Disambiguating the Queen: #1, Morgan Le Fay

I’m feeling compelled to begin writing about some common misconceptions about the Morrigan that I’ve been seeing with increasing frequency in online and print publications discussing Her. This will likely be the first in a series of posts of this sort.

Today’s subject: The Morrigan as Morgan Le Fay, Lady of the Lake, Lady of Avalon and similar identities. I’ll offer this in the form of a conversation – the conversation I so often find myself having when the subject comes up. Here’s how it usually begins:

“Morgan Le Fay is obviously a guise of the Morrigan, because their names are so similar, so I work with them as the same Goddess.”

Actually, their names only appear similar; they’re actually completely distinct. You see, the Celtic languages branched into two separate families fairly early in their development: the Gallo/Brittonic languages, also known as P-Celtic and including Gaulish, Brittonic and later Welsh, and the Goidelic languages, also known as Q-Celtic, and including Irish and Scots Gaelic (both families also including minor Celtic forms such as Manx, Cornish, Breton, etc.) The name Morrigan comes to us from the Irish Gaelic branch, whereas the name Morgan comes via the Welsh/Brittonic branch. Being manifestations of Celtic language, both branches do retain many related and mutually intelligible word constructions, but Morgan/Morrigan isn’t one of them.

The name ‘Morrigan’ comes to us from the Irish Gaelic branch, and is composed of the terms mor (connoting phantom, terror, or the dead) and rígan (queen). The name is also sometimes given a long accented ó: mór (great). Her name can thus be constructed ‘Phantom Queen’ or ‘Great Queen’.

The etymology of ‘Morgan Le Fay’, on the other hand, comes from the Welsh/Brittonic branch, and it has nothing to do with queenship. It derives from môr (sea) and gen, from genos, a common Gallo-Brittonic name-suffix meaning ‘born of’ or ‘child of’. Thus Morgan is ‘Sea-Born’, and refers to a spiritual being or Goddess connected with the sea. We see this surviving in folklore about the Morgens or Mari-Morgens, a class of Otherworldly sea-beings from Breton folklore.

“But doesn’t Morrigan also translate as ‘Sea Queen’?”

No, I’m afraid it doesn’t. The name Morrigan doesn’t appear in Welsh, it appears in Irish. And neither mor nor mór means ‘sea’ in Irish. The word for sea is muir, but there is no evidence at all identifying this as the etymological root of Her name. Nor is the Morrigan anywhere directly linked to the sea in any of the source texts in which Her name appears. Unfortunately, this false etymology has been published in a number of places, and people often assume if it’s in print it must be correct.

What about Avalon? Isn’t Avalon the Celtic Otherworld, and so wouldn’t the Morrigan be linked to it?

There have been many names for the Celtic Otherworld (or it might be more accurate to say Otherworlds; a topic for another time). Avalon derives from a much later stratum of mythology than the Iron Age period referenced in the Irish mythological literature that describes the Morrigan. Avalon is a British Arthurian literary concept that does not appear until late medieval Grail romances, a fusion of medieval British and French mythologies containing traces of earlier Celtic concepts fully intermixed at that stage with Christian mysticism. Earlier and more Celtic-influenced literature refers to Ynys Afallon, or ‘Isle of Apples’; this may in fact be loosely linked to the Irish Emain Ablach; an island associated with Manannan, a God of the sea and of magic and illusion, among other things.

So yes, there are concepts of a Celtic Otherworld appearing in Welsh and Irish lore and linked to the sea (or lakes) and to apples. But nowhere is the Morrigan directly associated with this Isle of Apples concept. And the image of Avalon, as a mysterious lake-bound isle of magic associated with priestesses veiled in blue, pseudo-Druidic symbolism, and a mythical Celtic Goddess-cult… IS NOT FOUND in the late Iron Age Celtic tradition that describes the Morrigan. That Avalon, while beautiful and inspiring, is a fiction. Marion Zimmer Bradley creatively imagined it based on late medieval Grail romance, mixed with some additional Celtic mythology, and liberal amounts of modern Wiccan-style theology and symbolism. I don’t mean to insult anyone – it’s really a lovely archetype and inspires much beautiful and effective spiritual practice today. But it’s not historic and it’s got no real connection to the Morrigan.

