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.
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.