Challenging Masculine Discourses of Violence: Posthumanist Approaches to the Figure of the Morrígan in Táin Bó Cúailnge—By Elizabeth Kempton

There has recently been a critical call to bring the female figures in medieval Irish literature out of the margins of the texts they inhabit.[1] One such figure is the Morrígan, the mythological female character that appears in nearly every genre and period of medieval Irish literature. One of the more volatile and uncanny shapeshifters in the Ulster Cycle, she does not inhabit a single, stable form. Sometimes she assumes the shape of a raven, sometimes she is a young or old woman, and sometimes she is not even a physical presence but a disembodied voice prophesying death. The Morrígan has defied traditional attempts by folklorists to pin her down to a single symbolic function, such as death goddess, fertility figure, or tutelary valkyrie.[2] Just as she is herself difficult to categorize, so she also disrupts social and cultural categories within texts. Although she uses violence to accomplish her ends, her focus on death, rather than victory in combat, functions as an implicit critique of violence. This essay draws on models from posthumanist theory, particularly the cyborg and its later developments, including the ideas of “companion species” and “natureculture,” derived from Donna Haraway,[3] in order to find a way of theorizing the Morrígan as she appears within one important Old Irish text, the Táin Bó Cúailnge.[4] In addition to taking the cyborg as my mythology, I am building off the model of two modern Irish scholars, Jeremy Lowe and Tomás Ó Cathasaigh who both offer readings of male figures in the Táin Bó Cúailnge as cyborgs.[5] But unlike these critics, I offer an extended reading of a female figure in the text and take a feminist approach. This essay focuses on the Morrígan’s female powers, but rather than revisit the roles that are attributed to her by folklorists and which tend to confine her to a single symbolic function, this essay argues that she challenges the (patriarchal) social and political order portrayed within Irish mythology, as well as fulfilling many of the traditional roles attributed to her.

Theoretical Grounding
Neil Badmington proposes that the posthumanist must always “learn to listen out for the deconstruction of the binary opposition between the human and the inhuman that is forever happening within humanism itself,” and continues: “Turning the world upside down will no longer do. The other is always already within. Humanism is merely pretending otherwise.”[6] We cannot simply reverse the terms of the binary; we must show how the inhuman – and prehuman – are already present within the human, exposing the ways in which Humanism is built on a myth of whole and isolated identity which has never really existed. The Morrígan, a prehuman figure, is surprisingly open to posthumanist inquiry. Troubling the human/inhuman/prehuman divide through her ambiguous forms that are both human and animal, embodied and not, she is the other that is always already present within the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Because of this, she functions as a feminine figure at the heart of masculine warfare, as a critique of the violence displayed by the text’s violent heroes and goddesses, and as a deconstruction of the idea of the singular, independent, male, heroic individual that has so frequently been invoked and celebrated in discussions of Irish heroism and subjectivity.

Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline first coined the term “cyborg” in 1960 in an essay about how man might be technologically adapted for space travel, but the cyborg is now generally understood as a synthesis of the organic body and non-organic parts. The figure Clynes and Kline proposed was a scientific solution to the problems of the Space Race, but they also acknowledged that the cyborg would “not only mark a significant step forward in man’s scientific progress, but may well provide a new and larger dimension for man’s spirit as well.”[7] Playing with the possibility that the cyborg would embody not only technological but also spiritual futurity, Haraway takes this seemingly unlikely figure as an “ironic political myth,” one that offers a hopeful paradigm for a new socialist feminist politics, focusing on what she calls “women in the integrated circuit,” i.e. the place of women within the new social relations ushered in by modern science and cybernetic technology.[8] Her cyborg’s networked identity and dispersed embodiment rewrites the political and cultural arrangements of modern patriarchal and capitalist society by destabilizing the idea of gender as a concept fixed in particular bodies.

The Morrígan strikingly fits Haraway’s descriptions of the cyborg as “wary of holism, but needy for connection,” [9] as she moves through a variety of forms and extends her sense of self through the bodies of others, and in her use of prophetic language, in those moments in the Táin in which she appears only as a voice, foretelling the coming battle. The cyborg has no origin story and does not await salvation. It “does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden.”[10] And having no father or mother, the cyborg does not “mark time on the Oedipal calendar.”[11] Similarly, the Morrígan does not accept the salvation myths of her period and genre; she does not predict a victor in the Táin, but instead focuses only on the violence and destruction of battle, exposing the damage created by warfare. Like the cyborg, she functions not only to challenge binaries and break social boundaries, but also to create connections that center on contact but defy a sense of the organic whole. The Morrígan also violates all three boundaries laid out by Haraway—the physical/nonphysical, animal/human, and biological/technological.[12]

The Cyborg, the Morrígan, and Natureculture
The Morrígan not only foreshadows the creative political potential of the posthumanist cyborg and of natureculture, but also, more radically, she makes us question the assumptions of both humanism and posthumanism from the other side of the temporal divide. She signals proleptically the disruption of the humanist project before it has begun. She is Badmington’s version of the otherness within humanism, but this temporal otherness is a reminder that posthumanism does not pose the only challenge to humanism: that challenge can come from the pre as much as from the post.[13] The Morrígan is perhaps more radically other than the cyborg or the human-animal symbiosis of human-and-pet, offering a unique take on Haraway’s notion of the knotted identities of natureculture. Haraway observes that humans do not contain only human genomes: their microbiome is made up of nearly ninety percent nonhuman cells, “filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists and such,”[14] that perform vital work as symbiotic members of the human body. From the 2003 Companion Species Manifesto onwards, Haraway has taken her posthumanist cyborg project in a somewhat different direction, replacing her former interest in “the mixed organic-technological hybrids figured in cyborgs” with a celebration of the role of “critters,” especially dogs, in the lives of humans.[15] For Haraway, the relationship between dogs and humans is an example of what she calls “naturecultures”: historically-specific formations in which nature is inescapably cultural, and culture inescapably natural. Rather than species having porous boundaries, as in the cyborg, species “meet” with each other, affirming an ethical and political bond that matters in the present, to “a world on the edge of global war,” and in the future, to “worlds we might yet live in”.[16]

The Morrígan is similarly – although differently – comprised of multiple bodies, states, and voices, all of which serve to further the political disruption of patriarchal structures. Irish mythological literature is full of shapeshifters, indistinct bodily presentations, and unusual presentations of gender, ripe for a much more extensive examination and critique of both the cyborg and posthumanism generally – my interpretation is that these texts work on the theory as much as the other way around. What is unique, however, is the sheer variety within the Morrígan’s range of bodies, from a beautiful young woman to a number of animals, to a disembodied voice, to an old woman. One cannot identify any singular body that is the Morrígan. Her simultaneous occupation of a such an array of bodies invites us to question current understandings of identity politics: what does it mean to say today that one’s gender identity is abiding, given that identities in the past were represented as being capable of such hypermobility? What does this mean for our understanding of the medieval distinction between species?

The Cyborg in Medieval Ireland
For Haraway, one of the cyborg’s biggest feminist challenges is to Western Christian myths: the Garden of Eden, the purity of the mother, and the redemptive power of the father and the son. Yet the importance of her cyborg as a model has less to do with this aspect, which is not always relevant to a medieval Ireland where Christianity was still intermingled with pagan beliefs and far different from American Christianity of the 1980s, than with the way in which as “the hybrid of machine and organism” the cyborg opens up a new way of thinking about “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities.”[17] The Morrígan is not, of course, fused with a machine, and medieval Irish society was not a “technoculture.”

