The Morrígan and Cú Chulainn Part 1: On Saying “No”

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Those of us who follow an Morrígan are in an interesting position compared to many Gaelic Polytheists. We actually have an example of a patron/client relationship between a Deity and a human (albeit a human with divine paternity, sort of).  It is, of course, through Christian eyes that we get it, so many dismiss this all together. This is particularly true as this warrior, Cú Chulainn, often offends the sensibilities of many who claim to be devoted to Her and on the warrior path.

There are many issues, really, but right now I want to concentrate on aspects of the relationship between CC and the Morrígan which I feel are widely misunderstood.  The problem is that without looking at some of the issues from a warrior perspective, including by people who claim to be warriors, and with an understanding of certain elements of Irish culture, it can be read in a very different way from what it may have meant to early warriors who may have heard and orally shared the stories. Some of the scribes who wrote them down, also not being warriors, may well have considered them much as we do today, yet the actual stories seem to give a different read when taken from a warrior perspective.

The reading that many in the Pagan community, from the “fluffiest of fluffies” to the “hardest core Reconstructionists,” give the relationship is that CC is rude, arrogant and offensive to the Morrígan.  And it can appear so. Even form the earliest encounters as a boy, when She mocks him as unable to fight a phantom, which he then does defeat.(TBC Rec I, pg. 16, 139) It seems there that She doesn’t like him much, but consider then what that means that CC actually orders his charioteer to mock him at a later point.(TBC Rec I, pg. 93, 207) At some point I hope to further explore gressacht, inciting by ridicule, something which is very difficult to understand in a culture where it would be mistaken for bullying which is meant to crush us.(MacCana)

The biggest confusion comes from his response to Her in Táin Bó Cúailnge Rec I, when she comes to him and offers him Sex in the middle of his standoff at the ford. This tale actually does not appear in all of the versions of the TBC and I hope to explore the events in the Táin Bó Regamna (Edit: and I did in Part 2) which also serves to set up the same events at a later time. (I have explored both somewhat already in, “Musings on the Irish War Goddesses” publication pending)  Both of these do, after all, seem to get heavily misread.

The reading of this version is that he spurns Her offer of “love” and She, being female and therefore only able to resort to revenge when crushed in this way, punishes him by coming against him while he’s in battle. Some of these retellings of the meeting between CC and the Morrígan make Her out to be a truly pathetic woman we are supposed to feel sorry for while others point what a mistake it is to refuse such a powerful Goddess…some manage to take both these directions at once.  It is used by several “warriors” to show why one does not refuse the demands of the Goddess, ever (in what appears to be an attempt to excuse their own recent actions).

This is a translation of the exchange in question:

 Cú Chulainn saw coming towards him a young woman of surpassing beauty, clad in clothes of many colours. ‘Who are you?’ asked Cú Chulainn. ‘I am the daughter of Búan the king,’ said she. ‘I have come to you for I fell in love with you on hearing your fame, and I have brought with me my treasures and my cattle.’

‘It is not a good time at which you have come to us, that is, our condition is ill, we are starving (?). So it is not easy for me to meet a woman while I am in this strife.’ ‘I shall help you in it.’ ‘It is not for a woman’s body that I have come.’

‘It will be worse for you’, said she, ‘when I go against you as you are fighting your enemies. I shall go in the form of an eel under your feet in the ford so that you shall fall.’ ‘I prefer that to the king’s daughter,’ said he. ‘I shall seize you between my toes so that your ribs are crushed and you shall suffer that blemish until you get a judgment blessing.’ ‘I shall drive the cattle over the ford to you while I am in the form of a grey she-wolf.’ ‘I shall throw a stone at you from my sling so and smash your eye in your head, and you shall suffer from that blemish until you get a judgment blessing.’ ‘I shall come to you in the guise of a hornless red heifer in front of the cattle and they will rush upon you at many fords and pools yet you will not see me in front of you.’ ‘I shall cast a stone at you,’ said he, ‘so that your legs will break under you, and you shall suffer thus until you get a judgment blessing.’ Whereupon she left him (Cecile O’Rahilly, trans. Táin Bó Cúalnge, Recession 1 Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976 English pg. 177, Irish pg. 37)

