Celtic Lore and Spellcraft of the Dark Goddess: Invoking the Morrigan, by Stephanie Woodfield, 2011.
I want to start by saying that this is not at all meant as a personal attack on Stephanie Woodfield. A flawed book is not a reflection of character. This book was first published in 2011 and from what I’ve heard, Woodfield has changed some of her opinions. Unfortunately, published texts don’t reflect the author’s later growth and I still see this text referred to in ways that aren’t useful, especially for newer folks who may not yet have enough context in Irish lore to be able to discern substantiated information from filler or UPG.
The TL;DR Version
My rating: 2/5, would not recommend to anyone who doesn’t already have a really solid grounding in Irish myth.
This book might be useful for: Wiccans and folks who have a more Wiccan-influenced/neopagan personal practice and a pretty good knowledge of Irish and Morrigan-related lore already.
This book would not be useful for: modern polytheists looking for information on personal practice with a solid grounding in the archaeological and literary traditions. Anyone new to Irish polytheism or paganism. Anyone new to the Morrígan in particular. Anyone new to a practice involving magic.
- The book has a tendency to start with legitimate quotations or pieces of information…and then take an abrupt turn into a claim that makes no sense whatsoever in the broader Irish context (or at all, sometimes). This results in misrepresentation or sometimes flat-out incorrect information.
- There is a constant imposition of Wiccan and neopagan imagery, such as Maiden/Mother/Crone and the four Classical elements, with no clear explanation on when, why, or how they’re being shoehorned into a culturally-specific tradition that never used them. Using them in private practice is one thing; it’s quite another to present them as natively Irish.
- There are moments of archetypalism in which goddesses from different cultures are treated as more alike than they are or even as the same figure (e.g. Rhiannon, Epona, and Macha). This critique is informed by my own bias as a hard polytheist, so YMMV.
- Morgana le Fay, however, and by extension Avalon, are entirely unrelated to the Morrigan by point of currently accepted academic fact.
- Some of the spellcraft instructions are mislabeled (e.g. conflating manifestation magic with shapeshifting), appropriative (“sage smudge stick,” repackaging of hoodoo powders), or are even potentially outright dangerous, as in the case of swearing oaths without proper preparation and negotiation.
- All of the rituals follow the conventional circle-casting, four-quarter Wiccan/neopagan format, which is not Irish.
- There does not seem to be any explanations behind the various association/correspondence lists, many of which involve non-native ingredients or objects.
If you want some examples and details, read on.
While linguistics and some limited archaeology argue pretty solidly for Indo-European roots on the continent (e.g. the Gaulish Cathubodua is cognate with Irish Badb Catha), the Morrígan is specifically an Irish name for an Irish entity, or an Irish title shared by a collective of Irish entities. “Celtic” is a term that started with linguists to describe a family of vernacular languages shared by related but diverse cultures – cultures which, over time, spanned the entire European continent as far east as Turkey and as far south as Northern Italy. That is an enormous region crossing at least a millennium, and so “Celtic” as a cultural term is…not very useful at all for our purposes. “Irish” is not at all the same as “Celtic.” This means that any text talking about Celtic mythology which isn’t linguistics or some kind of comparative treatise on Indo-European cultures is already academically suspect.
Basically, there’s no such thing as “Celtic lore.” Irish lore, yes; Gaelic lore, Manx lore, Breton lore, Welsh lore, yes. But not Celtic.
This is the kind of title usually applied to deities based on modern views on subjects that we culturally aren’t great at understanding with any nuance: death, war, certain kinds of emotions, and so on. Morpheus Ravenna offers a breakdown of this term in her article here.
Part One: Who Is the Morrigan?
“She appeared in triple form as the sisters Macha, Anu, and Badb” (9).
Not always. Up to seven names have been identified with her.
“…and as Badb, she gathered the souls of the dead” (9).
Technically, no. Badb is present on battlefields and often leads hosts of fantastic and terrible creatures, some of which may be interpreted as once-human dead. There’s no explicit description of her as a psychopomp, however, and her purpose on the battlefield is not shown as such.
