Part one of this article can be found here.
- Sources and cognates
- ‘Demotion,’ demonisation, and other options
- What’s in a name?
- All this history’s nice an’ all…
In part one we’ve seen from the early sources that some gods were explicitly called gods and do appear to have been gods (e.g. Brigit, Dian Cécht, Anu, the Dagda, and Neit); some were called gods and don’t appear to have been gods at all (or even part of Irish tradition, e.g. Bil); and some weren’t called gods as such, but considering the balance of evidence and the factors outlined above, do appear to have been gods in spite of the fact that nobody really wanted to see things in that way anymore (Manannán might be included here, since is said to have been made a god (implying the assignation was mistaken, or folly) along with the likes of Áine, and pretty much everyone else popularly seen as a deity because of their associations and not explicitly named as such, like Medb, Clíona, Cailleach Bhéarra, and so on…). We must also consider that in some cases the many qualities and motifs associated with the gods may have been later used for literary or political purpose. Over the years, for example, many literary figures came to be associated with the sovereignty of Ireland, and bore the traits and motifs that one would expect of a sovereignty goddess, such as Yeats’ Cathleen ní Houlihan.1 These figures are not gods, as such (in the pre-Christian sense), but still they bear the marks.
Confused? Having grappled with what to look for in a god, we’re now going to take a look at what the gods were called, collectively, so it’s probably only going to get worse…sorry.
Most people today know the gods of Ireland as the ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’, or something like it. They are seen as the Irish pantheon, fitting into a neat and tidy pigeonhole just like other cultures’ gods do. In reality, the picture isn’t so simple or coherent (and the same could probably be said for those other cultures as well)… The name is, ultimately, a slightly problematic label to our modern eyes and ears because it seems that they were never called that during pre-Christian times. That is to say: all evidence suggests that the term Tuatha Dé Danann was a later, medieval, addition to the thread that wove the gods into the present day. This has implications for the word ‘Danann’ in particular.
We have already looked at some excerpts from Cormac’s Glossary and have seen how one of the earliest sources viewed the gods. Notably, Cormac makes no mention of the Tuatha Dé Danann as a whole. Instead, he refers to ‘the gods’, and calls Ána ‘mother of the Irish gods’, but gives them no other name to refer to them collectively. Writing a few centuries earlier, in the seventh century, Tírechán refers to the gods as dei terreni and appears to equate them with the síd folk, but again, there is no reference to the Tuatha Dé Danann.2
Along with Cormac, the earliest tales (which appear to have been recorded in the eighth century lost manuscript, Cin Dromma Snechta) refer to the gods as áes síde (people of the síd),3 siabrai (‘phantoms’),4 or simply, as Tuath Dé (‘tribe of gods’, sometimes written Tuatha Dé – ‘tribes of god(s)’).5 Notably the first two names avoid any overt reference to any sort of divine connotations, which might lead us to suspect Christian influence in these terms (or perhaps they were used because they were fairly neutral terms). The latter term appears in a slightly different form in a ninth century tale, Scél Tuáin Meic Cairill (The Tale of Túan mac Cairell), where there is reference to the Tuatha Dé ocus Andé – ‘Tribes of the Gods and Ungods.’6 Similar wording is found in early praise poetry, such as for the Leinster king Aéd mac Diarmata meic Muiredaich (†c750C.E.), which gives the praise or blessing, “cach maith do dé nó anddae” – ‘every good of gods and ungods.’7
Other names include fir síde (men of the síd), sídaigi (síd-folk – a much rarer occurrence), or Fir Dé (‘Men of the gods’).8 Of all these terms to choose from, it’s notable that they are specifically referred to as gods in the myths and legends that portray them as gods before the Milesians invaded, whereas other tales, set in post-Milesian times, tend to refer to them as síd folk (though this is not always the case). They are clearly interchangeable terms, and indicative of the ambiguity that became apparent over time between deity and fairy.9
More specific references to particular gods who are grouped together in some way can also be found in the earlier sources – most notably trí dé dáno (‘three gods of skill’).10 These three gods are usually named as Brian, Iuchair and Iucharba, most famous for killing Lug’s father Cian in the tale Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann (‘The Violent Deaths of the Children of Tuireann’).11 Over time, the name evolved into trí dee Donann/Danann,12 and in Cath Maige Tuired there is reference to the fir trí ndéa13 (‘men of the three gods’) when Lug is petitioning the Tuatha Dé Danann for entry. He is told he cannot gain entrance unless he has a skill that no one else has, and with each skill he names and claims, he is denied. During the back and forth, Lug says he is a skilled harper, for which he is denied because: “We have a harper already, Abcán mac Bicelmois, whom the men of the three gods chose in the síd-mounds. [emphasis mine]”14
Later in the tale, we are told that Lug, the Dagda and Ogma go to the “trí déo Danonn”15 who in this case appear to be Goibniu the blacksmith, Luchta the wright, and Crédne the silversmith,16 and it seems reasonable to think that their collective name is drawing directly from the idea of na trí dé dáno, and easily confused with trí dee Donann/Danann.17
It is not until the early eleventh century that the name Tuatha Dé Donann, ‘the People of the Goddess Donann’, makes its first appearance (eventually becoming ‘Danann’), a good hundred years or so after Cormac and his glossary. The name itself can be attributed to the poet Eochaid ua Flainn (†1004),18 and from him it found its way into the Lebor Gabála Érenn where it features prominently, and then into other tales and sources as well.