“Well, the Morrigan is clearly connected to sorcery, and so is Morgan Le Fay.”

Yes, the Morrigan is one of the primary Druidesses of the Tuatha De Danann, so of course She performs magic. The Tuatha, you see, are ‘the people of Art’. It’s right there in the first episode where they are introduced in the source texts: we are told that the Tuatha came to Ireland from islands over the sea, where they had learned wisdom and magic and sorcery, and they brought these arts to Ireland. As the Morrigan is one of their Druidesses, She performs all the classic Druidic functions: poetic recitation and incitement; prophecy and seership; recording of deeds and epics; and of course, battle sorcery. But show me a Celtic Goddess who doesn’t use sorcery or magic. That doesn’t make them all Morgan Le Fay.

“But the Morrigan is referred to as a ‘Faery’, and that sounds like Morgan Le Fay.”

The Morrigan being referred to as a ‘faery’ just means She is an Otherworldly being. This status applies to all of the Tuatha, the tribe of Gods to which She belongs. In their representations in the mythological literature, they are variously described as Gods, as faeries, or as heroes, depending I suppose on which Christian was writing down the lore and how they chose to interpret what they were receiving from the Pagan oral tradition. But regardless, being a faery isn’t a special quality of the Morrigan apart from all the other Tuatha. The lore is full of faery women, many of whom engage in actions reminiscent of Morgan Le Fay, such as healing, hexing, illusions, and transporting people between the earthly realm and the Otherworld. Again, this doesn’t make every faery woman in Celtic mythology an appearance of Morgan Le Fay (or the Morrigan). It means the world of the Celts was peopled with Otherworldly beings of all kinds!

“But the Morrigan is associated with streams and rivers, so She’s a water Goddess, like the Lady of the Lake.”

To begin with, the Morrigan has no particular association in the Iron Age lore with lakes or sea. We do see a very strong association with streams and rivers, but this doesn’t equate to making Her a water Goddess generally, nor to linking Her to lakes and seas. One of the reasons She frequently appears at rivers is that the rivers are boundaries between different provinces, and when She makes these appearances, it is most often connected to a battle occurring at these boundaries between factions or tribes. For the same reason, most of Cu Chulainn’s important combats take place at fords of rivers; but we wouldn’t on that basis conclude that he is a water God!

In the Celtic imaginal landscape, bodies of water generally are liminal places – boundaries of sovereignty, as well as gateways to the Otherworld. Thus, a great many significant events in the mythological literature take place at river fords, lakes and the shores of the sea. This reflects into the stories of nearly all the Irish Gods. In addition, these bodies of water also carry life-giving qualities of watering the land and providing fertility, fish, and other aquatic produce. Rivers in particular are strongly connected with female power in much of the lore. Thus, throughout all the Celtic lands, we consistently find rivers named for Goddesses, and some lakes, too. Given the predominance of rivers and lakes named for Celtic Goddesses, there are actually remarkably few carrying any name connected to the Morrigan. Because, while water bodies are everywhere associated with female power and the Otherworld generally, they are not directly linked to Her particular functions.

“But isn’t the Lady of the Lake a sovereignty figure, like the Morrigan? What about the sword?”

Yes, clearly the myth of the Lady of the Lake offering the sword to King Arthur is a form of sovereignty myth. But you see, that’s not enough to equate her with the Morrigan. Sovereignty attributes can be traced within many Celtic Goddesses, and obviously no one would claim they all are the Morrigan. The sovereignty figure is a fundamental form of the Celtic conception of female divine power. It tells us that the Celts understood sovereignty as a power arising from the land, conferred through the action of a female divinity. That doesn’t mean all female characters who carry the power of sovereignty are the same Goddess. It means that relation to sovereignty is a crucial element of female divine power, and is therefore carried by many of the Celtic Goddesses, taking a distinct shape with each based on Her particular sphere of concern and mode of action. The Morrigan’s form of sovereignty is the form it takes when it is called upon to defend itself, when it becomes martial, protective, and warlike. She is female divinity and sovereignty in the shape of battle. But we cannot conclude from Her sovereignty connection that any female figure offering sovereignty in folklore is the Morrigan.

