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Who is the Morrigan?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Morrigan is a figure in Irish Celtic mythology who is associated with fate and prophecy. Stories about the Morrigan crop up in several mythological cycles, and her history and precise function are actually a bit confused. In some stories, she is depicted as a vengeance goddess, for example, while in others, she is more closely associated with fertility. In most stories, she is a figure to be feared, reflecting ancient beliefs in Ireland about the power of women.

In some stories, the Morrigan is depicted as a triple goddess, usually with some combination of her sisters Macha, Nemain, or Badb. The Morrigan may also be depicted alone, and she is a shapeshifter. She can appear as a human woman, but she may also appear in the form of a crow or a cow. Crows are associated with death, since they often hover around battlefields, while cows are associated with fertility and farming. These different forms illustrate the many ways in which the Morrigan is viewed.

In most stories, the Morrigan is associated with prophecy and fate. It is implied that the Morrigan has the ability to shape or dictate fate, whether at the battlefield or on the farm. Some researchers have suggested that the Morrigan is actually a goddess of sovereignty, which could explain her conflicting roles in mythology, as she must sometimes go to war to protect the sovereignty of her people. Various versions of the Morrigan were also historically used by separatist groups in Ireland as figures to worship and rally around, supporting this interpretation of the goddess.

The Morrigan's name is also a topic of some interest. It may translate as “Great Queen,” but it could also be “Nightmare Queen” or “Phantom Queen,” depending on which diacritical markings are used on her name. “Phantom Queen” appears to be the truest translation of the early forms of her name, suggesting that she was viewed with awe and fear in the earliest stories about her. Other historians suggest that her name really translates as “Mare Queen,” indicating that she is one of the Horse Goddesses of Irish mythology.

This mythological figure plays a prominent role in the Ulster Cycle, influencing the outcome of events and eventually causing the death of the story's hero, Cúchulainn. She also shows up in several collections of myths from later periods, including Cath Maige Tuireadh and Lebor Gabala Erenn, part of the Mythological Cycle, a collection of Pagan myths from Ireland which includes stories, histories, poems, and songs.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Ted41 — On Jul 16, 2012

@betterment - I don't think there is any female saint that is similar to the Morrigan. You might be thinking of St. Brigid, who is thought by some to be based on the Celtic goddess Brigid. Although some people think the similarities are only coincidental, so again, who knows?

Anyway, I'm often surprised by how many representations there are of the Morrigan in popular culture. I just got finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and I'm pretty sure she was mentioned in there. I know for sure I've seen a comic book character based off of the Morrigan somewhere too.

By betterment — On Jul 16, 2012

@SZapper - I have heard that some people think Morgan La Fey is based on the Morrigan. However, some people dispute this and think the similarity ends with the name. I guess we'll never know for sure!

Anyway, I'm wondering if the Morrigan has an equivalent saint? I read somewhere that the Catholic church often absorbed local pagan gods and goddesses into saints in an effort to convert people to Catholicism. They did the same thing with holidays too, if I'm not mistaken.

I'm not Catholic though, so I don't know much about saints from off the top of my head. Maybe someone else knows?

By SZapper — On Jul 15, 2012

I've always found the Morrigan goddess to be pretty fascinating. She's pretty much a study in opposites, since she has to do with death but also fertility. I guess you could say she represents the cycle of life? Either way I'm not surprised some groups have taken her on as their symbol.

I think I also read somewhere that the Morrigan is associated with Arthur's sister Morgan La Fey in Arthurian legend. I guess this makes sense, because Morgan La Fey is also portrayed as a somewhat vengeful figure who shapes events in some King Arthur stories.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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