Origins of Morgan le Fay: Morgan and the Mórríghan
The Mórríghan was one of the most important deities of ancient Ireland. A red-haired goddess the meaning of whose name is disputed – some believe it means ‘Phantom Queen’, some ‘Death Queen’, while others suggest it simply means ‘Great Queen.’ The Mórríghan was the goddess of battle and fertility, of death and life, of war and sexuality; perhaps the most terrifying and powerful figure in the Irish Celtic pantheon. She was also herself a triple goddess, her three aspects being Macha, who brought fire, war and slaughter; Nemhain, meaning ‘Frenzy’, a figure who spread panic; and Badhbh, meaning ‘Scald-Crow’, often depicted as a red-beaked bird with a sharp face. The Mórríghan often took the form of a crow, flying over battlefields and feasting on the bodies of the slain.
Why is the fearsome battle-goddess known as the Mórríghan believed by many to be a prototype of Morgan le Fay? The Mórríghan was one of the Sidhe, the fairy people of Ireland. She was the daughter of Ernmas, daughter of Ettarlamh, son of Nuada of the Silver Hand. Nuada was the leader of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a magical race of great divinities and warriors descended from the goddess Danu. When they were driven from the surface of the land, the Tuatha Dé Dannan established their own realms under hills and barrows, and became the Sidhe, the fairy folk. Morgan le Fay, in her original incarnation, was of the fairy people, the leader of nine magical sisters, a goddess-ruler of the Isle of Avalon. Even when she was ‘humanised’ in later versions, Morgan never lost that connection to her magical, fairy roots. Like the Mórríghan, Morgan has the power of life and death, granting immortality not just to Arthur but to other human heroes such as Floriant and Florete.
Another aspect Morgan and the Mórríghan share is their ability to shape-shift. The Mórríghan appears in various guises – a beautiful maiden, a haggard crone, the spectral figure of the Washer at the Ford who foretold the future of those going into battle. She could also shape-shift into animals: the aforementioned crow, an eel, a white cow with red ears, a grey-red wolf. Likewise, Morgan is famed for her ability to shape-shift. In some versions of the Arthurian legend she is a beautiful maiden, in others she is a haggard crone. In her first incarnation, she is described as being able to change shape at will, fly through the air, and appear anywhere she wishes in the blink of an eye. In other versions, she can float on the waves, exist in the depths of the ocean or under the earth, live in a volcano or on a celestial plane. Like the Mórríghan, she has the power of premonition and the ability to foretell fate.
Morgan le Fay has come to be a terrifying figure in many works of Arthuriana, echoing the figure of the Mórríghan – a frightening, dark, magical goddess figure to be feared. However, just like the Mórríghan, there has always been ambiguity and complexity to her character. The Mórríghan’s relationship with the great Irish hero Cú Chulainn bears striking similarities to Morgan’s relationship with Arthur. The Mórríghan loved and hated Cú Chulainn in equal measure, furious at his rejection of her, yet protecting him up until his final battle, even attempting to dissuade him from going forth to his death to no avail. Morgan’s relationship with Arthur reflects this ambiguity. Despite their enmity, and her relentless attempts to bring him down and overthrow Camelot, Morgan retains her role as protector and guardian of Arthur upon his death at the battle of Camlann, taking him with her to Avalon, away from the mortal world.