“But I work with Morgan Le Fay as an aspect of the Morrigan, and She’s real to me. Are you telling me my practice is invalid?”

No, I would never presume to judge what another’s personal spiritual practice should be for them, unless I’ve been asked my opinion. I see nothing wrong with Pagan folk venerating both the Morrigan and Morgan Le Fay, or any other combination of deities, within their personal practice if that works for them. I am saying that there is not significant historical or literary evidence to support interpreting Morgan Le Fay as an appearance or ‘guise’ of the Morrigan. I am saying that there is not evidence for the Morrigan having any direct or significant historical link to the medieval folklore of Avalon and the Lady of the Lake.

I’m not here to tell anyone that their personal experiences are false if they’re experiencing these two as one deity. But I would like to suggest that if your personal experience is substantially at odds with the body of available evidence about the origins and nature of a deity, it might be wise to look more carefully at how you are interpreting your experiences. And I definitely think anyone teaching or publishing about these deities needs to take into account the whole body of evidence.

25 replies
  1. Aidan Winters
    Aidan Winters says:

    Hmmmmm I like you post I really do but…… after reading Stephanies Woodfield book on the Morrighan I would agree with her view of Morgan Le Fay.

    Reply
  2. Dane
    Dane says:

    I saw this blog post a few months ago, and didn’t get a chance to post a comment at that time. I have great respect for the depth of research you’ve put into this, so thank-you for posting your findings.

    I would like to offer a few “hooks” for further research, in case you’re interested. Naturally, I won’t be offended if you choose not to investigate, but I promise that you’ll be glad you did, if you do. I suspect you’ll have to do some serious “digging” to find references to these in historical records; but I know that at least a few oblique ones exist (in Genesis, of all places). Indeed, certain stories are important enough to be written about in all parts of the world.

    ONE
    There were two periods that contributed to the Arthurian Legend, as well as that of the Morrigan. One was before the Great Flood. The second was around the Bronze age. Most of the “really good lore” about Morrigan, Cu Chulainn, etc. comes from the pre-flood era. In this era, there was an intense power struggle between a particular incarnation of Morrigan and her (former) husband, whom we largely refer to as Merlin, these days. (In truth, the legend of Cu Chulainn is an amalgamation of the legends of “Merlin,” “Arthur,” and some others; see below.) Morrigan was banished from the mainland and ended up on what we now call the Isle of Man. This is partly where the concept of “Avalon” comes from.

    TWO
    The Cattle Raid of Cooley wasn’t about a cow (as I’m sure you know); it was about her power-drunk husband and his pet king. She sought to capture the former in order to restore the balance of power between the two genders. “Arthur” (not his real name, naturally) is the one who died after seeing the three crones, whereas “Merlin” continued his life of lonely rulership for a few centuries thereafter. (See Genesis 5:27.) Immediately after his death, a few centuries after Hers, came the great flood. (This is a topic for another time, I think.)

    THREE
    In the bronze age, there was an attempt to “relive past glory,” using the records of the era mentioned above. The records were used to attempt to re-create the conditions whereby certain people had gained such immense power, for the purposes of gaining wealth, fame, and other ephemeral “goodies” in the then-present. It was a huge “bust,” but it did make a good story–especially after a certain scribe made a dedicated effort to combine the various tales that were used to create this “incident” into a single record, destroying the originals. (That way, he reasoned, it would be less likely to happen again–and we see that it’s so.) Most of the Ulster Cycle comes from these corrupted records, largely passed down in oral form.

    There. I hope this gives you some enjoyable directions for further investigation, should you be so interested. Just in case, though…

    See also:

    Sybaris
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sybaris_%28mythology%29

    Himiko
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himiko_%28queen%29

    Lamia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamia

    (Remember what I said about some stories being REALLY IMPORTANT?) ;-)

    Have a nice day.

