Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Guises of the Morrigan: Irish Goddess of Sex & Battle: Her Myths, Powers, and Mysteries

Book Review: The Guises of the Morrigan: Irish Goddess of Sex & Battle: Her Myths, Powers, and Mysteries by David Rankine & Sorira D’Este (Avalonia 2005)

This is a neat book delving into the Morrigan, a Goddess figure that has pervaded Celtic myth and tradition in many forms. The authors do good research and utilize quite a number of sources, some hard to find. The guises of the Morrigan range from Bestower of Sovereignty to Faery Queen to Lady of Beasts, Witch Goddess, Earth Goddess, and Goddess of Battle and Sex. Some of the earliest references to the Morrigan come from the early Irish epics: First Battle of Moytura, Second Battle of Moytura, and Tain Bo Cuailnge. The first recounts the battle where the Tuatha de Danaan overcome the Fir Bolg, the second the battle between the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fomorians, and the third is the Cattle Raid of Cooley (The Tain) where the Irish Queen Medb instigates a cattle raid because she wants to see the two greatest cows of earth and the otherworld fight. This tale also gives the story of the hero Cuchulain whose life was intertwined with the Morrigan.

The Morrigan (aka the Morrigu) as the trinity Morrigan, Badb, and Macha, aid the Tuatha de Danaan against the Fir Bolgs and later the Fomorians. It is previous to the battle against the Fomorians that the Daghda meets the Morrigan at the ford and makes love to her while she has one foot on each side of the river. She acts as a motivator and aid to the victors as a force of history – she being the spirit of the land itself – bestower of kingship. After victory, Badb prophecies a time of great peace but also she predicts the end of the world.


The Morrigan appears as an instigator throughout the tales of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn, in a manner, the authors note, not dissimilar to that of Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh. She was also a goddess of battle and sex who presented the hero with opportunities for both. Many of the women in the Cu Chulainn stories can be seen as aspects of the Morrigan. I would highly recommend Morgan Llewellyn’s novelized version of the ‘Tain’ and other tales of Cu Chulainn called ‘Red Branch.’ Cu Chulainn’s fate is tied to the Morrigan who says to him, “I am guarding your death and will continue to guard it.” This is quite an ambiguous statement as the authors note. They analyze the many encounters he has with the Morrigan in her guises in the tales which seems to be a fiery love/hate relationship of deep fate.

“The best known guises of the Morrigan are Nemain, Badb, and Macha. In various manuscripts and stories they are associated with each other, sometimes as sisters, and sometimes as guises of the same goddess. The term Morrigna was often used to describe these plural forms of the Morrigan.”

Nemain and Badb are both known as wife of the battle god Neit. The authors consider that the Morrigan has aspects of both the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fomorians. Neit is considered a grandson of the Fomorian Balor and goddesses Fea and Boann, aspects of the Morrigan, are sometimes called daughters of Balor. The word “mor” as part of the Morrigan and the Fo-mor-ians – found nowhere else – is another indication. Mor is also thought to refer to the sea. The Morrigan is also strongly associated with mother goddess Danu as the Tuatha de Danaan are the children of Danu.

The earliest reference to the Morrigan in Irish literature comes from 876-877 CE where she is equated with the Roman lamia and called a monster in female form. The lamia were female demons who seduced and then killed and feasted on men. The Christians demonized her early as her nature was probably too difficult to appropriate.

Mor-rigan can be translated “Great Queen”, “Terrible Queen”, “Phantom Queen”, “Faery Queen”, “Queen of Death”, “Sea Queen”, or “Witch Queen.” The root word “riga” refers to royalty and may also be related to Rhiannon – another likely aspect of the Morrigan. Later she came to be associated with the Greek Fury Alecto – who appeared often in the form of a bird perching on stone.

Badb means crow or raven. Crows would feed on the dead on the battlefield and so were likely associated with dissolution, disposal, and renewal. Badbh Catha, the (hooded) battle crow was another name. She was also associated with the Greek Fury Tesophone or the Roman war goddess Bellona. Some Romans such as Lucan may have compared her with Medusa. Since at least the 14th century Badb has been associated with the hag goddess known as the Caileach.

