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Morrigan, Queen of the Witches

“The witch has been created by the land to speak and act for it.” -Peter Grey, Rewilding Witchcraft

When I took Iron Pentacle, one of Reclaiming’s core classes, I had only the vaguest idea of who the Morrigan was. I knew she had something to do with crows. There was an intense-looking statue in the shop that hosted the class. She was Celtic? I didn’t know. I didn’t think about it.

Overall I’m very happy in the Reclaiming Tradition, but our approach to deity–at least, in my particular community–can feel a bit like a gumball machine at times, with a different god and goddess invoked for every ritual, class, or planning meeting. At best, our relationships to these deities can feel a bit shallow unless we work with them personally. At worst, gods–whether they’re entities or archetypes–sometimes don’t even show up. Halfway through the evening you realize you’ve forgotten who was supposedly invoked.

That was not the case the night we worked the Power point of the pentacle.

Partly it was because the teachers’ invocation rocked. Partly it was because we did some especially deep work that night. But that session was one of the few times that the deity called was unmistakably present. Present, strong, and very interested in a roomful of witches.

After we worked with the Morrigan that night, I became obsessed with her. My classmates–soon to become my coven–did, too. It was clear that she was powerful and that she’d scooped us all up. But I was puzzled. When I’d started practicing witchcraft almost twenty years earlier, the Morrigan had been absent from all my books. Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves only mention her in passing. Granted, you access different information in your thirties than you do as a teenager, but it still struck me as odd that a goddess so rich with archetypal and magical significance, a natural ally for the burgeoning witchcraft movement, seemed relatively dormant until the beginning of the 21st century.

Isn’t that interesting? Global capitalism soars to new heights of oppression and destruction, and a goddess of sovereignty suddenly appears on the scene?

As I went through the process of becoming a devotee, I struggled to figure out what my relationship to the Morrigan was. Most sources I found emphasized her association with battle and nightmares, and I couldn’t figure out why I kept feeling her so strongly in my garden. I felt her in the twining of the jasmine plant and the spiders spinning webs over my pots. I felt her in a gale and a meteorite and the swaying branches of the jacaranda trees. For me, she was the breath of the wild world buried under a bloated civilization. I explored literal notions of warriorhood; I looked into some martial arts classes. But that just wasn’t the language she spoke to me.

The Táin is a very interesting myth. If you skim it, the Morrigan seems like a mean, almost petty figure, trying to bring Cú Chulainn down after he rejects her offer of love. After he injures her during each of her attempts, she has to trick him into healing her, and he grows indignant at having been fooled. Cue the trumpets: waah waaaah.

But the meaning of the story goes much deeper than that, of course. Here’s one possible reading: as goddess of sovereignty, the Morrigan is the personification of the landscape that forms a symbiotic relationship with its inhabitants. Usually this relationship is characterized by a symbolic marriage between the goddess and the king. Cú Chulainn isn’t a literal king, but as half-divine champion of the Ulstermen, he plays a similar role. The land offers itself to him in a spirit of partnership and love; Cú Chulainn rejects it under the misapprehension that he needs no such partnership; and the land subsequently hinders his efforts–not out of spite, but as an effect of natural law. In tricking Cú Chulainn into healing the Morrigan’s wounds, the land attempts to bring him back into that mutually beneficial partnership, although Cú Chulainn is still too pigheaded to see the benefit.

Here in the 21st century, one might read this story as a clear parable for capitalism. We’ve rejected the land and it’s begun to hinder us, sending us droughts and superstorms and deadly temperatures. The only way our story ends happily is for us to reestablish our partnership with the land by healing it–and, unlike Cú Chulainn, we need to do so willingly.

As I studied the Morrigan, I learned that I wasn’t crazy: many scholars refer to her as an earth goddess. And her role of spirit of the land isn’t far removed, I think, from her roles of sovereignty and war goddess. Humans are creatures of earth, dependent on healthy ecosystems, and we see across the globe that oppression and environmental devastation stem from the same root causes. I’m not the first person to wonder if, in this age of mass, mechanized violence, the Morrigan isn’t gathering an army.

