In the modern imagination, the Morrigan is one of the most enduring and captivating characters of Irish mythology. The goddess of death and war is remembered for her brutal enforcement of fate.
The Morrigan is seen as a seductress and a shapeshifter who blended the supernatural, sexuality, and violence in a way that would not be out of place in a modern fantasy or horror film.
The way she was actually perceived in pre-Christian Ireland, however, was likely much different.
In Irish mythology, the Morrigan is more than just an alluring goddess of violent fate. In fact, her role was so complex that she was often thought to be three separate goddesses rather than a single being.
So what does the modern world get right, and wrong, about the Morrigan? You’ll have to keep reading to find out!
In this role she often takes on the form of a crow, although she also appeared as a wolf or eel.
In many myths the Morrigan appeared to encourage warriors to perform great deeds of courage or strength and could strike foes into their enemies to grant them an easier victory. At times she began the battle, urging both sides to violence until fighting finally began.
Particularly in later tales, the Morrigan was said to take joy in fighting. She relished bloodshed and suffering and took cruel delight in the deaths of great heroes and kings.
In other cases, however, she attempted to help men avoid bloodshed and expressed regret when she was unable to. The Morrigan sometimes gave favor or rescinded it, but she also served as a portent of fate.
The extent to which the Morrigan was able to influence fate varied between stories. While she sometimes seemed to serve as a messenger, at other times she was able to single-handed change the course of events.
In the form of the crow, or badb, she flew overhead as an omen that blood would soon be shed. In some stories, she appeared in a vision to those who were about to die, either in this form or while washing their bloodstained clothes.
This image of the Morrigan lived on in popular folk beliefs long after the people of Ireland no longer believed in the Tuatha Dé Dannan.
As an omen of death and bloodshed, the Morrigan may have served as the inspiration for one of the most iconic creatures of later Irish folklore.
From the Old Irish ben sidhe, the word banshee can be translated as “woman of the fairy mound.” These mounds, the sidhe, were said to be where the Tuatha Dé Dannan made their homes after the arrival of the Gaelic kings.
There were said to be many banshee throughout Ireland. According to some legends, each of Ireland’s old families had its own harbinger of death.
The banshee appeared before the death of a family member, usually in the guise of a woman who is hunched over and dressed in dark robes. Her wails and cries of anguish foretold impending death.
There are many indications that this well-known fairy woman is descended from the Morrigan.
In some places, the banshee is called the badb, which was both the Irish word for crow and al alternative name for the Morrigan herself.
Crows can be a real-life indicator of death as they feed on carrion, but it is unlikely that the comparison to both the Morrigan and the later banshee is pure coincidence.
The name ben sidhe could also indicate a former belief in the character as a member of the Tuatha Dé Dannan. The one-time gods of Ireland were said to have lost much of their power when the Milesians, the Gaelic people, arrived in Ireland.
The Tuatha Dé Dannan retreated to their sidhe, the underground forts that dotted the landscape. In later folklore, these were seen as fairy mounts and the Tuatha Dé Dannan reduced to minor spirits.
One of the most telling links between the Morrigan and the banshee is the way the fairy is depicted in nearby Scotland.
The mythologies and folklore of Scotland and Ireland are closely related, so the Scots have their own version of the banshee. There she is sometimes known as the bean nighe or bean nigheachain.
The bean nigheachain of Scotland appears as a washerwoman scrubbing the clothes and armor of those who are about to die in battle. This is the same form the Morrigan takes in one of her most well-known Irish myths.
One of the most famous stories of the Morrigan takes place in a collection of legends known as the Ulster Cycle. These tell the story of Cúchulainn, said to be one of the great heroes of 1st century Ireland.
Many of these stories involve the cattle raids carried out by the local rulers of the Irish kingdoms of this time. Cattle were symbols of both wealth and power so, in history as well as in legend, such raids and the efforts to protect prized herds often took the form of all-out warfare.
Before one such raid Cúchulainn came across a woman in the forest who was driving away a heifer. He insulted her, accusing her of theft.
When she took the form of a black bird, Cúchulainn recognized her as the Morrigan. He said that he would not have insulted her if he had known who she was, but the goddess told him that it was too late to regret his ignorance and he would pay dearly for the slight.
