Sunday, December 7, 2014

Marginalized voices and generational consequences

When we, and in particular the "we" I am referring to are those who enjoy a great degree of cultural, social and economic privilege, are confronted with the voices of those "others": the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the less privileged (and this is a very wide spectrum, cutting across a number of groups), what are we supposed to do?

It is soon told...

A very long time ago, in Ireland, there lived a man of great means, and his name was Cruinniuc. Now Cruinniuc had been married, but his wife had died unexpectedly, leaving him a widower to raise his children alone. One night, also quite unexpectedly, a woman arrived at Cruinniuc's house and took to performing the same duties as his wife would have, all without saying a word. That same night, they laid down together and she was with him ever after that. Her name was Macha, and so long as she dwelt within Cruinniuc's home, he flourished and became even wealthier.

Now, after this arrangement had gone on for some time, Macha was with child, and it came to pass that a great meeting of the people of Ulster was called. Cruinniuc informed Macha, now his wife, that he had every intention of going. Now she spoke against his going, but upon his insistence she relented, only cautioning him to not speak of her to anyone. The day was as boisterous and splendid as any fair had been, with races, games, combats and other tournaments; the horses on display were as fair as the people themselves.

As the day drew on, Conchobar, the king of Ulster, had his own magnificent chariot brought forward, with his two swift steeds pulling it along. Now the uproar from the assemblage was fierce, and the crowd exclaimed that, "never before, nor ever after shall there be two horses who were swifter of foot or splendid in appearance!" Cruinniuc exclaimed, "My wife is faster!"

The king demanded that Cruinniuc be held, and his wife be summoned to race against his own horses. Messengers were dispatched to Cruinniuc's household and made demands of her to attend to the king and the assembly. Macha protested that her husband had made an unwise boast, and that she was yet with child, due at any moment; but the messengers told her that if she would not attend her husband would be put to death. So she went with the messengers.

Despite her condition, Macha was paraded in front of the assembly and once more told, that despite her protests of being ready to deliver her child, if she refused to compete against the kings horses, her husband would be put to death. Conchobar had his men draw their swords and began to advance upon Cruinniuc. Desperate, Macha at last appealed to the crowd, exclaiming, "Help Me! For a mother has borne each of you! Give me but a short respite, that I may have my child, and I shall compete for you!" But Conchobar would not relent, and so Macha made ready to race the horses, ere her labour pains came upon her.

Macha admonished the assembly, crying, "Shame upon you all, who show so little regard to me. Infamy shall you have for your pitiless deeds!" Conchobar asked her what her name was, and she replied "Macha! And so this plain shall so be named ever after!" With that the race began and Macha beat the horses of the king so swiftly, that with a cry she delivered a son and a daughter, ere Conchobar's horses cross the line. And so to this day that place is named Emain Macha.

Now, all who were present at the assembly were assailed by her cries, each growing as weak as a woman in labour. Macha then cried out to the assembly a final time, "For your pitiless deeds, and the dishonour shown me, whenever your people are in dire need, these pangs shall come upon you for five days and four nights, and weak and helpless as a woman in labour shall you be, for nine generations hence!" Ere Macha died, and her children were given to Cruinniuc, who for his stupidity was now twice widowed, and much aggrieved.

Thus it was, until the time of Forc, son of Dallan, son of Mainech, son of Lugaid, whenever the people of Ulster were at their greatest need, the pangs came upon them. So were the people made to suffer for the indignities suffered upon Macha.


This tale is known as Noínden Uliad, or "The Debility of the Ulstermen", and often appears as a pre-tale (remscela) of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. As a pre-tale, the primary function of the tale is to provide an explanation as to how the Ulstermen came to suffer the "curse of Macha", setting a very dire and dramatic context for CúChulain to single handedly stymie the invasion of the united provinces of Ireland under Medb and Ailill, as the men of Ulster suffer through the curse.

