Did You Hear About the Morrigan?

One of the most prominent figures in Irish mythology is the Morrigan, probably meaning either “Great Queen” or “Phantom Queen,” although it’s a little unclear who she actually was. As with many old deities, her name and function might well have changed over time.

The earliest known uses of the name appear to refer to a type of female monster rather than to one particular goddess, with the individual figure of the Morrigan first known to show up in the Ulster Cycle. As the versions of the Ulster myths to which we now have access were written by a largely Christian society, they don’t specifically identify the Morrigan as a goddess, but she clearly functions as one. She’s essentially a war goddess, hindering the hero Cúchulainn in battle when he refuses her advances. She appears in the forms of an eel, a wolf, a cow, an old woman, and a crow. It’s the crow form with which she is mostly identified.

Other myths refer to her as one of the Tuatha De Danann, and daughter of the mother goddess Ernmas. Some evidence suggests that she might have originally been a fertility deity, and that one of her roles might have been that of psychopomp, but it’s hard to say. Another interesting thing to note about the Morrigan is that she’s usually identified as a triple goddess with Badb and Macha. Women appear in threes pretty frequently in mythology, although there is likely a difference between trios like the Greek Fates and Furies and actual triple goddesses, which were common in ancient Celtic belief. I’ve often come across the idea that the Triple Goddess is associated with the phases of the moon (I guess waxing and waning are considered the same phase in this way of thought) and the life stages of Maiden, Mother, and Crone (apparently a product of a society that hadn’t discovered reliable birth control). The Wikipedia page on the Triple Goddess in modern paganism, however, suggests that this was based on ideas Robert Graves came up with in the twentieth century, and that there really isn’t a whole lot of support for it in actual mythological sources. One thing I must say I find quite frustrating in researching mythology is that it’s pretty much impossible to tell when supposed connections between myths of different cultures are genuine. I think a lot of scholars are so eager to find connections that they see patterns that aren’t really there. Besides, religion changes as one society comes into contact with others, so that could explain some connections. Anyway, regarding the Morrigan specifically, perhaps it’s best to say that she’s a rather ambiguous figure. Really, though, that’s generally the case for gods, isn’t it?

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8 Responses to Did You Hear About the Morrigan?

  1. Jake says:

    I never heard the term psychopomp before so yay! I learned a new word.

    I think the rise of the maiden/mother/crone idea, while being more or less invented by Graves was very much solidified and made mainstream by second wave cultural feminism and its influence on the neo-pagan movement.

    I agree it can be very frustrating unraveling mythology and its connections but I also find fascinating working out what connections are blurred or wholesale invented. People both keep and create the mythologies they need.

    Out of interest do you have a version of the Irish myths that you prefer?

    • Nathan says:

      I don’t really have any one source I consult for Irish mythology; I generally just do Google searches. I realize this doesn’t always lead to the most accurate information, but I do try to use multiple sources.

  2. Logan Mack says:

    I’m very much enjoying your analysis of myths and the interplay of the various myth systems as they collide. FYI: The modern triple goddess and the moon correspond as follows: maiden-waxing, mother-full, crone-waning. The new moon is not included, probably because it isn’t seen.

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