The following article is based on my dissertation, which I did ten 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:
Oengus and the Dagda
The Dagda has many dealings with different kinds of people in myth and folklore, but there is one character in particular that has a very interesting relationship with the Dagda. This is Oengus mac Óc, one of the Dagda’s sons.
Frequently, the Dagda and Oengus appear together in literature, in either complimentary or opposing roles: sometimes Oengus appears in a supporting role to the Dagda, helping him out of difficult situations at crucial moments. Alternatively, in The Dream of Oengus, the Dagda acts in a more fatherly role, helping and advising Oengus in his romantic problems, but, as Gantz points out, this does not appear to be a particularly old tale, and perhaps this fatherly role is a later development and so not indicative of the Dagda’s divine role per se.1 Also, and perhaps most interestingly, Oengus and the Dagda appear as “the masters of trickery”, and Oengus himself is not above tricking the Dagda. Such a close relationship between the Dagda and his son, both complimentary and apposite to each other, has led many scholars to comment on the significance of it.
There has long been the idea – first put forward by O’ Rahilly – that Oengus is not only the Dagda’s son, but more than that, he is the Dagda in a younger form.2 Where the Dagda is an old god, somewhat crude and set in his ways, Oengus is a more polished, younger version, and so operates in a way that the Dagda, set in his old ways, cannot. Both Oengus and the Dagda operate within the constraints of their divine roles and personalities, yet they are ultimately the same person.
Firstly though, it would be helpful to establish who Oengus Mac Óc is, in order to gain a clearer overview. In simplistic terms, Oengus was the son of the Dagda and Boann, the Irish river-goddess who gives her name to the river Boyne, or else is the personification of the divine nature of the river itself. The story of Oengus’ conception is told in The Wooing of Etain, where the Dagda stops time for nine months so that he and Boann may sleep together, and Boann can have Oengus without anyone – especially her husband – knowing.3
Oengus, like his father, has many epithets, but here they are all a variation on a theme. He is commonly known as Oengus Mac Óc, but his epithet can also appear as Mac Ind Óc, Ind Mac Óc, or Mac in Dá Óc. Each has a slightly different emphasis on the same theme. Mac Ind Óc means “Son of the Young”, whilst Ind Mac Óc means the “Young Son”4 and much has been discussed about the meaning of this. In the tale, we are told that Oengus gets his epithet from his mother, who said, “Young is the son who is conceived at dawn and born before dusk”.5 Perhaps there are hints here of how premature he is, but it is a very enigmatic statement, and does not tell us much. Throughout mythology, Oengus is certainly portrayed as a very youthful god, and particularly in one instance, his associations with day and night are a matter of great importance, which may or may not reflect on his nature as the Dagda’s son (considering the circumstances under which he was conceived and born, at least).
Sjoestedt refers to another of Oengus’s epithets, which is slightly different: Oengus Mac in Dá Óc, which Sjoestedt interprets as meaning “the son of the two young ones”,6 giving a different emphasis on the meaning of Oengus’s name. Here, Sjoestedt suggests that the epithet refers to Oengus’s parents – not in that they themselves are young, but that their act of coming together and producing Oengus in one night alludes to the eternal youth of the pair. Oengus is conceived and born in one night, on Samain, and so the Dagda’s and Boann’s union “…is the guarantee of the ever renewed vitality of the tribe, being a symbol of the union between the tribe, represented by its chief, and the river-goddess who fertilises its territory.”7 That is as may be – a difficult argument to prove or disprove either way, and perhaps reading into too much symbolism that is nearly impossible for us to interpret. While Samain would indeed be a very symbolic day to be born on, as Sjoestedt says, it could be that the day – when the boundaries between reality is traditionally regarded as being thin – allowed the Dagda to perform the trick of stopping time in the first place. It is certainly not something the Dagda does often.
In many tales, the Dagda is put in a problematic situation that seems impossible to get out of. In these situations, the Dagda often receives outside help from his son, Oengus. It is particularly these example where Oengus helps out the Dagda that one cannot but wonder what the nature of their relationship is exactly. Are they simply father and son, the same person, or is it an altogether more complex arrangement?
