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The Shieldmaiden Blog

Jan - 13

Not Rebuilding Her Cult

Talk has been going round the Pagan world about rebuilding the cults of the old Gods. My friend Sam Webster has been calling publicly for this as well as in private conversation, a call echoed by Druid writer John Beckett. (It was Sam, by the way, who sat me down two years ago and gave me encouragement to take up the Morrigan’s mandate and begin drawing Her priesthood together, when I was still hesitating. I need to thank him again for that.) P. Sufenas Virius Lupus spoke of bringing back the Gods of the ancients as well.

So rebuilding the cults of the Gods; that seems to be what I and fellow priests are engaged in. Rebuilding, restoring, bringing back. This language  presupposes continuity with our Gods’ ancient cults – an assumption that we need to be very circumspect about, particularly in the case of Celtic deities, such as the Morrigan, whose cult was never documented by its adherents.

Thus I thought it was time for a post examining this question. The historical cultus of the Morrigan: What do we know?

It has been said that there is no evidence for Her actual worship – and in the strictest sense this is true. Direct evidence of cult practice specifically linked to the Morrigan, by name, within the lands relevant to the early medieval Irish texts in which She appears, is virtually absent. However, we have a very interesting body of indirect evidence that suggests the outlines of Her cult, and it is from this that we can build a modern cult practice. Notice I say here that we can build, not rebuild. In my work to establish a priesthood and practice of worship, I make no claim to historical reconstruction. I trust if you have the patience for this long post, you will see why.

So. What do we know? People have written dissertations on the topic, so I will only attempt to highlight a few core concepts.

1.Where She was worshiped. The name Morrigan arises from Irish sources beginning in the early medieval period and referencing Iron Age culture. While this is sometimes taken to mean that the Morrigan is strictly an Irish deity, there is a substantial body of indirect evidence pointing toward a pan-Celtic presence of a Goddess at least closely resembling Her. In almost every Irish source text speaking of the Morrigan, She is given multiple names and forms; and if we look at these names and forms, we can easily recognize them beyond Ireland. For example, the Morrigan is frequently also referred to as the Badb, or Badb Catha, an epithet which means ‘battle crow’. In the continental territories of Gaul, we have sources which refer to Cathubodua, a Gaulish name which is exactly cognate to Badb Catha. In addition, if we look at the meaning of the name Morrigan, translated as ‘Great Queen’, we also find references throughout the Celtic world to Goddesses of this title, occurring in virtually every Celtic language branch. While ‘Great Queen’ may have been a title applied to multiple different Goddesses (such as may be the case with the Welsh Rhiannon), in many cases it appears in context with attributes that do indicate a battle Goddess and/or one taking the form of a scavenger bird. Since there is compelling evidence for continuity of other deities between Irish, Brythonic, and Gallic lands (for example, Lugh/Lleu/Lugus), I think it’s safe to conclude that we have a pan-Celtic Goddess in the Morrigan, though naturally the forms of worship must have varied geographically and over time.

2. Seasonal worship. We know that there was a broadly pan-Celtic bi-seasonal calendar in effect which, at the very least, recognized major transition times at dates corresponding roughly to Samhain and Beltaine. Within the Irish context, we have a substantial literature documenting the importance of Samhain itself as a feast time associated with kingship and the sovereignty of the land, as well as battle, Otherworldly encounters, sexual rites, and epiphanies of the Morrigan Herself. Many of Her appearances in literature occur at Samhain; but also, folklore still exists throughout both Ireland and Britain of the Morrigan or Her cognate figures emerging from the land at Samhain. As we know that great tribal gatherings did take place at Samhain in many Celtic civilizations, it is not too far a stretch to suggest that seasonal devotions may have taken place at these times, and in particular to the Morrigan since She is closely linked to the season in lore.