Macha means “pasture”, “field”, or “plain” and is likely a goddess of the land. She is also associated with the Horse Goddess as Rhiannon or Epona. Macha may also have been associated with cattle raiding. The Masts of Macha (or of Morrigan) referred to the severed heads of warriors displayed, the head being the seat of the soul. Severed heads were also known as “Macha’s acorn crop.” Here she may relate to the Norse Valkyries. She also was an instigator and inciter of battle. As the hooded crow she claims her spoils after the battle. The wealthy farmer Cruinn marries Macha but is told he must never boast about her but he boasts that she can outrun all the king’s horses (which suggests her connection as Horse Goddess). The king imprisons him and says he can only be freed if she races his horses. She was nine months pregnant and bid him wait but the king would not relent so she threatened to curse the men of Ulster. After winning the race she delivered twins and then died. The site became known as Emain Macha (the twins of Macha). Just before she died she cursed that the Ulstermen would experience the pain and helplessness of a woman in childbirth for four days and nights during a great time of need – which indeed occurs in the tales of Cu Chulain. Macha occurs in other tales as well – as Macha of the Red Tresses, a warrior and queen of the land. In the First Battle of Moytura she is said to be the wife of King Nuada of the Silver Arm. In the Second Battle of Moytura they are both killed but she returns in later tales. Cu Chulain’s horse is called Grey Macha and was said to shed tears of blood.

“Nemain means “Frenzy”, “Panic”, and “Venomous” and indicates the battle fury of the Warrior Goddess, intimidating the side that was going to lose with her shrieks and exhorting the side she had decided would win to victory.” Cu Chulain was also known for his mad uncontrollable battle frenzy.

Nemain is also the Badb of battle and the hooded crow. Her shriek might be compared to the death-foretelling shriek of the Banshee (Bean Sidhe) or fairy woman. Some have suggested that Nemain is related to Nematona, British Goddess of the Sacred Grove but name similarity and possible connection to the land are the only indications. The Celts were well-known to have many female warriors and the British tribe led by the warrior queen Boudicca had successful battles against the Romans and were known to venerate a war goddess called Andraste who could transform into a hare.

The Morrigan is also referred to as the Cailleach – the “veiled one” or “old woman/crone.” This crone goddess is associated with the bestowal of sovereignty and the connection of the land to sovereignty. Although there are a few similarities with the Indian Kali – name, blue color, association with death, and the fifty skulls – this seems an unlikely connection  as it would assume a very early Indo-European version of a goddess thought to have come about millennia later. The Cailleach is the Queen of Winter. She captures Bride, the Maiden of Spring, who eventually is freed by Angus Mac Og, the King of Summer. Cailleach is also a keeper of beasts – pigs, goats, deer – and is also associated with the heron. She is a goddess of many places as well – of lands and lakes. As a giant she was said to make the land by dropping giant stones she was carrying in her apron.

Next examined is a guise of the Morrigan as an earth goddess. She is linked to Danu (Anu) in several texts and both are linked to rivers. The sons of Danu are also called the sons of the Morrigan. Apparently, there are many places in Ireland and also in Scotland named for the various guises of the Morrigan.

Another guise of the Morrigan is that of the Faery Queen. The faery folk are simply the old gods, though some like Bride/Brighid were adapted into Christianity. The Morrigan as leader of the Faery Court at Samhain is seen as similar to Dame Holda leading the Wild Hunt. There is more than one Faery King which is reminiscent of Queen Meb from The Tain who has many lovers and husbands. Her guise as banshee is often depicted with long hair that she is seen combing. Some banshees are depicted as lamia and as blood-drinking succubi. In the Cu Chulain stories the Morrigan often appears in the form of magical birds. The lore of the Three Faery Ravens is another guise. Cu Chulain kills a flock of ravens but the last one he severs the head and washes his hands in the blood in a sort of ritual to his tutelary deity.

There is also the Leanan Sidhe, the “faery sweetheart” or “faery mistress” who is considered the dangerous poetic muse of all Gaelic poets. She is said to have caused them to die young. There is a Welsh version as well.

Queen Mab from Shakespeare is seen as a belittled and insigificantized form of the Irish Queen Mebd. Both are sexual and independent. Both influence dreams. She is a great witch and Faery Queen. The poet Shelley called her Queen of Spells.

The Faery Queen figures prominently in the lore of True Thomas or Thomas the Rhymer. She gave him the gift of prophecy regarding wars and claims to sovereignty. She took him as her lover. She shapeshifted from maiden to hag.