“…but it is interesting to note that the Morrigan was a river goddess and was associated with bodies of water” (10).
Place-name lore has a time-honored lineage in Irish literature and myth; many stories will tell you exactly where a battle happened or someone died, and plenty of modern Irish names carry etymological histories rooted in myth. But this isn’t unique to any particular entity, and the habit of associating deities and spirits with features in our very physical landscape is shared across other Celtic-speaking and Indo-European cultures. There is no evidence to suggest that the Morrigan was somehow set apart from this general trend and explicitly a river goddess, and there are land features that carry her name that have nothing to do with water at all (e.g. the Paps of Anu).
“It also further connects the Morrigan with Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legends” (10).
For more info on the lack of any connection between the Morrigan and Morgana le Fay, check out these articles, The Morrigan and Morgen le Fay (Daimler) and Disambiguating the Queen, #1: Morgan Le Fay (Ravenna).
“…she is…a sea queen…” (11).
The “sea queen” translation of her name is based on an outdated and discarded theory. Incorrect. This translation gets brought up again later in the book, and it remains unsubstantiated.
“They spoke a common dialect…”
Celtic speaking cultures shared some linguistic commonalities, but a dialect is a subset of a specific language and that’s…not what happened. The Celtic languages are not unlike the Romantic ones, say, French and Italian, which share a Latin ancestor but remain separate languages. A dialect remains with the same language: AAVE is a good example for the English language.
My point is, no, the continental Celtic-speaking peoples did not speak a common dialect, and claiming so is not only incorrect but ignores the importance of language in shaping cultural consciousnesses.
“…and enjoyed making war on each other almost as much as they enjoyed fighting with their neighbors.”
A biased character judgment from a modern perspective. War is not waged for the sake of enjoyment; it is driven by the need for resources, for capital profit, or perhaps for cultural reasons in which the social consequences for not distinguishing oneself in battle is enough motivation. Even in the case of the latter, an argument can be made that any social imperative around waging war of some kind is a way of providing psychological support and context for an unpleasant reality.
In other words, this is an oversimplification on the realities of war in any era.
At this point, I’m just going to skip forward to the bits people probably care more about.
Part Two: The Three Morrigans
“The names of these goddesses are used interchangeably, with the understanding that they all refer to the same being” (47).
Some contemporary pagans and polytheists have this personal understanding; some, including myself, perceive the Queens as distinctly separate beings. Both are perfectly acceptable interpretations – but neither are necessarily more true than the other, and each approach has different connotations for the individual worshiper that can make a big difference in their personal spiritual process.
Given the evolution of Irish literature, it’s likely that once upon a time the different goddesses were regional ones who served in roles that had enough similarity that later writers, trying to create a single Irish national narrative, felt inspired to conflate them.
“Sometimes Danu is added to this trinity as well” (47).
Incorrect. Danu is occasionally conflated with Anu/Anand, but this is a false equivalence.
“I knew she was a triple goddess” (47).
Technically true in the sense that we have archaeological and literary evidence that Irish and Gaulish deities – including masculine gods – would appear in triplicate. The leading suggestion is that this was to emphasize their power, and their appearances are always as siblings. (Note the appearance of the sisters Brighid.) This is not the Triple Goddess of Maiden/Mother/Crone fame, which was popularized in the 19th century and has absolutely nothing to do with Irish lore.
“All three women are regarded as the same person within the mythological cycle, each acting as a separate incarnation of Macha’s personality” (53).
Incorrect. This article lists five separate figures with the name Macha, all of whom serve different roles at different times for different reasons. They may be a reflex of an earlier, singular being, or the name may have been reused by Christian writers for unrelated figures in the same way a single school class can have five unrelated girls named Sarah.
“The next invocation calls upon the three horse goddesses [Rhiannon, Macha, Epona] of the Celts” (58).
Conflation (and oversimplification) of deities from different cultures and traditions, which flattens their multi-dimensional characters and erases their individual uniqueness.
“As the gentle Crone, she guides souls to the Otherworld” (69).
