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Morrigan

The Morrígan, or “Phantom Queen,” was a fearsome Celtic deity and Irish goddess of death and battle. A trio of sisters who appeared as a crow, she was the keeper of fate and purveyor of prophecy.

The Morrígan was the Irish goddess of death and destiny. Appearing before great battles as the goddess of fate, the Morrígan offered prophecy and favor to heroes and gods alike. As the Phantom Queen, she circled the battlefield as a conspiracy of ravens to carry away the dead. She was at once both a single deity and a triple goddess, made up of Ireland’s most powerful goddesses.

Her husband was the Dagda (or the Great God), who came to her for prophecy before major battles. She is associated with several sacred and natural sites across Ireland.

Etymology

The Morrígan, sometimes known simply as Morrígan or Morrígu, was the anglicized form of the Gaelic Mór-Ríoghain. Scholars have disagreed as to the exact etymology of this name, but have linked it to similar words across Europe. Mór has been linked to a Proto-Indo-European word meaning “terror” (which appears in English as part of the word “night*mare*”) and Ríoghain, meaning “queen,” bears similarities 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, and used the term morrígna to describe beings as diverse as the Middle Eastern lamia and the demon-goddess Lilith from the Latin Vulgate Bible.

The Morrígan was often called “Phantom Queen,” a title acknowledging her relationship with the dead.

Attributes

The Morrígan was first and foremost a goddess of war and death. She was also the goddess of prophecy and fate, and as such saw the future of all things, including the end of the world. She was all-knowing, and would occasionally share her knowledge with others (for a price). Her prophecies were never wrong and her wordings were exact, if somewhat poetic. Her appearance to royalty and warriors also represented the side she favored in a battle. The Morrígan’s association with the raven stemmed from the bird’s constant presence on the battlefield.

The Morrígan was a shapeshifter who took many forms; she would often appear in multiple forms throughout a single story. The most common of these forms were a shapely maiden, a battle ready warrior-queen, an old crone, and a raven. While she could take the form of other animals beyond a raven, the Morrígan did so less frequently.

Her appearances at the deaths of prominent figures, such as those who fell at the Second Battle of Moytura or the mighty Cú Chulainn, have caused scholars to link her to spirits appearing later in Irish folklore, such as the banshee, or “fairy woman.”

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 burned mound with a cooking pit, this Bronze Age site has been linked to wandering bands of young warriors. A second location consists of two hills in County Meath known as the Dá Chich na Morrigna, or “two breasts” of the Morrígan. This landmark may have been used in a ritual or guardianship capacity.

Triple Goddess

One of the most prominent aspects of the Morrígan was her nature as a triple goddess of war. In many stories, she appeared as both an individual and as three goddesses acting under a single name.

Membership within this triple goddess varies depending on the source. In some cases, the daughters of Ernmas, Badb, Macha, and Anand were named as the Morrígan, with Nemain or Fea sometimes replacing one of the goddesses in the triad. Elsewhere, the Morrígan was listed as a sister of Badb and Macha, with Anand simply serving as an alternate name for the goddess. This inconsistency likely represented early Irish scholars’ attempts to resolve a number of conflicting oral traditions.

Family

The Morrígan was the daughter of Ernmas, a mother-goddess who was herself the daughter of Nuada, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Her father remains unknown. Her siblings were Ériu, Banba, and Fódla, who made up the triple goddess representing the spirit and sovereignty of Ireland, as well as Badb and Macha, with whom the Morrígan made up a triple goddess of war. Her brothers were the Glon, Gnim, Coscar, Fiacha, and Ollom.

She was married to the Dagda, the great god and chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

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Mythology

Origins

In Lebor Gabála Érenn the Morrígan appeared as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The tribe’s arrival in Ireland was met with resistance by earlier settlers of the island, including the Firbolg and the Fomorions. The tribe quickly found themselves at war with the Firbolg, who proved to be worthy adversaries. The Morrígan’s mother perished at the First Battle of Moytura, in County Galway, while her grandfather, King Nuada, lost a hand. Ultimately, the Tuatha Dé Danann were victorious and established a foothold on the island. More conflict, however, was on the horizon.

Cath Maig Tuired

The Fomorions proved more difficult. The new king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Lugh of the Long Arm, asked the Morrígan to predict the outcome of the conflict between the tribes; she predicted war. As the Tuatha Dé Danann prepared for battle against the Fomorions, the Dagda sought his wife for further prophecy. He found her at the ford of the River Unshin in County Sligo, where they proceeded to make love. When they had finished, the Morrígan prophesied that the Tuatha Dé Danann would indeed win the battle, though their victory would come at a terrible price. Additionally, she foretold that she would slay the Fomorion king Indech and bring two handfuls of 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. Lugh asked the Morrígan what she had brought to the battle, to which the triple goddess replied: pursuit, death, and subjugation. The battle quickly turned into a bloodbath. The Morrígan’s grandfather Nuada was slain, and her husband the Dagda was mortally wounded. At last the Morrígan joined the fray, ending the battle with her prowess and a poem. The Fomorions fled from her and perished in the sea.

At battle’s end, the Morrígan celebrated their victory with a song and, as Badb, predicted that the world would end when the sea was without bounty and morals decayed.

