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Badb, Macha and the Morrígan

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The Morrígan Statues by Paul Borda of Dryad Designs, LTD. used with permission, do not steal
by Saigh Kym Lambert  and yes, it IS copyrighted and is not free for reposting

Several years go I tried to write a short piece on the Morrígan and Her sisters. Concise does not work well with Them. It ended huge, but created this site to house it.  Just as I finished it and had it edited, I came upon a call for submissions for what became  By Blood, Bone and  Blade: A Tribute to the Morrígan (Nicole Bonivusto, ed, Asheville, NC: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2014) and I submitted it and it was accepted.

I am currently asking for $2.50- $5 "Musings on the Irish War Goddesses," as it was a great deal of time and research involved.  And my animals need to eat.  

However, to try to be concise, which is pretty much impossible with these Goddesses:


The Morrígan is one of the most popular Irish Deities.  Or at least the title is, often the Goddess described is not remotely similar to the Irish Goddess(es) who bore it originally.

There are three directions this takes, one by those who do not follow Her is that She is too bloodthirsty, too evil, too dark, too ______ and no one should ever have anything to do with Her. The other two are the descriptions by followers, one being that,  yes, She is Dark,  maybe She is a Warrior, She is a strong guardian of women, She helps with "shadow work," She is a psychopomp.  The third claim that both the others, as well as the academic evidence of Her as a War Goddess,  is maligning a loving, warm, sweet,, protective Great Goddess.    None of these images are reflected in the early Irish evidence we have for Her.

When She called me over a quarter century ago, I felt it was clear I needed to learn about the culture in order to properly worship Her. Or I could keep practicing Wicca and pretend to worship Her while deep down knowing She was ignoring me.  Ironically, this means that Celtic Reconstructionism, which many mistakenly believe denounces all Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG), was instigated by UPG. (and UPG is always a part of CR methodology, it's just identified as such rather than claimed as lore or tradition).  It is an ongoing process to try to see things from the view of a past culture and also see where it fits today, but I believe that this is important if we are to worship the actual Deities of our Pagan past and not reinvent them into what we desire.  For many years I felt I was not to speak or write too much about Her or this path. A few years ago, however, I felt a change, felt it was time to share.

It's impossible to really discuss the Morrígan, Badb and Macha in a concise way. As I noted when i tired I ended up with "Musings on the Irish War Goddesses" which takes up 35 pages in the anthology before getting to the endnotes and bibliography which adds another 26. Please note the following will be short on references, all can be found in more detail in my essay and much of the source material I used is listed here And, yes, I do hope those reading this site might read my essay as well.

Let's start with, yes, They are War Goddesses in the Irish tradition.  They are not "only" War Goddesses, because that itself implies a one-dimensional concept of warriors, based far more on modern stereotypes than the reality of early Irish culture. They are completely immersed in chaos, conflict and battle. Other "aspects/functions" all intersect with the Gaelic concepts of warfare. Sovereignty is not about the modern personal concept, but of actual territorial rule, which involves defense and, yes, sometimes invasion. Cattle are as much a reason for war as they are a "symbol" of fertility.  Prophecy, shape-shifting and magic are tools of the Gaelic warrior.  Everything ties in.  I'm not going to insist that everyone must worship them through fénnidecht, or even through a traditional Gaelic lens, I am not going to dictate to others on that although it certainly what I am called to do and precisely what this project is to recreate. The number and identities of the War Goddesses is often confusing.  As I noted, today emphasis is on the name or title "the Morrígan," with many, especially but not exclusively Pagans, considering the others to be aspects of Her.  However, this concept of "aspects" is really a modern concept, especially when we try to force it into Robert Graves invention of Maiden/Mother/Crone which they do not fit at all.  Ascribing Dumézil's tripartite function system also falls apart.   They are sisters, daughters of Ernmas, although we do not know if this was true before Christian clerics tried to gather what were once likely territorial and "tribal" Deities together into a extended family.  And there are more than three once we look at a more extend family, nieces and "co-wives,". But clearly, They are individuals, for all that "Morrígan" and "Badb" are titles which, confusingly, may are assigned differently in various texts. 
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The Morrígan

Pro:  MOR EE [gh]an;  an Morrígan - an [W/V]OR EE [gh]an  (The "O" is short when spelled "Mor" and only long when spelled "Mór."  In Old Irish lenition is not often, well, spelled out so "g" in words is read as the Middle or Modern Irish "gh," that is is a voiced velar fricative. This is essentially a non-existent thing in Modern English, so think sort of a "swallowed y"sound.  Dropping it all together also works, although really it's an almost natural sound between "EE" and "an" in this case, but consider that modern Irish "queen" is spelled "ríonn."  "W/V" is a nasalized V, in Modern Irish use of the article, as well as when addressing Her, would be indicated as lenited but that is only implied in OI, so think of "mh" as in "Samhain") *

I noted above that the title of the Morrígan is the most popular and, therefore, the one which the most misinformation is spread, especially with the help of the internet.  The most common misconception is around the meaning of the name/title as spelled here.  "Morrígan" is often translated today as "Great Queen" which simply does not fit this spelling. "Mórrígan" would be translated as such, but not "Morrígan." The accent marks do mean something. This latter spelling, with "mór" meaning "great," which can mean either size or importance just as the English word can, is found primarily in place names and is considered a late folk etymology. Also, given the landscape associations, it probably refers to Her being "big" as in "large-sized."  The manuscripts tend to show that Morrígan, which translates to "Phantom Queen," is the older spelling.

