The following article is based on my dissertation, which I did fifteen years ago now. As such there is plenty I could add, or would want to change now if I had the resources to hand. At the time of writing there was a strict word limit to stick to, so there are some parts that I haven’t been able to address completely, and plenty of things that I wasn’t able to address at all. Even so, it still may be of interest.
Given the length, I’ve had to split the dissertation into three parts. These cover:
- Introduction and background
- The divine Dagda: a general view
- The chieftain and fertility god
- The Otherworld
What we know of the Dagda comes primarily from the roles he plays in the Irish mythological tales and folklore that have survived through time. He appears in Irish mythology as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, sometimes its chieftain, and sometimes a senior or peripheral figure.
The Dagda is a complex character – a magician and sorcerer, a chieftain, a warrior, a musician, a builder of the brughs and síd of Ireland, prolific lover and sometimes something of a buffoon who gets taken advantage of. Perhaps most memorable of all, he is known to his kin and his enemies alike for his legendary love of porridge. In literary terms he can be seen as being (at least partly) a divine being, as well as a well-loved figure of Irish mythology and pseudo-history.
The earliest manuscripts of the tales which we have now are predominantly no earlier than the eleventh century, but the tales themselves – based on linguistic evidence – can often be seen to be much older in origin.1 Even in the infancy of Christianity in Ireland, clerics and scribes displayed an enthusiasm for the tales of their pagan past and from as early as the seventh century pre-Christian tales were being written down.2 These scribes were not only interested in their own indigenous lore, but also imported learning from the Bible, the apocrypha and famous Classical and Jewish writers. All this the scribes attempted to fuse together, to find a framework to fit both the old and new teachings into a cohesive body of literature – an effort that sometimes resulted in “exotic or indeed unorthodox results.”3
Therefore the tales and the mythology contained therein are not solely pre-Christian in origin, but a mixture of pre-Christian, Christian and even Classical ideals, with a good few glosses and misinterpretations thrown in. In studying the tales it should therefore be remembered that elements that may seem inherently Irish or pagan may not necessarily be so. In short, the tales do not exist in undiluted form, and therefore we cannot always confidently extract the pagan elements from the Christian elements. It is therefore unwise to make too many complex interpretations from the material that we have and assume that they are hard fact, and this should be borne in mind when studying such literature.4
With this in mind, let us now look briefly at the literature that we will be dealing with. The Lebar Gabála, or “Book of Taking”, is an eleventh century text,5 but earlier versions of some of its elements exist in the ninth century Historia Brittonum, written in Wales, which was later translated into a Gaelic version. It is interesting that certain elements of the tale from the Historia Brittonum, including the Tuatha Dé Danann, are missing,6 perhaps suggesting that the Tuatha Dé Danann were either deliberately omitted from this version – or had not been added into the overall framework yet.
The text describes a series of invasions by mythical beings to Ireland, and is partly a compilation of pre-Christian mythology, and partly an attempt by Christian scholars to give a recognisably Irish origin legend, set firmly within a Christian framework. This effort probably has something to do with the fact that during the tenth and eleventh centuries tremendous changes were taking place in the Irish church.7 In such a time of change it is no wonder that there was a desire to preserve something of their heritage, which as I have stated, they had a great interest in. The perfect solution, therefore, was to apply the old lore to a Christian framework based on the Book of Genesis, thus creating an Irish pseudo-history.8
One of these groups of invaders within the Lebar Gabála is the Tuatha Dé Danann, of which the Dagda was a leading figure. The Tuatha Dé Danann are portrayed as a group of invaders into Ireland, who struggled and defeated the Fir Bolg, and then the Fomoire, finally being themselves defeated by the Sons of Míl, who became the ancestors of the Medieval Irish. But also, the Tuatha Dé Danann form a large part of the euhemerised deities of pre-Christian Ireland, “reduced to the level of mortal men”9 in order to fit within the pseudo-historical Christian framework of the Lebar Gabála itself. This was only natural in a time when Christianity was keen to exert its authority of a recognisably Christian land.10 Myth was transmuted into pseudo-history, and the gods were made into ancestors to those medieval Irish people who wished to associate themselves with powerful figures of their heritage.11
While the contents of the Lebar Gabála may show largely the “original” content of the mythology it is based on, it is difficult to determine how much has been changed, misunderstood, Christianised or romanticised, and made to fit within the pseudo-historical framework. But this does not mean that the Lebar Gabála is without value or mythological importance,12 as the consistency of the genealogies used within the Lebar Gabála, compared to the Dinnshenchas, for example, show that some elements at least were preserved consistently.
