Three is an important number in Celtic symbolism. One of the ways it shows up in the culture is in the presence of triple goddesses in the mythology. Two of the most famous Celtic triple goddesses are Ceridwen, the Welsh enchantress, and the Morrigan, the Irish goddess of war. In some versions of Irish mythology, the Morrigan is considered a collective of three sisters. In others, she is a single entity. Ceridwen always is a sole being. Both are called triple goddesses because they have three aspects: the beautiful maiden, the matronly mother, and the old crone. They can appear in any of these forms at any time. Both Ceridwen and Morrigan are shapeshifters. Both are powerful, somewhat intimidating, and appear in famous works of folklore and literature. There the similarities end. Each goddesses has a distinct personality and set of powers. Ceridwen is benevolent, for the most part. Morrigan, on the other hand, is always ready for a good fight. In either case, it’s not a good idea to anger these goddesses. Today’s post includes a couple of stories which demonstrate that.
A Welsh sovereignty goddess, Ceridwen, over time, has come to be known as an enchantress or a white witch. Likely this is because she possessed a large cauldron in which she brewed magic potions. With these potions, she helped those she deemed worthy to acquire gifts of wisdom, beauty, poetic talents, and the ability to shapeshift, all talents she herself had.
Enchanting and powerful though she was, Ceridwen had a domestic side. She had a husband, Tegid Foel, with whom she had two children, a daughter and a son. The family lived in Bala Lake in North Wales. But Ceridwen had her sorrows too. Chief among them was her son. While her daughter, Creirwy, was lovely and intelligent like her mother, her son, Morfran, was ugly, deformed, and said to have had a warped mind.
Like any good mother, Ceridwen wanted the best for her son so she decided to mix a potion that would transform him into a picture of grace, beauty, and wisdom. The potion required a year of brewing so the goddess assigned a servant boy named Gwion Bach ap Gwreang to the task of stirring it. After all, what busy goddess has time for such a mundane task? But there was a problem with the potion. The first three drops would impart all of Ceridwen’s best gifts. After these were used, the rest of the potion became a deadly poison.
After stirring for a year, Gwion was just about finished with his task when three drops of the potion fell onto his thumb. The hot liquid stung so Gwion, like Finn in the story of the Salmon of Wisdom in Irish mythology, stuck his thumb in his mouth to soothe the pain and the potion imparted its gifts to him. The servant became beautiful and wise—or at least smart enough to know that Ceridwen was going to be furious when she discovered Gwion had usurped the wonderful attributes meant for her son. So he fled but she pursued him.
The potion had given Gwion the ability to shapeshift which he used to try to evade the goddess. As a shapeshifter herself, she was able to follow no matter what form he took. After a series of transformations, Gwion changed himself into a grain of wheat. Ceridwen responded by eating him, grinding him up with her teeth. The potion, however, protected him from death. The grain of wheat grew inside her. In other words, she became pregnant.
Ceridwen resolved to let the baby come to term and then, once Gwion was reborn, she would murder him. However, when the baby came out, he was exceedingly beautiful and she couldn’t bring herself to kill him directly. Instead, she put him in a leather bag and pushed him out to sea. The bag washed up on a shore. The Welsh prince, Elffin ap Gwyddno, found the bag and the baby within. He adopted the child. The boy grew up to be the legendary bard, Taliesin, on whom the wizard, Merlin, is said to be based.
The Irish triple goddess, the Morrigan, also has a connection to Arthurian legend. Many scholars believe she is the inspiration for Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Faye. A shapeshifter, she often appears circling above battlefields in the form of a crow or a raven. But she is not waiting to swoop down to devour the dead. Instead, she encourages warriors. The sight of the goddess is said to have spurred them to fight harder. Far from impartial, Morrigan would interven to ensure her side obtained victory, sometimes jumping into the fray herself.
At times, she is seen in human form before the battle. This is never a good omen. Scholars say she likely is the prototype for the Scottish bean nighe and the Irish banshee, both of whom foretell death. Like the bean nighe, Morrigan appears in a river ahead of a battle, washing blood from the clothes of those who will die. The Irish banshee, a female faerie whose wail to warn of the impending death of a family member, most often is heard rather than seen. When she is seen, she looks like one of the three aspects of Morrigan: a young woman of unearthly beauty, a noble matron, or an old crone. Like the Scottish and Irish faerie women, Morrigan doesn’t kill. She prophesies the death. In a positive light, she is considered a symbol of the Celtic belief in the never-ending circle of life, death, and rebirth.
Stories about Morrigan are abundant in Irish mythology and folklore but the best-known stories have to do with her adversarial relationship with Ireland’s greatest hero, Cúchulainn. One such story comes from the Táin Bó Cúailnge, “The Cattle Raid at Cooley.” That story primarily has to do with Cu Chulainn fighting to retrieve a prized bull stolen from Ulster by Queen Maeve of Connacht but, at one point, Morrigan appears to Cúchulainn and tries to seduce him. She appears as a young woman and offers her love as well as help with the battle. He rebuffs her, which is not the smartest move when dealing with a vindictive goddess.
In his next battle, she appears as an eel and trips him. Then she shapeshifts into a wolf and causes a stampede of cattle. After this, she becomes the heifer who is leading the charge. Each time, Cúchulainn wounds her. Later, she appears to him as an old woman, milking a cow. He doesn’t recognize her despite the three wounds she bears. Morrigan gives Cúchulainn three drinks of milk. In return, he blesses her, healing her wounds. She then reveals herself to him and he expresses regret at having healed her, saying he wouldn’t have if he had known it was her. Cúchulainn was a brave and cunning warrior but apparently not too bright!
Morrigan tells him he will die in his next battle, a prophecy that comes true. Does she bring about his death? That is unclear from the story but, as he is dying, a crow lands on his shoulder.
In addition to being associated with war and destiny, Morrigan is a sovereignty goddess, a guardian of a territory and its people. She is believed to have watched over the land and livestock. Irish folklore says that she and Dagda, the father god, unite physically on Samhain (November 1st) and, as a result, make the land fertile. Her main dwelling place the Oweynagat (Cave of Cats) in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon. The site is acclaimed as the place where the celebration of Samhain originated. In folklore, the cave is regarded as a passage to the Otherworld.
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