Mythology Spotlight: The Morrigan


It’s hard to come up with original ideas. There is, of course, an excellent reason for this: humans have been telling stories for at least 20,000 years when the paintings in the Lascaux caves of southwestern France were used to recording what the paleolithic people experienced. Between the time of cave paintings and the time of e-books, every possible topic has been written.  So, if you’ve been worried that your story isn’t “original” enough, take a breath; in all reality, there are only so many themes that can be used, and they’ve all been used already. Your job isn’t to reinvent the wheel, but instead, make a shiner, cooler looking wheel that looks completely different from the last wheel, while still doing the same job that every wheel before it has done. When an author wants a story idea, they seek inspiration. As a fantasy or sci-fi author, believe it or not, you have motivation everywhere.

One of my favorite means of finding inspiration is through ancient folklore and mythology. I was obsessed with these stories when I was a child, and a lot of characters that I’ve created from 8 years old to now, at 33, have been based on mythology. It’s important to consider that ancient stories were used to explain natural phenomenon, ethics, mortality and history, so when your world-building sessions are a little lackluster for inspiration, some of these stories may help move it along again.

For the first spotlight, because I love hardcore women, I decided to look at The Morrigan, from ancient Celtic mythology.

The Morrigan starts her controversial existence with her name: it’s not known whether the name should be translated into “Phantom Queen” or “Great Queen,” given the later breaks in the original Celtic language. Most scholars tend to agree with the former. As is typical with many mythologies, The Morrigan’s identity changed with time, in this case, going from being a single goddess to a trinity of goddesses, Badb, Macha and Nemain. Certain things remained consistent, however. The Morrigan was known as a war goddess, influencing the outcomes of battles, emboldening one army or intimidating another. She’s usually represented by ravens or crows, which were considered to be tellers of strife and death.

The Morrigan makes her first appearance in the legends known as the Ulster Cycles—a collection of hero-stories from the over-kingdom of Ulaid (located in what is now eastern Ulster). In the stories, she meets the hero, Cú Chulainn, after he insults her while she’s helping herself to one of the cows of his territory. The Morrigan, not really known for her patience with men, transforms into a crow and lands on a branch, letting Cú Chulainn know just how much harder his life was about to become. He tries to tell her that he would have undoubtedly second-guessed insulting her if he had known who she was. Being the Morrigan, she tells him that anything he would have done to her would have ended badly for him. She also delivers news of his death in an upcoming battle, telling him that she’ll be present for the whole thing.

Later, in between combats, the Morrigan appears to Cú Chulainn and offers him both her love and her aid in conflict. When he refuses her, she takes it as well as you would imagine, turning herself first into an eel during the next battle that trips him, a wolf that causes a cattle stampede and the leader of the stampeding cattle. He wounds her each time and still manages to defend his territory from the invaders. Later, he finds an old woman milking a cow, who offers him three drinks of milk. With each glass, he blesses the old woman who, as you can probably guess, was actually the Morrigan, because there is absolutely nothing this goddess can’t transform herself into. With each blessing, one wound is healed. When she reveals herself, Cú Chulainn makes it clear that he would have never healed her if he knew who she was, presumably because he’s going to die, anyway, so why not? When he does die, in what is probably the most fantastic death scene ever, Cú Chulainn ties himself with his own intestine to a large rock, so that he can die upright. He’s found with a crow (guess who) perched on his shoulder.

In the Mythology Cycles, the Morrigan is known to walk onto battlefields and wipe out the enemies with only her voice. She is capable of prophecies, not just of battles or victories, but even the end of the world. She is capable of transforming people into rivers or streams. She’s a useful character if you have a strong woman in battle, a shapeshifter, a woman leader or any number of needs for a brutal, prophetic, shapeshifting warrior.

Some of the best texts on the Morrigan—or Celtic mythology in general—can be found on CELT (Corpus of Electronic Text), a project that collects Irish literature and history and makes it available online to read anywhere in the world. Ancient Celtic languages are often challenging to translate, so many of the pages have parts that will be notated as an unclear translation.

What do you think? Does the Morrigan help to inspire your writing? Maybe a different (more uplifting) subject would work? Leave a comment below to suggest a myth or legend to look into!

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