In a late 8th-century or early 9th-century poem, entitled Reicne Fothaid Canainne [‘The recitation of Fothadh Canainne’], the Mórrígain is described as a frightful and hideous woman who revels in bloodshed, laughs at the carnage, savours the suffering of the warriors and washes the entrails of the corpses on the battlefield. This poem is part of the Fianna Cycle, which brings together the legends attached to the mythical hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his troop of fianna or ‘hunter-warriors’.1405 The poem stages the death of the legendary ferocious hero-warrior Fothad Canainne, leader of a band of fianna in Connacht, who perished by the hand of Ailill Flann Beag, the fianna leader of Munster, in the fierce and bloody battle of Féic, situated near Millstreet, Co. Cork.1406 This war was the result of the romance and elopement of Fothad Canainne with the wife of Ailill Flann Beag. Slain and beheaded by Ailill on the very day of a planned tryst with the woman, the spirit or head of Fothad comes to her lover and recounts the course of the battle:‘Atā[a]t immunn san c[h]an, mór fodb asa fordercc bol, dreman inathor dīmar, nodusnigh an Mórríoghan.
The sentence “she has come to us from the edge of a pillar (?)” may suggest that the Mórrígain hovers over the battelfield in the form of a bird. She is described encouraging the warriors to join in the fighting and fight fiercely (“’tis she who egged us on”) and sinisterly laughing at the massacre. The pattern of the washing of the corpses is generally not found in early, but in late medieval literature and folklore. It developed as a separate female supernatural character known as the ‘Washer of the Ford’ who appears to soldiers before a battle at the ford of a river and prefigures their death by cleansing their bloody garments and armour or their mutilated corpses: she is a terrifying death omen.1408 Hull explains:‘In many of the ancient tales the forerunner of death takes the form either of a beautiful woman but weeping or of a gruesome and monstrous hag, who is found in the path of a host going to battle, or of a chief who is doomed to death, stooping over a stream, washing and wringing bloody garments and weapons. She is called the ‘Washer of the Ford’, and she informs the doomed man or host that it is their own bloody garments that she is wringing out.1409 ’
As an illustration, Hull reports a story about the Norman Richard de Clare, who met this horrendous character while he was heading with his troop to Dysert O'Dea, a place situated near Corofin, in Co. Clare, to attack Conchubhar Ó Deaghdha, the chieftain of the Cineal Fearmaic and ransack the area in 1318.1410 The preternatrual female being was seen “washing armour and rich robes till the red gore churned and splashed through her hand” and it foretold Richard’s death. The next day, Richard and his son fell in the fighting and were found dead in the field near the fort of Dysert.
The ‘Washer of the Ford’ was sometimes associated with Badb or the Mórrígain in early Irish medieval literature, as illustrated by the 9th-century text of Bruiden Da Chocae [‘The Hostel of Da Choca’], which relates the death of the mythical king Cormac Mac Airt at this otherworldly place, situated at Breenmore Hill, near Athlone, in Co. Westmeath.1411 Before perishing, Cormac met a red supernatural female being, called Badb, who was washing a bloody chariot, with its cushions and harness at the ford of Athlone. She then chanted an incantation to him foreshadowing his imminent death:‘Dollotar aside co Druim n-Airthir, frissa raiter in Garman, for brú Atha Luain. Scuirit a cairpthiu annside. A mbatar ann confacatar mnái ndeirc for u rind atha, 7 si ag nige a fonnad 7 a fortche 7 a fodbae. Intan no toirned a laimh sis bad erg sruthair na habae di chrú 7 d’fuil. […] Ocus is annside ro chachain si for lethchois 7 lethshuil dόibh annso, co n-epert:
This supernatural creature foretelling death or disaster bears some similarities in character and functions with the Breton ‘Lavandières de nuit’, who are phantom washerwomen of the night, equivalent to Irish bean níochaín and Scottish bean nighe, ‘washerwoman’.1413 They are generally viewed as suffering souls expiating a crime or serious sins and are seen at night on the banks of rivers or swamps washing, scrubbing, laundering and beating a shroud, which symbolizes the death of the individual they met. The one who helps them to wring the cloth is doomed to death. Various Breton names designating the ‘Lavendières de Nuit’ were recorded. R. F. Le Men calls them couerezou, cowerezou, an archaistic spelling of kouerez, ‘washerwoman’ - from kouez, ‘laundry detergent’,1414 while Emile Souvestre names them kannerez, ‘laundress’,1415 and Anatole Le Braz maouès-noz, ‘women of the night’.1416 Claire Marmier’s translation of kannerez-noz by ‘singers of the night’ is inaccurate.1417