Categorizing her ontology is of less importance than analyzing her political function in challenging the patriarchal systems of power and combat, and in disrupting binaristic models of gender. Within Ireland, these categories of behavior and identity are seen in medieval law codes, which were often quite specific about gender.[18] Although different in some ways from modern gender roles, Irish law codes did still observe a fairly strong gender divide. Women were allowed to occupy certain professions, such as poet and seer, but historical evidence suggests that this was fairly rare. Some women likely did perform masculine roles, but the majority were in more traditionally feminine roles as wives. While the Irish legal system did allow for divorce and focused less on female virginity than other medieval legal systems,[19] women were still generally disadvantaged legally and politically, relying on their husband or male relative’s éraic, a form of rank used to determine social rights and compensation owned if that member of society was wronged.[20] Philip O’Leary has famously suggested that women in early Irish literature derive their sense of honor from their own chastity and their husband or father’s honor. Since then, a good deal has been done to complicate and nuance this interpretation, but on a broader level, it does hold true in both literature and law codes that a woman’s éraic or honor price is mostly dependent upon the éraic of the most significant male in her life.[21] The éraic system and the complex social structure which it supported were deeply patriarchal. Specifically, in Irish mythological works, masculinity was often connected with feats performed on the battlefield, whereas female éraic was tied to domestic virtues and the social standing of the men in her life.[22] Women were typically not allowed in combat. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, but this does seem to still be the norm, as evidenced by the distress displayed by nearly all parties when Medb takes to the battlefield in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The Morrígan questions gender and bodily hierarchies at the time of the Ulster Cycle material, as recorded in the manuscript tradition, through the ways in which her dispersed body insists on omnipresence in the battlefield, destabilizing the idea that gender is a stable concept located within a fixed body.[23]

Some of the longest held scholastic beliefs about early Irish literature categorize it as a literature of homosocial bonds and martial virtue in which one’s social identity is determined by tribal loyalties and often by feats in combat.[24] Although this is still the predominant understanding, later scholars, such as Jeremy Lowe and Maria Tymoczko, have begun to point out how the male figures in the Ulster Cycle material subtly work against these systems of identity and power. The Morrígan is also a character that serves to disrupt and challenge these systems of identity and power, critiquing warfare and embodied ideas of identity. Scholars have often pointed out the extent to which male figures do this, but the Morrígan seems to carry an even more complex and developed critique of these same systems, as well as the binary rigidity of gendered spaces.

Cyborgian Politics in Medieval Ireland
Just as Haraway’s cyborg poses an affront to traditional patriarchal structures and also to second-wave feminism’s emphasis on wholeness, the Morrígan calls into question her own culture’s entrenched notions of both womanhood and masculine political structures which depend on the body of the male warrior as whole and powerful. As a shapeshifter, the Morrígan is not committed to corporeal wholeness. And her occasionally disembodied voice, which “shriek[s] above them [encamped soldiers] [at] night,”[25] uses prophetic utterance to signal a loss of the wholeness of other human bodies and their physical dismemberment, rendering problematic the ideal of wholeness that is central to her culture’s warlike masculinity.

Through hybridity, irony, and existence outside of “the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress … the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other,” the cyborg breaks boundaries and challenges social structures.[26] Although the traditions are different and the political and economic systems are tribal rather than capitalist, the Morrígan, too, collapses the distinction between self and other, challenging models of us and them, of dominant and subordinate, of community and dangerous other.

This sense of the inside and outside of the community is particularly vital to early Irish culture, in which one’s túath or tribe determined land rights, legal standing, and most vital aspects of life. As a result, the Morrígan has vexed critical scholarship and models of understanding folklore. From the earliest writing on her in 1866 by W. M. Hennessy, there has been much debate regarding how to classify the Morrígan: is she a sovereignty figure, a death goddess, a tutelary valkyrie figure, or one of many other suggestions? John Carey and Tymoczko have seen the Morrígan and other goddess figures as occupying ambivalent and hybrid categories.[27] This is because the very nature of the Morrígan (and indeed many Celtic goddesses) resist singular categorization as they consistently move through nearly all possible mythological roles – in short, creating connection, while defying wholism.

The Morrígan and Cú Chulainn
As a tutelary figure, the Morrígan is often viewed as a part of paired set with Cú Chulainn, the mentee with whom her relationship ultimately fails.[28] Cú Chulainn also has a body that transforms quite rapidly. As he is a more prominent figure than the Morrígan in Táin Bó Cúailnge, Cú Chulainn has been the focus of recent posthuman critique, but it is also vital to note that the Morrígan echoes and enhances the cyborgian readings of her troublesome mentee. Traditional readings of the Táin Bó Cúailnge have often viewed Cú Chulainn as a paragon of heroic virtue.[29] These readings have recently come under a great deal of pressure, as critics foreground the tensions, divisions, and complications within the text. Lowe, for example, examines the ways in which Cú Chulainn’s bodily distortion and uncontrolled violence display fundamentally antisocial traits within the hero and emphasize the brutality both of the hero’s violent actions and of the larger societal violence that is represented by warfare and raiding.[30] Lowe’s reading of the Táin Bó Cúailnge destabilizes nationalist readings of heroic and martial virtue, but also creates a far more complex vision of the Táin – one in which the text is capable of reflecting deeply on the nature of violence, rather than simply celebrating it. Similarly, O’Cathasaigh reads the figure of Cú Chulainn as holding up a critical mirror to violence within the text. In O’Cathasaigh’s reading, Cú Chulainn’s distorted body is symptomatic of a distortion of the social order that occurs throughout the text.[31] O’Cathasaigh argues that the meaning of Cú Chulainn’s body in the Táin is far from transparent, particularly in regard to his numerous false beards, which he uses to disguise his young age and encourage others to fight him in single combat. The social chaos of the text is projected onto the body of Cú Chulainn.[32]

Cú Chulainn’s bodily transformations are stunning. Before battle or when particularly enraged, his body undergoes a transformation called ríastrad or “warp spasm,”[33] described here in vivid and explicit detail:

The sinews of his calves came on to the front of his shins and each huge round knot of them was as big as a warrior’s fist. The sinews of his head were stretched to the nape of his neck and every huge immeasurable, vast, incalculable round ball of them was as big as the head of a month-old child. Then his face became a red hollow (?). He sucked one of his eyes into his head so deep that a wild crane could hardly have reached it to pluck it out from the back of his skull on to his cheek. The other eye sprang out on to his cheek. His mouth was twisted back fearsomely. He drew back his cheek from his jawbone until his inward parts were visible.[34]

That which should be inside is placed outside, and bodily features that should be on the face, such as an eye, are sucked inward. A dark stream of blood is also seen gushing from his head.[35] All of this occurs before combat, yet the emphasis on blood and displaced organs suggest that his body is in a sense already dismembered. This graphic emphasis on Cú Chulainn’s violent bodily distortion points to the Táin bo Cúailnge as a text that is far more critical of the culture it represents than was first understood. Yet the Morrígan even more radically emphasizes bodily distortion and violence within the tales.

O’Cathasaigh also considers the changing bodies of the swineherds that frame the narrative.[36] The text itself, he argues, becomes a body through critical descriptions such as cennphairt (head section or more colloquially translated “first section”) and other corporeal metaphors that are used to describe the pillow-talk, an early section of the text in which Medb and Ailill discuss and compare property, and other scenes within the text.[37] O’Cathasaigh sees the text as not only a body, but a body that is constantly hybrid and changing, questioning and destabilizing the ideas contained within it. Within a text which is so concerned with the shifting or partial body, the Morrígan is perhaps the most radical of all, as she appears to have no singular or primary body. Instead, she has only a range of bodies, shifting from “a young woman of surpassing beauty clad in clothes of many colors [n-etuch cach datha impe occus delb roderscaigthe furri]”[38] to a number of animals, to a disembodied voice, to “an old crone, one-eyed and half-blind [i delb na sentainne caillige occus si cauch losc].”[39]

Other characters, such as Cú Chulainn and Cethern, have a primary body, which they modify in cyborgian ways. Cethern is a minor character, but he mirrors Cú Chulainn in his decisions. Like Cú Chulainn, Cethern chooses a short life and a role in the immediate fight. In order to fight, Cethern drinks a mash of cattle bone marrow and, because he has lost his own ribs, he replaces them with the ribs of a chariot.[40] He “attacked the host with the framework of chariot bound to his belly to give him more strength,” a very cyborg in his fusion of organic and non-organic, and in his harnessing of a prosthesis to make himself more warlike.[41] Cethern’s prosthetic extension of his body with the chariot nevertheless fails to complete the political work of the cyborg. The bond between man and machine of war serves only to further the hypermasculine practices of battle and warfare, as it enables Cethern to return to the fight and ultimately die in combat. The mirroring between Cú Chulainn and Cethern, as O’Cathasaigh notes, introduces cyborgian motifs, such as the violation of the boundary between the organic and inorganic.[42] Although O’Cathasaigh does not further explore the cyborg motifs, he firmly establishes the importance of bodily dismemberment and metaphors as a critique of violence in the Táin. Therefore, the Morrígan’s bodily transformations not only participate in larger textual questions of embodiment and subjectivity, but also amplify those concerns from a feminist viewpoint.

