5 Jun 2015

Badb and The Valkyries - the War Goddesses of the North and West

'The Valkyries and the Morrígna at the Battle of Clontarf'
Thomas Sheridan - Mixed Media

"The traditional term "war-goddesses" is retained here as the name of a class of beings appearing in Irish literature whose nature the following remarks will perhaps help to clarify. "War-witches" or "war-demons" would be equally appropriate names, but there can be no objection to the use of the traditional term as long as it is understood that nothing regarding the nature of the beings so named is implied."
C. Lottner, The Ancient Irish Goddesses of War 

In northern European mythological traditions, the idea of the Goddess of War was a powerful symbolism, acting somewhat as the supernatural counter-version of the earthly natural mother. The idea held sway that just as a mother was present at the time of birth, an archetypal, supernatural 'death mother' or non-earthly soul-harvesting female entity, would ease the passing of men - who had generally fallen in battle - into the next life. 

Men dying on battlefields have long been known to scream out the word 'mother' while in the final death throes, and perhaps this is how the mythology came to be. In a modern context, this is rather disturbingly portrayed in the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan. So it is not at all surprising that both Irish and Norse mythology share a very similar connection to female deities as either goddesses of death, and/or collectors of the slain: the Badb (pronounced 'baeiv') of the Irish mythological pantheon and the Valkyries of Nordic tradition. In all cases where this supernatural archetype is present, prophecy generally plays an important, if not pivotal, element in the events as they unfold.

In Irish tradition, the Badb literally meaning "crow" or "raven", and is a zoomorphic war goddess who assumes the earthly form of the "battle crow" and her presence forms part of the Morrígna along with her sisters, Macha and the Morrígan. Similar to the Valkyries of the Norse pantheon of war goddesses, the Morrígna can appear alone or in groups of usually three women on the eve of, during or following a great battle, and are often the travelling fateful companions of 'familiars' of heroic warriors. 

'The Morrigan'
Thomas Sheridan - Mixed Media

Within the Anglo Saxon narrative, a raven, hovering in anticipation over an army, is described as Wcelceasiga, literally translating as "the slain-choosing one", and is almost identical to the Germanic/Norse Valkyrie, demonstrating just how deep rooted this idea was within northern European cultures. These female 'war-witches/demons' are sometimes literally portrayed as goddesses, other times as human female witches with terrifying superhuman powers of magic and prophecy. In all cases, these females - be they supernatural beings or earthly witches - were the choosers of the slain, and very often connected with the notion of prophetic fatalities and doom. 

This archetype was so powerful among the Irish and the Vikings in particular, that one can only imagine the intensity of the psychic and supernatural mind storm which took place on the eve of the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin on 23 April 1014, when a complex set of alliances formed of Irish and Norse warriors on both sides brought their archetypes of both the Badb and The Valkyries - into their combined and collective consciousnesses - as one enormous battle which took place not only on the battlefield itself, but also within the battlefield of each and every psyche present that day. 

According to Viking accounts of the Battle of Clontarf, a group of Valkyries were sighted weaving the fate of the leaders as both harbingers of fate and prophecy, charging many on the battlefield with a terrifying weakness that eventually overcomes the warriors on both sides. Such psychic attacks upon the warriors would have real after-life consequences, as cowardice would prevent them from being elevated towards becoming post-mortal, supernatural beings themselves. Such as the Berserkers - who would have been present on the day at Clontarf - being carried up by the Valkyrie to Odin's long hall at Valhalla in order to transmigrate into the state of Einherjar so they may prepare to fight alongside Odin and Thor during the cataclysmic end-time of Ragnarök.  Being shape-shifters, the Norse Valkyrie were also feared as arriving in the guise of attractive rural maidens who bring wine or mead to the heroes, causing them to under perform in battle.

However, this idea appears to be a later incorporation of Germanic folklore imported into Scandinavia as witch-tricksters, who were also associated with being shape-shifting birds of prey. The purpose being to make the  warriors psychologically weak so the corvids might dine more easily upon their flesh later following the battle. 'Softening them up' so to speak. Again, their powers of prophecy were looked upon with dread and loathing by warriors on the eve of battle.

In the Irish mythological epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge  or "the driving-off of cows of Cooley", which tells of the war against Ulster by the forces of Connacht under Queen Meadhbh (pronounced 'maeve')  and her husband Ailill against the teenage Ulster warrior Cú Chulainn. Again, we can see how the corvids (in this case, crows) represent a powerful archetype on the Irish battlefield as they did on the Viking battlefield. The awesome potential of the Morrígna within the Irish ancient psyche being identical to that of the Valkyries within the minds of the Viking warriors. Within the Táin, the Morrígna foretells of many deaths. Significantly, ravens are also mentioned in the text as Badb - this time in the context of the ravens - being  an actual combatant during the fighting. 

In the Ulster Cycle version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Cú Chulainn, on the way to battle, he meets the Morrígan, who has shape-shifted into an old hag. To his dismay, Cú Chulainn realises she is polishing his own armour while removing the blood from it by dousing it into a river. The river representing the 'crossing over' and consequently, an omen of his own death in the upcoming battle. Later on, as Cú Chulainn is dying - having been mortally wounded by Lugaid's magical spear - he straps himself upright to a standing stone, using his own entrails as ropes so he can die on his feet. At the moment of his passing, a lone crow lands upon his right shoulder, signifying the arrival of the Badb and fulfilling of the Morrígna's prophecy.


Anonymous said...

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
John Keats

Again, an extremely interesting topic for discussion, I myself keep an eye out for the corvus in particular. It would appear that the ancients knew a thing or two about walking and breathing mythology. The worlds they inhabited are far removed from the digital Plato’s cave enveloping the critical mass today. I wonder; is the hawk descending down upon you from the heavens, the owl perched on your clothesline, or the inquisitive subservient crow, any less significant than the multitude of sock-puppet personas likes or dislikes received from the aether? I think not.

However, I digress, of course in order to see true beauty, it is first advisable to be somewhat aware of your immediate surroundings, and it doesn’t hurt to look up once and awhile either.


Fx said...

I like this new blog,
We shure love when you get all northern lore and jungian on us.
This is nourishment for our starved souls.