The Morrígan is a dark goddess from Irish mythology.
Morrigan sometimes appears in the form of a crow, flying above the warriors, and in the Ulster cycle she also takes the form of an eel, a wolf, and a cow.
Louis le Brocquy's illustration of the Morrígan, for Thomas Kinsella's translation of The Táin, 1969, lithograph on Swiftbrook paper, 54 x 38 cm, limited edition of 70 proofs.
Morrigan is associated with sovereignty, prophecy, war, and death on the battlefield. She is generally considered a war deity comparable with the Germanic Valkyries, although her association with cattle also suggests a role connected with fertility, wealth, and the land. She is often depicted as a triple goddess, although membership of the triad varies; the most common combination is the Badb, Macha and Nemain, but other accounts name Fea, Anann, and others.
The cult of Morrigan is directly inspired from the megalithic cult of the Mothers. The Mothers (Matrones, Idises, Disir, etc.) usually appeared as triple goddesses and their cult was expressed through both battle ecstasy and regenerative ecstasy. Eriu, or the Disir also appear as crows and were worshipped as goddess of war or death.
There is certainly evidence that the concept of a raven goddess of battle was not limited to the Irish Celts. An inscription found in France which reads Cathubodva, 'Battle Raven', shows that a similar concept was at work among the Gaulish Celts.
The Morrígan's earliest narrative appearances, in which she is depicted as an individual, are in stories of the Ulster Cycle, where she has an ambiguous relationship with the hero Cúchulainn. In Táin Bó Regamna (The Cattle Raid of Regamain), Cúchulainn encounters the Morrígan as she drives a heifer from his territory. He challenges and insults her, not realising who she is. By this he earns her enmity. She makes a series of threats, and foretells a coming battle in which he will be killed. She tells him, enigmatically, "I guard your death".
In the Táin Bó Cuailnge queen Medb of Connacht launches an invasion of Ulster to steal the bull Donn Cuailnge; the Morrígan, glossed as equivalent to Alecto of the Greek Furies, appears to the bull in the form of a crow and warns him to flee. Cúchulainn defends Ulster by fighting a series of single combats at fords against Medb's champions. In between combats the Morrígan appears to him as a young woman and offers him her love, and her aid in the battle, but he spurns her. In response she intervenes in his next combat, first in the form of an eel who trips him, then as a wolf who stampedes cattle across the ford, and finally as a red heifer leading the stampede, just as she had threatened in their previous encounter. However Cúchulainn wounds her in each form and defeats his opponent despite her interference. Later she appears to him as an old woman bearing the same three wounds that her animal forms sustained, milking a cow. She gives Cúchulainn three drinks of milk. He blesses her with each drink, and her wounds are healed. As the armies gather for the final battle, she prophesies the bloodshed to come.
In one version of Cúchulainn's death-tale, as the hero rides to meet his enemies, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armour in a ford, an omen of his death. Later in the story, mortally wounded, Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone with his own entrails so he can die upright, and it is only when a crow lands on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead.
The Morrígan also appears in texts of the Mythological Cycle. In the 12th century pseudohistorical compilation Lebor Gabála Érenn she is listed among the Tuatha Dé Danann as one of the daughters of Ernmas, granddaughter of Nuada.
The first three daughters of Ernmas are given as Ériu, Banba, and Fódla. Their names are synonyms for Ireland, and they were married to Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht, and Mac Gréine, the last three Tuatha Dé Danann kings of Ireland. Associated with the land and kingship, they probably represent a triple goddess of sovereignty. Next come Ernmas's other three daughters: the Badb, Macha, and the Morrígan. A quatrain describes the three as wealthy, "springs of craftiness" and "sources of bitter fighting". The Morrígan's name is said to be Anann, and she had three sons, Glon, Gaim, and Coscar. According to Geoffrey Keating's 17th century History of Ireland, Ériu, Banba, and Fódla worshipped the Badb, Macha, and the Morrígan respectively, suggesting that the two triads of goddesses may be seen as equivalent.