The authors examine the Morrigan as a liminal goddess, as one who rules over boundaries and transformations. Her role as Washer at the Ford – the ford being where land and water meet – is one such example. She straddles the river having sex with the Daghda at Samhain – life and death uniting at the liminal time of year where the veils are thinnest. The threshold is another liminal place. In Da Derga’s Hostel the Babd forces King Connair to break his geis (taboo) while she is standing on the threshold or door entrance. She stood in the posture known as corrguinecht, “a cursing posture which is in itself liminal, as it involves standing on the left leg and pointing with the left hand, with one eye closed. The Badb also recited a string of words, amongst which was the liminal word Samhain.”  The Morrigan as Washer at the Ford also assumes this cursing posture to foretell the doom of Cormac in another tale.

The Morrigan can be seen as the Lady of Beasts, particularly in her guise as the Cailleach. The Cailleach was a leader of herds – goats, pigs, deer, etc. As Macha she is clearly related to horses and as Babd and Morrigan she is related to crow/raven as well as to cows. She is also a shapeshifter into these forms.

For the Celts the land was female, the Goddess. There are quite a few mythic versions of the ‘testing of suitability to rule’ of potential kings among Celtic tales. Niall of the Nine Hostages, The Adventure of Daire’s Sons, The Marriage of Sir Gawain, The Ballad of King Henry, The Ballad of the Knight, and The Shepherd’s Daughter all contain the theme of the testing of suitable kings by presenting them with the possibility of making love to (or sleeping with) a hag. The one that does becomes the ruler and the hag transforms into a maiden. In a metaphorical sense the kingdom is transformed from barren to fertile. Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale tells of a knight of King Arthur’s Court who rapes a maiden and is condemned to die but Guinevere instead gives him a year and a day to answer the following question: “what is it that women most desire?” He finds a hag in the forest who tells him she will give him the answer if he will grant her a wish. The answer she gives is basically sovereignty (over her husband). This is correct as he tells it to King Arthur’s Court. The hag then makes her request which is to marry him. She then asks if he would like her to be old and ugly yet gentle and loving, or beautiful and young but false and unfaithful. The knight gives her the choice, handing to her the mastery. She then becomes beautiful and loving – the best of both choices – since he handed over sovereignty (note to self). There are several other tales of the transformation of hag to maiden related to sovereignty. There is also an interesting version from the Icelandic Saga of King Hrolf Kraki where King Helgi beds a hag who changes to a maiden and bears him a daughter named Skuld – a name of one of the Norns - which suggests the weaving of fate and sovereignty. The sovereignty of Ireland was represented by the three sisters (reminiscent of the Morrigan as triple goddess) Banba, Fotla, and Eriu. The three kings of Ireland wed them. When the Milesians invaded and the Tuatha de Danaan went off to the Otherworld called Tir Na Nog (the Land of Youth). Eriu bids that the Sons of Mil name the island after her or there will be bad fortune and Amergin concedes. Thus the land is known as Erin (Eriu). In Da Derga’s Hostel Badb withholds sovereignty bringing the downfall of King Connaire. The withdrawal of her favor also brings about the downfall of Cu Chullain.

The Morrigan as a sex goddess derives from her mating with the Daghda. The authors see this action as a cultural example of the connection between sex and death, the principles of Eros and Thanatos. The Irish Queen Medb was known for her sexual appetite and for using sex to gain political favor.

As the archetypal Witch Queen, one translation of her name, she is associated with divination, prophecy, and especially with conferring taboo/stricture, or geis. The geis can be seen as a connection of the king or hero to the influence of the beings/faery/deities of the Otherworld. She is also the archetypal shapeshifter appearing in the forms of hag, maiden, crow, eel, wolf, cow, and in the case of banshees, the hare. Morgan La Fey (strongly associated with the Morrigan) in the Arthurian tales was known to shapeshift her travelling party once into standing stones.

“Seeing the Morrigan as the Washer at the Ford was to have your (usually immanent) death foretold. In this respect she is a Goddess of Fate, for she is the one who cuts the thread of life, and determines the outcome of events. In this guise, she appeared either as a beautiful maiden or as a hideous hag.”

