October Blood Moon: Pig, Ivy and the Curse of Macha

As we enter October, named from Octem in the old Roman calendar, we begin our slow descent into the Underworld of winter. The last of the fruits ripen, succulent yellow pears, and the chlorophyl in green leaves dries to produce shades of burnished bronze. Most plants give in gracefully to this Underworld descent, but a few continue to flourish. Foremost amongst these is the virulent ivy, wrapping undeterred its spiralling, waxy leaves around anything standing in its path.

Ivy has been associated with intoxication and poetry in many cultures, with the constellations, and in particular the moon. In the classical world, it was used to enhance the frenzied rituals of the Bacchae, followers of Dionysus, who steeped ivy leaves in wine in order to make it more potent (and the after-effects less so). The Anglo-Saxons also used it to brew beer before the introduction of hops, then known as alehoof, and taverns would display an ivy bush over the door to show they brewed only the best alcohol. [1]This demonstrates that the Celtic world was familiar with the potent intoxicating effects of the plant, and could have used it in ritual contexts to enhance inspiration and bardic ability.

The October full moon was sometimes known as the blood moon because this was when life stock was slaughtered and salted in preparation for the long winter months ahead. Swine herders would drive their pigs throughout autumn to graze on the acorns and beech nuts strewn across the ways and woods, distributing the fat evenly across the body of the creatures through daily exercise. As such the pig, the sow in particular, was often seen as the nourisher, sacred to the goddess in many traditions and held in high regard in the Celtic one. Pigs were herded and consumed in large numbers at clan gatherings and feasts, and also at symbolic Otherworldly feasts where great life-giving cauldrons were said to be endlessly filled with boiled or roasted pork.

Pigs were often used ritualistically in the Celtic world, and at the Iron Age fort on Hayling Island and Cadbury in Somerset, large numbers of pigs have been found deliberately buried, sometimes in avenues.[2] They were also sometimes buried alongside people, whom they presumably continued to nourish in the afterlife, and it was believed that the pigs too would be continually reborn after their slaughter. Whereas the sow was linked with nourishment and life, it was the male boar who was more associated with death and life-taking aspects.

Swine nerds are also mentioned in early Welsh sacred tradition, and the White Ancient One, a sow called Henwen is said to give birth to an eagle, a bee, a kitten and a grain of wheat. This birthing or shapeshifting ability has led some researchers to see links between Henwen and the goddess Ceridwen, who they call the white sow goddess of pigs. Though the evidence for this is thin, there is abundant evidence that the sow was seen as sacred to a life-giving creatrix goddess as far back as early Neolithic times across Europe, and this could be an echo of this belief.

In Celtic tradition, October and the feast of Samhain are often linked with the Morrigan, a triple goddess with one of her aspects taking the form of the intriguing Sovereignty goddess, Macha. She was said to be one of the Tuatha de Danaan, and sometimes considered a triple goddess in her own right, with different persona woven together in the stories to form one multi-faceted person. As a Sovereignty goddess, she is an embodiment of the land, conferring sexual favours on suitable kings selected to step into the role of guardians. As protector of both territory and the people connected with it, she is also both warrior and carer, mediator of fertility and plenty.

One of her most famous stories is told in the Debility of the Ulstermen, where she is strongly connected with the horse, the ultimate symbol of Celtic Sovereignty . Her appearance is sudden and unexpected, for one day she simply shows up at the house of a farmer named Cruinniuc and takes on the role of his wife. ‘She fetched a kneading-trough and a sieve and began to prepare food. As the say drew to an end, she took a vessel and milked the cow, still without speaking.’[3]

 His wealth grew and Cruinniuc prospered with Macha at his side, a sure sign that she was the goddess Sovereignty in human form, and she even becomes pregnant by him. One day he leaves to attend a festival organised by the king of Ulster, and she warns him that he must not speak of her to anyone otherwise she will not stay. However, he breaks the promise and during a chariot race, boasts to the king that his wife can run faster than even his swiftest horse. Cruinnic is ordered on pain of death to prove his claim, and Macha is duly brought before the king. Even though she is heavily pregnant by now, he forces her to run against his horses without mercy.

Sure enough, Macha wins the race, and gives birth at the finishing line to a twin boy and girl before the king’s horses reach their goal. Then, for disrespecting her she utters a curse that is to be in place unto the ninth generation: the men of Ulster will be overcome with weakness in the hour of their greatest need, becoming as weak as a woman in childbirth (or in some accounts, suffer the pain of childbirth) for five days and four nights. The place where she gave birth is known as the Emain Macha, and is today equated with the sacred site of Navan in Co. Armagh. All the men who heard her cry were immediately seized with weakness, and the effects come once more into play in the Cattle Raid of Cooley (see ‘June Mead Moon: Honeysuckle, Maeve and Bees‘ above) when the Ulstermen were unable to resist the invasion of Maeve and her men.

As with the other Sovereignty goddesses such as Aine and Maeve in the Irish cycles, or Rhiannon and Branwen in the  Welsh mythological traditions, we abuse or disrespect the goddess of the land, and therefore the land itself, at our peril. Weak and power hungry kinship, where the king has forgotten his role as guardian or the land or people, is also punished with a withdrawal of abundance and wealth, lessons still as relevant today as the times when they were first spoken and written.


[1] ‘Ivy’ in ‘The Green Man Tree Oracle’ by John Matthews and Will Worthington

[2] ‘Sow’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[3] ‘The Debility of the Ulstermen,’ translated by Mary Jones (online)

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