years at a time. Áed died after his third stint as king, and when his turn came round again, Macha claimed the kingship. Díthorba and Cimbáeth refused to allow a woman to take the throne, and a battle ensued. Macha won, and Díthorba was killed. She won a second battle against Díthorba’s sons, who fled into the wilderness of Connacht. She married Cimbáeth, with whom she shared the kingship. She pursued Díthorba’s sons alone, disguised as a leper, and overcame each of them in turn when they tried to have sex with her, tied them up, and carried the three of them bodily to Ulster. The Ulstermen wanted to have them killed, but Macha instead enslaved them and forced them to build the stronghold of Emain Macha (Navan Fort near Armagh), to be the capital of the Ulaid, marking out its boundaries with her brooch (explaining the name Emain Macha as eó-muin Macha or “Macha’s neck-brooch”). Macha ruled together with Cimbáeth for seven years, until he died of plague at Emain Macha, and then a further fourteen years on her own, until she was killed by Rechtaid Rígderg. The Lebor Gabála synchronises her reign to that of Ptolemy I Soter (323-283 BC). The chronology of Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn dates her reign to 468-461 BC, the Annals of the Four Masters to 661-654 BC.
Marie-Louise Sjoestedt writes of this figure: “In the person of this second Macha we discover a new aspect of the local goddess, that of the warrior and dominator; and this is combined with the sexual aspect in a specific manner which reappears in other myths, the male partner or partners being dominated by the female.”
Macha, daughter of Sainrith mac Imbaith, was the wife of Cruinniuc, an Ulster farmer. After Cruinniuc’s first wife died, she appeared at his house and, without speaking, began acting as his wife. As long as they were together Cruinniuc’s wealth increased. When he went to a festival organised by the king of Ulster, she warned him that she would only stay with him so long as he did not mention her to anyone, and he promised to say nothing. However, during a chariot race, he boasted that his wife could run faster than the king’s horses. The king heard, and demanded she be brought to put her husband’s boast to the test. Despite being heavily pregnant, she raced the horses and beat them, giving birth to twins on the finish line. Thereafter the capital of Ulster was called Emain Macha, or “Macha’s twins” (in spite of the conflicting story according to which Emain Macha was named after “Macha’s neck brooch”). She cursed the men of Ulster to suffer her labour pains in the hour of their greatest need, which is why none of the Ulstermen but the semi-divine hero Cúchulainn were able to fight in the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley). This Macha is particularly associated with horses—it is perhaps significant that twin colts were born on the same day as Cúchulainn, and that one of his chariot-horses was called Liath Macha or “Macha’s Grey”—and she is often compared with the Welsh mythological figure Rhiannon.