b) Metamorphosis

Being magicians, the war-goddesses have the faculty of turning into otherworld beautiful ladies, monstrous old women or animals, generally with the aim of approaching, tricking and assaulting the foes. The pattern of the metamorphosis is typical of female supernatural figures in mythology and folklore.1389 As detailed above, the most famous mutation of the war-goddess is undeniably the crow or raven which stands for a death omen, but the Mórrígain can also take on other forms. At the beginning of Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’], it is related that the Mórrígain decided not to side with Cú Chulainn but to combat him, because the hero had refused her advances when she had come to him metamorphosed as a young woman of surpassing beauty.1390 She then foretold him that she would drive the cattle against him and attack him in the form of an eel. She would then come back to him in the shape of a red hornless heifer and in the form of a she-wolf during his duel with Lóch, one of Medb’s warriors. The presage was fulfilled but Cú Chulainn, thanks to his immeasurable strength, managed to repel the three assaults of the goddess and to wound her in the ribs, the eye and the leg:

‘Ó ro chomraicset íarom ind fir forsind áth 7 ό ro gabsat oc glíaid 7 oc imesorcain and 7 ό ro gab cách díb for trúastad a chéli, focheird ind escongon trí ol im c[h]ossa Con Chulaind co mboí fáen fortarsna isind áth ina ligu. Danautat Lόch cosin chlaidiub combu chrόderg in t-áth día fulriud. […] La sodain atraig 7 benaid in n-escongain co mebdatár a hasnai indi 7 comboing in cethri darsna slúagu sair ar écin co mbertatár a puple inna n-adarcaib lasa torandcless darigénsat in dá láth gaile isind áth. Tanautat-som in tsod meic tíre. Doimairg na bú fair síar. Léicid-som cloich asa tailm co mebaid a súil ina cuid. Téite i rricht samaisce maíle derge. Muitti riasna búaib forsna linni 7 na háthu. Is and asbert-som: ‘Ní airciu a n-átha la linni. Léicid-seom cloich don tsamaisc maíl deirg co memaid a gergara foí.

Then when the combatants met on the ford and began to fight and to strike one another and when each began to belabour the other, the eel twined itself in three coils round Cú Chulainn’s feet so that he fell prostrate athwart the ford. Lόch attacked him with the sword until the ford was blood-red with his gore […] Whereupon Cú Chulainn arose and struck the eel and its ribs were broken within it, and the cattle rushed eastwards over the army, carrying off the tents on their horns, so great was the thunder-feat of the two warriors in the ford. Then she-wolf attacked him and drove the cattle on him westwards. He threw a stone from his sling and her eye broke in her head. Then she went in the guise of a red hornless heifer and the cattle stampeded into the streams and fords. Cú Chulainn said then: ‘I cannot see the fords for the streams.’ He cast a stone at the red hornless heifer and her leg broke.1391

After the attack, the Mórrígain transformed herself into a one-eyed and half-blind old woman who was engaged in milking a cow with three teats. She then succeeded in tricking Cú Chulainn into curing the injuries he had previously inflicted on her. The hero, who was thirsty after the fighting, drank the milk of the cow three times without knowing that each time he would drink the milk from a teat he would heal a part of the Mórrígain’s body.


Chalendon, 1994, pp. 311-321.


O’Rahilly, 1976, pp. 57, 176-177.


O’Rahilly, 1976, pp. 60-61 , 180-181