Disambiguating the Queen, #2: Dark Goddess

Apologies to my readers for the longer than usual interval between posts. My work life has accelerated, and I’m also working on a writing project for publication, so time for the blog has been harder to come by.

So… This week I thought I’d take on another of the common conceptions about the Morrígan: that She is a ‘Dark Goddess’.

You’ll see this label applied to the Great Queen in much of the popular literature and internet material about Her. There’s too much of this material to quote any one source directly – but go to almost any of the popular social network groups or websites devoted to Her and you’ll see something like this:

The Morrigan is the Celtic form of the Dark Goddess. She is the Black Raven of Death and Rebirth. She is the Crone, the Great Queen, the Supreme War Goddess. She is Fate and Death, the Warrior, Protector, and Wise Woman. She represents Old Age, Winter, the Waning Moon, and Destruction. She is the Grandmother aspect of the Triple Goddess.

Setting aside for the moment the many inaccuracies in descriptions such as this… first things first. Is the Morrigan a ‘Dark Goddess’? What do we even mean when we describe a Goddess as ‘dark’? The term ‘dark’ can mean two different things – objective or natural darkness, as in the absence of physical light; or moral darkness. Which, if either, applies to the Morrígan?

If we assume She’s being labeled a ‘Dark Goddess’ because of an association with natural or objective darkness, e.g., the absence of physical light, we might expect to see a special association in Her lore with night-time (when the world is dark), the night sky itself, winter (when daylight is least and nights are longest), and/or chthonic or lightless underworld realms.

Goddess of Night? Well… No, not really. In the Irish source texts (the only primary narrative sources for Her mythology) we don’t find a particular association with night. She does attack the hosts of enemies of Her chosen people during night-time (for example, during the First and Second Battles of Mag Tuiredh). But She also attacks them in the daylight, and makes other daylight appearances. One might possibly make an association with the notion of obscurity – as She is linked to the use of stormclouds, mist and obscuring fogs in battle magic. However, so are many of the Tuatha Dé Danann, not to mention other races in the myths. In the early literature, clouds and mist are properties of Druidic magic, of which She is a specialist. That doesn’t make Her a Goddess of darkness, however.

How about winter? The Morrígan does have a clear association in the lore with Samhain, but Samhain is not winter. In fact, the name derives from the Gaulish term Samonios, which is generally translated as ‘end of summer’ (Samon=summer). In the Celtic paradigm, Samhain is the hinge point, the gateway between summer and winter. That’s why it is in fact such a crucial, sacred, and powerful time – because it is a liminal time between seasons, when the Otherworld was understood to be more accessible. Thus Her association with Samhain does not equate to an association with darkness, but rather with Otherworldly power. Further, a great many of the Morrígan’s appearances in the source lore also occur around Beltain – the other hinge point in the Celtic year, in the spring. For example, the great battles of the Invasion cycles in which She takes part are understood to have occurred at Beltain. Clearly, She can’t be labeled a Dark Goddess based on season. The nearest we can come is the Cailleach, a mythological hag or ancestress figure associated with winter in Irish and Scottish folklore. However, there is no direct evidence for equating the Cailleach with the Morrígan; and while there are some interesting folkloric links, the Cailleach can be related just as well with Brigid as with the Morrígan.

Goddess of the Underworld? Yes, but… it’s more complex than that, and the short answer is no, it doesn’t shake out to an association with darkness. The Morrígan does have a strong association with the síd or Faery mounds – underhill places which are understood in folklore to this day as the entrances to the Otherworld and dwelling places of the Gods and spirits. However, this has to be understood in context. For one thing, all the Tuatha are pretty much equally connected to the síd. Lugh himself, whom no one would ever think of calling a ‘Dark God’ makes appearances from and within the mound (for example, in the Baile in Scáil sovereignty myth). We have to remember that in the Celtic mythological paradigm, while the Otherworld may be accessed through the mound and understood to exist underground (or undersea), this does not mean it is a realm of darkness. It is not the cold, lightless Underworld of, for example, the Hellenic realm of Hades. It is a rich and varied landscape with all the lights and shadows of our own world. Again, Her connection with the mounds simply points to Her nature as an Otherworldly being of power, not a Goddess of darkness.