One such a tale that illustrates this point well is in Cath Maige Tuired, which involves the greedy poet Cridenbél: Every night, the Dagda is forced by Cridenbél to give up the three best bits of his meal, as Cridenbél considered his own meal small in comparison to the Dagda’s. Here, the Dagda is in a corner, as he cannot refuse Cridenbél his hospitality, because it would be against Irish law, but nor can he be too ungenerous with his hospitality, as satire was a serious threat – it could destroy the Dagda’s honour and therefore his legal status, but also possibly even kill, and the Dagda could not risk anything like that. But more than that, Gray points out that as a deity so frequently associated with his cauldron of plenty and one so hospitable, to refuse Cridenbél, and leave the poet unsatisfied goes against the Dagda’s very nature.8
The Dagda is in something of an impossible situation. As a result, the Dagda overcompensates with Cridenbél, for “those three bits were a third of the Dagda’s serving. The Dagda’s appearance was the worse for that”.9 The Dagda literally gives too much of himself, and his health suffers. It is Oengus who helps to resolve the situation by giving the Dagda three gold coins to put in his food, so that he is forced to give it to Cridenbél on demand of the three best bits of his dinner. The gold in the food technically rendered them the best bits of the meal, so the Dagda had no choice. When Cridenbél makes his demands, the Dagda obliges, and Cridenbél subsequently chokes to death because of his own greed, thus removing the Dagda’s problem. However, as a result, the Dagda is accused of poisoning Cridenbél, and is condemned to death. It is not until the Dagda explains that the poet was poisoned by his own greed that the Dagda is released from responsibility for the satirist’s death– in demanding the best bits of the meal, the Dagda had to give him the coins – therefore poison in the sense that they are not food, but it is not the Dagda’s fault, more the result of Cridenbél’s unreasonable demands.10
So, what of Oengus and the Dagda? As O’ Rahilly would have it, Oengus is a “younger self” of the Dagda, and in this episode we can see a fair argument for this. As Carey has noted, it is Oengus who owns the pouch of gold coins that resolves the Dagda’s problem – therefore money is manipulated by a younger generation,11 leading us to conclude that Oengus is operating within his sphere of youth and new things, whereas the Dagda, mature and set in his ways, cannot. One could certainly interpret this as seeing Oengus being a youthful extension of the Dagda – not just his son, but his younger self - the episode demonstrating the differences of old and young generations.
Whether this in itself is cause for accepting O’ Rahilly’s theory is debatable, but one has to admit that there are several characteristics that the Dagda and Oengus share: Whilst the Dagda is famed for his many seductions and trysts with women, Oengus is also considered to be something of a Celtic Adonis – younger and less prolific in his conquests, but the best known myth involving Oengus is The Dream of Oengus, as well as some tales from the Dinnshenchas which retell the story. Whether his romantic involvement in one story justifies the comparison with Adonis is debatable, and he is certainly not the only character to be romantically linked within the Tuatha Dé Danann – Mider, Oengus’s brother, has his fair share of romantic trysts as well. Also, as lords of Brugh na Boinne, Oengus and the Dagda are both associated with feasting and plenty, but these are common elements associated with many members of the síd who inhabit the Otherworld.12 They are more general characteristics than those specifically attributed to either the Dagda or Oengus, although the overlaps are undeniable.
However, in viewing the same situation, with Oengus helping the Dagda overcome his problem with Cridenbél, one could just as easily take a different view. Sjoestedt, for example interprets the Dagda and Oengus not as being on an older self – younger self level as O’ Rahilly, but that their relationship demonstrates the passing influence of the older gods – i.e. the Dagda – for the newer, younger gods – Oengus. The fact that Oengus manipulates the money in the Cridenbél incident – the fact that the Dagda would never have thought of such a simple solution, even, could easily suggest that Sjoestedt is perhaps more accurate.
