Sunday, February 7, 2010

Female Person/Immortal Power Post

Hey Supposed co-Earthlings!

(click on this. It's a scan so it'll be HUGE!)

Yes, another Female Person Power Post - yet again, it is someone I know. Or at least I hope I know her. She's my sister - Aladine, the writer of the blog An Madra Rua.

I am submitting an essay of hers on the Celtic Goddess(es) of Descruction, the Mórrígana. She wrote it for college at some point - but for all her life - ever since she knew we were half Irish pretty much - she has love love loved Ireland. And now she knows... a lot... about it. This is a little taste.

The Mórrígan, however, is of especial importance to us because I got the amazing book "Hounds of the Mórrígan" by Pat O'Shea for my birthday several years ago. It is 674 (that's right, six hundred and seventy-four) pages long and has a Glossary of Gaelic Words - both translating and explaining how to pronounce 32 (that's right, thirty-two) Gaelic words.

It says to pronounce "Mórrígan" "More Ree-an," but then adds that "most people say Morrigan in English" - sigh. Apparently the word itself means "Great Queen."

Anyway it was a birthday present to me but at the time though I love reading books this one was a very booky book and moreover it was hardcore accurate to the historical legends instead of just using the flashy name as a costume for a party or something. So though I enjoyed it I did not finish it - well, at least not before my sister couldn't wait any longer and ripped it out of my hands. And I pretty much haven't seen it since. I had to beg her to let me scan the cover of my own book, and now she pretends I've promised to return it even though she openly acknowledges it is mine. Well, I plan to reread it first -

Hey! I'm getting in a sibling rant when I should be introducing the female person that I admire... er... the same person who STEALS BOOKS but at least she not only read it but then went on to extensively research the subject itself from real sources.

Before I present the essay she wrote as a consequence, I'll provide some links and stuff to give you an idea of how AWESOME this book is.

If you are going to buy it though, get the cool cover - the one I'VE got - the hardcore, respecting-the-awesomeness-of-the-history one. Plus the cover we've got includes the accents over the "o" and "i" in "Mórrígan" the way Pat O'Shea WROTE it. You'll find it on this Amazon page.

Okay. Now, on to the good stuff. Female Person/ Goddess of Destruction/ Power!
(I stress: this was NOT written by me but rather by someone I rather admire/ am annoyed by, Aladine writer of the blog An Madra Rua):



An Mhorrígna

The early Irish goddess, the Morrígan, through the passage of time has slowly diminished in power, significance, and stature. Quite apart from the relative disappearance of the Irish pagan faith since the time of the ancient Celts, her role in translations, syntheses, and dramatizations of the ancient mythological stories has been dramatically curtailed to suit the needs and taboos of later ages. Stories and epics that originally placed a great deal of emphasis on the prominence of the Morrígan as goddess of fertility, sovereignty, war, order, and chaos have been inaccurately transcribed and translated. Mistakes have been made in preeminent influential works, such as that of Standish O’Grady, that have neither been attended to nor fixed, and consequently have added to the inaccuracy of vision the world already had due to the Christian influence on Irish paganism. An investigation of her Indo-European origin, her nature, her role in Irish mythology and text, and subsequent textual misrepresentations, will establish the gravity of her position as the arbiter, foreteller, and instigator of the course of contention between order and chaos.

The origin and meaning of the Morrígan is significant in establishing what she is on the surface level. Rosalind Clark, in her book “The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen Ní Houlihan”, delineates three different theories regarding the meaning of ‘morrígan’. The first theory interprets her name as meaning ‘sea queen’, stating that the element ‘mor’ comes from the old Irish ‘muir’ or water combined with ‘rígan’ meaning queen. Clark rejects this theory on the grounds that the ‘r’ in the old Irish ‘muir’ would have been palatalized, a sound that was maintained when used for compound words, whereas the ‘r’ in ‘mor’ is neutral and dictates a different sound. (Clark, 22) The second theory suggests the meaning “great queen”, this time referencing ‘mór’ the Irish word for ‘great’. Clark takes issue with this as well in that, while some spellings of the word retain the ‘fada’ or long mark above the ‘o’, many do not. This would, again, change the sound and leaves the possibility of a different origin, sans fada. (21-22) The last, and personally accepted by Clark, claims that ‘mor’ is etymologically related to Anglo-Saxon ‘maere’, and Swedish and Old High German ‘mara’: ‘The word […] refers to some fearful female spirit. […] The mara may also trouble men in the same way. She is the Swedish equivalent of a female werewolf.” (22-23) She further indicates that the element ‘mor’ in Fomorrian is also cognate to the ‘mor’ of Morrígan. She comes to the conclusion, therefore, that ‘phantom queen’ is most likely and fitting. (23) In any case, these awesome and even malignant names hint at the ambiguous benevolence of the goddess and point towards her affinity to war and violence.

