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The Morrigan is best known as a goddess of battle. In Irish mythology if there is conflict and strife, chances are you'll find the black-winged Morrigan there, too. But the Morrigan fills many roles and had many guises, all of which are discussed in detail in my book, Celtic Lore & Spellcraft of the Dark Goddess: Invoking the Morrigan. While we think of her today as a queen of battle, she is more accurately the "Great Queen" and a goddess of sovereignty.
Celtic mythology is filled with powerful, enigmatic queens, both mortal and divine. Some, like Maeve and Rhiannon, began as goddesses but were eventually demoted to mortal queens within their myths. While in most myths the Morrigan's divine nature remains intact, in some cases, as when she appears in the guise of Macha, her statue is diminished as she appears as a mortal queen. Regardless, the roles of these queens remained constant. They personify power, authority, and strength. They were goddesses of the land, and only through a union with them could kings win the right to rule. To modern seekers they offer the gift of empowerment and self-knowledge. They challenge us to reclaim sovereignty over our lives, and lead us towards wholeness.
But before we can examine what role the goddess of sovereignty can play in our lives today, it is important to understand who she was to those who worshiped her in the past, the Pagans. To the Celts sovereignty was not simply the right to rule over a clan or country; sovereignty was a divine power that was granted by the goddess of the land. The goddess and the land were one and the same, and thus sovereignty took on the guise of a mystical or divine woman. It was only through a union—either a marriage or sexual encounter—with her that the king could rule. By joining with the goddess of the land, he in turn became connected to the land and its people. It was believed that a blemish to a king would manifest in the land; if a king was disfigured in anyway, he could no longer remain king, lest he risk transferring his disfigurement to the land. Thus when the king of the Irish Gods, Nuada, lost his hand in battle he was forced to abdicate the throne.
Because kings had to enter into a symbolic marriage with the goddess of the land, there are many references to goddesses of sovereignty also being queens. The Morrigan is no exception; her name means "Great Queen," inferring a connection to sovereignty, and as Macha (one of the three goddesses who form the Morrigan) she appeared as a mortal queen who goes to battle to retain the right to rule. Macha's father had reigned along with two other kings, each taking turns to rule for a span of seven years. When her father died and his allotted time came to rule she demanded to take his place. The other kings refused, not wishing to rule alongside a woman. Macha swiftly went to war against them and won her crown on the battlefield. It is important to notes the other kings could not rule without her. When they reject her, they reject the power of sovereignty she holds. And as they find out on the battlefield, they can not hold onto power without the goddess's consent.
Like other goddesses of sovereignty, the Morrigan has a strong connection to the land. While we think of her today as a goddess of battle, her name appears in connection to numerous earth works and features of the land, making her origins most likely that of an earth goddess. In County Meath there are a pair of hills called The Dá Chich na Morrigna (The Two Breasts of the Morrigan), in County Louth we find Gort na Morrigna (Morrigan's Field), and in the Boyne Valley there is the earthwork Mur na Morrigna (Mound of the Morrigan). "The Bed of the Couple" is a depression along the river Unius that marking the spot where Morrigan mated with the god Dagda. The places she makes her home also point toward her connection to the land and sovereignty. Before she made her home in the Cave of Cruachan she was said to dwell at Tara, where Ireland's high kings were inaugurated. The Cave of Cruachan, also said to be her home, stood not far away from Cruachan, the royal seat of power for the kings and queens of Connacht.
The gift of sovereignty was not shared; instead, it was conveyed from the goddess to the king, who acted as her representative. This relationship was not always permanent; if the king became too old to rule or was unjust the goddess could leave the union and replace him with a younger, more fitting ruler. We can find this theme in the stories of Maeve, Rhiannon, and Guinevere. Although demoted to a mortal queen, Maeve's abilities and the impossible tasks she performs point to her divine origins. She takes many consorts, replacing them when she sees fit. Despite this Maeve always retains Queenship over Connacht, while the men in her life can only become kings through a union with her. Similarly, it is not until the Morrigan's union with Dagda, one of the kings of the Túatha De Danann, that the Irish gods could defeat their enemies the Fir Bolg and take over rulership of Ireland. Like other kings, it is not until Dagda engaged in a sexual union or marriage with the goddess of the land that he (and the other Irish gods) could truly rule Ireland.
In Rhiannon's story we find her willfully leaving an engagement and seeking out a worthier mate, prince Pwyll, who eventually ruled as a just king with Rhiannon at his side. It is also interesting to note that like the Morrigan, Rhiannon's name also translates to "Great Queen" from a similar root, "rigani," meaning "queen." Similarly, in the love triangle between Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot we find the sovereign figure (here represented by the mortal queen Guinevere) seeking out a mate more to her liking. Their story is most likely a distorted version of the sovereign goddess's myth. As a mortal woman she is reduced to a lustful, cheating wife, but when we return her to her original form, seeing her instead as the goddess of sovereignty, she is maintaining her right to choose her lovers and confer sovereignty to a younger, worthier mate. She acts in the best interest of the land, giving the power to rule to someone she feels is better suited to its prosperity and protection.
