Morrigan: The Phantom Queen
Morrígan, or the Morrígan, goddess of war, death, and terror, was a terrifying figure in Celtic mythology.
She was a death-bringer, and her presence foretold bad happenings. She could shape-shift into a crow, and she had prophetic powers.
In this article, you’ll discover how she and her sisters would often work as one to sway battles in their favor.
Who Is Morrígan in Celtic Mythology?
Morrígan is also called the Morrígan, and she was a goddess of death and war. She can sometimes appear alone, but most often believed that she was a triple goddess, working her magic with her sisters.
She was married to the Dagda, chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Celtic pantheon, and he would use her to get prophecies about the future. Her name most likely means something like “great queen” or “phantom queen,” but some scholars think her name could also mean “terror.”
This Celtic deity’s powers of prophecy were vast. She could see the future and everything in it, even the end of the world. People would pay to hear her prophetic words, and even though she was often a terrifying figure, her prophecies were not always bad things. Those in power would want her on their side because her powers could extend to helping them in major battles.
The Celtic goddess of fate often gave her prophecies in words of poetry, and that added a new level to her power. While all the aspects of the Morrígan are not clearly defined, she was likely represented as a triple goddess. She would work with her sisters to increase their power. Because of her appearance at important deaths and ability to shapeshift, she was considered very similar to that of a banshee, or “fairy woman.”
Attributes of the Morrígan: The Confusion
The confusion lies in whether or not the Morrígan was a goddess just on her own. Or perhaps she was a triple goddess and was just one facet of their tripleness. It’s also unclear which ability belongs to which sister or if they all share the same powers. Lastly, it’s even more confusing because the names of the sisters get mixed and matched in various myths.
Depending on the stories, the Morrígan is the name for the triple Celtic goddess of death, but in others, she is her own name and just one of the three sisters. She was very beautiful and alluring, and she used her beauty to get what she wanted.
The different aspects of the Morrígan included a young woman, a crone, a crow/raven, or a battle-dressed queen. These various roles are played out in different myths, but the overall Morrígan symbol is the crow or raven.
The confusion continues with Morrígan’s family and the long list of siblings she had. Morrígan’s mother was Ernmas, a mother goddess, and she was the daughter of King Nuada. She was also a goddess of agriculture. King Nuada was the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
It’s unclear who her father was, but he may have been a mortal. In many stories, as the triple goddess, the sisters are Badb, Macha, and Nemain. Sometimes Anand is also added to the mix, but this might have also been another name for the Morrígan.
In addition to those three women, Ernmas also had three other daughters named Ériu, Banba, and Fódla. She also had five sons named Glon, Gnim, Coscar, Fiacha, and Ollom. It’s not very clear whether the Morrígan had children or not.
Myths of the Celtic Raven Goddess
Most of the myths of Morrígan have to do with war, death, and prophecy. She usually appeared at times of battles or to important people who had sway over politics.
There, she either spoke her prophecies, terrified the opposition, or showed what was going to happen by her simple presence. One of her most myths was the gods fighting for control of Ireland from the Firbolg and the Fomorians.
– The First Battle of Moytura
After the gods came to the Emerald Isle, there were already two groups of people residing there: the Firbolg and the Fomorians. The gods, led by King Nuada (Morrígan’s grandfather), didn’t fight right away but made their home in the country and bided their time. They needed a good plan to defeat both groups, for both were powerful and terrible. The first battle eventually took place in County Galway, and it was a bloody victory.
In this battle, the Morrígan caused a mist to rise over the land and confuse the Firbolg while they were fighting. Because of the triple goddess’ help, the gods were able to defeat the Firbolg and win their first battle for control of the island. Sadly, however, Morrígan’s mother perished in the mighty struggle.
Their grandfather, King Nuada, also lost his hand to a Firbolg named Sreng. Because he lost his hand, he could never be king, for a king of the gods needed to remain physically intact. So he named a successor, a man named Bres, but Bres was half-Fomorian, so it only caused more problems to begin.
– The Second Battle of Moytura
For years, Bres and the Fomorians enslaved the gods, and King Nuada was trying to think of a way to overthrow his successor. His brothers made him a silver hand, and so once they overthrew Bres, he could be king again because he was technically “whole.” After that, the gods prepared for battle against the might Fomorians.
Once again, the Morrígan came to help. Since she was married to the Dagda, chief of the gods, he could ask her anytime for her prophecies. Before the battle, the Dagda went in search of his wife, and he found her at a riverside. They made love, and he asked her for her thoughts about what the future would hold for them in the war.
She prophesied that the gods would be victorious, but they would have to pay for it. She also stated that she would kill the Fomorian king and bring his kidneys and blood to the River Unshin.
