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The Irish have a special relationship with death, I think it’s safe to say. (Or is it better to say that death has a special relationship with them?)
To quote Scottish journalist Kevin Toolis, you’d be hard-pressed to find a country other than Ireland “where the dying…the living, the bereaved and the dead still openly share the world and remain bound together in the Irish wake.” A place where “death, in its very ordinariness, is no stranger” (source: The Guardian).
Historically, the Gaelic / Goidelic Celts of Ireland likely held a similar viewpoint. Long before the rise of Christianity, Celtic druids preached that the human soul was eternal. In death, one simply moved into a different plane of existence, a different realm (i.e., the Otherworld).
Now, Irish myths tell us that the barriers between the land of the living and the Otherworld are not always solid. At certain times, like during Samhain, the walls between worlds become permeable. (Just ask Fionn mac Cumhaill, the Irish hero who fought a fire-breathing monster from the Otherworld on Samhain. But I digress).
In other stories—myth, legend, folklore, and fairytale alike—Death is anthropomorphized. And in author and librarian Ruth Edna Kelley’s account of Samhain’s ancient origins, it is “the lord of death” who hosts Samhain, in a sense, collecting souls and passing judgment. And I quote:
They believed that on the last night of the old year (October 31st) the lord of death gathered together the souls of all those who had died in the passing year and had been condemned to live in the bodies of animals, to decree what forms they should inhabit for the next twelve months. He could be coaxed to give lighter sentences by gifts and prayers.source: The Book of Hallowe’en (1919)
Oh, right, forgot to mention: lots of people in Irish mythology get turned into animals. It happens all the time. Definitely more than you’d think it would. (See my piece about Irish werewolves to get a better sense of how it works.) So I guess it makes sense the Irish gods would have a guy (re: the lord of death) for dealing with that.
But who is he?
Or, should I really be asking, who is she?
1. The Morrígan
The Morrígan was the “major goddess of war, of death and slaughter,” according to historian Peter Berresford Ellis. “She embodied all that was perverse and horrible among the supernatural powers” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987).
Also known as the Morrigu (or Mór-Ríoghain in modern Irish), her name most likely means “great queen”, but she’s also earned the epitaphs “the crow of battle” and “supreme war goddess”.
As a triune goddess, the Morrígan manifested as three separate personalities or incarnations, usually Badb, Macha, and Nemain. However, in author and scholar Charles Squire’s account, there were five personalities total, all with different “responsibilities”, if you will.
Of these warlike goddesses there were five—Fea, the “Hateful”, Nemon, the “Venomous”, Badb, the “Fury”, Macha, a personification of “battle”, and, over all of them, the Morrígú, or “Great Queen”. This supreme war-goddess of the Gaels, who resembles a fiercer Herê, perhaps symbolized the moon, deemed by early races to have preceded the sun, and worshipped with magical and cruel rites. She is represented as going fully armed, and carrying two spears in her hand. As with Arês and Poseidon in the “Iliad”, her battle-cry was as loud as that of ten thousand men. Wherever there was war, either among gods or men, she, the great queen, was present, either in her own shape or in her favourite disguise, that of a “hoodie” or carrion crow.source: The Mythology Of The British Islands: And Introduction to the Celtic Myth, Legend, Poetry, and Romance (1905)
Now, folklorist and professor Juilene Osbourne-McKnight interprets the Morrígan godhead a little bit differently, calling Macha, “goddess of war”; Banbh, “goddess of carrion”; and Nemhain, “goddess of panic and chaos” (source: The Story We Carry in our Bones, 2015).
Regardless of the exact roles/natures of the individual sub-goddesses, it’s hard to ignore that the triune or tripartite iteration of the Morrígan is the one that caught on, and the one that continues to flourish in pop culture interpretations.
Heck, I wrote a short story for Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy that depicts the Morrígan as three crows sitting on a telephone wire. (Original, I know.)
Apparently some other writers have explored the Morrígan triad as well. To quote Osbourne-McKnight:
“So powerful is this dark trinity that they show up as the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and later, conflated into one woman, they vie for power as Morgan Le Fay in the Arthurian myths.”source: The Story We Carry in our Bones (2015)
No, this wouldn’t be the first time Celtic mythology inspired Shakespeare (e.g., King Lear is based on the sea-god Lir) or Arthurian Legend (e.g., the story of the Green Knight is based on the Irish myth “Bricriu’s Feast”, which features a headless giant).
But I digress.
The question I’m really interested in is as follows:
Is the Morrígan really the Irish goddess of death? Or is she, more narrowly, the Irish goddess of death in battle?