To some extent, Cú Chulainn’s shifting body challenges gendered expectations of men and heroic or martial violence. His distorted body reflects the violence inherent in Irish literary constructions of masculinity, as both Lowe and O’Cathasaigh argue. The Morrígan, however, offers a direct critique of social constructions of femininity, constructions of masculinity rooted in both wholeness and violence, and of women’s exclusion from the space of the battlefield. Though she is more marginal than Cú Chulainn, it is important to recognize the power of marginal female figures in the Old Irish texts. As Anne Dooley argues, the purity of the male heroic ethos is questioned by the presentation of marginal women within the text as having agency.[43] Perhaps, she suggests, Medb’s final urination or menstruation is a deliberate manipulation of Cú Chulainn, eliciting his disgust and horror at female exposure to deflect his attack.[44] Much like the naked women who are needed to pull Cú Chulainn out of ríastrad, Medb deliberately focuses Cú Chulainn’s attention on the naked female genitalia and the corporeality of her body, thus defusing his rage and sparing her life. By suggesting that this act is intentional, Dooley returns agency to Medb.

These new perspectives bring a far greater depth and complexity to our readings of the Táin. They are all strongly invested in taking seriously the distortion of the body and the question of what happens when the body transforms. Both Cú Chulainn and the Morrígan possess multiple bodies or states of the body, transforming rapidly and calling into question embodied notions of subjectivity. Both bodies (or lack thereof) also function as mirrors for violence within the larger social systems of the text, emphasizing and making visible the destruction that both warriors will cause by first representing it on their own disfigured and partial bodies. They serve as loci for discussions of distortion, fragmentation, transgression, and the violation of bodily and social boundaries. We also need to explore the ways in which the Morrígan functions like her possible protégée (or failed protégée), but also exceeds him. Her bodily transformations are even more extreme and varied, causing an even deeper questioning of notions of bodily integrity and subjectivity. Depictions of bodily integrity in Irish literature are frequently used to define or exemplify masculine heroics, so images of the body as damaged, or even calling into question the idea that a body could be whole, undermines a sense of integrity in the heroic body. By association, the heroic system is called into question. Additionally, the text consistently uses female pronouns for the Morrígan and places her directly in the masculine space of the battlefield. However, the Morrígan’s identity as female is not linked to any singular female body, but rather moves through a wide range of bodies and disembodiments. The intrusion of a woman in a traditionally male sacrosanct space invites reflection on the gendered nature of that space and its exclusions.

Like the cyborg, the Morrígan moves fluidly, asserting her own boundary-violating role. In both recensions, she first approaches Cú Chulainn before battle, introducing herself as the daughter of a king and appearing as a beautiful young woman.[45] She offers herself sexually to Cú Chulainn, but he refuses, stating that the battle field is not the place for women. In response to this rejection, she says “I might help.”[46] Cú Chulainn responds violently, resisting the collapse of gendered identities that would be entailed by a male hero receiving help in battle from a woman. He snaps, “It wasn’t for a woman’s backside that I took on this ordeal! [Ní ar thóin mná dano gabus-sa inso]”[47] The language used here is deliberately insulting. Although some have more decorously translated tón as body, a literal translation is “hindquarters.”[48] The word can also mean “bottom” or “rear”. In any case, it is clearly intended to be both sexualized and insulting in this instance.

The Morrígan replies smoothly: “Then I’ll hinder.”[49] She and Cú Chulainn begin a verbal sparring in which she threatens to take on the shapes of an eel, a wolf, and heifer. A number of scholars, including Rosalind Clark and Hilda Ellis Davidson, have seen this moment as a sort of failed valkyrie relationship.[50] The Morrígan’s early offers of help are interpreted as if she were a type of valkyrie, offering aid to her chosen hero. However, when Cú Chulainn rejects this offer, the Morrígan turns against him, angry that he has refused her tutelage. This seems to be an inversion of a traditional patronage or supernatural mentor relationship. The Morrígan does establish positive mentoring relationships with other characters, such as the Dagda in Cath Dédenach Maige Tuired. Her anger here might be due to his rejection of her help but it is also, surely, a result of Cú Chulainn’s choice of sexualized and insulting language in his rejection.[51] Cú Chulainn insists on a strict divide between masculine and feminine spaces. Spaces for the acquisition of power and honor, such as the battlefield, are reserved for males, whereas sexualized and domestic spaces are for women. The Morrígan not only expresses her anger at his attempt to relegate her to sexualized spaces, but also uses her shape-shifting capacities to make impossible his attempts to physically contain her or even to recognize her for the purpose of enforcing these gendered distinctions. Through her variety of forms and disembodiment, the Morrígan achieves a sort of haunting presence that is impossible to remove from the battlefield. She may be a crow, a voice in the air, an old woman, or a dozen other things. It is impossible to separate her from a space when one cannot even define her body.

The Book of Leinster recension of the manuscript offers a more literal version of the shape-shifting battle. Here, the Morrígan’s body displays a stunning plurality, as she becomes a “hornless red heifer,” but somehow also is, or appears to be, fifty other heifers.[52] Additionally, women suddenly appear on the battlefield, placing a geis on Cú Chulainn that forbids the Morrígan from leaving him until he has defeated her.[53] Where these women have come from, how they can place geis, and whether they are acting on behalf of the Morrígan or Cú Chulainn is not stated. They can be reasonably interpreted as a manifestation of the Morrígan, given that these women appear from seemingly nowhere and seem to possess magical abilities. However, the extent to which these women serve the Morrígan or are the Morrígan is unclear. This ambiguity is precisely the point. It is impossible to tell where the body of Morrígan ends and where others begin. In cyborgian fashion she confuses the boundaries of bodies by becoming a dispersed presence and merging her individual subjectivity with that of the women – in Haraway’s words, she is an “ether, quintessence.”[54]

Moreover, in the Book of Leinster version of the text, the Morrígan interrupts martial contestation, an activity that defines masculine subjectivity. She appears in the middle of Cú Chulainn’s battle with Fer Lóch, disrupting male-male combat and literally forcing her presence into the scene. Male-male combat is a staple of Ulster cycle storytelling and foundational to cultural definitions of the hero. The Morrígan overturns Cú Chulainn’s ability to participate in this contest as punishment for his rejection of sexualized, female assistance on the battlefield. In so doing, she challenges both the masculinization of the battlefield and, more generally, the validity of these contests.

The scene also comes dangerously close to a confusion of physical bodies when the Morrígan-as-eel “twined itself in three coils round Cú Chulainn’s feet so that he fell prostrate athwart the ford,” and he must strike the eel and break its ribs, presumably to disentangle its body from his own.[55] In this quick series of shape-shifts, the Morrígan, like Haraway’s cyborg, violates the boundaries between non-human animal and human. She mirrors the movements of the cyborg, crossing boundaries and challenging social norms through her hypermobility and indeterminacy of form.

