Ravens and the Morrigan: Irish Goddess of War

by JoHarrington

A conspiracy of ravens is interwoven with the Morrigan mythology like a Celtic knot. But why are these birds so linked with Ireland's darkest deity?

The common raven is native to Ireland, and much of Western Europe. Its propensity to feast upon carrion gave it an unsettling presence on the battlefield.

It's hardly surprising therefore that these dark, intelligent birds became practically synonymous with the Goddess of Battle, Strife and Sovereignty. At the very point where ancient Irish warriors were discerning the Morrigan's choice in victory, they were watching ravens swoop down to peck upon the remains of the fallen.

Naturally the legends indelibly cloistered around such scenes.

Who is the Morrigan?

Commonly referred to as an ancient Irish Goddess, it was Morrigan who determined who should rule the land over the course of a battle.

The Morrigan is generally represented as a single goddess, but in reality She was three. She comprised the Trinity of Badb, Macha and Nemain. Their roles often overlapped, but may be roughly categorized as follows:

Badb (whose name means 'crow') acted as a harbinger of war. Her two most famous legends concern the eve and aftermath of battle. 

In the former, She may be glimpsed as the Washer at the Ford. Warriors may spot a beautiful lady washing bloodied clothes in a river. As they come closer, they realize that the clothes are their own. Badb looks up and She is transformed into a hag. With her actions, She has foretold that they will die on the battlefield.

In the latter, Badb declares the end of war. It was She who sang the famous words, after the last battle of Maige Tuired, which began, 'Peace to the sky, the sky down to Earth, Earth under sky, strength in all.'

Macha (whose name means 'of the plain') may be viewed as the one who sets the rules of combat. Those warriors who have crossed the Morrigan may discover to their cost that Macha's blessing is now with their enemies.

It may be that the terrain or climate favors one side, but more usually Her medium was chaos, confusion and turning personality flaws upon themselves. For example, as Macha of the Swift Heels, She twisted Her husband's pride and disrespect of women into a distinct disadvantage, when She cursed all of the men of his native Ulster to suffer the pangs of childbirth on a battlefield.

When people contemplate the Morrigan, they are usually thinking about Nemain. The etymology of her name is fiercely contested, though they all follow a theme. It could mean 'poison', 'something dealt out', 'vanquishing an enemy' or 'curse'. For those defeated by the combined might of the Morrigan, the semantics are probably meaningless by that point.

Nemain is waiting when warriors fall in battle. She takes up the bloodied clothes, and hands them back to the shade of the warrior who saw the Washer at the Ford. She walks through the havoc raised by Macha and takes the hand of those who are never coming back. She delivers those warriors to the river, and escorts them to Tír na nÓg.

She calls the moment when the battle is ended. She stands alongside those with the grim task of clearing the battlefield. She calls down the ravens to feast. 

Alongside her sisters/other selves, Nemain chose who won the war. As that so often also declared who now owned this territory, the Morrigan is seen as the Goddess who decided upon who should wear a crown.

All of this against a backdrop of ravens cawing, descending, feasting and flying away again. To those fighting, the ravens WERE the Morrigan.

Books about the Morrigan

Ravens are so interlinked with the Irish War Goddess that every single depiction here includes the bird too.

Cú Chulainn and the Raven

In the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn reigns supreme as the region's greatest hero. A reign cut abruptly short on the day he met the raven.

We'd be here all day, if we were to recount all of the tales of Cú Chulainn. But it's worth noting that the tone of them changed with a single incident.

Cú Chulainn watched a raven fly up onto a tree branch.

At that moment, there is palpable dread in his story. Just the mere sight of a black bird in those circumstances had just one interpretation - the Morrigan had turned against him. He knows that he's just effectively signed his own death warrant.

The Morrigan appeared, thinly disguised in various guises, throughout the tales of Cú Chulainn, but we only ever saw the raven once more - at the moment of his death.

Encountering the Morrigan wasn't necessarily a bad thing, even in the most arduous of ancient Irish legends. She produced challenges, wherein the rewards for overcoming them were immense.  Most often, She sought to highlight a flaw in the system or a weakness in the defenses, which - once fixed - strengthened everything.

But when the raven turned up, then Morrigan wasn't playing anymore. The raven meant death.

In the instant before Cú Chulainn saw the raven, he had been rejecting the advances of a beautiful woman. He did so because he was in the midst of a series of single combat fights, forced into the situation by the curse of Macha of the Swift Heels.

Hence he'd already missed the fact that Badb and Macha had taken an interest. He would not miss Nemain. Sex and violence were par for the course for a young Irish warrior. The raven meant that Nemain had him in Her sights. He could not survive that.

Skip forward through several colorful events, and we arrive at a battlefield. Cú Chulainn is already weakened, as Macha (aka Mebh) has tricked him into eating food which is against his personal gaes (taboo). (Modern audiences might imagine it as Superman attempting to fight under the influence of kryptonite.) He was also thoroughly spooked on the way there, as he witnessed Badb washing his clothes in a river.

Cú Chulainn received three fatal wounds that day, but tied himself to a standing stone with his sword arm fastened above his head. His battle prowess was so legendary and feared that none dared to approach, until they could be certain that he was truly dead. But who could tell without drawing close enough to be slain?

It was a scene reminiscent of the moment when the Morrigan had initially turned against him. Cú Chulainn stood alone against a distant army. Once again, Nemain took the form of a raven. She flew onto his shoulder and pecked at his face.

