The Morrigan's Dark Ministers
Illustrations of corvid birds from F.O. Morris's Book of British Birds (1861-1891): graphic collage by Giles Watson.
THE MORRIGAN'S DARK MINISTERS:
Poems by Giles Watson
Cú Chulainn and the Morrigán
It was a shriek to clot blood, or curdle milk;
The night air hung in clumps about our room.
I saw his buttock flash white in moonlight, the skins
That lined our bed strewn behind him.
With his britches I pursued him, grabbed
His sword, his gleaming battleaxe, his shield.
His chainmail weighed me down. His breath
Hung behind him like a stain in crystal night.
Her horse, blood-red in blenching moonshine,
Tramped on a single leg, the chariot pole
Pegged to his bleeding head, rammed
Through his body, out his sanguine, puckered arse,
His whinny made angels writhe. And She
Was red as him, her eyebrows gore-tinged, her cloak
Dipped in dregs of battle. Beside them, a man
Drove a cow by hazel-fork, with tonking bell, inanely grinning.
My husband, goosepimpled in the dark, his bollocks
Taut with cold, bellowed, “I am Cú Chulainn, cattle-master
And you, a cow-stealer. Submit, or feel my sword.”
And she of the reddened brow strode up to him,
Riled him with riddles, till he clutched the chariot wheel
And wept with rage. Her screech made mud clots
In the puddles where they stood.
I felt ridiculous,
Out at midnight, clutching britches, sword and axe
And a chainmail suit, for a man, alone and naked.
On his shoulder, a croaking crow.
Source material: The Ulster cycle records a number of encounters between Cú Chulainn and the battle goddess, sometimes known as the Morrigán, and sometimes as the Babdh. This poem records a typical meeting between the two, from the perspective of Cú Chulainn’s wife. See Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, British Museum Press, 1995, pp. 44-45: “The hero was lying asleep one night when he heard a fearful shriek and rushed, naked, outside, his wife following with his weapons and his clothes. He encountered the battle-fury in the image of a red woman, with red eyebrows and a red cloak, riding in a chariot to which was attached a single red horse with one leg, the chariot pole passing through its body and secured to its forehead with a peg. Next to the vehicle walked a man holding a fork of hazel, driving a cow. Cú Chulainn challenged the appropriation of this animal, since he was guardian over all the cattle of Ulster. The couple responded in riddles… the apparition disappeared save for the fury herself who remained, in the form of a crow.
A Game of Gwyddbwyll
Armies of gold on a silver board
Reflect the fractured faces
Of a pair of kings.
Wheel across them
Like windblown ash.
A king’s finger makes a move,
Its whorled print spreads
And fades on yellow metal.
Cries of men and raven-cronks,
Flurries of black talons
And wings. The impassive faces
Of two kings. Skulls crash
To ground, backbones fracture,
Spleens rupture, gashes bleed.
Eyes are picked out, sucking
Out of sockets. Birds tussle
For dead-man morsels, and craw.
A raven yawns; a bridge of blood
Spans his bristled gape. The king
Withdraws his hand.
Source material: ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ from the Mabinogion, tells the story of a surreal battle between the forces of Arthur and Owain’s ravens. Arthur and Owain play Gwyddbwyll (a game similar to Chess), with golden pieces on a silver board, while the slaughter continues in the valley below. This poem describes the part of the battle in which the ravens have the upper hand, and destroy a large section of Arthur’s army by carrying the men into sky and smashing their bodies against the ground. The carnage of the battle is graphically depicted by Alan Lee in his illustrations to accompany Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion.
I am Tsauha,
With bloodsword beak
And burning eyes;
I skywheel above Dover
To save fools from suicide.
I am Chauk Daw,
Blacker than a crow,
With bloodstained legs,
Becketed and blazoned
On Kentish banners
Above their burnished blades.
I am Killigrew,
The Cornish Jack,
Ousted from my homeland.
In pinewoods and
On inland fields,
I sneeze my own orisons.
I am Palores,
The darksome Celt,
Drubbed for my druid ways
By Romans and by Christians.
My black wings are
Flapping above you.
Source material: Francesca Greenoak, British Birds: their Folklore, Names and Literature, pp. 189-190. Tsauha, Chauk Daw, Killigrew, Cornish Jack and Palores are all common names for the Chough, which used to be specifically associated with Cornwall, but is now extinct there due to persecution. In King Lear, Edgar tells the blind and suicidal Gloucester that there are choughs wheeling high above the cliffs of Dover, suggesting that in Shakespeare’s day this was a distinctive feature of that area (it is not today). The bird is also associated with Thomas à Becket, and five of them appear upon the coat of arms of Canterbury. The association of the Chough with the returning Arthur suggests that in Celtic times, it was a much more vaunted bird than it is today. The lyricist’s own experience of a different species of Chough, acquired during a childhood in Australia, suggests that these birds adapt themselves superbly to introduced pine plantations; the English species has since been observed in comparable situations; once, mobbing an owl amongst scattered pines at Moor Copse near Reading.
Claw the branches, darkened Craw
And fly to join your friends.
Wheel, a smudge in the fog,
Soot clad, past bare elms,
Sleeping oaks and dormant beeches.
Perch on the crown of the hawless thorn.
Fly to join your friends, black Rook,
Fly to meet your black lover
In a wood to bring the cold,
On a heath to bring down mist
In a town to bring a storm,
In a field to bring rain.
Fly to join your friends, black Brandre,
Fly to meet your black lover,
She and you, flocking in dimness
Roosting by the sun eclipsed.
