The Morrigan in Irish/Celtic Mythology — The Shapeshifting Goddess of War & Death

The Morrigan in Irish Celtic Mythology - The Shapeshifting Goddess of War & Death

Who is the Morrigan?

Morrigan, sometimes known as Morrigu, was an Irish goddess of death on the battlefield who help the Tuatha De Danann at both battles of Magh Tuireadh. She was associated with the other war deities Macha, Badb and Nemain. Her favourite form was the crow, and as such, she settled in triumph on the shoulder of the Ulster hero Cuchulainn when he was finally killed in the war against Queen Medb’s forces. Cuchulainn had not only refused Morrigan’s love, but in anger, he had even wounded her. For such a deed his fate was sealed.

Irish and Celtic mythology are things that I’ve not covered in much detail so far—they’re not what you would consider mainstream in comparison to Greek, Egyptian or even Norse mythology, and any information regarding them is much harder to come by. But this in no way means that they’re any less interesting than the others.

We continue our journey today by looking at quite a predominant figure, the goddess known as the Morrigan or sometimes just Morrigan. She was often associated with war and the fate of those that took part, meaning that life and death were her domain.

The Morrigan

The appearance of the Morrigan before the battle was considered a bad omen. Some believe that if a warrior was to see her while washing his armour, it was a sign that he would not return. This, in turn, fuelled the belief that the choice of who walked away from battle and who did not was down to the Morrigan.

It became common practice to leave the bodies of the dead on the battlefield for a day, allowing time for Morrigan’s crows to collect them—very similar to what we see with Odin and his Ravens in Norse mythology.

The three Morrigans - The Morrigna
The three Morrigans: Badb, Macha and Nemain.

The Morrigan’s association with the life cycle grew over time, and she began to be seen as part of a trio of sisters referred to as the Morrígna. The trio consisted of the goddesses known as Badb, Macha and Nemain.

Morrigan herself was thought to be a shapeshifter, taking the form of a raven or a crow—the two animals that she was most often seen being accompanied by.

In the stories of the Ulster cycle, she was also said to take the form of numerous other animals including a cow, an eel, and a wolf.

The Origin of the Morrigan

Morrigan’s origin is something that has been passionately debated for years, and a mistake that most people make is to assume that Celtic mythology and Irish mythology are the same things.

Irish mythology is much older and the Morrigan appeared there before she did in Celtic mythology. There’s no doubt that the two are closely linked, with aspects of traditional Irish mythology bleeding into Celtic mythology and helping shape its ideas.

There are only a few mentions of the Morrigan in Irish mythology, and at that time she wasn’t considered a goddess. But in the years to come, she appeared in Celtic mythology and that soon changed.

Her name in Celtic can be translated to mean ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’, and in Irish mythology, she was one of the leaders of the Danann tribe.

The Tuatha De Danann were a tribe of supernatural beings in Irish mythology that descended from the goddess Danu herself—one of the oldest deities in Irish mythology. They were thought to have invaded Ireland in 1897 BC and ruled for several hundreds of years.

The Morrigan was thought to help the people of Danann, often shrouded in the land in thick layers of fog making it difficult to be seen by opposing armies and invaders. The Tuatha De Danann were led by the Dagda and many stories allude to the Morrigan and the Dagda having a sexual relationship.

The Dagda would consider the god of fertility and he would meet with Morrigan once a year, and together, they would create new life.

The Battle Between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians

The Battle Between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians

There is a portion of text in the Cath Maige Tuired which accounts for the first battle between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians—another supernatural race in Irish mythology, who is often seen as extremely hostile and monstrous beings who came from the sea to raid the shores of Ireland.

Before the battle occurred, Dagda and Morrigan met so they could plan which strategy they could implement.

Many saw this meeting between the two as the Dagda almost traded sex for victory, but there are quite a few ways we can interpret this story that would suggest that otherwise. The relationship between the two had existed for some time, and with Morgan being part of the Tuatha De Danann, she had already offered her assistance on several different occasions. So, it doesn’t make much sense that on this occasion she would demand payment for her help.

Before she met with the Dagda, Morgan had already visited Lou, one of the fiercest warriors within the Tuatha De Danann, and she had chanted a battle incitement that would bolster him and rally his men.

We can see here that Morgan is clearly in favour of the battle and has already taken steps to help her people.

Many saw Morrigan as a goddess of sexual desires, but this story allows us to interpret her in a very different way. If anything, it is the Dagda who is the god of sex, as he’s closely associated with fertility and it’s very clear that regardless of what the two did during their meeting, the Morrigan had every intention of helping him.

I mentioned earlier that some people believed that the two would come together once a year, and my interpretation of these events is that the who met as they normally would, but this time it was a meeting of War, and Morrigan shared her strategic knowledge with Dagda so she could help ensure that her people were victorious in battle.

The Morrigan’s Lineage

The Morrigan’s lineage, much like a lot of Irish and Celtic mythology, can vary as there are very few written accounts that we can go by.

The Medieval Irish book Lebor Gabála Érenn, known in English as The Book of Invasions or The Book of the Taking of Irelands as we now refer to it, mentions that the Irish mother goddess Ernmas was the mother of Morrigan, as well as a trio of sisters she was associated with.

Despite their annual meetings, there is no real mention of the Dagda and the Morrigan ever having a child. The one piece of hazy information we have suggests that they may have had a child by the name of Adair.

The Appearance of the Morrigan

The appearance of the Morrigan

Morrigan’s appearance and artistic representations remain quite similar, despite how much we know. She was often seen as a beautiful young woman with long flowing dark hair. With her being so heavily associated with death, her clothing was often black. She was known to take the form of a crow or a raven, both being carrion birds, and once again, tying into her association with death.

The Morrigan would likely have been seen as strikingly beautiful to the Irish and Celtic people, but she would have also painted an extremely intimidating figure as seen the goddess was considered a bad omen.

In Conclusion

It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions or even to summarize Morrigan because of the lack of knowledge and ambiguity that surrounds her. We know that she’s an extremely ancient deity that first appeared in Irish mythology and then later became an iconic figure in Celtic mythology.

She’s often described as quite a vengeful deity, one that would not hesitate to take the life of someone who has wronged her. We do somewhat see this in the Ulster cycle when the hero Cuchulainn rejects Morrigan’s romantic approaches—she swears revenge upon him and eventually appears to him washing his armour and delivering him the omen of death.

The Irish and Celtic people likely considered her to be an extremely intelligent and fierce individual.

When I first heard of the Morrigan, I instantly thought of the character from the first Dragon Age game with the same name. The two do somewhat have similar personalities and her appearance does resemble what I somewhat described earlier. The character was also capable of shapeshifting, and I’d like to think that she was influenced by either Irish or Celtic mythology.

There are so many different interpretations of the Morrigan, but how do you see her? Do you consider her a part of a trio of goddesses, similar to how we see Hecate in Greek mythology? Or do you see her as a single entity? Were you familiar with the tribal supernatural beings that she belonged to? Or would you like me to cover more of the supernatural beings that appeared in Irish mythology?

Art Sources: Dafne Stavridi, Ionus, John McCambridge, JessiBeans.

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