When the Morrígan fights Cú Chulainn, she is defeated and wounded in each form. After the third defeat and wounding, the Morrígan disappears, but later returns as an “an old crone, one-eyed and half blind milking a cow with three teats.”[56] Cú Chulainn does not recognize her and requests a drink of her milk. Upon receiving it, Cú Chulainn blesses her and the Morrígan is healed from the wounds that he gave her in their fight. Appearing as an old woman both disguises the Morrígan, allowing Cú Chulainn to misread her body, and diffuses the initial threat posed by her assertive sexuality.

The Morrígan and her multiple bodies
The body of the Morrígan is, in Haraway’s words, “always in the making; it is always a vital entanglement of heterogeneous scales, times, and kinds of beings webbed into fleshly presence, always a becoming, always constituted in relating.”[57] Her body is not a single definable thing or even person, but is rather constituted by each animal in turn, as well as by several human female bodies. Her identity must be identified as a network that bridges what Haraway calls “the Great Divide” of human essentialism.[58] The identity of the Morrígan here is human but also clearly tied up in each animal. This is an imagining of “companion species” far more radical than Haraway envisages: human and animal are not here “living with” each other, not communicating “across irreducible difference,”[59] but rather providing the very shapes of each other’s bodies and gender identities in a form of intimate exchange. Unlike with many other shape shifters, we are never told that the human body is the Morrígan’s primary or “true” body. There is not an identifiable single human body that we might assume to be her real body. Instead we must accept this sense of the Morrígan as networked, always creating intimate and potentially terrifying connections between the animal and the human, as well as between humans.

The Morrígan’s ability to fight and to heal herself both come through shape-shifting, and the confounding of the idea that she inhabits a “true” or singular body. Where Cú Chulainn acts as a sort of archetype for the male heroic figure, his bodily distortions emphasizing the inherent violence and destruction of heroic action, the Morrígan serves as a representative for the abstract and broader notion of war on the whole. Through violence and terror, both characters operate as figures of war, but also serve to question martial violence as a cultural institution due to the inherent instability of their bodies and loss of bodily integrity. Cú Chulainn appears to actively work to hide this role. Cú Chulainn came “on the morrow to survey the host and to display his gentle and beautiful form to the women and girls and maidens, to poets and men of art, for he held not honorable or dignified the dark magical appearance in which he had appeared to them the previous night” [Dothaet Cú Chulaind arna bárach do t[h]aidbriud in tslóig occus do thaisbénad a chrotha álgin álaind do mnáib occus bantrochtaib occus andrib occus ingenaib occus filedaib occus áes dána, úair nír míad ná mass leiss in dúaburdelb druídechta tárfás dóib fair ind adaig sin reme]”(71).[60] Intriguingly, the ríastrad is described here as “dúaburdelb,” a word which means dúabur [dark or unclean] and delb [shape].[61] “Dúabur” in particular carries a distinct, morally negative connotation. Something of horror is attached to this fragmented and inverted body, even as it greatly aids Cú Chulainn in combat. He feels obliged to display a more normative bodily form in order to take on the role of warrior for the integrity of his political state or tribe. The Morrígan is perhaps less textually central because she embodies less of a struggle in this regard. Her prophecies and shape-shifting are clearly de-stabilizing, exposing the fear of men who should exhibit martial virtue and attacking armies without regard for any sort of state system or victor in the ensuing conflict.

The Morrígan and Cú Chulainn form a resistant pairing that exposes fundamental instabilities in the social systems which surround them. This undermining of established norms and social systems is a fundamental part of the cyborg’s disruptions to patriarchal norms. Yet these norms and systems are, in Haraway’s words, “as hard to see politically as materially.”[62] They work through “ubiquity and invisibility.”[63] The body itself becomes a space which challenges the social system of early Irish literature built upon conflict and martial virtue. Posthumanposthumanist discourses question humanist assumptions of stability and sense of control within social systems and environments. Kate Soper states that “a profound confidence in our powers to come to know and thereby control our environment lies at the heart of every humanism.”[64] It is this confidence that posthumanist discourses confront and dismantle, exposing entrenched cultural models of selfhood, which are often founded upon straight, white, able-bodied masculinity. The Morrígan and Cú Chulainn both work to remind the audience of the violence of warfare through their own displays of bodily violence and a loss of integrity. Before battle, the Morrígan appears as a crow, who both dismantles and consumes the dead. She prophesies “Fierce is the raven, men are dead, a sorrowful slaying … every day the death of a great tribe.”[65] By focusing on death, rather than victory or martial feats, she calls into question a political system within Irish mythology which determines both social power and individual virtue through performance in combat.

The cyborg’s body is invisible, expansive, and without clear limitations. They are “electromagnetic waves, a section of the spectrum.”[66] The cyborg is about “consciousness – or its simulation,” rather than a fixed physical body.[67] This kind of body explodes traditional notions of self and forces the reader to understand the body as something which is in constant negotiation – an ontological state predicated on change and fluidity, rather than fixity. This fluidity forces open notions of the human and acknowledges that subjectivity must be understood and negotiated, rather than delineated in some sort of clear pattern. It “describes a process of identity (de)formation and resistance which occur[s] across the matrix of dominant discourses” and “allow[s] for a redefinition of the boundaries of the self as well as facilitating a broader scope of connections which transcend the closeness-distance opposition.”[68]The Morrígan, in particular, facilitates these connections in a number of ways. Physically, her identity must be understood as a network of bodies and names, as will be demonstrated below. Existing without a primary body and within a network of character names (Badb, Morrígan, Nemain, Macha), the Morrígan invites both medieval and modern audiences to consider Joanna Zylinska’s model of selfhood as a networked entity, interconnected with the things, animals, and people around it.[69] This is, as Zylinska states, “a redrafting of the relationship between the human and his or her environment.”[70]

Although other Irish figures have shape-shifting abilities, the Morrígan appears more cyborgian than other characters for two reasons. The first is the degree of her transformations, from animal to human to disembodied voice. The second is that no “true” body is ever indicated. She is, in fact, a voice that cries at night driving warriors mad,[71] a heifer,[72] fifty heifers,[73] an eel,[74] a wolf,[75] a young woman,[76] and the women who place the geis all at once,[77] never existing in a single “true” body, but rather living as a mobile and dispersed presence that at once threatens and haunts the text.

The “sunshine belt machine” and the Morrígan
After her initial confrontation with Cú Chulainn, the Morrígan seems defeated and leaves, but she reappears several times, illustrating Haraway’s third boundary-crossing, that between the physical and nonphysical. She appears to be healed as an old woman and then appears again when she speaks as a disembodied voice before the final battle, foretelling the death of men on both sides of the battles. This speech is difficult to translate, but a rough translation might run something like “ravens gnaw the necks of men/blood spurting in the fierce fray/hacked flesh battle madness/blades in bodies/acts of war [Crenaid brain bráigde fer. Bruinded fuil. Feochair cath. Coinmid Luind],” concluding with “Woe to Ulster! [mairc hultaib].”[78] Her speech here emphasizes a lack of bodily unity – a violent failing of the self to remain whole in the most literal way. But even more, it also suggests the failure of the subject’s body through war, the very thing that up until now has defined male subjectivity. The Morrígan demonstrates the way in which this virtue is its own destruction and fracturing. The political system of violence and warfare on which the text is built is always inherently undoing itself through its exposure of the effects of violence upon the body of the warrior, king, or other male figure who stands for larger social virtues.