Because here’s the thing: Nearly every early account of the Morrígan has her witnessing, participating in, or dealing with the aftermath of a battle. Which in a way makes sense, given that, you know…lots of people died during battle. Including—and especially—in Irish mythology.
To her credit, I guess, the Morrígan fights on the side of the Tuatha Dé Danann—the Irish gods, often portrayed as “the good guys”—during both battles of Magh Tuireadh (Moytura). On Samhain, after the second battle of Magh Tuireadh, the Morrígan—with the help of the Irish god of love, Aengus Og—drives the last remaining Fomorians out of Ireland (the Fomorians being an invading race of supernatural monsters, a group once led by Balor of the Evil Eye).
The Morrígan also gives a speech after the Tuatha Dé Danann’s historic victory, which sounds nice…until you consider that she’s essentially celebrating all of the death that had just occurred. To quote Irish dramatist and folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory:
And after the battle was won, and the bodies were cleared away, the Morrigu gave out the news of the great victory to the hosts and to the royal heights of Ireland and to its chief rivers and its invers, and it is what she said: “Peace up to the skies, the skies down to earth, the earth under the skies; strength to every one.”
And as to the number of men that fell in the battle, it will not be known till we number the stars of the sky, or flakes of snow, or the dew on the grass, or grass under the feet of cattle, or the horses of the Son of Lir in a stormy sea.source: Gods and Fighting Men (1905)
Oh, right, forgot to mention: immediately following her recital of that innocent-sounding poem, the Morrígan made the following prophecy. To quote Squire:
“[S]he foretold the approaching end of the divine age, and the beginning of a new one in which summers would be flowerless and cows milkless and women shameless and men strengthless, in which there would be trees without fruit and seas without fish, when old men would give false judgments and legislators make unjust laws, when warriors would betray one another, and men would be thieves, and there would be no more virtue left in the world.”source: The Mythology Of The British Islands: And Introduction to the Celtic Myth, Legend, Poetry, and Romance (1905)
I mean… she nailed it. Right?
The Morrígan’s favorite form to take on the battlefield was that of a crow or raven. In some stories, the Morrígan and her component goddesses would hover above soldiers, cursing them with “battle madness.” This is the same affliction seen in the quasi-legendary figure Suibhne Geilt (Frenzied Sweeney) and other Celtic Wild Men.
Notably, the Morrígan tormented Cú Chulainn, arguably the greatest hero from Irish mythology, and had a front-row seat to the desecration of his corpse. As Ellis explains:
Having first tried to incite Cuchulainn to make love to her, she [the Morrígan] fought with him and he managed to wound her. For this his fate was sealed. When he was eventually killed she settled on his shoulder in triumph in the form of a crow and watched while a beaver drank his blood.source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)
Don’t read too much into the symbolism of that one.
Just kidding, you absolutely should!
Because what the essence of the Morrígan really boils down to is the power of the sacred female.
Stick with me for a second…
Danu, another triple goddess, the one which gives the Tuatha Dé Danann their name, is a Celtic mother goddess. She’s nurturing, life-giving.
The Morrígan is Danu’s dark reflection.
As archaeologist and academic Barry Cunliffe explains:
The female power was a goddess of the earth and of water — springs and rivers and lakes. She was a mother goddess controlling fertility and productivity, providing nourishment for the people and presiding over the seasons and the seasonal feasts: her very abundance was sometimes expressed by her triple form. But she also had within her the power of destruction and the fury of slaughter — the opposites of nurture and fertility — could bring devastation and death. In this dangerously unstable form she appears in the tales as the ferocious Morrígan, who needed careful handling and much propitiation…
The Dagda engaged in intercourse with the Morrígan once a year on the feast of Samain, thus commanding her protection for his people for the year to come.source: Druids: A Very Short Introduction (2010)
So there we have it. Not only does Cunliffe clearly distinguish the Morrígan as a death goddess—the opposite of the nurturing, life-giving mother goddess—but he also provides yet another association of the Morrígan with Samhain, the ultimate Irish celebration of the dead.
That being said, I’d argue that Irish mythology presents death as more of the Morrígan’s side hustle; her main focus, at least in the early literature, has always been battles: inciting them, fighting in them, celebrating them and all their macabre details, death included.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Irish Pantheon is without a true god of death.
Let’s get this out of the way.
Yes, historian Peter Berresford Ellis describes Donn as an “Irish god of the dead”, which, naturally, makes him…
Donn of the Dead.
Shall we continue?