Perhaps the richest source of mythological information concerning the Dagda, and the Tuatha Dé Danann in general, is the tale Cath Maige Tuired, or “The Battle of Mag Tuired”, commonly called “The Second Battle of Mag Tuired” to distinguish it from the probably later “First Battle of Mag Tuired.” Cath Maige Tuired is found in a relatively late manuscript of the sixteenth century, but elements – based on linguistic analysis – appear to be from the ninth century at the earliest.13 Much of the beginning of the tale has been derived from the Lebar Gabála, presumably inserted by the redactor to place the tale within the larger context of the Mythological Cycle.14 Cath Maige Tuired, set against the battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the eternal enemy of the Mythological Cycle, the Fomoire – fo, “under”, morii, “sea”, “the undersea dwellers”,15 is probably earlier than the First Battle, as the First Battle is the only tale of the two to distinguish the order in which it was fought, implying the Cath Maige Tuired was well known enough to need no distinction.
In addition to the myths, there is the body of folklore known as the Dinnshenchas that is relevant to the Dagda and the Tuatha Dé Danann as a whole. As Sjoestedt puts it, the “Leabhar Gabhála is the mythological pre-history of the country and the Dinnshenchas is its mythological geography.”16 The Dinnshenchas is twelfth century in origin, and is a massive collection of onomastic lore explaining the origin of place-names in mythological – not necessarily true – terms.17 Dealing more with folklore than mythology, it sets the Tuatha Dé Danann, saints of Ireland and historical people within a somewhat mystical landscape, where they all co-exist. Outside of the Mythological Cycle, where the Tuatha Dé Danann are seen as rulers of Ireland, they are believed to have retreated underground to become the aes síde, or fairyfolk of Ireland,18 after losing their supremacy of Ireland to the Sons of Míl. It is in this context that the Dinnshenchas mainly deals with the Dagda, as a member of the síde, resident of the Otherworld.
It should be remembered that the Dagda is a complex figure, who has evolved throughout history – from his pagan inception, his Christian recording and re-recording, and our modern interpretations. He exists in many layers, and it is impossible to separate these layers to get down to the “real Dagda”, if there ever was one. From his appearances in mythology, recorded in Christian times, we can perhaps infer some of the Dagda’s divine functions as a god. What attributes he developed before or after Christianity is more difficult to guess, but any later accretions make up just as much of the “real Dagda” as the earliest ones do – from a god, to a mythological figure, and a member of the aes síde.
The Dagda is “the Good God” – not for any moral sense of the word “good”, but in that he is skilled at many things.19 But this is not the only name, or title, that the Dagda is known by. Cath Maige Tuired tells us how the Dagda was given his best known title: On asking all the skilled men of Ireland what they can do to help the Tuatha Dé Danann’s cause against the Fomoire, Nuadu finally turns to the Dagda, and asks what he will contribute. The Dagda replies “’The power which you boast, I will wield it all myself.’ ‘You are the Dagda [the Good God],’ said everyone; and ‘Dagda’ stuck to him from that time on.”20 In other words, the Dagda will carry out all that the skilled men of Ireland have pledged to do, himself.
He is also known as In Ruad Rofhessa “The Red One of Great Knowledge,” or “The Lord of Perfect Knowledge,”21 “for it is he that had the perfection of heathen sciences”22 – as the episode from Cath Maige Tuired illustrated above shows. It has been suggested by Daithi O’Hogain that the reference to the colour red refers to the Dagda’s associations as a solar deity; however Ó Crualaoich notes that the colour red is generally associated with Otherworldly beings and so here it might be assumed that the attribute refers to the origin of the Dagda’s knowledge, which would be in keeping with his Otherworldly associations (as builder of the brughs as well as his powers over life and death – with his club – and his power to give unlimited sustenance with his cauldron).
