The Morrígan is the Irish goddess of death and destiny. Appearing just before all great battles as the goddess of fate, the Morrígan offers prophecy and favor to great heroes and gods alike. As the Phantom Queen, she circles the battlefield as a conspiracy of ravens to carry away the dead. She is at once a single deity and a triple goddess, made up of Ireland's most powerful goddesses.
Her husband is the Dagda, the Great God, who comes to her for prophecy before major battles. Several sacred sites across the Irish landscape honor her.
The Morrígan, sometimes simply Morrígan or Morrígu, is the anglicized form of the Gaelic Mór-Ríoghain. Scholars disagree about the exact etymology of this name, but have linked it to similar words across Europe, with Mór linked to a Proto-Indo-European word that means “terror” (which appears in English as part of the word “nightmare”) and Ríoghain appearing as “queen,” similar to the Latin regina.
The Morrígan was seen by medieval Irish writers as an archetypal figure in her relation to spirits, particularly malevolent female spirits and monsters. These scholars referred to such spirits as morrígna. A particular example of this is the term morrígna being used as a way to describe the Middle Eastern lamia and demon-goddess Lilith from the Latin Vulgate Bible.
She is often called “Phantom Queen,” a title acknowledging her relationship with the dead.
The Morrígan is foremost a goddess of war and of death. She is also the goddess of prophecy and of fate, able to detail the future of all things, seeing as far as the end of the world. Thus is she all-knowing, and for a price, she can relay this information. What she prophesied is never wrong, and her wordings are exact, if poetic. Her appearance to royalty and to warriors can also represent whose side she favors in a battle. The raven’s association with her stems from their appearance over battles, ready to feast on the dead.
She is a shapeshifter, appearing in different forms often in the same story. The most common of these is a shapely maiden, a warrior-queen prepared for battle, an old crone or hag, or a raven-observer of the events at hand. She can also change her shape to other animals beyond a raven, though less frequently, giving her the ability not just to see and know all things, but appear as them as well.
Her appearance at the deaths of prominent figures, such as those who fell at the Second Battle of Moytura or at the death of Cúchulain, has made many scholars link her to later spirits in Irish folklore such as the banshee, or “fairy woman.” One clear example is her appearance to Cúchulain before his final battle, as an old woman cleaning blood off armor—his armor.
Several locations are linked to the Morrígan by name. The most prominent is Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna (“cooking pit of the Morrígan”) in County Tipperary. A fulacht fiadh, or a burned mound with a cooking pit, this Bronze Age site is linked to wandering bands of young warriors. A second location consists of two hills in County Meath, the Dá Chich na Morrigna, or the “two breasts” of the Morrígan, which may have served a ritual or guardianship capacity.
One of the most prominent aspects of the Morrígan is her nature as a triple goddess of war. In many stories, she appears as both an individual and as three different goddesses acting under a single name. She is one of many such figures in Irish and Celtic folklore, and world mythology at large. Membership within this triple goddess varies depending on the source. In some cases, the daughters of Ernmas, Badb, Macha, and Anand are named as the Morrígan, with Nemain or Fea sometimes replacing a goddess within this triad. Elsewhere, the Morrígan is listed as a sister of Badb and Macha, and Anand is simply an alternate name for her. This inconsistency likely represents early Irish scholars attempting to make sense of conflicting oral traditions.
The Morrígan is the daughter of Ernmas, a mother-goddess and herself the daughter of Nuada, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. No father is given. Her siblings are Ériu, Banba, and Fódla, who make up the triple goddess representing the spirit and sovereignty of Ireland, as well as Badb and Macha, with whom the Morrígan make up a triple goddess of war. Her five brothers are the Glon, Gnim, Coscar, Fiacha, and Ollom.
She is married to the Dagda, the great god and chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
In Lebor Gabála Érenn the Morrígan appears as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, whose arrival in Ireland was met with resistance by earlier settlers of the island, the Firbolg, and the Fomorions. In the battles with the Firbolg, the Morrígan's mother perishes at the First Battle of Moytura, in County Galway, while her grandfather, King Nuada, loses a hand. Ultimately, they are victorious and establish a foothold on the island, securing their future but guaranteeing further conflict.
Cath Maig Tuired
The second threat, the monstrous Fomorions, proved more difficult. The new king, Lugh of the Long Arm, asked the Morrígan as to the outcome of this conflict. She predicted war. As the Tuatha Dé Danann prepared for battle against the Fomorions, the Dagda, a wise chief and god of magic and strategy, sought his wife the Morrígan for further prophecy. He found her at the ford of the River Unshin, in County Sligo, and there they made love. She gave her prophecy, that the Tuatha Dé Danann would be victorious, at a price. She also stated that she would slay the Fomorion king Indech, and bring two handfuls his blood and kidneys to the River Unshin.
On the day of battle, the gods gathered and prepared to fight the hordes of Fomorions at the Second Battle of Moytura, in County Sligo. Lugh asked the Morrígan what things she brought to the battle, to which each goddess replied: pursuit, death, and subjugation. The battle commenced and quickly turned to a bloodbath. Her grandfather Nuada was slain, and her husband the Dagda was mortally wounded. At last the Morrígan joined the fray, ending the battle with her force and a poem. The Fomorion fled from the sight and sound of her and perished in the sea.