Here’s Ellis’ full definition:
Irish god of the dead whose abode is at Tech Duinn (House of Donn) which is placed on an island off the south-west of Ireland. The house is the assembly place of the dead before they begin their journey to the Otherworld. In modern folklore Donn is associated with shipwrecks and sea storms and sometimes equated with the Dagda and Bilé. In some versions he is said to be the son of Midir the Proud. More often than not he is confused with the eldest son of Milesius.source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)
There’s a lot to digest there, but if you’re familiar with the ancient Mediterranean polytheistic religions, what’s immediately striking is that this fellow Donn ticks many of the same “death god” boxes as Hades, Pluto, and Dis Pater.
Donn is responsible for guiding souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead.
As professor and Irish folklorist Dáithí Ó hÓgáin explains:
One is struck here by the resemblance to the Greek lore of Pluto and the ferrying of souls across the river Styx. The similarity may be explained as a common ancient tradition concerning the dead which had come down to both Greek and Celts but…it seems more sensible to regard it as having originated in general Greek influence. Since the emphasis in these death-beliefs was on the imagery of the west, it is not surprising that the lore was further extended to the westernmost island of Celtdom, Ireland itself.”source: The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland (1999)
Ó hÓgáin goes on to describe Donn as a “lord of death”, while noting that the god’s name is derived from the Celtic *dhuosno-, meaning the “dark” or “black” one.
Donn’s island, Tech Duinn, is in reality little more than a rock (now known as Bull Rock) situated off the coast of the Beara peninsula. But for centuries that rock inspired fear in the minds of the ancient Irish.
(Then again, given what we know of Irish attitudes toward death, perhaps it didn’t.)
Regardless, medieval manuscripts suggest that Donn, Irish god of the dead, was a well-respected—if not well-worshipped—deity in ancient Ireland. To quote Ó hÓgáin:
The general cult of Donn as god of the dead must have been widely known in Ireland. Varied references in the literature as early as the 8th century AD show that the belief had been long established. One such allusion, from Ulster, is to a departed warrior returning from the realm of the dead in the House of Donn in the southwest. In another text of the same period, with Leinster provenance, a prophecy is given concerning a group of heroes to the effect that ‘death will defeat them on the morning ebb towards the House of Donn’. In the same text, three red horsemen appear as an omen of death, and they announce: ‘We ride the horses of toothless Donn from the tumuli, although we are alive we are dead!’ Donn is here a personification of the elders buried in the tumuli, which illustrates the physical aspect of funerary practice.source: The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland (1999)
A purely mythological figure, Donn the death god would later become conflated with the quasi-legendary Donn son of Milesius. As Ó hÓgáin explains:
“Medieval Irish texts describe the ‘belief of the heathen’ to the effect that souls go there to Donn, and in the pseudo-history Donn is euhemerised as one of the leaders of the Gaelic people when they came to Ireland. We read of this pseudo-historical Donn, however, that he was not destined to reach the shore of Ireland, but was drowned near the rock which bears his name.”
The Gaelic people to which Ó hÓgáin refers, of course, are the Milesians, namesake of Donn’s dad Milesius (a.k.a. Míl Espáine). Originating from what is now modern Spain, the Milesians were the final invaders/settlers of ancient Ireland. They were the ones who defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann and sent them underground to their tumuli.
Donn was an important Milesian military commander and the eldest of Milesius’ eight sons. He seemed like a character fated for a heroic life, yet in every account of Donn’s deeds during the Milesian invasion of Ireland, shit always hits the fan. To quote Ellis:
[W]hen he was greeted by the goddess Eire, who asked that the islands might take her name, he paid her scant respect. She foretold his doom. The Milesians put the sea again and Manannan Mac Lir caused a great storm to blow up. In one version Donn goes aloft to spy out the land and falls into the sea. Another version says he asked his brothers to bury him on an island off the mainland; they did, and here his tradition and that of Donn [Irish god of the dead] became intermixed.source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)
A god of death. A god of the dead. A god associated with drownings and shipwrecks. A god who metaphorically “ferries” souls to their post-life destinations.
It’s hard not to think that the Christian scribes who first put Donn’s tales down in ink took some liberties. They’re the same scribes who introduced chariots to Irish mythology, after all. (Meanwhile, there is no archaeological record of the ancient Irish ever having used chariots. But I digress…)
What if, as Ellis suggested, Donn is actually an offshoot or iteration of a much older Celtic god—a god who originated in ancient Gaul?
It is time, methinks, to introduce you, dear reader, to Bilé.
Call him Bilé. Call him Belenus or Belenos. Call him Bel or Beli or Bal or Baal. Just don’t call him the belle of the ball, because this Celtic god ain’t no pretty princess; he’s the homecoming king of the dead.