The name Tuatha Dé Danann, then, appears to be a later addition to the continuum of the gods. It seems likely that the name was adopted to prevent confusion between the gods – sometimes simply known as the Tuatha Dé – and the Israelites (also called the Tuatha Dé by the Irish),19 because while originally this confusion might have been convenient in implying that the pagan gods were really the chosen of God (bearing in mind that some families drew their ancestors from the gods, whose genealogies were then worked into a Biblical framework), eventually a clear distinction came to be necessary. We see this in Coir Anmann, where we are told:
“Tuatha Dé i.e. Danann, that is, dée were the poets and an-dée the husbandmen…These were their gods, the magicians, and the non-gods were husbandmen.”20
Here, the Danann is added on to the Tuatha Dé, to make the distinction clear. Eochaid ua Flainn’s use of ‘Tuatha Dé Donann’ certainly helped avoid any problems with confusion between gods and Israelites, then, but the meaning of Donann has been debated over the past hundred years or so since its apparent late date or addition has been noted. Who is Donann/Danann? And are we dealing with an actual who at all?
This question has resulted in three main theories that try to explain it:
- That Donann/Danann really came from the word dáno
- That Donann/Danann was influenced by the name Domnann
- Or, as most modern pagans are familiar with, it comes from the mother goddess, the progenitor of the divine race, Danu
The first two theories see Donann/Danann primarily as an ethnonym – a word referring to a people, not necessarily referring to a person or progenitor itself. A label, then.
The first theory comes from L. C. Stern, writing in the early 1900s, who suggested that the idea of the trí dé dáno came to be conflated with the name Tuatha Dé to give Tuatha Dé Donann;21 certainly the gods as a whole are associated with skill, and the trí dé dáno did end up being rendered as trí dée Donann/Danann, so we might see something in Stern’s idea. The Lebor Gabála Érenn goes out of its way to state this, in fact:
“The Tuatha De Danann then, gods were their men of art, to wit De and Danann from whom the Tuatha De Danann are named: non-gods moreover, from whom are named the husbandmen, i.e., the kings. The gods of whom are the kings, these were their names – the three sons of Bres s. Elada, Triall and Brian and Celt, or three sons of Tuirell Bicreo, Brian, Iuchair and Iucharba, the three gods whom the kings used to worship. Through that it is clear that the kings were not of the Tuatha De Danann but of the husbandmen, that is of the sons of Ethliu.”22
The passage is confusing and confused, evidently trying to reconcile many different traditions with the point that is trying to be made. What is clear, however, is that gods – skilled in the arts – were considered to be somewhat separate to those who did not possess those skills, even though they were both esteemed enough to be considered different to mere mortals. Elsewhere, we are told déi int aes dána – ‘the folk of skill were gods,’ and it may be significant that the Dagda and his brothers were sometimes referred to as Clann Eladan. Elada is their father, of course, but his name can be taken to mean ‘art’, therefore making the Dagda and his brother ‘the Children of Art.’23
As Stern argued, ‘Donann’ therefore really might refer to dána,24 ‘skill’, here, an adaptation of a word appear more convincing as an actual name, and not a goddess Donann or Danann. It may be the case that the form of Donann has an actual mother goddess, Anu (whose name becomes Anann in the genitive form, as ‘Danann’ is) in mind, but Eochaid ua Flainn perhaps wanted to avoid something too pagan.25
This argument, however, doesn’t do much to explain why the name was originally Donann, not Danann, if dáno was the influence for it. In written form, the á and the o are not easily confused, so we might think that dáno is an unlikely influence on Donann. Carey, however, points out that stranger things have happened – a warrior witch (ban-tuathach) called Dinand or Dianand herself came to be known as Danand in later sources. Carey also suggests that perhaps Donann is a deliberate archaism,26 to try and authenticate the existence of an actual goddess, Donann (or Danann) in medieval sources, to an audience who would have otherwise never heard of her (and perhaps make the similarities with the word dáno less obvious?).