Badb is never portrayed as capital-C Crone, has never been described as gentle (which isn’t to say she can’t be, for modern worshipers, but that’s a very different conversation), and is never explicitly shown performing a psychopomp’s service.
“The second translation of Badb’s name, “one who boils,” refers to the Otherworldly cauldron she presided over… While the cauldron connects her to rebirth, the Celts also believed the world would end when Badb’s cauldron boiled over, its contents spilling across the earth and destroying all life” (69).
I…have absolutely no idea where this name translation, this alleged cauldron, or its apocalyptic power come from.
“As the banshee, Badb’s association with war is lost, but her primary role of prophecy and as a conveyor of souls to the afterlife remained in later folklore” (70).
It’s true that there’s evidence that the folkloric banshee has ancestral roots in Badb, or at least the badba as a class of battlefield spirits. But Badb is one of the Queens most strongly associated with the battlefield, and the Morrigan herself is known for speaking poetic prophecy. This skill isn’t unique to Badb, although she does have her own style of it. And again, she’s never shown in an explicitly psychopompic role.
“In this story [The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel], Badb seems to have a part in making her prophecy a reality rather than simply predicting future events” (71).
In The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, Badb shows up because the king has violated one of his geis (a huge problem for someone to do!) and she’s facilitating the Otherworld’s natural consequences of that. It’s an accountability process. Very different implications on Badb’s nature and some of her key roles.
“Badb is both the Maiden and the Crone” (72).
Incorrect. Maiden and Crone are products of 19th- and 20th-century neopagan revivalism, and have absolutely nothing to do with Irish lore. Badb is neither of these.
…Honestly, at this point my frustration is overcoming my capacity for professionalism, so I’m going to skip ahead again to find a few more examples rather than try combing page by page.
Chapter 11: Seeress
“In the name of the Morrigan/I bless these (cards, Ogham, Runes, etc)…” (232).
Oh my. Uh. Not sure how it works to bless Odin’s runes in the Morrigan’s name, so you may want to have a conversation with the both of them before trying that?
Chapter 13: Phantom Queen
“…she shows us how to part the Veil to honor those who have passed…she teaches us to emerge from the Underworld” (271).
The concept of a ‘veil’ between worlds is a 19th-century Victorian spiritualist metaphor. The Underworld in modern paganism is usually derived from Greek myth; there is no description of its analogue in Irish myth – nor, indeed, is much about pre-Christian Irish concepts about the afterlife known. Some Roman ethnographies suggest a belief in reincarnation among the continental Celts, and there are some threads in Irish lore that support a similar argument for the Isles, but we don’t actually know anything for certain.
“In this ritual you will be calling upon the Phantom Queen as a healer to dispel emotional trauma and release the negativity of the past… It is especially helpful for those healing from domestic abuse or helping victims of rape” (275).
A friend pointed out that this is a terribly irresponsible thing to suggest to someone without knowing anything about their healing process, and as an advocate for domestic violence survivors as well as a dedicant of Badb, I’m horrified. Trauma Does Not Work like you’re washing dirt off your skin; if these rituals have any effect, they’re more likely to be the kind where the internal wounds get torn open so they can heal. More effective in the long-term, but potentially excruciating and re-traumatizing in the short-term, especially if someone isn’t prepared for it and lacks proper support and context!
Argh, argh, argh.
Chapter 18: Seasonal Rituals
“Lugh is also part of my personal pantheon…but you can call upon another sun deity if you wish” (349).
The idea of Lugh as a sun god comes from an erroneous theory during the Victorian era in which (largely Protestant) scholars in the infancy of Irish Studies were deep into an assumed philosophy of cross-cultural archetypalism and universalism.
Lugh is not a sun god. Lugh is not a sun god. Lugh is not a sun god.
“I first came across this date [January 7] in connection to the Morrigan in Edain McCoy’s book Celtic Women’s Spirituality…” (352)
…Oh dear. Edain McCoy is the most notoriously unreliable of authors in regards to anything having anything to do with anything Irish.
I’m going to stop here at this point because I’ll just end up repeating myself even more. Let me know if you have questions, comments, or corrections.