We Justly Take By Force: Macha and Vengeance

While playing Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited with a friend yesterday, I came across a rather poignant bit of dialogue during a quest. It smacked of Na Morrígna, and a conversation I stumbled across on Tumblr a while back- during the course of which an assertion was made that some of these figures (most notably The Morrigan herself, and Macha) were not only Warrior Deities, but were Goddesses of Justice.

I can’t for the life of me find this conversation now a days; it has long singe disappeared into the depths of the Tumblr sphere. And now when I look, I can’t find any (or can only find a few) overt mentions of these figures and their connections to justice. Still, less overt connections are common- hiding here and there among various organizations and people devoted to these figures.

While not overt, there is an almost unmistakable connection between Badb Catha (or Cathobodua) and the actions of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood. This is especially evident in their organization’s Statement on Justice and Equality. And as controversial as she is in the Polytheistic community sometimes, even Galina Kraskova herself states it outright- writing “[The Morrígan] is a Goddess of sovereignty, a Goddess of justice” in her article Gifting the Morrigan.

Morpheus Ravenna touches on it a bit, too, writing in her article She fights for all women: Macha’s braided mane that Macha is “a woman injured by those in power and who brings justice through the transgressive power of cursing, a power linked to Her gender“- a sentiment is echoed by the likes of Macha’s Justice, who quotes that same story as their reason behind choosing Macha as the spiritual figurehead of their community (organization?).

The intrinsic linking of Na Morrígna to justice crops up in Ravenna’s other works as well at various times, such as in the case of her article Gods with Agency, continued: The “fad” question. In it she poses a rather thought provoking question concerning the rise of The Morrígan’s devotees in recent years: “Could it be that the Morrígan Herself is an agent in Her own story? That something is happening in our time to which She as a Goddess active in war and sovereignty is especially drawn or which calls Her to action in human affairs? Perhaps the global crises we face, the conflicts over resources, sovereignty, justice, human dignity, freedom, the rights of women?“.

Overall, the subject of justice does appear to pop up quite frequently in regards to various figures of Na Morrígna– even if it isn’t always overt. So much so, in fact, that during the conversation I witnessed on Tumblr, Allec of The Guild to Gaelic Polytheism quipped (albeit in a slightly round about way) that that many people with that particular Personal Gnosis about her couldn’t possibly be wrong.

Or could they?*

The various figures of Na Morrígna are Goddesses of sovereignty. Part of sovereignty, it has been argued, is justice. By default of that connection, aren’t the figures of Na Morrígna therefore Goddesses of Justice? Despite most people logically thinking so, I would personally argue no.

Lore and Wisdom Texts tell us that to be just (or morally right and fair) and possess right judgment (or the ability ascertain what is morally right and fair, and then make decisions based on that) are integral functions of being a King. In fact, lore is full of examples wherein a lack of right judgment- and / or the participation in unjust action- ultimately leads to ruin. This is true in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, it is true in The Debility of the Ulstermen, and it is true in several other areas of lore; simply put, possessing right judgment and being just are not only an obligation of Kings, but is a requirement to maintain their sovereignty.

But being just and possessing right judgment are, of course, inherently required for true justice to be possible in the first place… Yet it is not quite the same as justice itself and the act of dispensing it. And in the case of sovereignty’s connection to justice and kingship I believe that justice refers more to the duties of Kingly station as head of a what is ultimately a legal and governmental institution. Still, there are several events in lore which are usually brought up as examples of their connection to justice. This is true when discussing The Morrígan’s ties specifically, but since Macha is usually the one who gets the main focus, for brevity’s sake I’m going to focus on her… And the most well known example of Macha’s connection to justice, at least, comes from The Debility of the Ulstermen (mentioned above).

In the story, Macha chooses a Husband for herself (without his consent– though he doesn’t exactly protest it, either). Her stipulation when he goes to the celebrations one day, however, is that he doesn’t speak about her. Of course, not boasting has never really been one of the Irish’s strong suits when it comes to lore… And so when the King’s horses are brought out he can’t help but boast that his Wife, Macha, could run faster than they could. The King, not being very fond of the idea that his horses are inferior- let alone inferior to a Woman– threatens his execution unless Macha races his horses. Macha, however, is pregnant. She first begs the people to step in on her behalf, and then begs the king to at least wait until after she has given birth. The King refuses, and no one steps up to help her. So she runs the race, wins, and gives birth to her Twins at the finish line. Being understandably upset about the humiliation and lack of compassion about her condition, Macha curses the lot of them to experience pains equal to those of a Woman in labor in the hour of their greatest need.