After her speech, the text tells us that voices of Badb and Némain (possibly the third form of this figure) are heard throughout the night “calling out to men” and “hundreds of warriors died of fright.”[79] Through her animal identities, the Morrígan creates a sense of interconnectedness between the animal and the human. Her identities as both aged and young create a fluid sense of female selfhood that transcends common medieval binaries of ugly/beautiful or desirable/undesirable. While some critics have suggested that the Badb personality/name might be more aggressive or dominant, or that the Macha personality represents a more sovereignty-focused role in other texts, within the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Némain, Badb and Morrígan all engage in similar behaviors, such as terrifying men before battle and prophesying death.[80] Additionally, Némain, Morrígan and Badb frequently appear in close textual proximity to one another. For example, quickly after Morrígan is healed by Cú Chulainn, Némain “attacked the host, and the four provinces of Ireland made a clamour of arms round the points of their own spears and weapons so that a hundred warriors among them fell dead of fright and terror in the middle of the encampment on that night.”[81] And again, shortly after the Morrígan’s prophecy of “ravens gnaw[ing] the necks of men …,” “Badb and Bé Néit and Némain shrieked above them that night in Gáirech and Irgáirech so that a hundred of their warriors died of terror.”[82] Although there is no evidence that these women are exactly the same person, they appear within close proximity to one another, performing the same role and working towards the same ends. No distinction of individual personalities is made in the Táin or in other texts such as the Banshenchas or Cath Mag Tuired. These women may be one in the same or they may be separate beings. They represent a sense of entangled and networked identity. Within the Táin, the Morrígan’s movement through a range of interrelated names insists that selfhood involves interconnection with others.

Both this appearance and the Morrígan’s possible association with the bodies of the women on the battlefield do more than simply violate the boundary between the physical and nonphysical. These appearances also challenge the notion of subjectivity as a situated thing which can be located in a single, gendered body. Combined with her confusion of self between multiple goddess figures, this appearance also suggests a blurring of the line between self and other. As Katherine Hayles suggests, a blurring of this line creates a sense of networked identity and in turn an ethical responsibility to and with the other.[83] In a sense, as a figure of warfare and a violent combatant, the Morrígan fails to live up to this responsibility. Yet, in another sense, her constant return to the reminder of death as consequence of war is an excellent example of this ethical responsibility. She does not embody this responsibility, but both her prophecies discussed earlier and her radical reinterpretation of selfhood remind the reader of this networked sense of self and the consequences of violent actions towards others. Haraway suggests similar possibilities in her discussion of the “sunshine belt machine,” which is “deadly” but also “light and clean because they are nothing but signals.”[84] These modern machines made of radio waves are politically efficient because they are invisible. They are not constrained by the body but are, again, “ether, quintessence.”[85]

The Morrígan’s existence through multiple bodies and through nothing more than a voice creates a consistent presence of consciousness which haunts the text. Steven Connor argues that “in moving from an interior to an exterior, a voice also announces and verifies the co-operation of bodies and the environments in which they have their being.”[86] He then goes on to suggest that the voice without body holds power because it emphasizes, “voice as utterance and effect over against its associations with presence and intention.”[87] This voice, he says, is common in prophetic utterance. Yet the voice of the Morrígan here occupies an odd role. The text merely states that she shrieks, cries, and “spoke in the dusk between the two encampments.”[88] In these instances, a physical body is never given. We know from the text that she can occupy physical bodies such as the aforementioned young and old women, the animals which fought Cú Chulainn at the ford and “the form of a bird which perched on the pillar-stone in Temair Cúailnge.”[89] Yet her lack of physical presence seems to imply that she is disembodied at this moment or that her body exists separate from her voice. In so doing, her voice not only emphasizes the prophetic power of voice and its status as “effect,” but also suggests connections between the voice and the environment, as if utterance occupies a space as powerfully as a body.

Her use of prophecy also indicates that she has unusual mobility, temporally as well as physically. Haraway’s cyborg is politically potent, in part, because of her abilities to transgress boundaries and move invisibly outside of the constraints of the body. In much the same way, the Morrígan moves smoothly through the text. Her voice appears without her body, reminding both warriors and readers of the inherent violence of warfare. I do not mean to suggest a pacifist reading of the Morrígan, who herself utilizes violence, but rather that she possesses an ability to understand the dangers of violence rather than lauding it as a means to victory and martial virtue. She is likewise able to display this violence to the men in the text and frighten a good many of them, some to death.[90] She forces the men of Ulster to comprehend the loss inherent in war, regardless of victory. Such an exposure challenges the martial, masculine values of the text. It forces the reader to acknowledge that even as war permeates the text and establishes social ranking, it is also destructive to the social order and the men within it. The Morrígan’s disembodied presence is capable of moving across textual boundaries of land and tribe, exposing the inherent paradox in a system that functions through violence even as violence destroys it.

The hypermobility of the Morrígan and her disembodied aspect often make her almost omnipresent. Additionally, one is never quite sure if a crow, such as the one in Cú Chulainn’s death tale, is just a crow or the Morrígan observing Cú Chulainn as he dies. Like the cyborg, she can move through spaces and social systems that would otherwise be inaccessible to her. She uses this movement not to claim a place within the system, but to call the system into question.

A number of early Irish texts feature some sort of dangerous spirit which laughs or prophesies death. These spirits appear in Reicne Fothaid Canainne, Fled Bricrenn, and in other moments in the Táin, such as the rather eerie incident in the Boyhood Deeds section of the Táin in the Lebor na hUidre [The Book of the Dun Cow], in which Cú Chulainn helps a man carry his slain brother and is harassed by these spirits and the Morrígan. These spirits take on several different names, including airdrecht and genti and, like the Morrígan, they are hard to define. W. Sayers argues that these spirits are a sort of battle goddess, related to the Morrígan around whom they often appear.[91] He also makes a compelling linguistic argument for their corporeality, comparing them to Norse draugr.[92] In particular, the incident in the boyhood deeds of the Táin seems to support Sayers’ theory. Here, the airdrecht is a male warrior missing half his head. He implores Cú Chulainn to help him carry his dead brother, whose body is cut in half. Cú Chulainn refuses and the two wrestle, implying that the airdrecht is indeed corporeal. At this moment, Badb calls out, mocking Cú Chulainn for being defeated by airdrecht (translated by Cecile O’Rahilly as “phantoms”).

Here again corporeality is the focus, but the body is never whole. Cú Chulainn encounters two men, neither of whom possess a whole body. Cú Chulainn seems repulsed and moves away, but is nevertheless drawn into conflict. Here, the Morrígan (or Badb) only further serves to confuse the notion of the body, as she appears without one, calling out as only a mocking voice. The Morrígan’s lack of body is juxtaposed with the uncannily animate yet not whole body of the airdrecht. The violence of combat becomes frightening, rather than glorious. After all, Cú Chulainn cannot truly defeat a dead body nor a disembodied voice. The combat, then, loses all sense of heroic virtue and becomes merely terrifying and violent.

Ultimately, the integrity of bodies is deeply confused in this scene. Although Cú Chulainn seems fearful of this loss of wholeness, when he fights the man with half a head, he wins only by striking off the man’s head completely. Implicitly, he confesses the violence and destruction of bodies in which he plays a central part. I agree with Clark that Badb/the Morrígan is participating in a literary trope of encouraging insults, given her other intertextual attempts to help Cú Chulainn, such as offering her help in battle later in the Táin and her breaking of Cú Chulainn’s chariot axle in his death tale.[93] Her taunts provoke Cú Chulainn’s newfound courage and the defeat of his enemy, but this is achieved only through violence and bodily destruction.

