Morrigan, Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty, War and Fertility by Judith Shaw


judith Shaw photoMorrigan, Celtic Goddess of War and Death, is a dark goddess we mortals tend to approach with fear and trepidation. A great Warrior Goddess, She represents the more terrifiying aspects of female energy; sensuality, magic, prophecy, revenge, and war. She could either shapeshift into a crow or raven or be accompanied by them.  In the Ulster cycle stories she also appears as a cow, a wolf and an eel.  This indicates Her connection to prosperity, sovereignty and the land.  Encompassing all essential divine functions, She is the Goddess of War, Sovereignty, Fertility and the Land.

The Morrigan, Celtic War and Fertility Goddess, painting by Judith ShawHer name is linguistically rooted to the Indo-European words mor –  terror and rigan – queen.  Current scholars accept Her name to mean either Great Queen or Phantom Queen.  In addition, Celtic mythology refers to Her as Morrígu, Morríghan, or Mor-Ríoghain.  In Her aspect as Death Goddess, She is also called the “Washer at the Ford”, for when She was found washing a warrior’s armor in the stream it foretold his death in battle that day.

As with so many of the Celtic Goddesses, Morrigan is complex and hard to pin down. The Morrigan can be seen as a title given to either three different goddesses or three aspects of the same goddess.  Her three aspects are  Badb Catha, “battle crow”, Macha, “a plain” and Neaim, “frenzy”. She can appear as both a beautiful, sensual woman or as an ugly, old hag.

In Her aspect as Neaim, She was seen shrieking and flying over battlefields, striking terror and confusion into men’s hearts, often causing them to either fall dead from fear or to turn upon each other in confusion.  As Badb, She revels in the gore and carnage of war.  Here She is a flock of crows warning of a great battle or feasting on the slain warriors. As Macha, She takes on the most human of Her forms.  But even as wife and mother Her prophesy is of war and death as seen in Macha’s curse on the Ulstermen.

The Morrigan was mated to the Dagda, the Leader of the Tuatha De Danaan, and the son of the Great Mother Goddess Danu. She fought by their side and was instrumental in maintaining the sovereignty of the land against foreign invaders.

In preparation for battle with the Fomorians Her relationship to the land and sovereignty is seen clearly by Her primordial coupling with the Dagda on Samhain.  This was a sacred coupling, occurring on a sacred, limenal day, assuring victory for the Tuatha De Danaan.  She then went into action wielding her magic to doom the enemy.  At the battle’s end Morrigan proclaimed victory and a return to prosperity.  She sets right what was wrong and brings empowerment to Her people.

The Tain Bo Cuailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), the most famous of the Ulster cycle of stories, chronicles the rise and fall of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn. This was the raid against the Ulstermen led by Queen Medb.  Cu Chulainn was the only one not affected by the curse laid on Ulster by Macha, an aspect of the Morrigan. Through Her curse the Ulstermen were rendered as helpless and pain racked as a woman in labor whenever the need to defend themselves arose.  So She, Macha, The Morrigan, set up the circumstances which led to Cu Chulainn’s greatness as a hero, being the sole warrior able to defend Ulster and which led to his death since there was no one to come to his aide.

In the Tain Bo Cuailnge, She appeared as a beautiful woman to Cu Chulainn and offered her love, but he rejected her, being too full of thoughts of battle to take time for a woman.  Later She revealed Her true self and Her anger at his disregard.  While Cu Chulainn was engaged in combat she shape-shifted into her animal aspects and attacked him.  First as an eel she tripped him, then as a wolf she caused a stampede of cattle, and lastly She appeared as a heifer at the head of the stampede. But with each attack he wounded Her. By facing the Morrigan, Cu Chulainn was forced to rise to his greatest strength for the battles to come.

Later, after his victory, the Morrigan appeared again, this time as an old woman milking a cow.  She had the same injuries he gave her when in Her animal form.  He blessed Her in thanks with each of the three drinks of milk She gave him, thus healing Her wounds.

Poor Cu Chulainn, so full of hero hubris, doesn’t realize that the Morrigan will always get her due.  In a cruel twist of fate, She both inspires and then consumes the warrior.  When Cu Chulainn was killed in battle, She came in Her raven form to rest on his shoulder, claiming him finally as Her own.  The great and the small, the rich and the poor, the beautiful and the ugly, all come to the same end on this Earth as we return to the body of the Goddess.

We can only see the Goddess our consciousness allows us to see. The Morrigan comes to us from the ancient Irish warrior culture which glorified the personal heroism inherent in war. The Morrigan, Dark Death Goddess, has been witnessing the horrors of war and foretelling the death of warriors for millennia. As the Washer at the Ford, She has been deeply connected to all the horrors of war. She was with us on the fields of Culloden and the Battle of the Bulge.  She was there at Waterloo, the Battle of Verdun and the fall of Saigon. Back and back through thousands of years, She has been there as men have killed and maimed each other.  She is the gateway to death and to life.  We are the ones who have chosen the means.

