In Cuchulainn and the Morrigan we return to the supernatural theme that underpins his adventures. It is partly through his relationship to this primal Celtic goddess of death, procreation, and life, that Cuchulainn is so successful, for she is also goddess of war. Only after she withdraws her support can the Champion of Ulster be defeated.
The Celts have many myths and beliefs that center around the number three. The Morrigan, Danu, and Brigd are often seen as a single trifaced goddess, and many of the legends of Celtic heroes involve three tests, three challenges, or three possible outcomes. Thus, it is only natural that they would ascribe the number three into the physical world, as well. For the Celts, nature involves three earthly realms: the land, the sea, and the sky. Each has a connection with the spiritual realm. The spirits of nature live within the land, the dead live in a paradise beyond (or, in some legends, beneath) the sea, and the sky is the home of the noblest and most powerful of gods.
The Morrigan embodies all that is ferocious and terrifying about war. Her powers are great, and her anger is a force that even the gods fear. A dark deity, the Morrigan’s aspect is that of an ancient crone with iron teeth and a great reaping scythe. She delights in visiting battles, watching from above in the form of a great crow. She is a violent goddess, one who causes strife and war but whose powers can also end it – though only at a great price.
The Morrigan’s sister is Badb, known in Gaul as Cauth Bodva. Badb follows behind Morrigan on the battlefield, ensuring that death comes quickly after war.
The Morrigan is a goddess of battle, strife, and fertility. Her name translates as either “Great Queen” or “Phantom Queen,” and both epithets are entirely appropriate. The Morrigan frequently appears in the guise of a hooded crow, cawing stories of death and decay to all those who will listen. She was instrumental in the defeat of the Fomorians, and is known to hate them with an unrivaled passion.
Cuchulainn and the Morrigan
When Cuchulainn lay in sleep in Dun Imrid, he heard a cry sounding out of the north, a cry terrible and fearful to his ears. Out of a deep slumber he was aroused by it so suddenly, that he fell out of his bed upon the ground like a sack, in the east wing of the house.
He rushed forth without weapons, until he gained the open air, his wife following him with his armour and his garments. He perceived Laegh in his harnessed chariot coming towards him from Ferta Laig in the North. 'What brings thee here?' said Cuchulainn. 'A cry that I heard sounding across the plain,' said Laegh. 'From which direction?' said Cuchulainn. 'From the north-west,' said Laegh, 'across the great highway leading to Caill Cuan.' 'Let us follow the sound,' said Cuchulainn.
They go forward as far as Ath da Ferta. When they arrived there, they heard the rattle of a chariot from the loamy district of Culgaire. They saw before them a chariot harnessed with a chestnut horse. The horse had (but) one leg, and the pole of the chariot passed through its body, so that the peg in front met the halter passing across its forehead. Within the chariot sat a woman, her eye-brows red, and a crimson mantle round her. Her mantle fell behind her between the wheels of the chariot so that it swept along the ground. A big man went along beside the chariot. He also wore a coat of crimson, and on his back he carried a forked staff of hazelwood, while he drove a cow before him.
'The cow is not pleased to be driven on by you,' said Cuchulainn. 'She does not belong to you,' said the woman; 'the cow is not owned by any of your friends or associates.' 'The cows of Ulster belong to me,' said Cuchulainn. 'You would give a decision about the cow!' said the woman; 'you are taking too much upon yourself, O Cuchulainn!'
'Why is it the woman who accosts me?' said Cuchulainn. 'Why is it not the man?' 'It is not the man to whom you addressed yourself,' said the woman. 'Oh yes,' said Cuchulainn, 'but it is you who answer for him.' 'He is Uar-gaeth-sceo Luachair-sceo.' 'Well, to be sure, the length of the name is astonishing!' said Cuchulainn. 'Talk to me then yourself, for the man does not answer. What is your own name?' 'The woman to whom you speak,' said the man, 'is called Faebor beg-beoil cuimdiuir folt scenb-gairit sceo uath.'
'You are making a fool of me!' said Cuchulainn. And he made a leap into the chariot. He put his two feet on her two shoulders, and his spear on the parting of her hair.
'Do not play your sharp weapons on me!' she said. 'Then tell your true name,' said Cuchulainn. 'Go further off from me then,' said she. 'I am a female satirist, and he is Daire mac Fiachna of Cuailgne; I carry off this cow as a reward for a poem.' 'Let us hear your poem,' said Cuchulainn. 'Only move further off,' said the woman. 'Your shaking over my head will not influence me.' Then he moved off until he was between the two wheels of the chariot. Then she sang to him. . .
Cuchulainn prepared to spring again into the chariot; but horse, woman, chariot, man, and cow, all had disappeared.
Then he perceived that she had been transformed into a black bird on a branch close by him. 'A dangerous enchanted woman you are!' said Cuchulainn. 'Henceforth this Grellach shall bear the name of the 'enchanted place" (dolluid),' said the woman; and Grellach Dolluid was it called.
'If I had only known that it was you,' said Cuchulainn, 'we should not have parted thus.' 'Whatever you have done,' said she, 'will bring you ill-luck.' 'You cannot harm me,' said he. 'Certainly I can,' said the woman. 'I am guarding your death-bed, and I shall be guarding it henceforth. I brought this cow out of the Sidh of Cruachan so that she might breed by the bull of Daire mac Fiachna, namely the Donn of Cuailgne. So long as her calf shall be a yearling, so long shall thy life be; and it is this that shall cause the Tain Bo Cuailgne.'
'My name shall be all the more renowned in consequence of this Tain,' said the hero:
I shall strike down their warriors
I shall fight their battles
I shall survive the Tain!
'How wilt thou manage that?' said the woman; 'for, when thou art engaged in a combat with a man as strong, as victorious, as dexterous, as terrible, as untiring, as noble, as brave, as great as thyself, I will become an eel, and I will throw a noose round they feet in the ford, so that heavy odds will be against thee.'
'I swear by the God by whom the Ultonians swear,' said Cuchulainn, 'that I will bruise thee against a green stone of the ford; and thou never shalt have any remedy from me if thou leavest me not.' 'I shall also become a grey wolf for thee, and I will take from thy right hand, as far as to thy left arm.'
'I will encounter thee with my spear,' said he, 'until thy left or right eye is forced out; and thou shalt never have help from me, if thou leavest me not.'
'I will become a white red-eared cow,' said she, 'and I will go into the pond beside the ford, in which thou art in deadly combat with a man, as skilful in feats as thyself, and an hundred white red-eared cows behind me; and I and all behind me will rush into the ford, and the ' 'Faithfulness of men'' will be brought to a test that day, and thy head shall be cut off from thee.'
'I will with my sling make a cast against thee,' said he, 'so that thy right or thy left leg will be broken, and thou shalt never have help from me, if thou dost not leave me.'
Thereupon the Morrigu departed into the Sidh of Cruachan in Connacht, and Cuchulainn returned to his dwelling.