Morgan le Fay (bright, great fairy) In Arthurian legend, a witch, the sister or half sister of King Arthur, who continually plots his downfall. In Malory’s Morte d’Arthur she steals the sword Excalibur and gives it to her lover so that he can kill Arthur. Though the rest of Arthur’s enemies are defeated at the end of the work, Morgan le Fay is not. She appears in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato. She is also called Fata Morgana, which is the name Longfellow uses in his poem about her.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante
Morgan Le Fay
Also known as:
Morgana Le Fay; Mor gaine 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 in Ireland, merrow from the Gaelic muir. Although now most famous as King Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan Le Fay is older than the Arthurian Saga. One theory suggests that Morgan was originally a Celtic death goddess, similar to an angel of death or a psychopomp.
Morgan is the ruler of the Celtic paradise, Avalon, the Isle of Apples. She is sometimes envisioned as a mermaid. She may be an aspect of Celtic war goddess, the Morrigan. A theory suggests that Arthurian tales of Morgan and Avalon recall a shrine on a small, isolated British isle, a Pagan outpost that survived invasions and Christianity at least for a while.
Morgan first appears in the Arthurian sagas in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Life of Merlin as a healer. Morgan leads the Nine Holy Women of Avalon who tend Arthur’s wounds following the final Battle of Camlan. In this version, she’s not Arthur’s sister. They fall in love, 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, a different story emerged and Morgan was transformed: 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.
Morgan also has powerful roots in Italy, where she is called Fata Morgana. (Fata is Italian for “Fairy.”) Fata Morgana is also the name of a fatal mirage, an optical illusion that lured sailors to their deaths in the Straits of Messina. The goddess Morgana was held responsible.
Frustrated by the popularity of romances with not-so-hidden Pagan sympathies, Cistercian scribes determined to remake these romances as 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. New elements were added to the story: incest and Demonic possession, with Morgan the wicked witch as Arthur’s primary antagonist.
Morgan emerged as the sorceress supreme, an expert in botanical magic, especially poisons. She was consistently portrayed as a heartless, plotting, but beautiful monster. Morgan Le Fay remains a ubiquitous presence in popular culture, usually as a villain but occasionally as a heroine:
• Morgan is a Pagan priestess and heroine in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1982 novel The Mists of Avalon.
• She is a primary antagonist in Bryan Davis’ series of Christian fantasy novels, Dragons in Our Midst in which Morgan is envisioned as an avatar of Lilith
• Helen Mirren, Helena Bonham Carter, and Julianna Margulies are among the many actresses who have portrayed Morgan
• Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Anthony Fred erick Sandys, and Aubrey Beardsley are among the artists inspired to paint portraits of Morgan.
• Morgaine Le Fey is among the many powerful witch characters featured in DC Comics
Morgan Le Fay is a spirit of healing, love, and romance. She is the mistress of illusions, hallucinations, visions, and dreams. She may be invoked for magical instruction, and spiritual guidance. Her functions as a psychopomp may also be requested.
Morgan is a brilliant shape-shifter who can assume virtually any form.
Morgan is no simple woodland Fairy but has substantial real estate holdings:
• She rules an underwater kingdom possibly near Brittany.
• She rules a Fairy paradise near or on Mount Aetna called Mongibello (or Mongibel).
• She has a castle staffed with beautiful Fairies near Edinburgh.
• She lives on the magical Isle of Avalon.
Aeronwen; Aetna; Fairy; Lilith; Marichi; Mermaid; Merrow; Morrigan; Oberon and the Glossary entry for Avatar
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.
Morgan le Fay A sorceress or FAIry who possessed the art of magic herbal Healing and who was either the sister or half-sister of the legendary king Arthur. According to some legends, morgan le Fay (“morgan the Fairy”) was the mistress of merlIn, who taught her Magic. Malory said she learned her arts in a nunnery.
Morgan plotted against Arthur to steal his Talisman sword, Excalibur or otherwise bring him down. Yet she also came to his aid: when Arthur was mortally wounded in the battle of Camlan, she was one of the four queens who spirited him away to the Isle of Avalon, where she used her magic to save his life.
Sometimes described as a goddess, Morgan seems to be a composite character derived from various Celtic myths and deities. In Welsh folklore, she was related to lake fairies who seduce and then abandon human lovers; in Irish folklore, she lived in a fairy mound from which she flew out in hideous guises to frighten people. In English and Scottish lore, morgan lived either on Avalon or in various castles, including one near Edinburgh that was inhabited by a bevy of wicked fairies. She also is related to the mermaids of the Breton coast, called morganes, mari morgan or morgan, who enchanted sailors. Depending on the story, the sailor either went to their deaths or were transported to a blissful underwater paradise. In Italy, mirages over the Straits of messina are still called the Fata morganas.
Morgan was sometimes portrayed as an evil hAg or crone, as in the stories of Sir Lancelot and the Lake and Gawain and the Green Knight. She is not, however, the “Lady of the Lake” in the Arthurian legend by that name. morgan was said to have a prodigious sexual appetite and was constantly capturing knights to satisfy her desires.
- Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. New York: Pantheon, 1976.