Perhaps the little white bird that appeared quite unexpectedly in my painting foretells of a new way to experience the Morrigan.  Perhaps one day there will be an end to the terrors of war. Perhaps the Morrigan as phychopomp can then transport us in a more peaceful way to the Otherworld.  Perhaps we no longer need to fear death as we come to the understanding that through death, both physical and symbolic, we are transformed to a higher dimension on the everlasting spiral of life.

Morrigan, The Phantom Queen, emerges from the darkness, from the mists, wielding Her magic sword in defense of the Land, of Her people.   She is a complex and difficult goddess who reminds us that chaos and darkness are part of the flux and flow of life.  For something to come together, something must fall apart. When we face overwhelming challenges The Morrigan with Her power of life and death guides us in gaining access to our own inner strength. And with that strength we can follow the Morrigan who shows us that another world, another way is possible.

Sources:  WAR GODDESS: The Morrígan and her Germano-Celtic Counterparts. A dissertation by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein http://web.archive.org/web/20011204120238/http://members.loop.com/~musofire/diss/, Celtic Heritage by Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, http://www.maryjones.us/jce/morrigan.html, http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/godsandgoddesses/p/Morrighan.htm, http://www.angelfire.com/journal/ofapoet/morrigan.html

Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life.  Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork.  She continues to be inspired by the Divine Feminine in all of Her manifestations. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints and teaches part-time.  She is currently hard at work on a deck of Goddess cards. Her work, which expresses her belief in the interconnectedness of all life, can be seen on her website.

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Categories: Art, Death and Dying, Divine Feminine, General, Goddess Spirituality, Goddess Spirituality, Myth, Sovereignty

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7 replies

  1. Well you are certainly showing us the problematics of Goddess mythologies in patriarchal contexts. Happy New Year!

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  2. Thanks, Judith. You say, “for something to come together, something must fall apart.” 2014 was a year of sadness, turmoil, personal angst, and much breakdown in society. Maybe that dove-like, white bird appeared prophetically in your painting as an encouraging sign for 2015, that is, of a new, constructive flowering of creativity, and of healing, and peace-making beginning to manifest more in our world. Remember, hope itself can be a peacemaker.

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  3. Brava! Thanks for writing about this complex goddess. Your painting is splendid. The world needs to know more about this goddess. What might she do in the Middle East that is so filled with war? Trouble is, there seem to be no heroes there.

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  4. Carol, The Morrigan is certainly complex and was difficult for me to approach. But by the end of my work with Her I feel I have a better understanding of the complexity of the Celtic warrior culture which was so full of contradictions – love of war for attaining personal glory (not land or resources- except of course cattle) housed in the same heart as the love of poetry, art and storytelling. And the Morrigan Herself did not engage in violence, she mainly foretold, used Her magic to strike terror in the hearts of the warriors and reveled in the aftermath of destruction. And let’s not forget Her more ancient role as a sovereignty goddess.

    Sarah, I do hope that the little white bird is prophetic of a more peaceful year to come. Though I fear that more “falling apart” is in store for the collective before we find our new way. I hope I am wrong.

    Barbara, what an amazing thought! Just imagine how all the woman-hating warriors in the Middle East would react to a female figure shrieking terror into their hearts and stopping their heinous acts.

    She is a pretty heavy Goddess to present on New Year’s Eve but what better time to contemplate death and life and the possibility of a new way than now.

    As always thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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  5. In my dealings with this Goddess over the past few years I have discovered that she is also the giver of courage during especially difficult times. She is the queen of helping us see the beauty in the life-death-life cycle whether it be an actual or metaphorical death. Our western thinking has caused us to fear death of any kind like no other culture. We seem to fear it as an end but in the past and in many primitive cultures there was a general knowledge that it was just another beginning. This is the lesson she has given me. Being a Goddess of the cold northern climate she shows how the earth itself can teach us how this cycle concept works by simply watching how the death of winter gives way to the new life of spring. For me she is much more than a Goddess of war and death for with death there always comes the promise of new life. Although many of her lessons are difficult to take it is always rewarding when you can tap into an inner strength you didn’t know you had until she showed you it was there. Thank you, Judith, for sharing this wonderful Goddess with us and reminding me of all the lessons she has taught me over the years.

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    • Treetalker, I was just reflecting on these same thoughts a few minutes ago after reading Mary Sharrat’s post on FAR “Journey Into Light”. In her post she shares an excerpt from her novel about Hildegard. Here we see Hildegard embrace the darkness and through that darkness discover the light.

      We live in a world of polarities. Carl Jung showed us so clearly that we must recognize both or be ruled by the shadow and descend into a world of terror (as happens all too often). Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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