The ripe, heavy moon hangs low and full in the sky, while the swirling, dry leaves scrape against each other, rustling and crumbling in the night wind. Soon we will all feel the crisp bite of winter, the dying of the year. But for now, it is Halloween… All Hallow’s Eve… and we have time to visit but one more Celtic legend of lore before the Harvest moon wanes…
Myths can be born out of fear. And fear is often born from ignorance. Sometimes, even cultures divided by vast oceans and uncharted continents can share similar myths, spurred by similar fears, truths, and tragedies.
Cultural deities, and deity myths, were early man’s attempts to explain the origins of the world. They knew that certain things happened, but they just weren’t sure why or how. And, once those things happened, they weren’t sure what could be done about them, if anything. So, the myths and deities were man’s attempt at explaining, understanding, and controlling his fate.
These deities and myths were also part of a great human commonality… the fear of being all alone on this rock we call Earth. So, we would implore the gods to join us, they would go with us into daily life… into sickness, childbirth, marriage, sailing, harvest, hunting, healing, and battle. Naturally, if a woman was giving birth, she would not pray to the god of hunting… what would Orion (Greek), or Nodens (Celtic), or Pakhet (Egyptian) know of childbirth? No, the mother-to-be would pray fervently to Anahit (Armenian), or Temazcalteci (Aztec), or Rosmerta (Celtic) for a safe delivery and a healthy child… just as Catholics today might pray to St. Bridget or St. Anne.
Yes, gods and myths were plentiful for early man, and one of the most popular (and necessary) among them was The Morrigan, Celtic goddess of prophecy, sovereignty, war, and death on the battlefield. Morrigan, meaning “Phantom Queen” or “Great Queen,” was so powerful, in fact, that she is actually referred to as a triple goddess. Many cultures revere triple deities…deities which possess three attributes. These attributes are represented by three separate beings who can appear individually, or joined as one in the goddess or god … much like God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in Christianity, with all three as part of the same divine being. For example, the Roman triple goddess Diana was known as the goddess of the hunt, goddess of the moon, and goddess of the Underworld. Some triple goddesses are seen as the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone, representing the three phases of a woman’s life, the phases of the seasons (spring, summer, fall/winter), or the phases of existence itself… birth, life, death.
But The Morrigan was not one of these. Instead, her roles focused on the common themes of strife, battle, and death, and when seen separately, the three aspects of the goddess usually took the forms of sisters Badb, Macha and Anann, daughters to Ernmas (thought to represent Ireland itself).
Badb (pronounced bibe), meaning “crow,” is known as The Prophetess, associated with the wolf and the crow, death and omens, but also rebirth. She was sometimes referred to as Badb Catha (pronounced bibe kah-ha), or “battle crow,” since she favored adopting this winged form either prior to a battle (as a harbinger of the battle to come), or during the fight (circling the gruesome clash on the field below). She was often reported to join the fray on the battlefield in her female form, using magic and sword to vanquish her foes. And she definitely played favorites, as her presence was used to cause confusion and terror among the soldiers on the opposing side. But Badb was also a type of guide, ferrying souls from death after the battle to their rebirth in the next world. She straddles the mortal realm and the realm of spirits, hence her power as a prophetess.
Macha (pronounced mak-kha) is the aspect of the goddess associated with war, ravens, horses, and sovereignty. She is seen several times in legend, but probably the most familiar tale casts her as the wife of a man named Crunniuc. Since she was a goddess, she cautioned her husband not to tell anyone of her true nature. But, of course, her husband couldn’t help but boast to, of all people, the king of Ulster, that his wife could “outrun the fastest chariot” in all of Ireland. Well, the king couldn’t stand for that, so he seized her and took her hostage, even though she was swollen and heavy with child. He then forced her to run a race against his swiftest horses. Macha did run, and she did win, but at a terrible price. When she crossed the finish line, she gave birth to twins right there. It took her two days to die, but as she did, she cursed the adult men of Ulster “to nine times nine generations” that whenever the Ulster king or countryside faced grave danger in war, the men would experience debilitating pains (childbirth pains, to be precise) that would last for five days and four nights. Go get ‘em, Macha! Now that’s how you throw a curse!