In relation, the ‘phantom queen’ theory leads to the consideration of Indo-European links and geneses of figures like the Morrígan. Both the prophetic abilities of the Morrígan and the blood thirsty animal forms she takes on relate her to many similar Indo-European female figures associated with war: “Old Norse literature has left us with […] Valkyries […] sometimes of gigantic size, [that] pour blood over a district where a battle is to take place; they are sometimes described as carrying troughs of blood or riding on wolves, or are seen rowing a boat through a rain of blood.” (H.R. Ellis, Davidson, 64) The inherent qualities of the Morrígan are similar in that she appears in a few instances to take the form of a wolf, in the case of her vengeance on Cúchulainn in the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Thomas Kinsella, 135), and throws handfuls of the blood of Indech the Fomorian on those she has made victorious in the mythological cycle (Clark, 72). Moreover, before the battle against the Fomorians in the mythological cycle, “the Mórrígan went with Badb and Macha […] and […] sent forth ‘a cloud of mist and a furious rain of fire, with a downpour of blood from the air onto the warriors heads.’ The Mórrígan then entered the battle, pursuing all those that fled.” (Daragh Smyth, 125-126) The common references to wolves and the manipulation of blood suggest that the Morrígan and the Valkyries originated from the same source. Further, Stuart McHardy, in his book “The Quest for the Nine Maidens”, states outright, “The Morrigan and her sisters Badb and Mach, sinister and destructive beings said to haunt battlefields, are like the tripartite Goddess figures which occur all over Europe. The sisters often appeared as crows or ravens, carrion birds traditionally associated with the dead in battle” (McHardy, 80) He continues to imply further Indo-European connections by citing as remnants of this phenomenon, a late medieval Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies”, in which two birds negotiate the manner in which they will eat a decaying knight. It is clear, therefore, in point of origin that not only was the ancestor of the Morrígan significant enough to amass a wide following across ancient Indo-European civilization, but also the fundamental nature of the Morrígan is closely connected with many aspects of war, before, during, and after battle.

The Morrígan, herself, exists in Irish-Celtic paganism as a triune goddess that is comprised of the Bodb (Badb), the Macha, and the Morrígan, or Mórrígu (John Rhys, 43). Combined these three make up what is sometimes referred to as the Morrígna (Smyth, 20) and sometimes the Morrígan. The Bodb derives as well from Indo-European roots as the Bodh Catha, “the bodh of war” according to John Rhys in “The Hibbert Lectures” (43), or “battle raven” according to Daragh Smyth in “Guide to Irish Mythology” (20). Rhys traces the source of the Bodb Catha to Indo-European roots through evidence of a similarly named goddess in Gaul: “One finds a Caulish goddesss who bore inferentially much the same name as the Irish Bodb Catha, as proved by the Allobrogic altar discovered in the commune of Mieussy in Haute-Savoie” (Rhys, 43). The bodb is more often personified as a raven or crow and is preoccupied principally with foretelling battles and their outcomes, both for entire armies and for individuals. She is the element of prophecy in the triad as can be seen in several occasions in the mythological cycle and the Ulster cycle. For example, it is the Morrígan, in the form of the bodb who prophesies to the brown bull of Cooley, warning him of Medb’s hosts: ‘Dark one are you restless/ do you guess they gather/ to certain slaughter/ the wise raven/ groans aloud/ that enemies infest/ the fair fields/ […] grinding heroic/ hosts to dust/ cattle groans the Badb/ the raven ravenous/ among corpses of men/ affliction and outcry/ and war everlasting/ raging over Cuailnge/ death of sons/ death of kinsmen/ death death!” (Kinsella, 98) Here she identifies, herself as the bodb, and indicates that the Ancient Irish equated crows and ravens with the Bodh and the prophecies of the war goddess. (Ellen Ettlinger, 4) Lastly, the Bodb is also associated with the more generic badba: hags, according to Clark, that appear before battle on the battlefield and “howl and rage” and often take the form of black carrion birds. (Clark, 24-25) She is also, notably, the wife of the relatively minor war god Nét, whose other wife, Nemain, ‘battle frenzy’, is another minor aspect of the Morrígna. (26)