Morgan le Fay One of the sorceress queens central to the legends of King Arthur. She is the daughter of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, and his duchess Igraine. Morgan le Fay is either the sister to the witches Morgause and Elaine or their niece. She is Arthur’s half-sister and sometimes is described as a mistress to the wizard MERLIN. Morgan le Fey means “Morgan the Fairy.” She is also known as Morgaine, Modron, Morgian, Morgan le Fee, and Fata Morgana.
Sometimes described as a goddess, Morgan probably is a composite character derived from various Celtic myths and deities. In Welsh folklore, she is related to lake Fairies who seduce and then abandon human lovers; in Irish folklore, she lived in a fairy mound from which she flew out in hideous guises to frighten people. In English and Scottish lore, Morgan lived either on Avalon or in various castles, including one near Edinburgh that was inhabited by a bevy of wicked fairies. She also is related to the mermaids of the Breton coast, called Morganes, Mari Morgan, and Morgan who enchanted sailors. Depending on the story, the sailors either went to their deaths or were transported to a blissful underwater paradise. In Italy, mirages over the Straits of Messina are still called the Fata Morganas.
Morgan possesses the art of magic herbal healing and ENCHANTMENTS. According to Malory, she learned her arts in a nunnery.
Sexual betrayal lies at the bottom of the Arthurian tales, begun by the murder of Gorlois by Uther Pendragon, High-King of the Britons. Pendragon seduces Igraine, Gorlois’ widow, and their union produces Arthur. Merlin raises the boy in secret, and his royal lineage remains a mystery until he pulls the sword from the stone, thereby identifying himself as Uther’s heir. Morgan le Fay, swearing to avenge her father, bewitches Arthur and sleeps with him. Their son Mordred, born of incest and seething with hatred and ambition, brings about the destruction of Camelot and the deaths of both himself and the king. Morgan le Fay plots against Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, as well, in return for Guinevere’s interference in an affair between Morgan and the queen’s cousin Guiomar.
Sometimes portrayed as a pagan healer, Morgan le Fay is most often depicted as a wicked enchantress and shapechanger who is well versed in Merlin’s magical arts and is intent on sowing discord and chaos. She steals Arthur’s magic sword, EXCALIBUR, and gives it to her lover, Sir Accolon of Gaul, son of her husband King Uriens. Accolon nearly kills Arthur in battle, but VIVIANE, the Lady of the Lake, returns Excalibur to Arthur just in time. Furious at the failure of her plans, Morgan le Fay throws the scabbard into the lake.
After years of intrigue and conflict, Arthur and Morgan apparently reconcile not long before the fatal Battle of Camlann against Mordred. Morgan le Fay, joined by the queens of Northgalis (North Wales) and the Wastelands, carry the dying Arthur to Avalon (also known as Appleland, or the Fortunate Isle or Isle of Apples), from where medieval listeners of the legends hoped that the king would someday return and reunite his people.
Later authors of the Arthurian legends have rebuked Morgan le Fay’s wicked reputation and embraced her role as a priestess of the pagan Celtic Goddess. Worship of the Mother Goddess, known as Modron (one of Morgan’s names) or as the Irish Morrighan, coexisted with the new Christian faith. Monks who recorded the Arthurian cycles painted Morgan as badly as possible, labeling her powers as a healer and leader of her people as blasphemous and diabolical.
Morgan was sometimes portrayed as an evil, old hag or crone, as in the stories of Sir Lancelot and the lake and in Gawain and the Green Knight. She is not the “Lady of the Lake” in the Arthurian legend by that name. Morgan was said to have a prodigious sexual appetite and was constantly capturing knights to satisfy her desires.
She may not have engaged in incest, either. T. H. White, in his novel The Once and Future King, makes Morgause the seducer, bewitching Arthur with a spancel: a long unbroken ribbon of human skin, carefully taken from around an entire body. To cast the Spell, the spancel is tossed over the sleeping beloved and tied into a bow without waking him; if the intended awakes, he will die within a year. But in the novel The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Morgaine (Morgan) unknowingly sleeps with Arthur as part of the fertility rites of the Beltane festival (May 1).
Morgan le Fay was a popular subject for medieval and Romantic artists, who often showed her in a small boat carrying Arthur to Avalon, as an enchantress casting a spell, or as a beautiful lover. Her hair is either dark or auburn in accordance with her Celtic heritage.
- Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Knopf, 1983.
- “Morgan Le Fay.” Arthurian Biographies: Ambrosius Aurelianus. Available online. URL: www.britannia.com/ history/biographies/morgan.html. Downloaded October 17, 2004.
- “Morgan le Fay: Based on Ancient Myth.” Available online. URL: www.mythicalrealm.com/legends/morgan_le_fay. html. Downloaded October 17, 2004.
- “Morgan le Fay.” The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Available online. URL: www.lib.rochester. edu/camelot/morgmenu.htm. Downloaded October 17, 2004.
- “Morgan le Fay.” Other Characters in Arthurian Legend. Available online. URL: www.kingarthursknights.com/ others/morganlefay.asp. Downloaded October 17, 2004.
- White, T. H. The Once and Future King. New York: Berkeley Medallion Books, 1966.
Back to Arthurian Legend
Back to Tales and Legends