The second theory comes from Carey, who argues that Donann may come from Domnann, a name that features prominently in the placenames of Connacht, in the forms of Fir Domnann, Domnannaig, and Tuath Domnann,27 and is also found in the name of a Fomorian king, Indech mac Dé Domnann.28 Eochaid ua Flainn, in looking for a name that distinguished the gods from the Israelites, could easily have adapted Domnann for his own purpose, since it “has the proper vocalism and seems to fill the same onomastic niche as Donann…”29
While this explains the form of Donann, the idea that it was simply a convenient turn of phrase to avoid any ambiguities, chosen because of its alliterative qualities similar to those of na trí dée dána, falls a little short as arguments go – convenience is not an argument that seems compelling here. However, if we look to the very confused genealogies of the major members of the Tuatha Dé Danann – Lug, the Dagda, Brigit, Nuadu, and so on, we see that they all have Fomorian heritage somewhere along the line.30 That Domnann, as a name, is associated with the Fomorians in at least one instance, given above, may strengthen the links between Domnann/Donann, but more usually we see the name associated with the Fir Bolg, since the Fir Domnann of the Connacht area are said to have been one of the three Fir Bolg tribes who settled in Ireland before they were ousted by the Tuatha Dé Danann.31
Gerard Murphy has suggested that rather than dáno, Donann is related to the word don, ‘earth’:
“If so, the forms maccaema Tuath nDea Domnonn, Indech mac Dei Domnann, etc…may be semantically connected with Tuatha Dé Donann, etc. for ‘Donu’ (Donann) from don ‘earth’, would correspond in meaning to Domnu (Domnann) from domun ‘world’.”32
Certainly this would make sense when we consider the fact that one of the early names for the gods of Ireland was dei terreni, ‘gods of earth’, perhaps even suggesting that the term is an oblique reference to the meaning behind Donann. Without any evidence of Donann existing before the eleventh century, however, we can’t be sure. Even without adding a possible oblique reference, it can be said for certain that poets were masters of wordplay, and so don, dáno and Domnann may all have contributed in some way to the creation of the word, whether in the eleventh century or before then. Either way, such wordplay would help to underline the inherent skill of the poets and scribes who were in charge of immortalising, preserving and synthesising Ireland’s pre-Christian past, or alternatively, praising or honouring them.
The third theory hinges on the question of whether Donann/Danann actually refers to a specific goddess, rather than an ethnonym (a name applied to a particular ethnic group, that has its own meaning but doesn’t necessarily refer to a person). Plenty of scholars and academics have assumed that Tuatha Dé Danann simply means ‘The People of the Goddess Danu’, referring to a goddess, the patron, or mother, of her people. It’s something that’s deeply ingrained in scholarship and popular perception as well, but it’s not necessarily so simple.
Names change their form in the Irish language under certain circumstances, and if Danann is a personal name, then it is in the genitive form, indicating that something belongs to her (i.e. the people of the goddess). In the nominative form, ‘Danann’ should become ‘Danu,’ but we never see this happen in any of the texts.33 On the few occasions that we do see her mentioned as a goddess in her own right, her name always appears in the genitive form (Donann/Danann) even when it should be nominative (Donu/Danu).34 Therefore, we see references to Donand mathair na ndea, “Donann, Mother of the gods,”35 and “from…’Danann’ the Paps of Ana in Luachair are called…”,36 rather than ‘Danu.’ As Carey points out, written reference to Danu should really be *Danu, indicating that it is a reconstructed, speculative word form, rather than something that is known for certain.37
The implication then, is that given the fact that the word appears to be a grammatical anomaly, “Donann’s existence is dependent on that of a group name Tuatha Dé Donann rather than vice versa.”38 In other words, it could be argued that Donann/Danann is a literary creation, referred to as a goddess to fit with the over all scheme of gods as they are presented, but really there to help avoid confusion as to which Tuatha Dé is being referred to – gods or Israelites.
