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

Lanea on Feb 15th 2016

Audio file

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 taut, 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 fire
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 spring.”
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 arrival,
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

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