The Macha, though generally known to be one part of the war-goddess, has been the name of at least two other important goddess-like figures in Irish mythological and ancient history. These three main Macha’s are presented as different figures, from different times, but they take on similar characteristics to each other and, through these characteristics, seem to have been conceived or recorded as really being later permutations of the same original goddess. The first form that, I propose, is the blueprint for the later two is the war-fertility goddess Macha, sister to the Morrígan. She goes to battle with the Morrígan for the Tuatha De Danaan in the Mag Tuired, the battle against the Fomorians: “And the men of Dea rose up and left Lugh and his nine comrades keeping him, and the went on to the battle; […] And Badb and Macha and the Morrigu called out that they would go along with them.” (Clark, 72) Her role in battle generally compliments the Bodb in that she collects the severed heads from the battlefield once the fighting and turmoil cease. This gathering of heads is sometimes called “Macha’s fruit crop”. (Smyth, 106) Her fertility elements are drawn from her second permutation as the horse-goddess Macha, wife of Cruind of Ulster. The Ces Ulad states that she entered Cruind’s bed anonymously after circling three times the flagstone in front of his dwelling and became his wife. She places a geis, a binding rule or taboo, not to grow boastful. Cruind, however, ends up boasting before the King of Ulster that, despite the fact that she was pregnant, she could outrun the king’s best horses. Macha is summoned and forced to race against her will and she gives birth to twins on the finish line, crying out that all the men of Ulster would be cursed with disabling birth-pangs in their time of greatest need for the next nine generations. From this, Emain Macha, the Twins of Macha or the Citadel of Macha, gets it name. (Smyth, 125) It is this curse, the Noínden Ulad, which makes it necessary for Cuchulainn to fight the armies of Medb single-handedly. Both the strong affiliation with horses, the marriage bed, and birthing in this tale suggest that Macha possessed an identity as a horse-goddess and fertility goddess, causing the physical qualities of birth to befall even men. (Clark, 112-113) The last Macha, with which she is largely associated, is Macha Mong Ruad, Macha of the Red Tresses, daughter of Aed Ruad a king in Ireland c. 300 B.C. (Smyth, 106). At the death of her father, her ascension to the throne was contested by his cousins Cimbeath and Díthorba. Macha subsequently defeated Díthorba competently in battle and married Cimbeath, giving him the kingship but keeping the real control of the throne for herself. (106-107) She succeeded her husband after his death and took his sons into captivity in the form of a leper. In this form she essentially seduces the five sons of Cimbeath in the woods one by one, attacks them, takes them captive, and has them build Emain Macha for her. (Clark, 113-114) In this story, Macha is the founder of Emain Macha in addition to the namesake. The themes of war, conquest, sex, and the granting and denial of kingship with regard to Macha Mong Ruad give her the qualities of not only a war goddess who incites men to battle, but also places her in the role of the archetypal Indo-European goddess of sovereignty. Those who wished to be king had to sleep with the goddess of the land and, through at least a symbolic marriage, gain kingship: “Macha, the territorial goddess of Emain, is associated with war, with the kingship, with the founding of the fortress of Emain, with horses, and with fertility and childbirth. […] She fulfills all the roles of a Celtic goddess, of which sovereignty is only one.” (Clark, 115) These three forms of Macha, therefore, blend fittingly in the Early Irish pagan tradition to form a strong part of the great war-fertility goddess.