It has been suggested that Danu (*Danu) is cognate with other Celtic or Indo-European deities and names, such as the Welsh Dôn, the river Danube (> Danuvius), Rhône (> Rodanus), and the Vedic Dãnu, and if this is the case then Danu’s existence independent of her association with the name of her people is somewhat firmer. However, Carey in particular is sceptical here and argues that this is “linguistically unworkable,”39 while the Rees brothers and other scholars such as Anne Ross, Sjoestedt, Mac Cana and O’ Rahilly are more accepting (without addressing the problems outlined above with regards to *Danu’s actual existence).40 Carey concedes, however, that if by some chance *Donu is a goddess, who happened to have simply not been mentioned before the eleventh century, and whose name is rooted in don, ‘earth’, as Murphy has suggested, then we might see that there is a relation after all.41
Murphy notes that the three gods, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, were called the sons of Donann/Danann, and when na trí dé Danann, ‘the gods of Danann,’ are referred to in the tales, it is usually specifically in the context of referring to these three gods. In Latin, the Irish gods are often referred to as Plebes Deorum.42 This, argues Murphy, implies that the Irish should really be Tuatha Dé nDonann – ‘Peoples of the Gods of Donu’ – i.e. the peoples of Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba – and not Tuatha Dé Donann. Murphy goes on to point out that with the initial n in nDonann, the D would not be sounded as it would be if it were simply ‘Donann’; nDonann would be pronounced more like “Nonann”. If we were to consider the alternative (and apparently later) spelling/usage, Danann, and therefore Tuatha Dé nDanann, this would be pronounced in the same way as nAnann. In Munster there are the famous Paps of Anu, known in Irish as Dá Cích nAnann. Given this fact, it has been suggested that there has been some confusion or conflation at some point, and either *Danu is actually Anu, or one goddess began to lend her attributes to the other at some point.43 It may be significant that Geoffrey Keating, writing in the seventeenth century, refers to the Paps as Dhá Chíoch Dhanann.44 This would be pronunced rather like ‘Anann’ (though not exactly), but on the face of it, it seems that here Keating is confirming the confusion between Anann and Danann.
Given the fact that Anu is referred to in the earliest sources and *Danu is not, it seems reasonable to assume that Anu is the earlier (possibly, original) deity in this picture, but the argument leaves us with some quibbles. Firstly, while Anu and *Danu may have been conflated, it appears to have been done so well after *Danu was conceived of, since the original spelling was Donann or *Donu. This still leaves us none the wiser about whether or not *Donu ever existed in her own right before the eleventh century. We must also wonder why *Danu was essentially invented as a mother goddess when the Irish already had a perfectly good one in Anu.
With that said, we do see evidence for the conflation of Anu/Anann and *Danu/Danann – but again this is late in the day. A late version of the Lebor Gabála Érenn tells us:
“The Morrigu, daughter of Delbaeth, was mother of the other sons of Delbaeth, Brian, Iucharba, and Iuchair: and it is from her additional name ‘Danann’ the Paps of Ana in Luachair are called, as well as the Tuatha Dé Danann.”45
The late date for this passage, again, and confusion over the Morrígan and her association with Anu or Danann, leads us to wonder if there is an agenda here, or perhaps simply a clumsy attempt to iron out the complicated bits – different pieces of lore taken from here and there that may have conflicted – and squashed together to make everything fit.
Depending on where you look, Anu is listed as one of the three sisters who made up the triad of women who were known as the Morrígan, or else she is listed as an additional sister of the Morrígan – related to her but not a part of the three.46 Her inclusion here – tantalising though the implications are – is said by Carey to be “so awkward that it seems virtually to have been forced upon the Lebor Gabála compiler by a previous tradition.”47
In the literature as well, Danann doesn’t appear as anything but a peripheral character, said to lend her name to her people, named as one of the sisters of the triad of the Morrígan (or just named as one of the Morrígan’s other sisters), but doing very little herself. This is not cause in itself to conclude that Danann is nothing more than a literary construct, since other figures such as Brigit aren’t seen to do much in the tales of the Mythological Cycle either; women and goddesses, with a few exceptions, generally aren’t seen as such developed characters in the myths compared to the gods. It’s in the Dindshenchas that we see women and goddesses emphasised more.
If we look to her associations, however, we do get some glimpses of the kind of things that we’d expect from a sovereignty, or indeed, a mother-type goddess. In the garbled passage that associates her name as being an alternative for the Morrígan, her father is said to be Delbaith (or Delbaeth), whose name seems to have come from the word delbaid, ‘shapes, forms, delineates.’48 Cóir Anmann gives the etymology as:
“…Delb-aed, that is, a form (delb) of fire (aeda) upon him, because of his beauty, for his form was distinguished.”49
While the etymology of Coir Anmann might not be accurate, it is interesting from a cosmogonical perspective. Delbaeth is here associated with both fire and form, and is said to be the father of na trí dé dána (the three gods of skill) or the trí dé Danann (the three gods of Danann), Brian, Iuchair and Iucharba. The trí dé Danann, and the fact that the earliest version of Cath Maige Tuired refers to the Tuatha Dé Danann as the fir Trí nDéa (men of the three gods),50 seems to imply that these three were the gods that the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves worshipped, although it’s perhaps more likely that what we are seeing is some ‘demotion’ going on; either way, it seems significant that Delbaeth is put in the position of an ultimate ancestor, as it were.