This same theme is mirrored in the interactions between Morgan Le Fay and her sometimes-lover brother, when she attempts to have her young lover Accolon replace Arthur as king. It is debatable if Morgan Le Fay and the Morrigan are the same, but they share many traits. The character of Morgan Le Fay is derived from the goddess Modron, who is the Morrigan's Welsh equivalent, suggesting a connection between the two. Certainly they share similar roles as sovereignty figures within Celtic lore.
The goddess of sovereignty, like the Morrigan, was somewhat of a shape-shifter; she could take the form of a young beautiful woman or a monstrous hag. When she appears as the hag it is usually to test the king or to remove him from his position, while as the maiden she grants him her loving support and gifts. At times the two themes are combined and the king must face the hag in order for her to transform into the lovely maiden.
The sovereign-hag usually appears in a story when the king has broken his vows to the goddess in some way. Usually this is after he has violated a taboo, or geis. Kings and heroes often had several geis placed upon them by a goddess or Otherworldly female. Breaking a geis brought bad luck and in most cases caused the hero or king's death. When the king broke one of his geis, the sovereign-hag would appear, tempting him to break his remaining taboos. This functioned as a sort of divine checks and balances system. If he broke his taboo, he was unworthy and the goddess relinquished the power of sovereignty, which he had abused.
We often find the Morrigan filling the role of the sovereign-hag who brings unworthy kings low. In the The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel the Morrigan (here in her guise as Badb) appeared at king Conaire's door after he had broken several of his taboos. Disguised as a hideous hag she tricked him into breaking his final geis, to never admit a single female into his house after dark, and by the morning Conaire was dead. Conaire could have chosen to not break his taboo, but he willing does so, failing the goddess's test.
The Morrigan's interactions with Cúchulain follows a similar pattern, except Cúchulain, unlike Dagda, refuses to acknowledge the goddess's power. Cúchulain may not have been a king, instead being the champion of Ulster, but by protecting and defending the land against Maeve's army he acts in much the same way as a king would. The Morrigan, charmed by his prowess in battle, appears to him as a beautiful maiden. She offers him her love, but he rudely turns down her offer. By refusing the goddess's offer of a sexual union, he in turn is refusing her offer of conferred sovereignty, and fails to acknowledge the power of the goddess who personifies the land. When she offers to aid him in battle instead, he again insults her. Fueled by his ego he believes he does not need her aid to win his battles. Like other kings who the sovereign goddess tests and find unworthy, the Morrigan takes actions against him. She attacks him in the form of a heifer, an eel, and a wolf, hindering him in battle.
Like her interaction with Conaire, she attempts to make the hero break his geis. Before Cúchulain's final battle she appears as a hag alongside the road cooking dog flesh. She offers him some of the meat, which puts him in a precarious situation. Cúchulain had two taboos, to never eat the flesh of his name sake the dog, and to never refuse food offered to him. No matter what he does, refuse the food or eat it, he will break a geis. He eats the food, and like Conaire, dies shortly after.
In mythology the goddess of sovereignty is a mighty queen; she dispenses justice and aids the worthy, all in service to the land and its people. But how does this figure of the divine queen translate in today's spirituality? The Great Queen, in all her forms, may not be testing kings in today's world; instead she offers us a different challenge. As the goddess of sovereignty, the Morrigan challenges us to champion ourselves, to claim the sovereignty of self.
Too often in life we forget to recognize our own power, our right to steer the directions of our lives. Sometimes we hand our power over to others; perhaps we have been learned to rely on other people and not ourselves, or we are afraid to take control of our lives, or maybe we have handed our power over to another out of love. Perhaps we feel too shy to speak our true feelings, or feel like the course of our lives is out of our control. Whether we have relinquished our personal power within a relationship, in our careers, or just in life in general, the Great Queen calls to us to reclaim our sovereignty.
Beverly Moon and Elisabeth Benard relate the world "sovereign" to the Sanskrit sva-raj, which means "self-rule" or "self-ruler." Another meaning of raj is "luminous" or "radiance," thus there is a connotation that sovereignty is not only ruling over one's self but being in the state of "self-luminescence" or letting our inner radiance shine through. When we self-rule our lives we do not leave our fates up to others. Empowered by this aspect of the goddess we can bravely reshape ourselves and our lives into what we desire.
As the sovereign-hag she appears to us when we need to break down the barriers that hold us back in life. She tests our strength, and teaches us to rely on the power within. As the queen she teaches us the necessity of action. If we wish to bring change into our lives, then at times, like Macha, we must go to battle and stand up for what we believe in. When we have learned to call upon our inner strength, she appears as the beautiful maiden, offering us the wealth of the land and the fruits of our hard earned labors.
While the great queens of mythology are often cast as villains, they teach us a vital truth. When we embrace the mysteries of the sovereign queen we embrace our own inner power, letting it shine radiantly into all aspects of our lives. The ancient queens of myth and legend took power into their own hands, and fought fiercely to maintain it. No matter the situations they remained resolutely true to themselves. Through self-rule they shaped the course of their stories, just as we can re-shape our own.
Stephanie Woodfield (Orlando, FL) has been a practicing Pagan for the past twenty years. A devotional polytheist, teacher, and Priestess of the Morrigan, she is one of the founding members of Morrigu's Daughters and is an ...