Featured image: Morrigu, by Jillian Tamaki
In May of this year, while we were still settling into our new place in Connemara, and before we were really ready to receive guests, Death walked into our house and, uninvited, sat down at the table.
Although we have three border collie dogs who we love deeply, the oldest of them is particularly special. Her name is Nell, and we both love her more than anything else in the world. Sometimes, that’s just how it goes with a dog. We’ve had her since she was 7 weeks old, and David trained her himself to work our two small flocks of sheep when we lived on the Isle of Lewis. There’s something very special about a dog who works with you, as I’m sure many of you will know. At the vet’s, being treated for something else, she was diagnosed with canine lymphoma. Prognosis without treatment: 4 months. After agonising for a while about pumping a beloved companion full of toxins, we decided to go ahead with chemotherapy. How to just let her die, without trying? We almost lost her 3 months into the 4-month protocol. ‘Bone-marrow burnout’, they colourfully called it. But, after being hospitalised for 4 days, she managed to hang on, and eventually she finished the treatment. She lost most of her coat (that isn’t supposed to happen, but it did) and now she’s shedding the straggly remains of the old, and growing some beautiful, new, shiny fur. And, along with it, she seems to be renewing herself. At 8 1/2 years old, she is having a second puppyhood, and bringing us more joy than ever. We don’t know how much more time we’ll have with her – there is no complete cure for canine lymphoma, and the average remission lasts for a year (though there are miracles, and we’re planning on her being one!). So every day with her now is precious; and every day, at the same time, is lived in greater awareness of the loss which one day will come.
I learned a few things, after Death walked into our house that day. Doesn’t everyone? – and nothing that I have to say about death is uniquely profound or insightful; many of you will have had journeys with death that have been much harder and deeper than mine. But death’s lessons are things that each of us has to learn for ourselves, in our own way, and at our own pace.
I learned, yes, as everyone does who faces Death – for themselves or for a loved one – that every lived day is a precious day, and utterly to be treasured. And I learned something else: that there is a curious beauty in choosing to love an animal so wholeheartedly, knowing that (even if he/she reaches her full lifespan) that creature is almost certainly going to die before you do, and cause you more grief than you imagine you can bear. It’s like (for those of us who have none) having children while knowing that all of your children will die before you do, and you’ll have to grieve them all. And curiously, that realisation gave me such (formerly lost) faith in what it can be to be human – because, knowing the grief that we’re setting ourselves up for, we choose to love anyway, and with all our hearts.
I learned above all, and never (yet) having lost anyone I loved beyond measure, that I’m not very good with Death. After all, for those of us left behind, it’s the ultimate form of abandonment, and I’m really not good with abandonment. But Death is not an easy visitor to shift; once she’s found her way in, she seems to imagine that she has squatters’ rights. And so I’m having to learn to come to terms with Death, whether I’d planned to, or wanted to, or not. We have long conversations, she and I; we’re exchanging a world’s worth of stories.
Because Death has become real to me now; when I say Death walked into my house and sat down at the table, I’m not exaggerating at all. I felt the weight of her, a genuine presence. Nothing as cartoonish as the classic image of the ‘Grim Reaper’, with his black hooded cloak, cavernous eyes, and swinging scythe. The Death Mother who walked into my house in May has long black hair which, in certain lights, looks oddly like feathers. If you looked at her very closely, you’d imagine she resembled a crow. She’s awfully like the Morrígan of my dreams.
What the Morrígan knows
The Morrígan: sometimes translated as the great queen, but more likely (in part because of the texts in which she is associated with night-haunters of classical myth, like Lamia) the Phantom Queen – the night hag. Either way, she’s a tricky one; you don’t want to mess with the Morrígan. She’s an ‘ominous creature’, as Rosalind Clark says in her fine book The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen Ní Houlihan, and often ‘associated with desolation and death in a frightening bird form’. Because of the texts which focus on her role in various battles, she’s often described as a war goddess, but she’s really very much more – and besides, it’s often not understood that Celtic goddesses rarely had single functions, as is more common in the Greek and Roman pantheons. They’re not reducible to simple archetypes; they won’t be so easily classified.
