The Crow in Irish Mythology

In the gathering of huge trees in the churchyard opposite my house lives a colony of crows. They are noisy and gregarious, and I enjoy their hoarse, wild calls and feathery antics immensely.

Crows belong to the Corvus family of birds, ranging from the small jackdaw to the much larger raven.

Perhaps surprisingly, they are considered one of the world’s most intelligent creatures, right up there with the dolphin and the ape. If you don’t believe me, watch this short video… it’s amazing!

In tests, they have been found able to count up to 5, use tools to obtain food, and are even thought to be able to recognise humans by their facial features.

They are omnivorous, and will eat anything. They are  most well known for the damage they cause in fields of crops, hence the ‘scare-crow’, and also for eating carrion. In fact, they have been seen to harass foxes and birds of prey in attempts to steal from them their fresh kills.

It is perhaps for this desire to feast on the flesh of the freshly deceased that the crow and the other members of the Corvus family have been so reviled in the past. Undoubtedly, in ancient times, when our ancestors were more war-like than we are today, the crows would have gathered over the battlefield to take advantage of the dead bodies laid out for their delectation, and this would been observed with dread and abhorrence by those warriors who survived.

In Mythology

Around the world, the crow has been associated with war, death, the Otherworld, or as a cunning trickster not to be trusted. Despite this, there has also been a grudging acknowledgement of its intelligence.

In Irish mythology, the crow is seen as a manifestation of the Morrigan (in Irish, Mór-ríoghain), meaning phantom/great Queen. She was a deity signifying ‘battle, strife and sovereignty’, a harbinger of war and death, who spoke of the battlefield as ‘her garden’.

It was said that she would often fly above a battle, her cry bringing courage and encouragement to her warriors, whilst simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of the enemy. Sometimes she would join in the battle in her human form.

There seems to be much confusion surrounding this particular deity. For a start, she has many names; the Morrigan,  Badbh (meaning crow), Macha, and Nemain are those most commonly used. Sometimes, the names Anann and Fea appear in conjunction with the others, too.

It is well known that the number 3 was held sacred to the ancient people, and so often she is depicted as three sisters, representing the three different aspects of the Goddess as mentioned above, but also perhaps the maiden, the mother and the crone. In that case, the term ‘the Morrigan’ is likely a title or epithet which could be applied to the threesome collectively.

In the Lebor Gebála Érenn, the tale of the first cycle of Ireland’s mythology, the Morrigan is said to be the daughter of Ernmas, and grand-daughter of King Nuada, who led the Tuatha de Denann into Ireland.

This is interesting, because one of the names given her is Macha, and Macha was actually Nuada’s wife, and mother of his four sons. She fought beside him in the Battles of Moytura, and was slain by Balor of the Fomori, whilst the Morrigan flew overhead in crow form, casting spells which bought forth strange poisonous fog and rains of fire and blood upon the heads of the enemy. She is also credited with various prophecies.

the crow in irish mythology.

She is also mentioned in the Tain Bó Cuailnge, Queen Medbh’s famous Cattle Raid of Cooley, where she shapeshifts into the form of an eel, a wolf and a cow, as well as her more habitual crow. She has various interactions with hero Cúchullain, finally showing him an omen of his own death. Mortally wounded, he ties himself to a standing stone so that he can die on his feet, she alights on his shoulder in her crow form to show his enemies he is dead.

The Morrigan is remembered in sites around Ireland which are named after her. In Co Tipperary, there is a fullachta fiadh called Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna ( the cooking pit of the Morrigan), and in Co Meath there are two hills known as Dá Chich na Mórrigna (the breasts of the Morrigan). I’m sure there must be many more.