On the day of the battle, a man named Lugh, who King Nuada asked to help build a battle strategy, asked the Morrígan what she was bringing. She told him pursuit, death, and subjugation, and when the battle began, they were eventually victorious.
– Battle Aftermath
The Morrígan used her powers of terror to scare the Fomorians. She screamed out prophecies in words of poetry until they ended up perishing in the sea. Once the battle was won, it became clear what price the gods had to pay. King Nuada was killed, and the Morrígan’s husband, the Dagda, was also wounded so badly that he later died.
At long last, the gods were finally in control of the Emerald Isle, and those who were still left on the island were now under their control.
– Morrígan and the Ulster Cycle
Another myth with the Morrígan occurs in “The Ulster Cycle,” which is a group of Celtic myths. In this story, she was a woman who could shape-shift into various forms. The other character that had a role in this story was Cú Chulainn, who was a famous war hero. Together, they both harmed and hurt each other.
– Morrígan as a Cow Thief
In one of the stories in The Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn saw an old woman running a cow off his land. He raced after her, hurling furious insults at her. Then he saw the old woman change into a crow and land on the branch of a tree. He knew then what she was, and he apologized, saying that if he’d known from the beginning, he wouldn’t have been so rude.
The Morrígan was not so forgiving, and she told him that he should have been kind no matter what. She prophesied that he would later die in battle. In the later battle, Queen Medb of Connacht invades the land of Ulster, and Cú Chulainn rises to defend it. On his way, he meets a young maiden, and she offers herself to him, asking him to take her as his lover and battle partner.
He refuses, and then a lot of weird things start happening. Many stories state that this was the Morrígan. She was in love with the warrior, and when he rejected her, she took her revenge.
– Morrígan’s Fulfilled Prophecy
He went through strange challenges in the battle, and it almost seems like nature is against him as he fights. An eel trips him; a wolf made cattle stampede, and one of the cows from the stampede tried to attack him. As a great warrior, he was able to fight off the animals and defend himself, injuring them in the process.
He was victorious in this part of the battle, and as he was traveling, he met an old woman who was milking a cow along the way. He found out that she was blind in one eye, had a broken leg, and a broken rib. These were the same injuries he had given the cow who had attacked him from the stampede. The old woman offered him some milk, and each time he took a drink from her, he blessed her, hoping that she would be healed.
Each injury was healed after he took a drink, and then she revealed herself as the Morrígan. She reminded him of their past encounter and how his prophecy would still come to pass. Cú Chulainn was furious, and he told her that he would never have helped to heal her if he’d known who she was. He ran away from her even though the warning from her was still ringing in his mind.
– Cú Chulainn and Dog Meat
An old cultural tradition was that one couldn’t refuse what was offered to them to eat. He was not allowed to eat this kind of meat. But when it was offered to him by an old woman as his men were preparing for the next battle, he had to take it. He ate it, and then it was only downhill from there.
He dreamt of an old woman washing his bloody armor in the river, and he knew that his time was coming. In the battle, he was slain, but because he had vowed to himself that he would die standing up, he did so. He even tried to tie his entrails to a stone to keep his dead body standing up. That way, the opposition would think he was still alive and not believe that they were yet victorious.
However, they found out that he was dead when they saw a crow perching on his shoulders. It didn’t matter, though; the men of Ulster won with the Morrígan’s help.
– Morrígan and Odras
Morrígan was involved in another myth that contained a cow. One day, she lured a cow away from a woman named Odras’ herd. Odras, seeing that her cow has been taken, followed the trail. They all ended up together in the Otherworld (like the afterlife in Celtic mythology).
There in the Otherworld, they find themselves in the cave of Cruachan. Odras fell asleep there. Morrígan changed her body into a pool of water which became the head of the River Shannon.
Sites of Morrígan
There are a few landmarks in Ireland that bear the triple goddess’ name:
- Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna, translated into the “cooking pit of the Morrígan” which is a mound in County Tipperary
- Dá Chich na Morrigna, which means “two breasts of the Morrígan”: these are two hills in County Meath
Connections to Other Mythology
The Morrígan is unique to Celtic mythology, although the concept of three working as one is not unheard of. Celtic mythology was very interested in the number three, as was later Christianity: think “The Trinity.”
The closest that scholars have come to with comparing the Morrígan to other gods/goddesses are:
- Morgan le Fay, from Arthurian tales, was very like the Morrígan in many ways. Both of them could shape-shift. They were able to tell the future and make startling prophecies.
