One of the great things about stories in general and myths in particular is their ability to convey different messages to different readers. Even with historical accounts where there is only one set of facts, there are many interpretations of what those facts mean. Some interpretations are more helpful than others, some are more reasonable than others, and some are more loyal to their origins than others, but none are true or false in an objective sense.
At Beltane, Denton CUUPS presented a dramatic telling of the stories of the Goddess Morrigan and her dealings with the God Dagda and the Hero Cú Chulainn.
Cú Chulainn refused the aid of the Goddess of Sovereignty and made her his enemy. He wounded her, but through cunning she was healed. She forced him to break his geis, and in doing so caused this great warrior to lose his last battle, and his life. But many years before, Dagda accepted her aid and her love, and his army was victorious over the Fomorians.
Since then, I’ve come across several people telling me (directly or indirectly) that interpretation is wrong. Most recently there’s this blog post by Kym Lambert (which is not, as far as I can tell, a rebuttal to me) arguing that Morrigan’s offer to Cú Chulainn wasn’t really an offering of aid and love but a test, a temptation that the hero had to resist. By refusing her, his life became more difficult and his death was hastened, but he fulfilled his destiny as a heroic warrior and thus he made the right choice.
I’m troubled by the parallels between this interpretation and the story of the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the desert. Knowing the Celtic stories weren’t written down until well into the Christian era, and knowing at least some Christianized sources refer to Morrigan and her various forms as demons, there is a very real possibility the story we have is subtly but critically different from the stories told by our pre-Christian ancestors.
That’s speculation on my part. But whether it’s good speculation to any extent or not, given what we know about ancient Celtic culture, Lambert’s interpretation is very reasonable. War was a fact of life and the survival of the tribe required warriors who would valiantly go into battle knowing that no matter how good they were, one day they were going to run into an opponent just a little faster and just a little stronger. A hero who would fight bravely even though a goddess was hindering him was a great role model.
But we do not live in an ancient Celtic society. Is this the best interpretation for us today, particularly for those of us who are – to one degree or another – followers of Morrigan?
It is difficult and probably dangerous to play “what if?” with Cú Chulainn’s story. Had he accepted Morrigan’s offer, might he have lived longer and gone on to even greater deeds? Perhaps. Or perhaps he would have lost the drive for individual glory and gone down in defeat even sooner. But we don’t have to speculate here. We have a counterexample: Morrigan’s dealings with Dagda. He accepted her aid and her love and his army was victorious.
No, these stories do not take place under identical circumstances. But our circumstances are different too. What does sovereignty mean in a society without kings? What is heroism in a hyper-individualistic culture? What is a warrior in a time of drones, terrorism and nuclear weapons?
I have yet to come across someone who has received an offer from Morrigan even remotely similar to those she extended to Dagda and Cú Chulainn. She has been very active over the past few years, but what I’ve heard and what I’ve experienced have not been offers. Instead, we’ve heard calls and warnings. Reclaim your sovereignty. A storm is coming. Gather your tribe. I see only one good response to these calls and warnings and it isn’t to reject them.
I want to address one more thing from Kym Lambert’s post. Do the gods test us in the way some believe Morrigan tested Cú Chulainn? Do they offer us things they hope we will refuse? It would be extremely arrogant for me to say someone I don’t even know did or didn’t have a particular experience of a deity. I can say my experiences of the gods have been very straightforward. They’ve told me what they wanted and I’ve either done it, or not. Some of the “or nots” have been failures where I tried but was unable to come through. Others have been things I knew I could not do or did not want to do so strongly I was willing to risk my relationship with the deity rather than try.
Did I pass a test I was too dense to realize was a test? Possibly – indirect communication isn’t my strong suit. I prefer to think they asked for everything they wanted, but in the end decided what I could give was enough. Or perhaps they’re just being patient, waiting for the time when I can do what I once could not.
I can say this with certainty: we must retain our sovereignty, even when dealing with the gods.
As an exercise in literary interpretation, the idea that Morrigan was merely testing Cú Chulainn and helping him achieve his destiny has merit. As a guide for dealing with the gods here and now, I find the story of Morrigan and Dagda far more helpful.