Emerald Isle

The Morrigan

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle

Dreaded three formed witches of war, The Morrigan

The raven has long been an omen of ill-tidings around the world, bearer of bad news and warnings, but in Ireland it was known once as a servant of the fairy Morrigan, or the raven was herself in person! She it was whose name meant the Great or Ghost Queen, from the old words for fear and greatness.

Some will tell you earnestly that she was a goddess, and that she had three forms, those of the maiden, mother and crone, yet others will say Morrigan was but a title like priestess. Christian chronicles record it to mean a monster in the form of a woman, there are those scholars who say she was one and the same as the banshee, and that Samhain itself was dedicated to her.

Ériu grand daughter of Nuada, wife of the last Tuatha High King, who gave her very name to Ireland, was claimed to have been among her followers as she was head of the Badb, the battle spirits.

Whatever the truth, we first hear of the Morrigan fighting alongside the warriors of the Tuatha De Danann in their struggles with the Fir Bolg and then the Fomors who came from afar to conquer and enslave. In her raven-coat she'd soar above bloody battlefields, which she called her garden, her cry emboldening those she favoured into battle fury, riastradh, and putting terror on those she opposed.

Before the second battle of Moy Tura where fell Balor of the Evil Eye, Dagda Mór held a tryst with Morrigan by the waters of the river Unius in Connachta, bearing her to Gleann Etin, and so impressed was she with his various endowments and endurance that she promised to bring all the druids of Ireland to the aid of the Tuatha in the coming battle.

Then she bound up the loins of the Fomors so they couldn't relieve themselves and hid the waters of Ireland from them, and when she came at last to the battle itself, prince Nuada asked her what she could do to help. In answer she spiralled up into the air and rained down fire and blood through a strange and poisoned fog, breaking the Fomor hosts of King Indech with a chant so powerful that they ran into the ocean!

“There arose a wild, impetuous, precitpitate, mad, inexorable, furious, dark, lacerating, merciless, combative, contentious badb, which was shrieking and fluttering over their heads. And there arose also the satyrs, and sprites, and the maniacs of the valleys, and the witches, and goblins, and owls, and destroying demons of the air and firmament, and the demoniac phantom host; and they were inciting and sustaining valour and battle with them.

Over his head is shrieking, a lean hag, quickly hopping, over the points of their weapons and shields, she is the gray-haired Morrigu.”

After it was done she took two handfuls of that King's blood to the hosts that were waiting at the Ford of Unius, so "Ford of Destruction" became its name. When the battle spoils were divided and the bodies given to the earth or the sky, the Tuatha and the fairy hosts and the mountains and rivers of Ireland asked the Morrigan had she any tales to tell, so she spoke this prophecy:

Under the gentle sky lies the earth.
Restful at last in the arms of heaven.
As sweet wine or a fine meal is the land, for all to eat and drink, beneath the stars.
Before me I see this wonderful land.

Like a splendid mead, rich and worthy of savouring
Keeping fresh summer's blessings even in stark winter
Giving us shelter like a shield makes strong a spear
And as a fist holding the shield our strong places, hungry for battle.

None can break these spear-bristled walls
Here we harvest and here we stand
And here will nine times the grandchildren of our children grow fair and bold
And the fields will be like forests

With fences surrounding
and horns calling the beasts of the field
The sun shining not beneath soft leaves
Rich with sap so they bend with the weight

So much will this land bring that
every pauper will be as a king
and every boy a warrior of renown
every dog a fierce champion

Straight and tall will grow the trees, so that each shall fruit a spear
The fires shall bring warmth and melt the metal
Strong will be the foundations
and rich will be the milk

Every cow shall be full with calf
Birds singing like clouds above
The beasts of the wild shall leap for joy in spring
and on Samhain the ripe harvest.

Many and many will be the people of this land, filling it from peak to ocean
Fair and fruitful
As the water runs over the sharp rocks so shall time, through shadow and fear
But this will be the tale of the land and its people
Ours will be the peace of Heaven beneath the skies.

For all of eternity.

She wasn't always on the side of the children of the Tuatha either, when she and Cú Chulainn met he didn't see the truth of her and gave her foul insult before leaping to the attack. Just in time she changed into a raven and sat on a branch close by, mocking him with her croaks, and then he discerned her true nature, so he gave his grudging apology, but she said to him, “it is at the guarding of thy death that I am; and I shall be.”

Relations between the two soured after that, and when Queen Medb brought war with her to claim the famed brown bull of Cuailgne, Cú Chulainn spurned the embrace of the Morrigan and her offer of help along with it. When he fought the Queen's armies, Morrigan became an eel who tripped him up, then a wolf who stampeded cattle across the ford, and finally a white cow with red ears leading the stampede.

Three times she interfered with Cú Chulainn, and three time he wounded her. After the battle she appeared as an old crone, and Cú Chulainn begged her for some of the milk she was getting from a cow.  She gave him milk from the third teat, and her leg was healed by his blessing.

“You told me once,” she said, “that you would never heal me.”

“Had I known it was you,” said Cú Chulainn, “I never would have.”

On the eve of the battle of Muirthemne then she came to him as three old women, crones roasting a dog over the rowan-pit fire. His geas or holy taboo was that he could never eat the flesh of a dog, but the crones mocked him in his manhood until he eventually took a bite, and his death came the very next day.

As he died he bound himself to a standing stone with his own entrails, to die on his feet, and none of his enemies would come close until the Morrigan perched on his shoulder in the form of a raven.

It shouldn't be imagined, mind you, that the Morrigan was an entirely battlesome sort either, as Diarmuid O'Duibne found when he came across her in the shape of an old crone struggling to ford a river. After he'd taken the Morrigan upon his broad back, she granted him the gift of comeliness, and said that no woman could turn from his eye.

Then again that gift started him feuding with none other than Fionn Mac Cumhaill over a lady named Gráinne, so perhaps even her blessings are double edged!

Her name is remembered throughout Ireland in hills called the breasts or paps of the Morrigan, and by ancient firepits where young men gather before battle, fullachta fiadh. She is said to have lured a young woman called Odras into the otherworld through the cave of the cats near Cruachan, and turned her into a pool of water.

Where the Dagda is reputed to have held union with the Morrigan is marked on the map below.

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