The Morrigan, the Celtic Goddess of Death and the Black Raven of Death and Rebirth
The Morrígan (“phantom queen”) or Mórrígan (“great queen”), also written as Morrígu or in the plural as Morrígna, and spelt Morríghan or Mór-ríoghain in Modern Irish, is a Goddess from Irish mythology.
The Morrigan’s major form is of an old woman, wrapped in a cape of black raven feathers. Sometimes she takes the form of the death raven announcing death, or the banshee predicting it with shrieks. She is the thunderhead that descends at death, and the soul which is torn from the body rises through it like lightning. Her body becomes the conduit of death, the stormy pathway of the soul.
This is not for all people but it is the way she appears to the Fair Folk. Because she is the pathway, the vast network of reincarnation compressed into a cloudy mirror, she can guide the soul as she chooses. She needs only to change the pathways. Usually she is a subtle mist, but on the battlefield, she is storm clouds and thunder, the hag screaming for the dead, and the black death-horse which gallops through the sky carrying its newly deceased rider.
She is also, in secret, the goddess of incarnation. People do not like to believe that incarnations are guided. They prefer to believe that souls are generated at birth, or that some great god has chosen their fate. That the dark death goddess carries the soul in her black wings to rebirth is a frightening idea. Perhaps if the soul were brought by the stork, it would be more acceptable to the modern imagination
Another role of the Morrigan is associated with the hunting falcon, which is a rare and special role for her. Instead of a raven who guides the soul at birth or death, she becomes that falcon that guides the healer or mage in initiation.
Almost by necessity, given the lack of records left by the Celts, some of information here about the Morrigan is based on intuition.
The reaction of most people to the presence of the Morrigan is fear because her presence is said to bring with it the aura of death. When she is near, the doorway of death is visible. The portal is composed of silver branches creating a doorway against the darkness. Beyond the door lay the worlds of incarnation.
There are many images that she uses. Long ago, she came as an animal – a wolf, a vulture, or jackal. Then she took on the forms of transportation – the death-coach and the death train. She is still the Nightmare who rides away with the soul, the dark angel of death that wrestles the soul out of the body.
The death-coach comes from a time when coaches were owned by wealthy aristocrats. A coach meant nobility, royalty, or superior status. A death-coach sent by a god would be luxurious black velvet and leather, with gold and silver trim. But it also meant that a deity, a superior was sending a messenger. It was how invitations were sent before the postal service and the telephone.
The death summons in whatever symbolic form brings awareness of the temporary nature of life.
The Morrigan’s mythic body is a woman or a bird, but her cosmic form is a cloud with pathways leading from it. People are pulled down these pathways by the force of their desires and sins, and by their striving and seeking after goals. It is as if they are magnetized, and the soul is pulled from one magnet to the next. The death-coach brings the soul to the mountaintop or the cave, and she is the dark cloud it must pierce to arrive at its destination. She also opens the most powerful of the magnetized pathways – the birthing child pulling down a soul into a body and a new incarnation.
As a helper to and teacher of mages, she is the falcon who guides the hunter to his goal. Falcons too have been used as a way to send messages. In all cases, the message that she sends is that another world a waits.
As a teacher, she sometimes presides over initiations. Initiation is the simulation of death, and new life. In the initiatory process, it is the death of the soul rather than the death of the body, but they echo each other. One must experience disintegration before reintegration.
Initiations transform people and are sometimes painful but they bring them to the awareness of deeper layers of vision and intuition.
As Black Goddess of initiation, some choose to enter her cauldron, to gain the wisdom that is there. It is a dangerous path, for there is a chance of destruction, and also a chance of losing the wisdom that is sought. Such was the case in the tales of Talieson and Kerridwen. Though she made the wisdom for one who was dull and needed it, nevertheless one who was clever gained it. Wisdom will not always go where we wish it.
Finding wisdom is hard. Sometimes one must suffer unjustly, and sometimes one must deal with ugliness. But the Black Goddess has wisdom of the pathways of life and death, and from the dark cauldron of human need and desire, and from the process of incarnation itself, comes the bright drop of wisdom.
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