“Late capitalist culture simply does not care what our fantasy dress up life is like as long as we work our zero hour contracts, carry our mobile phones and keep consuming. The reason that social services are not taking your children away is that nobody believes in the existence of the witch….Marching in lock-step with what used to be called mainstream, but is now mono-culture, we have disenchanted ourselves, handed over our teeth and claws and bristling luxuriant furs.” -Peter Gray, Rewilding Witchcraft

“Witchcraft is a tool against oppressors. It sides with the oppressors at its own peril, for power is ever fickle, and our gifts ever mistrusted by the bullies and abusers who would make our power their own.” – Jason Thomas Pitzl, Witchcraft Today–Witchcraft Tomorrow: A Manifesto

Witchcraft is becoming synonymous with warriorhood.

How can it not? How can we practice plant magic when our plant allies are covered in pesticides? How can we believe in an immanent Goddess and let other human lives be destroyed? How can we “sing, feast, dance, make music and love” knowing what fueled the cars we drove to our secret places? At this juncture of history, to be a witch is to be a warrior. Diana and Aradia and Hekate are commonly known as Queens of the Witches; now, by necessity, the Morrigan is taking her place alongside them. Queen of sorcery and prophecy. She who sees the cycles of history.

penot-witch

“Départ pour le Sabbat” by Albert Joseph Pénot

But the Morrigan isn’t asking us to adore her with more trinkets and cosplay. It frustrates me when I meet holier-than-thou devotees who are eager to dress up as ancient Celts and call themselves warriors, but sniff at the idea of fighting any actual battles. Why waste your time phone banking or blocking freeways when you could be out shopping for replica swords? What on earth does a war goddess have to do with politics? (Yes, a real person actually said that to me, although they didn’t phrase it as a question.)

Let’s face it: about 90% of magical and spiritual work doesn’t involve cool costumes and elaborate rituals. It involves listening to your deepest self and doing what needs to be done. This isn’t to say that rituals aren’t important; I hear the Coru priests are as good at battlefield devotionals as they are at direct action. But if your rivers are being poisoned and your neighbors are being murdered by police and you’ve only got an hour to spare, then your priorities should be clear: put down the incense and do something.

Witchcraft is warriorhood. It wasn’t always. If I’m reincarnated as another witch in 500 years, I hope that my practice can consist of dancing in meadows and wearing flower crowns. But we witches of the 21st century drew the short straw: we got a poisoned earth and a rabid kyriarchy and an angry goddess. Yeah, it sucks. It’s our job to rise to the occasion.

It’s true that the Morrigan is also known as the Phantom Queen, and I’ve seen people warned away from her for this reason. “You can’t handle her,” the warnings say. “She’s too dangerous. Her name means nightmare, you know!”

If you don’t feel a need to work with the Morrigan, then obviously you shouldn’t. I’m not proselytizing here. I know many fine warrior witches who work with Hekate or Ceridwyn or Isis or Inanna. But if you’re feeling that tug from her–if she’s invading your thoughts and dreams and she’s not leaving you alone–then I’m going to give you some advice that runs contrary to what you’ll hear elsewhere.

Don’t be afraid.

Because, yes, the Morrigan is scary. Yes, I’ve seen some deeply disturbing things in dreams and trance. Yes, working with her might lead to physical or psychic injury (although if that injury isn’t transformative in some way, then something’s off).

But I guarantee–and I’m talking especially to you, white middle-class Americans–that nothing the Morrigan can do to you compares to the horror of human trafficking, drone strikes, militarized police, environmentally-caused cancers, nuclear meltdowns, or any of the other myriad effects of capitalism and kyriarchy that ordinary people deal with everyday. If you’re hearing her call, then listen to what she’s saying. Why be afraid of the Nightmare Queen when we are living in a fucking nightmare?

To be a witch is to be a warrior. This is not an ego trip, friends–it’s an obligation. Most of us didn’t ask for it, but we do have to own it. Even if we don’t know how to be warriors. Even if we’re not sure what the word “warrior” even means.

I can’t tell you what your warriorhood should look like. Suffice it to say that if it’s exactly what you always imagined warriorhood would be, with all the pomp and splendor you’ve always craved, then it’s probably not helping a whole lot. Seek out the unglamorous battles. Don’t strive to get your picture taken. Just do what needs to be done.

The Goddess has offered you her love; your job now is to heal her.