Ulster Cycle

The Morrígan appeared prominently in the Ulster Cycle, where she was portrayed as a single individual who could take multiple forms. She both assisted and antagonized the hero of the cycle, Cú Chulainn.

In Táin Bó Regamna (“The Cattle Raid of Regamain”), Cú Chulainn chased an old woman driving a heifer from his territory, insulting her as she went. As he attacked her, she transformed into a raven, and Cú Chulainn, realizing at last that this was the mighty Morrígan, stating that if he had known who she was, he would have acted more wisely. She responded that any action he might have taken would have inevitably led to the same result, and offered a prophecy as payment for his insults: he would die in an upcoming battle, and she would be there to watch.

‘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 invaded, nearly all the men of Ulster were inflicted with a terrible curse. Cú Chulainn alone was spared, and he single-handedly defended the fords that marked Ulster;s borders. During a break in the combat, a young maiden offered herself to Cú Chulainn as both lover and battle companion; her offer was promptly rejected. As he began fighting Lóch mac Mofemis, Cú Chulainn found himself under attack by the forces of nature: an eel attempted to trip him, a wolf stampeded cattle across the ford, and the lead heifer of the stampede attacked. Cú Chulainn successfully defended himself from each of these trials, and even injured the attacking animals in the process.

Following his victory over Lóch, Cú Chulainn met an old woman milking a cow. The woman was blind in one eye, and had a broken leg and cracked ribs; these injuries matched the wounds the warrior had inflicted on his animal attackers. The old woman offered Cú Chulainn three drinks from her heifer, and he blessed her after each drink. With each blessing she received, the woman healed one of her wounds. When she was fully healed, the woman at last revealed her true nature as the Morrígan. She reminded Cú Chulainn of his previous insults, as well as his oath never to aid or heal her. He retorted that, had he known it was her, he would never have healed her. The Morrígan warned him of his fate before departing.

As the battle with Medb came to a head, Cú Chulainn found himself in an impossible situation: his geas required him not to eat dog meat, but the rules of hospitality stated that a gift could not be refused. As forces gathered for battle, an old woman offered him dog meat, which he ate in accordance with the rules of hospitality. The meal sealed his fate. Before the battle, he had a vision of an old woman cleaning blood from his armor beside a river—an omen of things to come. During the battle, Cú Chulainn was mortally wounded. He vowed to die standing up, and used his exposed entrails to lash himself to a stone in the hopes he might trick his enemies into thinking he was still alive. The tactic worked, and the forces of Legaid relented. It was only when a single raven landed upon Cú Chulainn’s shoulder that Lugaid and his men realized the truth. Despite her hatred of Cú Chulainn, the Morrígan favored the men of Ulster, and they ultimately won the day.

Other Mythologies

The Morrígan is unique to Irish mythology, though scholars have found similar figures in Celtic lore. One such figure was Morgan le Fey, the great antagonist of Arthurian legend, who shared many attributes with the Phantom Queen. Both were shapeshifters and prophets who appeared in many forms and foretold the future with fearful accuracy. While some scholars believed the figures’ names stemmed from the same etymological root, Morgan and Morrígan have entirely separate meaning in Welsh and Irish, respectively, making the connection tenuous at best .

While the Morrígan had no direct analogs in other regional mythologies, she was similar to the Germanic Perchta and Odin in her relationship to ravens, death, and war.

The Morrígan has appeared countless times in popular media, and has retained a great deal of cultural relevance as a result:

  • In the Canadian television series Sanctuary, she appeared as a powerful triad of Abnormal women;

  • In the Canadian fantasy series Lost Girl, the Morrigan was a title held by the leader of the Dark Fae;

  • In Marvel Comics, she appeared as a powerful goddess in the Celtic pantheon who existed in a trinity with Cernunnos and Taranis. It was later revealed that this position was a title held by several women throughout history. While assisting the mutant Siryn, the Morrígan was slain. With her dying breath, she passed her powers to the mutant, who in turn became the next Morrígan;

  • In The Wicked + The Divine, she appeared as one of the gods manifesting in the modern era. She appeared both as a single entity and three separate individuals, each with their own names and distinct personalities;

  • In Dungeons and Dragons, the Morrígan appears as a member of the Celtic pantheon. Beginning in the Fourth Edition, a new deity called the Raven Queen was added. The Raven Queen is a goddess of death, fate, and winter, and is heavily influenced by the Morrígan;

  • The Morrígan’s name appears prominently in several video games, including Darkstalkers and the Dragon Age series;

  • She appeared as a playable character in the video game Smite;

  • 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 make reference to the goddess in their lyrics. Such songs include a song by Glen Danzig, a song by Primordial called “Songs of the Morrigan”, and a song by Darkest Era, among others.

References

  1. Elizabeth A. Gray, translator. Cath Maig Tuired. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/cmt/cmteng.htm.

  2. L. Winifred Faraday, translator. The Cattle Raid of Cualnge. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/crc/index.htm.

  3. A. H. Leahy, translator. Heroic Romances of Ireland, Volume II. London: David Nutt, 1906. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/hroi/hroiv2.htm.

  4. Prof. Geller. “The Morrigan.” Mythology.net. https://mythology.net/others/gods/the-morrigan/.

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