The Morrigan: A Goddess of Fate, War, and Death

The Morrigan is an ancient Irish goddess and a powerful and influential figure in Celtic mythology. She is both a single goddess and part of a triple deity.

On her own, the Morrigan is a powerful war goddess, but alongside her sisters, she gains additional powers, becoming the guardian of the land, a goddess of fertility, and a sovereignty goddess.

In both forms, the Morrigan goddess goes by many other names, including the Phantom Queen, the Great Queen, and the Queen of Nightmares. 

She was both feared and revered as the goddess of war, fate, and death and worshipped for her association with victory, magic, strategy, and sovereignty.

Who is the Morrigan?

The Morrigan, Celtic goddess of War - artist impression
Artist impression of The Morrigan

The Morrigan appears in many different forms in Celtic mythology. As a shapeshifter, she can take on the form of any animal but is most frequently depicted as a crow or raven.

In Celtic myth, the crow and raven frequently appeared after a battle to peck at the remains of those who’d lost their lives. It seems fitting, then, that the goddess of war and death be associated with these birds. 

In some myths, the Morrigan appears as a beautiful young woman, while in others, she takes the form of an ugly old woman or hag.

The Morrigan’s multiple forms reflect her diverse skills and powers. She can influence and predict the outcome of war by sending courage to the victors or casting fear into the hearts of their opponents.

As the Irish goddess of war, she is savage and bloodthirsty, but when the Morrigan appears with her sisters, she is also a fertility goddess, known for her determination and influence, and a wild, unpredictable goddess of chaos.

This juxtaposition of life and death is a recurring theme in Irish mythology. Death is a natural part of the life cycle and is seen as the opportunity for something new to be born. 

The three goddesses that make up the Morrigan goddess are commonly known as Badb, Anann, and Macha, although they go by numerous other names as well.

It is usually Badb that is associated with the crow because, like those carrion-eating birds, she would fly over a battleground, collecting up the souls of the dead and escorting them to the next life.

Badb
artist impression of Badb

What are the Morrigan’s Origins?

According to Irish mythology, the Morrigan goddess was one of three daughters born to the Irish mother goddess and sorceress Ernmas.

Like her daughters, Ernmas belonged to the tribe of supernatural beings known as the Tuatha dé Danann, associating her with the great goddess Danu.

Some believe that the Morrigan preceded the Tuatha dé Danann, potentially dating back to the Copper Age in 3000 BC, but there’s little evidence to support this theory.

When the Morrigan goddess first appeared in Irish literature, she was depicted as a “monster in female form” or an “ominous creature” associated with desolation and death.

The Morrigan as a Monster in Female form
The Morrigan as a Monster in Female form

By the time we reach the Ulster cycle body of literature, the Morrigan starts to reveal some of her other strengths, becoming increasingly associated with sexual power and fertility.

Throughout the Ulster cycle, the goddess Morrigan is repeatedly linked to cattle, particularly the fertility of cows, which was of critical importance for the ancient Irish. Cattle were a status symbol in ancient Ireland, so the more cattle you had, the more important and powerful you were.

The fertility of the Morrigan goddess was associated with more than just a high reproductive rate among cows. In the story of the Cath Maige Tuired, or the second battle of Mag Tuired, the Celtic goddess seduces Dagda and, by sleeping with him, “symbolically gives the victory to his party.”

In other words, sex with the Morrigan Celtic goddess could guarantee you victory on the battlefield.

What are the Morrigan’s Powers and Abilities?

The Morrigan Celtic goddess could give life or take it away. She had the power to predict the future and influence it. She could cast spells that put fear into the hearts of her adversaries, ensuring those she favored would be victorious.

The Morrigan’s Powers as a Shape Shifter

The Morrigan as Shapeshifter
The Morrigan as Shapeshifter

During a battle or cattle raid, the Morrigan would take on the shape of a crow and fly over the battleground screeching and striking either fear or courage into the hearts of the warriors.

