Review: The Book of the Great Queen: The Many Faces of the Morrigan, from Ancient Legends to Modern Devotions Written by Morpheus Ravenna. (Concrescent Press, pp 506)
I’ll be honest. I have never been drawn to deities associated with war or battle. I appreciate them as I see their strength, honor, and courage. But my draw to Paganism and the gods has always been along more of a tree-hugger sort of route. Non-violence in acts, words, and thoughts is a goal of my spiritual path, leaving me feeling distant from deities like Odin, Ares, Sekhmet, and The Morrigan. When Morepheus Ravenna’s The Book of the Great Queen came around, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to get to know The Morrigan better and see if I could finally connect on some level with this Goddess who is so foreign to me.
In her introduction, Ravenna asserts that there can be no comprehensive text on The Morrigan. She writes:
Her roots reach deep into the Indo-European past and connect her, and her cults of worship, to a great constellation of divinities and cultures. Her nature is so complex and so changeable that even if someone could capture her history in a volume, the lived experiences of practitioners engaging with her bring constantly new revelations about her relationships with the forces of history, of culture, and with her devotees themselves.
While this is all true, Ravenna has created the most thorough volume I could possibly expect on this Goddess.
The book begins with a section about who The Morrigan is according to mythology, history, and literature. Several chapters within this section also consider the stories of Babd, Macha, Anu, Nemain, and Fea and their relationships with The Morrigan. The final chapter in the section is the poetry of The Morrigan, allowing for further understanding of not only Her, but also the culture that surrounds her.
The second part of the book focuses on the worship of The Morrigan, with each chapter looking first at historical practices followed by suggestions for creating new traditions within our modern contexts.
One of the discussions that I particularly enjoyed concerned the triple Goddess, a concept that I had learned about as a shiny new Pagan. When Eriu called to me early in my path, I researched Her as well as I could. Unfortunately, there was and is still no book even remotely like Ravenna’s dedicated to Eriu. Regardless, I did learn that she was also one of three aspects of the Triple Goddess. But which one? Maiden, Mother, or Crone? Eriu and her sisters do not fit into this model, just as The Morrigan fills none of these roles, which Ravenna defines as modern constructions focusing solely on the reproductive status of females. She writes:
The triple Goddess archetype is too tidy to contain our fighting queens and wild war furies, our pregnant sorceresses and lascivious hags. Most importantly, the identities and roles of the Morrigan Goddesses are never primarily defined by reproductive status. Motherhood tends to be incidental to their function; we are told the names of sons borne to The Morrigan and Macha, but these acts of motherhood are peripheral to their narratives. Even when sexuality takes center stage in their narratives, it is in the context of granting sovereignty, victory, or another form of Otherworld favor, rather than a socially defined reproductive status.
I have known several female Witches over the years who have said they did not find themselves fitting into the concept of Maiden, Mother, Crone either because they never had children or because even with having children, their identities were more tied to other aspects of themselves and their work. Though they made due with the idea that the stage of womanhood we call “Mother” could mean a lot of things, it’s always been obvious that there was still something missing. The next time this comes up, I’ll remember to point people in the direction of the Sovereigns and celebrate the wider diversity of Goddesses.
In the second part of the book, Ravenna focuses on the cults of The Morrigan, both ancient and modern. Topics covered include, for example, temples, land veneration, iconography, prayers, divination, and the functions of priesthood. Each chapter is divided into two distinct sections. History and ancient practices are covered first, followed by a focus on “Living Practice” and the development one’s own practice. Rather than a cookbook-style approach, the Living Practice sections offer questions, thoughts, and ideas to consider while developing your work.
For the most part, these chapters are full of great information and ideas. But she throws a serious curveball: sacrifice. I dislike that Pagan religions are equated with sacrifice. I dislike even more that mainstream folks have no concept of the context within which sacrifice was performed by Ancient cultures. I dislike the whole thing so much I’d rather not see it mentioned in any of my books except to say it is wrong. But again, non-violence in thought, act, and speech is something I strive toward.
But here it is, Chapter 12, in big bold letters: Sacrifice. Ravenna begins by writing:
… to understand the sacrificial practices of the ancients, we must reserve judgment in the present chapter, laying aside modern moral positions about the perceived brutality or savagery of the practice in order to first understand, as best we can, what it meant to people of the period.
I took a deep breath and read through some of the historical information on the Druid belief that sacrifice was an act of creation versus destruction; that it was devotional and honorary. I understood what Ravenna is saying, but I was anxious to get the part about how we don’t do this anymore. Despite what I wanted, she writes, “Instead of reacting from fear and horror to dismiss sacrificial practice, I think we need to re-examine it intelligently with respect to our values and the way we practice today.”
I cautiously continued onto a subsection called “The Ethics of Animal Sacrifice.” Here, Ravenna presents two primary ethical dilemmas, which she encounters where sacrifice is concerned. The first is about the idea of the animal suffering, that the act of sacrifice is cruel. She correctly reminds us how cruel industrial animal farming is. She compares this to modern priests who make a great effort to ensure that sacrificial animals have a high standard of living and that the sacrifice itself is a “gentle, pain-free, and dignified death.” The, the sacrificed animal is utilized as sanctified food. Aside from a priest performing a ritualistic slaughter, I suppose I don’t see this as different from buying your meat from a local humane farmer.
The other dilemma Ravenna brings up is how ethical it is to kill “a sentient being who presumably, if given a choice, would want to continue living.” This is likely the stance of most vegetarians and vegans, and it is a stance I do respect even though I am a dedicated omnivore. At the same time, I heard my own thoughts echo in Ravenna’s closing paragraph:
What is now dawning to our understanding is a truth that the ancients always knew: participation in life is participation in death. As living beings who need to eat other living in order to survive, we cannot opt out of participation in the ecology of life and death. We are part of a deeply interwoven system of beings who live through consumption of other life. The best ethical position available to us is to participate in this ecology of life and death compassionately, intelligently, and unapologetically, in an active commitment to respecting other beings.
Though she may not get many fans by offering a supportive stance on sacrifice, Morpheus does present valid points that are worth considering when making decisions about an ethical position on the topic.
Overall, this is a book loaded with information. Most of what is in these pages will not be new to someone who has studied The Morrigan extensively. However, as far as I have seen, this is the first book to contain so much information about The Great Queen in one place. There are even many gems for developing a practice that are not specific to The Morrigan, so people who, like myself, have not been called by Her can still find useful ideas within its pages.
A spiritual worker, artist, and teacher, Morpheus Ravenna has created a valuable resource for both those called to The Morrigan and for those interested in simply exploring Her through history, lore and modern devotion. Signed copies of the book are now available through Banshee Arts, and it is also available through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.