The Morrígan, herself, appears most often throughout the mythological cycle and the Ulster cycle. In these texts she figures as goddess of war, fertility, sovereignty, and most importantly, goddess of order and chaos. Chronologically, as one advances through the texts, the Morrígan’s character develops from a protagonist goddess of order and chaos that governs the outcome of the world, to an antagonistic persona that instigates the Táin and that alternately functions as the tutelary deity to Cuchulainn and harbinger of his death. Her first major appearance occurs prior to the Mag Tuired against the Fomorians in the mythological cycle. The Dagda, sometimes called the good god and chief poet, among other things, of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, comes upon her as “she stands straddling the river, with nine loosened tresses on her head. The two sleep together there […]. The Morrígan tells the Dagda where the Fomóiri will land and announces that she herself will meet them there and destroy Indech, son of the king of the Fomóiri” (Clark, 33) As already discussed, she accomplishes what she promises and, significantly, after the battle predicts the end of the world: “ I shall not see a world that will be dear to me./ Summer without flowers,/ Kine will be without milk,/[…] Every man a betrayer,/ […] Son will enter his father’s bed,/ father will enter his son’s bed,/ Every one will be his brother’s brother-in law…/ An evil time!” (Clark on Whitley Stokes trans., 75) In these key instances she demonstrates her power of foresight, her control over battle, and her intimate knowledge of the delicate balance between order and chaos. She alone established that though she has bestowed victory upon the Tuatha Dé Danaan, she has not permanently bestowed order: “The prophecy, like the battle, takes place at Samain, the first day of the early Irish year, when order and chaos are in greatest conflict. The Morrígan seems to be especially associated with this day.” (Clark, 35) Subsequently, on another Samain, she forces the remaining Fomorians out of Ireland (Clark, 72) and some of the most significant episodes of the Táin, in which she takes part, take place on Samhain when the hosts of the Tuatha Dé Danaan emerge from their síd to interact with the Milesians.

Her first encounter, in the Táin, is with Cúchulainn in which he retrieves Conchobar Mac Nessa and his son from a battlefield in which they lie wounded. He encounters a ghost with half a head carrying a half corpse on his back. This ghost asks for Cúchulainn’s help in bearing his gruesome burden and, at Cúchulainn’s refusal, attacks him. The Morrígan aids him then, in the form of the Bodb: “And Cúchulainn was thrown down. ‘Then I heard something: the Badb calling from among the corpses: ‘It’s a poor sort of warrior that lies down at he feet of a ghost!’ Cúchulainn reached up and knocked off the half-head with his hurling stick…” (Kinsella, 80) In this way the Morrígan establishes herself as somewhat of a protector goddess over Cúchulainn. She not only incites him to fiercer battle, but keeps him from destruction. Her second role, the instigator of the Táin, is best illustrated in the Táin Bó Regamna. The Morrígan is seen by Cúchulainn with red hair and cloak in a chariot drawn by a one legged horse. The pole of the chariot penetrates right through the horse and attaches to its harness in the front. Beside her a man trots leading a cow taken from the herd of Nera a local king of the síd. She indicates that she has deliberately taken the cow to mate it with the Brown Bull of Cooley. She prophesies to Cúchulainn that his life will be short in addition to indicating that she intends for the calf to die at the hands of the White Bull. In the course of the Táin, Medb hears the cries of the calf, crying for vengeance from its father. She declares that she must see the two bulls fight, thus introducing a second reason for wanting the Brown Bull in addition to the motive of matching her wealth with her husband’s. (Clark, 40-42) In this case the Morrígan indicates that she deliberately chooses her actions to indirectly manage the fate of the people of Ireland and Ulster and to manage the balance between war and peace.