    –Dane

    Reply
  3. Cynthia Tootle
    Cynthia Tootle says:

    Thank you for your research. I came across this while trying to understand Morgan Le Fay. Clearly, the Arthurian version was not a primary source. They were trying to fit feminine power into a patriarchal story. I feel like I am on a dig trying to unearth the original vision of the divine figure from the muck.

    Reply
  4. Brynhild Tudor
    Brynhild Tudor says:

    I’ll give you the link of the conversation so you can see the context, but be warned that at the end I do say what some would consider to be harsh words, especially if you read the blog in its entirity. Also be forewarned that I have an unorthodox way of approaching entities, which I try to explain better in my entries, but with both religious people and atheists alike say I don’t exactly fit into either box. I would’ve emailed it to you privately but I could not find your address!
    http://camillanightshade.dreamwidth.org/28259.html#comments

    Reply
  5. Brynhild Tudor
    Brynhild Tudor says:

    How happy I am that someone works with Morgan le Fay! I feel a strong connection to her, but I never felt drawn to the Morrighan, and somehow knew they were drastically different entities, but when I tried to state this to Pagans, they didn’t believe me and even said Morgan le Fay doesn’t exist. When I tried to say the Morgan *does* exist (I met her a few times in dreams, which is a pretty solid sign of someone existing), nobody took me seriously and they said it was all in my imagination. In my UPG, she helped me out of a pickle once (key word once) and hardly ever comes around, not that I need her to, but it’s nice to share experiences. So when I found someone else who claimed to work with her (although she conflates her with the Morrighan and is heavily influenced by religious beliefs), I was initially thrilled. But this person has a lot of psychological problems and seems far more dependent on her than I am, which is fine, but the person told me “I have a better/stronger relationship/connection with her than you ever will.” Which obviously hurt my feelings. Anyway, I just wanted to share my story, and maybe Phoenix will email me sometime? I’m not able to see and always wanted to know what Morgan looks like. Although I enjoy scholarship, I always felt Morgan’s less-than-flattering portrayal in Arthurian legend was incorrect, and a lot of those nasty things attributed to her were most likely twisted, or else she was conflated with someone else who did the dastardly deeds. I read Mists of Avalon and saw the film but didn’t feel connected to either, feeling they were a fictionalized conglomeration of all the incidents in every interpretation of Arthurian legend put together. I connect with the elves in Lord of the Rings though. Ah well, maybe I’ll meet her someday, but you’re correct: she’s very quiet and doesn’t seem to speak to anyone or even work with a lot of people.

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Brynhild! I have no direct experiences with Morgan Le Fay myself, but I’m clear that she does exist, as I’ve met many people who work with her and who experience her as a real presence in their devotional practice. In my view, it’s much more respectful to her to acknowledge her existence as a being independent of the Morrigan.

      Also gotta say, the person you mentioned talking to who insulted your connection with her sounds like a rude and insecure person. My advice – don’t listen to her! Anyone who is making claims about the future capacity of your personal devotional relationships is speaking out of line.

      Blessings to you in your work –
      Morpheus

      Reply
    • Ban
      Ban says:

      Ah my heart leaps with happiness to discover another resonating with the Eldar from Lotr :) What about them inspires you so?

      Reply
  6. Brian Morgan
    Brian Morgan says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. This topic has always been a pet peeve of mine. I’ve always said that comparing Morgan Le Fay with Morrigan is like trying to comparing Gandalf with Odin. Yes Galdalf is one of Odin’s name but one is a fictional, literary character and the other is a mythological deity. Which is a huge difference. Not to mention if you look at the way Morgan Le Fay is portrayed in the Arthurian legends it is no way comparable to the myths of the Morrigan.

    Reply
  7. Joe Wolf Perri
    Joe Wolf Perri says:

    A quick response for right now, I have to run some errands, as I feel compelled to comment. As some one who works with both The Morrigan and Morgan they are definitely two separate Goddesses. Are there similarities? Yes, and I’m not talking name. Does that make the same Deity or aspect of one another? No. I have found though, the two get along with each other and, in my practice, make for a nice pair. Morpheus, hopefully I didn’t offend you when we met at pantheacon.