3. Incidental/temporal worship. Beyond seasonal rites, there are suggestions that devotional practice may have taken place on an incidental basis – that is, in connection with particular historical events. We know for example, that in Gaul, temporary war shrines were set up in connection with battles taking place in historical moments. Remnants of these temporary war shrines have been found, showing the placement of enclosures, the contents of offerings that were made, and corresponding to a discrete time horizon that bears the hallmarks of warfare – mass graves and other evidence of slaughter, captured arms and materials, etc. – and then deliberately closed down soon after. None of these shrines carry the name ‘Morrigan’ on them; however, pictorial evidence has been found that links funerary sites of this kind with carrion-birds. And we also know that at least one of the specific deities linked to warfare and warriors, and taking the form of the carrion crow, was Cathubodua, our Badb Catha, or Morrigan.

Many other kinds of incidental devotional practice probably existed. We know of Celtic leaders and Druid priests in the ancient world making sacrifices and taking omens on many kinds of occasions – at moments of tribal importance such as kingmakings and royal weddings; before important battles (such as the omen-taking of Queen Boudicca before her final battle with the Romans); and many other kinds of occasions. We can presume that if the Morrigan did have a historical cult of worship, She probably would have received devotions on occasions such as these – and in particular those related to sovereignty, battle, and funeral occasions.

4. Forms of devotion. Direct evidence of devotional offerings to the Morrigan in particular are scarce. We have an altar dedication to Cathubodua from Gaul, following the ancient pattern of votive offering in fulfillment of a vow. Other votive inscriptions to related names also exist (Rigantona/Rigani, Bodua, Cassibodua, etc.)

If we look at forms of devotion known to be practiced by the Celts in general, however, we can fill out the picture a little more. We know that throughout many of the Celtic lands, devotional sites often included a hollow altar – essentially, a sacrificial pit into which offerings were deposited, and then eventually the site covered over and a new pit established. Contents of hollow altars vary depending on the site, cultural context, and time, but common to most sites are the bones of animals cooked or burnt, and offered to the Gods. Many sites also included valuables such as armor, weapons, jewelry, tools, and the like. At war sanctuaries such as the ones described above, as well as permanent sites such as Roquepertuse and Gournay-sur-Aronde, we also find evidence of offerings specific to war deities, and including war spoils, captured arms, heads, skulls and bodies of captured foes, as well as horses and other more common offerings. A common feature of these sanctuaries is a highlighted, massive portal in stone (or wood in the case of temporary battle shrines), typically with carved skulls and/or niches for the display of heads and other offerings. At Roquepertuse, the portal is presided over by a large raptor or carrion bird. Other such war sanctuaries have been shown to be associated with funerary practice specific to slain warriors, who appear to have been excarnated (given to carrion birds) as a form of both offering to the war deity in bird form, and of funeral ritual for the dead. This practice was also documented by contemporary Roman and Greek historians, who were appalled at the Celtic practice of excarnation, not understanding that to give the bodies of fallen warriors to the Battle Raven to devour was to sanctify them far above burial or cremation. The practice of human sacrifice to Celtic deities in general is also well documented both by contemporary authors, as well as archaeological remains, throughout Ireland, Britain and the Gaulish continent. Irish cromlechs and stone altars exist, in some of which have been found traces of blood, likely from such offerings.

Portal of Roquepertuse Sanctuary

Thus, while we have no documentation of such an altar or sanctuary clearly dedicated by name to the Morrigan, we have a fairly clear picture of cult practice for war deities such as would have been appropriate to Her: shrines to war deities in carrion bird form, in which funerary rites were conducted; stone or hollow altars, at which blood, the bodies of the dead, animal sacrifices, and spoils of war were dedicated as offerings; and these offerings were both elevated for display on the portals and palisades, as well as being deposited in hollow altars.

There is naturally much more to the picture. For instance, while cult practices related to Her martial aspects are easier traced than, say, Her role as prophetess and poetess, clues exist which we could examine.  And there is the question of Her sovereignty aspect, and whether it can be linked to the Celtic devotional practice of water deposits. But for a blog post, this is about as far as we can go.

All of this of course begs the question: Assuming a historical cult of the Battle Raven existed as described, why would we want to rebuild it? Blood-drenched altars, human sacrifice, mass excarnation, spoils of war? How does any of this fit into modern Pagan practice?