Eochaid Ollathair – “Eochaid the Great Father”, or “Great Father” (Eochaid derives from ech, meaning “horse”, which may be some sort of reference to the Dagda’s kingly attributes) is another.23
These are just two epithets by which the Dagda is called, which occur frequently within the tales he is mentioned in – such as Lebar Gabála and The Wooing of Etain,24 but rarely is the Dagda referred to by an epithet without being identified as the Dagda as well. It should be remembered, however, that technically all these names the Dagda possesses are titles, rather than actual cognomens, as it were.
In Cath Maige Tuired, the Dagda reveals his full name, or at least so it seems, in the episode where he seduces Indech’s daughter – an episode that will be studied in more detail later. With his belly full of porridge, the Dagda is berated by the daughter of Indech, his enemy, for a lift on his back. Under geis, a religious prohibition, the Dagda is not permitted to give anyone a lift until they ask him formally by his full name, and so he reveals it to Indech’s daughter, bit by bit, while taking the opportunity to relieve himself of his huge dinner as he does so.25 His name is revealed as “Fer Benn Bruach Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Tri Carboid Roth Rimaire Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe,”26 and its meaning has not yet been fully translated by modern scholars, so obscure that some of his names are. Those epithets that can be translated appear to reflect “both his immediate condition [i.e. heavily bloated] and enduring aspects of his character. Oldathair… is found elsewhere, but the other names seem to describe his distended person, his soiled state, and his on-going association with creation and regeneration.”27 So here, his name appears to reflect both his nature, and the result of that nature: the predicament he is in at that time – both productive, virile and fertile, progenitor of abundance. Whether this is the Dagda’s “true” name is doubtful, because although long, it is not seen in any form (apart from Oldathair) elsewhere. It is perhaps more illustrative of his character for this episode, rather than a popular title by which he was commonly known in pre-history or later.
Through the titles given to him, the Dagda is seen to be a skilled, wise, and paternal leader. Great Father; a possessor of great knowledge and wisdom; skilled at many things. These can be seen reflected in his actions, but also in the objects, people and places he is associated with as well.
What made a king? It cannot be ignored within mythology that there are other, more obvious divine chieftains – Bres, Nuadu and Lug, for example. While all are chieftains of some sort, it is interesting to note that each chief/king bears different qualities in their role. In Irish society a king was required to bear certain qualities: generosity, wisdom, good judgment, virility, and military prowess to name but a few.28 Most of all, a king had to be physically perfect, as the king was inextricably linked with the land he ruled over. He was the living representation of the land, and at the same time, in effect, married to the land. If the king was imperfect, this would be reflected in the land – crops would fail, pestilence would cause suffering amongst people and animals, and ultimately the king would fall.29 It was for this reason that Nuadu, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann had to give up his kingship in Cath Maige Tuired, as he lost his arm during battle. Similarly, it was because of Nuadu’s successor, Bres’ lack of generosity and inability to give true judgement, that he lost his kingship.30
This idea of sacral kingship is often portrayed in mythology. The king, acting as mediator between his people, and the gods – the social and divine – does so in accordance with a contractual agreement between his people, and he may lose his position if he does not fulfil certain obligations of his kingship – like if he is not a successful military man, for example.31 To a great extent, mythology will be illustrative of such sacral kingship, particularly when things go wrong, as so many tales attest – like the Táin Bó Cúailnge.
As a chieftain, we can see that the Dagda embodies wisdom (particularly with his epithet In Ruad Rofhessa), hospitality and generosity – almost the direct opposite of Bres, through his actions in mythology. Yet he is also, in a sense, a paradoxical figure as it is often the result of his son Oengus’s help that the Dagda manages to extricate himself from many a sticky situation.
