By Philip Freeman (Guest Contributor)
Celtic mythology is full of strange and wonderful stories unlike the tales of ancient Greek gods and heroes most of us grew up with. One theme that appears repeatedly is the power of women in a world of men—and how men should never take a woman for granted.
One favorite story from ancient Ireland tells how a woman named Macha made the warriors of her tribe pay for their lack of sympathy for pregnant women.
There was once a lonely and not very bright widower named Cruinniuc who lived with his sons in the mountains of Ulster. One day when he was alone at his farm he saw a beautiful woman walking toward him. She went into his home and began to do the household chores as if she had lived there for years. When night came, she climbed into Cruinniuc’s bed and made love with him.
The woman stayed with Cruinniuc after that and took care of him and his sons. While she was there, the farm was prosperous and there was never a lack of food, clothing, or anything else they needed.
One day the king, Conchobar, called all the people of Ulster to a great festival, but Macha stayed on the farm since by then she was nine months pregnant.
“Don’t boast or say anything foolish at the festival,” she warned Cruinniuc.
At the end of the celebration there was a great horse race on a nearby field. Everyone in the crowd said that no one could best Conchobar’s team.
“But my wife can run even faster than the king’s horses,” boasted Cruinniuc.
When the king’s men heard him say this, they hauled him before Conchobar, who was stung by the claim and demanded Cruinniuc make good on his boasting. He sent a messenger to the farm to fetch the woman.
She begged the king not to make her run, but he refused to listen. She turned to the warriors gathered there and pleaded with them, but no one would hear her.
“Very well,” said the woman. “But I warn you that a great evil will come upon Ulster because of this.”
And then the race began. Macha flew around the field like the fastest of horses alongside the chariot of the king until she crossed the finish line just ahead of the team. When she reached the end of the course she gave birth to twins.
In her labor pains Macha screamed at the king and his warriors that thenceforth in the hour of their greatest peril they would fall into the pangs of birth for five days and four nights. From that day her curse held for nine generations. Whenever danger came upon the province, all the men of Ulster would collapse in terrible labor pains, all because they would not listen to a woman.
Philip Freeman is the Fletcher Jones Chair of Western Culture and Humanities at Pepperdine University and is the author of Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes.