Morrigan: The Fearless Celtic Goddess of War

Updated On: October 07, 2022

The Morrigan Tuatha de Danann

Morrigan is one of the great Goddesses of Ireland and is a multifaceted character in mythology. Portrayed as the Fearless Celtic Goddess of War, she is both one goddess called Morrigan and a trinity of sisters known as The Morrigan or The Morrigu.

As three sisters The Morrigan controlled the three aspects of war. Fate, havoc, and fear were controlled by Badb, Nemain and Macha respectively. They were shapeshifters and had control over life and death. They rarely fought directly in wars but would usually fly over the battlefield as an omen of death in the form of a crow, striking fear in the minds of those who saw them.

In the ancient world, she appeared in many animal forms. Furthermore, she was a shape-shifter known for being a goddess of war and battle, the cycle of life and death, wisdom, prophecy and the land.

The Morrigan represented the circle of life and was associated with both birth and death. She is also described as being the patroness of revenge, magic, priestesses, night, and witches.

In this article you will find the following sections: Scroll down to read them all or click on a specific heading to jump ahead to that portion of the article.

Celtic Mythology – A note on its ambiguity

It wasn’t until the 5th century that Celtic mythology was finally written down. Before this mythology was passed down through generations from word of mouth over hundreds of years and it was actually Christian monks who first recorded the mythological history of Ireland.

It is important to remember this as some events were altered or left out to accommodate Christian values. Also, because the mythology was told by many people, there are always multiple variations of the same story.

The main mythos of Celtic mythology describe the Morrigan as three sisters, however their names often vary. Morrigan, Morigú, Morrigana, Macha, Nemain, Badb, Medb, Anaid, Ériu, Banba, Fódla are all possible names, depending on the tale you read. Regardless of this, the sisters were usually either three distinct powers with different abilities or one divine entity. Part of the reason why we are unsure about this is because being mysterious was an element of the Morrigan’s character.

Of all the stories that were lost, there are still many that have remain preserved in history, so much so that Irish mythology is divided up into 4 cycles. The Four Cycles of Irish Mythology are as follows:

  • The Mythological Cycle
  • The Ulster Cycle
  • The Fenian Cycle
  • The King Cycle

Each cycle is comprised of similar stories with the different levels of realism and myth being characteristics of each.

The Morrigan and the Tuatha de Danann

Most-Prominent-Gods_Tuatha-de-Danann_Connolly-Cove
The most prominent Gods of the Tuatha de Danann

The majority of Celtic Gods and Goddesses were members of the Tuatha de Danann, one of Ireland’s most ancient and supernatural tribes. They were both the Gods of the Celts and ancestors of an ancient Irish people.

The Tuatha de Dannan were a group of Celtic gods and goddesses who descended from Nemed. Originally, they were Irish people, but they were exiled and scattered all around the world. When Danu the original Celtic Goddess learned about them, she offered them her support. They lived under her patronage in a mystical country (which may have been the Otherworld called Tír na nÓg) where they learned magical skills and mended their broken strength.

Origins of Morrigan Goddess of War

The Morrigan Tuatha de Danann
The Morrigan Tuatha de Danann

The term “The Morrighan” translates into the Phantom Queen. Scholars also suggest that this term can be translated into the Great Queen. In fact, the meaning fits the portrayal of this Celtic Goddess since she powerfully represents the circle of life.

To truly gain a more insightful understanding of who Morrigan is, it’s important to understand the Celtic culture of that era. The Celts idolised warfare, and women were warriors up until 697 CE, often fighting in battle or helping the wounded. Protecting their families and their land (viewed as female) was a dominant aspect of the Celt’s pride and was reflected in the Morrigan.

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.

There is no firm boundary nor easy line to draw to separate one sister from the others. This added to the mysterious nature of the Morrigan, it was sometimes the name of one sister, or the collective title of the three, and in most cases both versions of the goddess are accepted. They are goddesses after all; the Celts would have accepted that they could not understand everything about the Morrigan and considering her association with the macabre, they probably wouldn’t have wanted to.

