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The Morrigan

Modern picture of the Morrigan

One of the most intriguing figures in Irish mythology is the Morrigan. Fairy or pagan goddess? One woman, or three, or many? A shape changer of many identities. A herald of doom. A terrible power made manifest in crows picking over bloody corpses on the battlefield. Dangerous, bloodthirsty, capricious by nature, yet also passionate and a skilled poet. A pagan enigma, whose true nature is clouded by the passage of time.

“Ravens gnawing men’s necks,

Blood spurting in the fresh fray

Hacked flesh in battle madness

Woe men of Ireland!”

The Morrigan (from the Táin)

Who and what exactly was the Morrigan?

To unpick her ancient identity, we need to go back to some of the earliest stories in which she appears. These can be found in old medieval Irish manuscripts which themselves purport to relate myths and stories from far earlier times.

The Stories

The earliest recorded stories in which the Morrigan appears are the old myths of pagan Ireland.  Dating precisely when these stories are supposedly set is problematic since they were already perceived as old myths when they were first written down.  They are, depending on the tale, set in various times between the third century BC (earliest) and the eighth century AD (latest).  Some of the tales concerning the Morrigan also mention Cú Chulainn (who supposedly lived at around the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus).  Some are set in an even earlier mythical time before the Irish arrived in Ireland.

On the one hand, these tales clearly concern a pagan Irish past. For example, the characters are depicted riding chariots and following the pagan Celtic practice of taking head trophies.  This and other pagan themes would place them in a pre-Christian setting (i.e. before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the fifth century).

On the other hand, the most complete written versions of these stories tend to be high or even late medieval. What we have are medieval Irish stories about a distant mythical past. In this sense, they are not unlike Geoffrey of Monmouth’s attempts to re-capture a mythical Arthurian British past in his History of the Kings of Britain.

Early References

The earliest surviving complete stories of the Morrigan are all medieval.  Before the eleventh century we only really have fragmentary references. 

An eighth century glossary states that there are three morrígna and that one of them is called Macha.  But what exactly does that mean?  What are morrígna?  Do they represent a race?  A type of fey creature? A tribe?  A family? An entity with a triple identity? A group of goddesses?

C9th manuscripts contain very brief references that seem to describe the Morrigan as a type of night hag, spectre, or perhaps a Lamia.  These are mostly early medieval attempts to describe the Morrigan in terms that relate to classical mythology.  Her name appears to mean something like the ‘Phantom Queen’ which would lend weight to the view of her as some kind of spectral entity.

Extant Manuscripts

None of the earliest references tell us that much about the Morrigan.  They are mostly no more than fragments. The earliest surviving manuscripts that contain more detailed stories about her are much later.  The most notable of these are:

  • Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland, or The Book of Invasions).  The earliest surviving copy being C12th, based on an earlier C11th manuscript (now lost).
  • Cath Maige Tuired (The Battle of Magh Tuireadh). This was discovered in a C16th manuscript; believed to be based on an earlier C12th manuscript.
  • Táin Bó Regamna (The Cattle Raid of Regamna). Surviving in a late C14th text.
  • Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley).  This story survives in three medieval manuscripts, the earliest of which is C11th.
  • Aided Chon Culainn (The death of Cú Chulainn). Surviving in a C12th manuscript.

All these manuscripts contain stories that are based (at least in part) on earlier tales (either from oral tradition or now lost manuscripts).  As to when some of these tales were first written down, we can only speculate.

Christianity and Paganism

Some believe that early versions of some of these stories were first written as early as the seventh century.  They might well be based on even earlier oral traditions.

However, one thing is clear; the surviving written versions of these stories were compiled by medieval Christian clerics.

We might well wonder why it was that a medieval Christian monk might choose to preserve stories about pagan myths. 

The influence of Christian authorship can be seen in these documents if we take the trouble to look.  The stories are supposedly from a pagan time, but Christian references often intrude within the narrative (with characters referring to ‘God’ for example).

The Christian compilers sometimes provide an opinion on the myth.  In one version of Táin Bó Cúailnge, the author provides a footnote making it clear that the story is not true. Supernatural entities such as the Morrigan are, he assures us, either demonic deceptions or pure fantasy.

So why on earth write these stories down at all if that’s what you think of them?

