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  • The Morrígan, the Land, and an Ecocritical Critique of Sovereignty and Warfare in Early Ireland
  • Elizabeth Kempton

Studies of the Irish landscape and its unique place in mythology have already been approached from quite a number of brilliant directions including Lisa Bitel's study of equation of the female body and the landscape in myths of conquest, Ronald Hick's study of the role of the landscape in mythological events and holidays, and Alfred Siewers's study of the ecology of Otherworlds.1 This paper, however, will take a more unusual and perhaps more contradictory approach, using the battle or sovereignty figure the Morrígan as a model of knotworked identity which encompasses the human, the land, and the animal. Such a perspective contributes to a rapidly growing body of scholarship suggesting the the Táin Bó Cúailnge might be both an epic tale of violence and a critique of this violence. However, such work has largely focused on male figures. By considering the Morrígan, one attains a female perspective on issues of violence and gender, while also achieving a critique of early Irish society and war that is in some ways unique, as the Morrígan is not only a female warrior, but often considered an embodiment of the idea of war itself.2

The Morrígan is a quite confusing figure in early Irish myth. From the earliest scholarly work on her in 1870 by W. M. Hennessy, there has been a good deal of debate as to whether she is one woman with multiple names, a grouping of sisters, or a figure who somehow occupies multiple characters.3 Likewise, she is commonly conceived of as a war goddess, as indicated in both the title of Hennessy's paper and John Carey's much later and seminal work "Notes on the Irish War Goddess."4 However, as Carey, Marie Herbert, Rosalind Clark, H. R. Ellis Davidson and others point out, her role is not so simple.5 She also often performs the roles of sovereignty and land goddess figures, as well as tutelary figures. The sovereignty goddess is an extremely prevalent trope in early Irish functions. In the earliest versions of the trope, the goddess, as an embodiment of the land, selects a male partner. Their sexual union signifies his selection as rightful king and creates [End Page 23] a sacral marriage between king and land. Marie Herbert suggests that later versions become a sort of metamyth, in which the sovereignty goddess's choice becomes a narrative tool to mark the current king's power.6 Proinsias Mac Cana has even suggested that the earliest versions of this myth might have proto-Indo-European roots.7 In particular, several myths have her, like many other Irish goddesses, shapeshifting into animals and becoming a part of the landscape through rivers and hills. Although the Morrígan is an unlikely choice for an ecocritical reading, due to her inherent investment in violence, I would like to suggest that she opens up some unique spaces for a more ethical view of relationships, much of this accomplished through her shape-shifting sense of networked identity. Through this network or knotwork of bodies she creates a mutually constitutive relationship with the land and animals, but also calls into question the "making killable" of other human beings.8 A critique of violence has been suggested before in the Táin Bó Cúailnge by seminal work, such as that of Jeremy Lowe. Alled Lion Jones has also studied the cyborg in the figures of Cú Chulainn and Cethern, exploring the ways in which the cyborgian figure comes to represent the self destroying other, a figure of the chaos and violence of the battle.9 However, the use of a figure representative of war for this critique suggests that perhaps this is not a phenomenon unique to the Táin, but rather a critique of warfare embedded in the early Irish idea of war itself. Furthermore, the Morrígan's role as a sovereignty figure also extends this critique to the violence inherent in obtaining and keeping power in early Ireland.10 Further explorations of this critique open up not only our...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4608
Print ISSN
1043-2213
Pages
pp. 23-34
Launched on MUSE
2019-02-05
Open Access
No
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