He is also said to be the grandfather of Banba, Eriu and Fotla, who are said to be the wives of three brothers, Mac Cuill, Mac Greine and Mac Cecht.51 These three gods are associated with the three realms of land, sea and sky in one passage from the Lebor Gabála Érenn:
“The three sons of Cermat s. of The Dagda were Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, Mac Greine. Setheor was the name of Mac Cuill, and the sea was his god: Tetheor was the name of Mac Cecht, and the air was his god, with its luminaries, the moon and the sun: Cetheor was the name of the Mac Grene, and the earth was his god.”52
A different version tells us that hazel was the god of Mac Cuill, the ploughshare was the god of Mac Cecht, and the sun was the god of Mac Grene,53 but what we are seeing here again appears to be ‘demotion’ at play (i.e. they are not said to be gods themselves, but they have their own)54 hints again at some sort of cosmogonical arrangement: Delbaeth gives form to the world, has three children with his own daughter, Danann, (who herself may have played a role in the initial creation of form, considering the fact that we would expect some form of interplay of fire and water being the motivating factor), and eventually along comes the Dagda, and then his grandsons who are intimately associated with the three realms and married to Banba, Eriu and Fotla, the three goddesses who traditionally represent the land of Ireland itself and vie with the Milesians in Lebor Gabála Érenn for the honour and prestige of having the land named after themselves.
Tempting though it is to see Danann playing a pivotal role in the (highly speculative) creation story suggested above, her links with it are apparently late and therefore tenuous at best. It might be more likely to consider the Morrígan herself in that creative role (and she too has hills – Paps – associated with her, so perhaps there is confusion there, too).
There are many arguments, conflicting pieces of information and lore, uncertainties and ambiguities involved here. Drawing anything conclusive from this is difficult, so all we can really say is that we have seen that, if Danann ever existed as a pre-Christian deity, there is something not quite right going on in the sources that mention her; her name doesn’t work grammatically in the way that it should in Irish, and it is notable that the name only appears from the eleventh century onwards (as far as we can tell). It is also important to remember, though, that just because we don’t see anything before the eleventh century, it doesn’t mean it never existed.
Was there a mother of the gods? Possibly – Anu certainly fits the bill. But given the very localised nature of the gods, within the landscape and the tribes, can she be considered to be the mother of the gods in a literal sense – all of them in Ireland – or just as far as her own people, in Munster, were concerned, who naturally favour their own deity and elevate and exalt her above all others?
Here and in the previous articles on the gods, we’ve seen that many are associated with the land and with their people. The view we get is not one that gels with probably the most common neo-pagan view of deities who are seen in terms of a duality, often a male/female polarity of the horned god and the goddess in the form of maiden, mother, crone goddess, or anything like that.55 The gods we see are in the land, sea and sky; in the lochs and hills, rivers and mountain peaks, seas and plains, wells and síd mounds, in the guise of humans, giants, birds, and all sorts of animals – natural and fantastical, and so on.
We see that the gods are distinct from one another – they are not shown as archetypes or facets of something greater, they are a family (or a number of families) with all the complexities that families entail, with tensions (mostly coming from intermarriage with the Fomorians and the subsequent rivalry between the two that comes to a head in Cath Maige Tuired). With the tendency of many academics in the past to simply see the Celtic gods as expressions of the same types of gods in differing sub-cultures, equating Lug, Lugus and Lleu as one and the same, really, just as the Romans did with the gods they came into contact with during the expansion of their empire by equating them with their own, this view has become widespread amongst neo-paganism as well, with gods sometimes being described as like different facets on a cut diamond (for example), and so on. As Proinsias Mac Cana put it, though:
“Indeed one cannot but reflect that if the Celts were monotheists at heart, then they were remarkably successful in disguising this fact, for not merely have they fractured their single godhead into a multiplicity of aliases, but they have also invested some of these with a convincing air of individuality.”56
This is why most Celtic Reconstructionists (Gaelic Polytheists included) see themselves as hard polytheists – the gods are seen as distinct.57
Some of the gods are shadowy and ambiguous, not necessarily fitting in neatly into a cohesive pantheon of Irish gods – the Tuatha Dé Danann – as such. The Morrígan is clearly said to be of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and yet we might see that her loyalty to her own people is not always certain; she often walks on the periphery of a tale, and has her own agenda that isn’t always clear. As we’ve seen, the Dagda sleeps with her in Cath Maige Tuired, in the lead up to the battle with the Fomorians, and it is only then that the Morrígan pledges her help in the fight, on the side of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Her help, it seems, is not a given.