But crows and ravens are black! Okay, yes, the Morrígan’s primary animal forms are corvid, and yes, they are black. Well, mostly: in many of the places in the lore where a species of crow is named, it is the hooded or scald crow, which is not all black. But sure, the iconic corvid is black, and there is no question that She appears in the form of a raven or black crow in many places in the lore. Though, to be truthful, She also appears as a gray wolf, an eel (we aren’t told of its coloring), and a white heifer with red ears. And when She appears in human-like form, Her coloring is most often described as fair-skinned and red-haired (when young); or blue-skinned and red-mouthed (when demonic or hag-like). I find it unconvincing to hang the idea of the Morrígan as dark Goddess merely on Her link with crows and ravens alone in the face of all these other non-black associations. (Besides, many deities we don’t label dark are linked with dark birds; Lugh has an ancient association with ravens, for example.)

So much for the natural darkness arguments. That leaves us at the idea of moral darkness. The Morrígan as dark Goddess based on Her association with forces we consider morally ‘dark’; violence, warfare, death.

Now we’re getting to it. Actually, if you look deeply at the idea of ‘dark Gods’ in general, they are inherently a product of our dualistic culture, heavily influenced by Abrahamic moral paradigm which equates darkness with negative or harmful forces. In fact, when people talk of the ‘Dark Goddess’, they virtually always mean moral darkness rather than natural darkness, if you examine their language and theology. For evidence of this, I invite you to imagine any deity associated with the darkness of night or the night sky whom you care to think of. Nyx, Nuit, Astarte, Ishtar, Arianrhod of the silver wheel; all the ‘Queens of Heaven’. Not a one of them is usually labeled ‘Dark Goddess’. Hekate is arguably an exception, but I think the point still stands. When we say ‘Dark Goddess’, what we really mean is scary Goddess; or perhaps more specifically, morally ambiguous Goddess.

As I understand it, the notion of the Dark Goddess as such is an outgrowth of modern Wiccan and feminist thealogies. The idea seems to have been that in the early stages of Goddess spirituality and the women’s movement, there was some sanitizing of the images of the Goddess, and people felt that in order to fully reclaim and resacralize the Divine Feminine, the ‘darker’ aspects of the Goddess needed to be recognized and given place – that is to say, the aspects that frighten us, that represent forces denied and demonized by Western dualism. Death, destruction, bloodshed, violence, illness, decay, old age, and the like. All parts of life and all as natural as sunshine and flowers, but associated with negativity in the dualist paradigm.

So what’s wrong with this? Isn’t it fair to say the Morrígan is a dark Goddess based on this approach? Well, for one thing, I don’t find it terribly useful to maintain the dualistic language; it only serves to perpetuate dualistic moral values, which I don’t think apply to a polytheist, Pagan Celtic Goddess. The ‘Dark Goddess’ label  emphasizes and reinforces a shallow and ugly cultural paradigm about age and sex: the correspondence of the crone/old age/death/darkness as opposed to youth/beauty/sexuality/life/light. In fact the Morrígan inhabits ALL of these. She is as often a young as an old woman, and She freely interweaves sex with death, fecundity with old age, youth and beauty with violence.

The fact is, the entire idea of classifying the Gods as ‘dark’ or ‘bright’ based on moral valuation of their functions is anathema to the polytheistic and animistic tribal paradigm from which the Morrígan springs. But it’s a self-reinforcing paradigm. Using this dualistic terminology for the Morrígan emphasizes Her functions that fit the idea of moral darkness – Her roles in death, warfare, and violence – at the expense of Her other equally important functions. What about Her role as tutelary Goddess to heroes? What about honor, sovereignty, wealth, queenship, sexuality? Incitement to greatness? What about seership and poetry and Druidic craft? We brush all that aside in favor of Her bloody image when we label her as a Dark Goddess. And most importantly, we lose the understanding of how all these aspects are connected. How the heroic ethos carries honor and glory, but at the cost of blood. How queenship and wealth are linked to protection and sacrifice. How the aspect of death is connected to the ancestral current and the life of the land. Where madness, ecstasy, sexuality, and battle frenzy connect. How all things open to the mystery of the Otherworld.

If She’s anywhere to be found on the spectrum of light and dark, She’d surely be more of a twilight Goddess than a dark one. That is the nature of the Tuatha, no?

21 replies
  1. Vulgaire
    Vulgaire says:

    I really like this post because it dissects the very foundation of why we label things “dark” or “light” and the tendency for someone who identifies as one or the other to gravitate more closely with something because of this label. I often find myself gravitating toward entities, gods and goddesses that have a leniency toward a darker threshold, but what does that mean? is it valid? what does that say about my outlook on these entities? I like when my thoughts are challenged, and I can really appreciate looking at things from other perspectives. Outside of the view of Morrígan, herself, I think we reside in a culture who associates dark with power, control, the ability to navigate challenge, an entity unafraid to embody cultural ugliness (especially in female form i.e. strength, unattractive altar egos, sexual power and enjoyment, anti femininity) and the links with demons within their alter ego. I don’t think negatively on the label “dark”, but i do see how the connotations can work against people’s further understanding. What I noticed for myself is that the entities I invoke, pray to, or otherwise honor, possess the duality that you speak of, or rather, encompass a duality within their nature. My acceptance of “dark” is me embracing exactly what society rejects within me and within the misunderstood practices or entities that i gravitate towards. I am comfortable with it. Now the real questions is why I turn the other cheek to the “white lighter’s”…

