Morrigan, 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.
Her 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
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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. Her work, which expresses her belief in the interconnectedness of all life, can be seen on her website.