At face value, taken as a modern story, the reading given does seem obvious. It appears She comes in disguise, however, even in doing so Her role is very clear. Epstein notes that She clearly reveals Herself as a Sovereignty/Victory Goddess when She offers help in his battle. (Epstein, sorry due to mangled formatting I have no page number) Yet there seems at least some hint in calling Herself the daughter of King Búan.  A king’s daughter to make a king, Búan linked to “Búanann” a name related to Anann and therefore the Morrígan.(O’Donavan, pg. 17, Epstein)  She does indeed say She loves him…for his fame. Which many others did as well, but given context, it could serve as a reminder that, indeed, the glory he has sought since childhood is why She is there.

Certainly, She does say,  “It will be worse for you when I go against you as you are fighting your enemies.” So that must mean She’s angry and is going to retaliate.  Right?  Say “no” to this Goddess is a foolish thing.  Because Cú Chulainn’s life was horrible and hard and we’d never want what he had.  Wait? What?

No, let’s look at what is She really offering and what is he rejecting?  She is saying She is offering love and, obviously, sex.  Yet even those mistaking this for a story of scorn love realize that this is also about offering victory as She offered Dagda in the Cath Maige Tuired. (CMT, para. 84) Of course, many seem to think of that as a love story as well, rather than the powerful rite that it was. Dagda accepts and while the victory is not easy, it is had.   Cú Chulainn refuses, the Morrígan is hurt and refuses him victory and he is destr…..oh, wait.

I realize this may be really hard for people to grasp. But Cú Chulainn does win. But it’s not easy. And She does make it harder. But was that punishment?  Really?

Let’s compare what is different about CC and Dagda for a moment.  Dagda is a God, an equal in all ways to the Morrígan. He is an established warrior among the Tuatha Dé Danann and has even been king. He has His own magic, again well established.  Mostly, He has nothing to prove.

Cú Chulainn as a boy took up arms when he heard it was a good hour to do so to live a glorious life and die

Cú Chulainn by Stephen Reid 1912
The boy Cú Chulainn
by Stephen Reid

young and famous. He had by this time proven himself many times yet was always challenged for his youth and strangeness. He was still a youth and this was, in fact, the story which would make that fame if he was to have it. While other exploits contributed, this was the story which marked him.  He still had to fight it.

So let us think what the Morrígan was doing here, actually doing here.

Let’s think that all evidence we have. She does love him.. If we try to understand the gressacht for what it is and we realize that at his death She is distraught and is not Cailitín’s daughter who is also, confusingly, called Badb, who facilitates his death. Rather She tries, despite obviously knowing it’s futile to prevent it. (Van Hamel, pg. 69-133, O’Grady and Stokes in Hull, pg. 235-263) this becomes clear. And She does love him for his fame or rather his determination to have it. And that is important.

What she is offering, by offering him to lie with Sovereignty/Victory, is to lose that all.  Think. Go beyond what you think is good or bad, is reward or punishment and think what he had wanted. And think what laying with Victory would give.

What she offered was an easy victory during the events which would mark his fame. He clearly knew who She was and what that would mean.  He would have won easily, there would be no tale to tell, he would have been at best a side note but possibly totally forgotten. We’d have no stories today.

ETA: I should also note, that She’d have turned from him, as well.  He’d be forgotten for he’d never do anything of note. He’d be no champion and his people would be left without.

This is called a test. She did not want him to say “yes.” If he had then he’d undoubtedly have been punished.  He’d have won easily and been forgotten. The worse punishment there could have been for him.

The punishment you see, that She comes against him while he is in battle, serves to further his fame. A fight that is “worse” means winning is better.  For he not only faced a warrior but the War Goddess in battle.  Do you really believe that She is so weak he would have won against Her if that wasn’t the point?  Then why worship such a weak Goddess?

That, btw, is something that boggles me.  Especially, among those who then claim “well, She showed him not to say “no” to her!” Um, he won. Is this the extent of strength you see in your Goddess?  That She’d try to fight him for real and failed?  Then you claim you are afraid to say “no” to Her?  What sort of wimp are you then?

