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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
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
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
connectionas 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
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
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
“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
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
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