In early Irish literature, the Morrígan was a goddess not just of war, but of fertility and sovereignty – all wrapped up in one fascinating (and often, but not inevitably, dark) package. There is a story of her sexual union with the Dagda, father of the Tuatha Dé Danann, as a result of which she likely bestowed on him the gift of Sovereignty. In her role as fertility goddess, she had many fine cattle. She also had the gift of prophecy, and at the end of the Cath Maige Tuired, the Battle of Moytura, she prophesied the end of the world.* No, you really don’t want to mess with the Morrígan.
The Morrígan knows what the ancient Irish so very clearly knew: that Death is no ending, because the great wheel keeps on turning. Because winter always passes, and the year always renews itself. The Morrígan knows too that there are no blacks and whites in our existence: she can only be the Death Mother because she is also the Fertility Mother – the one cannot exist without the other. She is a shapeshifter, and knows that nothing has a fixed form. She appears during battles as a raven or carrion crow; she comes against the great Ulster warrior Cú Chulainn in the form of a wolf, an eel, and a heifer. Finally, she appears to him in the form of an old hag, offering him a drink from a cow she is milking. Everything is fluid; everything has the potential to be otherwise than it is.
The Morrígan knows that Trickster makes the world, for there is something decidedly Tricksterish about the Morrígan. She is a disruptor, for sure – in some ways, perhaps, like Loki in Norse mythology, but lacking his predominantly destructive motivation. She instigates, for example, the events which lead to the Táin Bó Cúailnge – the Cattle Raid of Cooley, which results in a great war between Ulster and Connaught, and ultimately, in the death of Cú Chulainn.
The hole in the ground that is the entrance to Oweynagat, Cave of Cats.
The Morrígan knows about the long dark, and the terrors that it holds. Her ‘fit abode’ is Oweynagat, Cave of Cats: Ireland’s ‘gate to Hell’, as it was called in the early ninth-century tale Cath Maige Mucrama (The Battle of Mag Mucrama). She emerges out of it each Samhain, riding on a chariot pulled by a one-legged chestnut horse. What the Morrígan shows me here are the things I learn and re-learn each winter: that, as I once wrote in a post on this blog about a visit to her Cave of Cats: ‘darkness is not simply a lack of light. Darkness is alive, and its life is obscured by light. Darkness puts out its tentacles and touches your face; darkness licks at your eyes and grants you a different kind of sight. Darkness is a blanket which enfolds you in a crushing embrace. Darkness is a voice in the dark.’
I’m learning to listen to all the many voices of the dark.
I’m learning, as I think about all of these things, that I love winter precisely because of its transience. I might mourn the fading of the rich, fertile dark as the sun pushes its way slowly back up the sky after solstice, but I wouldn’t want there to be no return of the light. I can only love winter so much because soon it will be gone. Can I then only love what is alive so deeply, precisely because I know it will one day be dead? If there were no death, could I ever love life? If there were no summer, could I ever love winter?
I’m wondering, if I can begin to better understand why it is that I love winter, whether it might not then be possible – not ever, probably, to love – but at a minimum, to be more accepting of the many faces of the Death Mother.
Things to consider
Who or what is the Death Mother – or perhaps the Death Father – in your own tradition? What are her specific qualities, and how does she manifest herself in this season? What do those things teach you?
* The Morrígan’s prophecy, from the translation by Whitey Stokes:
I shall not see a world that will be dear to me
Summer without flowers
Kine [cattle] will be without milk,
Women without modesty,
Men without valour,
Captures without a king …
Woods without mast,
Sea without produce …
Wrong judgments of old men,
False precedents of lawyers,
Every man a betrayer,
Every boy a reaver
Son will enter his father’s bed,
Father will enter his son’s bed,
Every one will be his brother’s brother-in-law ….
An evil time!
Son will deceive his father,
Daughter will deceive her