The three sisters were War deities, each overseeing a different aspect of war. Morrigù was the youngest and was in charge of acknowledging the heroes and inspiring courage. Heroes would often ask Morrigan to help them win battles before fights, if they felt the Morrigan was on their side they ultimately knew they would win.

Badb was the flying crow and took care of reaping lives on the battlefield. Also known as Eriu, her name later became the Gaelic name of Ireland, Eireann. She rarely interfered with war directly, flying over the battle ground as a crow. Macha was the general, leading the divine armies.

According to Legend there were three prophecy sisters who Ireland is named after. Some people say that these sisters are infact the Morrigan trio however sometimes the prophecy sisters were seen as separate goddesses to the Morrigan.

The Three Sisters: Badb, Nemain and Macha

Badb / Morrigan

The-Morrigan-Crows_Tuatha-de-Danann
The Morrigan Crows Tuatha de Danann

Badb (pronounced bibe which means “crow,”) is known as The Prophetess, A war Goddess associated with battle, destruction, and death and often appeared over battle as a hooded crow, or ran alongside warriors disguised as a grey-red wolf. A flock of crows is actually known as a murder of crows. This could be a reference to the Morrigan who used to fly over battlefields in crow form as an omen of death.

She was sometimes referred to as Badb Catha (pronounced bibe kah-ha), or “battle crow. Badb was reported to join the fray on the battlefield in her female form. Using magic and a sword to vanquish her foes. And she definitely played favourites, as her presence was used to cause confusion and terror among the soldiers on the opposing side.

But Badb was also a type of guide, ferrying souls from death after the battle to their rebirth in the next world. She straddles the mortal realm and the realm of spirits, hence her power as a prophetess. Just because you asked the Morrigan to help you to win a war didn’t mean there wouldn’t be casualties on both sides or that you specifically would survive to see the victory. Fighters would dread to see her fly above them, fearing it was a sign of their death. After the battle they would wait a day to bury their comrades, letting the Morrigan claim the souls of the dead first.

Anann / Nemain

Anann (pronounced on-an) is the aspect of the goddess associated with fertility, cattle, war, and prosperity. She is responsible for culling out the weak; in the context of war, she was known to ease the passing of those dying on the battlefield, where she would comfort them in the form of Death itself.

Anann was a prophetess and her battle cries meant death would soon follow. By shrieking furiously, she intimidated, panicked, and confused soldiers on the battlefield into dying of fright or mistaking their own comrades for enemies. This aspect connects the Morrigan to the role of Banshee. In some modern writings, she is named Nemain. That name translates to ‘panic’, ‘frenzy’ or ‘venomous’.

It seems contradictory that Anann and Nemain are the same person considering that Anann comforted the dying Nemain translates to ‘panic’. Do you think they were separate sisters or two sides of the inevitable horrors of war.

Macha

Macha (pronounced ‘mak-kha‘) is the aspect of the goddess associated with war, ravens, horses, land and sovereignty. She is seen several times in legend, but probably the most familiar tale casts her as the wife of a man named Crunniuc.

The root word “mag” translated means field, plain or pasture. This name connects and gives Macha power over the sacred land and horses, representing wealth, power and symbolising elite warriors. As part of the Trinity of sisters, she rained down fire and blood on her enemies.

A lot of tales confuse her and the Morrigan. Both of them usually appear as crows at the battlefields and manipulate the battles’ results. However, the main difference between both of them is that Macha more famously appeared as a horse in the mythos.

A quick recap of the Morrigan

The Three Versions of Macha

The Celtic folk tales feature three versions of Macha. Each version illustrated Macha with specific personalities and different traits; they were all equally interesting. One common thing that the three versions claim is that Ernmas was her mother. However, the first version states that Macha’s husband was Nemed, not Crunniuc.

The literal meaning of Nemed is Sacred. He invaded Ireland before the Tuatha de Danann even arrived. He fought the Fomorians and stayed in Ireland. Legends claim that there was a race called the Nemeds that resided in Ireland long before the Tuatha de Danann, no doubt named after their sacred leader.

The second version of Macha referred to her as Mong Ruadh. The latter means Red Hair. In this tale she was both a warrior and a queen. Macha had beaten her rivals and had power over them. She forced them to build Emain Macha or Navan Fort for her.

