The Irish Morrigan, Goddess of Death and Guardian of the Dead
by Honor Johnson ~
This article is about the Goddess Morrigan, whom archaeological evidence now tells us, dates back beyond the Copper age, and was the dominant Goddess of Europe called the Great Goddess. When I read the material about Morrigan, I suspected that there was more to her story, and that she was a transporter between life and death; a Goddess of birth and Goddess of death in that she moved the soul through these cycles.
Later writing seems to concentrate on her connection to death, but comes to view her, as warrior societies often do, in a way connected to their own needs (power, energy, enchantment and warfare). Some writing of course does not, she is seen as a healer, the protector of the land and the person who brings Arthur to power. I went through literary accounts of her to give a fuller picture of her, one that is I think more meaningful to many people, including myself.
Stone stelae with sculpted breasts have been discovered at Castelucio de Sauri, some with only breasts and a necklace as a marker. They date back to the Copper Age c.3000BC. In Spain, France, Portugal and England statues, menhirs and stone slabs frequently also display her eyes, her beak and sometimes her vulva. Parts of her seem hidden, then appearing, so as one looks at the pottery artefacts there is more and more of her to piece together. She is a bird goddess, an earth goddess, and her breasts not only nourish the living, they also regenerate the dead. Her breasts were believed to form the hills in County Kerry called Da Chich Annan (the paps of Anu). She is the Irish Morrigan, Goddess of Death and Guardian of the Dead. She has in these early Celtic representations, a bird’s head (often a crow, raven or vulture) and breasts, and on vessels depicting her there is a symbol for the number three. Sometimes three lines are connected and depict a triple energy that flows from her body, as she is giver and sustainer of life. Very early she is under stood to be a triple goddess, a shape shifter, a three part person. Her names are plentiful and sound like her original name.
A grand megalithic tomb-shrine
In Newgrange, Ireland, is her grand megalithic tomb-shrine. Within it are three stone cells, three stone basins, engravings of triple snake spirals, coils, arcs and brow ridges. Her signs appear on spindle whirls, altars, sacrificial vessels, vases, pebbles, and pendants. She is the chevron and V, the inverted triangle, the earth element. She is the triple source of power needed to regenerate cycles, to take one from life to death and from death to life. Figurines often pair sprouting seed and vulvas, fish in the ocean, and the female body as a passageway. Vultures and owls are associated with her; spirals, crows and ravens; lunar circles and snake coils. Female figures lock to form circles, fairy rings, and circles de fees. Her followers do energetic ring dances, dangerous to an intruder who tries to break in. Her circles transmit energy by the increased powers of stone, water, and mound of circling motion. She is the moon’s three phases, maiden, nymph and crone; the moon, new, waxing and old. She is the source of life giving, death and transformation, regeneration and renewing. Marie Gimbutas, the emeritus professor of European Archaeology – who has written extensively on her artefacts – believes that knowledge of her can lead the world towards a sexually equalitarian, non-violent, and earth-centred future.
Some writers claim that she did not have a consort, others that her consort was the horned god. It seems at least that if there were other gods they did not subordinate her in the beginning. This changed as the Celtic lands became less agrarian, and more dependent on a warrior class for survival. Robert Graves describes an aspectual division of the goddess into many kinds of females and powers as analogous to the battle of the trees, in which powers divided among the seasons, each one dominant at a certain time. Joseph Campbell and other Jungians might argue that the Copper Age understanding of Morrigan was a form of monotheism. I think there is another perspective that might also be taken by many Druids, that whatever enters this life to pull us out of Abred is fractured in our vision, and as we are spirits inside spirits, our visions are personal and come with our most meaningful experiences, and slip away when they are generalized too far. So we are polytheists, in this sense (I think both of these approaches are fruitful.) The female figures into which Morrigan is divided do not seem to be as powerful after the Amairgin invasion, at least in much of the literature which has been preserved. Often she is seen through the eyes of frightened men.