23 Comments »

  1. I like what you’ve said here, and agree, with one big exception.

    Your reading of Cú Chulainn and the Morrígan’s conflict is pretty far off the mark; and if your reading of it is correct, then what you’ve said as your benediction at the end of your piece doesn’t make sense–i.e., if the offer of love of the goddess is accepted, then she doesn’t have to be healed because she never would have been wounded in the first place. While I see the point you’re making with that, it doesn’t apply to their situation in the story; and for us, the wounding is so deep already that I suspect no land goddesses are going to offer anyone their love (nor should they be expected to), which is why some are gathering armies instead.

    Cú Chulainn, earlier in the story, calls the River Cronn to rise for him and help him defend the province, when no one else was helping him…and it did. If there is anyone who is fighting for the land and defending the sovereignty of the province of the Ulaid, it’s him and no one else.

    The Morrígan’s challenge to him was a test: would he succumb to the stupid thing that most people would (i.e. “Hey, solderi-boy: wouldn’t you like to come and fuck instead of fight?”). Her test of him was not in her role as a sovereignty goddess, since he’s not eligible for the sovereignty, not only because of the type of warrior that he is, but also because he is not physically perfect like a king needs to be in the Irish context. She tests him as a warrior goddess tests warriors (i.e. by fighting!), and he rises to her challenge, engaged in verbal and then physical sparring with her, and yet still triumphs, and then heals her afterwards, with no real hard feelings between them…yes, he says “If I had known it was you, I’d not have blessed you [to heal you],” which is kind of “sour grapes,” but also it is the relationship a warrior would have with a potential adversary, i.e. always on the ready to defend or attack again. And, that supports your overall viewpoint: if the Morrígan doesn’t want devotees fawning over her, but instead wants everyone to rise and be warriors, she isn’t going to be saying “Ooh, aren’t I pretty, don’t you want to just drool over me?” She is going to be the hard-ass drill sergeant playing Reveille loud and out-of-tune right in one’s ear saying “Move it, scum! Hut, hut, hut!” And the warriors in question are allowed to go “That pisses me off!” as long as they fight the good fight and do what is required of them afterwards.

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    • The cool thing about myths is that you can find different levels of personal meaning in their symbolic formats. I like your interpretation better, but Asa is welcome to read what she wishes into it. That’s why it’s “myth” and not “history,” and even history is generally interpreted by the victors.

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      • There’s a very large difference between “reading into” a myth (which, strictly speaking, is eisegesis rather than exegesis, but we’ll go with that for a moment) and entirely recasting it, which is what Asa has done. The difference between reading into a myth and recasting it is that the narrative details do not change with eisegesis; though their meanings can be varied in an eisegetical interpretation, when one does so they’re regarded as being idiosyncratic and subjective rather than as part of the intended meaning of the text. On the other hand, one is not respecting the narrative integrity of the myth if one recasts it; and, let us note, recasting a myth and retelling it and thus re-interpreting it is also fine and a perfectly good thing to do, but when one does that, one has to claim what is told newly on that occasion as one’s own, and not attribute it to the established tradition.

        Cú Chulainn cannot be regarded as a figure who ignores the call of the land or its defense, pure and simple. To do that is to completely ignore and misunderstand his primary role in that myth. It would be as inaccurate as saying that Achilles in the Iliad is only there to get the girl, rather than to engage in a battle for the fame it will bring him and to die bravely in the face of his fated death.

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  2. Thank you for that text. Especially the last paragraph sums it up for me. We don’t need another hero, we need practical (and most probably fighting witches).
    I’ve never encountered the Morrigan, at least I cannot recall. I’ve had some experience with Tara and also Cybele who share some qualities. When I’ve visited the Canary Islands, Tara was everywhere. But it has been obvious to me for some years that the goddesses or the aspects of Earth herself are not very pleased. They are angry. And they have every right to be. Living in a city I’ve found abandoned places, where nature reclaims concrete as my places of power. In line of sight, but invisible. But lateley I felt a lot of anger, watching hoe careless people get with our environment. Interesting though, that you mention the connection between the Morrigan and crows. Crows have been watching over me for some years and I really love them. I never understood how people could be afraid of them. I might be looking out for the Morrigan in the eyes of the crows.