    Reply
  2. Morrigane Feu
    Morrigane Feu says:

    Hi again! I was wondering if you would give me permission to translate this article in French and posting it on my FB group (along with part 1)? I would give all due credits and link back here, of course.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Bridget
    Bridget says:

    I’m new to Paganism, and all over the net it’s implied that the Morrigan is a scary deity that you don’t want to anger, so don’t honor Her at all.

    She showed up in my dreams several nights later and the phrase “for the Morrigan” kept going through my head. I decided to talk to Her…and found out that She’s not as scary as some make Her out to be. A little intimidating and very blunt, yes, but I wouldn’t call Her “scary.”

    Reply
  4. Morrigane Feu
    Morrigane Feu says:

    First, I want to say that I really like your blog. It has inspired me many times and I must say that I had not met many people who truly understood who the Morrigan was before I met you. From all of them, you must be the most invested.
    I agree with all that you stated, but I think that there is an angle you may not have covered.
    I am far from being as knowledgeable about the reference texts about the Morrigan as you are, but I have been working with archetypes for a while now. As far as I can tell, the Dark Goddess archetype does not refer to the physical darkness (night) or moral darkness. Well, not the Goddess’s moral darkness. The Dark Goddess is the Challenger, the one that will put obstacle on your path, the one that will test you so you work and claw your way to the person you are meant to be. She will stir your own darkness, she will make everything dark and ugly within you resurface. She will put it in your face so you deal with it, either by accepting it or getting rid of it. She will not give you a choice in that matter. She is called Dark, but I guess Terrible could be a better epithet. She is like a dark tunnel with light at the end, but you will also find Her in the light. Of course, she is also linked with death, but more in dealing with death (your own or somebody else’s).
    I am re-reading this and I find it much less eloquent that your message, the language is even a bit pompous, but this is the kind of language every text about archetype I have read uses. Do you think that under this light, the Morrigan could be a Dark Goddess? My experience says that it fits, but experience cannot be used to argue a point, it is only relevant to me. I would really like to have your (more historically accurate) take on this, if do not mind.

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      Thanks for your feedback! That’s an interesting point. I agree about the Morrigan being a challenger. That is a big part of Her connection with heroes – She tests and incites them, demanding greatness. I think where I get stuck is the notion that those functions are in any way dark. What, specifically, links those functions (testing, challenging, demanding the overcoming of obstacles) to ‘darkness’ or dark qualities? It seems like what we mean is ‘scary’ or as you say ‘terrible’ Goddess, and to me the notion that we would use the term ‘dark’ to reference those qualities is expressive of a dualistic moral stance where qualities that are good and gentle are equated to light, and qualities that are frightening and dangerous are equated to darkness. That’s what I mean when I speak of moral dualism. I don’t feel that model applies to the Pagan Celtic worldview or to the Morrigan. She may be terrifying, challenging, inciting, requiring ordeals of us, all of that, but why, apart from moral judgement, would we call those things dark?

      Reply
      • Morrigane Feu
        Morrigane Feu says:

        Sorry for the time I took to answer. I had a hard time writing what I meant and there are still some rough edges, but I think it is clear enough. I agree and disagree with you on the use of the word “dark”. If you equate it to frightening and dangerous, than yes, it is misused, but I do not see “dark” that way. Yes, darkness has to be opposed to light, but it does not have to be equated to “bad” neither does light has to be equated to “good”. In fact, it is a fairly new concept (a very good argument for that is made in “When Santa was a shaman” by Tony van Renterghem). Of course darkness can be scary, as it is much harder to see at night than it is to see in daylight (it has to do with the placement of cones and rods on the retina, I can explain later if you ask). However, night, and therefore darkness, is the realm of the dreams and the innerself. It is the realm of the “felt”, as light is the realm of the “seen”, both of which are an important part of understanding our world. I see them more as two sides of the same thing, none of which are bad and I think that this is how it is supposed to be seen as an archetype. There are bad sides to all archetypes, but ultimately they are tools to understand our psyche, tools to embrace all these parts of us. We all have bad traits, but they do not all come to light under the “Dark” archetypes (no pun intended). For example, a lot of us have problems with the Lover or the Child goddess archetype. However, the Dark Goddess calls for confrontation, for facing our deepest (therefore hidden, therefore in a dark place) fears and shames. She will then lead us out of the dark tunnel (yes, it is akin to the the womb and vagina, there is nothing more cliché than that, but nothing more liberating at the same time). I do not think that this is bad, it is a good thing. It may be the most important thing we have to do as a person. It is a thing of power and strength. This is how I see the Dark Goddess archetype. So, if we take the postulate you made in your post, you are right, if we take mine, I am right (I think). The big question is: which one are the people calling The Morrigan a “Dark Goddess”, using? I do believe it started with the right one, but as many things do in the pagan world, ignorance (either by lack of resources or by laziness) may have corrupted the original message. In any case, your post is very effective in destroying the “Dark as in Bad” argument.