The Celtic Druid’s Years by John King claims that Samhain was the mating time between Dagda ( the great God) and Morrigan. Lugh might also have been a consort, of the Morrigan who shared Bran’s totem animal, but who could also be a bear, so this is one of her aspects. Another is that she was one of the Banshee or Bean Nighe. There is a saying among the Irish and highland Scots that a woman who dies in childbirth better not leave the laundry unfinished, or she will have to come back and wash it until the day of her natural death. Washers at the Ford, if they are seen by any human, someone is to die soon. Bean Nighe dresses in green and has red webbed feet (bird feet?), one nostril and one tooth. Very prominent long breasts fall from her chest and if you can grab and suck one, you will be granted any wish. You can ask her three questions and she will answer but then you must answer three from her, and if you lie it is too bad for you.
We know that the banshee were shape shifters, and that they appear in Finnegan’s Wake, washing the laundry of Ireland as it grows dark (the Anna Liva Plurabella section is the Morrigan section). In early Celtic writing Morrigan, and her two war goddess sisters, could appear in the form of crows. Madness and Violence, Badb and Neiman were her sisters. She is tri-part and terrifying in the battle between Fin and Goll. One of Finn’s Captains rides a warhorse named Badb which is grey and black and has wings, so it’s like the hooded Royston or scarecrow, which most often devoured the dead in the British Isles. Its head is hooded like an executioner. Morrigan is defending Ireland, her three parts scream ‘KRAA KRA’, a sky ripping croak. Finn’s army has long horns which sound like calling ravens.
For the red mouthed Badh will cry around the house
For bodies it will be solicitous
Pale Badbs shall sheik
Badbs will be over the breasts of men.
-from Bruiden Da Choca.
Morrigan is not death itself, she is the keeper of death, the Goddess of death, and she is frightening.
Notice this however: crows do not make people dead, they eat and transform bodies. Morrigan is not death itself, she is the keeper of death, the Goddess of death, and she is frightening. Sometimes enemies ran because of the fearful and magical appearance of the army.
In Ireland Morrigu (another name for Morrigan) and Badbs meld and can both take on the features of a human hag. This is the old age aspect of the Goddess. It has been theorized by some that it is men who most fear and sometimes disrespect older women. She represents the loss of power and finitude of lifespan, a realization not easy even for Finn. She represents her own power, reincarnation, rebirth and a point of view (wisdom in age) which can’t be banished.
Over his head is shriekinga lean hag, quickly hopping
Over the points of weapons and shields.
She is the gray haired Morrigu
-Annals of Leinster
Dusk grey cloud feathers and the gloss of midnight awaited Goll’s sunset army as he retreated into the arms of the terrible mother.
She has been called the Irish Kali, eating and being eaten. There is some similarity, she is frightening, She and her sisters can join into a horrible ring through which a warrior might disappear, one full of teeth and hair. But notice this parallel: Goll has another name, Crom Dubh. In Ireland Finn (the light) lives on one side of the Island and Crom or Goll ( maybe the God of Connan the Barbarian brought up from India or Summer) lives on the other. He is the dark spirit, the hidden who carried the corn mother on his shoulders. This has to do with the way of the light, the balance of the light and dark, and the sinking of the year. Goll sinks like the old sun into the ocean.
We should also note that the stories of Goll and Finn are not all alike, that in some, Finn does not kill Goll and in others Goll rescues Finn from the three hags of winter (Morrigan again.) And often in the tales, Goll is the more sympathetic figure, sensitive towards his wife, and tragic, while Finn’s temperamental bent is to great rage. Morrigan, I think is hidden like Goll. Finn is the bright edge of the sword, reason, and heroism.Three phantom spirits come out of the Kreshcorran, Devilish, three unsightly mouths, (long lips down to the knees.) Six unclosing white eyes, six twisting legs under them, three warlike swords, three shields, three spears.
