CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Speak Irish: The Dark Goddess

Speak Irish: The Dark Goddess

By Bob Carney

“When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightening or in rain?”

Shakespeare’s line from Macbeth is thought to be a reference to a goddess from Irish mythology, Mórrighan. Mórríghan, Morrigan, Morrigu, or Morrígu all are different spellings and pronunciations of the same character. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to her as Mórrighan, although she is usually refered to as “The Mórrighan.”

Mór means large or great in Irish, and rígan is thought to be a loose translation of queen, rí being the word for king. Today bánríon (bahn-ree-un) is more widely used and ríonaigh (ree-nay) is used for the chess piece, not to be confused with ríonaí (ree-nee), which means queenly.

In some narratives, she is called the Phantom Queen or the Nightmare Queen. She isn’t defined as one specific goddess, but is mostly asscociated as a goddess of war. She is part of a trio of war goddesses, called the Mórrígna, with Badb and Macha.

Some scholars argue that Badb and Macha are just aspects of Mórrighan. The Mórrighan does’t engage in combat, but affects the outcome of battles by frightening warriors and intimidating or inciting conflict. She is known to rejoice in bloodshed. In many of these stories , or  scéalta (shkal-ta), war consisted of small , beag (byog) groups of warriors, farairí (fhar-ee – sometimes warriors were called dragan, dragon with similar meaning and pronunciation), conducting cattle raids on neighboring kingdoms.

Tain Bó Cuailnge” or the Cattle Raid of Cooley
In one of the most famous, “Tain Bó Cuailnge” or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, she appears as a heifer at one point, but also leads an army of fifty-thousand, comprised of warriors from all four provincces of Ireland. When the battle cath (cah) cath a chur, (cah ah chur) to wage a battle (cath a bhriseadh ar orm means to defeat an enemy in battle), starts to go against her, she grabs a sword  and joins in.

Mórrighan is a shapeshifter, able to take on the form of a bird, fish or animal, allowing her to appear on the land, tír (teer),  in the air, aer (ayr) or in the water. Uisce (ish-kuh) is the first word we learn for water, but there are a few others, including moirigh
(mor-ig).

In some stories, she is a beautiful young woman, bean óg álainn (bahn oeg ahlahn), and in others a frightful old hag, cailleach uaigneach (kahl-ahk uhwig-nahk). Cailleach can also mean witch or sorceress.

Her mother, máthair (mah-her), was Ernmas, a farmer, feirmeoir (far-more) and sorceress of the Tuatha De Danaan. Her father, athair (ah-her), was Delbaeth, one of the kings of the gods.

Fir Bolgs and Fomorians
One of her earliest appearences in mythology is in the Cath Maighe Tuireadh, or the Battle of Moytura, that took place in what is now Connaught, three thousand years ago, when the Tuatha De Danann fought the Fir Bolgs in the first battle, and the Fomorians in the second battle.

In both, the Mórrighan is portrayed as a strong and powerful warrior and magician. In the battle against the Fomorians she is more of the war goddess, using phrophecy and magic to defeat the enemies of the Tuatha De Danann, she flew above the battlefield, screaming her frightful cries and raining blood and fire down upon the Fomorian warriors until their defeat and the death of their leader, Balor, who dies by the hand of Lugh. Those screams tie her to stories of the bean sí (bahn-shee) banshee, a harbinger of imminent death.

Tales of the Ulster Cycle
In other tales of the Ulster Cycle, we learn of her stormy relationship with Cú Chulainn, where she first tries to seduce him as a beautiful young girl. When he dismisses her, saying he has no time for her, she comes back as an eel, a wolf and a heifer. Cú Chulainn breaks the bones of the eel, puts an eye out on the wolf, and breaks the leg of the heifer.

Later, Cú Chalainn comes across an old woman, lame, with one eye, standing with a milk cow, and asks for a drink as he is thirsty from battle. She allows him to drink directly from the cow; with each drink she is healed. Cú Chulainn realizes she has tricked him.

In the texts of the Mythological Cycle, there is a story where Mórrighan lures away a bull from a woman from Tara named Odras. Odras pursues her  to the otherworld, through the cave of Cruachain, which was believed to be the home of the Mórrighan. Odras falls asleep after a spell is cast upon her, and Mórrighan turns her into a pool of water that empties into the River Shannon.

All of the mythology we have was passed down from the oral tradition for generations before being written down. The stories would have changed with each retelling, and even when written out would be at the mercy of the writer, who would have put his own sense of morality and spin on it.
Ach sin scéal eile ar fad. But that is quite another story. Irish literature is rich with epic tales from the very ancient to much more modern works. I hope these past few columns will inspire you to explore them and perhaps help you to find accessibility  to the Irish language as they have done for me. Slán go foill!Bob

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían, Aisling and Draoi and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]

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