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Badb & Morrigu: Ancient Irish Goddesses of War - Their symbolism with the Crow

Badb is usually conceived as a Crone Goddess,  while Morrigan is as Goddess of war or death. Curiously the crow is a common link between them, usually associated as a spiritual form of feminine deities.

The raven is similar to the crow in that it is deeply associated with death deities, specially  the Otherworldly body for both Gods and Goddesses. Ravens and crows are depicted flying over the battlefields or in banners.

The discovery of a Gallo-Roman inscription, figured in the Revue Savoisienne of 15th November, 1867, and republished by M. Adolphe Pictet in the Revue Archéologique for July, 1868, forms the subject of one of those essays from the pen of the veteran philologist M. Pictet, for which the students of Celtic languages and archæology cannot be sufficiently thankful.
The inscription, the initial letter of which has been destroyed by an injury to the stone on which it is cut, reads: athuboduæ Aug[ustæ] Servilia Terenta [votum] s[olvit]  l[ibens] m[erito].
    M. Pictet’s essay is entitled “Sur une Déese Gauloise de la Guerre”; and if he is right in his suggestion (which is very probably) that the letter destroyed was a c, and that ATHUBODVÆ should be read CATHUBODVÆ, the title is not inappropriate; and in the CATHUBODVÆ of the inscription we may recognise the badb-catha of Irish mythology.
    The etymology of the name athubodua, or cathubodua, as we may venture to read it, has been examined with great industry by M. Pictet, who has managed to compress within the narrow limits of his essay a great mass of illustrative facts and evidences drawn from all the sources accessible to him. 

The first member of the name (cathu, = Irish cath, «pugna») presents but little difficulty to a Celtic scholar like M. Pictet, who would however prefer finding it written catu, without aspiration, as more nearly approaching the rigid orthography of Gaulish names, in which it is very frequently found as the first element; but the second member, bodua, although entering largely into the composition of names amongst all the nations of Celtic origin from the Danube to the islands of Aran, is confessedly capable of explanation only through the medium of the Irish, with its corresponding forms of bodb or badb (pron. bov or bav), originally signifying rage, fury, or violence and ultimately implying a witch, fairy, or goddess, represented by the bird known as the scare-crow, scald-crow, or Royston-crow, not the raven as M. Pictet seems to think.

    The etymology of the name being examined, M. Pictet proceeds to illustrate the character of the Badb, and her position in Irish fairy mythology, by the help of a few brief and scarcely intelligible references from the printed books, the only materials accessible to him, but finds himself unable to complete his task, “for want of sufficient details,” as he observes more than once.

    The printed references, not one of which has escaped M. Pictet’s industry are no doubt few, but the ancient tracts, romances, and battle pieces preserved in our Irish MSS. teem with details respecting this Badb-catha and her so-called sisters, Neman, Macha, and Morrigan or Morrigu (for the name is written in a double form), who are generally depicted as furies, witches, or sorceresses, able to confound whole armies, even in the assumed form of a bird.

    Popular tradition also bears testimony to the former widespread belief in the magical powers of the Badb.

    I have referred to Neman, Macha, and Morrigu, as the so called sisters of the Badb

Properly speaking, however, the name Badb seems to have been the distinctive title of the mythological beings supposed to rule over battle and carnage. M. Pictet feels a difficulty in deciding whether there were three such beings, or whether Neman, Macha, and Morrigu are only three different names for the same goddess; but after a careful examination of the subject I am inclined to believe that these names represent three different characters with distinctive attributes:
  •  Neman being like those of a being who confounded her victims with madness
  •  Morrigu incited to deeds of valour, or planned strife and battle
  •  Macha revelled amidst the bodies of the slain.

Morrigu aka Morrigan

    It has been already observed that the name of the goddess whose identity we have been endeavouring to connect with Cathu-bodua, is written badb and bodb, just as the adjectives derived therefrom are written badba and bodba, and the driv. subst. badbdacht and bodbdacht.

    The term bodba (terrible) is applied to the  Morrigan in an old tract in the book of Leinster, where Conor Mac Nessa is represented as directing Findchad to summon auxiliaries to assist Cuchullainn: “ardotrai cosin nathaig mbodba, cosin Mórriagain co dún Sobairche;” “go to the terrible fury, to the Morrigan, to Dun-Sobairche (Dunseverick, co.Antrim).”