Instead, I believe She acts to show Her chosen favorite is indeed mighty!  Rather than an easy and easily forgotten victory, She gives him a harder one, one that let’s him rise above all! Because he knew to say “no” to Her test.

She then offers him milk, again in “disguise” which must clearly have been evident.  A three teated cow in the presence of an old woman doesn’t add up to a Goddess of cattle?  In this She gives him fame for the other side of war, that he also can heal, even a Goddess.

Think.  What is punishment to a warrior who as a very small child declared he wanted to have a glorious, famous short life?  Why, it would be to have forgotten long one.

And if one thinks a forgotten life is better if you live safely into old age, are you ready to walk the warrior path?   None of us are Cú Chulainn, but if you choose a safe life and easy victories, if you choose to say “yes” when ever She tests you to see how much you want what you claim you want then you are far from following his way.

This is a lesson we must learn, that She will ask of us things that go against what we know deep down in our hearts is the right way.  She will ask us to do things which She does not want us to do. To serve the Morrígan one needs to have the courage to say “no.”  While there are many ways that Cú Chulainn might be a problematic role model, showing the importance of passing such tests is not one of them.   He shows us well. Act in accordance to your heart when the Phantom Queen tests you and it will serve you well. Even if the weak can never understand.

See also:
The Morrígan and Cú Chulainn pt. 2: Insult and Praise as Incitement

The Morrígan and Cú Chulainn pt. 3: Of death and dog meat

I also discuss some of this, as well as expand on the nature of the Morrígan “Musings on the Irish War Goddesses” in By Blood, Bone and  Blade: A Tribute to the Morrígan Nicole Bonivusto, ed,  Ashville, NC: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2014


Angelique Gulermovich Epstein, “War Goddess: The Morrígan and her Germano-Celtic Counterparts” dissertation, University of California in Los Angeles, 1998

Elizabeth Gray, trans. Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired  Dublin: Irish Text Society,  Irish English

Eleanor Hull, ed., The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature: being a collection of stories relating to the Hero Cuchullin, London: David Nutt on the Strand, 1898 (Hayes O’Grady, trans., “The Great Defeat on the Plain of Muirthemne before Cuchullin’s Death” and Whitley Stokes, trans., “The Tragical Death of Cochulainn,)

Proinsias MacCana, “Láided, Gressacht ‘Formalized Incitement’” Érui vol. 43

Kuno Meyer, trans. ‘The Wooing of Emer’“Tochmarc Emire,” Archaeological Review 1, 1888, Irish English 

John O’Donovan, ed. and trans. (with notes and translations from Whitley Stokes) Sanas Cormaic Calcutta: O. T. Cutter for the Irish Archeological and Celtic Society, 1868,

Cecile O’Rahilly, trans. Táin Bó Cúalnge, Recession 1 Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976 Irish English

AG van Hamel Compert Con Culainn and Other Stories, Medieval and Modern Irish Series, Vol 3, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1933

Copyright © 2013 Saigh Kym Lambert

12 thoughts on “The Morrígan and Cú Chulainn Part 1: On Saying “No”

  1. Though I am neither fluffy nor a hardcore reconstructionist, I generally interpret the story of Morrigan and Cú Chulainn in the usual manner. It seems most likely, particularly when contrasted with her similar offer to Dagda. But your argument here is strong, particularly in light of the need of Celtic tribes for heroic warriors.

    But even if you're right, I would still argue that the path Cú Chulainn took – refusing the aid of a goddess to seek individual glory – is not the path we should take today. Living virtuously and heroically is timeless wisdom, but the challenges of our wider society cannot be met by any individual warrior, no matter how skilled and dedicated.

    There are times when I must say "no", even to a goddess. But where ever I can, I prefer to follow Dagda's example, not Cú Chulainn's.

  2. I'm sorry, but, wow, do you really think She'll make you THAT offer? I mean, I'm sort of floored by the idea anyone would think that.

    And I think what you are trying to defend shows it as unlikely. Because you're missing the real point of my argument, several points actually. That She wasn't offering, She was TESTING. And to fail that test would mean winning that battle…and then live a long, boring life. Which means, being useless as a warrior. So it would have done his people no good.