Your black and ragged music
Fills the field.
Source material: A Durham tradition holds that if rooks feed in a village, a storm is close at hand. Craw is the Lancashire, and Brandre the Cornish, name for the rook.
The curse of the oracle I bear:
Baring uncomfortable truths
To those with too much power.
My heart, a small receptacle
For a kingly soul, beating old blood
About a body battered and maligned.
I spoke truths of children
Serpent tailed; Athene dropped her stone
In wrath, making Lycabettus,
And banished me from the Acropolis,
Turning black my bone-white
Feathers, beak and claw.
I shall draw the keeper’s wrath
Away from jays and slit-eyed foxes.
Of lead-shot cruelty I caw,
And hang dead, wired up like lightning
Zigzag, or a hooked and hanging
Question mark, zeroing to ground.
Cut me down gently, bury me,
Let my black fluid flow back
To Earth, who made me.
The curse of the oracle I bear:
Baring uncomfortable truths
To those with too much power.
Source material: In Greek mythology, the crow, personified as Cronus, was an oracular bird, and was said to house the soul of a sacred king after his sacrifice. The crow was cursed and banished by Athene after he reported to her that Herse, Pandrosos and Agraulos had plunged in terror from the Acropolis after uncovering a child with a serpent’s tail. She did this after dropping the stone which she had been carrying towards the Acropolis, thus forming the nearby Lycabettus Hill. See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 6, 7, 25, 50. The second half of the poem describes the plight of a particular crow, known to the author, who happened to fly within range of the gun of a bloodthirsty gamekeeper.
The little Jack
Picks up sticks;
Plugs holes with them,
With daws and tchacks,
The black beak clacks;
On the chimney pot,
With white eye
In his cocked skull.
The grey Jack
Blinks and bows.
The rogue bird gambles,
Drops sticks in soot;
Counts the chink
Of pennies stolen.
A wild card,
A black headed knave,
Fell down the chimney
Source material: Jackdaws build their nests by dropping sticks into any available hole, until enough sticks snag against the sides for the nest to hold. Problems arise when a pair of jackdaws attempt this procedure using a chimney. In the north of England, the inevitable consequence – the collapse of the nest and the appearance of a disgruntled Jackdaw in the hearth – is said to be a portent of a death within the house. The name “Daw” has a high Germanic origin, and appears to be an imitation of one of the bird’s two characteristic calls. “Jack” is a relatively common bird-name prefix meaning “small” (for example, “Jack Snipe”, “Jack Doucker”), but is also commonly associated with knavery, which is a happy coincidence given the Jackdaw’s thieving habits. Male Jackdaws use a characteristic bowing motion during courtship. See Francesca Greenoak, British Birds: Their Folklore, Names and Literature, pp. 190-191. This poem is dedicated to Paul Ratcliffe, who personifies the name.
Garrulous, the Devil Scritch,
The woodland screamer,
Spies higher ground
With pale eyes,
And scolds the gloom.
Digs holes to bury them,
Blue wings spread
On the bare earth.
Plants the forests
Of his forgetfulness,
His screeches distant
Like clatterings after fainting.
Source material: The Jay, Garrulus glandarius, is known in Somerset as the Devil Scritch, and has earned the Gaelic name of Screachag choille, or “screamer of the woods”. “Scold” is another apt Somerset name. Jays habitually store acorns and beech mast for the winter, burying them in the ground, usually higher up the slope from oak woodlands. Since forgotten acorns are liable to germinate, the Jay is thought to play a significant part in spreading oak forests, to the benefit of its progeny. See Francesca Greenoak, British Birds: Their Folklore, Names and Literature, p. 187. The last two lines offer, I hope, an appropriate simile for a bluejay’s cacophony heard from a distance, although I accept that it may be lost on anyone who has never fainted.
Grey Raven, my mother, flap
About the old oak, batter
His wizened trunk with wingbeats,
Fray your feathers on him.
Grey Raven, my mother, snap
At gulls, and scorn
Their loud garrulity.
Drive them away, Grey Raven.
Young Crow, my son, unsoil
My hoary wing with your
Broad bill, in our old oak
Upon the shore.
Young Crow, my son, remain,
And fly not through the fog
That shrouds the sea again.
Remain. Remain, Young Crow.
Little Bird, our taunter, sing,
And flaunt your flitting tail,
Who never gave a golden ring
Or rode an ocean gale.
Source material: An ancient Breton poem relates the story of Bran and his mother, who spend eternity as a crow and a raven in an old oak tree overlooking the sea. After the victorious Battle of Kerloan, Bran was nonetheless taken prisoner by the vanquished foe. While he was languishing under arrest, he sent a messenger to go and seek his mother across the sea, entrusting him with a golden ring to give to her. He told the messenger to sail back flying a white flag if his mother was coming to be with him, and a black flag if she had refused. Day after day, Bran asked the prison guard if he could see the messenger’s ship returning. At last, the treacherous guard said that he could indeed see a ship on the horizon, and when Bran asked him whether it was flying a black or a white flag, he answered, “A black.” Hearing this and thinking that his mother had abandoned him, Bran faced the wall and died. Later that day, the messenger’s ship arrived, and Bran’s mother came looking for him. She found him lying dead in the prison, lifted his corpse up in her arms, and transformed herself into a raven, and Bran into a living crow. See William Sharp (Ed.) Lyra Celtica, Edinburgh, 1932, pp. 60-63.
All poems copyright Giles Watson, 2004.