At the battle's end, the Morrígan celebrates their victory with a song, and as Badb, predicts that the world will end when the sea is without bounty and morals decay.
The Morrígan appears most prominently in the Ulster Cycle, where she appears only as a single individual, though in multiple forms. She both assists and antagonizes the hero of the cycle, Cúchulain.
In Táin Bó Regamna (“The Cattle Raid of Regamain”), Cúchulain chased an old woman driving a heifer from his territory, and insulted her. As he attacked her, she transformed into a raven, and Cúchulain, at last, realized that this is the mighty Morrígan, stating that if he had known who she was, he would have acted more wisely. She responded that no matter his actions, it would have ended in bad luck, and offered a prophecy as payment for his insults: he will die in an upcoming battle, and that she will be present.
“'You told me,' said the Morrigan, 'I should not have healing from you for ever.'
'If I had known it was you,' said Cuchulainn, 'I would not have healed you ever.'”
-Táin Bó Cúailnge
Later, in Táin Bó Cúailnge (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”), she appeared as a raven warning the Brown Bull of Cooley to flee before Queen Medb of Connacht. As Medb invades, the men of Ulster are inflicted with a terrible curse save one: Cúchulain, who alone defended the fords that mark the borders of Ulster. Between combat, a young maiden offered herself to Cúchulain as both lover and battle companion, an offer which he promptly rejected. As he began fighting Lóch mac Mofemis, Cúchulain found himself under attack by the forces of nature: an eel attempted to trip him, but he breaks its ribs; a wolf stampede cattle across the ford, but Cúchulain blinded the wolf in one eye with a sling; finally, the lead heifer of the stampede attacked, but her leg is broken by another stone from his sling.
Once he is victorious over Lóch, an old woman then appeared, milking a cow. Her eye is blinded, her leg broken, her ribs cracked. The old woman offered Cúchulain three drinks from her heifer, and after which he blessed her. These blessings heal each of her three wounds. Soon she revealed her true nature as the Morrígan. She then reminded Cúchulain of his previous insults, and that he swore never to offer her aid or heal her. He retorted that, had he known it was her, he would not have. Once more, she warns him of his fate.
Finally, the battle with Medb came to a head, and Cúchulain was offered an impossible situation: his geas required him not to eat dog meat, yet hospitality rules stated a gift cannot be refused. As forces gathered for battle, an old woman offered him dog meat, which he ate in hospitality, sealing his fate. Before battle he had a vision of an old woman cleaning blood from armor beside a river: his armor. The fighting began and he was mortally wounded, but vowed to die standing up. Using his exposed entrails, he wrapped himself to a stone, thus appearing alive. The tactic worked, stopping the forces of Legaid from attacking in fear of him. It is only when a single raven landed upon Cúchulain’s shoulders that Lugaid and his men realized the truth. Despite her hatred of Cúchulain, the Morrígan favored the men of Ulster, who won the day.
The Morrígan is found only in Ireland, but scholars have found similarities to other figures in Celtic lore. Most prominent is the great antagonist of Arthurian legend, Morgan le Fey, who shares many attributes with the Phantom Queen. Both are shapeshifters and prophets, appearing in many forms and foretelling the future with fearful accuracy. While some scholars link their two names, Morgan has a separate meaning in Welsh from the Irish Morrígan.
The Morrígan has no direct analogs in other regional mythologies but is similar to the Germanic Perchta and Odin in her relationship to ravens, death, and war.
The Morrígan appears in several different pieces of popular culture, such as:
- In the Canadian television series Sanctuary, where she appears as a powerful triad of Abnormal women.
- In the Canadian fantasy series _Lost Girl, _the Morrigan is a title held by the leader of the Dark Fae.
- In Marvel Comics, she appears as a powerful goddess in the Celtic pantheon who exists in a trinity with Cernunnos and Taranis. Later, it is revealed that this position is a title held by several women throughout history. While assisting the mutant Siryn, she is slain and her powers are inherited by Siryn, who becomes the next Morrígan.
- In The Wicked + The Divine, she appears as one of the gods manifesting in the modern era. She appears as a single person or three, going by several different names with very distinct personalities.
- In Dungeons and Dragons, the Morrígan appears as a member of the Celtic pantheon. Beginning in fourth edition, a new deity appears called the Raven Queen, a goddess of death, fate, and winter, who is directly modeled off of the Morrígan yet is distinct.
- Several video games borrow her name, including Darkstalkers and the Dragon Age series.
- In the video game Smite, she appears as a playable character.
- Several bands have taken her name as their own, including a German prog metal band, a German black metal band, and a J-rock visual kei band.
- Similarly, several songs contain lyrics or references to the goddess, including a song by Glen Danzig, a song by Primordial called “Songs of the Morrigan”, and a song by Darkest Era, among others.
- Elizabeth A. Gray, translator. Cath Maig Tuired. Sacred-Texts.com. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/cmt/cmteng.htm.
- L. Winifred Faraday, translator. The Cattle Raid of Cualnge. Sacred-Texts.com. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/crc/index.htm.
- A. H. Leahy, translator. Heroic Romances of Ireland, Volume II. London: David Nutt, 1906. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/hroi/hroiv2.htm.
- Prof. Geller. “The Morrigan.” Mythology.net. https://mythology.net/others/gods/the-morrigan/.