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  3. Thank you for this beautiful piece. It does seem like there has been a rise in the Goddesses of sovereignty and ferocity (Goddesses that have for too long been either ignored, feared, or relegated to cosplay and witchy pop culture ‘cool kids’) getting the attention of devotees. One of the very many indicators, to me, that we are in Tower Time and it is imperative we start walking our talk or get out of the Witch pot.

    And I can totally relate to your experience of Reclaiming gumball Gods ritual. Hah!

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    • As a total aside from this serious & important conversation: now you’ve got me wanting to put together (I’m part of a Reclaiming Ritual Planning Cell) a gumball Gods ritual!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I appreciate this essay for its galvanizing intent and agree with much of what you say about getting our feet on the ground, taking action, being part of the world we live in instead of treating our Paganism like cosplay. The Morrígan has certainly been a strong voice encouraging me in this direction.

    I do have to second PSVL in cautioning that a deeper reading of the Morrígan’s and Cú Chulainn’s myths are needed. There is no sense in which Cú Chulainn stands in rejection of the land – that’s just not his relationship to it and isn’t supported by the literature. If anything, the Brown Bull is a kind of personification of Ulster, as the White-Horned is of Connacht, since they originate in each of the Síd of those two provinces. So that is what Cú Chulainn is defending – the land of Ulster and its Brown Bull. I was going to mention Cú Chulainn calling on the River Cronn to aid him in his defense of the land – PSVL covered that nicely though.

    So yeah – I’m with you on the Morrígan’s relationship to land, guardianship, and Her wanting of warriors of all kinds to fight for the land. Keep studying Her lore and stories for a deeper understanding of warriorship and how She relates to those who answer Her call, like Cú Chulainn.

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  5. I’m with you on th need for warriors to fight for the land, and for us to move beyond treating our religions like cosplay. Agreed that the Morrígan is moving and gathering those who are willing to do so.

    I do want to encourage you to read the Irish literature more deeply. There is really no sense in which Cú Chulainn is acting in rejection of the land. The entire purpose of the battle he’s fighting in the Táin is protection of the land – both its territorial borders, and the Brown Bull. If anything, the Brown Bull can be looked at as a kind of personification of the land of Ulster – he is linked to the Síd, just as the White-Horned Bull is linked to the land and the Síd of Connacht. That’s what Cú Chulainn is fighting to protect. I too was going to point out Cú Chulainn’s conjuration of the Cronn river, which rises to help him defend the province.

    So yes, warriorship in relation to the land and standing for land and sovereignty. But I urge you to a deeper study of the Morrígan’s lore if She’s calling you to speak about Her. There is much more to Her relationship with warriors such as Cú Chulainn, that unfolds when we look more deeply at their story.

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  6. I couldn’t agree more!

    Though I’ve not been working with Morrighan directly, the ‘call to arms’ theme is something I have been experiencing fairly strongly over the past couple of years-I get the impression that it’s something They’re all asking for. Brilliant piece, thanks 🙂

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  7. Morrigan is one of those Gods/Goddesses that once she touches your mind, even with the lightest of touches, becomes nearly impossible to shake. She isn’t gentle, but rather firm and insistent that she be acknowledged and respected. I second what others here have been saying, the clarion call seems ever present in spiritual work.

    As a side note that is somewhat related to this, I sometimes get the distinct feeling that reaching spirits of land, air, and sea is harder than it should be. I usually chalk this up to living in a fairly urban location, but I have to wonder if they are withdrawing from us or if we are forcing them away.

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  8. Thanks for sharing how you became devoted to Morrigan, and an interesting reading of the Tain. I haven’t seen the Morrigan presented as a land goddess before, or read this story as Cu Chulainn rejecting partnerhip with the land. It opens new possibilities.

    ‘Why be afraid of the Nightmare Queen when we are living in a fucking nightmare?’ – Yes! I’m devoted to Gwyn ap Nudd, who’s a god of Annwn (the Brythonic otherworld) and also a gatherer of the dead and quite imposing, but not in the horrible way of the damage we’re causing the land or (what seems worse to me) the malaise of our apathy about it.

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  9. I have worked with the Morrigan for years now and can tell you the power and protection and strength She has given me has helped to heal ME .. I needed the healing and She taught me how. I love what you have said here .. glorious : )

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  10. Great read Asa and thank you I can apply much of this to my work with Hekate, each relationship we deity is individual and unique but it should always bring out the strength in us no matter what form that takes. Blessings.

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