It goes together with the tooth mother, the devouring goddess who chases Tailesin and devours him, and then gives birth to him. Being killed and devoured means entering the life cycle again, transported by a woman. Maybe the enemy of a hero is female realism, survival, death, devouring, madness, and decline with age. Heroic canons often do not include real moral dilemmas which no rulebook will settle: guilts that can never be mended; the unconscious parts and spirits of the mind; enchantment and survival needs; passage through cauldrons (stomach and uterus) to make life.
The Anna Liva Plurabella section in Finnegan’s Wake
The Anna Liva Plurabella section in Finnegan’s Wake is a modern reconstruction of Morrigan. It starts with the demand to describe the river Livey. One overhears a blend of voices, describing the enchanting effects of human beauty, the nature of women, voices from Celtic Epics, woven together like threads from the Book of Kells. Irreverent-reverent history, and at the end at the Ford we hear the Bean Nighe, doing Ireland’s wash as the images of female archetypes wash, haunted, down into the night:
Ireland sober is Ireland stiff. Lord help you Maria full of Grease, the load is with me.
They mention Finn MacCool and state that Anne was Liva is and Plurabella is to be. The washerwomen bring unconsciousness in which stories fade from person into trees and stones:
My foos won’t move. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or She. All Livia’s daughter’ sons. Dark hawks hear us, night, Night, My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as younger stone. Tell me of John or Shaun. Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons and daughters of ? Night now. Tell me a tale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of , the hithering and thithering waters of Night.
The Arthurian vision
Finally in the Arthurian vision not everyone, but many Celtic Scholars, trace Morrigan and her two sisters here called Macha and Modron, to Morgan le Fay. She was the most beautiful of nine sisters, living on the Isle of Avalon. She was Fata Morgana.
In the Arthurian Book of the Days on the 13th of December ( a beautiful cycle and weaving of the Arthur tales, Lancelot also suffers at the hands of Morrigan ( Morgain, Morgan?) le Fay in the Valley of No Return, where he must face trials and tests in the shape of dragons and spectral knights, a wall of fire and a gigantic knight with an ax. In the same volume Morrigan plots to murder Arthur, and give his power to Accolon of Gaul, and she almost succeeds in this, since she had given Accolon Excaliber, but during the battle he loses control of it and the sword flies back to Arthur. So in an overview of the tales,
Morrigan is a villainess and uses illusion to try to destroy Arthur although she fails. And yet the thirtieth of December according to the same source, King Arthur awoke from his long sleep in which there were many fevered dreams, and he rose and looked about him. Deep bowered and fair, the green landscape stretched about him on all sides. Sweet apple trees grew by the banks of a shallow stream, and white blossoms was upon them like snow. But though the season should have been winter, the air was balmy and soft, and above, in the sky, the sun and moon shown forth together, and there were stars. Then Arthur knew that he was in Avalon, the region of the Summer Stars, where rain and snow fall not, and where the great ones of the world await a call to arms. Smiling, Arthur stretched his muscles and set off to walk by the stream, listening for the murmur that would tell him that the Round table was met again amid the trees.
Some tales say Arthur was taken to Avalon by Morrigan, and that as a transporter she is neither good nor evil; others that she is a particular corrupt spirit. Arthurian tales are more particular in their characters, than earlier more mythical sagas. I think the guardian-ship of the land by a pure human leader with no moral faults is the theme of Arthur. Natural but non-moral spirits attack him, but they also help him, and it is he (and the knight’s code) that gives them a man of perfect judgment to restore the land. So I am willing to think that Morrigan might have many aspects in these stories which are like her old Queen Role. Yet she no longer controls justice in these stories, even if Morgan the betrayer, Morgan the sister and The Lady of the Lake are one.