The third version was the one we stated at the beginning, where Macha was the wife of Crunniuc and it is the most popular interpretation of all.

Macha appeared in several tales; however, there was one in particular that is important. In this tale, the third version of Macha is relevant. The story revolves around Macha who had supernatural powers. She was capable of outrunning any creature on earth, even the fastest animals as she herself could shapeshift. Crunniuc was her husband in this tale and she asked him to conceal her magical powers. She did not want anyone to know what she could do.

However, her husband ignored her demand and bragged about his wife in front of the king of Ulster. The king was interested in the secret that Crunniuc divulged and ordered his men to capture Macha who was pregnant at that time. He wanted her to run against horses in a race, not caring about her condition as a pregnant woman.

Macha was forced to do what he asked her to do. She ran the race and surprisingly, she won. However, her condition started to deteriorate as soon as she crossed the finish line. She gave birth at the end of the race and she was in extreme pain. One version claims that she died after giving birth to twins. The most popular scene of the story was Macha cursing all the men of Ulster while she was dying. She wanted them to endure the pain of childbirth and suffer as they made her do.

Another version continues in the story of Queen Maeve’s Cattle raid of Cooley . Macha survives the race, cursing all of the men of Ulster as revenge for nearly killing her. This helps Queen Maeve of Connacht who is at war with Ulster to steal the bull.

Macha’s connection to Queen Maeve

Queen Maeve is believed by to be a manifestation of the sovereignty goddess of the Tuatha de Danann, Medb Lethderg of Tara. She is also linked with the Morrígan, the three sisters and goddesses of war: Badbh, Macha and the Mórrigan. It’s possible that Macha, the goddess of war and sovereignty, is also an interpretation of Medb.

Medb or Macha is known as the goddess of sovereignty, the land and intoxication. Some theories state that Maeve is almost a reincarnation of the goddess in human form, but one of the joys of folklore is that it changes to suit the need of a story, there is no definitive answer!

While the goddesses Medb and Macha are two different characters in mythology, it is not unusual in Irish folklore that a character appears under many names. They may only use one specific power of many in a story, which can lead to confusion.

The three figures mentioned share common personalities and traits such as bring strong willed, stubborn and ambitious as well as cunning and promiscuous; they are all seen as an archetypal warrior queen.

Morrigan as the Banshee

Banshee_Fairy trees_Connollycove
The Banshee in front of a fairy tree

The Morrigan is sometimes associated with the banshee, mainly because she is seen washing armour by the river before battle in some stories. The banshee is actually a type of lone fairy, but the connection is nothing more than the similarity of washing armour and general association with death. It is worth noting that the Morrigan was a shapeshifter and so could transform into a banshee if she wanted to, but this is just a theory.

Despite her popularity as the war goddess, some scholars believe her connection to war was only as a form of protection. Some legends refer to her as “The Washer at the Ford”. That’s because if a warrior saw her washing his armour, it was a sign that he would die in the next battle. Warriors chose to fight to reserve their pride. She also had control over the outcome of battles, and winning over the favour of the Morrigan could ensure victory.

The Three Goddesses of Prophecy and Prediction and the origin of Ireland

Map of Ireland Irish Traditions Connolly Cove Morrigan is one of the great Goddesses of Ireland and is a multifaceted character in mythology. Portrayed as the Fearless Celtic Goddess of War, she is both one goddess called Morrigan and a trinity of sisters known as The Morrigan or The Morrigu.
Map of Ireland

Ogma was the father of three sons, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine. The three sons of Ogma were married to three sisters. Those sisters were Eire, Fotla, and Banba. They had the talent of prophecy and prediction.

When the Tuatha de Danann was heading to Ireland, the land’s name was Innisfail. The three sisters predicted many incidents that took place. So Ogma promised to name the land after one of them, specifically after the sister who made the most accurate predictions about the Tuatha de Danann.

Éire (pronouced air-ah) was the most accurate in her prophecies. Thus, as soon as the Tuatha de Danann reached the shores of Innisfail, they called it the land of Éire. The English version of the name Éire or Éireann (pronounced air-en), is Ireland which everyone is familiar with.