The answer is that Irish myths of this sort were recorded as part of a broader literary movement of the high to late Middle Ages.  This movement spanned western Europe and looked back with considerable romanticism not only at Irish myths but also British (especially Arthurian), Classical myths (especially the Trojan wars), Norse mythology and even mythologised stories relating to Charlemagne.

Dramatic Liberties

In tales of Charlemagne and in re-telling classical myths, medieval writers added fictional embellishments when it suited them.  That being the case, we cannot rule out the possibility that similar liberties have been taken with Irish, British, and Norse myths. 

Thus, what we see in these early Irish tales are not purely pagan stories.  They are certainly based on earlier pagan stories, but they have been processed through the filter of a Christian editor.  Furthermore, that editor may have taken dramatic liberties with aspects of the story for their own creative purposes.

Most of these myths (taking the broader European picture) share something important in common.  Except for Classical mythology, they were all, at least in part, salvaged from earlier oral traditions (or, in the case of Charlemagne, apocryphal embellishments to actual history).  These were forged into a mythological corpus designed to provide medieval cultures with foundation mythologies.

Foundation Mythologies

What we are looking at, then, is a medieval attempt to emulate the practice of the old Roman Empire. The Romans had placed great stock on their own foundation mythology.  In their case, the foundation of Rome was attributed to Aeneas the Trojan and his descendants Romulus and Remus.  Stories relating to these characters became a defining feature of Roman cultural identity.

Painting illustrating Aeneas fleeing the wreck of Troy.
The Romans placed great stock on the myth that their great civilisation had been founded by Aeneas, a Trojan hero.  After fleeing the ruins of Troy, Aeneas led the remnants of his people in a search for a new home.  After many heroic adventures, he finally found the ideal spot in Italy.

If a great culture like Rome could have a glorious foundation mythology, then why not medieval Europeans?  For the Scandinavians and Germans, they could hark back to a pagan past and old heroic tales of Siegfried, Beowulf, Woden, Odin or Thor.  To the British, it was Arthur and for the French it was Charlemagne.  For the Irish, it was tales of Cú Chulainn, Finn, the mythical Túatha Dé Danann and, of course, the Morrigan.

The Book of Invasions

The Book of Invasions tells the tale of Ireland’s mythical past as a story of successive invasions. It is, in many ways, the great foundation myth of the people of Ireland. Successive waves of invaders came to Ireland, each supplanting the people they found there before until, finally, the Irish themselves arrived.

Many of ancient Ireland’s mythical inhabitants had supernatural powers and some were clearly not human.  One such race was the Tuatha De Danann, an ancient people we have come to know as fairies. 

In the Book of Invasions, the Tuatha De Danann were a supernatural race with a fearful reputation.  We are told that when they first arrived in Ireland the land was covered in darkness for three whole days.  They came as conquerors; wresting control of the island from the Fir Bolgs.

The Morrigan in the Book of Invasions

The book tells us that some of the Tuatha De Danann were gods.  More specifically we are told that their men of arts were gods, but their farmers were not.  Amongst this supernatural race we find the Morrigan.  We are told that she was the daughter of Ernmas and that she was also known as Anand.  She and her two sisters Badb and Macha were known for their cunning and for being the source of bitter fighting.

So, in this source we have three sisters of the Tuatha De Dannan – Badb, Macha and Morrigan (also known as Anand).  How might we interpret this in the light of our earlier eighth century source?  In that source we are told that there are three morrígna and that one of them is Macha.  In one source Macha is Morrigan’s sister, in the other Macha is one of three morrígna.  Are the three collectively morrígna but only one is the Morrigan?  Do they share some kind of triple identity?

The Second Battle of Mag Tuired

The story of the Second Battle of Mag Tuired relates the tale of a great battle between the Tuatha De Dannan and another supernatural race – the Fomorians.  In this tale the Morrigan is also identified as one of the Tuatha De Dannan.

Here we are told that the Tuatha De Dannan are a people whose knowledge of the occult, witchcraft and sorcery surpasses all others.  They are not gods themselves but revere the three gods of Danu.   This identification fits well with their name: Tuatha De Dannan translates as People of Danu.

Illustration of the Monstrous Fomorians
The Monstrous Fomorians, ancient enemies of the Tuatha De Danann.  These creatures were described in Irish mythology as demonic beings from the sea.

