The Irish Badb was one a number of terrifying goddesses of war. She could work battle magic to terrify the enemy, or just kill them with her terrifying shrieks. Badb could be one or many, and sometimes teamed up her sisters the Morrigan and Macha to wreak destruction.
The name badb comes from a Celtic root meaning “fury” or “violence”, from the Celto-Germanic *bodou, battle. The carrion crows that appeared at battlefields led to the other meaning, crow, and the idea of a crow goddess, so that Badb Catha meant “Battle Crow”. (Heijda: 12)
Washer at the Ford
Badb often appeared before battle as the badhbh chaointe, the keening or weeping crow, but sometimes she human form, as the Washer at the Ford:
Thence they went to Druim Airthir, which is now called The Garman, on the brink of Athlone. Then they unyoke their chariots. As they were there they saw a red woman on the edge of the ford, washing her chariot and its cushions and its harness. When she lowered her hand, the bed of the river became red with gore and with blood. But when she raised her hand over the river’s edge, not a drop therein but she lifted it high ; so that they went dryfoot over the bed of the river.
« Most horrible is what the woman does ! » says Cormac. « Let one of you go and ask her what she is doing. » Then someone goes and asked her what she did. And then, standing on one foot, and with one eye closed, she chanted to them, saying :
« I wash the harness of a king who will perish » etc.
The messenger came to Cormac and told him the evil prophecy which the Badb had made for him.
(The Hostel of Da Choca, trans. Whitely Stokes)
In this tale Badb appeared to Cormac several times, first as the Washer, then as a beautiful maiden with rich clothes, and finally as a fantastically ugly hag, but always with a message of doom, because he broke his tabus.
In another Irish tale, the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, a mysterious woman appears to demand hospitality from Conaire, even though it breaks one of his tabus. She gives him a list of her names: Badb is of course one of them:
When they were there they saw a lone woman coming to the door of the Hostel, after sunset, and seeking to be let in. As long as a weaver’s beam was each of her two shins, and they were as dark as the back of a stag-beetle. A greyish, wooly mantle she wore. Her lower hair used to reach as far as her knee. Her lips were on one side of her head.
(trans. Whitely Stokes)
and she prophecies Conaire’s doom.
Badb and the badbs
Gurevitch-Epstein and some others suggest that as well as the goddess, there was a class of beings, badbs, who provoked terror, just as a group called morrigna could. (43-4) Perhaps this is why the two goddesses are the Badb, the Morrigan, setting them apart and emphasizing their uniqueness.
Da Derga’s Hostel has both; the Badb herself is a character in the story, but at her last appearance she tells Cormac:
The red-mouthed Babds will cry around the house
For bodies they will be solicitious.
and again: “Pale badbs shall shriek”.
The first battle of Magh Tuiread features them as well (translated here as furies):
48. The furies and monsters and hags of doom cried aloud so that their voices were heard in the rocks ‘and waterfalls and in the hollows of the earth. It was like the fearful agonising cry on the last dreadful day when the human race will part from all in this world.
(The First Battle of Magh Turedh, trans. J. Fraser)
A 14th-century poem has a druid foretell the slaughter to come: “Badbs will be over the breasts of the men”.
The word badb could be used to indicate a battle-demon, a witch, or a fury (Heidja: 11). Irish translations of Classical texts might use the word Badb to indicate the Roman war-goddess Bellona, or else the Furies, badbs. (The Furies, too, could be one goddess or several, although Roman writers tended to describe them as three.)
An Irish version of the Thebaid described the goddess Bellona as “the contentious war-goddess”, translated as in badb catha cosnamach, with badb catha “battle-crow” standing in for war-goddess. Tisiphone and other named Furies are also translated as badb.
One passage in the Thebiad even describes another war-goddess, Enyo not only as a badb, but as the wife of Neit, an Irish war-god. (Heidja: 52-3) It’s especially interesting because it also calls her “sister to Mars”, her Classical role, so the reference to her husband reflects Irish ideas (“the wife of Nét, disturbing Fury, to wit, Enyo, sister of Mars, the god of war” ).
Clearly Badb could be either one goddess or one of a throng, and both concepts existed side by side.
Babd, Morrigan and Macha
Badb and Macha, greatness of wealth, Morrigu–
springs of craftiness,
sources of bitter fighting
were the three daughters of Ernmas.