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Joe, it sounds like we are quite on the same page about the Morrígan and Morgan Le Fay. No, by all means, you didn’t disturb me in the least – I quite enjoyed meeting you! This post was in response mainly to things I’ve been seeing in online and print publications.

      Reply
  8. Barbara Cormack
    Barbara Cormack says:

    Morpheus, Thank you for this clear and thoughtful array of distinguishing characteristics between two very important and powerful entities. It’s refreshing to read material so well put together. It’s tempting to conflate deities and mythological figures, but too often that leads, IMHO, to a watering-down of those very figures. (I will say, though, that I think MZB’s Mists of Avalon was a brilliant synthesis of a variety of Arthurian legends, which breathed vibrant life into those stories and presented us with a glorious [if fictional] vision of Avalon-as-it-should-have-been.) Again, thanks for the good work!

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Thanks, Barbara! I feel similarly about MZB’s work. She really created an imaginal masterpiece that has touched many people very profoundly. One might call it a work of modern myth creation. Beautiful.

      Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      I agree about scholarship making a stronger foundation for practice! I don’t consider myself a proper scholar as I haven’t had academic training in it; but I’m diligent.

      Reply
  9. Phoenix LeFae
    Phoenix LeFae says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and accurate post. As someone who works with Morgan LeFae I am often frustrated with people who make these same inaccurate assumptions. I respect the Morrigan, but She is not Morgan LeFae.

    Blessings Sister.

    Reply
  10. Gillian
    Gillian says:

    Hi Morpheus. Long time no see! From my studies and experience I see Avalon a little differently than you. Avalon is mentioned by the Romans as being an ancient spiritual center, and they describe the spiraling path of the Tor. I think it’s in Caesar’s writings, but I’d have to go look it up. We know that the isles of Avalon were in fact islands before the water was drained off in that area, and we have discovered piers where boats docked as the people traveled from isle to isle by boat. Nowadays the isles are hills, but on rainy days the fields flood and you can get a glimpse of the way things were. As far as priestesses of Avalon go, yes much of that image was created by MZB for the books, but those of us who have been there or worked magic and visioning there can sense that it was a place where the priestesses lived and worked, it has a strong connection to Brigid and is most certainly the Isle of Apples as apple trees grow abundantly at the base of the Tor (the main isle of Avalon) and all over the area. It is a place steeped in the ancient mysteries. It’s not all fiction! Blessings. Gillian.

    Reply
    • Rynn Fox
      Rynn Fox says:

      Gillian, I’m sorry, but you are incorrect. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae is the first book that mentions Avalon and it was written in 1136. For centuries it was listed as a “historical work,” but modern historians (from the late 1700s upwards to today) now see it as a work of important medieval fiction. In another work of his, “Vita Merlini,” he called Avalon (Ynys Afallon in Welsh) the Insula Pomorum the “isle of apples.” So yes, it’s true that Avalon is associated with apples (afal in Welsh, means apple), it’s association with the Glastonbury Tor is fiction. Why?

      Sixty years later after Monmouth wrote his tome, some enterprising monks began to popularize the idea that the Glastonbury Tor was associated with Arthur and with Avalon, even going so far as claiming to have found Arthur’s tomb and fabricating an inscription conveniently claiming Glastonbury to be Avalon, which ensured they received flocks of pilgrims bearing donations, coming to see the holy relics. The Somerset tourist board still uses the monk’s marketing endeavors to sell themselves as the “Land of Legend,” “Ancient Avalon,” and continue to draw pilgrims in the shape of tourists and new age travellers on what the media dubbed the “Grail Trail.”

      Having read Ceasar’s writings in the heydey of my research on Avalon and Celtic things (thanks to MZB), I do not recall Avalon ever being mentioned. It would have stuck in my brain if it had as I was mad to learn more. I also just did a quick search of his works (I have them on my e-reader), and Avalon doesn’t come up in the translations I have. I think you may be mistaken about this point.

      Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Hi Gillian! Nice to hear from you. I never meant to suggest that the mythology of Avalon is wholly fiction – it is clearly part of the medieval Arthurian tradition, and that tradition in turn is woven from threads that trace into earlier Celtic lore. I simply meant that the popular image of it is mostly derived from MZB’s fiction.