In preparation for the oncoming battle the Morrigan is asked how she might be of use in the fighting.  She answers:

“I have stood fast; I shall pursue what was watched; I will be able to kill; I will be able to destroy those who might be subdued.”

The Morrigan

The Morrigan appears before the battle and chants a war poem to her people.  This presumably inspires them with courage or inflames them with ferocity.  However, unfortunately, the original text detailing this poem is lost to us.  The Morrigan also appears at the end of the battle to announce the victory. We get a strong sense of the Morrigan as being intimately connected with the rituals of war – both the prelude to battle and its aftermath.

The Cattle Raid of Regamna

The Cattle Raid of Regamna is a relatively short tale that concerns a confrontation between Cú Chulainn, the famous hero of Ulster, and the Morrigan.  In it Cú Chulainn is roused from his sleep by a cry.  He goes to investigate with his companion and encounters a woman in a chariot and a man beside her driving a cow before them.  The woman is described as garbed all in red.

Cú Chulainn suspects the pair of cattle rustling and confronts them over it.  However, it is the woman, not the warrior who answers his challenge.  After a short dispute the woman claims she is a bard and that she bought the cow with a fee she earnt from her craft.  Cú Chulainn suspects this is not the truth and challenges her to sing her poem.  This she does.  Unfortunately for us, there is a gap in the text at this point. 

The Morrigan’s Curse

When the text resumes, Cú Chulainn launches an attack against the woman.  However, as soon as he does so, the chariot, the man, the woman, and the cow disappear.  In their place is a black bird on a branch: it is the Morrigan.  She has shapeshifted from the woman in red to a black bird – and she is not happy!

The Morrigan curses the land and Cú Chulainn.  The Ulsterman denies that the Morrigan has power over him, but she begs to differ, announcing “it is at the guarding of thy death that I am; and I shall be”.  She then promises Cú Chulainn that she will come to him in the heat of battle, when he is fighting one who is his equal.  She will then use her powers of transformation to tip the balance of the fight against him.  Cú Chulainn remains defiant and the two of them part ways on bad terms.

The Morrigan, we are informed, proceeds on her way, taking her cow to the fairy mound of Cruachan.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

The Cattle Raid of Cooley is an epic of Irish mythology, focusing mainly on the heroic deeds of Cú Chulainn of Ulster.  The story deals with a war fought between Ulster and Queen Medb of Connacht.  It is a highly regarded epic that has been likened to Irish mythology’s equivalent of the Iliad.  For this reason, it is often referred to, simply, as the Táin (even though there were several other old Irish myths that included the word Táin).

However, part of the tale picks up on the ongoing conflict between Cú Chulainn and the Morrigan.  It appears to be a variant on the theme of their confrontation that we see in The Cattle Raid of Regamna.

Here Cú Chulainn encounters the Morrigan in the form of a young woman, dressed in a garment of many colours.  She claims to be the daughter of the goddess of the river Boyne.  She offers her love and aid to Cú Chulainn because she is impressed by his heroic deeds. However, he spurns her advances, telling her he has important work to do and has not time to attend to a woman.  This, of course, enrages the Morrigan.  If she cannot have him, she declares, she will hinder him in battle.

Cú Chulainn and the Morrigan

The Morrigan is true to her word and appears in various different forms to hinder Cú Chulainn in battle.  She manifests as an eel, a she-wolf, and a heifer. Cú Chulainn gets the better of her in each of these forms, injuring her in the process.

However, Cú Chulainn is worn out from all his fighting.  He then encounters an old woman milking a cow who offers him a refreshing drink of milk.  He gratefully accepts the gift and grants her god’s blessings. The old woman then reveals herself as the Morrigan.  By the act of accepting her gift and offering a blessing, he is tricked into healing her of her wounds.

Neither Cú Chulainn nor the Morrigan can get the better of each other and the two go their separate ways.

Here the Morrigan demonstrates her shape shifting abilities.  She can take the form of different animals as well as either a young woman or an old one.

The Last Battle

The Táin ends with a climactic bloody battle between the warriors of Ulster and Connacht. 

