"Badb and Macha, greatness of wealth,
Morrigu — springs of craftiness,
sources of bitter fighting
were the three daughters of Ernmas."
- Lebor Gabala Erenn, third redaction
The Morrigan is a Goddess who fascinates many people. In the modern world she is found in many guises and is said to rule over a diverse array of things; in the ancient world she appeared in certain forms and was associated with specific activities and qualities. The picture of the ancient Goddess does not always line up with the modern image embraced by so many, creating a shifting mist that a follower of the Morrigan must wander their way through. It can be a great challenge to find this powerful and vital Goddess in our modern world, so disconnected from the ancient one that the Morrigan comes from. Those who seek her are seeking for something solid yet often find only shadow and dream, but are drawn on in their quest by the sound of ravens calling.
The complexity of the Morrigan begins with her nature. She appears in mythology as one individual Goddess, but her name is also a title applied to her two sisters, Badb and Macha, her nieces Fea and Nemain, as well as several other Irish Goddess at later points. She is the Morrigan, but so sometimes are they; there is no hard and firm boundary, no easy line to draw to separate one from the others. We also see the three sisters, Morrigu, Badb, and Macha, referred to collectively as the tri Morrignae, or three Morrigans. So the first step in finding the Morrigan is beginning to understand the fluid nature of the title, and the difference between the title when applied to other Goddesses and Morrigan as an individual. For some people she will always be one Goddess with several names, one core being who can be expressed in different aspects. For others she is the Morrigu but there are also other Morrigans who are similar to her in nature and power but are uniquely individual beings. It is impossible to say which view is correct; we can only seek to find our own understanding of her. What is the Morrigan in your view? How do you understand her nature?
Ancient mythology tells us that the Morrigan can appear as a crow, raven, wolf, eel, beautiful young woman, or gray-haired hag. In the Tain Bo Regamna she is described as a red-haired woman dressed in a red cloak. There are not, to my knowledge, any surviving images of her from the Irish pagan period. A quick internet search will reveal a plethora of new images of the Morrigan, some born from mythological descriptions, many born from the inspiration of the artist. The diversity of modern depictions is dizzying, contradictory, and sometimes frustrating. In seeking to find what the Morrigan looks like you will see everything from scantily clad, thin, buxom women wielding swords to well-muscled warriors armed and armored; from bloody hags whose piercing eyes jump out from the paper or screen to serene, proud figures bearing raven wings. Each as different from the other as the hands that created them, and yet each holds a small spark of her spirit. For me Macha is a strong, red-haired woman who always appears with two horses. Badb can appear as either a withered old woman shrouded in black or as a young, pretty woman with dark hair. Morrigu is strong and fierce, her hair dark, her body lean. Nemain I see as fair and always covered in blood. This is how they come to me, but each who seeks her will find a different appearance. Another step in finding her is finding your own vision of her, your own inner view of what she, or they, look like. How do you see the Morrigan?
The mythology tells us several things about the nature of the Morrigan. We think of her today as a battle Goddess because she not only fought in and won wars but because mythology tells us that she was an inciter of war. When the Tuatha Dé Danann were being oppressed by the half-Fomorian king Bres, the Morrigan incited the Gods to fight: "Undertake a battle of overthrowing," so sang the goddess Morrigan turning to Lug, "Awake, make a hard slaughter, smiting bodies, attacks boiling, greatly deafening, devastating, the people to a man crying out...". In the Ulster cycle the Morrigan appears to incite both Cú Chulain to fight in the Tain Bó Cúailgne and also to incite Queen Medb of Connacht to fight and at the end she incites both the armies of Ulster and Connacht to engage in the final battle. In the Cath Maige Tuired Cunga and the Cath Maige Tuired we see her encouraging warriors and supporting armies with battle magic. Folklore tells us that she delights in slaughter and flies over battlefields in the form of a raven or crow, bringing victory to those she favors and doom to those she sets herself against. This key aspect of the Morrigan is one that the most people today seem to struggle with. She is a Goddess of necessary action and of confronting problems and one who does not hesitate to use force when force is needed, all things that are discouraged or avoided by so many today. Those who seek her, then, must ask themselves in finding a Goddess of war and battle what does that mean in their lives? Where will she find a place in your life? For myself, although I am no warrior, I have found many valuable lessons in the battle strategy and blood lust of the Morrigan. She has taught me to fight through pain and challenges, and to take action when it is needed, without regret. When you find her bloody and screaming, when you find her reveling in gore, when you find her dancing from sword-edge to spear-point, what will that mean for you?
