The Phantom Queen of War
Not just because her name is only one letter away from my own surname, The Morrígan has fascinated me for years. This phantom queen is associated as the goddess of war and of fate.
She would appear as a crow, sitting high up in the branches of a tree for a perfect vantage point to watch a deadly battle among warriors. If you saw her, it would usually signify an impending doom. The Morrígan loves her wars bloody and dark.
The earliest written mention of Morrígan comes from a short notation in a 9th century Latin manuscript (the Book of Isaiah) that described her as “a monster in female form”. She first appeared in stories from what is known as the Ulster Cycle, a series of medieval Irish mythological tales, based on sagas that take place around the first century AD. In it, Cú Chulainn encounters the Morrígan who foretells a coming battle in which he will die.
She is often portrayed as a trio of connected characters (the number three was an important one in Irish mythology), namely Badb, Macha, and Nemain, each of whom are depictions of a war goddess. The Morrígan is mentioned as the wife of the Dagda, the father-figure of the mythological race of people known as the Tuatha de Danann – the beings who assumed the roles of the gods and goddesses of the Celtic Irish people.
The Myth of the Banshee
It is thought that the Morrígan is associated with, or a precursor to, the banshee of Irish mythology that appeared much later in history. Sean mac Craith has been identified as writing the earliest known mention of the banshee in 1380.
The banshee is a female spirit who appears to herald the imminent death of a family member or loved one. often depicted as an old woman, wearing a green dress and a grey cloak, she will wail and scream and cry to let you know that someone close to you is dying or has just passed. She would often appear before news of the death came to you, so that she would be the first indication that someone was dead.
There are many similarities between the Morrígan and the banshee – a spectral woman who foretells death and destruction. It is easy to see why the Morrígan is considered an early form of the banshee.
Her Influence of War
The Morrígan didn’t just appear to foretell (and watch) an imminent death of a brave warrior on the battlefield. She is said to have had an influence over the outcome of that war. When she flies overhead in her crow form, she would instil fear in one army and courage in the other. When the Morrígan watches a battle, she already knows who’s going to win.
In Arthur Cotterell’s The Encyclopedia of Mythology, he states that she would very occasionally take to the battlefield herself, proving without doubt whose side she favoured.
She has been closely linked, at times, to the Fianna (a band of Irish warriors led by Fionn macCumhaill – Finn MacCool). It is said the worshipped her so that she would favour them in battle against their enemies.
More Than Just a Warmonger?
The Morrígan isn’t just associated with war. She is said to be a protector of her people and has an affinity with the land and the animals who inhabit it. As a shape-shifter, she has appeared not just as a crow or raven, but also as a wolf, an eel, an old hag or a young woman.
Regardless of her appearance, the Morrígan has been known as (and will continue to be known as) a very powerful goddess – one that you will always want on your side.