Therefore, if someone means "Great Queen" they could be spelling it with the "ó." rather than the "o." Always.  Note most people also pronounce the first syullable with a long "o" which also would be in the spelling "Mór" while "Mor" would be short, yet everyone insists on using one spelling and the other pronunciation (the second part is pretty much always wrong) and meaning.

Again,, evidence stands that the "o" spelling and "Phantom" translation is older and it is the one we focus on in this work, for all the reasons. It is also why I continue to use the Old Irish spelling, as "Mor" is disused. For the "Great Queen" one could modernize it to "Mór Rion," however.

The Morrígan, is one of the most featured Goddesses in the texts and is one who is actually referred to as a Goddess (in Tochmarc Emire for example).  A Goddess of war, victory and prophecy, She is often confused as being also a Goddess of sex and sovereignty, because She has sex with the Dagda before the Cath Maige Tuired  (CMT)  and offers it to Cú Chulainn in the Táin Bó Cúalnge (TBC). However, neither are bound to be king, although Dagda had formerly been, and it is victory not sovereignty She offers. I believe it's clear that when She offers this it's not always wise to accept, for it a hard won victory is more honorable for a warrior proving themselves. The idea that She is a Sex Goddess seems to be due to Her having sex in these cases, but She does not fit this description as there is no evidence that She is concerned with the sex life of others.

She is associated with crows, ravens and other blackbirds, She appears as such as well as a heifer, an eel and a wolf.  Based on the last and Her interest in the Cú Chulainn, the Hound, I believe She may have been one of the Deities that the Outlaw war bands may have worshiped (and yes, some of my own experiences, which I wrote about in "The War Goddess's Bitch").  Her relationship with Cú Chulainn is the best example we have of a relationship between warrior and Patron Deity. It is often a difficult one, often mistaken by modern Pagans as a hostile one. She tests him and She berates him, to incite him to greatness, and in the end She tries to save him from the death he had chosen when he took up arms for the first time.

The problem remains of just Who is the Morrígan and it is confusing. The title is associated with three War Goddesses, Badb, Macha and Anann, who are three of six daughters of Ernmas in the Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland Vol IV (LGÉ) Here the title "the Morrígan" seems to be most often used along with or in place of "Anann's name, however, it's also used for Macha as well and there is one entry which makes Anann and the Morrígan the third and fourth of three sisters. This latter is likely a transcription error as it makes little sense. However, the confusion in theLGÉ< itself, along with the fact that the Morrígan and Badb are conflated at many points in the Ulster Cycle, do hint at the possibility of the title having been used for more than one Goddess. My theory, rather unprovable, is that these all may have been territorial Goddesses who sometimes bore the title for the people in Their territories, turned into a "family" by the scribes to try to make some sense of Them while attempting a sense of unity.To confuse things more, "morrígna" in the plural and lower case may also refer to a class of female Otherworldy beings that are not quite Goddesses.  Let's add to this that the same is true of  "badba" in the plural, which seems to be used for both clearly Otherworldly beings but also witches who may or may not be human or Otherworldly or possibly somewhat both.

When I speak of "the Morrígan" as one of three Goddesses, I am usually thinking of Anann.  When singular, it is mostly that I am a mere human and it could be any of them and I am not sure which.  I might, however do the same with Badb.

Anann (Ana/Anu)

This name is actually often left out completely when the War Goddesses are discussed either in the Pagan community or by academics.  Sometimes, just the title "the Morrígan" is used but, oddly, sometimes the name "Nemain" is substituted although She is not one of the Daughters of Ernmas, apparently due to confusion about the Bé Néit (see below).

Perhaps the problem is that because Anann is often conflated with *Danu or Danann, and *Danu is so commonly thought to be a Great Mother Goddess progenitor and this becomes uncomfortable for some.  While there is also a Danann who is clearly a different being among the TDD in both the CMT and the Cath Maige Tuired Cunga, the connection is made in the LGÉ IV. There one entry describes the Morrígan as being Anann and to having given Her name, Danann, to the Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) through Her sons. (as this is a tough one for some I'll give the page numbers pg. 128, 129)  However, this doesn't mean She is the progenitor of the TDD, only that They were named for Her.  The NeoPagan "tradition" of *Danu as a Primal Great Mother was well questioned in Alexei Kondratiev's , “Danu and Bile: The Primordial Parents?”  and more on the history found in John Carey's “The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’" Éigse, Vol. 18, prt. 2, pg. 291-94.  

