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INTERVIEW: The Morrígan - Interview with Artist Joseph Cilia

I had the pleasure of chatting with Maltese artist Joseph Cilia about the inspiration behind two of his most personal works of art – The Morrighan. Joseph is a young artist living in Malta whose work oozes with passion and emotion. Fascinated with the spirit or soul this has created his unique style of self expression captivating powerful emotions for his love of life. 

The Red Queen by Joseph Cilia

Interview Part I:

BK - The Morrighan – Who is she?

JC – The Morrighan is a complex Goddess figure in Irish mythology that has a variety of facets to her and yet she is somewhat obscure at the same time as there is rather little literature about her. The Morrighan first appears in one of the four great cycles of early Irish literary mythology as the wife and Queen of Nuada the silver hand who was at the time tribal King of the children of the Goddess Danu – known as the Tuatha Dé Dannan. She appears during the battles with the Fir Bolgs and Fomorians. She has a main role in the last battle with the Tuatha Dé Dannan against the Fomorians not simply as a warrior but once the Fomorians are defeated together with another figure – Banba – she proclaims that the Tuatha are the sole victors / rulers of Éireann. Following this she also prophecies that the Tuatha themselves will be overthrown by the Milesians. Therefore her role as the one who, similar to the Greek Nike proclaims victory is here emboldened and taking a step further since she not only proclaims victory but she also prophecies the downfall of this new empire. The Morrighan is also one to impart sovereignty and in addition has the ability to take it away – hence her title as the Great Queen, or the Sovereign Queen. 

From this story you may already notice that although she is a warrior, her character is not that of blood-hungry war-god as one finds in the Greek Ares. She may be more likened to the wise Athena (Greek) who fights only when she has to and is very willing to proclaim peace after having fought ferociously to achieve what was necessary at the time. Furthermore she is a goddess of prophecy. This prophetic role of the Morrighan appears much more often than her warrior role. The famous washer at the ford is actually derived from the myth when the Morrighan, disguised as a washer woman would appear to famous heroes the night before they are killed in battle washing their bloody clothes in the rivers – as was the case when she met Cuchulain. At this point one realizes that she is also a death goddess – though not a representation of death itself she is but the messenger of death, like the Valkyries (Norse) when she chooses those who are to fall in battle, yet she does not directly intervene. However she chooses those who fall in battle it is not the Morrighan who delivers the souls to the other world – she is mainly a guardian of the dead warriors. 

Nevertheless she is also a frightening character – as her name the Phantom Queen indicates that she may cause her chosen warriors a sense of immense fear during battle and at times evoking their own nightmares in order to paralyze them. 

Hence the Morrighan, is a figure that has many faces to her, she is both a woman and a leader at the same time. Queen Maeve for example is a typical image of the Morrighan as they both expressed their femininity in terms of sexual encounters and used their femininity in this way to achieve their own ends. At the same time just as Queen Maeve had a highly political and extremely cunning mind so does the Morrighan who tricks her opponents into giving her whatever she wants and uses her force and skill in battle when politics fail. 

A typical example of this is shown when she approaches Cuchulain with sexual desires, yet he spurns her in order to ridicule and to demonstrate his superiority over her. This was an insult that she begrudged him until she managed to incite and empower Queen Maeve to bring about his death. The Morrighan then appears as a crow on dying Cuchulain’s shoulders signifying to his attackers that this person has passed into the otherworld and is now “defeated”. By doing this she shows that she is somewhat comforting those she chooses and asks them to not be afraid of death as there is always a re-birth waiting. 

The Morrighan is quite a complex mythological character, yet when one analyzes her various qualities one truly realizes that she is much more human than one thinks. Many a time she is misrepresented and thought of as a character of revenge due to her role as a death goddess and a warrior; and while that aspect of her is definitely present in her, yet she appears much more frequently as an advisor like the washer woman at the ford, or as a hag encouraging warriors and prophesying their victories. She cannot be seen as having a malevolent nature but one that is simply carrying out her role within the particular reality she presides over. 

BK – How did you become aware of her? 

JC – My journey with the Morrighan has come over a period of time and to be honest it is as if it came about of its own accord. In childhood I once heard of her as being a Celtic warrior mythological figure presiding on both death and rebirth. This aspect intrigued me though I did not fully grasp what it meant. At the time the concept just came to me at face value and the Morrighan was simply a symbol of self-empowerment since she is quite an emancipated female. However as I grew older and I have started doing some research about antiquity and my childhood interest in the Morrighan simply rose again and though she is quite an enigmatic figure to decipher through the literature, the more I read about her the more I pondered on her. The more I learnt about her I found that the life lessons she teaches are still extremely relevant today as they were back in the time when they were written. When I started to understand the deeper meaning of her as the chooser of death and to understand the concept of death being a constantly present aspect in our life which helps us to grow and evolve as human beings the more I have to say I feel in love with the most strange and sometimes feared Goddess. 

BK – How was Morrighan the inspiration behind the paintings “Lady of Samhain” and “The Red Queen”?

JC - The inspiration behind these paintings first and foremost is more spiritual than philosophical to me and a meditation on the nature of death. 

Lady of Samhain by Joseph Cilia 

The nature of the works themselves shows my own growth in relating to figure of the Morrighan, since she has a rather complex personality. In the "Lady of Samhain", the Morrighan is portrayed as the Crone, the guide to the land of death, the woman with hidden knowledge and prophetic wisdom. The strong and stern woman who has gone through life and fought her battles and is now unafraid because she has conquered her opponents and succeeded. 

The painting shows the portrait of this stern woman, looking at you deeply with piercing eyes yet the portrait only depicts half a face. The other half is not clearly visible and one of the eyes is outright absent. This is done deliberately as it is the character of Morrighan, as the agent of death to be somewhat elusive. Death in itself is elusive and we can only in reality vouch for one part of it – the passing, what lies beyond is unknown to the conscious mind. Hence this painting demonstrates her more formal nature. Yet, as one further thinks about death and dying, one has to ask, is death really all that bad? Is it so terrible to die? Why are we so afraid of death? 

My second painting of the Morrighan, "The Red Queen" depicts a more humane figure of the Morrighan. The figure first and foremost shows a naked bust of a red haired woman, holding a red cloth or veil. The deep and powerful red strokes are reminiscent of blood, the blood that is the symbol of life in the human being. Blood that to the Native Americans was the essence of life, is present in our birth and stops flowing when we pass on. Furthermore the Morrighan is depicted, holding up the cloth – which is also a bright vermillion – as if presenting a newborn to an audience. 

At this point one can easily deduce that the Morrighan is inviting the individual to embrace death as a part of the journey through which we all must pass in order to be reborn and to grow as individuals. This death however, though it is primarily referring to a real death, can also be somewhat more mundane. Any form of change in one’s life however drastic or mild is a kind of death that we must adjust to. Thus, the Morrighan be it that she is also a warrior, calls one to not be afraid of change because reality is not static, reality is always in motion, and when we embrace every little death in our existence then we are always able to be born to something new, therefore growing as well as individuals.

Part II will follow with more information on The Morrighan and what Joseph is currently working on. 

Part II Interview on The Morrígan 

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