      I would be surprised to see a reference for Avalon being mentioned by name as such by Roman authors. Would love to be corrected if you can point me to that evidence. I know there are references in authors such as Pomponius Mela and reportedly Poseidonias (via Strabo) to islands occupied by groups of female Druid priestesses, but none of these are named Avalon in those texts, and the geographical indications place them as more likely off the coast of Gaul (France). And of course we have accounts by Tacitus and others of the Druid enclave on Mona (Anglesey). I am not aware of any Classical-era or Iron Age reference to Avalon, however. That’s not to say that there may not have been some form of Druidic cult present at Glastonbury which was later absorbed into its folkloric association with the (non-geographical) mythical Isle of Apples. We just cannot from these separate threads of information conclude that there was an Iron Age Celtic priesthood of Avalon at Glastonbury. There just isn’t evidence to support that.

      Reply
  11. Patrick Pigeon Hawk
    Patrick Pigeon Hawk says:

    And actually, now that I’m remembering- Mists is the ONLY version in which Morgan le Fey is portrayed as benevolent. All the rest she is seductress, conniving sorceress who wishes to bring down Aurther. Correct? Granted, I like the Mists version better- but it is the modern, feminist re-telling and like all the rest except for perhaps the Vita Merlini has little basis in historical fact.

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      My impression is that in some of the medieval treatments, Morgan is essentially portrayed as an adversary, and in others she appears to be morally ambiguous, or at least the storyteller takes an ambiguous stance relative to her. But certainly, making her a protagonist and wholly sympathetic character was one of the novelties of MZB’s work.

      Reply
    • Morgan Lefay
      Morgan Lefay says:

      Sorry, but MZB was not the only writer who has done a benevolent Morgan. In the earlier literary sources, Morgan is portrayed like a healer and ruler of a place which is known to be the Otherworld. This is the place where Arthur has his ultimate rest. In that tale, the character is called Morgen, she is not related in any way to the hero and she fulfills the role of a supernatural healer with no negative traits. Later, writers make her human, sister to Arthur, and the character lost her divine atributes, but she won a very interesting and complex human personality, with ambiguous traits. Much more later, Cistersian monks make the negative portrayal of her that has passed into popular culture, neglecting her positive aspects and screaming loud her negative traits. But the earlier sources give a positive treatment of the character, and MZB is not the only modern writer that do it. I remember Fay Sampson makes a portrait of her wich is not exactly positive -well, she still kills and betrays, but there is a reason beyond that-, but it is not negative, but symphatetic.
      And excuse me for my bad English if necessary; I´m not native.

      Reply
  12. Patrick Pigeon Hawk
    Patrick Pigeon Hawk says:

    There you go, being all accurate and stuff.
    I will definitely be in the camp of folks who was “awakened” by The Mists of Avalon. I read that when I was 20, and suddenly felt connected to my ancestry in a way that was in line with my spiritual perspective. And then later as I explored Celtic lore deeper and encountered the Morrigan, I remember the temptation to associate the two and yet at the same time a distinct feeling that they were not the same thing. The Morrigan for one is far more in-your-face, don’t-fuck-with-my-tribe, where as Morgan is more secretive and in the shadows. And aside from that- Vivian is usually the one accredited with being the Lady of the Lake who hands Aurthur Excalibur- in one version at least Morgan is said to be throwing Excalibur’s scabbard BACK to the Lady of the Lake. Maybe in Mists Morgan holds this role- but I can’t remember. Great article.

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Agreed – Morgan is not equivalent to the Lady of the Lake in most of the Arthurian lore. I’m not making that equivalency – just dealing with both cases, where the Morrigan is conflated with either of them.

      And I have to say, reading the Mists of Avalon was an awakening for me as well, at a young age. I think one of the values of that book is that it encouraged people to imagine Arthurian legend and characters from a Pagan perspective. There’s value in taking that imaginal journey. We just need to be clear that that’s what it is, and not confuse it for an illustration of history or Celtic lore.

      Reply

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