This episode also invokes the larger identity confusion between the figures of Badb, Nemain, and the Morrígan.[94] Cú Chulainn is most traditionally associated with the Morrígan, but all three appear in the Táin playing roles so interchangeable that Cecile O’Rahilly often chooses to translate all three of them as “war goddess.” Hennessey suggests they are three forms of the same goddess. Later glosses in Cormac’s Glossary and Tochmarc Emere also define the Morrígan as Badb or Neid and vice versa.[95] Similarly, the Lebor Na hUidre refers to the Morrígan as Alecto, one of the Furies from Greek mythology.[96] The Morrígan constantly moves through a series of identities drawn from other Irish myth, Greco-Roman myth, and Biblical traditions, and crossing a wide range of time periods and genres. Within the Táin and other Ulster Cycle material the Morrígan uses multiple names interchangeably and also moves smoothly through classical myth, assuming and then discarding the identity of Fury. These movements through characters and names fundamentally destabilize notions of the self as singular. Instead the Morrígan exhibits an identity that must be understood as co-extensive with other fictional characters, particularly women who share her more violent tendencies. Like the cyborg, the Morrígan creates a sense of multiple selfhood, implicating the self in others and in turn creating a sense of inherent responsibility for others.[97]

The Morrígan is not the only shape-shifter in medieval Irish literary traditions, but she is unique in her lack of a definable body. More famous shape-shifters, such as the druid Fintan in Lebor Gabála Érenn, demonstrate a sense of primary form.[98] In Fintan’s case his primary form is a male druid, who only turns into other animals and shapes so that he can survive the changes that occur during the legendary settlement waves of Ireland. He reverts to the form of a human male when he passes on his story and the history of Ireland. The Morrígan, however, does not have a primary bodily form, although it is worth noting that any time gender is mentioned, she is always female. In some areas of the text, such as her confrontations with Cú Chulainn, this gendering allows the Morrígan to challenge norms of both sexual aggression and gendered participation in combat. The threat that she presents to bodily integrity and entrenched masculine systems of combat is always female. This also, in some ways, limits the challenges she presents. Unlike figures such as Grendel’s mother, she does not embody the idea that masculine deeds might make one linguistically masculine.[99] Her consistently female gendering clearly works to further the challenges that the Morrígan presents to social systems such as violence-based sovereignty structures and masculinist heroism. However, the challenge that she presents to gender fluidity is subtler than that of other medieval figures. Nonetheless, her refusal to occupy a single body or “true” body does at least open up possibilities for the disruption of the idea of gender or sex rooted in a single body.

In addition to her bodily confusion, the Morrígan participates in a literary trope that is more common in female characters than male in Irish literature, namely the confusion of roles and names. Several female deities shift through names and roles as the Morrígan does, although few are as hypermobile as she is, moving outside of the Irish canon into Biblical and Greco-Roman traditions. Still, she (and other Irish goddesses) exemplify a notion of subjectivity that moves through the identities of other individuals, rather than a stable, self-contained “character.” This self that is co-extensive with others, animals, and the material environment around it not only challenges humanist notions of the self, but has ethical implications. As Cohen points out, “the body does not end at the culturally imposed limit of skin, but has seeped already into a diffuse material world.”[100] Focusing on the shape-shifting abilities of the Morrígan and her role as a possible land goddess, Marie Herbert asserts that the Morrígan demonstrates a sort of “unity with the universe” through her changes in physical form.[101] There is something quite striking about this idea of unity with animals, land, and other humans. Clearly, the Morrígan is a character of fear and violence, but she is also a character whose mere presence critiques these notions. In the same way, she models a subjectivity that is co-extensive with other living, non-human beings: an historically and culturally-situated form of natureculture.

Technology and Prophecy
The final category of the cyborg – that of the combining of the technological and the human – is often thought of in terms of prostheses. The cyborgian body incorporates technologies and material elements into her body and conception of selfhood. This gives the cyborg a sense of agency that extends well beyond the physical body and implies interaction between the body and material elements in which neither is subjected to the other; instead, this creates a fluid sense of identity.[102] Rather than having a clearly-defined body, cyborgs are, in Haraway’s words, “webs of power.”[103] This cyborgian prosthetic augmentation is the subject of several modern works of literature and popular culture.[104] David Wills theorizes prosthesis as the exposure of the artificial within the natural and as that which expands the sense of personhood beyond the physical body.[105] As an example, he describes his father reciting Virgil according to the rhythm of household chores, such as washing dishes. The words become a part of the action and even the function of the body itself. With verbal prosthesis, the boundary between the body and the words is porous, as they act in unison, erasing the divide between the natural and artificial. Early Irish literature places a great deal of emphasis on the spoken word, in genres such as satire,[106] prophecy, or praise poetry, as a technology that affects the world. A well-aimed satire might raise boils on the body. A prophecy might predict kingship through sexual union. The Morrígan uses prophetic and poetic speech as a means of disturbing embodied notions of the subject and traditional social discourses, extending the reach of the Morrígan beyond the bounds of her physical body.

The Morrígan of the Táin and other Ulster cycle material is a creature of prophecy. In the Táin Bó Regamna, the Morrígan and Cú Chulainn engage in unique verbal sparring which is almost a prophetic war, predicting the events in Táin Bó Cúailnge with careful precision. The Morrígan and Cú Chulainn then engage in combat without any use of their physical bodies, prosthetically extending themselves through words alone. Like narratives of shape-shifting and distortion, both bodies are in a state of cyborgian extension, moving beyond temporal constraints and taking the limits of the body beyond the physical. As to the victor of this prophetic fight, it is unclear. This lack of clarity may again be a refusal to assert traditional societal values by declaring a clear winner in martial combat and affirming productive virtues of martial combat.

In Táin Bó Cúailnge itself, the Morrígan fulfills one of her more frequent narrative roles, foretelling death in battle. As a disembodied voice, she is heard prophesying death and directly affecting the lives of the men around her. The following passage is challenging and has not been entirely translated. Cecile O’Rahilly omits the passage itself, translating the sections around it: “It was on that night that the Morrígu daughter of Ernmas came and sowed strife and dissension between the two encampments on either side, and she spoke these words: Crennait brain [gap: rhetoric untranslated/extent: 5 lines] She whispered to the Erainn that they will not fight the battle which lies ahead.”[107] The untranslated passage is included here:

Crennait brain Braigte fre brunnid fer fuil. Mescthair tuind. Fadbaib luind. Nithgalaib[iar] luibnig. Luth fiansa. Fethal ferda. Fir Chruachna. Scritha minardini. Cuirther cath ba chossaib araile. Eblait a reim. Bo chin Ultu. Bo mair Erno. Bo cin Ulto. Iss ed dobert i cluais nErand, ni firfet a ngle fail fora cind.

The crows devour the necks of men, the men’s blood flows.
One is thrown into confusion by one’s battle sense.
Violent spoils.
In furious fighting after the spears
The appearance of masculinity.
the men of Cruach scream …
The battle is waged beneath the others’ feet.
One compels her movement
The Ulstermen without cattle.
The cattle of Erin will be slaughtered.
The Ulstermen without cattle.[108]

The complex language implies a high level of skill on the part of the composer and perhaps a magical property to the verse. The Morrígan uses this passage to express her knowledge and perhaps control over the battle which is about to occur. Interestingly, however, the Morrígan does not foretell the victor in the battle or even express interest in the victor. Instead, she refocuses her prophecy on the death and bodily mutilation that will be suffered on both sides in the conflict. Again, the prophecy contains threats from some sort of disembodied phantom. The lack of bodies of both the phantoms and the Morrígan herself is a direct challenge to the fields of encamped warriors, who can only fight entities that have a body. The poem retains a focus on violence and loss of social and financial status represented frequently in Old Irish culture by possession of cattle. The men encamped before battle react to these words with terror and many die from fright alone.[109] This is one of the few moments in the text in which heroes are described as showing fear and terror. The words of the Morrígan here also challenge the virtues of bravery and éraic [honor] which are lauded in the Táin and elsewhere in Irish literature. Although she has no physical body in this scene, the Morrígan uses the technology of poetry and prophecy to affect a wide range of men beyond her physical body, creating fear and exposing the destruction of war.