(Lebor Gabala Erenn)
Badb was sometimes said to be the wife of Neit, a war-god, which makes sense, as does another tradition that she was married to Tethra, a god of the dead. (Neit was sometimes named as the father of the smith-god Goibniu.) The Lebor Gabala in fact gives Neit two war-goddesses for wives: Badb and Nemain, as if for emphasis.
They could work together, too, as in this passage from the Cattle-Raid of Cooley:
The Badb and Net’s wife and the Nemain called on them that night on Garach and Irgarach; so that a hundred warriors of them died for terror. That was not the quietest of nights for them.
Similarly, in the First Battle of Magh Tuiread:
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.
Cathubodua and Cassibodua
Badb is a well-developed character in Irish myth, a goddess who delights in war along with her three sisters. Two Gaulish “cousins” appear to share her nature. We only have their names, found inscribed on Roman-style altars, but the bodua, “crow” element shows their kinship.
Cathubodua, or Battle Crow, comes from an altar found at Mieussy in northern France. The left side of the altar is damaged, so the “C” in her name is missing, but most scholars feel that her name makes more sense that way:
Athuboduae / Aug(ustae) / Servilia Teren/tia v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
[CIL XII: 02571]
‘To the August Cathubodua, Servilia Terentia paid her vow willingly and deservedly’
Badb was also called Badb Catha, which makes “Cathubodua” a more likely reading of the altar. The other altar comes from Herbitzheim in Germany, and it reads:
I(n) h(onorem) d(omus) d(ivinae) / Victoriae / [C]assi[b]oduae /
[CIL XIII: 04525]
‘In honour of the Divine House and to Victoria Cassibodua’.
It’s not clear what the cassi– part of her name means, although Beck suggests “sacred” or “strong, powerful”. At any rate, “Victoria” suggests a war-goddess. It’s interesting that one is mentioned along with the imperial house, while the other is called Augusta, connecting her to the imperial cult. They must have been important goddesses, if only locally.
Since the name Badb comes from a Celto-Germanic root, and Cassibodua herself comes from the Celtic part of Germany, some writers have linked Badb with the Germanic goddess Baduhenna.
We know very little about her; the only place she’s mentioned is in Tactius’ Annals:
Shortly afterwards, it was ascertained from deserters that nine hundred Romans, who had prolonged the struggle till next day, had been despatched in the so‑called Grove of Baduhenna; while another detachment of four hundred, after occupying the villa of Cruptorix, formerly a soldier in our pay, had been driven by fears of treachery to die on each other’s swords.
(Annals 4: 73, trans. J. Jackson)
Rudolf Simek connects her name to word *badwa, battle, and the second half to the –henae found in some names of the Matronae, the Mother-Goddesses, such as the German Matres Aumenahenae and Veterahenae. Both the Celts and the Germans worshipped their deities in forests or groves. (Simek: 26)
Banshee and hooded crows
Badb and the Morrigan seem to have fed into the later concept of the banshee, whose unearthly wail or shriek was a forerunner of doom. Badb’s appearances as the washer at the ford or as a prophet of doom fed into this, and one form the banshee can take is the hooded crow, especially in the southeast of Ireland.
1. Other versions of the Morrigna included Macha, Badb and Nemain, and Macha, Babd and Anand.↩
References and Links:
Beck, Noemi 2009: Goddesses in Celtic Religion: Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul, thesis, University of Lyon (skip straight to the crow-goddesses)
Daimler, Morgan 2014: The Morrigan – Meeting the Great Queens, Moon Books.
Epstein, Angelique Gulermovich 1998: War goddess: the Morrigan and her Germano-Celtic counterparts, dissertation, University of California in Los Angeles. (ProQuest or Scribd)
Heijda, Kim 2007: War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word badb in early Irish literature, thesis, University of Utrecht. (available here)
Hennessy, W.M and C. Lottner, “The Ancient Irish goddess of war,” Revue Celtique 1 (1870–1872): 32–55, 55–57, 501. (Sacred Texts)
Sayers, William 1990: “Women’s Work and Words: Setting the Stage for Strife in Medieval irish and Icelandic Narrative,” Mankind Quarterly 31: 59–86.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
If you like the image of the hooded crow at the top, click here.