In that undeniable form, Nemain had declared this story over, and the victors came to hack Cú Chulainn's body to shreds.

Morrigan Raven Jewelry

Each one of these jewelry designs takes the Celtic Trinity and adds it to the form of a raven. They all represent the Morrigan.

Morrigan and the Cry of the Raven

The Morrigan is often depicted shape-shifting into a raven, or else wearing attire crafted from raven feathers.

Sometimes, her true aspect is revealed as a woman with raven-esque wings of her own, though that comes from more modern portrayals.

What we haven't alighted upon yet is the powerful cry of the Morrigan. This has its links, or inspiration, in that of the real world ravens too.

There's an old legend that Fionn mac Cumhaill sleeps, surrounded by the Fianna, in a cave below Eire. When Ireland is at its greatest danger, a representative must find the cave and blow three times on the horn found there. Then the Fianna will rise again to save the country.

What's less often mentioned is the traditional sound that the horn blasts make.  Its 'KRAA KRA KRAAA' apes the sound of three ravens. It's the Morrigan calling all Fenians to battle again.

The caw of ravens over any battlefield must have keenly focused the minds of its warriors on the eve, or during the aftermath, of war. But there was an especial horror of said ravens speaking the name of any individual there.

And that was entirely possible. 

Ravens, like parrots or cockatiels, can mimic any sound that they hear, including human speech, as these videos aptly demonstrate.

The first is the broad natural array of raven calls, which do seem rather otherworldly on a dark night in the woods. The three that follow are ravens imitating human diction.

Could Talking Ravens Account for the Banshee?

Banshee is an Anglocisation of the Irish Bean-Sidhe. It's just Badb in yet another guise.

The links between the Morrigan and the legend of the banshee have been well established by writers like David Rankine and Sorita D'Esta. In many ways, the enduring nature of the later legend is testimony to the fact that belief in Morrigan never left the Irish.

Just as Babd took to washing the bloodied clothes of soon-to-be-slain warriors, the banshee also warns of approaching death. She stands outside homes, screaming and/or keening over a certain person's name. That individual will be dead by the third day.

But now imagine that a raven has been taught to repeat that name, then is released into the foliage outside a home. How close might that sound to the fabled banshee?  Enough to frighten someone to death?

And remember that ravens are also native to Wales, where the Gwrach y Rhibyn performs precisely the same function as the banshee. Let's hope that all we ever hear them caw is 'nevermore'.

Morrigan Art and Crafts

Play 'spot the raven' with each of these stylised representations of Morrigan.
Morrigan Wall Plaque Wood Finish

Morrigan, translated as "Phantom Queen," is an awesome Battle Goddess. Here she is depicted in one of her stories thru the eyes of Cuchulain, who is roused from sleep hearing a ...

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Small Goddess Morrigan Statue Stone Finish

The Morrigan is depicted as a Bronze Age Celt. A triple Goddess, her three aspects are known as: Nemain, Macha, and Badb. She holds two spears and is known for being indomitable ...

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Morrigan Amulet

Cloaked in wings with a hood drawn low over her head, this amulet depicts the goddess Morrigan, clutching a red stone over her womb with a skull resting by her feet. Representin...

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Morrigan Tile Coaster

An image of a Celtic raven in the shape of a waning moon, the Morrigan picture has twin hounds in the knotwork of her wing and 13 spirals in the shoulder disk representing the l...

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The Morrigan Canvas Print / Canvas Art - Artist Antony Galbraith

This is a beautiful stretched-canvas print wrapped on 1.5" thick stretcher bars. The print is professionally printed, assembled, and shipped within 2 - 3 business days from our ...

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Celtic Ravens Mandala Fine Art Tapestry - Original Design by Jen Delyth

Morrigan Ravens Mandala Fine Art Heirloom Tapestry designed by Jen Delyth. These FINE ART TAPESTRIES are woven works of art. Woven on jacquard looms they utilize between nine an...

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Updated: 04/28/2015, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/05/2015

Wow! Really? That's truly amazing! Thank you very much. <3

cmoneyspinner on 03/26/2015

Good morning nice lady! Shared this to my Pinterest board and just wanted you to know it has been repinned 200+ times.

JoHarrington on 01/22/2014

This is true! But in fairness so am I, and they're still bigger than me!

frankbeswick on 01/22/2014

They are well fed.

JoHarrington on 01/22/2014

Aww! Thank you very much. :)

I like ravens too, though the ones in the Tower of London are surprisingly huge!

cmoneyspinner on 01/22/2014

Yeah. What you and Frank already said. :)
Only thing I have to add is I like ravens - whether optimistic and free-spirited, or dark and moody. Especially the character Raven from the animated TV series Teen Titans. She reminds me of my daughter. "I don't do happy." :)

Sharing this via my Mythology board on Pinterest. :)
- http://www.pinterest.com/cmoneyspinne...

JoHarrington on 01/22/2014

It was said previously that, as long as Bran's head is under Tower Hill, Britain will never be invaded. Mmmmm....

Incidentally, Bran means 'raven'. :) Thanks for this.

frankbeswick on 01/22/2014

We keep ravens in the Tower of London because, it is believed they are sacred to the Celtic god, Bran. The site on which the Tower is set was once, it is thought, sacred to Bran, hence their presence was to keep him happy. Hence the legend that when the ravens depart, the British monarchy will end. That's why they keep the ravens well fed and their numbers are always maintained.

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