These days, war and battle are most commonly seen as male traits and when we think of war gods we imagine a bloke like Ares, the mighty greek god of war. But the Morrigan was a celtic goddess of battle and valour, with some powerful messages for us today on how to handle our relationships and our lives.
These days, war and battle are most commonly seen as male traits and when we think of war Gods we might a bloke like Ares, the mighty greek god of war. However, war and combat in the ancient world were often considered to be ruled by female deities (like the Greek Athena with her spear and chariot). But in Celtic Europe the Goddess of war was the Morrigan, who today can remind men and women alike that strength and courage are qualities best not underestimated.
The Morrigan: The Great Queen
Her name translates as “Great Queen” -quite apt for a Goddess holding the magical powers of life and death in her hands. The Morrigan was the queen of the battlefield and had the power to choose who would live and who would die.
As a Goddess of war, the Morrigan also held sway over courage and the fury of battle, and by bestowing the gift of valour on her chosen warriors she could whip them into an undefeatable frenzy.
“Over his head is shrieking
A lean hag, quickly hopping
Over the points of the weapons and shields;
She is the grey-haired Morrigu.”
This old poem commemorates the Battle of Magh Rath and reveals the Morrigan to us in several of her guises. She appears as the crow shrieking high above the battle field, whose cry accompanies the clash of combat, but this bird is really the Morrigan who is also said to appear as a hag – the same hag who may declares who will live and who will die.
Guises of the Morrigan
In her myths, the Morrigan appears in many forms. She is best known as the trio of Badb, Macha and Morrigan. Badb is her form of the Crow, who picks at the dead after battle and whose eyes see all from high above. Macha also translates as “Crow”, but her second aspect is a personification of battle itself, sometimes called “Nemain”, which is the power of frenzy that the Goddess gives to the chosen. Then there is the Morrigan herself. Whereas her other two forms are aspects of her, as the Morrigan complete she is fully formed and tends to appear in human form, either as a beautiful woman or as an old hag, which she disguises herself as in some tales. In this form she is also “The Washer at the Ford” who can be seen cleaning the clothes of those that are soon to die, as they go off to war.
A Song for the Morrigan
Of Holy Power, sing to the Morrigan
She of battle, of beauty and strength
Sing to the Morrigan daughters of legend
Live in her grace, in absence of friends
Heart of the Goddess, beat in your chest
Fill your blood with courage and strength
Hear her cry and know you are mighty
Be warriors when needed, in absence of friends.
It is a Queen that makes a King
In what is possibly her most renowned legend, the Morrigan seeks to win the heart of the hero Cu Chulainn (who is the son of the god Lugh). However, when she appears to him and declares her love, he does not recognise her for who she is and so he rejects her. After this she appears to him three more times, in order to grant him a chance to see her for who she really is.
She first appeared to him as an old hag, to whom he granted his blessing and saw that she was healed, yet was still unable to truly recognise her. Next she appeared as he made his way to battle, this time as The Washer at the Ford, where she declared that she was cleaning his clothes and armour, and that he would soon die in battle. Yet still he did not recognise her. Finally she appeared in the form of three hags, who tempted him to eat foods that he was forbidden from eating on pain of death. Not only did he not recognise that it was the Morrigan, but he also gave in to temptation and ate the forbidden meat (which was actually dog meat) and so by that point his fate had been sealed.
When last she appeared with Cu Chulainn, he was already dead and this time she perched on the dead hero’s shoulder in the guise of a crow.
This may appear to be a rather strange and gruesome tale, but through it the Morrigan teaches us a valuable lesson that should be kept in mind by men and women alike.
The theme of the tale is very much about how appearances may be deceptive and that true beauty and power lies beyond what a person may see on the outside. The hero of the tale was unable to recognise the Goddess within the forms of the Morrigan and so he doomed himself. He would have been saved if he had recognised who she really was.
This can be used as a powerful metaphor for modern relationships. True happiness exists when we recognise the beauty that is within someone and take the time to understand them for who they really are. If we allow ourselves to get close to another person in this way, then the inner Goddess (or God) is revealed and you gain the chance of becoming more than you were before.
In this tale the Morrigan could have offered Cu Chulainn sovereignty, but he failed to recognise the true power and brilliance that was in the woman standing before him. In essence, he failed to understand how great feminine power really is and how much it would enrich his own life.
But there’s more: not only does the hero fail to recognise the Goddess but his failure also leads to his death.
Of course, no-one nowadays is likely to die through being romantically shortsighted, but you could still face the death of potential happiness. Sometimes you lose out on the greatest treasure just because you can’t see what’s right under your nose.
Although the Morrigan grants him several chances, in the end she has no qualms about letting her hero die. This could be seen as a message to women, telling them that if a guy can’t recognise your true beauty, then don’t keep wasting time on him. You have better things to do with your life and he has dug his own grave. Save your attentions for those that are willing to see you for who you are, and therefore deserve your attentions.
But if the women of today truly want to take the lessons of the Morrigan to heart, then perhaps the best lesson she offers is to remember your own inner strength and celebrate your own power. She is a Goddess of Battle and so she is called upon by those women (and men) who follow careers in the armed forces. However, one needn’t literally “take to arms” to benefit from following the Morrigan. Most of us will never see real warfare, other than on the news, but life is made up of many smaller conflicts and the Morrigan can be a great source of strength and determination to meet them head-on, allowing you to truly declare to the world, “don’t mess with me!”
Strength and courage are just as necessary in the modern day as they were in the times of our ancient ancestors. Any true test of a person’s valor, any true adversary that must be overcome, any time that there is a need to stand up and make yourself counted, these are times when the Morrigan may be called upon. These are the times when the feminine power of battle can be allowed to let rip, and – like it did for our ancestors on the field of war – the shriek of the Morrigan can be heard high above, lending you her power so that you may be victorious in all your struggles.