She could also use her powers as a shapeshifter to disguise herself in various animal forms and use the abilities of those creatures against her enemies.

When she seeks revenge against Cú Chulainn for rejecting her romantic advances, she takes on the form of an eel and attempts to trip him up. She then shapeshifts into a wolf and tries to frighten a herd of cows, so they stampede towards the great warrior.

In this instance, her powers are not great enough to overpower Cu Chulainn, so she uses trickery to gain the upper hand. More about that story later.

How is the Morrigan Associated with Death?

The Morrigan’s association with death and the underworld is complex and multifaceted. Each of the three sisters represents a different aspect of the relationship between life and death. The Morrigan herself is the goddess of fate and prophecy, so can predict whether someone will live or die.

Badb more closely resembles the banshee, who appears later in Irish mythology. Like the banshee, she is bloodthirsty and chaotic, summoning people to their deaths with her fearsome howls. 

The Morrigan is associated with death and rebirth

It is Badb who is most commonly associated with the crow, specifically the hooded or carrion crow, which is known for scavenging on dead bodies.

Badb escorts the souls of the fallen to the underworld, acting like an ancient Irish version of the grim reaper.

Anann or Nemain is responsible for culling the weak and comforting them as they die.

Just as death is a part of the natural life cycle, so Morrigan’s association with death also links her to the concept of birth, and rebirth.

In Irish folklore, she is both “the blade that cleaves flesh from bone” and the one that “reshapes, remakes, and redefines us.”

Unlike other war goddesses, Morrigan is not an evil goddess but one that uses death to encourage rebirth. This portrayal encourages us to see death as an opportunity for new life rather than something to be feared.

The Morrigan Goddess in Irish Folklore

The goddess Morrigan appears in numerous tales and legends, both as a great queen and a triple goddess. In the Ulster cycle, the most famous story tells of her confrontation with the great warrior Cú Chulainn.

The Morrigan Goddess and Cú Chulainn

Cú Chulainn- artist impression of the demi god Cú Chulainn
depiction of Cú Chulainn

In the epic poem, Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, Morrigan meets the hero warrior when he’s defending Ulster against Queen Maeve and the army of Connaught. She’s so impressed by his skills on the battlefield that she attempts to seduce him, only to have Cú Chulainn reject her advances.

Like any spurned woman, Morrigan is outraged and decides to use her powers as a shapeshifter to destroy him.

The Morrigan Seeks Revenge

First, she turns into an eel and attempts to trip the great warrior as he crosses a stream. Cú Chulainn turns on the eel, breaking its ribs and rendering it useless. 

The Celtic goddess is not so easily defeated, however, and quickly turns into a red heifer and leads a herd of cows in a stampede to trample Cú Chulainn to death.

However, the hero warrior is too quick for the shapeshifter and breaks her leg with a stone. Still, the Morrigan won’t admit defeat and transforms once more, this time taking on the form of a wolf.

As a wolf, she scares the cows, chasing them toward Cú Chulainn, but the warrior is too quick for her and fires a slingshot at her, blinding her in one eye.

Morrigan Resorts to Trickery

The now-injured Morrigan still refuses to give up and changes one last time, appearing before Cú Chulainn as an old woman milking a cow. 

Although she has a broken leg and ribs and is blind in one eye, he fails to recognize her and accepts from her three sips of milk.

After each sip, he blesses the old woman, healing the wounds he previously inflicted.

The Morrigan’s ultimate victory only comes much later when Cú Chulainn confronts the six sons and daughters of the sorcerer Catalan, who are seeking revenge for their father’s death. As Cú Chulainn was responsible for Catalan’s death, he responds to their challenge and heads out to meet them.

The Morrigan Foresees Cú Chulainn’s Demise

On his way there, he passes an old woman washing bloody armor in a nearby river. As he passes, she calls out to him, saying, “I am washing the armour of Cuchulainn, who is going to die today.”

The Morrigan’s prophecy is soon fulfilled and injured by his own spears, the great warrior ties himself to a rock so he can die on his feet like a warrior, rather than covered in dirt like an animal.