Illustration of the hero of Ulster entering battle on his chariot.
The hero of Ulster, Cú Chulainn enters battle on his chariot. Note the crow in the background, a symbol of the Morrigan in her role as the bringer of battle carnage.

Prior to the battle the Morrigan makes an appearance and sings a poem predicting carnage and death for the participants.  Here again we see her in her ritual role as the herald of slaughter in battle.

The Death of Cú Chulainn

In the tale of Cú Chulainn’s death the Morrigan actual tries to prevent him from joining battle by sabotaging his chariot. She does this because she can foresee that if he fights, he will not return. So, in this case, she actually tries to prevent his death.

However, Cú Chulainn joins battle, nonetheless.  As predicted, he is mortally wounded in the fighting.  As he slumps down to die against a pillar stone, his enemies fear to approach his corpse, wondering if he might still be alive.  Finally, the Morrigan and her sisters, in the form of scald-crows, sit on the hero’s shoulder.  This sign is enough to convince everyone that the great hero is in fact dead.  The scald-crows are clearly recognised as the harbingers of death in battle.

Macha

The Morrigan’s sister, Macha, is generally depicted as a different entity but she is closely inter-connected with her sister.  She may be a slightly different aspect of the same entity.  Or perhaps a separate entity within a morrígna triple identity.

Macha, like her sister, appears to have had multiple identities.  She appears in the tale of The Pangs of Ulster, initially in a benevolent enough form. We are told she came to a wealthy widower by the name of Cunniuc mac Agnomain.  She comforted him in his loneliness, married him, kept house for him and became pregnant with his child.

Alas, Cunniuc proved to be a boaster.  One year, at a fair, he boasted that his pregnant wife could run faster than any chariot.  The assembled crowd were insistent on seeing proof of this, even though Macha was heavily pregnant.  Macha, naturally, was not keen about such exertion.  Nevertheless, she was pressured into the race and proved so fast that she kept pace with the chariot.  The strain of the race proved too much and forced her to give birth prematurely.  The birth was painful and difficult.

Angry at her humiliation and suffering, Macha cursed the Ulstermen. All men who heard her screams of pain were cursed to feel the same pains in their greatest hour of need. The curse lasted for nine generations.

Badb

The Morrigan’s other sister/aspect is Badb, a name that literally means ‘crow’.  In the myth of The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel she appears in a most horrific form.  Her visage is most grotesque, even deformed and she comes bringing prophesies of doom.

Badb is asked her name and reveals that she has many names and identities of which only one is Badb.  In total she gives 32 different names.  She delivers a horrific prophesy, foretelling the deaths of King Conare and his entourage as they take refuge in Da Derga’s hostel. Not one of them will leave the hostel alive, she warns.  She then tricks Conare into inviting her to enter the hostel, thereby forcing him to break an oath he has made.

Sure enough, the doomed Conare’s fate is then sealed.

The Morrígna

These stories therefore leave us with a rather enigmatic picture of the Morrigan.  Is she one of three supernatural sisters?  Or are all three sisters simply different aspects of a triple identity – the Morrígna?  Are they goddesses, phantoms, or simply potent sorceresses of the Tuatha De Danaan?  Clearly each has multiple identities, perhaps many different names and the ability to take multiple forms.

At the end of the day these ancient tales do not provide us with any definitive answer to these questions.  The nature of the Morrigan remains shrouded in uncertainties despite all our efforts to make sense of her.  But, then again, perhaps that is the point.  Perhaps we are not supposed to ever fully understand the Morrigan.

Related articles

If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in reading some of our other articles concerning medieval myths and legends:

Taliesin and the Struggle for C6th Britain

The Green Man – History and Origins

The Father of Norse Mythology

The Legend of King Arthur

The Legend of Robin Hood:

1 King John’s Nemesis

2 Robin of Wakefield

3 Rebel Turned Robber

4 The Real Robin Hood

The Witch of Wookey Hole

Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

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References and further reading

The Book of Invasions

The Second Battle of Mag Tuired

The Cattle Raid of Regamna

The Táin

The Death of Cú Chulainn

Images

The Morrigan by André Koehne (via Wiki Commons)

Aeneas’ Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci (via Wiki Commons)

The Fomorians, John Duncan 1912 (via Wiki Commons)

Cuchulain in Battle Joseph Christian Leyendecker 1911 (via Wiki Commons)

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