The prophecy sisters and the goddesses of war, may be the same figures under different names due to their shared skilled of prophecy. What do you think?

Morrigan’s Archetypes

Shape-Shifter:

The Shape-Shifter has the ability to change their physical appearances. They are also able to adapt easily to different environments by altering their behaviour.

Ancient mythology tells us that the Morrigan can appear as a crow, raven, wolf, eel, a beautiful young woman, or grey-haired hag. In the Tain Bo Regamna, she is described as a red-haired woman dressed in a red cloak.

Moreso there are not, to our knowledge, any surviving images of her from the Irish pagan period. Although a quick internet search will reveal a plethora of new images of the Morrigan, some are born from mythological descriptions, but most are artistis interpretations. 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 a beautiful women wielding swords to well-muscled armoured warriors; from old hags with piercing eyes to serene figures bearing wings, or dark haired warriors with war tattoos and eyes as black as crows. Each are vastly different yet fittingly add to the Morrigan’s mysterious nature.

It is fitting that such a mysterious character has such a vague yet varied description.

This video tells the story of the Morrigan celtic goddess of war and features many artistic interpretations

The Morrigan and Cú Chulainn

Morrigan appears to Cuchulainn as a young woman (or hag, depending on the version) and offers him her love, and her aid in the battle, but he rejects her offer. In response, she intervenes in his next combat, first in the form of an eel who trips him, then as a wolf who stampedes cattle across the ford, and finally as a white, red-eared heifer leading the stampede, just as she had warned in their previous encounter.

The Morrigan and Cú Chulainn had a very interesting relationship in folklore, as the Irish goddess of war often foretold prophecies of his demise. In some cases she was enamoured with the hero, but her love was unrequited, so she often appeared as a foil to his epic adventures, casting some spell to thwart his victories. Of course being the hero that he was, the warrior always emerged triumphant.

One of the most prominent stories of the Morrigan was the Myth of Cu Chulainn. In the story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, a famous epic featuring Queen Medb of Connacht, the Morrigan attempted to seduce the warrior; however, he rejected her. She could not accept the fact that he rejected her, so she decided to seek revenge.

Irish Art History Newgrange
Newgrange, a prehistoric monument built during the Neolithic period – According to legend Cu Chulainn was born at the site.

The Goddess Morrigan used her ability to shapeshift in order to distract Cu Chulainn and ruin his plans. Staying near him was her best way to gain more inner strength; his blessings could heal the wounded. The first time she appeared to him after the rejection, she was a bull. She tried to make him lose track of his path, so she told him that he had to run away. Cu Chulainn did not listen to her and he kept going on his way.

The second time she appeared as an eel and attempted to make him trip over. His tripping over would help her to use her magic on him and gain more strength. She failed once again losing more power again. The third time she changed her appearance into a wolf, trying to scare him and send him off his track but her defeated her for the third time in animal form.

At last, she stopped changing into animals or strange creatures and decided to take human form, after enduring many injuries in her previous animal states she had become weakened. This was her final attempt. She appeared to Cu Chulainn as a frail old woman whose job was milking the cows.

A long line of warriors set against Cuchulainn, including his foster brother (who was tricked by the Queen of Connacht). Cuchulainn ended up killing his brother and many other soldiers, and, wracked with pain, sadness, and physical wounds from the battle, he retreated to rest, grieve and heal before the final fight.

Cu Chulainn, weary after the battle was unable to recognise the Morrigan’s trickery and actually approached her. She offered him cow milk to drink and he agreed. He was grateful for the drink and blessed the old lady three times after she gave him three drinks, restoring the Morrigan to full health and strength.

In other versions of the story, Cú Chulainn was not aware that Morrigan was the person speaking to him. After she is healed, he explains that he never would have insulted her by rejecting her so harshly if he realised who she was. Morrigan accepted his apology and left him alone for the time being.

What happened to the hero Cuchulainn? Well, the tale ends no better for him. He was killed in a battle, though many years later, as The Morrigan’s old Crone had predicted.

Explore the Irish countryside in this video of the River Derg. The Morrigan was often spotted by rivers washing the armour of the ill-fated.