“Thou hast no power against me,” said Cuchulain. “I have power indeed,” said the woman; “it is at the guarding of thy death that I am; and I shall be …when thou art in combat against a man of equal strength, equally rich in victories, thine equal in feats, equally fierce, equally untiring, equally noble, equally brave, equally great with thee, I will be an eel, and I will draw a noose about thy feet in the ford, so that it will be a great unequal war for thee.”
-The Ulster Cycle, The Cattle-Raid of Regamna
The Morrigan appeared before Cúchulainn before another raid and offered him her love, but he rejected her. Insulted again, the goddess took the forms of an eel, wolf, and cow just as she had said she would.
Cúchulainn prevailed, however, and survived the raid. He even managed to wound the Morrigan once in each of the forms she took.
Shortly after the raid, an old woman appeared before Cúchulainn leading a cow. She offered him three drinks of milk and, exhausted from the battle, she blessed her for each drink.
The old woman was the Morrigan in disguise once again, and with each blessing Cúchulainn gave one of her wounds was healed.
He eventually recognized her and regretted his blessings when she reminded him that he had once sworn three times that he would never heal her. In response, Cúchulainn echoed his earlier apology saying that he never would have done so if he had known it was her.
Before his last battle, Cúchulainn saw the Morrigan once again. She appeared as a withered hag, washing his bloody clothes in the river as he rode by.
At the end of the battle, Cúchulainn was mortally wounded. He tied himself to a standing stone so that he could die on his feet but did not pass away until a crow landed on his shoulder.
In the story of Cúchulainn, Morrigan appeared before the hero before three battles and took three forms to attack him. In return, she was wounded three times and received three blessings.
The number three was significant in the Celtic religion of Ireland, and was particularly associated with the Morrigan.
According to many accounts and modern interpretations, the Morrigan was never an individual deity. She was a triple goddess, although the three individual parts that made up her character were often open to debate.
In many cases she was named only as the Morrigan. Under this name she could appear as a single goddess or as one of a trio.
In other cases the name Morrigna was given to another collection of three goddesses.
The goddesses named as part of the Morrigan included:
There was no definitive list of the three goddesses that made the collective Morrigan or Morrigna.
At times, these names could be used interchangeably. For example, the Morrigan was sometimes referred to as Badb, the Crow, even when clearly not referenced as part of a trinity.
The triple nature of the Morrigan was also apparent in the three roles she played in the legends of ancient Ireland.
While the Morrigan is most often remembered as a goddess of war, death, and fate, she also played other roles. Her triple nature was not only evident in her various names, but in her dominion over the earth and kingship as well as death.
The stories of the Morrigan that appear in works such as the Ulster Cycle and the Mythological Cycle show her as more than a bloodthirsty goddess of violence or a portent of death.
Many historians interpret these stories as showing the Morrigan in the form of a protective goddess.
For example, the cattle raids of the Ulster Cycle were intrinsically tied to agricultural prosperity. The cattle represented the fertility of the land and its ability to feed its people.
In this interpretation of the Morrigan, she did not concern herself with the fights over livestock simply due to a love of the bloodshed such battles caused. She got involved in the cattle raids because they were tied to the land, its fertility, and the well-being of its people.
More obvious than her role as an earth goddess was the Morrigan’s dominion over sovereignty and kingship.
Irish mythology contains many examples of sovereignty goddesses. Through their favor, including ritual marriages, they symbolically gave power to the kings of the land.
In the Mythological Cycle, one of the main events is the war between the Tuatha Dé Dannan and the Fomorians, the previous rulers of Ireland.
Before the deciding battle, the Morrigan takes the Dagda, the leader of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, to the banks of a river. After their tryst, she promises to bring together every mage in Ireland to defeat the Fomorians.
When the battle began, the Morrigan did not revel in bloodshed and destruction. Instead, she calmly stepped to the front of the lines and said a quiet poem.
Immediately, the battle was broken and the Fomorians were cast into the sea.
Interpreting the Morrigan as a goddess of sovereignty, it is easy to see how her role plays out in the Mythological Cycle. By consummating her union with the Dagda she symbolically anointed him as king and, once this was done, his people’s victory was destined.
The Morrigan’s meeting with Cúchulainn can be interpreted in a similar way.