For three days, Cú Chulainn’s body remains tied to the rock “and none of his enemies were brave enough to approach, and make sure he was dead.”

It is only when Morrígan appears in the form of a black bird and sits on the warrior’s shoulder that his death is revealed and the Morrigan’s revenge is complete.

The Phantom Queen and Dagda

Dagda Celtic God- artist imprssion of Dagda
artist impression of Dagda

In Irish culture, Dagda is one of the most important and powerful of all the Celtic gods. He is a father figure and leader of the Tuatha dé Danann. He also has some powers in common with the goddess Morrigan, and like her, can control life and death.

When he first lays eyes on Morrigan, she is bathing in the River Unis, close to Dagda’s home. The couple are quickly drawn to each other and come together as lovers. This union marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, and is celebrated at the festival of Samhain.

After lying together, the Morrigan tells the Dagda how to defeat the invading Formorians and helps him secure victory by butchering the warrior king Indech herself and presenting two handfuls of his blood to the Tuatha dé Danann.

Although this story is gruesome, it highlights the Morrigan’s power of sovereignty. By helping Dagda defeat the invaders, the Morrigan ensures the sovereignty of the land. She also helps to ensure its prosperity by mating with the god of fertility.

Was the Morrigan the Most Powerful Celtic Goddess?

Although the Irish worshipped many different gods and goddesses, there is only one potentially more powerful than the Morrigan, and that’s Danu.

Danu predates the Tuatha dé Danann, whose very name means “the peoples of the goddess Danu.” 

Unlike Morrigan, Danu was a mother goddess whose powers were associated with fertility and life. She is a source of wisdom and knowledge, which she bestows on her people by breastfeeding them.

The Morrigan’s role in Irish mythology is very different, even though she is also a goddess of fertility. She has the power to take life away, as well as give it, making her arguably more powerful than the goddess Danu.

What is the Morrigan’s Significance in Modern Culture?

The Phantom Queen continues to exert her influence in modern culture, and she is celebrated as a symbol of the independence and ferocity of Celtic women.

She is also something of a feminist icon, symbolizing freedom and personal sovereignty, or the right to rule your own body. She also offers protection and will go into battle to protect those who continue to worship her.

To modern pagans, she is a “Dark Goddess archetype who enables women’s healing and empowerment.” Her powers or death and rebirth are used to reconfigure difficult personal experiences as “transformational rites of passage.”

The Morrigan also appears in several video games and comics, where she is invariably depicted as a strong and lethal warrior.

The Morrigan is a powerful, independent woman who represents the values of an ancient Celtic culture in which women could train as warriors, couldn’t be forced into marriage, and were free to divorce and remarry without stigmatism.

To Summarize

The Morrigan is a complex character in Irish culture, appearing both as a single entity and a triple deity. With the ability to predict death and influence wars, she is the most powerful of all of Ireland’s war goddesses.

Alongside her two sisters, she appears in the Ulster cycle and then again in the Mythological cycle where she’s listed as a member of the Tuatha dé Danann.

As a triple goddess, the Morrigan wreaks havoc on the battlefield, putting courage in the hearts of the Tuatha dé Danann and terrifying the opposition with her battle cries. She also appears as a battle crow who escorts the souls of the dead to the underworld.

Like the banshee, the Morrigan is the embodiment of death and appears washing the bloodied clothes of those who are about to die.

Although the Morrigan goddess is primarily associated with war and death, in the context of ancient Ireland, this was not entirely negative. In death, there was the potential for rebirth, making the Morrigan a symbol of fertility as well as destruction.

In modern society, the Morrigan is seen as a strong, independent female role model capable of shaping her own destiny and converting negative experiences into transformative ones. 

Nicky Hoseck

"Like many so-called Brits, I have a bit of Irish and a bit of Scottish in my blood, which is possibly where the red hair comes from. I’ve been fascinated by the history of Ireland for years, since I discovered the story of the Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley.

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