The Irish war-goddesses thus appear almost uniquely in the context of battle. Badb, Macha and Nemain are undoubtedly emanations of a primary goddess, that is the Mórrígain. She is the land-goddess who provides herself with war attributes in time of conflict to protect her territory and people. The triplication of her figure enhances her potency, giving her other facets, forms and powers. Contrary to the Greco-Roman war-goddesses, who take up arms to fight the foes, such as in the Trojan War,1418 the Irish war-goddesses have a purely mystical and supernatural influence on the battle, which complements the military role taken over by the gods. They floor the enemy by their mighty supernatural powers, motivate the troops by their chants and incantations to obtain victory, and fill the foe with panic and terror by their awful shrill screams which kill outright. Shape-shifting, the war-goddess can attack the warriors in diverse animal forms and is generally seen hovering over the battlefield in the form of a bird of prey, whose appearance is a presage of death. She is a seer who foresees and announces the forthcoming suffering, destruction and bloody battles. She is sometimes described as a frightening old lady revelling in slaughtering, laughing at the carnage and washing the entrails, bodies or weapons of the dead warriors; pattern which particularly developed in late medieval literature and folklore and took the form of a female death-messenger, strictly related to war, named the ‘Washer of the Ford’. Certain traits of the war-goddess survived in oral lore in other supernatural characters, such as the bean sí (banshee), the otherworld female death-messenger attached to Gaelic families.1419
For more information on the Fianna Cycle, see Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 227-233, and on Fionn Mac Cumhaill, pp. 238-249.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 260-261 ; Meyer, 1910, p. 3.
Meyer, 1910, pp. 1, 16-17. This poem is contained in only one paper manuscript marked B. IV. 2, which is in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy.
Macculogh, in ERE, vol. 3, 1953, p. 286 ; Chalendon, 1994, p. 301 ; Hull, 1928, pp. 59-60.
Hull, in ERE, 5, p. 783.
The Battle of Dysert O'Dea took place on May 10th 1318 (during the Irish Bruce Wars 1315-1318).
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 120-129 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 61, 105-106.
Stokes, 1862, pp. 156-159.
Souvestre, Emile, ‘Les lavandières de la nuit’, in Le Foyer Breton, Paris, 1845, pp. 69-75 ; Souvestre, Emile, D’Anjou, Pierre, Contes de Bretagne, Ancre de Marine, 1946, pp 115-122 ; Souvestre, Emile, Les lavandières de nuit, in Seignolle, Claude, Contes, récits et légendes des pays de France, Omnibus, 1997, pp. 207-213 ; Brunet, Victor, Contes populaires de la Basse Normandie, Emile Lechevalier (ed.), 1900, pp. 59-64 ; Cuisenier, Jean, Récits et contes populaires de Normandie, Gallimard, 1979, pp. 99-102 ; Sébillot, Paul, Légendes locales de la Haute Bretagne, Société des bibliophiles Bretons, Nantes, 1899, t. I, p 143 ; Sébillot, 2004, pp. 628-630 ; Sand, Georges, Légendes rustiques (1858), Editions Verso, Guéret, 1987, pp. 31-37 ; Le Roux, 1983, pp. 79-88 ; Evans-Wentz, 1911, p. 185.
Le Men, 1870-1872, p. 421.
Souvestre, Emile, ‘Les lavandières de la nuit’, in Le Foyer Breton, Paris, 1845, pp. 69-75.
Le Braz, Anatole, La légende de la mort chez les Bretons armoricains, t. II, 1945, pp. 259-263.
Marmier, 1947, pp. 27-28, 32.
Homer’s Illiad tells that each god chose his camp according to his desire (Book XX, v.1-74). Phoebus Apollo, Ares, Aphrodite, Artemis, Leto and Xanthus (the river) sided with the Trojans, while Hera, Pallas Athene, Poseidon, Hermes and Hephaestus allied themselves with the Greeks. A veritable war then began between the gods. Poseidon was pitted against Apollo, Athena against Ares, Hera against Artemis, Hermes against Leto and Hephaestus against Xanthus (Book XXI, v.385-513).
For a discussion of this, see Lysaght, 1996a.