The Morrígan also appears in Cath Maige Tuireadh (The Battle of Mag Tuired). On Samhain she keeps a tryst with the Dagda before the battle against the Fomorians. When he meets her she is washing herself, standing with one foot on either side of the river Unius. In some sources she is believed to have created the river. After they have sex, the Morrígan promises to summon the magicians of Ireland to cast spells on behalf of the Tuatha Dé, and to destroy Indech, the Fomorian king, taking from him "the blood of his heart and the kidneys of his valour". Later, we are told, she would bring two handfuls of his blood and deposit them in the same river (however, we are also told later in the text that Indech was killed by Ogma).
As battle is about to be joined, the Tuatha Dé leader, Lug, asks each what power they bring to the battle. The Morrígan's reply is difficult to interpret, but involves pursuing, destroying and subduing. When she comes to the battlefield she chants a poem, and immediately the battle breaks and the Fomorians are driven into the sea. After the battle she chants another poem celebrating the victory and prophesying the end of the world.
In another story she lures away the bull of a woman called Odras, who follows her to the otherworld via the cave of Cruachan. When she falls asleep, the Morrígan turns her into a pool of water.
There have been attempts by some modern authors of fiction to link the Arthurian character Morgan le Fay with the Morrígan. Morgan first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin) in the 12th century. However, while the creators of the literary character of Morgan may have been somewhat inspired by the much older tales of the goddess, the relationship ends there. Scholars such as Rosalind Clark hold that the names are unrelated, the Welsh "Morgan" (Wales being the source of Arthurian legend) being derived from root words associated with the sea, while the Irish "Morrígan" has its roots either in a word for "terror" or a word for "greatness".
Nature and functions
The Morrígan is often considered a triple goddess, but her supposed triple nature is ambiguous and inconsistent. Sometimes she appears as one of three sisters, the daughters of Ernmas: the Morrígan, the Badb and Macha. Sometimes the trinity consists of the Badb, Macha and Nemain, collectively known as the Morrígan, or in the plural as the Morrígna. Occasionally Fea or Anu also appear in various combinations. However the Morrígan also frequently appears alone, and her name is sometimes used interchangeably with the Badb, with no third "aspect" mentioned.
The Morrígan is usually interpreted as a "war goddess": W. M. Hennessey's "The Ancient Irish Goddess of War," written in 1870, was influential in establishing this interpretation. Her role often involves premonitions of a particular warrior's violent death, suggesting a link with the Banshee of later folklore. This connection is further noted by Patricia Lysaght: "In certain areas of Ireland this supernatural being is, in addition to the name banshee, also called the badhb".
It has also been suggested that she was closely tied to Irish männerbund groups (described as "bands of youthful warrior-hunters, living on the borders of civilized society and indulging in lawless activities for a time before inheriting property and taking their places as members of settled, landed communities") and that these groups may have been in some way dedicated to her. If true, her worship may have resembled that of Perchta groups in Germanic areas.
However, Máire Herbert has argued that "war per se is not a primary aspect of the role of the goddess", and that her association with cattle suggests her role was connected to the earth, fertility and sovereignty; she suggests that her association with war is a result of a confusion between her and the Badb, who she argues was originally a separate figure. She can be interpreted as providing political or military aid, or protection to the king — acting as a goddess of sovereignty, not necessarily a war goddess.
There is a burnt mound site in County Tipperary known as Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna ("cooking pit of the Mórrígan"). The fulachta sites are found in wild areas, and usually associated with outsiders such as the Fianna and the above-mentioned männerbund groups, as well as with the hunting of deer. The cooking connection also suggests to some a connection with the three mythical hags who cook the meal of dogflesh that brings the hero Cúchulainn to his doom. The Dá Chich na Morrigna ("two breasts of the Mórrígan"), a pair of hills in County Meath, suggest to some a role as a tutelary goddess, comparable to Danu or Anu, who has her own hills in County Kerry. Other goddesses known to have similar hills are Áine and Grian of County Limerick who, in addition to a tutelary function, also have solar attributes.