The Washer at the Ford motif occurs in several stories, the tale of Cu Chullain probably the most famous. The latest encounter in a story is her appearance lamenting at a bog foretelling the violent death of the Earl of Clanricarde of Tirellan Castle and his servant Burke when they led the Jacobite army in 1691 at the Battle of Aughrim. This exemplifies the enduring nature of this guise in the folk imagination. The Christian Church tried to depict the Washer at the Ford as a mortal doing penance for sins.

Similar in function to the Washer at the Ford is the death-messenger known as the banshee. Like the Morrigan, banshees are depicted both as ugly old hags or beautiful young women. The banshee is also associated with wailing or keening in loud cries after the death of a prominent person. The Bean Nighe – the Scottish Washer at the Ford - was said to be the ghost of women who died in childbirth. Seeing her was also often an omen of one’s own death. It was also considered certainly fatal to interrupt the wailing of a banshee. There are Welsh versions as well of banshees and Washers at the Ford.

The authors examine possible connections of the Arthurian Morgan La Fey with the Morrigan. The name similarity is rather obvious – Fey means Faery – so the name is almost identical. Arthur as hero archetype seems to have a love/hate relationship with Morgan as Cu Chullain does with the Morrigan. Both help and hinder the hero. Nimue, the Lady of the Lake also may be an aspect as she is obviously related to sovereignty. In many of the tales Morgan is the sister of King Arthur. In the tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight it is Morgan who sends the Green Knight, possibly in her role of testing heroes as the War Goddess.

Other aspects of the Morrigan include Aine, the Faery Queen and later as a banshee. Black Annis is another possible guise from England where she is the blue-faced hag of winter similar to the Cailleach, known for murdering and devouring children. Another possible guise is the Romano-Celtic deity Cathobodua which could refer to Badb as Catha Badb, or battle crow. Gallic coins depicting a crow or raven perched on the back of a horse suggest this connection as well. Other Gallic images show both ravens and geese together – both war totems. One from France shows the Horse Goddess Epona riding on a goose. This reminds me of the song – ‘Come Ye All From France’ where part of one line goes  “… riding on a goosy.” The Morrigan may be related to Modron of the Mabinogion as she takes on quite a few of the aspects of the Morrigan. Rhiannon has been strongly linked with Epona and with Macha as Horse Goddesses. Her name derives from Rigatona which means Great Queen, a translation of Mor-rigan. She is also associated with birds, fertility, faery mounds, queenship, and as a psychopomp. Scathach, the woman from the Isle of Skye (aka Skya in one tale) who trained Cu Chullain in the warrior’s arts, was also likely a guise of the Morrigan. The Norse Valkyries, “choosers of the slain” – more often depicted in the form of swans, but also occasionally as crows, likely show cross-fertilization of ideas possibly from the Celts to the Norse. One might even speculate that the similarity comes from La Tene times or earlier when the Celts and Germanic people may have been closer in some places and times – though not linguistically. Aside from several other similarities, both the Valkyries and the Morrigan not only choose the slain but also choose heroes, follow them, occasionally fall in love with them, and intertwine fates with them as otherworldly influences.

In an appendix the authors conjecture about the possible origins, or at least influences on the origins, of the Sheela-na-gig figures found on first old French but mainly on old Irish and English churches. They may have come from France with the Norman Conquest. These show a rather hideous-looking woman squatting and opening wide her vagina. They were thought to be warnings to church-goers against the sin of female lust and as gargoyle-like protectors although one may also speculate about previous origins. That they often appear near doorways and windows suggests a possible liminal function. Their name ‘Sheela’ probably derives from the Sidhe (shee) or Faeries. It is also possible that the Irish incorporated them into the Morrigan sex/fertility goddess archetype. As a hag she could also be associated with the hag of the land sovereignty of the Cailleach aspect.

Finally, there is given some Celtic raven lore. Ravens were used for augury, their numbers, their calls, and their flight. There are several versions of the motif of their number such as this one given:

One for bad news, Two for mirth.
Three is a wedding, Four is a birth.
Five is for riches, Six is a thief.
Seven, a journey, Eight is for grief.
Nine is a secret, Ten is for sorrow.
Eleven is for love, Twelve – joy for tomorrow.

It was also believed that the flesh of the raven was poisonous and one could be cursed with it. The term “eat crow” as a cursing phrase likely derives from this.

Overall, a great book about a rather difficult and ambiguous goddess figure not really appropriatable for the Christians and so relegated to demon-faery status. My only mild complaint was that it was a bit repetitive in parts.





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