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Goddess Morrigan – Celtic War Goddess

The Morrigan is a mysterious and complex Celtic goddess who originated in the legends of old Irish literature. 

Through her associations with war and battle, she has a reputation of fearlessness and ferocity, but there is more to this goddess than you may think. 

She is also an undeniably strong relationship with the land and its people through her connections with sovereignty, fertility and prosperity.

Gifted with the ability to both shape shift and predict the future, this goddess could be seen as the bringer of doom and of significant victories in battles. 

 

Who is the Goddess Morrigan?

The Morrigan Goddess is mainly associated with war and battles, but there are other sides to her complex character. Photo: nemke via Canva

According to Celtic mythology, the Morrigan is the ancient Irish goddess associated with war and prophecy

This warrior queen of the Celts has many attributes, most notably her ability to shapeshift and predict death. Her presence is usually one of foreboding, but she is also able to foretell battle victories. 

She is part of the Tuatha de Danann, the warrior race of gods and ferocious warriors, that were one of the six groups of people, that over the course of history, are said to have settled in Ireland according to the Lebor gabála Érenn (or Book of Invasions) dated to about the 11th century. 

How the Tuatha de Danann came to Ireland is told in the Cath Maige Tuired (or The Battle of Mag Tuired). The Morrigan Goddess is thought to have played a role in foretelling the fall of the Fomorians in the second battle of the Tuatha de Danann in this story.

 

 

What are the powers of the Morrigan?

The Morrigan’s powers were wide ranging and included the ability to: 

  • Predict the future and act as an omen of doom and death
  • Power to influence the outcome of battle 
  • Shapeshift into any form 

 

Names of the Morrigan Celtic Goddess

Many names have been attributed to the Morrigan goddess, including:

  • Morrígan
  • Morrigu
  • Queen of Demons
  • Queen of Nightmares
  • Celtic Raven Goddess
  • Irish Goddess of War
  • Celtic Goddess of War

However, the most accurate translation of the Morrigan meaning of the modern Irish form Mór-Ríoghain is thought to be Great Queen or Phantom Queen

 

What three goddesses make up the Morrigan?

To make matters a little more complicated, the Morrigan is thought of as both a single goddess and also a triple goddess along with her sisters 

The names of the sisters vary depending on the source. Usually, they are named as Badb and Macha. The third sister is sometimes called Nemian or Anand, however some texts also seem to confirm that Anand is another name for the Morrigan. 

In the form of a trio, the war goddesses are collectively referred to as the Mórrigna.

They are believed to be the younger daughters of Ernmas. The eldest daughters being the land goddess Ériu, Banba and Fódla, which are all synonyms for Ireland. 

 

The Morrigan Triple Goddess

It is quite possible that the trio of sisters was used to identify three different aspects of the 

The Morrigan’s traits, as this occasionally occurs in Celtic mythology. Thus the Celtic goddesses Morrigan can be thought of as both a single and a triple goddess.

The connection of the war goddess Morrigan and crows is likely to come from Badb meaning Crow, or Badb Catha, which refers to Battle Crow in Irish.

In this form, the Badb goddess could traverse at will between the real world and the afterlife. This enabled her to foresee the future, including predicting the outcomes of battles and violent deaths.

There is a strong association between Macha livestock, particularly horses. Photo: Adam Kaczmarek via Canva

Macha is the aspect of sovereignty and is connected with the land and its fertility, as well as the procreation of livestock. She is often associated with horses and the origin of her name possibly comes from a grassy plain, used to graze animals.

Nemian was connected with crazed rage and fury of war. Some accounts suggest that her scream alone was thought to be enough to frighten a man to death. 

Both Badb and Nemian are thought to have been the wives of Neit.

 

What is Morrigan the goddess of?

The ancient defensive ring fort, Grianán of Aileach in County Donegal, is connected with the legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Photo: Shawn Williams via Canva

The influence of the Morrigan in Celtic culture was wide ranging, but she was primarily thought to be the goddess of war, with formidable influence over fertility and sovereignty. 

 

War Goddess

The Morrigan is primarily the goddess of war. She was a fearless figure, with the ability to shapeshift into any form. 

For the Celts, the crow has been seen as a symbol of war and destruction, as well as being an instigator of conflict and unrest. 

It is not surprising then that the crow was the form that the war goddess often took on the battlefield.

She was known to incite wars among people and invoke panic, rage and fury among the warring factions on the battlefield. 

Alternatively, her presence may give courage and strength to a particular side and thus influence the outcome of the battle.

 

Fertility Goddess

There is a strong association between the Morrigna and fertility, in terms of her her own sexual allure and her abilites to influence the productivity of the land and its animals.

She presents herself in various female forms from a seductive young woman, to an old hag and several stories depict her seducing men, or even predicting victory in battle after she sleeps with them. 

 

Sovereignty Goddess

As a Goddess, the Morrigan also served as protector or guardian of the land and its people

In the role as the sovereignty goddess, she was the one to keep balance in nature regarding the prosperity and fertility of the land and its livestock. 

If anything or anyone threatened the land, animals or people, the Morrigan would become a defensive protector.

 

The Morrigan Symbol – The Morrigan Crow

As a shapeshifter, the Morrigan could decide what form to present herself in, although she is generally most associated with the symbol of a crow. Photo: kytalpa via Canva

As a shapeshifter, the Celtic goddess Morrigan took many forms, both of living creatures such as a wolf and an eel, as well as a pool of water, however, the Morrigan goddess symbol is most commonly associated with the crow

Before a battle, the Morrigan sometimes appeared as an ominous washer woman (also known as a Bean nighe in Scots Gaelic or type of Ban-síth or banshee in Irish). 