Yet where most people tend to see justice in Macha’s story, I see something very different. I see a story not about justice, but of vengeance… And vengeance doesn’t just occur once, but three times during the course of it; the first is on the part of the King, who seeks vengeance against Macha’s Husband, who wounded his pride and questioned his household’s ability. The others are on Macha’s part- first by cursing the people who stood by and did not help her, and second by cursing the King who acted unjustly by being vengeful and forcing her to race despite being heavily pregnant (subsequently forcing her to give birth prematurely).

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The aforementioned ESO quest dialogue 

Put plainly, it is more a case of “an eye for an eye” than it is for doling out true and legitimate justice… But why do I see vengeance when surely we can all agree that Macha’s actions were, in fact, just; when they were morally right, when they were fair, and when we can certainly all agree that the King- and the people who stood by and did nothing- ultimately deserved what they got?

Such a question is definitely valid given that the distinction between justice and vengeance isn’t always as cut and dry as we would like it to be. Indeed, there is a very thin line which separates the two, and they’ve occasionally been used interchangeably at different points throughout history; many calls for justice are inherently also calls for vengeance- the emotionally driven call for the righting of some wrong committed against them, their loved ones, their community, and society at large. And we can’t ignore that righteous vengeance is a thing- nor that justice is not always actually just; as Psychology Today writes about the distinction: “There are instances when revenge can legitimately be understood as a type of justice, and justice a kind of revenge“.

And yet as Psychology Today also notes, there is still a tangible distinction between the concepts of justice and vengeance. In simple terms, justice relies on (what is supposed to be) an impartial, impersonal legal system whose purpose is to dole out (what are also supposed to be) fair, logical, rational punishments for violating the society’s established legal codes. This system is (supposed to be) selfless, and is meant to work for both the benefit of the individual, and the benefit of the society as a whole… This is in direct contrast to vengeance- which is motivated largely by emotion, is often carried out by an individual (either the victim, or on behalf of a victim), and is largely selfish (usually benefiting only the person seeking it); as Psychology Today put it, revenge is about personal retaliation; justice about restoring social balance.

And in this instance, Macha’s actions (and the actions of many figures of Na Morrígna in lore)- while admittedly just– were not justice, and were not motivated by the purpose of restoring social balance for the greater good of society… Instead they were motivated by a personal, deeply emotional, and selfish desire to inflict equal pain in retaliation for pain caused to her.

In interpreting it this way, Macha (specifically) isn’t just a Goddesses of sovereignty- nor does she really become a Goddess of justice. Instead, if she is to become anything in this instance, she arguably becomes a Goddesses of Just Action, Right Judgment, and Righteous Vengeance. In other words, she becomes the external harbinger of violent and aggressive retaliation for a decisive lack of moral correctness, fairness, and true justice… Even further, these unjust actions and wrong judgment, when committed by Kings especially, can be considered a violation of the sovereignty she grants as a Goddess with that purview. As a result, I believe that she can additionally be interpreted as the punisher of those who pervert the sovereignty bestowed upon them by Na Morrígna and other sovereignty figures by abusing their authority in these unjust ways.

And while that can be interpreted by some as justice, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is; while doing so is arguably just under certain circumstances, it doesn’t necessarily make it justice.


* This shouldn’t be interpreted as a negative or derogatory quip towards anyone who does view the various figures of Na Morrígna as being Goddesses of Justice. It also isn’t to say that anyone is actually wrong in believing that… It’s simply calling into question the idea that, because a large number of people believe in something, it automatically makes it true- but more than that, it provided a convenient transition to talk about vengeance and justice, the differences, and how I personally interpreted Macha’s story compared to what appears to be the majority.

So to sum: To be just is to be, understand, or act in a way which is morally correct and fair. Attached to that, right judgment is the ability to discern that which is just– and the ability to also then pass make a decision or judgment which is considered such in turn… With this in mind, justice is “fair and impersonal punishment, doled out by an impartial third party, for a crime committed according to the legal code of the land it occurs in”. Counter to that, vengeance is “a punishment doled out by an emotionally invested person, in retaliation for injury or harm committed against them (either real or imagined, emotional or physical, etc), which is acted upon outside of the realm of the legal code (and may occasionally even be illegal in itself)”.

Sovereignty is inclusive of justice only insofar as 1. A king is the head of the government system- and a portion of the purpose of government is justice; and 2. A king must be just and possess right judgment- which are two of the most important cornerstones necessary for true justice. As a result, the figures of Na Morrígna are not necessarily Goddesses of justice by virtue of being Goddesses of sovereignty… But they are potentially Goddesses of right judgment and just action by virtue of it.

Right judgment and just action include justice insofar as they are necessary for true justice to occur… But the actions of Na Morrígna in relation to them almost always come in the form of vengeance: emotionally driven, violent, and aggressive (and arguably often spiteful) retaliation for injustices that are committed against them. Ergo, it’s arguably more correct to call them Goddesses of Righteous Vengeance instead.
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