Category Archives: Celtic
First let me reassure my readers that my promise to “eviscerate like an Irish satirist” was meant to be lighthearted. Some people didn’t get the joke, but I thought it was hilarious: it would be such a traditionally sound way to confront ultra-traditionalists. Ditto with my characterization of argumentative disagreement as “war”: that was an allusion to Morrigan.
I hope not too many times in the future to find myself in the position of explaining a joke, and I acknowledge that it’s a poor joke when people don’t get it. However, I can’t very well apologize for my criticisms (not that anyone has asked me to) since I didn’t level any – only telegraphed my intention. I’m glad it worked out this way, because now I know that the reaction had to do with my temerity to criticize rather than anything I would have said. I don’t hold animosity toward Pagan Reconstructionists, and as my readers know I value historical data as a way to inform practice. Having disagreements with Pagan Reconstructionism does not imply contempt or disregard for history, and it is precisely because this issue is framed in such a polarized way that there needs to be more critique. It may get ugly at times, but it needs to happen.
Sadly, my own critique will not be in verse. If you feel a need to comment on this post, I ask that you do that here rather than going to Facebook, so I can respond directly and publicly.
The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens by Morgan Daimler is another installment of the Moon Books Pagan Portals series. It is a short book, under a hundred pages, but contains in-depth material nonetheless. It discusses the Irish triple goddess from early Irish literary and historical sources. Other Irish goddesses associated with or mentioned in conjunction with the Morrigan are also explored. If you are looking for a way through the baffling and contradictory literature about these goddesses your hopes are dashed. Daimler mostly confirms that the sources really are that confused and confusing. Needless to say, this is not a book for the casual reader. Still, those who worship Irish goddesses and are drawn to Irish Paganism will find it worthwhile. There are invocations, meditations, and personal recollections that break up the text, as well as short essays on general topics related to the Morrigan such as “dark goddesses.”
The Morrigan is written from a Pagan Reconstructionist perspective, with the limitations and prejudices this implies. It hints at the tensions between fundamentalists and reformationists in modern practice, which I find interesting rather than off-putting. Usually this “discussion” consists of Reconstructionists sniping at non-Reconstructionists and non-Reconstructionists rolling their eyes and ignoring Reconstructionists. I’ve decided that the time has come for some pushback from the other team and will be unleashing some well overdue criticism against Reconstructionism in an article I am writing for an upcoming anthology. I will eviscerate the Reconstructionists with incisive commentary worthy of the old Irish satirists. Morrigan has spoken: the war is on.
Possibly the most common Craft name among Witches with a Celtic bent (as well as many Witches who do not consider themselves Celtic) is Raven or some variant like Ravenwood or Ravenspring. At a Witch gathering when Raven’s name comes up, the most likely response is, “Which one”? Perhaps this is apropos, since ravens seldom travel alone and they are rather hard to tell apart.
In Celtic lore ravens and crows (who are often conflated) may be associated with heroes (Bran, Owin, Arthur), but are more often linked with frightening warrior goddesses. Badb Cath, whose name means “battle crow,” is a classic example. As her name implies, she waits at the edge of the battlefield to claim that the souls of the slain, like the ravens waiting to devour their flesh. Sometimes Badb appears as the soothsayer called The Washer at the Ford, a wailing pale woman with white-blonde hair who sits on the banks of a stream wringing out a bloody shirt that will not come clean.
Badb is not the only goddess linked with the Washer, nor is she the only goddess of the crows. Morrigan is another warrior who claims the dead. Like other Celtic corvid goddesses, she is not just a passive player who prophesies and accepts the dead: at times she actively challenges the hero, who can only parlay her attacks temporarily. This excerpt from The Ulster Cycle is illustrative:
One night while Cuchulainn was sleeping, during the time when he was still fighting the men of Connacht, during the time when the men of Ulster were still fighting their labor pangs, he was awoken by a piercing cry from the north. He scrambled from his tent to find his chariot driver yoking the horses, and the two drove out on the plain to investigate the sound. There they met a woman in a chariot pulled by a red mare. The woman had red eyebrows and red hair, a red dress and a red cloak. Tied to her back was a gray spear. “I hear you have performed heroic and wonderful deeds,” she told Cuchulainn, “and I have come to offer you my love.” “I have no time for lovemaking,” Cuchulainn replied emphatically, “for I am completely worn out. I have been fighting all day and must prepare for battle tomorrow. Your visit could not come at a more importunate time.” “I will help you in your struggle,” the woman countered. “I have already helped you greatly, Cuchulainn, and you have benefitted from my protection.” “It is not a lady’s help I need in this fight!” Cuchulainn argued hotly, “and I will not trust your protection.” “Very well,” she answered, “prepare to do battle with me as well as the others.” With that the lady in red, her mare and her chariot disappeared, and he and his driver were left completely alone, except for a crow sitting in the high branch of a tree. Cuchulainn felt his own pang of sickness then, because he realized he had been speaking to the warrior goddess Morrigan. [Quoted from Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess]
Other Celtic raven/crow goddesses I am aware of (and this list is probably not exhaustive) are Macha, Nemain, Rhiannon, Branwen, Natosuelta, and Cathubodua. Like actual ravens, these goddesses are difficult to distinguish and debate continues over whether they are in fact different appellations for the same goddess. The inclusion of Macha and Rhiannon, who many know as horse goddesses, may be surprising, but ravens and horses appear together consistently in Celtic art.
Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge, 1992.
Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.