Anann (pronounced on-an) is the aspect of the goddess associated with fertility, cattle, war, and prosperity. She is responsible for culling out the weak; in the context of war, she was known to ease the passing of those dying on the battlefield, where she would comfort them in the form of Death itself. Sometimes referred to as “Gentle Annie,” she encompasses the cycles of life and death, beginnings and endings, birth and rebirth. Make no mistake though, while loosely associated with the main Celtic Mother goddess, Danu, and similar to Mothers we know in the present day, Anann was anything but weak. Powerful, fierce in battle, and strong, yet knowledgeable, comforting, and guiding. Contemporary writings link the goddess Nemain (pronounced nee-van), who is associated with war and panic and known as the “battle fury,” to be one of the three goddesses forming The Morrigan, but Anann is the true third. The “fury” part of Nemain makes sense in the war-themed triplet, but she was actually not a daughter of Ernmas, and therefore, could not be one of the three sisters comprising The Morrigan.
Individual beings of the triple goddess aside, when united as one, The Morrigan is a fearsome creature indeed, and she often appeared throughout the four “cycles” of Irish history. These cycles are essentially groupings of stories, myths, and legends of the Irish people from their inception (many thousands of years ago) through to the 12th century A.D.
The second cycle, the Ulster cycle, set around the time of Christ, is where we find The Morrigan making the rounds in Ireland, particularly the northern area of Ireland, and it is here where we learn of her part in one of the most legendary battles ever fought… The Cattle Raid of Cooley (or Táin Bó Cúailnge).
All the fuss started simply enough. A playful conversation turned disagreement between husband and wife. Except this husband just happened to be Ailill, King of Connacht, and his wife happened to be Queen Maeve (also known as Medb).
Since Maeve’s father had been the High King of Ireland, she was already Queen, and a fiercely proud woman, when she married Ailill, making him King of Connacht. One day, she remarked to her husband, in passing, how much better off he had become since he married her. Well, as far as pride went, Ailill himself was no slouch, so he laughed and quickly disagreed, saying that he was wealthier than even she.
Each goaded (and extremely aggravated) by the other’s ridiculous ego, the two set out to compare their individual wealth. They summoned all the servants they could find and told them to gather all of Maeve’s and Ailill’s jewels, gold, fine clothes, animals, and all other treasures.
After everything was gathered, not only was the castle mightily crowded, but it was also obvious that Ailill had one thing that Maeve did not… the legendary white horned bull named Finnbennach, the most magnificent bull in all of Connacht. Well, this, Maeve just could not abide. She knew there was only one other bull in all of Ireland that could best Finnbennach…Donn Cúailnge, the brown bull of Cooley. The queen sent messengers to the bull’s owner, Daire Mac Fiachna, promising him a large plot of land, 50 heifers, a gilded chariot, and her very influential friendship if he would but loan her the brown bull for one year.
In those days, that kind of deal was like being crowned a king, and Daire knew it, so he quickly accepted and threw a feast to celebrate, inviting all his friends, family, and the Queen’s messengers. As things are bound to happen when wine and ale is involved, the feast got a bit out of hand. So did the guests. And the messengers got so drunk they told Daire that if he had not agreed, the Queen would have taken the bull anyway. Daire flew into a rage and threw the messengers out, calling off the deal.
Well, ol’ Queen Maeve (and her considerable pride) was already too deeply committed to this foolish contest and course of action, so naturally, she waged war on Ulster. Her husband joined her, and they amassed a tremendous army to march on the lands to the north.
Here we find the first mention of The Morrigan in the tale. Remember that little curse Macha laid on the men of Ulster? All this talk of war had thrown the biggest and best warriors of Ulster into incapacitating birthing pains…leaving basically no one to defend the brown bull, so Maeve felt her victory was assured. Thanks to Macha’s curse, the only thing standing between Maeve’s army and the brown bull was one 17 year old boy, named Cuchulainn, who had been just young enough to escape Macha’s wrath.
Now that you’ve met Cuchulainn, we must pause here for a flashback involving this young warrior and The Morrigan. Shortly before the war, The Morrigan appeared to Cuchulainn as a beautiful royal maiden (representing sovereignty), attempting to seduce the young hero. He rebuked her advances (and her role as sovereignty). This insulted The Morrigan, who then tried to kill him three times… in the form of an eel, a wolf, and a red heifer. Each time, he won the battle, wounding her. Finally, The Morrigan appeared to him as an old, injured woman, and Cuchulainn took pity on her. He tried to heal her by offering her milk, and in return, the old woman gave him a prophecy, and a warning, of the battle to come and his ultimate fate. Unfortunately, Cuchulainn did not heed her very well.
Flash forward and we are again poised at the edge of a war, between a 17 year old boy, and an enormous army. As Cuchulainn made his way to the battlefield, The Morrigan appeared once more, as a woman washing bloody garments in a river. When Cuchulainn asked her what she was doing, she responded that she was washing funeral clothes (he later recognized the clothes as his own).
