This was the last piece I wrote for the North Clare Local. I must revisit the Morrigan and write Part 3.
Last month we looked at the Macha aspect of the Morrigan, and the overall representation of this Celtic war goddess. But what of her other elements?
The most sinister was Nemain. She is an occasional member of the trio, as the line-up of The Morrigan has almost as many permutations as ‘00s girl group Sugababes. There’s a bit of a debate on whether her name is from the old Irish root for poison, enemy or seize. These three words are a good summary of this aspect. According to King Cormac of Munster, she was one of the wives of the war god Neit, along with either Badb or Fea.
Nemain represented insanity, the frenzy of battle, and could be described as a goddess of panic and chaos. A non-partisan figure, she thrived off destruction and disorder. She could give a terrible battle cry which could kill 100 men. This fits in rather neatly with the confusion about her very existence. She could be conflated with Badb and Fea, and her appearance in the Táin Bó Chualigne is shrouded in mystery. Her cry was so awful and was said to cause so much panic that men fell on their own swords and killed their comrades. It’s not so hard to imagine Nemain relishing modern warfare. She is, naturally, associated with the colour red.
Next is Badb, who shares much of her characteristics with Nemain, but is more a death herald than that aspect. A battlefield was referred as her garden. The goddesses of the Morrigan were often referred to as the “watchers at the fort”, meaning they knew who was to live or die. Badb is the strongest representative of this element. She may also lend certain elements to the more famous banshee, who is a neutral figure who merely heralds death. For example, she would wail terribly to foretell a death.
Badb is strongly associated with crows and prophecy. She can function similarly to the Norse Valkyries, who usher the souls of slain warriors to the next world. She was often called “Badb Catha”, battle crow. While this could apply to all aspects of the Morrigan, Badb could take the form of a washer woman at a ford (bean nighe), silently rinsing bloody clothes in the river. A man who saw her in this form was doomed. Likewise, she also hung bloody rags on family gravestones.
Likewise, a mortal could suckle at her (apparently sagging) breast and learn who will die in battle, or be granted a wish. This myth also could be applied to the Morrigan in any of her guises.
Badb was said to take an active part in battle, along with her sisters. When the Fir Bolg fought the Tuatha de Danann, way back in the mists of time, Badb was said to have helped the Tuatha de Danann with sorcery. Some legends say Badb has foretold the end of the world, where the world’s natural resources have run dry. She is supposed to also own a large cauldron, which will destroy the world should it ever overflow.
After all that, Anand seems positively cuddly. There’s also a fair amount of confusion on her place within the Morrigan. Known also as Danand, Danan or Anu, she is sometimes spoken of as representing the entire Morrigan, or on other occasions, a completely separate goddess. Sometimes Anand is referred to as the Morrigan’s mother.
Anand is sometimes called “Gentle Annie,” and her role within the Morrigan, if we accept that she’s a member, is one of sovereignty, land ownership, hearth and hospitality. This is often overlooked in favour of the Morrigan’s more lurid elements, but some larger fulacht fia (cooking mounds) were named fulacht na Morrígna. There’s a particularly fine example in Co Tipperary. These sites often served solders in advance of a big battle.
Fea, finally, is a sketchy character, and may be reliably conflated with Nemain. She is said to be represented by a red ox.
The Morrigan has equivalents in many other Celtic mythologies, as well as her obvious similarities to the Fates, Norns and Valkyries. Like the Welsh goddess Rhiannon, she was linked with horses and sovereignty. Her associations with corvid birds and battle is similar to the Gaulish Cathubodva. As mentioned last month, the Morrigan could not be sanitised like the Cailleach. Indeed, an early Irish Latin translation of the biblical Book of Isaiah translates “Lilith”, Adam’s vampiric first wife and a “night bird” as The Morrigan. Her transformation into an evil being had begun.
The Morrigan is a very confusing entity, always ambiguous and complex. In some ways, she is representative of the pre-Christian Irish view of womanhood; women were complex and powerful in all their elements.
Next time I will look at some of the most famous legends involving the Morrigan.