    The name Morrigan is also varied, as we have seen, to Morrigu; but as the genitive form is Morrigna, the proper nom. would seem to be Morrigan.

In the Middle Irish period the name is often spelt Mórrígan with a lengthening diacritic over the 'o', seemingly intended to mean "Great Queen" (Old Irish mór, 'great'; this would derive from a hypothetical Proto-Celtic *Māra Rīganī-s.).

Whitley Stokes believed this latter spelling was a due to a false etymology popular at the time. There have also been attempts to link the Morrígan with the fairy Morgan from Arthurian romance, in whose name 'mor' may derive from 'sea' or 'water', although this link cannot be proven. Scholars such as Rosalind Clark hold that the names are unrelated, the Welsh "Morgan" being derived from root words associated with the sea, while the Irish "Morrígan" has its roots either in a word for "terror" or a word for "greatness".

Symbolism with the Crow

The popular tales of Scotland and Wales, which are simply the echo of similar stories once current and still not quite extinct in Ireland, contain requent allusion to this mystic bird. The readers of the Mabinogion will call to mind, amongst other instances, the wonderful crows of Owain, prince of Rheged, a contemporary of Arthur, which always secured factory by the aid of the three hundred crows under its command and in Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands we have a large stock of legends, in most of which the principal fairy agency is exercised by the hoodie or scare-crow.

    It may be observed, by the way, that the name hoody, formerly applied by the Scotch to the hooded crow or the scare-crow, from its appearance, is now generally applied to its less intelligent relative the common carrion crow. But the hoody of Highland fairy mythology is, nevertheless, the same as the badb or Royston crow.

 In most parts of Ireland the Royston-crow, or fennóg liath na gragarnaith (“the chattering grey  fennóg”). As she is called by the Irish speaking people, is regarded at the present day with feelings of mingled dislike and curiosity by the peasantry, who remember the many tales of depredation and slaughter in which the cunning bird is represented as exercising a sinister influence. Nor is this superstition confined to Ireland alone. 
    The popular notions regarding the identity of the battle furies with the royston-crow are accurately given in the Irish Dictionary compiled by the late Peter O’Connell, an excellent Irish scholar, who died some 60 years ago, and the original of whose excellent vocabulary is preserved in the British Museum. Thus:
  •   "Badb-catha" is explained “finnóg, a royston crow, a squall crow”.  
  •   “Badb, i.e. bean sidhe, a female fairy, phantom, or spectre, supposed to be attached to certain families, and to appear sometimes in the form of squall crows, or royston crows”.
  • Macha; i.e. a royston crow”.
  • Morrighain; i.e. the great fairy”.
  • Neamhan; i.e. Badb catha nó feannóg; a badb catha or a royston crow”.

      In the Irish mythological tracts a well-marked distinction is observable between the attributes of the scald-crow and those of the raven; the scald-crow, or cornix, being represented in the written as in the spoken traditions of the country, not alone as a bird of ill omen, but as an agen in the fulfilment of what is “in dono” in dan, or decreed for a person, whilst the raven is simply regarded as a bird of prey, that follows the warrior merely for the sake of enjoying its gory feast. 

 Earl Sigurd also is said to have had a raven banner at the battle of Clontarf, which his mother had woven for him with magical skill 4.

    This idea fo the raven banner is probably connected with the tradition given in the Vœlsûnga-Saga, which represents Odin as sending the Valkyria Oskemey, in the form of a crow, on a mission to Friga, to entreat that the wife of King Reris might become fruitful 5; and the prayer being heard, a son (Sigmund) was born, whose son Sigurd married Brunhilt, a Valkyria, who was kalled Kraka, or the crow, and who was the wife of Radnar Lodbrok, and mother of Ivar Beinlaus.


3 -See the Dream of Rhonabwy, in the Mabinogion, part. V, pp. 385 and 410.
4 -Todd’s “Danish wars,” introd. p. clxxxiij, note 1.
5 -Fornaldar Sœgur, Copenagen, 1825, pp. 117-118.

Related Source:
"The Ancient Irish Goddess of War", by WM Hennessey, [1870]

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