Now, Maeve thought this a joke, for a child to combat an army, but when the struggle commenced, Cuchulainn fought like a possessed wolverine, ravaging the troops, killing them by the thousands, with nothing but his sword, spear, and slingshot (yes, you can probably read in a bit of David and Goliath here).
When reports of this reached Maeve, she grew worried. She sent messengers to Cuchulainn offering him money, lands, whatever he wanted. He refused that offer, but came back with one of his own. If the Queen agreed to send one warrior a day to fight him, she could claim her prize bull when (and if) Cuchulainn fell in battle.
As this story is considered an “epic,” we’ll have to do a bit of editing here (since this article is already quite long, and all mentions of The Morrigan have passed)…
A long line of warriors set against Cuchlainn, including his foster brother (who really only agreed to fight him after a trick of the Queen). Cuchlainn ended up killing his brother, and, wracked with pain, sadness, and physical wounds from the battle, Cuchlainn retreated to rest and grieve and heal.
During Cuchlainn’s respite, the men of Ulster finally revived from their birthing pains and headed to the battlefield. However, in all the chaos, the Queen managed to get hold of the brown bull and lead it back to Connacht.
Finally, Donn Cúailnge, the brown bull of Cooley, met the white bull, Finnbennach, on a hill called Tarbga to decide which animal was fiercest in all the land. The bulls squared off, eyes blazing red, nostrils steaming, hooves frantically pawing the ground. They charged and became locked in a ferocious, bloody fight that lasted all day and all night. As the sun came up, the people of Ireland saw that all that remained of Finnbennach were some entrails hanging from the brown bull’s horns. Legend has it that Donn Cúailnge dropped pieces of Finnbennach all over the island, before finally returning to Cooley to die himself.
What happened to the hero Cuchlainn? I’m afraid the tale ends no better for him. He was killed in a battle, though many years later, as The Morrigan’s old Crone had predicted.
And thus ends my tale of The Morrigan, Celtic goddess of prophecy, sovereignty, war, and death on the battlefield. Oh, there are countless more stories of her, sightings that go back thousands of years, all the way to the present day. She is found where armies gather, where wars rage, where wisdom and warnings are needed, where courage and bravery require strengthening… and where the dying are in need of a comforting guide to the eternal realm beyond.
Peace to sky.
Sky to earth.
Earth under sky, strength in each, a cup full, full of honey, mead in plenty. Summer in winter, spear over shield, shield over fist.
Fort of spears; a battle-cry, land for sheep, bountiful forests, mountains forever, magic enclosure.
Mast on branches, branches heavy, heavy with fruit, wealth for a son, a gifted son, strong neck of bull, a bull for a poem, a knot on a tree, wood for fire.
Fire from stone.
Stone from earth, wealth from cows, belly of the Brú.
Doe cries from mist, stream of deer after spring, corn in autumn, upheld by peace. Warrior band for the land, prosperous land to the shore.
From wooded headlands, waters rushing, “What news have you?”
Peace to the sky, life and land everlasting.
~ A song of Badh, celebrating the victory of Tuatha Dé Danann (Faerie people) in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, and prophesizing a time of peace to come. (Citation: Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, Text 166, Author: Unknown)
This is the night when the gateway between our world and the spirit world is thinnest.
Tonight is a night to call out those who came before.
Tonight I honor my ancestors.
Spirits of my fathers and mothers, I call to you, and welcome you to join me for this night.
You watch over me always, protecting and guiding me, and tonight I thank you.
Your blood runs in my veins.
Your spirit is in my heart.
Your memories are in my soul.
With the gift of remembrance, I remember all of you.
You are dead but never forgotten, and you live on within me, and within those who are yet to come.
~ A Samhain prayer to the ancestors
I wish a blessed and happy Samhain, a safe and fun Halloween, and a bountiful, joyous, and prosperous end of the year to you all!
Author: Kim McNamara-Wilson
With a Master’s degree in English Literature, Kim spent several happy years as a college Composition teacher and, over the past three years, has become a successful freelance writer, focusing on her never-embarrassing-yet-somehow-just-shy-of-requiring-medication obsession with “all things Irish.” When not writing for GotIreland.com as well as various fashion and beauty websites, she muses girly thoughts in her blog, www.AlwaysSearchingBeautyBlog.com (with a Facebook page of the same name). In her free time (what free time?) she also has two paranormal fiction books in the works, and reads as many books as she can get her hands on.
She currently lives just outside Orlando, FL with her husband, Burt, and two “fur babies,” Murphy (Rat Terrier) and Henry (Rat Terrier/Chihuahua).