Therefore, I find the evidence for Anann being the Morrígan, or one of the Morrígna, is strong while Danann is also a separate Goddess of Magic of the TDD.  But neither are "Primal Great Mother of the TDD," as there is no such Primal Great Mother.

Badb

Pro: BADHV  a more modern pronunciation is BIVE *

It is translated as "scald crow" or "hooded crow" and is also, when used in lower case, can mean "witch" or "battle demon."  The name is often used interchangeably with the Morrígan in the CMT  and the TBC. To add to more confusion, in Compert Con Culainn the name is used for Cailitín’s daughters, who have no relationship to the daughters of Ernmas, as well as there being a reference to a Washer at the Ford who is called Badb's Daughter.  This is one reason many people mistakenly believe that "the Morrígan" fed Cú Chulainn dog meat and brought about his death, that was Cailitín’s daughters who were seeking vengeance for their father's death in the TBC.  Badb's Daughter's identity is less problematic, but it's still debatable as to whether this is a unique relative, that is Badb's daughter and Anann and Macha's niece, or if it is meant to be the Morrígan who surely did mourn his death.

Macha

Pro ma [ch]a  (“ch” as “loch” “a” as in “sofa”) *

The name means "pasture" possibly specifically a "enclosure to feed cattle"  This name is used for at least five different individuals, although many scholars and Pagans will indicate three perhaps because "we all know everything Celtic comes in threes"...except when it doesn't...and as we shall, see five is perhaps the most likely alternative).  One is the daughter of Ernmas, who is at one entry in the LGÉ is identified as the Morrígan. The others are Macha daughter of Partholón,  Macha wife of Nemed, Macha Monruadh (who I discuss in "'By Force in the Battlefield': Finding the Irish Female Hero" in the first issue of Air n-Aithesc) and  Macha ingen Sainrith meic Inboith (who is associated with horses as noted in Warriors for the Horse Goddess).  I tend to not think that they are all the daughters of Ernmas, although they may reflect Her however, there are many varying opinions on their relationship to each other.


Those being the Three Daughters of Ernmas, there are other designations and names of War Goddesses which are related, interchanged and confused.

Bé Néit

Pro:  BAY N
ADE ("n" is nasalzied,  rhymes with "made")  ***

The "Wives of the (War God) Néit," or possibly "the women of war."  While the Morrígna are usually noted as three sisters, in this case They are a pair. Perhaps Néit could be seen as the third, although usually He is not always actually there. There may be one wife or two, and the names vary and they may be some combination of Badb, the Morrígan, Nemain or Fea.  There is some possibility that Nuada is a variation and therefore Macha would also be such a wife, as They "die" together in the CMT not unlike how Badb and Nemain "die" with Néit at Ailech in theLGÉ. 

Nemain

Pro: NE ven   (again the  "m" is is  nasalized "v") ***

The name is something like "warlike fury."  As already noted, She is often used to replace Anann but is actually not in any of the material as a Daughter of Ernmas, but is listed as Their niece in one genealogy.  She is sometimes one of the Bé Néit, usually with Fea or Badb and in this latter combination They shriek over the troops in the TBC. It is perhaps due to the way used "Badb" as the encompassing title of the three daughters of Ernmas, rather than the Morrígan, and the frequent combination of Badb Nemain that created decades of the name "Nemain" being used to replace "Anann" by academics which is still done in both academics and the Pagan Community.  However, I  feel the best evidence is for Her being a fourth War Goddess. Of course, if this is a territorial  Goddess issue, then Her people may have called Her their "Phantom Queen."

Fea

FA (a as in "father" the "e" is not pronounced and serves as a "glide vowel" between the "f" and the broad "a") **

The meaning is likely "woe." Again, a niece in the genealogy and one of the Bé Néit. It may also be that this is another name for Badb, however, I feel She a fifth War Goddess, again possibly the Morrígan of yet another area.


I do realize that this may not make anything clearer, in fact it may likely muddied things up for many. All I can say is, welcome to my world.  Confusion is a part of dealing with the War Goddesses, after all. 


Credit: Some pronunciations were put together by me with the help of *Caera Aislingeach, some with the help of **Carly McNamara (via Maya StClair) who also verified no hard "g" in middle of OI words, others gleaned  from Sengoídelc Old Irish for Beginners by David Stifter, A First Old Irish Grammar and Reader by Kim McCone and the excellent and highly recommended pronunciation guide in ***Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth by Mark Williams. All mistakes are my own....learning always.

copyright © 2015, 2017 Saigh Kym Lambert Morrígan Statues by Paul Borda of Dryad Designs, LTD and displayed with permission. Photo © 2013 Saigh Kym Lambert Background modified by Saigh Kym Lambert based on a Pictish spiral (as featured in George Bain's Celtic Art)