Georges Dumézil, in studying Indo-European ideology, identified a tripartite system associated with sovereign power. Firstly, there was a need for sacred or magical knowledge. Secondly, there was a need for physical, especially martial force, and the third group was dominated by concepts of fertility and abundance. We can see that the Dagda possesses all three of these attributes – the Good God, he is skilled at everything, particularly magic, and he is wise as well; with his club, he demonstrates martial prowess; with his cauldron and trysts with women and goddesses, he demonstrates virility and abundance.32 In a greater context, the other treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann also represent this tripartition – Lug’s spear and Nuadu’s sword representing the martial power; and the “Stone of Fál” which served as the seat of sovereignty represents the first category.33 Like Lug, the Dagda possesses all three attributes, but it is not until later in tradition that the Dagda becomes king. This is possibly because of the emphasis in Cath Maige Tuired on the Dagda’s attribute of hospitality and generosity, which often gets him into difficult situations within this tale. It is also perhaps because of the Dagda’s slightly grotesque, less polished portrayal, that means the kingship passes to Lug, who is consistently portrayed in a chieftainly manner, who is more refined and handsome in his manner, possessing all three functions throughout.34
While the Dagda is likely to be a chieftain god, his other attributes of fertility, associations with the Otherworld and life and death are all mutually complimentary to each other. For example, while his cauldron and club are complimentary to his chieftain role, they could also been seen as an aspect of a fertility role – which in itself will fulfil the third aspect of sovereign power. The cauldron never let anyone walk away unsatisfied, thus indicating that the Dagda was able to provide for his people as well as protect them. The Dagda’s magic cauldron also bears close relationship with the Otherworld, the source of all wisdom, especially that of occult wisdom – something for which the Tuatha Dé Danann as a whole were famed for.35 In his brugh, with his cauldron of plenty, he is “Lord of the Otherworld Feast”, as well as In Ruad Rofhessa.36 An interesting comparison could be made here with Welsh mythology, the tales of Branwen daughter of Llyr and Manawydan son of Llyr from the Mabinogion. In the tale of Branwen there is the cauldron of rebirth, into which the dead were cast and they would be revived by the morning37 – the motif of plenty, food giving life, is taken one step further – again reinforcing the link between cauldrons and the Otherworld. With more overt Otherworldly connections, there is the bowl to which Pryderi and Rhiannon cling, and disappear with.38
Added to this, the Dagda’s associations with the cauldron of abundance also neatly ties in with his role as a virile god, who mates with goddesses and women alike, and has many children besides. Miranda Green notes that many goddesses are associated with vessels or vats, as well as water,39 and if we think of the Dagda’s union with Boann, river-goddess and personification of the river Boyne, to whom she gives its name, we see a neat symmetry.
It is in his mastery of the cauldron and abundance that the Dagda probably has the power over the crops during the dispute between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Sons of Míl after the Tuatha were defeated.40 We are told in a tale from the Book of Leinster that:
“Great was the power of the Dagda… over the sons of Mile, even after the conquest of Ireland; for his subjects destroyed their corn and milk, so that they must needs make a treaty of peace with the Dagda. Not until then, and thanks to his good-will, were they able to harvest corn and drink the milk of their cows…”.41
This is a common motif found in mythology, perhaps signifying a god’s displeasure at their neglect. In “making friends”, the Dagda is appeased and lets the Sons of Míl alone.42
The archaeological record and comparison with other mythological figures compound that the cauldron is a symbol of the Dagda’s divine function as well. Both Cerridwen and Manannán mac Lir are reputed to possess cauldrons, with similar functions, and let us not forget the cauldron from the Mabinogion. During the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, cauldrons proliferate throughout the Celtic countries, many of them ornate. The ornately decorated Gundestrup Cauldron, for example, depicting ritualistic scenes, suggests that cauldrons were of important ritualistic value, perhaps as the centrepiece of a ritual feast celebrating abundance.43
Feasting was certainly a central part of early Irish society, as many tales – like Mac Da Tho’s Pig – attest, and so the cauldron became a focus of abundance, and as the centrepiece of a feast, a symbol of hospitality as well, which the Dagda is undoubtedly associated with. It is perhaps the Dagda’s inextricable association with hospitality and abundance that he gets into the stickiest situations, but also his most triumphant victories. But more than anything, it is the Dagda’s roles as chieftain and fertility god that underpins his actions in almost every tale.
