morrígna, Mórrígan, Morrígu, Morrigan, Morigain, morrigna, lamia, morigan, Nemain, Macha, Badb, Badba, Fe, Féa, Celtic Mythology, Dagda, Fir Bolg, Valkyrie, Valkyries, Berserks, berserkir, berserkers
The Morrígan and her
A dissertation by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
Here and there around us are many bloody spoils;
horrible are the huge entrails the Morrígan washes.
She has come to us, an evil visitor; it is she who
incites us. Many are the spoils she washes, horrible the hateful
laugh she laughs.
She has tossed her mane over her back; a good, just
heart hates her. Though she is near us, do not let fear startle
- Reicne Fothaid Canainne
Who is the Morrígan, and why read about her?
The Morrígan was the war goddess of the pagan Irish. She is a horrific goddess personifying war the way the ancient Irish saw it: loud, chaotic, glorious, bloody and heroic. She is savage and deceitful, bloodthirsty, revelling in the gore of battle. She comes as a carrion crow or a hag, portending or causing violent death. Yet she is no mere demoness. She fights for her race, the Túatha dé Danann, against the invading Fomoire. She has a strange relationship with Ireland's great warrior Cú Chulainn: by fighting him, she forces him to rise to his greatest glory. Under other names Nemain, Macha, Fé, Badb, the Washer at the Ford she shows aspects of motherhood, sorcery, prophecy and teaching.
The ancient Irish were barbarian warriors. They did not think or fight like the Romans did. Their wars were cattle raids, as much for personal glory as for kine. That is partly why their Celtic cousins on the Continent and in Britain were smashed so easily by the Roman legions, professional soldiers who fought for land and kept it. But perhaps it is partly why the Celts left us their stories while the Romans left us their plumbing. It is from Celtic stories that many of our best fairy tales and legends come. Arthur was a British prince chasing giants and supernatural pigs across the Welsh countryside in Culhwch ac Olwen before he ever became a chivalrous English king for the edification of French courtiers. Our culture's Celtic barbarian past has never completely left us.
Yet our understanding of Celtic mythology, not to mention Celtic religion, is still muddy. One reason is that there is very little evidence to go on. There are scant archeological remains. There are no clear written records of belief. The druids never wrote it down; they kept the Celtic religion in their heads, perhaps as a way of controlling their followers. There are a few Greek and Roman histories that mention the northern tribes, but these are often based on hearsay, or written as propaganda. Julius Caesar wrote sensational descriptions of the peoples he conquered, but he is writing to make himself look good to the man in the via. Our best records of pre-Christian Irish beliefs are cycles of myths about the supernatural races that populated Ireland before the arrival of mankind, and legends about the heroes that came after them. But these stories were not written down until hundreds of years after the Celtic religion had died out, and it was Christian monks who wrote them down.
Angelique Gulermovich Epstein has gathered these scraps and shreds of evidence to piece together a startlingly coherent picture of the Irish goddess of war. She has tracked down the many names this goddess takes in the various stories, and painstakingly shown that they are indeed many names for one entity. She then examines the Morrígan's problematic relationship with Cu Chulainn, fleshing out her model of the Irish war goddess.
Having put together the purely Irish evidence, Ms. Gulermovich Epstein then uses three comparative techniques to evoke the Morrígan by the reflected light of other cultures. First, she examines Irish translations of Classical stories written in Latin, in order to see what the Irish translators made of Greek and Roman myths. To say that the Irish considered the terrifying Furies to be a kind of "morrígna" tells us as much about the Morrígan as it would have told the medieval Irish reader about the Furies. Second, she examines evidence for a war goddess in Celtic culture in Britain and on the Continent, and adds it to the Irish data she has already compiled in order to postulate a Celtic war goddess cult.
Third, she presents a compelling case that the Valkyries, the supernatural women who selected which of those warriors slain in battle would be brought to Valhalla, performed a similar function in Germanic religion as the Morrígan did in Celtic religion. She argues that both the Valkyries and the Morrígna were once psychopomps a word meaning that they brought the honored dead to the glorious afterlife by means of devouring the bodies of heroes on the battlefield while in the forms of carrion birds. Her technique is the scholarly version of computer image enhancement, where, by comparing two dim photographs of a distant star, we are able to sharpen both images. By comparing two fuzzy and dim mythological patterns in the two cultures cultures connected not only by their origins, but also by continuous trade Ms. Gulermovich Epstein is able to shed light on both mythologies.
We are brought up on the safe, civilized, literary versions of the Greek myths, and so we tend to forget that the Northern European gods were once as raw and bloody as our (cultural) ancestors who worshipped them. But at the end of the last century of the millenium, at a time where we have shuffled off death to the safe white sheets of the hospital, it is important to remember she who represented the cry, cut and thrust of battle, the brassy shout of fame, the morbid silence of the battlefield after the battle. The Morrígan made Cú Chulainn into Ireland's greatest hero; without her, there would have been no legends about him. So for our culture: without dark mysteries like the Morrígan and her weird sisters, we would, perhaps, be no more than latter-day Romans, living in safe houses with good plumbing, driving efficient cars on (naturally) excellent roads. We would have no eerie legends of our own.
Ph. D. dissertations are by their nature dense and hard to read. If you are a scholar, you already know how to deal with that. If you are a layman interested in Celtic mythology, then you will probably want to avoid the densest part of the scholarship. In particular, the first chapter, "The Morrígan in Mythological Tradition," is crucial to proving that various supernatural figures in medieval Irish literature Morrígan, Nemain, Macha, Badb, Anann and others are really aspects of one supernatural entity or class; but it is rather hard going. A layman may want to skip it, or come back to it later. The third chapter, "Horror, Glory, and Motherhood: The Morrígan and Eternity," should prove more rewarding, particularly the last section, which examines the evidence that the Morrígan was actually worshipped as a goddess, and attempts to reconstruct how her warrior cult might have resembled the Norse berserkir. The last chapter, "The Morrígan Outside Native Tradition," and the final section in particular, comparing the Morrígan and the Valkyries, is the heart of the dissertation. You may want to read the final chapter first, then work backwards to each previous chapter until you have had your fill.
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This electronic manuscript (this web page and its dependent web pages) is © Copyright 1998 by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein. It may be freely quoted, provided the author is properly cited with the URL, /~musofire/diss, so people can find it as we update it.
Although this dissertation has now been filed and the online text matches that of the final print version, please be sure to cite the electronic version,#148; with the date (September, 1998), if you are using the online version only. The final version of the manuscript can be downloaded below; it can also obtained from University Microfilms International (800) 521-0600, although it may be several months before UMI has it available.
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