Morrigan and her sisters are shape shifters, transporters through the cauldrons that take one from life to death (crows, stomachs, human intestines, going under the ground, madness, degenerative change.) and from death to life (the midwife, the corn goddess, the earth, the moon-change). One should not see her as simply a daemon. Better to think of first female goddess, stronger than battle, and more hidden. She can fly; she can change her shape from old to young; she is kindly and well trained in medicine. She is Arthur’s sister, perhaps his soul sister, perhaps his double (as a doppelganger is a double).
According to the New Arthurian Dictionary her reputation gets better in poetry, worse in prose as the tradition goes on. In Vulgate cycle she envies Guinevere, and tries to undo her. In the prose Tristran, she gives Arthur’s court a drinking horn, which no one unfaithful can drink from. She becomes a mortal who has to hide her age. Perhaps the reason for this parallels the movement of the story from a dominant female perspective to a dominant male perspective. Guinevere threatens her anam cara relationship with Arthur, by being the realization of his desires, but not the same as himself, which makes Arthur dominant. This dominance is I think reflected in the term pendragon, which might mean the head dragon or it might mean the dragon’s head. Remember that Druidry is the white light, having more to do with that than the hidden. And that the hidden tends to be less cerebral, less connected with metal powers and heroism, and more connected with natural process.
Morgan should not be seen as an evil goddess, she is also birth, the midwife, the healer, and sometimes the moon. If you take the meaning of the head of the dragon, then Arthur is the white light of the dragon power; his intuition for justice and druid wisdom makes him able to give the dragon a head. I like this interpretation. Malory gives Morgan a bad reputation, but I am more willing to believe the first intuition, that she is Arthur’s sister. Modern women writers sense this I think and are eager to put her in balance. The belief in her as villain seems to me to be close to masculine fear of powerful women. To be too heroic is to cross the boundaries of what is natural: birth, helplessness, lack of power, vulnerability and death (I parallel this to Juliana Kristava’s work on horror, in which she points out that the intellect seems to be there, not so much for its owner, but to protect the body).
There are some good hidden questions here:
Why are there apples in the land of Avalon, which is after all, up in the Summer stars? Snow white is put to sleep by an apple, could it be then, an equation of apple and sleep. Or is this the place that holds the principle of apples; the rebirth of plants and self-sewn grains – this seems like a missing part of the puzzle. Apples with their pentagon- star-in -a -circle mystery; the love and life cycle. Apples are equated with earth.
Another missing part seems to be a story about possession. Does Morgan want to possess Arthur; in that her greatest power is to take him away from his judgement, to make him sleep?
The roles of women at the time depicted in the Arthurian Cycle have become less universal. When men and women defended their land together as they did earlier, strong survival bonds probably existed between men and women. By the time of courtly Arthur, tales only of men who went to war, sometimes for years, so those strong bonds formed in war existed only among men. Women are more likely seen as someone to protect, and admire for innocence and youth. Arthurian times are idealistic and inward, but they are more Patriarchal.
The Bean Nighe, the Washers at the Ford, along with the saying about getting the washing done first, sounds as if there might have been a rhetoric to push young women into menial tasks although I am pretty sure that Joyce’s intent is that they are the makers of history, the stitchers of the dream of life, although they do it cursing and gossiping and they clean the mind and set the soul loose.
These things jump out at me, and yet if they are tied together too closely the story wilts. But one thing is clear. Rationality and moral consciousness (love of justice) count in Druidry and so does the Animistic perspective. The Great Goddess is still powerful, as well as the Way of the Light.
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
The Arthurian Book of Days by Caitlin and John Matthews
The Celtic Druid’s Year by John King
The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Matthews
The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Once and Future Goddess by Elinor W. Gadon
The White Goddess by Robert Graves
Mythic Ireland by Michael Dames
Artwork – Morrigan by Laura Cameron.
Philip Carr-Gomm, The Former Chief
Published: 27th November 2019
Philip met his first spiritual teacher, Ross Nichols, the founder of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, when he was 11. He began studying with him when a teenager, and was initiated into the Order on Glastonbury Tor when he was 18.