The wonderful thing about stories, however, is that they can certainly have more than one function or interpretation. The greatest of stories will have the ability to produce within an audience, even one removed from the original context by centuries, emotions and pathos. Myths matter because they are windows into the periods and cultures they spring from yet have the power to be meaningful to us in the present day.

Contained within this fairly short story, is a dearth of meaning, and several moral lessons. Macha is generally held to be from the otherworld, if not a personification of the goddess of the same name (though this depends on how one looks at it). Her odd mannerisms and ability also belie an origin in the otherworld or from the sidhe, so we are made aware that she has some power behind her warnings and threats. Yet she remains a victim; she remains marginalized because those she encounters do not have the "gods eye view" of the events in the story, and so she is to them but a pregnant woman. Her protestations go unheeded and her cries for help fall upon deaf ears, yet because of the love she has for her husband, she continues on knowing that she will suffer because of it. Cruinniuc is almost a non-entity in the story, but he is the catalyst which drives the action, and it is his carelessness which starts the tragic chain of events.  Conchobar, as a figure in Irish myth is rather enigmatic, and a lot more complex than he seems at first blush, but in this story he is simply the king who feels his honour is being sullied, and so because the dictates of the law and society (the crowds at the assembly) demand it, he forces the events to unfold as they will.

So we have the King, the wealthy landowner, the gathered people of Ulster, Macha, a tragic series of events and finally an unforeseen outcome which reverberates for nine generations. So why did this happen? It happened because no one who had any power listened to Macha. Her husband failed to heed her warnings, because his pride got the better of him and he was careless. The King dismissed her calls for delay, because he had to enforce "the law". The crowd ignored her pleas for mercy, because they did not want to second guess the king. No one listened, and everyone suffered because of it. Not one voice among them asked for pity, called for mercy or tried to understand; rather they utterly ignored Macha's circumstances, or knew but did not care. Yet these actions did not just effect those involved, but remained in effect for generations afterwards.

I think of all the arguments I've heard explaining away all the anger and fear which is today being expressed, and I can't help but see parallels to Macha's circumstances.
  • Macha's husband broke the law, if he hadn't spoken out of turn, none of this would have happened.
  • Macha should have made a better choice when it came to husbands.
  • Conchobar had the right and the duty to uphold the law, even if that law unfavourably effected Macha more so than other people.
  • Having a pregnant woman race against the kings horses was an appropriate response, we weren't there so we can't "armchair" quarterback the kings decisions.
  • Conchobar's job was really stressful, we need to understand he felt his sovereignty was threatened.
  • The problem wasn't that forcing a pregnant woman to race against horses was horrible, but that Macha's husband made poor choices.
  • The crowd had no obligation to listen to Macha's pleas, because she chose to associate with a law breaker.
  • Macha's curse was unjustified, her anger not merited, because she brought these events on herself.
  • Macha's anger and screaming did nothing to solve the problem.
  • The Ultonians can't understand why she would curse her own community, but because she did, have no obligation to take her cries seriously.
  • It was the Ultonians who were the real victims here.
When those of us who find ourselves in positions of power, of privilege and influence are confronted with the voices and protestations of those who are less so, of those who are marginalized, we need to listen. We need to hold our tongues, open our ears and really listen to what it is being told to us, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We need to hold our tongues because while we may "think" we have an idea why things that happen are, why people may be angry or upset, we need to listen and try our best to understand. We need to avoid making pronouncements which are informed by how we believe things are while simultaneously ignoring what is being said to us. We need to acknowledge that we who are privileged have a responsibility to do what we can, especially if we make proclamations extolling justice and morality. We need to understand that law is not the same thing as ethics, and unjust laws or laws that unfavourably target marginalized communities are unethical.

This is necessary because events do not happen in a vacuum, and unforeseen consequences can have a lasting impact far greater than we can even imagine. If we fail to stand up for what is just, for what is right, how can we claim to speak about justice? If we do not try and heal the hurts which have been passed on and systemically reinforced for generations, how can healing occur?. If we turn yet another blind eye and deaf ear to the injustice which occurs right in front of us, then nothing will ever change.

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