In many traditions all over the world, death is viewed as a transition from one existence to another. Life co-existed with death, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. To lose a part of one’s self was necessary to allow a place for new growth to begin. Discarding what was no longer needed, often had a concrete basis in the everyday lives of villagers working the fields, enduring the hardships of storms, diseased livestock and loss of crops. There was little room for being sentimental.
As a result, in part, sometimes a deity was assigned the dual role of presiding over both life and death since the two were so interconnected. Life must fill the vacancy of death and death must come to claim life that requires transformation. In Celtic mythology, this dual role was given to the goddess known as The Morrigan.
Presiding in the underworld, as with in most other traditions of afterlife deities, she could appear as either a young woman, a mother figure, a hag or in the form of an animal, usually a crow. As the legend tells us, if you were to encounter her in the form of a hag, washing blood from your clothes or armor in a ford, you were certain to die soon. There was a long-standing tradition of washer women, or “bean nighe,” who were portents of death from the Underworld, seen washing the grave clothes of the soon-to-be departed.
The Morrigan was often referred to as a triple-goddess, or maiden, mother, crone, encompassing the entire life-cycle of a living existence. And having the duty as soul keepers of the dead, she held the responsibility to offer spiritual guidance and to escort and the deceased towards rebirth. This function clearly shows the regenerative aspect of The Morrigan, an aspect that is often repeated throughout other ancient traditions all over the world.
Warriors were typically prepared to sacrificed their lives in order to preserve their lands and the well-being of their loved-ones and quite often, a romanticized view was taken of death. It was thought that they would be met by a goddess, god or other type of deity to escort them to the afterlife and to reward. This was not so true with The Morrigan’s function. Her primary role on the battlefield was to select who would live and who would die, by rousing either a warrior’s courage or fear, often a deciding factor of battle.
Cu Chulainn was an especially famous Celtic warrior hero, linked in legend with The Morrigan and often times, his story is interpreted as a tale or morality. Essentially, he spurned her advances with such disrespect and arrogance, that The Morrigan took action to see him come to his death, by conspiring with Cu Chulainn’s enemies. Although a great warrior, on a level with Achiles, he seals his fate for an upcoming battle when he is tricked by The Morrigan into breaking a taboo against eating a certain type of meat, which would result in a spiritual weakening.
During the battle, Cu Chulainn is struck with a magic spear, causing a mortal wound. But before he dies, he ties himself to a large stone so that he will meet death standing up. Because he was such a ferocious warrior, his enemies would not believe him to be dead until a crow landed upon his shoulder and began to pluck out his eyes. As was mentioned before, The Morrigan was often seen in the form of a crow, a well-known symbol of death throughout the world.
Perhaps the triple-goddess got her way after all.