- Odin, Norse god, related to death and war
- Perchta, Germanic goddess, connected with ravens
The Morrígan in Pop Culture
This character appears in various media:
- Canadian TV series, “Sanctuary”
- Book series, “Lost Girl”
- Marvel Comics, and her sisters are Cernunnos and Taranis
- “The Wicked + The Divine”
- Dungeons and Dragons as The Raven Queen
- Video game “Smite”
- “Songs of the Morrígan” by Primordial
Whether or not the Morrígan was her own goddess or a triple goddess, her powers cannot be denied.
Take a look at the main points of the Morrígan covered in this article:
- The Morrígan is a goddess of war and death in Celtic mythology
- She was a death-bringer, and she was skilled at prophecy, and she would use her powers to tell the future
- Her name means “great queen” or “phantom queen.” She was either a goddess on her own or a goddess made up of three sisters
- She and her sisters were able to shape-shift into many things. They had many aspects, which are a little confusing and unclear in the various stories
- They used their powers of terror and prophecy to aid on sides of battle. They gave victory to the sides they wanted to win
- As a triple goddess, they have various facets. They would appear as an old crone, a young woman, a crow/raven, and a battle queen
- As a goddess on her own, she was a young woman, and she used her beauty to try to get what she wanted
- The stories are very confusing about who was involved in the triple goddess. It was most often stated as Badb, Macha, and Nemain. Sometimes Anand was also a part of the mix, but that could also have just been another name for the trip goddess
- The Morrígan had five brothers and three other sisters
- Her mother is Ernmas, a mother goddess whose father was King Nuada, king of the gods
- She was also married to the Dagda, and he would use her to get prophecies about battles
- The Morrígan was involved in the battles of Moytura. These were the battles of the gods against the Firbolg and the Fomorians for control of Ireland
- In the first battle, the gods fought against the Firbolg. The Morrígan used mist to confuse and terrify them, and the gods won
- However, King Nuada lost his hand, and so he lost his throne to a half-Fomorian
- The gods were enslaved for a while, but eventually, Nuada got a new hand, a silver hand
- He could get his throne back, and they overthrew Bres and made plans for another battle
- Nuada asked Lugh to join in battle strategy, and Lugh asked the Morrígan what she would bring to the battle. She said: pursuit, death, and subjugation
- The Dagda asked his wife for a prophecy, and she said the gods would win, but they would have to pay a price
- The gods fought against the Fomorians. During the battle, the Morrígan used her powers to scare the Fomorians back until they drowned in the sea
- Once the battle was over, the Morrígan’s mother was dead, King Nuada was dead, and the Dagda was mortally wounded
- However, the gods were able to finally take control of Ireland, now that the two groups of residents were defeated
- The Morrígan also had many tales with Cú Chulainn, a famous warrior hero. In one story, he saw an old woman driving his cow away, so he raced after her and insulted her
- When she turned into a crow, he apologized, knowing who she was. She told him he would die in the next battle because of his unkindness
- Later, in the battle, he met a young woman who offered herself to him, but he refused. After that, he had to go through a lot of strange things like fighting off an eel, a wolf, and a cow
- Some believe that this young woman was Morrígan. She had fallen in love with the warrior, but his refusal caused her to seek revenge
- He defeated everything that came his way. He fought back and injured the animals
- He later found an old woman milking a cow with the same injuries that he’d inflicted on the cow in the battle. She offered him milk, and with each drink he took, he blessed her, and she healed
- The Morrígan revealed herself, and Cú Chulainn was furious, saying he wouldn’t have healed her if he knew. She reminded him of his future death as he ran away
- Later, he was given dog meat by an old woman, and because he was not allowed to refuse food when it was offered, he had to eat it. But he could see his death in his dreams, and the next day, he was killed by his enemy
- He kept himself standing in the battle to trick the enemy by tying his entrails to a stone to keep him standing up
- The only way the opposition knew he was dead was when they saw a crow sitting on his shoulder
- She also once lured a woman named Odras to the Otherworld and turned her body into the River Shannon
- There are two sites which share the Morrígan’s name, and one of them is a cooking mound, and the other is two hills
- Other gods/goddesses similar to her are Morgan le Fay, Odin, and Perchta
- She appears in Dungeons and Dragons, the TV series “Sanctuary,” the video game “Smite,” and the book series “Lost Girl”
The Morrígan, with her confusing and mysterious aspects and powers, was a strong and unique figure in Celtic mythology. She could shape-shift, tell the future, strike fear into the hearts of anyone, and turn the tide of important battles to whatever side she wanted.
Her powers were her gift, and she used them to help the gods win control of Ireland. Even if it’s only mythology, one still wonders what could have happened to the Emerald Isle if the Morrígan hadn’t lent her helping hand.