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Morrígan

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The Morrígan (pronounced /'mˠɔɾˠɾʲiːɣən̪ˠ/) or Mórrígan (pronounced /'mˠoːɾˠɾʲiːɣən̪ˠ/),[1] is a figure from Irish mythology who appears to have once been a goddess. She is usually seen as a terrifying figure. She is associated with war and death on the battlefield, prophesy, and cattle. She is usually considered a war deity comparable with the Germanic Valkyries, although her association with cattle also suggests a role connected with fertility. She appears in various animal forms, most often as a crow. She is often interpreted as a triple goddess, although the triad is inconsisent and membership varies: the most common combination is the Morrígan, the Badb and Macha, but sometimes includes Nemain, Fea, Anann and others. In other texts the Morrígan appears alone, and her name is sometimes used interchangeably with the Badb, with no third "aspect" mentioned..

There is some disagreement over the meaning of the Morrígan's name. It can be straightforwardly interpreted as "great queen" (Old Irish mór, great, rígan, queen).[2] However it often lacks the diacritic over the o in the texts. Alternatively, mor (without diacritic) may derive from an Indo-European root connoting terror or monstrousness, cognate with the Old English maere (which survives in the modern English word "nightmare") and the Scandinavian mara.[3] Current scholarship mostly holds to Morrígan being the older, more accurate form.

Sources

Glosses

The earliest sources for the Morrígan are glosses in Latin manuscripts, and glossaries (collections of glosses). In a 9th century manuscript containing the Latin Vulgate translation of the Book of Isaiah, the word Lamia is used to translate the Hebrew Lilith.[4] A gloss explains this as "a monster in female form, that is, a morrígan". Cormac's Glossary (also 9th century), and a gloss in the later manuscript H.3.18, both explain the plural word gudemain ("spectres")[5] with the plural form morrígna. The 8th century O'Mulconry's Glossary says that Macha is one of the three morrígna. It therefore appears that at this time the name Morrígan was seen as referring to a class of beings rather than an individual.[6]

Ulster Cycle

The Morrígan's earliest narrative appearances, in which she is depicted as an individual, are in stories of the Ulster Cycle, where she has an ambiguous relationship with the hero Cú Chulainn. In the story Táin Bó Regamna ("the Cattle Raid of Regamain"), Cúchulainn encounters the Morrígan as she drives a heifer from his territory. He challenges and insults her, not realising who she is, and so earns her enmity. She threatens that, when is in combat with a man his equal, she will intervene against him in the form of an eel who will trip him in the ford, then as a wolf who will stampede cattle across the ford, and finally as a heifer leading the stampede, and tells him, enigmatically, "I guard your death".[7]

In the Táin Bó Cúailnge queen Medb of Connacht launches an invasion of Ulster to steal the bull Donn Cuailnge; the Morrígan, glossed as equivalent to Alecto of the Greek Furies, appears to the bull in the form of a crow and warns him to flee.[8] Cú Chulainn defends Ulster by fighting a series of single combats at fords against Medb's champions. In between combats the Morrígan appears to him as a young woman and offers him her love and her aid in the battle, but he spurns her. In response she intervenes in his next combat in animal forms, just as she had threatened in their previous encounter. However Cú Chulainn wounds her in each form and defeats his opponent despite her interference. Later she appears to him as an old woman bearing the same three wounds that her animal forms sustained, milking a cow. She gives Cú Chulainn three drinks of milk. He blesses her with each drink, and her wounds are healed.[9] As the armies gather for the final battle, she prophesies the bloodshed to come.[10]

In one version of Cú Chulainn's death-tale, as the hero rides to meet his enemies, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armour in a ford, an omen of his death. Later in the story, mortally wounded, Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone with his own entrails so he can die upright, and it is only when a crow lands on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead.[11]

Mythological Cycle

The Morrígan also appears in texts of the Mythological Cycle. In the 12th century pseudohistorical compilation Lebor Gabála Érenn she is listed among the Tuatha Dé Danann as one of the daughters of Ernmas, granddaughter of Nuadu Airgetlám. The first three daughters of Ernmas are given as Ériu, Banba and Fótla. Their names are synonyms for Ireland, and they were married to Mac Cuill, Mac Cécht and Mac Gréine, the last three Tuatha Dé Danann kings of Ireland. Associated with the land and kingship, they probably represent a triple goddess of sovereignty. Next come Ernmas's other three daughters: the Badb, Macha and the Morrígan. A quatrain describes the three as wealthy, "springs of craftiness" and "sources of bitter fighting". The Morrígan's name is said to be Anann, and she is said to have three sons, Glon, Gaim and Coscar.[12] According to Geoffrey Keating's 17th century History of Ireland, Ériu, Banba and Fódla worshipped the Badb, Macha and the Morrígan respectively, suggesting that the two triads of goddesses may be seen as equivalent.[13]

The Morrígan also appears in Cath Maige Tuireadh ("The Battle of Mag Tuired").[14] On Samhain she keeps a tryst with the Dagda before the battle against the Fomorians. When he meets her she is washing herself, standing with one foot on either side of the river Uinius. After they have sex, the Morrígan promises to summon the magicians of Ireland to cast spells on behalf of the Tuatha Dé, and to destroy Indech, the Fomorian king, taking from him "the blood of his heart and the kidneys of his valour". Later, we are told, she would bring two handfuls of his blood and deposit them in the same river (however, we are also told later in the text that Indech was killed by Ogma). As battle is about to be joined, the Tuatha Dé leader, Lug, asks each what power they bring to the battle. The Morrígan's reply is difficult to interpret, but involves pursuing, destroying and subduing. When she comes to the battlefield she chants a poem, and immediately the battle breaks and the Fomorians are driven into the sea. After the battle she chants another poem celebrating the victory and prophesying the end of the world.

In another story she lures away the bull of a woman called Odras, who follows her to the otherworld via the cave of Crúachan. When she falls asleep, the Morrígan turns her into a pool of water.[15]

References

  1. Also spelled Móirríoghan, Morrígu, Mórrígu
  2. Dictionary of the Irish Language based mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials (DIL), Compact Edition, Royal Irish Academy, 1990, pp. 467-468,507
  3. DIL pp. 468
  4. Isaiah 34:14 "And wild beasts shall meet with hyenas, the satyr shall cry to his fellow; yea, there shall the night hag alight, and find for herself a resting place." (Revised Standard Version, emphasis added)
  5. DIL p. 372
  6. Angelique Gulermovich Epstein, War Goddess: The Morrígan and her Germano-Celtic Counterparts, pp. 45-51 (Online in Winzip format)
  7. A. H. Leahy (trans.), Heroic Romances of Ireland Vol II, 1906, "The Cattle Raid of Regamna"
  8. Cecile O'Rahilly (ed & trans), Táin Bó Cuailnge Recension 1, 1976, p. 152
  9. Cecile O'Rahilly (ed & trans), Táin Bó Cuailnge Recension 1, 1976, pp. 176-177, 180-182; Cecile O'Rahilly (ed & trans), Táin Bó Cualnge from the Book of Leinster, 1967, pp. 193-197
  10. Cecile O'Rahilly (ed & trans), Táin Bó Cuailnge Recension 1, 1976, pp. 229-230
  11. "The Death of Cú Chulainn"
  12. Lebor Gabála Érenn, §64
  13. Geoffrey Keating, History of Ireland 1.11
  14. Whitley Stokes (ed. & trans.), "The Second Battle of Moytura", Revue Celtique 12, 1891, pp. 83-85, 91, 101-103, 109-111
  15. E. Gwynn, The Metrical Dindshenchas Vol 4, Poem 50: "Odras"