As has been seen, the Dagda’s divine attributes compliment each other greatly: As a chieftain, he must provide for his people and therefore be virile and associated with fertility. The Dagda’s cauldron of plenty is key to this provision, as no one ever walked away from it unsatisfied. But also, we can see that the cauldron links the Dagda to the Otherworld as well – the paradise land of permanent plenty, where no one goes without, or suffers.44 The Dagda must also be wise, and traditionally, the source of wisdom was the Otherworld, particularly that of occult wisdom,45 which the Dagda is certainly master of – for example, The First Battle of Moytura tells us that the Tuatha Dé Danann “…had a god of wizardry of their own, Eochaid Ollathir, called the Great Dagda, for he was an excellent god..”46
Associated with the Dagda’s wizardry and wisdom, as well as the Otherworld, is the Dagda’s club. The Dagda’s club appears frequently with him in literature, and mainly it is used as a weapon, such as in The Intoxication of the Ulaid. Here it is described as being:
“…a dreadful iron club, one end violent, the other mild. This is his game and his feat: he lays the violent end across the heads of the nine men so that they die in an instant; then he lays the gentle end across them so that they are brought back to life in an instant.”47
This is one of the only instances in which these properties of the Dagda’s club are outlined. In Cath Maige Tuired, it is described as being “a wheeled fork which was the work of eight men to move, and its track was enough for the boundary ditch of a province.”48 There is only one other episode that describes the Dagda’s club as having the same death dealing and life giving properties as described above. This is in a tale from the Yellow Book of Lecan and has been translated by Osborn Bergin.49 The tale appears to be quite late, from its many obvious Christian overtones, but it tells the story of how the Dagda got the staff from three men whilst travelling in the “great eastern world”50 after the death of his son Cermait Milbél at the hands of Lug, the reasons of which being covered in the Dinnshenchas.51 The Dagda borrows the staff to bring his son back to life, and then bargains with them to allow him to take it back with him to Ireland, which the men reluctantly agree to.52 There is no mention of the Dagda ever giving it back, and it certainly seems to be his thereafter, as it is by the Dagda’s appearance and club that Cú Ruí recognised him.53
With such a magical club, the Otherworldy overtones are obviously apparent, but it is perhaps further compounded by its life giving and taking properties with which it is associated. Like his cauldron there are both Otherworldly and fertile overtones to his club – not only does the Dagda have the source and control of great abundance, he has the control over life and death as well. Another fertile connection can be made when we consider that perhaps in the episode where the Dagda is greatly encumbered with porridge and he is making a trackway along the road as he drags his club, which was thereafter known as “The Track of the Dagda’s Club”, he is also described as wearing an indecently short tunic, and his penis is uncovered. Perhaps what we are seeing here is:
“…the Dagda’s member may be exposed not only because the clothes are excessively short, but also because it is excessively long. Perhaps the “Dagda’s Club” leaving the track is not his attribute, but the club most intimately connected with him.”54
And why not? After all, both of the Dagda’s “attributes” apparently have life giving properties.
But the Dagda’s connections with the Otherworld are more intimate than his associations with the club, the cauldron of plenty and the Otherworld as a place of plenty, and the Dagda being wise, the source of which is from the Otherworld: It is the Dagda who built the brughs – dwellings of the Otherworld – and distributed them among his people, with the help of his three son Oengus, Aed and Cermait Caem, as we are told in the Lebar Gabála,55 after they were defeated by the Sons of Míl and it was decided by the poet Amairgen to split Ireland so that the one half that was underground was given to the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the rest to the Sons of Míl.56
As Otherworld beings, they lived in the brughs, or síd mounds, built by the Dagda, or else beneath lakes, the sea or on islands off the coast,57 and these features in the landscape were seen as entrances to the Otherworld, as well as exits into this world for the inhabitants. It can be seen that each brugh is commonly associated with specific people, in a highly localised landscape: Bri Leith, for example, is the home of the Dagda’s son Midir, whereas Bodb resides at Síd al Femen in Co. Tipperary.58 The Dagda himself kept Brugh na Boinne, now identified with Newgrange, a neolithic burial chamber, but it was tricked out of his possession by Oengus, his son, in a story that will be discussed in the next chapter.59 Before being usurped of his dwelling, the Dagda’s brugh was described as being “Wonderful then, is that land. Three trees with fruit are there always and a pig perpetually alive, and a roasted swine and a vessel with marvellous liquor and never do they all decease,”60 and so once again we can see the aspects of the Otherworld and plenty being reinforced. The Otherworld, in many respects is an ideal, where there is no hardship or famine – an important concept to a pastoral society, one could say. Note also, from the introduction, that such places in the landscape – either rivers, wells, hills or mounds were often associated with divinities, or were considered sacred places.