She is a Goddess of prophecy as well, who predicts the future after the battle and as Badb, the washer at the ford, predicts death before battle. When the Tuatha Dé Danann have defeated the Fomorians the Morrigan utters a great prophecy, predicting not only years of bounty and peace but also later years of difficulties. Looking at the entirety of the Ulster cycle we can argue that she is the ultimate cause of the Tain Bo Cúailgne because she arranges the events that set the cattle raid in motion, which also supports the idea that she is prescient. She knew what to do to create the results she wanted, when she wanted them. Before Cu Chulain's death she both breaks his chariot to prevent him from going to the final battle and appears to him as the washer at the ford to warn him. Honoring her as a Goddess of prophecy appeals to those who use divination methods, who tend to approach her as a teacher or guide in this subject. Finding the Morrigan as a Goddess of prophecy also means though that we must be aware and open to the messages she may send us and be willing to listen. We tend, generally, to see a deity related to prophecy in terms of how that deity can help us learn that skill or as a power that we can call on when we need answers, but the reality is that the Morrigan is not waiting at our beck and call. If we need a warning she will give it under whatever circumstance is most efficient. I have had her come to me in dreams and through the voices of friends. She is very pragmatic that way. When the voice of prophecy speaks to you, when ravens bring you messages in your dreams, how will you answer her?
Modern understandings of the Morrigan often see her in ways different from history. One very common modern view is that she is a Goddess of sex, an assertion usually supported by references to her coupling with the Dagda before Samhain in one story. Historically she does not seem to be any more or less associated with sex than any of the other Gods whose mythology were often filled with trysts. However the idea of the Morrigan as a Goddess of sex seems to really resonate with many people, perhaps because it symbolizes her power as woman to fully control her own body and destiny. We also see the idea of the Morrigan as Goddess of fertility, possibly an extension of the previous view of her as a deity of sex. Some people also see her as a mother Goddess, although historically she does not seem to have had any more association with motherhood than any other Goddess did. Most of her children are obscure; her most well-known child, Meche, had to be killed because his heart contained serpents which would have destroyed the world. She comes to people in many forms and with many reasons, sometimes unusual and at odds with her normal methods. She has been a healer to some, offered comfort to others. This is what is usually called UPG, unverified personal gnosis, the unique personal experiences we all have with the Gods that may only ever apply to us, or which we may find are shared by many others. UPG is a challenge with any deity because one person's experience may be the bedrock of their own spirituality yet that same experience may offend or repulse others following the same Goddess. When we move out of mythology, folklore, and historic views of deities and into modern experiences we find ourselves in field that has as many flowers as land mines to wander amongst. In seeking to find the Morrigan in the modern world we must be ready for the frustration and challenges that are inherent in the process of aligning our own perceptions of her with the diverse views of others. How will you reconcile your own vision of who the Morrigan is with other people's ideas of her?
The Morrigan is a complex Goddess indeed, some may say a group of complex Goddesses, but she can be found both in history and in the world today. She has many forms in ancient story and in modern artwork, in our dreams and in the concrete reality of the crows flying over our heads. She appears in myth and folklore and reading those stories we can learn a great deal about who she was and who she still is, while our own experiences and those of our contemporaries also help us better understand her. There is nothing simple about the Morrigan and yet all we need to do to find the answers we seek, to connect to her, is to reach out and look for her. Look in books. Look in the world around us. Look in her ancient sacred places. Look in the dreams, and the eyes of those who follow her, and in the pattern of ravens on the wing.
Look, and you will find her.