Manannán might also be seen as being an odd one out – he doesn’t figure prominently in Lebor Gabála Érenn and seems to have his own set of tales and associations outside of the Tuatha Dé Danann, as well as within them (he is, after all, the foster-father of Lug, for example). Then there are the figures like Clíona, Cailleach Bhéarra, Mór Mumhan, Donn, Macha, Medb, who clearly appear to be deities, but don’t feature much amongst the Tuatha Dé Danann, if at all. In that sense, it’s fair to say that the gods are not just the sum total of the Tuatha Dé Danann as we see them in the Mythological Cycle – there’s more to it than that (and it gets even more complicated when we factor in the síd…).
When we look at the tales we see the gods interact freely with one another as well as mortals. On land the gods make themselves known to the hero, often appearing at places that are traditionally seen as Otherworldly – the ford of a river or a síd mound – whilst out at sea, the mortal protagonist of the tale usually comes across a god by accident, and the god then reveals something important, something life-changing (e.g. Immram Brain, when Bran meets Manannán).58 The Morrígan pursues Cú Chulainn in the Táin, wanting him as her own; Badb claims the slain in battle,59 while the sovereignty challenges a potential suitor to test him for his suitability as king, or else she brings about his downfall if he fails to rule rightly.60 These gods are not distant and stand-offish, standing on a lofty perch; they are not shy in making themselves known if that is what they want, and they are clear in letting people now if they have transgressed. But then again, these people they interact with are heroes or kings, often at least partly Otherworldly in their own way, themselves.
Some gods can be seen as ancestors of a people as well as a place. Either way, the lines between the two – gods and ancestors, gods as ancestors – can be seen as blurry at times,61 as can the relationship between the gods and the Good Folk. But we can see these gods as tutelary deities, looking after their people if the right sort of relationship is maintained; as the lore shows, they expect their dues.62 There are rules about people respecting the places they inhabit – like making sure not to take any stones away from a place, leaving offerings when passing a particular place,63 and not growing crops or grazing herds and flocks at a particular spot.64
According to the tales and the lore, forging and maintaining the right relationship with the gods results in peace and prosperity; breaking that contract results in disaster. In Glen Lyon, Perthshire, for example, there is a shrine known as Tigh na Caillich (also known as Tigh nam Bodach). Here there is the tradition of putting out three stone figures, crudely carved, at the start of the summer at Bealltainn. At Samhainn the figures are put away safely in their ‘house’, which is carefully re-thatched and well-maintained each year, where they will stay safely tucked up until the next summer. So long as the tradition is maintained, it is said the area will prosper, and indeed the tradition is still observed today.65
In mythology, we also see evidence of this reciprocal relationship, and this is especially apparent in the relationship between the king and the land. The king is effectively married to the land at his inauguration and must uphold certain ideals in order to maintain a rightful rule. Should the king make a false judgement, become physically blemished, fail to provide the proper hospitality or generosity to guests, or show courage in battle (and so on), he is unfit to rule; the land shows its displeasure in famine and want, pestilence and plague, war and bloody death, and sometimes a mysterious, Otherworldly figure appears as the agent of the king’s downfall.66
As it is, we might see the land as being overwhelmingly female (or feminine) – full of goddesses who become the progenitors of their people, who give their names to the land and features in it. As with other Cetic religions, there is an animistic belief underlying Gaelic practice; everything in the landscape, and beyond, is possessed of a spirit.67 The goddesses of the land marry, again and again, and the land and people prosper when the conditions are right, and suffer when the conditions aren’t. Certainly there are (male) gods associated with particular areas as well, but from their portrayal in the myths, generally we might see them as upholding certain virtues or skills that were important to the society and in the land that they roam. These gods are exemplary kings, builders, smiths, leeches (doctors), poets, skilled professionals that illustrated certain important functions within society.68
And yet… Can we reduce the gods to such simplistic terms? Pigeon-holing the gods as simply tutelary deities, sovereignty goddesses, smith gods, and so on, ignores the bigger picture. They may be handy labels as a shorthand, but ultimately they are as limiting as they may be convenient. The tales and lore gives us a bigger, better picture, and so can our own experience in honouring and worshipping them. They are far more than the sum of their labels, something that is often overlooked in some neo-pagan paths that come neatly packaged in glossy books, where deities are seen archetypes, chosen for magical workings because their associations fit the circumstances. This is not something that’s compatible in a reconstructionist practice.
