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The Ancient Irish Goddess of War

W. M. Hennessey

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The substance of this paper was read before the Royal Irish Academy on the 25th of January, 1869. It was very influential in establishing the interpretation of The Morrígan as being the goddess of war. The Morrígan ('terror' or 'phantom queen') or Mórrígan ('great queen') is a figure from Irish mythology who appears to have once been a goddess, although she is not explicitly referred to as such in the texts.

This book has 30 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1870.

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Excerpt from 'The Ancient Irish Goddess of War'

The substance of this paper was read before the Royal Irish  Academy on the 25th of January, 1869

 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 for which the students of Celtic languages and archæology cannot be sufficiently thankful. 

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. 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 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.

I have referred to NemanMacha, and Morrigu, as the so called sisters of the Badb. Properly speaking, however, the name Badb seems to have been thee 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, the attributes of Nemanbeing like those of a being who confounded her victims with madness, whilst Morrigu incited to deeds of valour, or planned strife and battle, and Macha revelled amidst the bodies of the slain.

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:

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