The Morrigan

If any Celtic literary figure should match and identify with the ‘Cailleach’, it is the ‘Morrigan‘, who is identified as ‘Anann’ (i.e. – Aine) in the LGE texts, and is otherwise also referred to as a triple character: Morrigu/Anann-Macha-Badbh. Sometimes Nemain is also used as a member of this triad. She – like Manannán – functions as a fatalistic, challenging, prophetic and otherworldly figure, set apart from other members of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She nearly always appears as a somewhat frightening outsider, in contradistinction to Manannán who functions as a friendly giver. She – like Manannán – is implied as a member of the tribe of the Tuatha but functions more as a goddess. The Tuatha are given a euhemeristic historic existence in the Christianised medieval texts, but hers lies outside of this timescale, and she is therefore from the time when the world was young. The Irish tales are emphatic in linking her with battling ‘hosts’ – the name Badbh after all refers to the ‘hooded crow’, otherwise known as the ‘carrion crow’ in English. The ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ (#49) says her lair is ‘Cruachan’, otherwise associated with Queen Medbh of Connacht, suggesting a link between the characters, and consequently the role of the sovereignty goddess/herdswoman/decider of battles/ancestress/creatrix/originator of craft that is the Cailleach .

As both a lovely maiden and then a frightening, aged female who portends death, she appears to Cú Chulainn in two complete chapters of the Lebor na hUidre version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, although her presence bestrides the whole tale, albeit incomplete in the manuscripts:

‘The Conversation of the Morrigan with Cuchulainn’

Cuchulainn saw a young woman coming towards him, with a dress of every colour on, and her form very excellent.

‘ Who are you? ‘ said Cuchulainn.‘Daughter of Buan the king,’ said she. ‘I have come to you; I have loved you for your reputation, and I have brought my treasures and my cattle with me.’‘The time at which you have come to us is not good. For our condition is evil, through hunger. It is not easy to me to meet a woman, while I am in this strife.’‘I will be a help to you…. I shall be more troublesome to you,’ said she, ‘when I come against you when you are in combat against the men. I will come in the form of an eel about your feet in the ford, so that you shall fall.’‘I think that likelier than the daughter of a king. I will take you,’ said he, ‘between my toes, till your ribs are broken, and you will be in this condition till a doom of blessing comes (?) on you.’‘I will drive the cattle on the ford to you, in the form of a grey she-wolf.’‘I will throw a stone at you from my sling, so that it shall break your eye in your head; and you will be in that state till a doom of blessing comes on you.’‘ I will come to you in the form of a hornless red heifer before the cattle. They will rush on you on the plains (?), and on the fords, and on the pools, and you will not see me before you.’‘ I will throw a stone at you,’ said he, ‘so that your leg shall break under you, and you will be in this state till a doom of blessing comes on you.’

Therewith she goes from him.

AND:

‘The Healing of the Morrigan and The Coming of Lug Mac Ethlend’

When Cuchulainn was in this great weariness, the Morrigan met him in the form of an old hag, and she blind and lame, milking a cow with three teats, and he asked her for a drink. She gave him milk from a teat.

‘ He will be whole who has brought it (?),’ said Cuchulainn; ‘the blessings of gods and non-gods on you,’ said he. (Gods with them were the Mighty Folk; non-gods the people of husbandry.)

Then her head was healed so that it was whole.

She gave the milk of the second teat, and her eye was whole; and gave the milk of the third teat, and her leg was whole. So that this was what he said about each thing of them, ‘A doom of blessing on you,’ said he.

‘You told me,’ said the Morrigan, ‘ I should not have healing from you for ever.’

‘If I had known it was you,’ said Cuchulainn, ‘I would not have healed you ever.’

These excerpts see the hero meeting his Nemesis: first in the form of a young woman of royal dress (clothing of many colours), and then as an aged hag, who demonstrates her godhood to him by a magical healing of the ‘wounds’ of her traditional Cailleach-form: withered in one eye, down one side. This she achieves both by the hero’s blessing and by drinking from the three teats of her magical cow. The Morrigan in this story bears no allegiance to either Medb or Aillel or Conchobar – she is a ‘free agent’ with a free hand to do as she pleases, demonstrating her power above and beyond the other players. She appears in the role of a Goddess.

Standard etymologies of this name generally treat it as meaning ‘Great Queen’ (Mor Rigan) although this is not congruent with the proper Celtic form which would be more like ‘Rigan Mór’. Given the triple-nature ascribed to her in the LGE, and traditions describing ‘Saint’ Brighid as one of the ‘Three Maries of Ireland’, it perhaps more interesting that Moiraghyn is given by John Kelly (‘The Manx Dictionary in Two Parts’) as the Manx word for ‘mothers’. This seems redolent of the Matrones – a triplicate of female religious characters found represented throughout Atlantic Northwest Europe in the provinces conquered by Rome between the 1st and 5thC CE. Moirrey is also the Manx version of ‘Mary’, and the Manx language has formerly used ‘Moire‘ in the sense of ‘source’. It is quite possible that Manx Folklorist WIlliam Cashen’s assertion that the Manx called the fairies ‘Cloan ny Moyrn’ (Children of Pride) is a misinterpretation of Cloan ny Moiraghyn‘: Children of the Morrigan/Mothers which would be pronounced in a somewhat similar fashion. This would make them cognate with the Tuatha Dé Danann if the LGE description of Morrigan as also being called ‘Anann’ is a true tradition

Another etymological aspect of her name is the association with the word for the sea: Muir. The ‘Morrigan’

‘Morrigan’/’Morrigu’/Badb appears in the following medieval Irish texts:

Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer“) from the ‘Ulster Cycle’

Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘Book of the Takings of Ireland’ or ‘Book of Invasions’)

– The ‘Metrical Dindshenchas

– The Sanas Cormaic or ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (9thC) interprets ‘Gudemain’ (Spectres) as ‘Morrigna’

– The Táin Bó Cúailnge and the Táin Bó Regamna from the ‘Ulster Cycle’ have her significant as a character.

– The Cath Maige Tuired or ‘Battle(s) of Moytura’ (from the ‘Mythological Cycle’)

Togail Bruidne Dá Derga – ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ where the Cailleach/Badb appears to prophecy the King’s downfall.

Togail Bruidne Dá Choca – where she appears to give a similar prophecy of doom to the character Cormac Condloinges.

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