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June 10, 2020

The Daughters of Ernmas

In our annual Meeting the Mórrígan programme, I got a question on the Daughters of Ernmas – basically, which ‘set’ of sisters was older?

The basic info that’s going around runs like this:

Ernmas is an Irish mother goddess, mentioned in Lebor Gabála Érenn and “Cath Maige Tuired” as one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Her daughters include the trinity of eponymous Irish goddesses Ériu, Banba and Fódla, the trinity of war goddesses the Badb, Macha and Anann (who is also called the Mórrígan).


I didn’t know off hand exactly what the lore said, rather than second hand info, so told my student I’d check the manuscript translations and try to figure it out, and well… here we are!

To clarify, the original question is concerned with birth order. They are taking it as Ernmas being the actual biological mother, but understand that could be a limited view on their part (maybe daughters of Ernmas doesn’t mean biological daughters?).

The following sections will look at the lore as it stands, leaving in references to any of Na Mórrígna (not sure what I’m referring to? There’s a class on The Faces of the Mórrígan Here!) and to the other three sisters as they stand in the texts. Then we’ll do a review at the end and see if we can figure an answer, or an opinion at least.

The Daughters of Ernmas in Lebor Gabála Érenn

‘The book of the taking of Ireland’ – Middle Irish, Early Modern Irish. Has various versions, dating from 1000s to 1100s CE (Recension A) down to the 1600s CE (Ó Cléirigh’s version).

See the database entry here – https://www.vanhamel.nl/codecs/Lebor_gab%C3%A1la_%C3%89renn

Source we’re using here: Lebor Gabála Érenn – Book of the Taking of Ireland. vol. 4. ed. and tr. by R. A. S. Macalister. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1941. Accessed at – Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of Invasions | §55-64: The Tuatha de Dannan.

§58. Now Nuadu Airgetlam was king over the Tuatha De Danann for seven years before their coming into Ireland, until his arm was hewn from him in the first battle of Mag Tuired. Eidleo s. Alldai, he was the first man of the Tuatha De Danann who fell in Ireland, by the hand of Nercon ua Semeoin, in the first battle of Mag Tuired. Ernmas, and Echtach, and Etargal, and Fiachra, and Tuirill Piccreo fell in the same battle.

§60. To return to the Tuatha De Danann. Nuadu Airgatlam fell in the last battle of Mag Tuired, and Macha daughter of Ernmas, at the hands of Balar the strong-smiter.

§62. … Be Chuille and Dianann were the two she-farmers.

The three sons of Cermad son of The Dagda were Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, Mac Griene: Sethor and Tethor and Cethor were their names. Fotla and Banba and Eriu were their three wives.

Fea and Nemaind were the two wives of Net, a quo Ailech Neit.

Flidais, of whom is the “Cattle of Flidais”; her four daughters were Argoen and Be Chuille and Dinand and Be Theite.

Badb and Macha and Anand, of whom are the Paps of Anu in Luachar were the three daughters of Ernmas the she-farmer.

§64. … The three sons of Cermait, moreover, ut diximus; Mac Cuill – Sethor, the hazel his god; Mac Cecht – Tethor, the ploughshare his god; Mac Greine – Cethor, the sun his god. Fotla was wife of Mac Cecht, Banba of Mac Cuill, Eriu of Mac Greine. Those were the three daughters of Fiachna son of Delbaeth. Ernmas daughter of Etarlam s. Nuada Airgetlam was mother of those three women, and mother of Fiachna and Ollom.
Ernmas had other three daughters, Badb and Macha and Morrigu, whose name was Anand. Her three sons were Glon and Gaim and Coscar.

Eriu, though it should reach a road-end,
Banba, Fotla, and Fea,
Neman of ingenious versicles,
Danann, mother of the gods.

Badb and Macha, greatness of wealth, Morrigu–
springs of craftiness,
sources of bitter fighting
were the three daughters of Ernmas.

Eriu and Fotla with pride,
Mac Greine and Banba with victory,
Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht with purity in the battle of
Temair of clear wave.

Mac Cecht at the hands of noble Eremon:
Mac Cuill, of perfect Eber:
Eriu yonder, at the hands of Suirge
thereafter: Mac Greine of Amorgen.

Fotla at the hands of Etan with pride,
Of Caicher, Banba with victory,
Whatever the place wherein they sleep,
Those are the deaths of the warriors; hear ye.