So how do the gods fit in to modern life? The tales and the lore are where we can find the gods, as well as in our own minds and intuition. We see from the historical sources that the people honoured their gods with offerings, feasts and celebrations in their honour – the games at Lùnastal, for example, or the fires and festivities at Bealltainn. These celebrations and offerings shared in the good that was to be had in life – the fruits of one’s labour in the autumn, the the prospect of warmth and stories well-told, with a good stock of food for the winter; the stirrings of life and the return of warmth in the spring, and the sunshine and fresh fruits in the summer. The gods were also looked to for protection against the inherent dangers at these festive, liminal times – the days that are the threshold between one season and another, a time when it is neither one season or another, and the threshold between this world and the Otherworld are generally thin.69 It is a time ripe with the prospect of success or failure in the coming season as far as farming the crops and herds were concerned, and so particular rites and ceremonies were performed to honour and appeal to the gods for protection and safeguarding. Daily rites and ceremonies also provided safeguards – prayers said over the fire at the end of the day, prayers said on getting up in the morning, charms said over the bannocks as they were made, for the protection and prosperity of those who were to eat them.70 But more than that, these practices formed a rhythm, a thread weaving through our day, the seasons, the years, honouring, celebrating, safeguarding, not just with the gods, but the spirits and ancestors.
Today, Gaelic Polytheists work to do the same.71 We might not be so dependent on the fruits of our own fields these days; we might not have to face the prospect of famine, dangerous diseases that we can now vaccinate against and even eradicate, and nor do we face utter disaster if the crops fail as the people of Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere once did. But disasters still do happen, and hardships can loom for many. We still hope that we can live comfortably and keep a roof over our heads, be in good (or at the least, better) health and support our own, even if we are sheltered from many of the hardships of the past, and we can celebrate that. Our circumstances might be very different from our ancestors but the gods remain relevant.
The gods are most definitely here and now, in the landscape and of it, but they are also Other. They are timeless and Otherworldly, immanent, not transcendent; these are not gods who haunt the heavens and wait for us to call them, but neither are they tied to the places they are associated with, unable to move elsewhere – the Dindshenchas, for example, says that Boann reached far beyond Ireland and linked her with the river Severn (in south-west England), the Tigris, the river Jordan, and the Euphrates. The Irish gods can be found in the Scottish landscape as well, and Manannán in particular gives a link between Ireland, Man and Scotland. Brigid, once a goddess then a saint, has travelled far beyond her Irish roots in Kildare, and the Cailleach too can be found across the Gaelic countries.
We might go in search of the gods, in an Otherworldly journey of sorts, perhaps, to gain a better understanding of them or to search for mystical truths just as the Irish and Scots did in their rites of inspiration and divination (like the tarb-feis, imbas forosnai, or the frìth). Or they might come to us as the tales suggest and make their demands (not to be ignored lightly). We build a relationship with them through offerings and honouring them in daily rites, festive feasts, and so on.
Some modern Celtic Reconstructionists (or, specifically in the context we are dealing with here, Gaelic Polytheists) might find that they form a dedicated and intimate connection with a particular deity, or certain deities. This is not always the case, however, and some people simply feel a pull to honour the gods of their ancestors and heritage, or the gods they feel are calling (whether they have any ancestry or not).
Whatever the case, most modern polytheists have to contend with the fact that they are not living in the lands that the gods are historically associated with. Traditional tales and lore may have been carried by emigrants into the Diaspora, but by and large there may be something of a disconnect between living a path that puts emphasis on the land and seeing the gods as being intimately associated with it, when they weren’t historically said to be there in pre-Christian times. A good place to start in finding a way to reconcile your own local landscape, and the local associations that come with it, with your own beliefs, is taking a look at KILLYOUANDEATYOU.
Finally; it’s all well and good reading, and learning about the gods in the tales and lore. But the doing and the experiencing helps too.
1 See Clark, The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan, 1991.
2 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1694.
3 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1694.
5 Carey, ‘The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann”, in Éigse, 1981, p292-293.
6 Carey, Scél Tuáin Meic Chairill, in Koch and Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age, 1995, p212.
7 Stokes and Strachan, Thesaurus Paleohibernicus, 1901, p295. From the Codex S. Pauli. See also, Rankin, Bendacht dee agus andee fort,’ ZcP Vol 51, 1999.
8 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1693-1694.
9 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1694.
10 Carey, ‘The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann”, in Éigse, 1981, p291.
11 A relatively late tale in the form we have it, but the story is referred to in Lebor Gabála as well. Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1328.
12 Carey, ‘The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann”, in Éigse, 1981, p291.
13 Grey, Cath Maige Tuired, line 256.
14 Grey, Cath Maige Tuired, p39.
15 Grey, Cath Maige Tuired, line 340.
16 Carey, ‘Notes on the Irish War Goddess,’ Éigse, 1983, p480.
17 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1693-1694.