Within the Táin itself, the Morrígan meets Cúchulainn as he is defending Ulster against the hosts of Medb and offers her love to him and help in his struggles. He rejects her and she promises to return to him in various forms to bring about his destruction: “ ‘I can’t attend to a woman during a struggle like this.’ ‘But I might be a help.’ ‘It wasn’t for a woman’s backside I took on this ordeal!’ ‘Then I’ll hinder’, she said. ‘When you are busiest in the fight I’ll come against you…” (Kinsella 132-133) He responds to each threat, however, that he shall be victorious and that she will not be healed unless he gives her his blessing. He does manage to thwart her attempts to kill him but also manages to accidentally bless her back into health. (132-137) All contention between them at this point seems dissolved, but the episode functions as an example of their equally fiery, seemingly impulsive natures. The Morrígan in this case, is not being contradictory but merely works to punish Cúchulainn for his insolence and disobedience. Inattention to a goddess is a heavy charge. Emblematic of their fiery characters, in each instance she warns him of his death and each time he ignores her. (Clark, 43-45) However, she warns him once more before his death by breaking the pole of his chariot to prevent him from fighting and, though he believes her warning this time, he fails to alter his course. (44) The Morrígan’s destructive prodigy is destructive to the last. She settles at last, in the form of a crow, staking her claim on him, on his shoulder, as he is dying propped up. (Heaney, 152) Her relationship with him is that of a watchful guide. She fuels the destructive violent side of his nature, continually fulfilling her role as the war goddess by inciting him to battle. She watches him carefully, reveling the crop of the Macha that he stirs in his wake, and governing with her presence the moment he, himself, is destroyed. In this way she is fully established as a war-fertility goddess, who dictates victory and by extension sovereignty through sex, and controls and prophesies the lives of her subjects and the state of order and disorder throughout the land.

Recent translations, dating from the past hundred years or so, have demonstrated a trend of diminishing the significance of what the early Irish gods represented. The gods, in these newer texts, undergo a humanization process that places them on a more equal footing with what have become human protagonists. Consequently, they receive less attention for the focus has shifted to telling the stories from the human point of view. This trend is first seen in the treatment of the mythological cycle as compared to the Ulster cycle: “The Ulster cycle is heroic literature, not myth, and the main characters are […] human beings. The gods are now the síd, who interfere in the affairs of men, but have a separate existence. The Morrígan is no longer a central character in the sense that CúChulainn or Medb is. She appears out of the síd at times and vanishes back into it.” (Clark, 36) The literary influence that began this trend, according to Clark, must be attributed to Standish O’Grady’s expansions on the epic works. O’Grady not only dramatizes the events of the Táin, he also blatantly leaves things out and invents aspects of his own. Further, he makes glaring mistakes, confusing chronology, characters, and episodes. Clark states, based on a note O’Grady neglected to include in his finished work that glosses over the events of the Táin Bó Regamna and the encounter by the ford between the Morrígan and Cúchulainn, “the passage in general if full of mistakes. The Morrígan does not appear as a peasant girl—on the contrary, she is a king’s daughter. The first line contains an even stranger mistake; in neither of the instances mentioned […] is the Morrígan milking cows.” (55) Further, O’Grady begins the trend of excluding, or curtailing, the Táin Bó Regamna and what Kinsella calls “Cúchulainn and the Morrígan” by the ford and changing other sequences to make the rest of the story make sense without them. O’Grady combines them and, as the figure that helped spark a renewed interest in Europe for the Celtic past, those that followed him mimicked this exclusion. (Clark, 53-54) Clark further delineates some that follow this trend as Macpherson (62-63), Lady Gregory’s translation, and even Thomas Kinsella (70- c.73), etc. Lady Gregory for example, writing at the turn of the century, felt it necessary to maintain some level of modesty in her work and excluded the sexual elements of the Morrígan ‘s encounter with the Dagda. (73) The role of the battle goddess in this case is maintained but the governance of fertility and sovereignty is sacrificed. Kinsella, himself, even neglects the Táin Bó Regamna in his translation altogether. The effect these changes have on the narrative and character of the Morrígan, is that of lessening her occurrence in the texts, and attributing other occurrences, such as the Táin, to lesser instances. Further, the Morrígan’s role and development as a war-fertility goddess, her relationship with Cúchulainn, and her interest in manipulating the fate of subjects and land are diminished through lack of examples in the text.

