Back in 1977 Patrick Ford published a paper called “Celtic Women: the Opposing Sex”. It could have been tailor-made for the Morrigan, a fearsome goddess who spends most of the Tain trying to destroy the hero Cúchulainn. By contrast, Brigid seems to be the “good girl” of Irish myth.
She is the daughter of the Dagda, and mother of three sons. She marries the Fomorian Bres to end the war between his people and hers, and later weeps bitterly when her son dies in battle. (And when Christianity comes, she smartly transitions to a saint. It’s very hard to picture a St Morrigan, although I wonder what she would be patron saint of…)
Two very different goddesses? Sometimes I imagine that Irish goddesses were invented by someone heavily into Winnicott and Klein, and the theory that babies imagine their mothers as all-powerful beings that they alternately love and hate/fear.
Imbolc vs. Samhain
But it’s unfair to both goddesses to imagine them as a plaster saint with a faint smirk and a blood-boltered harridan. If they are different it is because they address very different concerns and have different aims.
The festivals associated with them show this contrast. Brigit’s festival is Imbolc, the early spring festival of lambing (Feb. 1st). In Britain and Ireland, the snowdrops are out, the new lambs are being born, and the first stirrings of nature can be seen.
The Morrigan is mainly associated with the festival of Samhain (Nov. 1st). One myth has it that she and the father-god the Dagda met on Samhain, and she coupled with him astride a river. This was the Irish Day of the Dead, when the veil between the worlds was thin, and people could pass into the otherworld or speak with those who lived there:
Now the Dagdae had to meet a woman in Glenn Etin on that day year about the Allhallowtide of the battle. The river Unius of Connaught roars to the south of it. He beheld the woman in Unius in Corann, washing herself, with one of her two feet at Allod Echae i. e. Echumech, to the south of the water, and the other at Loscuinn, to the north of the water. Nine loosened tresses were on her head. The Dagdae conversed with her, and they make a union. ‘The Bed of the Couple’ is the name of the stead thenceforward. The woman that is here mentioned is the Morrígan Lamia.
The word Lamia, as a gloss on Morrigan, is a reference to the child-devouring demoness of Greek myth. (She was cursed by Hera, who also killed Lamia’s own children, as revenge for an affair with Zeus.)
The rest of the story of the Second Battle of Moytura shows her egging on the warriors, singing prophetic or inciting songs, and describing to Lugh the powers she will bring to the battle (the manuscript has unfortunately been damaged here):
‘And thou, O Morrígan’, saith Lugh, ‘what power wilt thou wield?’
‘Not hard to say’, quoth she. ‘ What I shall follow I shall (hunt): what I shall strike has been
[gap: meaning of text unclear/extent: one word]
: what I have cut out shall be
[gap: meaning of text unclear/extent: one word]
The two halves of war
As I mentioned, the two goddesses show very different attitudes towards war and fighting. The only mention of Brigit in the tale of how the Tuatha de Danann defeated the Fomorians involves the death of her son:
Now that was harmful to the Fomorians, so they told a man of them to inspect the battle and the (custom) of the Tuath Dea, namely Ruadán son of Bres and of Brígh the Dagda’s daughter. For he was a son and a grandson of the Tuath Dé…He was sent again to kill one of the artists, even Goibniu. From him he begged a spear…
Now after the spear had been given him, Ruadán turned and wounded Goibniu. But he plucked out the spear and cast it at Ruadán, so that it went through him, and he died in the presence of his father in the assembly of the Fomorians. Then Brígh comes and bewailed her son. She shrieked at first, she cried at last. So that then for the first time crying and shrieking were heard in Erin. Now it is that Brígh who invented a whistle for signalling at night.
Unlike the bloodthirsty goddess who urges men on to war, Brigit has to deal with the aftermath, weeping over her dead son. She also represents an alternative; her marriage to Bres was an attempt at a peaceful solution.
(The Morrigan also lost a son, Mechi, who was killed by Mac Cecht. Apparently he had three serpents in his three hearts, which would have destroyed Ireland had they lived.)
Freyja and Frigg (or Mary and Martha)
It may seem that the Morrigan is the more exciting and glamorous goddess. After all, who doesn’t prefer exciting stuff like war, sex and magic to looking after children and keeping relatives at peace?
I think it was John Lancaster who said that while novels concentrate on love, they have little to say about children and work. Brigit represents the everyday world in which we live, while we dream of more exciting times (like Emma Bovary).
In Norse myth this dichotomy can be seen in Frigg and Freyja, who can be crudely characterized as wife and mistress, but really are goddesses with very different interests and powers.
People need gods who are close to their concerns as much as they need outsider gods to deal with war, magic, monsters and other non-everyday stuff. Monsters don’t turn up every day, but the butter must be churned, family harmony maintained, and children looked after.
They both have a cow…
which could be a symbolic way of saying that both goddesses are wealthy, since cattle were money in ancient Ireland. St. Brigit is usually depicted with her red-eared cow, and she is patron saint of dairymaids and cattle. Her mantle, the Brat Bhride, can heal sick cattle.
The Morrigan also has cows, and appears as a cow, but to very different effect.
She chases off the bull Donn Cuailnge in the Tain Bo Regamna, so that Queen Medb can’t steal him. This leads to a confrontation with Cúchulainn, who insults her. Later she fights him, in the form of an eel, a cow and a wolf. Leave it to the Morrigan to come up with a battle-cow.
Finally, she appears to him as an old woman milking a cow with three teats, to trick him into healing her wounds from their three battles. The Ulster Cycle ends with the death of Cúchulainn, just as the goddess predicted.
To sum up, Brigit is someone who is closely connected with cows, and dairying, while the Morrigan’s association with cows is essentially magical in nature, and doesn’t indicate any real resonance between her powers and cattle.
A third goddess, Boand, is also connected with cows, as her name means “white cow”, and she shares elements of both Brigit’s connections with plenty (cows as wealth) and the Morrigan’s magic, as she defies a prohibition on a magical well to gain knowledge, and pays with her life.
Sovereignty vs. Victory
This makes sense given their broader nature: Brigit is a peaceful, nurturing goddess who loves peace and cares for the young, while the Morrigan is a fierce goddess of war and magic, who rules over the adolescent/young adult phase of testing boundaries, sexuality, and learning to be a warrior.
Brigid is also a goddess of the land, specifically the south-east of Ireland, or Leinster, where St. Brigit’s cult later centered. (Her main church was at Kildare, west of Dublin.) Like Brigantia in north-east England, she protected the people and provided for them.
And here we see the difference between a goddess of victory and a goddess of sovereignty: the Morrigan grants victory and fighting prowess to her lovers, while Brigit marries Bres to end fighting and make him ruler of Ireland.
Both powers are necessary to rule a country, or even to live one’s own life. It’s not much use having sovereignty if you can’t defend it. I realize that this post is but a very short summary of two very complex goddesses, but I hope that it encourages readers to check out the books listed below.
Daimler, Morgan 2014: Pagan Portals – The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens, Moon Books.
D’Este, Sorita and David Rankine 2005: The Guises of the Morrigan – The Irish Goddess of Sex & Battle, Avalonia.
MacLeod, Sharon Paice 2011: Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs, McFarland. (Kindle)
O hOgain, Daithi 1991: Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encylopedia of Irish Folk Tradition, MacMillan.
Wright, Brian 2009: Brighid: Goddess, Druidess, Saint, the History Press.