The Daughters of Ernmas in Cath Maige Tuired

‘The battle of Mag Tuired’, Middle Irish. Date-wise, Gerard Murphy believes the text is “the product of an eleventh or twelfth-century redactor working mainly upon ninth-century material”. So, 800s to 1100s CE, ish.

See the database entry here – https://www.vanhamel.nl/codecs/Cath_Maige_Tuired

Source we’re using here: Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, translated by Elizabeth A. Gray on the UCC CELT Project.

Now the Túatha Dé Danann lost many men in the battle, including Edleo mac Allai, and Ernmas, and Fíacha, and Tuirill Bicreo.

Now the conception of Bres came about in this way.

One day one of their women, Ériu the daughter of Delbáeth, was looking at the sea and the land from the house of Máeth Scéni; and she saw the sea as perfectly calm as if it were a level board. After that, while she was there, she saw something: a vessel of silver appeared to her on the sea. Its size seemed great to her, but its shape did not appear clearly to her; and the current of the sea carried it to the land.

Then Núadu Silverhand and Macha the daughter of Ernmas fell at the hands of Balor grandson of Nét.

Then the Morrígan the daughter of Ernmas came, and she was strengthening the Túatha Dé to fight the battle resolutely and fiercely. She then chanted the following poem: ‘Kings arise to the battle!
[gap: meaning of text unclear]
Immediately afterwards the battle broke, and the Fomoire were driven to the sea.

Then after the battle was won and the slaughter had been cleaned away, the Morrígan, the daughter of Ernmas, proceeded to announce the battle and the great victory which had occurred there to the royal heights of Ireland and to its síd-hosts, to its chief waters and to its rivermouths. And that is the reason Badb still relates great deeds. ‘Have you any news?’ everyone asked her then. ‘Peace up to heaven. Heaven down to earth. Earth beneath heaven, Strength in each, A cup very full, Full of honey; Mead in abundance. Summer in winter
[gap: meaning of text unclear]
Peace up to heaven
[gap: meaning of text unclear]
She also prophesied the end of the world, foretelling every evil that would occur then, and every disease and every vengeance; and she chanted the following poem: ‘I shall not see a world Which will be dear to me: Summer without blossoms, Cattle will be without milk, Women without modesty, Men without valour. Conquests without a king

[gap: meaning of text unclear].

Those frustrating little – [gap: meaning of text unclear] – inserts, by the by, are where Gray wasn’t translating the Mórrígan’s prophecy poetry.

Thankfully, Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody does a great job of that Right Here.

Which Daughters of Ernmas are Older?

Unclear. Unfortunately.

I think the student raised an interesting point with the musing that we may not be talking bio families here. I’ve certainly come to that myself when we discussed The Mórrígan’s Children, for example.

In LGE Macha, and then na Mórrígna (the plural form of Mórrígan, fyi) are mentioned first in relation to Ernmas, with the other sisters mentioned as wives of the Dagda’s Grandsons.

The Mórrígan sisters become the ‘others’ from §64 on, though it seems they get more emphasis as being the Daughters of Ernmas throughout.

In CMT Ériu features first as the mother of Bres, giving him his Tuatha Dé Danann heritage. It gives us her father’s name but not her mother’s.

Macha, and the Mórrígan both then feature specifically as Daughters of Ernmas, and none of the rest do at all.

Chronologically, it looks like CMT might be the older sources material we have, but given the amount of Recensions that LGE went through, it would not be surprising if there were older versions of that source that haven’t survived.

So, that’s not much use to us definitively, but if we could take it that the earliest mentions are specifically of Macha and the Mórrígan… they would be older, or at least represent the original story?

Yet, if we take it that Ernmas is an older agricultural deity, represented perhaps by the ‘she farmer’ recollection, would she represent the land itself?

Of which the 3 sovereign sisters whose names came to stand for the island (Ériu, Banba, Fódla), and the sisters who are also often connected with sovereignty – Na Mórrígna – would then be daughters?

My instincts tell me this is most likely, and we shouldn’t necessarily expect (or place) biological ancestry and strict family tree structures on the Tuatha Dé Danann… it doesn’t usually end well. 😉

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About the Author

Irish Author, Educator, and Guide to Ireland. Co-Founder of the Irish Pagan School, Eel & Otter Press, and Pagan Life Rites (Ireland).

Lora O'Brien

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  • This is an excellent and very in-depth blogpost/article. Thank you for providing such detailed information and your continued efforts as always.

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