    Also, if "the challenges of our wider society cannot be met by any individual warrior" then there would be no one She would offer this to. This isn't an offer likely to be made to some grunt who was neither a God nor an ultimate champion who WOULD, indeed, meet all the challenges that his/her people faced. Like Cú Chulainn. So I believe saying "yes" should someone get THIS test, would be profoundly stupid and detrimental to those who they protect, unless they were a God and not a (mostly) human champion. For the people would lose that champion. And such a champion on one can afford to lose.

    The tests we get are different, far smaller. But I have seen people fail them. I have seen them flail around pretending She's still in their lives. It's sad. I examine my heart, because without that, we are useless. Or even corrupt.

  3. I am baffled as to how anyone can make the comparisons of Her offers to Dagda and Cu Chulainn. It is like comparing apples and oranges. Cu Chulainn chose to EARN his place in history, to fight his own battle…not "sleep his way to the top" literally. That was HER test…to see if he would cave in and take the easy way out. He did not. Dagda had no need to prove anything to anyone…he's a GOD. He was already at the top. We face challenges and tests every day in our lives…some choose to skate through, and others choose to earn their way, thereby earning the respect of those who matter.

  4. Yes, while the offer was made to both, comparing the situation of a God to the situation of a, mostly, human champion is rather odd. To claim WE should follow the path of a God is just bizarre. What tests we face are not going to be what a God might do. We are not Gods. I mean, yeah, this boggles me a lot.

    Choosing the easy path is never wise with Her. Those who want "Mommy" to take care of things are going to be pretty disappointed.

  5. I'm a hard polytheist, but even I have trouble understanding how "THAT" offer could be made, much less consummated. Just so there's no further misunderstanding, no, She hasn't made THAT offer, nor do I expect Her to, for me or for anyone else.

    I'm neither a god nor a champion. I'm a Druid and a priest (though not of Morrigan – She hasn't made me that offer either). Thought I retain my sovereignty and say "no" when I must, when gods and goddesses make offers, requests and demands I find it most helpful to follow Dagda's example and say "yes".

  6. You're obviously coming at this from some incomprehensible direction, as how can we follow "Dagda's exmaple" …His story is that of a God, there is no example there. As a God His entire relationship with a Goddess is going to be beyond us to use as a model. He wasn't being tested.

    See, you're obviously still missing my point about this having been a TEST. Therefore, you say "yes," you fail, you are left broken. Truly broken, not an interpretation of a warrior's glory made by those who do not understand that what happened wasn't punishment but reward. For passing the TEST. So it would be rather a bad trap to "follow the example" of a God who was not being tested.

    It may well be the God(s) you serve do not test. However, She does. Quite brutally at times. And, yes, saying "yes" to the wrong thing can go very bad. If you are confident your God does not do that, well, then we're not even talking about the same thing at all. So why keep trying?

    As to the possibility, I do believe the Gods have bodies. They are not "thought forms" or something. They can manipulate them of Their choosing, of course. This is just one reason I don't believe possession claims…They don't need our weaker vessels. So I do see it as possible, yet unlikely to happen to anyone I met…and saying "yes," well, unless you're a God or maybe a king…probably not going to go well.

  7. It's an interesting perspective, indeed, and one which I share (as you may know?)

    I've compared it to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, where Satan comes and offers him dominion over the world and all that (or, in The Last Temptation of Christ, and more to the point here, a long, happy life with a wife and children and all that stuff), but Jesus rejects that and continues on his path to his divine… whatever it is. Of course, this being a polytheist story, it isn't some sort of adversarial being that comes, but rather, as you say, a test of worthiness.

  8. I'm not sure but we may well have touched upon this before. Very good point about the Temptation. Now that I think about it, I know a few people who have studied Biblical matters in detail who feel the nature of the Adversary is not as black and white as it's made out to be. To me seeing such things as a well passed test is really a powerful thing.

  9. This also reminds me of Achilles's choice in the Iliad (Book 9):

    Mother tells me,
    the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
    that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
    If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
    my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
    If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
    my pride, my glory dies . . .
    true, but the life that's left me will be long,
    the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

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