Answer, of course: It doesn’t. Nobody I know is seriously interested in offering severed human heads to the Morrigan, and if I met someone who did, I wouldn’t invite them to my rituals. We aren’t attempting to rebuild the ancient cult of the Morrigan. We are rather working to bring a new tradition to life which honors Her in a way She hopefully recognizes, but which dignifies our present human values.

23 comments on Not Rebuilding Her Cult

  1. Enrique scpc says:

    Hi, I am very pleased to have found your blog, I have been trying to research on The Morrigan and almost every site quotes the same information, except yours. The aspect of her that I believe is the most important is as a goddess of pasionate love. Just the concept for me is intriguing for an iron age person that acknowledge such powerful force. Since information is scarce as hens teeth, I would like to ask you if you have more information about the people that actually saw her. There is the story about the hero Cu that refused her several times and never recognized her. Were there any others? Were they chosen for a particular reason or personal virtue? Was there a ritual to be performed?

    Thank you so much. English is not my maternal language, so I apologize if there is a grammar error that eluded me.
    Best regards,

    1. Morpheus says:

      Hi Enrique,
      No worries, your English is quite good. I’m glad you are enjoying the blog!
      There are a number of characters in the mythological and heroic lore who are described as seeing the Morrigan. Cu Chulainn is one, of course, in the Ulster saga, but She also appears to other characters including Tuatha De, Fir Bolg, and Fomoire individuals in the mythological stories (1st and 2nd Battle of Maige Tuiredh, and the Book of Invasions). She also appears to a number of other heroes and kings in the guise of the Washer at the Ford. In general, She appears to characters either because they are taking part in a battle or contest of sovereignty in which She is taking a hand in the outcome; because She is warning them or appearing as an omen of death; or because She is interested in them sexually. There is much, much more nuance and complexity than this, and there are really too many instances to list easily in a blog comment. But I’m working on some writing that will help answer this question, so keep watch here.

      I have to say, I am not sure that the lore supports looking at Her as a Goddess of passionate love. She does offer Herself sexually to more than one character in the lore (the Dagda and Cu Chulainn are prime examples). However, these acts are framed in the context of Her role as a battle and sovereignty Goddess, and it is clear that She is offering Herself because the hero or king who mates with the Goddess receives Her blessing and aid in battle. We never see Her involved in sexual engagements that are not related to these themes. And certainly love never enters into Her mythology directly. That is not to say that She does not encompass love – for example, warriorship is a form of love in action, the willingness to fight to protect what one loves. But I think it would be a mistake to look at Her as a ‘love Goddess’ in the way of Aphrodite or similar.

      1. Enrique scpc says:

        Thank you so much for your reply. I sarted this quest with just a name that stired something inside me and with the information you gave me I have at least where to continue in the right direction. It struck me as something very interesting what I read about the passionate love thing and the choser of the slain. At the time I never envisioned her as afrodite, but as a much more powerful force, something not as a romantic thing, but then kind of loven that intoxicates you and makes you crave desperately for the loved one. Clearly I have a lot to read.

      2. Enrique scpc says:

        In the topic of reviving the rituals as were performed, let’s not forget that the hebrew bible describe huge blood offerings that should continuously flow for several days and of course that do not happen again.
        Just my two cents

  2. JoHanna White says:

    Great blog post! It is very interesting to look at the Morrigan from a middle ground between eclecticism and purist Reconstructionism. As a student of Irish Gaelic, the lack of sources relating to the particulars of how/when/where/what of Her worship is not surprising contending as we are with a culture that was primarily oral until the entrance of Christianity. Monks discussing the hows/why/wherefores would therefore be very suspicious imho. Again, great post!

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thanks, JoHanna! I didn’t know you were studying Irish Gaelic. I admire it – I have had a hard time breaking in to the language myself. Thanks for your comments!

      1. JoHanna White says:

        2 years of it in college. I recommend pre-school kids books myself as a place to start learning.

  3. Brian Morgan says:

    I also would like to add that I have found a pattern with those she comes to. Especially between male and female.

