The Vita Merlini is a Latin poem written around 1150, probably by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This poem has, among other things, one of the earliest mentions of Morgan le Fay and Avalon. She is not Arthur's sister, but an otherworldly healer who carries him away after his death. She is one of nine sisters.
The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores. And men say that she has taught mathematics to her sisters, Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.
In the Vita, Avalon (or at least, "The Fortunate Island") is an otherworldly paradise ruled by women. A similar concept is the Land of Women in the 8th-century Irish narrative "The Voyage of Bran." It is also an otherworldly island populated by immortal maidens. Then there's the 12th-century German "Lanzelet," where Lancelot is raised by the queen of the sea-fairies on the island of Meidelant, which is otherwise populated only by women.
Morgen is the most important here, with her sisters only footnotes. Variants of Morgan's name appear all over the place, but its origins are too ancient to truly determine. She is often closely associated with water. The Vita calls her and her sisters "nymphae." Morgan is called "dea quadam fantastica" by Giraldus Cambrensis, "Morgne the goddes' in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and 'Morgain la deesse' in the Prose Lancelot. Morgen is the oldest recorded form of Morgan's name. John Rhys theorized that it meant "sea-born," from Morigenos. A similar name is Muirgen, given to a mermaid in Irish myth. It's also been proposed that Morgan derives from the Welsh mother goddess Modron. Modron is the daughter of Afallach, a name closely related to Avalon.
But back to her eight sisters. The list in Vita Merlini, as a whole, has a Greek look. One writer, David Dom (King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table, 2013) makes a heroic attempt to connect each name to a Celtic goddess, but by the end even he is left pulling Greek goddesses instead of Irish or Welsh.
There's a clear correspondence to the nine Muses of Greek myth. Morgen is a muse of medicine and science, while the last sister is associated with the cither, a musical instrument.
There's also a group of nine women associated with the French Ile de Sein, according to De Chorographia by Pomponius Mela (d. AD 45).
"Sena, in the Britannic Sea, opposite the coast of the Osismi, is famous for its oracle of a Gaulish god, whose priestesses, living in the holiness of perpetual virginity, are said to be nine in number. They call them Gallizenae, and they believe them to be endowed with extraordinary gifts to rouse the sea and the wind by their incantations, to turn themselves into whatsoever animal form they may choose, to cure diseases which among others are incurable, to know what is to come and to foretell it. They are, however; devoted to the service of voyagers only who have set out on no other errand than to consult them."
The Gallizenae are pretty much identical to Morgen and her sisters. I would venture to say that the author of the Vita Merlini was inspired by both the Gallizenae and the Muses.
The concept of nine maidens recurs throughout world mythology - for instance, Rán, Norse goddess of the sea, had nine daughters. It also crops up frequently in Arthurian legend. In the Welsh poem "Pa Gur yv y Porthur," Cei (Kay) is mentioned as having killed nine witches (the number nine is repeated frequently in this poem). Nine maidens living on the island otherworld of Annwfn use their breath to kindle a magic cauldron in The Spoils of Annwn. (It's been suggested that these two groups are the same.) And in Peredur, the hero kills the nine sorcerous Hags of Gloucester. Those are all villainous examples, though, while Morgen's sisters in Vita Merlini are benevolent.
Of the nine names, there are three clear groups: the M names, G names and T names.
Morgen, Moronoe, Mazoe.
Only Morgen's name is familiar. The others may be original creations, although plenty of scholars have looked for connections to other mythological characters. There are plenty of Celtic goddesses with M names, like Morrigan and Macha.
A sister of Morgan named Marsion or Marrion appears in the 13th-century La Bataille de Loquifer. They are accompanied by an attendant, making this yet another trio. "Dame Marse" is one of the fays alongside Morgain, Sebile, and Dame Oriande in the Chanson D'Esclarmonde, also 13th century, a continuation of Huon de Bordeaux. In the post-Vulgate Suite de Merlin, a beautiful fay named Marsique obtains Excalibur's scabbard for Gawain.
Each one seems to be a single one-off mention. I may be playing phonological games here; there might not be any connection between Marsion, Marse and Marsique, let alone a connection to Moronoe or Mazoe. However, the similarities are intriguing. Marsique is the most interesting to me. Since the scabbard was last seen when Morgan lobbed it into a lake, this could imply a connection between Marsique, the lake, and Morgan. We also know that she helps Gawain fight a sorcerer named either Naborn or Mabon. In the Mabinogion, Mabon is also the name of a son of Modron, the Welsh goddess who may be a proto-Morgan.
This is similar to Esmeree the Blonde, a Welsh princess and lover of Gawain's son Guinglain. A sorcerer named Mabon turned her into a serpent when she wouldn't marry him, and she was only freed through Guinglain's kiss. Meanwhile, in an Italian romance, Gawain's otherworldly lover is the Pulzella Gaia (Merry Maiden), the daughter of Morgan. The Merry Maiden can take snake form apparently at will, and later in the story Morgan imprisons her and turns her into a mermaid.
So there are stories where Gawain (or his son) fights for a fairy maiden who gives him magical aid, and who is associated with water, serpents, and Morgan le Fay.
I found one French reference to a mountain named "Marse" or "Marsique." Pope St. Gregory's Dialogues. A story is related of the monk Marcius of the mountain of Marsico. Marsico could be Monte Marsicano - there are two Italian mountains by this name.
Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton
This is where it really begins to seem likely that the writer is making up names as he goes along. Lucy Allen Paton writes, "The necessity of naming her eight sisters is apparently embarrassing to the poet; he economizes by ringing three changes on one name . . . and his ingenuity deserts him completely before he reaches the eighth." However, Paton also suggests that the G could be a C, and that this is a reference to the Greek nymph Clytie, daughter of Oceanus. This theory has no real evidence.
A 1973 edition of the Life of Merlin suggested a connection to Cliodhna, an Irish goddess. In various myths, she was carried away by a wave, leading to the common phrase "Clíodhna's Wave" and inviting an association with water nymphs. In the 12th-century narrative "Acallam Na Senórach," she is a mortal woman and one of three sisters.
Tyronoe, Thitis, and Thitis best known for her cither.
Tyronoe's resemblance to Moronoe increases the rhythmic quality of the names. There is a princess named Tyro in Greek mythology.
Weirdly, depending on translation, two sisters are either named Thiten and Thiton, or they're both Thitis, only distinguished by one's musical hobby. Thiten could be Thetis, a Greek goddess of water. Combined with Morgen and Clytie, this gives us a theme of goddesses connected to water. A connection to the Greek goddess Thetis seems very possible. There was also a Greek goddess Tethys, and both were tied to water. In a 13th-century German romance, Jüngere Titurel, 'Tetis' operates as a sorceress.
Interestingly, if you go back to the "Acallam Na Senórach" for a minute, Cliodnha drowns at the Shore of Téite. This place got its name because of a previous drowning, that of a woman named Téite Brecc and her companions. However, this may be grasping at straws.
The reference to "cither" remains mysterious. It's unclear what was meant, although it might be a guitar or a Welsh harp like a zither. (Both derive from the Greek word "cithara."
Morgen/Morgan's sisters haven't appeared in other material. This is the only source that makes her one of nine siblings. However, it is very common for her to appear as one third of a trio. The number three was sacred in Celtic culture and some gods or goddesses appeared in triads. For instance, the Morrígan, an Irish example with a very similar name, was sometimes described as a trio with the names Badb, Macha and Nemain. The Matronae, or Mothers (similar to Modron the mother goddess) appeared in threes and were venerated from the 1st to 5th centuries.
In Thomas Malory, Morgan le Fay completes a trio with her sisters Elaine and Margawse. They are the daughters of Gorlois and Igraine, and half-sisters to Arthur. Malory's Morgan seems to enjoy traveling in a group. She shows up at various times with companions like the Queen of Northgales, the Queen of Eastland, the Queen of the Out Isles, and the Queen of the Wasteland, all evidently sorceresses like herself.
In Li Jus Adan or Le jeu de la Feuillee (c. 1262), Morgan appears with two attendants, Maglore and Arsile, eating at a table which was put out for the fairies. Morgain and Arsile bestow blessings on their hosts, but Maglore, like the fairy in Sleeping Beauty, gets angry that no knife was put at her place and declares ill luck on the men who set the table.
In L'Amadigi, an epic poem written by Bernado Tasso in 1560, Fata Morgana has three daughters: Morganetta, Nivetta and Carvilia. Morganetta is a dimunitive of Morgan, so here we've got Morgan again as part of a trio. If I'm understanding it correctly, Morganetta and Nivetta are the only ones who play a real role (tempting the heroes sexually), but the author still chose to round them out to three.
So it seems that Morgan le Fay has a lot in common with the three Fates of Greek mythology. She appears with two sisters or attendants. Making her the head of nine sisters cubes that.
This is a weird and obscure tale, and one of my favorites. It appeared in Andrew Lang's Yellow Fairy Book in 1889, adapted from a tale of the Armenian people living in Transylvania and Bukovina. (Bukovina is a Central European region, which was once part of Moldavia and is now divided between Romania and Ukraine.)
In the story, a childless woman accidentally swallows an icicle, and gives birth to a little girl "as white as snow and as cold as ice," who can't bear any kind of heat. Then the same woman is struck by a flying spark from their fireplace, and gives birth to a boy "as red as fire, and as hot to touch." This is part of the widespread motif of pregnancy beginning with eating.
The siblings avoid each other as they grow up, since they can't bear each other's temperatures. But when their parents die, they decide to go out into the world. They wear thick fur coats so that they won't hurt each other, and they're very happy together.
Eventually, the Snow-daughter meets a king who falls in love with her and makes her his wife. He builds her a house of ice, and makes her brother a house surrounded by furnaces, so that they can both be comfortable.
One day, the king holds a feast. When the Fire-son arrives, he has now grown so hot that no one can bear to be in the same room as him. This is, as you might expect, kind of a mood-killer. The party is totally ruined. The king yells at the Fire-son, who responds by going full-on supervillain and incinerating him. The now-widowed Snow-daughter attacks the Fire-son. The siblings have a battle "the like of which had never been seen on earth," and which is left up to the reader's imagination. However, at its conclusion, the Snow-daughter melts like the icicle she came from, and the Fire-son burns out like a spark, leaving only cinders. And that's it.
I think it's interesting that snow is feminine here and fire masculine. This also not the only story about snow-related children. It's similar to the Russian "Snegurochka" (also known as "Snegurka" or "Snowflake"). There, a childless couple makes a snow sculpture which turns into a little girl. When she tries to play a game jumping over a fire, she melts away into mist.
This tale type, "The Snow Maiden" or Aarne-Thompson 703, has the moral that you can't escape your nature. The Snow Daughter and the Fire Son varies in that the fire is actually the snow-child's sibling.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.