With the retreat of the Tuatha Dé Danann underground, into the brughs kindly built by the Dagda and his sons, the Tuatha Dé Danann become identified more as the aes síde, or fairy-folk, than former gods and chiefs of Ireland.61 The term síd can be defined as being an “Otherworld hill or mound”, but also “peace,”62 and refers to the fact that peace was a condition of the Otherworld, as is stated in the tale Echtrae Conli, for example, but also that peace was a sign of a legitimate king.63 Kingship was intimately linked with the Otherworld, and in Ireland a new king was often inaugurated on a hill or mound associated with the síde to demonstrate their legitimacy.64 A common motif in tales is the aes síde’s involvement with exposing an unjust king. In Cath Maige Mucrama, for example, Ailill sleeps one night on a síd mound to find it barren all around him the next morning. The motif of barrenness is a common indicator of an illegal king, and the point is further reinforced when Ailill’s ear is stripped of its skin by a síd woman, thus blemishing him.65
So we can see that the Dagda’s associations with the Otherworld, and his role as a chieftain are intimately related, in mythology as well as religion. Traditionally, the neolithic tumulus at Newgrange is identified as being the prehistoric burial place of the kings of Tara,66 but it is also said to be the resting place of the Dagda and three of his sons.67 Could this be a coincidence, or deliberate association? This would not be the first time that the Dagda is associated, one can only assume deliberately, with the more historical rulers of Ireland, a theme which will be returned to with the Dinnshenchas.
Go to Part Two –>
1 MacCulloch, 1918, 19
2 Carey, 1998, 10
3 Carey, 1998, 10
4 McCone, 1990, p54
5 Carey, 1983, 18
6 Carey, 1994, 4
7 Carey, 1998, 15
8 Carey, 1994, 3
9 MacQuarrie, 1997, 171
10 MacCulloch, 1918, 5
11 MacCulloch, 1918, 18
12 MacQuarrie, 1997, 171
13 Carey, 1990, 53
14 Rees and Rees, 1961, 6
15 Beresford Ellis, 1998, 190
16 MacCana, 1970, 17
17 MacCana, 1970, 17
18 MacCulloch, 1918, 38
19 Sjoestedt, 1949, 38
20 Gray, 1982a, 45
21 O’ Donovan, 1868, 144
22 Sjoestedt, 1949, 39
23 Ross, 1967, 166
24 Carey, 1983, 288 and Gantz, 1981, 39
25 Gray, 1983, 49
26 Gray, 1982a, 49
27 Gray, 1982a, 100
28 McCone, 1990, 122
29 McCone, 1990, 89
30 Carey, 1990, 60
31 Jaski, 2000, 57
32 Gray, 1982b, 4
33 Littleton, 1966, 71
34 Gray, 1982b, 6
35 Jaski, 2000, 57
36 O’ Rahilly, 1946, 318
37 Jones and Jones, 1949, 31
38 Jones and Jones, 1949, 40
39 Green, 1986, 149
40 MacCana, 1970, 66
41 Squire, 1998, 136
42 MacCulloch, 1918, 72
43 Harbison, 1988, 138
44 MacCulloch, 1918, 18
45 O’ Rahilly, 1946, 318
46 Fraser, 1916, 17
47 Gantz, 1981, 206-207
48 Gray, 1982a, 47
49 Bergin, 1927, 402
50 Bergin, 1927, 404
51 Gwynn, 1924, 279
52 Bergin, 1927, 406
53 Gantz, 1981, 207
54 Epstein, 1994, 96
55 Carey, 1983, 288
56 Rees, 1961, 38
57 Carey, 1982-83, 39-41
58 O’ Kelly, 1982, 45
59 MacCulloch, 1918, 50
60 Ross, 1967, 318
61 Gantz, 1981, 7
62 O’ Cathasaigh, 1979, 137
63 O’ Cathasaigh, 1979, 139
64 O’ Cathasaigh, 1979, 148
65 Dillon, 1994, 78
66 Harbison, 1988, 73
67 O’ Kelly, 1967, 61