    1. Enrique says:

      Could you share it?

  4. Brian Morgan says:

    I think it is time for us to get this started. Or more so she is calling us to get it started.
    I don’t get online much but a friend of mine pointed me to this blog.
    I as well have been awoken by our mother Morrighan and been working with her for 10 years now. She has spoke to me as well about starting her cult. With a 20 year background in magick I have already started a working coven of 7 solely devoted to her with others she has come to. With this my plan was to make an international order. I have already began the construction and a system of magick to awaken ones consciousness to her in each aspect.
    however I keep seeing others that are wanting to do the same.
    I think it is time for us to finally come together with all our combined experience and do what she’s calling us for. If you could please get back to me on this

    1. Morpheus says:

      Great to hear from you, Brian. I’d love to hear more about your work in your coven. Feel free to contact me privately via email so we can discuss further. Email is mara DOT rua AT gmail DOT com.

      1. Brian Morgan says:

        Hey,never heard back from you. Wasn’t sure if you got my email or not?

  5. Saigh Kym says:

    Interesting, as I would say that I AM trying to rebuild Her cult, as we apparently define the elements of such a cult differently. I’m not going to take heads unless it were to become appropriate, which it’s likely not. ~;) However, there are other aspects which I have been exploring these past couple of decades which I do feel are appropriate. I will likely do a long blog post about this subject at some point, once I get through several upcoming deadlines. Thank you for the prompt.

    1. Morpheus says:

      I’d love to hear more, Saigh! I follow your blog as well and look forward to reading your post about it. I gather you come to Her worship from a more reconstructionist position than myself. Since my background is witchcraft, I tend to a more Neopagan approach, but with a lot less eclecticism than many Neopagans. History is important to me, and before I make a decision about how I’m going to choose to handle a particular aspect of worship, I want to understand how the ancients did that thing and why. I’ve learned a lot from the recon folks and really appreciate the respect for accuracy and authenticity that that community brings. I’m keen to learn more about how you see the work of rebuilding Her cult.

      1. Saigh Kym says:

        Thank you! Yes, I do work from a CR methodology, which I would say is NeoPagan (in fact newer than many) even if certain people seem to get rather miffed when I do. ~;) I do think it’s important to try to understand things from the culture itself, as much as possible. But I’m also very experiential and ecstatic in my work, trying to 1) stay clear when that’s where I’m getting stuff and 2) find what I can to substantiate things when possible. Sometimes that leads to amazing finds and ways to understand things.

        I would say, really, that I might not want to say that I am actually rebuilding Her cult myself. I’m not that much for leadership. Perhaps it’s more that I am hoping to add to a framework which will rebuild it. I suppose that all depends on how old and shy I feel. ~;) I do feel it will be rebuilt. And it will be an appropriately liminal blend of practical and ecstatic.

  6. All of this strikes a cord with me. I work with Four Dragons Clann of the Wilson/Bearwalker 1734 Stream of Traditional Witchcraft. We work with the Morrigan and I do as well privately. You speak mainly about Badb, whom I know well, but there are other aspects (like Macha and a third, that is more various depending upon the tradition) and these other aspects are less about battle and the transit of souls. And indeed, there are other ways of viewing ‘battle’ and the necessity of ‘going in for the kill’ that have nothing to do with physical violence or warfare. The wisdom of serpents is necessary all the more for those who are harmless as lambs. I commend your own focus and effort in bringing the Great Queen to life again, as we invoke Her through our presence in Her life. FFF & F, RAE

    1. Morpheus says:

      Yes, indeed, She does have many aspects, and there’s much more to say about Her history and cult than could be covered in a blog post, for sure. I’m very interested to hear that your tradition works with Her – always intrigued to learn about and connect with other folks who reverence Her. I’ve a passing familiarity with 1734 traditions but no knowledge of your line in particular. Good to ‘meet’ a fellow devotee! It was through my own Craft lineage that I inherited my devotional relationship with the Queen myself, actually. I’m of Vanthe line in the Anderson Feri tradition and it was in the coven that I was first taught my work with Her.