The cultural system that the Morrígan challenges is, of course, also inherently homosocial and male-dominated, as Cú Chulainn points out when he rejects the Morrígan’s offer of help in battle. Within the Ulster Cycle, male honor is primarily determined by martial prowess and feats which demonstrated one’s skill in combat. The Morrígan’s presence on the battlefield in the Táin Bó Cúailnge powerfully disrupts the éraic system of honor and male social worth. Despite Cú Chulainn’s rejection of her, the Morrígan participates in combat with Cú Chulainn within the ford, essentially taking on the role of one of his many challengers in the rest of the text.[110] Furthermore, the presence of her voice on the battlefield insists upon a female presence in this male contest. Through the Táin, the Morrígan, Badb, or/and Nemain haunt the text, constantly being heard just before or during battle. They are also frequently referenced by male combatants as they attempt to evoke an atmosphere of fear for the upcoming fight. By focusing on fear and the destruction of warrior’s bodies, this recurrent disembodied or body-changing female presence does not demand a place within the system, but rather calls into question the violence and destructive nature of the system itself.[111]

How, then, does the Táin speak back to posthumanist theory? What might Haraway learn about natureculture from Old Irish literature? In her discussion of companion species, Haraway argues that dogs “are not here just to think with”; they are “here to live with.”[112] Posthumanist theory needs to acknowledge that literature from the past itself constitutes a “companion species,” but one that demands that we live not with a living being, but with a spectral presence. If we only stress the importance of aliveness in the here and now, whole dimensions of natureculture and “significant otherness” will be missing from our analysis and understanding of cross-species co-dwelling: that of relating to, and learning from, figures from the past, of understanding how they work within their texts, and how we can inhabit their stories. The Morrígan is perhaps more radically other than the cyborg or the human-animal symbiosis of human-and-pet of natureculture. Temporally, she cannot suffer from the three narcissistic cultural wounds that Haraway sees as marking first the emergence of humanism and then posthumanism’s emergence from humanism, namely the Copernican wound, the Darwinian wound, and the Freudian wound (2008, 11-12). Yet, she suffers from her own culture’s wound: the Fall, which undid the dream of humans’ perfect co-dwelling with God and of perfect co-dwelling between man and woman. She suffers from the cut of sexual difference. Her hypermobile evasions of the fixity of her culture’s gender roles and identities, her species crossing and disembodiment, question the narratives of both humanism and posthumanism.

Through her varied states of embodiment, entanglement with the identities of others, focus on violence inherent within warfare, and challenging of gendered spaces, the Morrígan provides subtle but significant resistance to many dominant systems of power within the text, such as kingship, political structures, gender divides, and the use of warfare to attain power. The Táin and other Ulster Cycle stories are not only bastions of traditional heroic and masculine virtues but also spaces for resistance to these same virtues. There are other figures in the Ulster Cycle material, such as Cú Chulainn, and Cethern, who are susceptible of cyborgian and posthuman readings; these readings could further extend our sense of the ways in which Táin Bo Cúailnge may simultaneously challenge many of the systems that it affirms. Such readings open up much needed space for female and other marginalized figures to signify powerfully within mythologies that are so often dominated by traditional male protagonists.

Elizabeth Kempton, Saint Louis University

Elizabeth Kempton is a doctoral candidate at Saint Louis University. Her dissertation centers on an interpretation of the Morrígan throughout a wide range of historical periods and genres. She received her MA in literature at Boston College and her research interests focus on feminist readings of Irish medieval literature as well as modern medievalisms.


[1] See, for example, Anne Dooley, “The Invention of Women in the Táin,” in Ulidia: Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, eds. J. P. Mallory and Gerard Stockman (Belfast: December Publications, 1994), pp. 123–133.

[2] John Carey, “Notes on the Irish War Goddess,” Éigse 19 (1982/3): 263–75, and Angelique Gulermovich Epstein, “The Morrigan and the Valkyries” in Studies in Honor of Jaan Puhvel: Part II, Mythology and Religion, ed. Edgar C. Polome, Journal of Indo-European Studies (120).

[3] Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in The Haraway Reader, ed. Donna Haraway (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 7–45; Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm P, 2003); Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet Posthumanities 3 (Minneapolis: U of Michigan P, 2008).

[4] The Táin Bó Cúailnge appears in several manuscripts and variations. Most scholarship has worked predominantly with two recensions: Recension 1 (based on texts from the Lebor na hUidre and The Yellow Book of Lecan) and the later Recension 2 (based on the Book of Leinster). This paper will use both recensions. A third recension (based on the Stowe Manuscript) also exists but is highly fragmentary and will not be used in this essay. I use the Cecile O’Rahilly transcription and occasional translations: Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, ed. and trans. Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1967); Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, ed. and trans. Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2006).

[5] Tomas O’ Cathasaigh, “The Body in Táin Bó Cúailnge,” in Gablanach in Scelaigecht: Studies in Honor of Anne Dooley, eds. Sarah Sheehan, Joane Findon, and Westley Follett (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013), pp. 131–153 and Jeremy, Lowe, “Contagious Violence and the Spectacle of Death in Táin Bó Cúailnge,” Language and Tradition in Ireland: Continuities and Displacements (2003), 84–100.

[6] Neil Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 151.

[7] Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics 13 (1960), 26 –27 and 74 –76 (p. 26).

[8] Haraway, Donna, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in The Haraway Reader, ed. Donna Haraway (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 7–45 (p. 7).

[9] Ibid., p. 9.

[10] Ibid., p. 9.

[11] Ibid., p. 8.0

[12] Ibid., p. 10.

[13] Some medievalist critics have taken up Haraway’s cyborg to think through how to conceptualize the pre-Enlightenment body and pre-modern time. Myra Seaman suggests that the cyborg may be an ideal tool for discussing pre-Enlightenment conceptions of the body and selfhood in the medieval period. In the premodern era, she argues, the myth of “one unified cohesive human” may not have held the same power as it did after the formation of modern ideas of personhood: Myra J. Seaman, “Becoming More (Than) Human: Affective Posthumans, Past and Future,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (2007), 246–75. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has also pointed out the ways in which cyborgian conceptions of both the body and time may be more prevalent in the medieval world: Jeffrey J. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, Medieval Cultures 35 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. xiv. Cohen also argues that medieval conceptions of the Galenic humoral body contain some inherently posthuman assumptions, such as the idea that the body is not self-contained but is acted upon by external forces, namely the astrological bodies such as the stars, moon, and planets: Medieval Identity Machines, p. xiii. In other words, medieval bodies are comprised not only of individually acting parts but also of parts that extend beyond the physical demarcations of the body – not exactly a fusion of body and machine, but certainly a co-construction of the organic body with the nonorganic.

[14] Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 3. For an excellent discussion of networked identities, see N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[15] Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 10, 5, 3-4.

[16] Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, 3.

[17] Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” p. 7, and p. 12.

[18] For the law codes themselves, see Cáin Lánamna, translated by Donnchadh Ó Corráin (University College Cork, 2010).  For excellent scholarship on these codes see Diltz Swartz listed in footnote 19.

< [19] Dorothy Diltz Swartz. “The Legal Status of Women in Early and Medieval Ireland and Wales in Comparison with Western European and Mediterranean Societies: Environmental and Social Correlations,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 13 (1993), pp. 107-118.

[20] Lisa M. Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).  A woman’s social status was generally determined by that of her husband, but there were exceptions in certain rare situations, notably when a woman had a profession her own or joined a convent or other women’s religious order.

[21] An early Irish law code, Cain Lanamna, lays this out quite explicitly. For further critical discussion of this and other law codes regarding women’s eraic, see Bart Jaski, “‘The Fragility of Her Sex’? Medieval Irishwomen in Their European Context. Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Women. Eds. Christine Meek and Katharine Simms (Four Courts Press: Dublin, 1996), pp. 16–42.

[22] Phillip O’Leary, “The Honour of Women in Early Irish Literature,” Ériu 38 (1987), 27-44.

[23] One could consider any number of periods in which these tales may have had a life in oral transmission or now-lost manuscripts. For the sake of clarity, I will confine my discussion to the manuscript versions of the extant tales and the period in which those manuscripts were written.

[24] See Kenneth Hurlestone Jackson, The Oldest Irish Tradition: A Window on the Iron Age (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1964).