The hero’s offense was not just in insulting the goddess, but in failing to recognize her role as the sovereign goddess of the land.
Cúchulainn implied that the cow the Morrigan led was not hers, although as the sovereignty goddess and a goddess of the earth all the livestock of Ireland was hers to give and take as she wished. Furthermore, he attempted to get answers from her male companion and acted incredulous that a woman had answered him, further denying the Morrigan’s role as the true sovereign.
The Morrigan’s offer of love to Cúchulainn even after these insults can be interpreted as an offer to give him authority rather than continued service under the king of Ulster. By denying her, Cúchulainn gave up any opportunity he may have had to rise in position.
In this reading of the story Cúchulainn was fated to die not because he had offended the Morrigan personally. Instead, his offense was against the land of Ireland itself and the concept of divine authority.
A common belief in the modern era is that the Morrigan has lived on in one of Britain’s most famous legends. Many believe her to be the inspiration for Morgan le Fay, the sorceress of Arthurian legend.
Morgan is identified as the fay, a French term roughly analogous to the Irish word sidhe.
In early version fo the Arthurian legends, starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini in the 12th century, Morgan appears to be an otherworldly queen of immense power. In later tales she became either Arthur’s sister or his lover.
In the earliest appearances of Morgan le Fay she was a benevolent healer and counselor of King Arthur. Later stories, however, made her a more ambivalent character.
The supposed connection between Morgan le Fay and the Morrigan is largely based on the works of French writers, who expanded the legends of the British king and his court.
In these stories, Morgan le Fay took on the role of femme fatale. She became a seductress who used both her femininity and magical knowledge against Arthur and his knights instead of for their benefit.
This depiction of Morgan le Fay is similar to older stories of the Morrigan, although the Arthurian character works against the king instead of to legitimize his claim. Like the Morrigan, she uses love and magic to both enforce and change fate and determine kingship.
The similarities, however, are almost entirely coincidental.
The name Morrigan comes from the Indo-European root mar, meaning terror or nightmare. Her name is often translated as mar rignu, or Phantom Queen.
Morgan le Fay, however, is taken from Welsh sources. The Old Welsh and Breton mor referred to the sea.
Morgan le Fay is derived from a Welsh goddess of the sea rather than the Irish goddess of war.
While there are some similarities between Welsh and Irish legends, the two cultures were and are quite distinct. Because their languages belong to different branches of the Celtic family, similarities between names and words to not necessarily connote a relationship.
The Matter of Britain, the body of works from which the legends of King Arthur originated, was taken from almost exclusively Welsh sources.
Most of the later additions were French. Morgan le Fay’s sexuality was not a reflection of the Morrigan’s role in Irish mythology, but of medieval French attitudes toward feminine sexuality and power.
In fact, Morgan le Fay in later legends is more strongly influenced by the Greek sorceress Medea than by the Morrigan. Many stories that feature her betrayal and cruelty bring to mind the myths of Ireland, but are actually inspired by older Greek tales of Jason’s murderous wife.
The association between the Morrigan and Morgan le Fay may not be factual, but it has remained in the popular imagination. While the characters do not share the same root, modern retellings of British lore have furthered the connection because their writers see parallels between the characters.
The Irish Morrigan is often thought of today as a violent and vengeful goddess who inspired later sorceresses like Morgan le Fay. In truth, however, such characterizations are not wholly accurate.
While the modern imagination typically views the Morrigan as a violent and seductive goddess of war, her actual role in Irish mythology was much more complicated.
The Morrigan was associated with warfare. She often served as a portent of violence or death, providing the inspiration for the later folktale of the banshee.
While the Morrigan sometimes delighted in violence, she often appears to have been involved in conflict for a much larger purpose. As a goddess of the land and its sovereignty, she was tied to war because it was tied to the fate of Ireland itself.
The Morrigan’s sexuality was a symbolic way of legitimizing the power of a king. Many of the battles she was involved with were fought to ensure this kingship was maintained.
As a goddess with multiple roles, the Morrigan was often thought of as being a collection of goddesses rather than a single deity. The trinity of goddesses who made up the greater Morrigan was never firmly established, but the various deities named illustrated the many roles of the Morrigan in Irish mythology.