  7. Helix says:

    Given all this history, I have to ask — why is this deity willing to cooperate with you on nonviolent goals?

    1. Morpheus says:

      Great question, Helix. First, I have to sayI can’t speak for Her, so the best answer might be had by asking Her directly. That said, here is my take on it. I don’t see the Morrigan as an inherently violent deity; that is to say, violence is not the core of what She is. I think that sovereignty is much closer to the core, and the warriorship aspects arise from that. If you look at the development of Her cult historically (including related epiphanies such as Macha, Badb, etc.), the earliest threads of Her worship pertain to Her as a tribal/territorial and sovereignty Goddess with a fundamentally protective function. Out of that protective function, the martial qualities arose as a function of historical necessity. She was born of violent times, within a culture that was based on raiding, herding, and warriorship. As I know Her, I see Her deepest concern as that of sovereignty, both of the soul and of the collective, and She also has a fundamental role in how power flows between this world and the Otherworld.

      I suspect that the reason the historical evidence of Her cult is so slanted toward the warlike aspects is a combination of a couple of factors. One, the nature of material culture and what survives through time: Metal tools and weapons, stone, and bony remains generally are more likely to be preserved than, say, prayer cloths, degradable offerings, etc. It’s the case throughout the archaeological record that we tend to know more about funerary practice than most other customs of nonliterate prehistoric cultures, just because funerary deposits are made to last through time as most other things aren’t. Also, since the Celts were nonliterate, in terms of written history everything we know about them comes from rival contemporary civilizations – with whom they were often at war, such as the Greeks and Romans.

      Two, of the material records we have that pertain to non-warlike forms of devotion (water deposits, stone monuments and shrines, passage graves, etc.) it’s even harder to tie any of these to Her. When looking at the archaeological record of a nonliterate culture, the primary way to identify who a given devotional practice was intended for is to look for symbolism that identifies or is unique to a deity. In Her less warlike functions, such as sovereignty, fecundity, poetry/prophecy, etc., She shares a lot of symbolism with other Celtic tribal Gods. In other words, there may have been plenty of devotional practice relating to Her other aspects, but the ones we can actually tie to Her most readily are those that link to Her distinctive attributes – warfare, warriors, carrion birds, etc.

      So I guess what I’m saying is that in spite of the historical record tending to show such violent forms of devotion, I actually don’t see Her as a being whose goals or values are fundamentally violent. I see violence or the capacity for violence as a human quality. Her role is to do with deeper themes such as sovereignty, protection, strength, autonomy, and Otherworld power – themes which may be expressed in violent ways, and in ancient times very often were.

      1. Helix says:

        Thanks, that’s helpful.

        I ask partially because in my direct experiences of Her, it seemed to me that violence would be relished. Many people I respect work with Her, though, so I assumed there must be other aspects.

        1. Morpheus says:

          Yes, She does have an epiphany that revels in the slaughter, and because it’s one of the ones documented in literature, it gets a lot of attention. Some of the early medieval Irish source texts describe Her thus. That’s a real part of Her. It just isn’t all of Her.

          What She’s shown me with regard to Her reveling-in-the-slaughter aspect is that it is part of Her role as a scavenger bird deity, and a Goddess of death. She has a role in the transition of souls between this world and the Otherworld which gives her a bloodthirsty devouring aspect as She drinks in the release of life force and receives the souls of the warriors. And She also has this Valkyrie-like role, pushing fighters toward greater daring, which in the Celtic ethos and historical experience, often meant dying a bloody and glorious death; so She also has a role in celebrating that.

          I think in part because the Irish heroic literature was written down by Christian monks, we get a clear picture only of those aspects of the Celtic heroic ethos that were comprehensible to them. There are a lot of places where the Morrigan, or one of her cognates, is glossed as a demoness, or a fury; images that were familiar to the people of the time from the Greco-Roman literature, but which turn out to be a great oversimplification of our Queen. Because they are purely wrathful entities with a fairly limited function, whereas She is a multifaceted tribal Goddess who possesses wrathful qualities and forms.

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