[25] Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, ed. and trans. Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2006), p. 231.

[26] Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs”, p. 8.

[27] See Carey, “Notes on the Irish War Goddess,” 263–75, and Maria Tymoczko, “Unity and Duality: A Theoretical Perspective on the Ambivalence of Celtic Goddesses,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 5 (1985), 22–37.

[28] Angelique Gulermovich Epstein, “The Morrígan and the Valkyries,” Studies in Honor of Jaan Puhvel: Part II, Mythology and Religion, ed. Edgar C. Polome, Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph 21 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 1997), pp. 119–150 (p. 120), and Rosalind Clark, “Aspects of the Morrígan in Early Irish Literature,” Irish University Review 17.2 (1987), 223–236 (p. 226).

[29] For an example of this, see Jackson, The Oldest Irish Traditions.

[30] Jeremy, Lowe, Contagious Violence and the Spectacle of Death in Táin Bó Cúailnge,” in Language and Tradition in Ireland: Continuities and Displacements, eds. Maria Tymoczko and Colin A. Ireland (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), pp. 84–100.

[31] O’Cathasaigh, “The Body in Táin Bó Cúailnge,” p. 149.

[32] Ibid., p. 150.

[33] Ibid., p. 77.

[34] O’Rahilly, Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension, p. 187. The question mark indicates O’Rahilly’s uncertainty about the translation. I have given it here to preserve her intent and because I am unable to offer a more certain translation.

[35] Ibid., p. 187.

[36] O’Cathasaigh, “The Body in Táin Bó Cúailnge,” p. 135.

[37] O’Cathasaigh, “The Body in Táin Bo Cuailange,” p. 135. The pillow talk episode only appears in the later Book of Leinster version of the text.

[38] O’Rahilly, Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, p. 178,p. 57.

[39] Ibid., p. 181, p. 62.

[40] Ibid., p. 209.

[41] Ibid., p. 209.

[42] O’Cathasaigh, “The Body in Táin Bo Cuailange,” p. 152.

[43] Dooley, “The Invention of Women in the Táin,” p. 133.

[44] There is a good deal of linguistic debate regarding exactly what Medb does in the final moments of the Táin. This moment has been alternately translated as urination and menstruation. Dooley herself favors the interpretation of urination. However, a full discussion of this question is outside of the scope of this essay, as it focuses on the Morrígan rather than Medb.

[45] Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, Cecile O’Rahilly, p. 176.

[46] Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, Cecile O’Rahilly, p. 133.

[47] Ibid., p. 133.

[48] Ibid., p. 177. Tón: Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language: Accessed 9/28/2016.

[49] Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, Cecile O’Rahilly, p. 133

[50] Gulermovich Epstein, “The Morrígan and the Valkyries,” 120.

[51] Cú Chulainn’s history of insulting or rejecting women with disastrous results can be seen in a number of other texts such as “Serglige Con Culainn” and “Aided Óenfhir Aífe’.

[52] Ibid., p. 171.

[53] A geis is a singular taboo placed on an individual or group of individuals. Violating one’s geis usually results in one’s death. Some geasa are placed for probable moral reasons while others appear entirely random or have a perhaps lost mystical significance.

[54] Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs”, p. 10.

[55] Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, Cecile O’Rahilly, 180.

[56] Ibid., p. 181.

[57] Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 163.

[58] Haraway, When Species Meet, p.12.

[59] Haraway 2003, p. 49.

[60] Ibid., p. 189.

[61] “Dúabur” and “delb”: Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language.

[62] Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” p. 12.

[63] Ibid., p. 12.

[64] Kate Soper, Humanism and Anti-Humanism, (Lasalle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1986), p. 14.

[65] Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, Cecile O’Rahilly, p. 152.

[66] Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” p. 12.

[67] Ibid., p. 12.

[68] Joanna Zylinska, On Spiders, Cyborgs, and Being Scared: The Feminine and the Sublime (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 142 and p. 169.

[69] Zylinska, On Spiders, Cyborgs, and Being Scared.

[70] Zylinska, On Spiders, Cyborgs, and Being Scared, p. 169.

[71] Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, O’Rahilly, p. 231.

[72] Ibid., p. 180.

[73] Ibid., p. 194.

[74] Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, O’Rahilly, p. 180.

[75] Ibid., p. 180.

[76] Ibid., p. 177.

[77] Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, O’Rahilly, p. 194.

[78] Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, Translation mine, p. 117, Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, Translation mine, p. 117.

[79] Ibid., p. 231.

[80] See Marie Herbert, “Transmutations of an Irish Goddess,” in The Concept of the Goddess, ed. Sandra Billington and Miranda Green (New York: Routledge, 1996): 142 and W. M. Hennessy, “On the Goddess of War of the Ancient Irish,” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 10 (1866–1869): 423.

[81] Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, O’Rahilly, p. 183.

[82] Bé Néit is a figure who appears less frequently in mythology, but nearly always is named in conjunction with the Morrígan and Badb, performing a similar role, prophesying death in battle,

Ibid., p. 231.

[83] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 290.

[84] Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” p. 12.

[85] Ibid., p. 12.

[86] Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 6.

[87] Ibid., p. 6

[88] Ibid., p. 229.

[89] Ibid., p. 12.

[90] Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, Cecile O’Rahilly, p. 250.

[91] W. Sayers, “Airdrecht, Sirite, and Other Early Irish Battlefield Spirits,” Eigse 25 (1991), 45–55 (p. 51).

[92] Ibid., p. 47.

[93] The chariot axle is broken in order to prevent Cú Chulainn from entering the battle which will ultimately cause his death.

[94] This confusion or association of these three figures is a well-established tradition within both scholarship as early as W. M. Hennessy and within several Irish glossing traditions: see Lisa M. Bitel, Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 208.

[95] Bitel, Land of Women, p. 208.

[96] Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, Cecile O’Rahilly, p. 152.

[97] Karl Steel, How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), p. 12.

[98] Lebor Gabála Érenn. Ed and Trans.R A Stewart Macalister. London: Irish Texts Society,

1939, 1940,1941, 1956. Volumes 34. Sec. VIII, p. 22-23.

[99] For writing on Grendel’s Mother and gendered pronouns see, Renee Trilling, “Beyond Abjection: The Problem of Grendel’s Mother, Again,” Parergon 24. 1 (2007), 3–16.

[100] Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, p. xiii.

[101] Marie Herbert, “Transmutations of an Irish Goddess,” p. 145.

[102] Eileen A. Joy and Craig Dionne, “Before the Trains of Thought Have Been Laid Down so Firmly: The Premodern Post/Human,” postmedieval: A journal of medieval cultural studies 1 (2010), 1–9 (p. 7).

[103] Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” p. 12.

[104] For two excellent examples of this kind of work see Seaman, “Becoming More (Than) Human,” Hayles, How We Became Posthuman.

[105] David Wills, Prosthesis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 16.

[106] Within early Irish literature satire frequently creates immediate consequences such as damaging the fertility of a king’s land or raising boils on the face of the object of the satire.

[107] Táin Bó Cúailnge: The Book of Leinster, Cecile O’Rahilly, p. 263.

[108] Translation mine, with the immense help and guidance of Tomás O’Sullivan of Saint Louis University.

[109] Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension 1, O’Rahilly, p. 250.

[110] Fords are a frequent space for single combat in the Táin Bó Cúailnge and many other Irish texts.  The usual reasoning for this is that rivers often demarcated political and tribal boundaries, making fords a likely place for contestation.

[111] Scholarship on the Táin Bó Cúailnge and other Ulster Cycle material has very recently begun to dismantle the status of the text as a sort of cultural model for unchallenged heroism. O’Cathasaigh, in particular, has pointed towards the confusion and anxiety in the text surrounding bodies and bodily integrity. My reading of the Morrígan, then, is intended to function as a part of this larger movement in re-reading the Ulster Cycle material.

[112] Haraway 2003, p. 5.