18 Carey, ‘The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann”, in Éigse, 1981, p294; Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1693.
19 Carey, ‘The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann”, in Éigse, 1981, p293.
20 Stokes, Cóir Anmann, in Irische Texte Volume 3, 1897, p355.
21 Carey, ‘The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann”, in Éigse, 1981, p291.
22 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, 1941, p199. See also the ‘B’ version of LGÉ.
23 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1696.
24 From the DIL: I a gift, bestowal, endowment, present (material or spiritual sense), II Skill in applying the principles of a special science; science; skill applied to the material or subject-matter of art; artistic faculty, art; especially the poetic faculty; the art of poetry.
25 That is, names change form depending on whether they are genitive (Anann) or nominative (Anu). Carey, ‘The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann,’ in Éigse, 1981, p291; Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1694.
26 Carey, ‘The Name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann”, in Éigse, 1981, p293-294.
27 Carey, ‘The Name Tuatha Dé Danann’ in Éigse, 1981, p294.
28 Grey, Cath Maige Tuired, p29.
29 Carey, The Name Tuatha Dé Danann in Éigse, 1981, p294.
30 The Wikipedia page lays this all out very clearly, but see also the Tuatha Dé Danann Family Tree, which is mostly good but accepts Beresford-Ellis idea of Danu and Bile as primordial parents. There is no evidence for this in the sources, so don’t take it at face value.
31 O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p43ff.
32 Murphy, Duanaire Finn: The Book of the Lays of Fionn, part III, 1953, p210.
33 Carey, The Name Tuatha Dé Danann in Éigse, 1981, p291.
34 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1693-1694.
35 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, 1941, p216/217.
36 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, 1941, p189.
37 Carey, The Name Tuatha Dé Danann in Éigse, 1981, p291.
38 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1693-1694.
39 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1693-1694.
40 Carey, The Name Tuatha Dé Danann in Éigse, 1981, p291-292.
41 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1693-1694.
42 The Irish version of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, transcribed in the eleventh century and found in Lebor Bretnach, gives a unique (and brief) description of the invasion story of Ireland. It tells us: “Then the Plebes Deorum took Ireland, that is, that Tuatha Dé Donann.”
43 Murphy, Duanaire Finn: The Book of the Lays of Fionn, part III, 1953, p209-210.
44 Keating, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn vol 1, 1982, p86.
45 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, 1941, p189.
46 Carey, Notes on the Irish War Goddess, Éigse, 1983, p270.
47 Carey, Notes on the Irish War Goddess, Éigse, 1983, p271.
49 Stokes, Cóir Anmann, in Irische Texte Volume 3, 1897, p359.
50 Carey, Notes on the Irish War Goddess, Éigse, 1983, p480.
51 “Fotla was the wife of Mac Cecht, Banba was the wife of Mac Cuill, Eriu was the wife of Mac Greine: those were the three daughters of Fiachna s. Delbaeth.” Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, 1941, p195.
52 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, 1941, p195.
53 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, 1941, p195.
54 O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p473.
55 See also The CR FAQ.
56 Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, 1970, p24.
57 The CR FAQ.
58 See ‘The Voyage Tales,’ in the article on Muir.
59 Such as when Cú Chulainn dies, she lands on his shoulder suggesting that she has come to claim him.
60 Such as in The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon, or The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.
61 For example, what the origin stories and genealogies associating a particular people with a particular god might really be telling us is that these are people of the land. Thus, those claiming ancestry from Áine, whose father is Fer Í, ‘Man of Yew’, gives hints of the possibility of some sort of origin story where the land gave rise to Áine, who gave rise to her people – mortals of divine ancestry, with the bile, the sacred tree, at the heart of their territory (metaphorically, if not perhaps in a literal sense).
62 See for example, De Gabáil in t-Síde.
63 For examples, see Offerings.
64 Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland Volume I, 1902, p372.
65 Ross, Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, 2000, p113-114.
66 See Marriage: Part One for more, and e.g. The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel.
67 Green, ‘The Gods and the Supernatural,’ in Green, The Celtic World, 1995, p465.
68 To be fair, though, plenty of goddesses possess such skills and virtues as well – Brigit, Airmid, the Morrígan etc. Ó hÓgaín, The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopedia of Myth, Legend and Romance, 2006, p276-277.
69 Danaher, “Irish Folk Tradition and the Celtic Calendar”, in O’ Driscoll (Ed.), The Celtic Consciousness, 1981, p220.
70 See Daily Practices and Bannocks.
71 See the Gaol Naofa article Ritual Within Gaelic Polytheism.