Sorry, I don’t know what I was doing there. But here’s the important stuff:
Bilé, Irish god of death, is the Gaelic/Goidelic iteration of a much older Celtic god who is often referred to as Bel or Belinos in the Brythonic tradition. He is the namesake of the Celtic feast day Beltane, which was—and among some groups, still is—celebrated on May Eve and May 1st.
In some ancient manuscripts Bilé is portrayed as “Father of Gods and Men”, a role usually reserved for the Dagda. Bilé is also sometimes paired with the aforementioned Celtic mother goddess Danu (a.k.a. Dana a.k.a. Anu a.k.a. Ana), who was, according to author and scholar Charles Squire, “The most ancient divinity of whom we have any knowledge.”
Here’s Squire’s profile of Danu’s husband:
Her husband is never mentioned by name, but one may assume him, from British analogies, to have been Bilé, known to Gaelic tradition as a god of Hades, a kind of Celtic Dis Pater from whom sprang the first men. Danu herself probably represented the earth and its fruitfulness, and one might compare her with the Greek Demeter.source: The Mythology Of The British Islands: And Introduction to the Celtic Myth, Legend, Poetry, and Romance (1905)
In case you had any doubts, Bilé was not some abstract or metaphorical lord of death, but an ancient god, in the richest sense of the world, with a strong cult that stretched across Northwestern Europe. To quote historian Peter Berresford Ellis:
This deity had a profound influence throughout the ancient Celtic world, apparently as god of both life and death. There are many places throughout Europe named after him. In London, for example, Belinos’ Gate has come down to modern times as Billingsgate. His name is also to be found in personal names such as that of one of the most notable kings of Britain before the Roman invasion — Cunobelinus. The Celtic form is Cunobel — the Hound of Bel. In 5BC the Romans regarded Cunobelinus as High King of Britain. William Shakespeare has given him greater fame as Cymbeline.source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)
Ellis also notes that in some Irish texts, Bilé is euhemerized (I love that word) as the father of the aforementioned Milesius.
Remember Donn from the previous section, the Irish god of the dead who was sometimes reimagined as the quasi-historical son of Milesius? Welp, consider the implication there: Bilé is the quasi-historical father of Milesius, making him Donn’s grandfather, and clearly establishing Bilé as the original, more senior Celtic god of death.
Oh, and here’s something I failed to mention earlier: Remember how the Milesians, Donn and Milesius and Bilé included, all come from Spain? Welp, in Irish mythology, “Spain” is synonymous with the Land of the Dead. To quote author and scholar Charles Squire:
“Beli is the British equivalent of the Gaelic Bilé, the universal Dis Pater who sent out the first Gaels from Hades to take possession of Ireland.”source: The Mythology Of The British Islands: And Introduction to the Celtic Myth, Legend, Poetry, and Romance (1905)
Catch that? Bilé and the rest of the Gaels who invaded Ireland are described as coming “from Hades.”
But herein lies the mystery:
Why is this obvious god of death, Bilé, described in Classical accounts as also being the source of human life? To quote Squire again:
“Caesar tells us, in his too short account of the Gauls, that they believed themselves to be sprung from Dis Pater, the god of the underworld. In the Gaelic mythology Dis Pater was called Bilé, a name which has for root the syllable bel, meaning “to die”. The god Beli in British mythology was no doubt the same person, while the same idea is expressed by the same root in the name of Balor, the terrible Fomor whose glance was death.”source: The Mythology Of The British Islands: And Introduction to the Celtic Myth, Legend, Poetry, and Romance (1905)
Yes, lots of death. But also, the ancient Gauls “believed themselves to be sprung” from Bilé.
Well, for one, the Land of the Dead isn’t the same as hell. It isn’t all fire and brimstone. Instead, as historian J.A. MacCulloch explains:
In Celtic belief the underworld was probably a fertile region and a place of light, nor were its gods harmful and evil.source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911)
But apart from the potentially fertile nature of the Celtic underworld, it’s likely that Bilé was actually the dark reflection of the Dagda or some other “positive” male deity, just as the Morrígan was the dark reflection of Danu.
And while Bilé, the Father deity’s dark incarnation, wasn’t well-known for playing a role in the life-giving side of things, he was, indeed, crucial to the circle of life nonetheless.
After all, death begets life. And the most fertile soil is that which is rich with the remains of the once-living.
So yes, in a way, that makes Bilé a spiritual father to humankind, just as it makes the Morrígan a spiritual mother.
Want to learn more about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…
Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…
More the listenin’ type?
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