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29 Comments on “The Crow in Irish Mythology

    • Thanks for your comments. As I understand it, crow is a generic name for a family of birds such as the jay and the magpie, the hooded crow and the carrion crow. We certainly do have many hooded crows but around here where I live they are outnumbered by far by a black crow, which technically should be called a rook. They are quite difficult to tell apart, and I don’t claim to be an expert. I also read the article you quoted from, and here is a link to another which people might find interesting. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. 😊


      • The Hooded Crow & Carrion Crow are more or less regional variations of the same bird.
        However the Rook is a very different bird, whose lifestyle, food, habits etc. are very different from the Crows. Rooks are gregarious & are usually seen in large flocks, whereas the Carrion & Hooded Crows are usually, like the Raven, only seen in pairs & are far more likely to be associated with mythology.
        It may only seem to be a small point, but I mention it because this error may tend to have people wondering just how carefully the rest of the information contained in this article was researched.


        • Fair enough! The birds which live at the bottom of my garden must be rooks then, they live in a huge colony, they are fascinating to watch, and VERY noisy, but I love them. The hooded crow is very distinctive and easy to spot, I’d say the rooks are more common in this area. At my college there are birds, also very gregarious, all black which I had also presumed to be crows, but they are BIG! They think nothing of sidling up to you and sharing your sandwich! Are they ravens, do you think? The Morrigan is usually thought to take the form of a black crow, but if they are not natives here in Ireland, it must have been something else… any ideas?


          • Well of course, the “Black Crow” which would have been associated with Irish Mythoology would have been the Raven.
            This bird is a carnivore, mates for life & is usually just seen in pairs, except when youngsters flock to find their soulmate for life.
            So instead of images of a juvenile Rook, birds which are of course not carnivores but mainly insectivorous, this blog should have used images of a Raven.
            “Upon Cuchulainn’s death, the Morrigan perched on his shoulder in the form of a raven.”


      • One more interesting fact. In the 60’s a lady on my cousin’s paper route had caged in her entire backyard in it was a crow, her pet. I was told that she had had the crows tongue split which enabled the crow to talk. I do not remember how much of a vocabulary that Crow had but it would say good morning to us as we walked by

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s so cruel if she split the poor creature’s tongue! 😥 I had no idea you could teach them to talk. That’s amazing!


      • One more interesting fact. In the 60’s a lady on my cousin’s paper route had caged in her entire backyard in it was a crow, her pet. I was told that she had had the crows tongue split which enabled the crow to talk. I do not remember how much of a vocabulary that Crow had but it would say good morning to us as we walked by. I live in West Virginia, USA


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  5. I’ve always been fascinated with the Morrigan, it’s a very strong female figure.

    And I didn’t know abotu the dog flesh eating thing. that’s so very interesting!


  6. I am much more familiar with crows than ravens being a an old GA farm girl. Living in the city of Orlando, I got this one visiting me now through the mail…LOL…all in fun. Very informative post and I love that first video. He’s learned a lot. Smart bird! My visitor is probably going to start pecking at my left brain too.


    • Haha! You’re as mad as Boyack! Hope Doubt doesn’t visit for long… maybe it’s just a ‘flying’ visit… pun intended! Oh dear…


    • Yep me too. I love the crows that live by me… people always ask how I stand the noise…there are a lot of them! … but I like it. Its nature.


  7. Another fascinating article Ali, nicely presented. She is one of my favorite characters from ancient Ireland. She is indeed seen as the triple aspect of the goddess, ‘Maiden, Mother, Crone’, also Goddess of Birth, War and Death.The reference to her involvement in the Tain Bó Cuailnge is quite interesting as it relates to one of many earlier encounters between her and Cúchullain. Apparently she had a bit of a thing for him, which turned sour. Long story short, she tricked him into eating dog meat. Which broke a geas he was bound too. This is attributed to his death. A fascinating story, perhaps for another day 🙂

    She has also been compared to the Valkyries from Norse mythology.


    • Yes I read all of that. The dog meat thing is interesting because you know the fili of old were supposed to chew raw dog flesh to send them into a trance to commune with the ancestors… I think it was called Imbas Forasni. Anyway, the eating of dog meat is not commonplace so Im wondering as to how and why it appears as a geis for Cucullain. He was just a warrior with no druidic aspects as far as I know…


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