M is for Myth

Posted by on Monday, July 7th, 2008

Which is a pretty hard thing to photograph, particularly since it’s all about the oral tradition and poetry and sound, rather than sight.

I’m a bard, as I’ve mentioned.  I translate pieces of mythology from Middle Welsh and Irish into English-language poems and songs, and tell about vital events from ancient history to people who might never hear of them otherwise.  I sing and tell, but I hope I do more than that for the people who come see us perform or read my pieces.  I study myth from many other cultures too, all of which tangle around my brain and inform most of my days. I’ve been obsessed with mythology for so long that I don’t remember a time before it, as I don’t remember a time before music, or fiber arts, or food.

I’ll put up, since I can’t seem to shut up.  This is one of the first things I translated on my own, and perhaps the translation I’m proudest of.  I love the story itself, and its feminist core, and the myth cycle it comes from, and its role as both remscela (introductory tale) and dindsenchas.   It seems the right thing to post today because it’s about Macha, one of the guises of the Morrigan, and that’s enough Ms to be right on the nose, isn’t it.  I’d really rather you could hear me tell this instead of reading it from a page, but I’ve never recorded it, so, you know, shoulda but dinna.

Dán dó Emain Macha (Poem of the Twins of Macha)

Crunniuc mac Agnomain, hosteler,
is father to four fame-bound sons,
each a war hungry hero of the Ulaid.
Father and sons tend hostel and holdings
and host the traveling warriors and bards
on the rocky coast of Moyle’s sea.
But Crunniuc suffers a pain well known
among his kinsmen:
Ulster has need of warriors, and warriors grow from sons
who sometimes come so strong and stubborn from the womb
that their earliest resting place sheds two souls with their birthing.
Thus had Crunniuc’s wife died as she was delivered of their youngest:
his last vision of her saw her taught, moon-white breast loosen
as she fed their bawling, life-greedy child
until not just her belly but her body was empty of life.
And for the span of time between his red son’s birth
and the boy’s second bloodletting
Crunniuc has slept singly.

Crunniuc tends his paling
as he watches a lithe woman approach his dwelling.
Glistening linen drapes her ripened form,
newly woven strong and dyed deeply.
Red gold hanging from ear and braid,
clinging to nape and wrist,
waist wrapped in bronze chain, finely wrought,
ankles flashing under skirt with each step.
Her beauty so great as to still the tongue
and move the groin all in the one glance.
The woman strides proudly into Crunniuc’s hall,
sits at his hearth, and stokes the
from smolder to blaze
all the while silent.
Bewildered Crunniuc stands dumb,
fearing to blink or breathe, only
staring in wonder.
The sun sets and the woman rises,
picking utensils from the hearth
and preparing the meal as if the kitchen
is her own.
Crunniuc and his sons sit at table, eat the feast before them,
and hold their tongues for fear she will vanish
and the sixth chair will again sit empty
as it did for so many seasons.
They fill their bellies, and clean their plates,
and Crunniuc’s sons retreat to their rooms silently.
The woman walks to Crunniuc’s bed
where she waits.
He approaches cautiously, searching for protest or rejection
in her eyes or lips.
Finding none, he lays with the woman
as he once laid with his sons’ mother.
In the night, her name comes to him as they rustle the sheets.
Her lips open and release:
the breath of love itself.
The sound soothes Crunniuc and he sleeps.

Macha and Crunniuc live thus for several seasons,
sharing plate, bed, home, and family.
She is wife to Crunniuc, second mother to his sons,
and wonder to those passing boatmen who catch glimpses of her
staring seaward from the high chalk
cliffs above.
Under Macha’s attention Crunniuc’s corn grows fuller,
his sows and kine fatten, his nets
find more fish,
and his sons grow to be among the strongest men of the Ulaid.
Fortune flocks to Macha and her kin.
And soon, Macha herself grows with the mark
of their bed-work
and her back bows forward with the
weight of a great pregnancy.
Macha’s tongue loosens to sing her bliss,
finding the family she has knitted
herself happy.

Now Bealtaine’s great festival calls Crunniuc forth
out of their private reverie to Ulster’s raucous celebration,
anxious to stand among kinsmen and
share their cups.
Macha, wary of the journey, warns Crunniuc
to hold both pride and tongue:
“Speak to no man of me, for if
you arouse
the wrath of the Ulaid with boasting and bravado
we will find no peace, and our home and family will melt
like so much snow in the
Crunniuc soothes Macha and sets out for the gathering.
And Macha rests fitfully
under the twinned burdens of pregnancy and worry.

Arriving at the festival Crunniuc holds his secret tight
as he greets friends and rivals,
but as the day is passed, so are the cups,
and soon Crunniuc’s bond to Macha fades from his mind.
Ulster’s king calls for races and
his chariots win handily,
he bragging all the while that his horses
have the swiftest feet of any beasts living.
Crunniuc, full of spirits, answers
“My bride could outrun your horses,
and she full up with my child.”
The king rushes forward in anger,
demanding Crunniuc deliver up his wife
to fulfill the rashly uttered bond.
Crunniuc blanches, recognizing his betrayal of Macha.
He begs the king’s pardon and his
but the king will not be appeased
and his men fetch Macha from her home.
She, gravid, grave, protests.Asking for patience,
for a stay that lasts the length of her delivery.
The men pull her from her threshold with no answer to her pleas.
Riding forward into the king’s lands

her labor comes on harder than the gallop of their steeds,
the child in her belly scrambling for freedom,
a respite from this jarring trek.

The king demands her name on
and she, red-faced, proclaims
“I am Macha, daughter of Sainraith mac Imbath.
None of you will escape my curse today,
for each man here was born of woman,
your lives a product of mothers’ toil,
yet neither king nor crowd
will lend me mercy in my time of need.”
The scornful king laughs, saying
“Refuse to race and I will rend Crunniuc to pieces
and drop him into my wallows as food for swine,
and then who will play father to your mewling babe?”
Macha complies and walks to the
starting line,
the child squirming in her belly, round as the fullest moon.
Racing hard, Macha quickly outstrips
the horse,
whose heart bears no match for the one in Macha’s breast.
Crossing the finish line, the water in her breaks

and the horse’s heart explodes.
Both fall in the dust.
And as Macha rises with two beautiful sons at her breasts,
the men about her fall, overtaken by
a pain they do not fathom.

“Emain Macha is the name now on this place,
for the twins borne so well, though without aid,
surrounded by merciless men.
For as it is here I suffered the indignity of your trial,
so it is here my sons and I prevail.
Each of you small men and all of your sons
for nine generations will suffer my pangs
for four days and five nights
whenever threat or trial come to the Ulaid.”
And so speaking, Macha turns to
rejoin her kin in the sidhe.

And so it is that the men of Ulster are crippled
whenever they lands are threatened.
Only the man-child CúChullain is spared this pain,
and he so loved and hated by Macha and her sister selves,
Bodb and Anu: three bound as one
in the great queen Morrigan.

© 2004 Amy Ripton

Filed in ABC along,bardic,Celtic | 3 responses so far

3 Responses to “M is for Myth”

  1. gayleon 10 Jul 2008 at 7:07 am 1

    Glorious! Thank you very much. It would be wonderful to be able to hear it, as well.
    Maybe a podcast?

  2. kon 13 Jul 2008 at 6:51 pm 2

    Wonderful. I love these lines;
    “Macha’s tongue loosens to sing her bliss,
    finding the family she has knitted herself happy.”

  3. Lisaon 20 Jul 2008 at 7:27 pm 3

    That was lovely, thank you so much for posting it. I would also love to hear it, if you ever get around to recording it.

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