In some visions, the woman weeping in a river while washing bloodstained clothing, appeared as a beautiful young maiden, other times, she took the form of an old woman. 

The bloodstained clothes and armour were a very ominous sign and predicted a violent death to whoever they belonged to. 

 

Stories of the Celtic War Goddess Morrigan

There are many tales involving the Celtic Morrigan goddess. In early stories of the Ulster Cycles of Irish mythology, she often took a human form and in later stories she transformed herself into animals and water. 

Two of the more popular stories often found in books about Celtic mythology involve the Morrigan’s encounters with Dagda and Chulainn

 

Mórrigan and Dagda

The eve of Samhain is a particular important night in the Celtic calendar. Photo: ToddSm66 via Canva

The festival of Samhain (on November 1st) is one of the most important in the Celtic year and celebrates the end of the old year and beginning of the new.

On the eve of the Samhain (October 31) the connection between the Otherworld and the real world were thought to be at their weakest, allowing spirits to pass back and forth. This gave rise to the idea of Halloween.) 

Each year, the Morrigan was thought to play a significant role in determining the success and prosperity of the coming year. 

If the goddess and the Dagda, the King of the Tuatha dé Danann (and her husband according to some versions), united sexually at this time year year, the harvests and livestock for the coming year would be the coming year would prosper and flourish. 

Alternatively, the Dagda is said to have coupled with the Morrigan in exchange for a plan so that he and his warriors could win an upcoming battle.

 

Morrígan and Cu Chulainn

Of all the stories of the Morrigan goddess, one stands out more than the others. The famous tale of the rejection, magic and war that lead to the downfall of the greatest Irish legend of all time, Cú Chulainn

In the epic poem of Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, Queen Medb of the province Connacht set out to capture the sacred bull, Donn Cuailnge from Ulster. 

Due to a curse placed on them by Macha (one of the three aspects or sisters of the Morrigan) many years before, the men of Ulster were unable to defend their precious bull and the task fell to mighty warrior, Cú Chulainn. 

His famous battle skills were put to the test against the best of Queen Medb’s warriors. 

One by one, the warriors tried to defeat Cú Chulainn in single combat at fords, yet outperformed them all and emerged victorious after each attack. 

The Morrigan was undoubtedly impressed by this fearsome warrior who single-handedly managed to beat back an army and decided to seduce him. 

Presenting herself in the form of a beautiful, young princess, she tried unsuccessfully to win his love and affection.

Cú Chulainn probably had other things on his mind at the time and rejected her offer. This greatly offended the Morrigan and she set about seeking her revenge upon him.

An eel was just one of the animal form that the Morrigan transformed into during her conflict with Cú Chulainn. Photo: Michel VIARD via Canva

At first she transformed herself into an eel. As Cú Chulainn prepared for another combat, she attempted to trip him in the ford. 

Cú Chulainn stepped on the eel and broke its ribs, but he himself was not injured during  the encounter. 

This infuriated the Morrigan so she decided to once again exact her revenge. Next came the Morrigan wolf transformation. 

She morphed into a large wolf and chased cattle towards Cú Chulainn. The herd of animals charged towards the warrior. With lightning speed, he took his slingshot and aimed at the wolf, hitting the animal in the eye and blinding it. 

The Morrigan also started a cattle stampede in her attempts to get revenge on Cú Chulainn. Photo: incposterco via Canva

Once again the Morrigan transforms, this time into a white heifer without horns and tries again to lead the cattle in a stampede towards Cú Chulainn. This time he manages to break her leg and after this third failed attempt she does not try again to defeat him in the form of an animal. 

Instead, she transformed into an old woman milking a cow. In this form, Cú Chulainn failed to notice her blind eye and broken leg and gratefully accepted the offer of milk. 

He thanked and blessed the old woman, healing her injuries in the process and only then realised that it was the Morrigan.

The Morrigan prophesied that Cú Chulainn would have a violent death

Before his last battle, he is thought to have seen the Morrigan as the washer woman, cleaning bloodied clothes in the river.

Cú Chulainn was mortally wounded in combat as the Morrigan had predicted. He tied himself to a post, to confuse his enemies and so that he would die in peace. It was only when a crow landed on his shoulder that his enemies finally knew that he had died.

 

Historical Sites Connected to the Morrigan

County Armagh is strongly associated with Macha. Photo: rick734’s Images via Canva

Given the likely origin of the Morrigan in the Ulster Cycles of Irish Mythology, it may not come as a surprise that there are still some places associated with the goddess in Northern Ireland.

County Armagh has some interesting connections. The name of Armagh originally comes from Ard Macha. This roughly means “Macha’s high Place” in Irish. 

Navan fort, which is called Eamhain Mhacha in Irish, is thought to either mean Macha’s twins (due to the twin hills) or Macha’s brooch (because of its shape). 

One story tells of Macha’s husband, Cruinniuc, telling the king of Ulster of the amazing strength and speed of his wife, boasting that she could outrun his prized horses. Macha was then made to compete against the horses, even though she was heavily pregnant. 

She gave birth on the finishing line and in her dying wish, cursed the men of Ulster, stating that in their time of need, let them be as vulnerable as a woman in childbirth. 

This impact of Macha’s dying wish was seen in Táin Bó Cúailnge (or the Cattle Raid of Cooley), as previously mentioned when the Ulster men were weakened by the lasting effects of her curse leaving Cú Chulainn to single handedly defend against Queen Medb’s warriors.

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