Overall, to the early Irish, the Morrígan occupied a dominant position among the Celtic pantheon. Goddess of war, fertility, victory, sovereignty, death, destruction, and endowed with prophetic powers she essentially governed the balance of stability, or order and chaos, in the Celtic world. Though Clark indicates the “Great Queen” interpretation as having lesser validity, it is at least an accurate description of her role. Contemporary translations, dramatizations, and other creative works based off of the epics would do better to remain honest to the accuracy and religious, mythological, and historical significance of the Morrígan’s original character.


Clark, Rosalind. The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses From the MorríGan to Cathleen Ní Houlihan. Savage, Maryland: Barnes & Noble Books, 1991. 1-277

Clark, Rosalind. The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses From the MorríGan to Cathleen Ní Houlihan. Savage, Maryland: Barnes & Noble Books, 1991. 1-277.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964. 1-251.

Ettlinger, Ellen. "Omens and Celtic Welfare." Man 43 (1943): 11-17. JSTOR. Hampshire College Library, Amherst, MA.

Ettlinger, Ellen. "Omens and Celtic Welfare." Man 43 (1943): 11-17. JSTOR. Hampshire College Library, Amherst, MA.

McHardy, Stuart. The Quest for the Nine Maidens. Edinburgh: Luath, 2003. 1-216.

Rhys, John. The Hibbert Lectures: Lectures on The Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom. London: Williams and Norgate, 1898. 1-708.

Rolleston, T. W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990. 1-456.

Smyth, Daragh. Guide to Irish Mythology. 2nd ed. Portland, Oregon: Irish Academic P, 1996. 1-201.


I repeat: This was written by the talented amazing LET ME KEEP MY BOOK Aladine author of An Madra Rua.

Keep Up the Pow-Power People!

-Just Call Me Jo

P.S. I invented that phrase. "Pow-Power!" At least I think I did. No one seems to think it'll hold. What do you think? I think it's INGENIOUS.
P.P.S. "Nóíníni" - pronounced "Known-een-ee" - means "daisies" in Gaelic. Thought you should know. It might come in handy some day. You never know.

1 comment:

  1. Well...I hadn't read this paper in a long time. Refreshing to read an old work and still be reasonably proud.

    I do want to point out a few things to the uninitiated:

    Firstly, readings of old Irish text are incredibly difficult in terms of establishing 'authenticity' as specifically ANCIENT texts because they are largely PREHISTORIC. This means they were passed down verbally over thousands of years and were only RECORDED as texts after the advent of Christianity. Many themes that would have been distinctly pagan were subverted to make way for certain Christian ideals while many were also combined with Christian philosophy. The resulting combination of traditions has always interested theologians because Irish Christianity developed along much more pagan lines (partially because it lay outside the circles of influence of central Europe) than did Christianity even in Britain. But I digress...point is, a lot of influences are very mixed up and through which it is nigh impossible to sift.

    Secondly, who is to say how much has filtered back and forth between land masses. I say the Morrigan has distinct Indo-European routes, and she does, but it's a two way street.

    Last but not least, it was early in my higher education that I wrote this paper. I had not, as of yet, read many of the mythological/ancient texts that I refer to in their entirety. I was only, in a sense, establishing a beginners grasp of the enigma that is the wondrous Morrigan. (Of course, I have a certain reverence for her...she is a red-head after all.) Most particularly, my secondary source material consists of WHATEVER I could gather from the library of the 5 colleges in that part of Massachusetts. It was not and is not a hub of ancient Irish lore, has very little secondary literature, very little information of the standing of some of those scholars in the field, and has next to no information on reading or understanding the relationship of Old Irish to Modern Irish to English...

    Yea. Muddy Waters.

    That's all really. Jo, if you want, I can supply you with the words from a modern (70's) rendition of the Scottish air "Twa Corbies" that I referenced in the paper. I'm such a dork that upon discovering the potential significance of the song in one of my research books for SCHOOL I realized on of my favourite bands (Steeleye Span) did a version of it. What beautiful dorkdom!!! Let me know if you'd like me to post it in a comment.

    Thanks for posting this! I enjoyed it at least. I'm still keeping the book though. >_<