        Reply
  5. 3Jane
    3Jane says:

    While I think your analysis on why Morrigan is currently called a Dark Goddess is good, I disagree that distinguishing category of ‘Dark’ (violent and/or dangerous) deities is incompatible with polytheism. You do have polytheistic religions that acknowledge differences between gods: for example, between Chthonic and Olympian Greek deities.

    Reply
    • Morpheus
      Morpheus says:

      I agree that there are many precedents for pantheons divided between groups in that way – the Greek deities are only one example. In the Norse context there are Aesir, Vanir, and Jotun, for example. Some parallels can be found in Indian mythology as well with the Devas and Asuras.

      I still have to question whether it’s appropriate to label these groups of deities as ‘dark’ vs. ‘light’. For example, would the Greeks have called their chthonic deities ‘Dark Gods’? Or is that language an overlay from monotheistic dualism that we’ve added later? I’m not enough of a Greek culture scholar to be able to answer that question but I think it bears considering.

      Reply
      • Matoula
        Matoula says:

        i can answer that a bit of , since i am Greek and i’ve studied much of our mythology . First of all, something that might be important to this parallel was that then was not Greece, but were cities-countries of Hellenic. That causes Gods and Goddesses to have a different meaning and characteristics from one city to another and different Honour. Aphrodite, for example, was war Goddess for Spartans , while for Athens was only of love and sex. Moreover, most of Greek cities were patriarchic, and that we have to keep in mind when talking for the importance and darkness of chthonic Spirits.
        The cities that were patriarchic used to honour in a more fearsome way the chthonicGods and Goddesses and consider them as dangerous. Not demons, as demons had a different meaning and the word meant just spirit! But in cities and islands that Goddess had the priviledge, the cthonic spirits and Gods were of great love , helpfullness and …there was a blood connection toteir people.
        Now,as for dark and light….hehehe…everyone of the Greek pantheon had their light and their dark aspect, even the most “full of light” like Apollo. Even, like AThina (some say her dark aspect was…Medusa, too)or Dimitra. And , yeah, the dark there was something connected to fear and monsterous, not to the night or the chthonic….was like good and bad side, but both sides to create ballance.
        Sorry, for this big post, but think it might be helpfull!

        Reply
  6. Matoula
    Matoula says:

    I’ve read so much about her Dark label in so many places in web. Always had the feeling of “the something wrong” or incomplete. That labelizing, that people have the urge to put on everything in order to keep safe their mind. And AT LAST…i am reading your post , emerging my feeling of satisfaction and a smile on my face. Thank you

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Por ejemplo, un error común es asociarla a una “diosa oscura” por estar relacionada a la guerra, siendo la guerra (en el paradigma occidental actual) algo malo relacionado con la muerte, ambas cosas “negras” dentro de un “pensamiento blanco y negro”. (pueden leer sobreen ingles o usar el traductor de google aqui http://bansheearts.com/2013/04/disambiguating-the-queen-2-dark-goddess/ ) […]

  2. […] “Actually, if you look deeply at the idea of ‘dark Gods’ in general, they are inherently a product of our dualistic culture, heavily influenced by Abrahamic moral paradigm which equates darkness with negative or harmful forces. In fact, when people talk of the ‘Dark Goddess’, they virtually always mean moral darkness rather than natural darkness, if you examine their language and theology. For evidence of this, I invite you to imagine any deity associated with the darkness of night or the night sky whom you care to think of. Nyx, Nuit, Astarte, Ishtar, Arianrhod of the silver wheel; all the ‘Queens of Heaven’. Not a one of them is usually labeled ‘Dark Goddess’. Hekate is arguably an exception, but I think the point still stands. When we say ‘Dark Goddess’, what we really mean is scary Goddess; or perhaps more specifically, morally ambiguous Goddess.” – Morpheus Ravenna, on the nature of “dark” gods. […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *