This week’s post could easily have been called “fearsome deities“: Odin, whose name means “fury”, and the Morrigan, who steps out of the fairy realm to stir up war and slaughter. It’s not hard to see what they have in common.
Two previous posts compared each one to the benign goddess Brigit, and although I was forced to conclude that apart from being goddesses and having a cow, the Morrigan and Brigit had very little in common, the Leinster goddess and Odin shared a complex of myths about water, eyes, and insight.
I was partly inspired by this, and partly by other things I had read (see links at end), to bring the Irish war-goddess and the Norse battle-god together. And then get quickly out of the way.
magic: both Odin and the Morrigan are magic specialists. While the Morrigan does engage in combat with the hero Cúchulainn while in animal shape, she usually prefers to fight with her sorcery:
29. It was then that Badb and Macha and Morrigan went to the Knoll of the Taking of the Hostages, and to the Hill of Summoning of Hosts at Tara, and sent forth magic showers of sorcery and compact clouds of mist and a furious rain of fire, with a downpour of red blood from the air on the warriors’ heads; and they allowed the Fir Bolg neither rest nor stay for three days and nights. (2nd Battle MT)
Similarly, the Ynglinga saga lists a number of feats Odin performed, including shaman-style shape-shifting, controlling the weather, and necromancy:
In all such things he was pre-eminently wise. He taught all these arts in Runes, and songs which are called incantations, and therefore the Asaland people are called incantation-smiths. Odin understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practised; namely, what is called magic.
war: The wars that form part of Irish and Norse myth show both Odin and the Morrigan using their magic to disable their foes.
In Voluspa we are told that Odin cast his spear over the host of the Vanir, symbolically claiming them for himself. The Morrigan volunteers her magical skills in the Battle of Magh Tuiread, to turn the tide for the Tuatha de Danann.
While both deities favour magic as a weapon, they do not shy off actual combat when necessary. Odin tends to prefer the spear or even arrows over close-in combat, the Morrigan turned herself into a wolf, an eel, and a cow to fight the hero Cúchulainn.
prophecy: this is more the Morrigan’s specialty, whereas Odin often seeks prophetic insight, but can’t see the future himself. I’m not sure to what extent this is a cultural difference or if it’s a gender thing.
Many female figures in Norse myth can see the future, including Odin’s wife Frigg, and Tacitus says that the northern Germans believed that women generally had this ability. Each time Odin seeks counsel about the future, he goes to a woman (the seeress in Völuspá, a giantess in Baldrs draumr).
The Irish, however, seem to have regarded prophecy as the province of inspired seers, of either sex.
The Morrigan appears towards the beginning of the Tain, warning the Brown Bull of Cooley that he will be taken. This is both prophecy and incitement, since the Bull then flees, setting the whole futile war in motion. The Battle of Magh Tuiread, which tells how the Tuatha de Danann fought the Fomorians, ends with a prophecy from the Morrigan, very similar to Völuspá and other apocalyptic literature.
mentoring: both of them are patrons of young warriors, although as far as we know Odin didn’t expect them to be his lovers as well. A famous passage from the Tain describes a meeting between Cúchulainn and the Morrigan, in which she offers him victory, because she loves him. He spurns her, and she vows to hinder him all she can (lines 1851-5).
Odin is the patron of many warriors, including Ragnar Lothbrok, who claimed Odin was his father. Others include the freakish warrior Starkadr, and Sigurd of the Volsunga saga. He also had an affinity for poets like Egil Skallgrimson. He is the especial patron of the berserkir:
[Odin’s] men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserkir. (Yng 6)
carrion birds: the Morrigan has the crow as her bird, while Odin has the raven. The name Badb, a goddess associated with the Morrigan, means “crow”, and the crow that appears at Cúchulainn’s death is assumed to the Morrigan, triumphing over her foe. The Yellow Book of Lecan calls her “an badb catha”, a “battle-raven”. (Grundy:60) Odin has two ravens, Hugin and Munin, as his pets, along with two wolves.
wolves: Those two wolves, Geri and Freki (both mean “Greedy”), are part of the web of wolf symbolism in Norse myth. Another wolf, Loki’s monstrous son Fenris, will fight Odin at Ragnarök and both will perish. As mentioned above, the Morrigan turns herself into a wolf to fight Cúchulainn.
triplets: medieval Irish scholars often make the Morrigan a trio, either with two other goddesses or as a collective entity made up of three goddesses. One medieval manuscript says: “one of the three Morrigna, that is Macha and Badb and the Morrigan”. Another says: “Macha, that is a crow. or it is one of the three Morrigna, that is Macha and Badb and the Morrigan”. (D’Este and Rankine: 30, 37)
In the Second Battle of Magh Tuiread, as quoted above, the three goddesses rain down fire and blood on the opposing Fomorians.
Odin has a vague sort of “three-ness” about him, since we are told that he has two brothers, Vili and Ve, although we’re never told much about them and they do very little. (In Lokasenna Loki accuses Frigg of having slept with them, and in Ynglinga saga Snorri tells us that when Odin had been away for a long time his brothers divided his property, and shared his wife.) In the Prose Edda he names them as the “sons of Bur” that Völuspá says raised the earth out of the waters.
In the frame tale of Gylfaginning, Odin appears in disguise as “High” along with “Just-as-High” and “Third”. Odin also sometimes travels with Loki and Hoenir, who could also be seen as embodying aspects of him.
tricky: you might expect that magicians who excel at war would be clever. After the Morrigan attacks Cúchulainn in her animal forms, she appears to him as an old woman, milking a cow. She gives him three drinks of milk, for her three wounds, and with each drink the hero blesses her, healing a wound each time. Then she tells him who he has blessed:
‘But you told me,’ said the Mórrígan, ‘that I should never get healing from you.’ ‘Had I known that it was you,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘I should never have healed you.’
She plays a rather darker trick on him in the story of his death, when she uses the taboos on him as a way of weakening him and hastening his death:
Then he saw three Crones, blind of the left eye, before him on the road. They had cooked on spits of rowantree a dog with poisons and spells. And one of the things that Cu Chulainn was bound not to do, was going to a cooking-hearth and consuming the food. And another of the things that he must not do, was eating his namesake’s flesh. He sped on and was about to pass them, for he knew that they were not there for his good…
Then he drew nigh to her, and the Crone gave him the shoulderblade of the hound out of her left hand. And then Cu Chulainn ate it out of his left hand, and put it under his left thigh. The hand that took it and the thigh under which he put it were seized from trunk to end, so that the normal strength abode not in them.
Odin is also a very tricky god, and not one to be trusted. Interestingly, he also disguises himself as an old woman when he curses Rind with madness and rapes her so that she will bear Baldr’s avenger:
For the king was tricked by the sight of the female dress, which the old man was using to disguise his persistent guile; and thus the seeming remedy became an opportunity of outrage. For the physician seized the chance of love, and, abandoning his business of healing, sped to the work, not of expelling the fever, but of working his lust; making use of the sickness of the princess, whom in sound health he had found adverse to him.
The Norse myths have many stories of Odin disguising himself to fool someone and get the better of them. A lot of these stories don’t end well for the other party, all the way from Vafthrudnir (loses head) to Vikar (mock hanging turns real).
outsiders: in my post on Brigid and the Morrigan, I suggested that some deities are more “hearth and home” while others are the ones you call on to deal with uncanny or dangerous things. You could also see Thor and Odin this way: Thor was a farmer’s god who protected their fields and homes (by smashing giants, among other things), while Odin would go to the giant’s strongholds and visit with them, before tricking or killing them. Odin knew giant’s magic, a legacy of his maternal uncle.
Some god/desses stand further from everyday human concerns, and can thus be both powerful when defending humans, and nearly as dangerous as that they defend against.
As you can probably tell from all the above, both of these are “approach with caution” deities. I would not want to put any one off these two, but it’s worth bearing in mind that “Odin, id est furor” and the Morrigan is a goddess who delights in slaughter and will go to great lengths to stir it up.
In a paper on Odin, Ármann Jakobsson stressed that gods are essentially a law unto themselves. There is little sense in judging them by human standards, and equally we should not expect them to be “moral” the way humans are. (Interestingly, the Book of Job makes the same point.)
These are two deities who revel in the fury and slaughter of battle, who deal with things that are not of this world. They do not see things from a human perspective, and shouldn’t be expected to.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
Daimler, Morgan 2014: Pagan Portals – The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens, Moon Books.
Grundy, Stephen 2014: The Cult of Óðhinn: God of Death?, Troth Publications.
Rankine, David and Sorita D’Este 2005: The Guises of the Morrígan: the Irish Goddess of Sex and Battle, Her Myths, Powers & Mysteries, Avalonia Books.
Ancient Irish War Goddesses
Wikipedia entry on Morrigan
Shrine to the Morrigan
A collection of sources on the Irish war-goddesses
The Darker Side of Odin
Thor vs. Odin as Warrior Gods
Norse Mythology for Smart People on Odin
A cute link, to lighten the mood (pix of baby crow and raven)
Source for the top image