Samhain

Morrigan met Dagda, the King of the Tuatha de Danann, at Samhain. The Daghda is one of the most important Celtic gods in Irish mythology, being the father-figure of all the gods and goddesses. Dagda had a multitude of abilities, including the power to control life, death and resurrection. That alone gave him power over almost everything, yet he was also known for his wisdom, strength and love of the arts. Moreover, the Dagda was linked to fertility and magic. He also had control over the seasons and time as well as the crops and weather.

The Dagda had a home in the north of Ireland and he was told to meet a woman there before battle. He found the woman washing in the river Unis of Connacht, which flowed just to the south of his home. She had nine loosened tresses on her head and captivated the king instantly. The Dagda spoke with her and the Morrigan told Dagda how to win the battle. She aided the Tuatha de Dananna in their fight and once they had won, she proclaimed the victory to the royal heights of Ireland.

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Furthermore, there are several sites associated with the Morrigan in Northern Ireland. One such place is a county town known as Armagh which translates as “Macha’s height” or Machas’s high place. The Dá Chich na Morrigna (“two breasts of the Morrigan”) is a pair of hills in Co. Armagh that was considered the capital of Ulster in the chronicles of the Ulster Cycle.

In the county of Louth, there is a field known as Gort na Morrighan (Morrigan’s field), which was said to be given to her by the Dagda. Boa Island, the largest island in Northern Island has been named after Badb. In addition, inscriptions invoking Cahaboduva (battle Raven) have been found in the Drome region of France.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is the Morrigan the goddess of?

The Morrigan was the Celtic pagan Goddess of War. She was also a goddess of fate, life and death, wisdom, prophecy, and the land. She is described as being the patroness of revenge, magic, priestesses, night, and witches.

What were the Morrigans abilities / What powers did the Morrigan have?

The Morrigan could shapeshift, control the fate of wars and foretold prophecies.

What three goddesses make up the Morrigan?

Badb, Macha and Nemain were the trio of sisters that made up the Morrigan. Sometimes the Morrigan was a single deity. Other possible names of the sisters include Morigú, Morrigana, Medb, Anaid, Ériu, Banba, and Fódla, depending on the tale you read.

What animals are associated with the Morrigan?

The Morrigan is most associated with Crows as she flies over battles in the form of a crow. However she has also appeared as a raven, eel, wolf and heifer in the mythology.

What was the symbol of the Morrigan?

The Morrigan symbol varies due to the fact she was a shapeshifter. However, the crow is the symbol most associated with the Morrigan.

Why do they call her the Morrigan?

The Morrigan is a derivation of old Gaelic and means ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’.

Is the Morrigan a banshee?

The Morrigan is associated with the banshee as they are both found at rivers washing the armour of someone about to die. The banshee is a type of lone fairy who foretells the death of a loved one by her shrieks.

Is the Morrigan an evil goddess?

No, the Morrigan’s association with death and the macabre lead many to assume that she is an evil goddess, but she actually helps the Tuatha de Danann to win many of their battles. She is associated with death, which is a dark but natural part of the life cycle. She warns people of their doom before a battle and guides souls of the dead to the afterlife.

What does the Morrigan look like?

There are not, to our knowledge, any surviving images of the Morrigan from the Irish pagan period. The diversity of modern depictions is dizzying, contradictory, and sometimes frustrating, some born from mythological descriptions, many born from the inspiration of the artist.

Depictions vary a beautiful women wielding swords to well-muscled armoured warriors; from old hags with piercing eyes to serene figures bearing wings, or dark haired warriors with war tattoos and eyes as black as crows. Each are vastly different yet fittingly add to the Morrigan’s mysterious nature.

Final Thoughts

The Morrigan is a complex Goddess or goddesses indeed, we can learn a great deal about who she was from the surviving myths and folklore. One thing is certain, the Morrigan was the fearless Celtic Goddess of War and death.

Check our other blogs that might interest you:

The Whole History of the Tuatha De Denann: Ireland’s Most Ancient Race| Dive into the Finest Legends and Tales of Irish Mythology| Leprechauns: the Famous Tiny-Bodied Fairies in Ireland| The Superstitious Fairy Trees in Ireland|