This appeared in the North Clare Local in April 2017.
We are living in dark times and it seems that the world is drifting ever closer to catastrophe. Over the last two months, my column dealt with the Cailleach, an ancient Celtic goddess of tremendous elemental power. But as frightening as the Cailleach could be, she was largely indifferent to human affairs. Her realm was nature, and just like a hurricane, she did not concern herself with the fate of mere mortals. The Morrigan, the Irish triple goddess of war, was very interested in the lives of humans, and it’s this which makes her terrifying.
And while the Cailleach could be sanitised down to a harmless old woman looking for the sons of Erin to restore her lost lands, the legends of the Morrigan remain nightmarish to this day.
First things first, what exactly is a Triple Goddess? It’s a concept similar to the Catholic Holy Trinity. There are three aspects of same god, separate entities which are part of the whole. In Christianity, as explained by St Patrick and his shamrock, these are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The concept is not unique to Christianity, and there are many triple goddesses and beings across cultures, such as the Norns in Norse mythology, and the Greek Fates.
While many refer to the Morrigan as a triple goddess, it’s a little more complicated than that. The Morrigan can refer to a single goddess, as in the legends of Cú Chulainn, however she is multi-faceted. Her composition isn’t fixed like the Trinity, and her aspects can vary.
While her aspects differ, the Morrigan as a whole is a female figure, ruling over war, and not above interfering in the fighting. She has the gift of prophecy and will foretell individual deaths. She is strongly associated with crows, ravens and other carrion birds, often seen enjoying the deathly aftermath of battle. She is also linked with cattle, that most important animal in old Irish society. The name Morrigan is often translated as “great queen” from the modern Irish “mór” and “riogna”. However linguists believe the roots are much older, and nearer to the word “mare”. A more accurate (and far cooler) translation would be “phantom queen” or “nightmare queen”. Despite many fictional attempts to link the two, she is unrelated to the witch Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend.
Like so many of these old Irish myths, it’s not enough to say that the Morrigan is a war goddess who inspired fear and terror. She also commanded great respect, and small bands of warriors, the fianna, may have worshipped her. Some folklorists suggest that the aspects of Badb, a death herald, have confused the Morrigan’s actual function. She may have been more associated with political sovereignty and wealth (hence the association with cattle, essentially currency in Celtic Ireland). Kings would have turned to her for protection, and despite her association with war, she could be seen as a figure of negotiation and peace settlement.
Macha is the most famous aspect of the Morrigan. She rules over war, horses, fertility, the land and sovereignty. She is a guardian of the sacred places of Ireland and will wreak vengeance on those who desecrate these. She shares this role with the fairies. She is strongly associated with Ulster, especially Armagh (Ard Macha, Macha’s height). Severed heads of war were referred to as Macha’s harvest- and she wasn’t the most bloodthirsty element of the Morrigan. The most well-known story involving Macha states she was married to a widower, Crunnchu. While pregnant with twins, her husband boasted that she could outrun the King of Ulster’s horses. The king, Conchobor, took the bet, and despite the pleas of Macha, they forced her to run. Macha won, but at the finish line, she went into labour, birthing twins, and dying in childbirth. As she drew her last breath, she cursed the men of Ulster; they would be strong and proud in battle, but at their moment of greatest need they would be struck down with labour pains. The curse was to last for nine by nine generations, but given the strength of Ulster football in the last twenty years, it’s probably worn off. The only man exempt from the curse during the battle with Queen Meadhbh is Cú Chulainn, an Irish hero strongly associated with the Morrigan.
The site of Emain Macha (Macha’s twins), or Navan Fort in English, was built in her honour. It was said the capital of Ulster in Celtic times, and today, an impressive mound structure, the remnants of a fort, endure. It was said to be the site where Macha gave birth to her children, and legendary figures such as Deirdre of the Sorrows, Cú Chulainn, Emer and Amergin lived there.
I’ve only touched on one aspect of the Morrigan; next time, we’ll look at her remaining aspects.