1) Battle Sorceresses

a) Druidic Magic

Cath Muige Tuired Cunga [‘The First Battle of Moytura’] mentions twice that Badb, Macha and the Mórrígain are part of the contingent of the Tuatha Dé Danann. They are the only female characters, together with the goddesses personifying Ireland, that is Danann, Éire, Banba and Fótla, to take part in the battle. This tends to indicate that the land-goddesses are the ones who become endowed with war-like traits in time of insecurity and peril and have the ability to protect their land and people. The text emphasizes the magical faculties of the war-goddesses, for they are called the trí bantuathacha, that is ‘three sorceresses’:

‘Rocoraiged catha Tuath nDe Danann isin mag anoir cach ndirech. Tangadur Fir Bolg isin mag aníar ana nagaid. Is iad taisig roergedur re Tuathaib De Danann isin lo sin .i. Ogma 7 Midir 7 Bodb Derg 7 Dian Cecht 7 Aengaba n hIruaithe. Rachmaitne lib, ar na hingena .i. Badb 7 Macha 7 Morigan 7 Danann.

The battalions of the Tuatha De Danann were straightaway drawn up in the plain to the east ; and the Fir Bolg came into the plain against them. The chiefs who went out in front of the Tuatha De Danann on that day were Ogma, Midir, Bodb Derg, Diancecht, and Aengaba of Norway. ‘We will go with ye’, said the maidens, i.e. Badb and Macha and Morigan and Danann.1383
Tangadur a tus in chatha le Tuathaib De Danann .i. in Dagda Mór 7 Ogma 7 Alla 7 Bres 7 Delbaeth, cuig meic Eladain meic Delbaith […] na tri rigna .i. ere 7 Fotla 7 Banba, 7 a tri bantuathacha .i. Badb 7 Macha 7 Morigan, Be Chuille 7 Danann a da mbuime.

In the van of the Tuatha De Danann advanced the Dagda, Ogma, Alla, Bres, and Dealbaeth, the five sons of Elatha [etc…] the three queens, Ere, Fotla and Banba, and the three sorceresses, Badb, Macha and Morigan, with Bechuille and Danann their two foster-mothers.1384

The same text features the trio as terrifying witches, who do not use weapons to fight the enemies but magical powers through which they succeed in destabilizing, weakening and filling the foe with terror. The battle started with Badb, Macha and the Mórrígain throwing horrific showers of sorcery, blood and fire onto the Fir Bolg, who were then immobilized for three days and three nights in a row:

‘Is ann sin dochuaidh Badhbh 7 Macha 7 Morrigha gu Cnoc Gabala na nGiall 7 gu Tulaigh techtairechta na tromsluagh, gu Temraig, 7 do feradar cetha doilbthe draidechta 7 cithnela cothaigetha ciach 7 frasa tromaidble tened, 7 dortad donnfala do shiltin as in aeer i cennaib na curad, 7 nir legset scarad na scailedh do Feraib Bolg co cenn tri la 7 tri naidche.

It was then that Badb and Macha and Mórrígain went to the Knoll of the Taking of the Hostages, and to the Hill of Summoning of Hosts of Tara, and sent forth magic showers of sorcery and compact clouds of mist and a furious rain of fire, with a downpour of red blood from the air on the warriors’ heads; and they allowed the Fir Bolg neither rest nor stay for three days and nights.1385

Similarly in Cath Maige Tuired [‘The Second Battle of Moytirra’], when Lugh Samhildánach (‘the one who possesses all the arts’),1386 asked the Tuatha Dé Danann one after the other what power he or she could wield in the battle, the Mórrígain answered that she could resist the attack, foresee the deeds and bring death upon the foes:

‘“Os tussa, a Morríghan,” ol Lug, “cía cumang ?”
“Ní anse,” ol sí, “ar-rosisor; dosifius do-sseladh; ar-roselus, aros-dibu nos-ríastais.”

“And you, Mórrígain,” said Lug, “what power?”
“Not hard to say,” she said. “I have stood fast; I shall pursue what was watched; I will be able to kill; I will be able to destroy those who might be subdued.”1387

Her answer infers that she did not need to take up arms to fight. Her weapons were her supernatural and visionary powers. Immediately after Lug managed to destroy the petrifying eye of his grandfather Balor by casting a sling stone into it, which marked a turning point in the battle against the Fomhóire, the Mórrígain intoned an incantation to motivate the warriors so that they would be able to overwhelm the foes. Thanks to her magical chant and support, she led them to victory:

‘Tánic in Morrígan ingen Ernmusa anduidhe 7 boí oc nertad Túath nDéa co fertois an cath co dúr 7 co dícrai. Conid ann rocachain in laíd-se sís: “Afraigid rig don cath! […]”

Then the Mórrígain the daughter of Ernmas came, and she was strengthening the Tuatha Dé Danann to fight the battle resolutely and fiercely. She then chanted the following poem: “Kings arise to the battle! […]”1388

It seems thus that the Irish war-goddesses were envisaged by the medieval writers as terrifying sorceresses using supernatural powers, conjurations and incantations to impel the troops to action and attack the enemies.


Fraser, 1916, pp. 34-35, § 39.


Fraser, 1916, pp. 44-45, § 48.


Fraser, 1916, pp. 26-27, § 29.


For more details on Lug, see Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 311-315 ; Beck, 2004.


Gray, 1982, pp. 52-53, § 106-107, and notes p. 103.


Gray, 1982, pp. 64-65, § 137.