The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Morgan le Fay
The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods
Also known as Morgana le Fay, Fata Morgana.
Morgan le Fay literally means Morgan the Fairy. Morgan probably derives from the Welsh word for sea “mor”; Celtic mermaids are known as morgans or merrow in Ireland, from the Gaelic “muir.” Most famous today as King Arthur’s half-sister, she is probably more ancient than the Arthurian Saga. One theory suggests that Morgan was originally a Celtic death goddess, similar to an angel of death or psychopomp.
Morgan is no simple woodland spirit but has substantial real estate holdings:
She rules an underwater kingdom possibly near Brittany
She rules a fairy paradise near Mount Aetna called Mongibello (or Mongibel)
She has a castle near Edinburgh staffed with beautiful fairies
She lives on the magical Isle of Avalon, which she may or may not rule
In Arthur’s saga, the fairy-princess became a witch-princess, a wealthy, skilled sorceress and the primary villain of most versions. From a dualist perspective, this may be necessary: once Merlin was permitted to be a “good” wizard, someone had to be the evil witch. Depending on the version, Morgan is Merlin’s teacher, student, lover, and/or rival.
Even in the King Arthur stories however, Morgan was not always wicked. She first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Life of Merlin as a healer and leader of the Nine Holy Women from Avalon who tend Arthur’s wounds following the final Battle of Camlan.
In this version, she’s not identified as Arthur’s sister: she falls in love with him and he promises to stay with her in Avalon. By end of the twelfth century she was portrayed as Arthur’s sister but was still benevolent. By the thirteenth century, however, a different story emerged.
Cistercian monks composed the Prose Lancelot (also known as the Vulgate Cycle) between 1230 and 1250, which describes the adventures of Lancelot of the Lake and the Quest for the Holy Grail.
Frustrated by the popularity of romances with not-so-hidden pagan sympathies, the Cistercian scribes determined to remake these romances into religious allegories and, in so doing, demonstrate the superiority of spirit over flesh, male over female, Christian over Pagan. They believed it was blasphemous to attribute powers of healing and prophecy to women who were unaffiliated with religious orders. (Some Cistercians also openly debated the existence of the female soul.) New elements were added to the story: incest and demonic possession, with Morgan as the villain witch.
Morgan is the sorceress supreme, an expert in botanical magic, especially poisons, a skilled shape-shifter; she was consistently portrayed as a heartless, plotting but beautiful monster. This has only changed recently, most notably in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1982 novel The Mists of Avalon, which re-envisioned Morgan as a Pagan priestess and heroine. Morgan’s status as goddess has been reaffirmed by modern Pagans, amongst whom she is very beloved.
Morgan also has strong, ancient roots in Italy where she is known as Fata Morgana. Fata is Italian for “fairy.” She has a home in Calabria as well as a palace near or on Mount Aetna. Fata Morgana is also the name of a fatal mirage, an optical illusion that lured sailors to their deaths in the Straits of Messina. Morgan was held responsible.
See also ANIMALS: Corvids; FAIRIES; HALL OF FAME: Merlin.