Another tale that could illustrate Sjoestedt’s point is one where the Dagda is tricked out of his own home by Oengus. The tale, from an early text De Gabail int sída, or “The Conquest of the Síd”, tells us that while Oengus was away, the Dagda apportioned all the brughs of Ireland amongst the Tuatha Dé Danann.13 On his return, and finding that he had no home to claim, Oengus petitioned the Dagda to let him stay in the Dagda’s own brugh – Brugh na Boinne – for “a day and a night”, to which the Dagda consented. The next day, the Dagda returned to claim back his home only to be refused by Oengus, who claimed that “night and day are the whole world, and it is that which has been given to me.”14
A similar version of the story occurs in The Wooing of Etain where it is Elcmar (Boann’s husband), not the Dagda, who is tricked out of the brugh, but on both occasions Oengus’s reasoning is the same – effectively, when Oengus said a day and a night, he meant forever, as they ultimately have no bounds.15 In this version, the connotations of the story are somewhat different, but if we are to take the tale involving Oengus and his father, we could possibly interpret it as illustrating the passing of the old gods – the Dagda – for the new and improved - Oengus. Oengus, with his mastery of language and legal trickery up his sleeve, usurps his own father out of house and home, and one could say that the new order effectively replaces the old. It is possible that the version involving Elcmar may be a distorted version, or else changed for the purposes of the story it is included in.
A similar comparison could be made between the Dagda and Lug. The Dagda is not the only many-skilled god that the Tuatha Dé Danann has: There is also Lug, the Samildánach, possessor of many skills in his own right.16 One is led to wonder why there would be two such gods within one group – surely one deity of this type would be enough? According to Sjoestedt, where they differ is in that the Dagda is portrayed as being an older, more mature god, often uncouth and grotesque in appearance and action. Lug, on the other hand is polished in appearance and action, more in tune with new technologies, and Sjoestedt suggests there is a tension between them as divinities, being ultimately opposed: “He [Lug] is the product of a different aesthetic: young, beautiful, pure from all the obscene elements which are an integral part of the Dagda.”17 So, while both are masters of knowledge, the Dagda’s knowledge pertains to that which is ancient, whilst “…Lug enjoys the popularity belonging to new fashions. Thus the heroic sagas have adopted Lug and made him the father of Cú Chulainn, but not the Dagda, who had no place in a world dominated by new conceptions and a new aesthetic…”18
However, one only has to think of tales such as Fingal Ronáin, Tain Bo Cúailgne and The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, that all show fools or figures (particularly women like the Morrigan in the Tain), that are often portrayed as obscene, gluttonous or grotesque which are then revealed to be their alter ego: where the Morrigan appears as a hideous figure, giving into her demands (usually sleeping with her), will result in her benevolence and transformation into a beautiful young woman. The fool, acting on behalf of the king or opposite to the king, denotes that something terrible is about to happen to the king, usually his death.19 Just as “too much of a good thing” transforms the Dagda into an obscene figure, he quickly returns to normality, given the opportunity.
If we accept Sjoestedt’s theory, Oengus seems to be on a par with Lug. But we must be wary of such interpretations. We are after all dealing with second hand information, that has been distorted by time, politics, language and religion.20 One should always be wary of putting too much store on the apparent facts we have to hand - complex interpretations from less than reliable information may blind us to reality rather than help enlighten us to it. Also, seeing such figures as Lug and Oengus as “sanitised” versions of old gods detracts from the Dagda’s nature: the Dagda may be portrayed as having obscene elements, such as his many meetings with women, but the Dagda does retain elements of a fertility related role as a deity, and the Dagda is not alone in being something of a grotesque or foolish figure in mythology: the Morrigan and Manannán for example. The Dagda, like Oengus and Lug, is simply doing his job.
Taking yet a different perspective, comparison could also be drawn with the Dagda's other sons such as Mider, Bodb the Red and Aed. Most of the Dagda's children usually play only minor roles in stories – Bodb the Red is more common in later literature as the Dagda's successor to the ingship of the Tuatha Dé Danann, for example. It is interesting that all of these sons of the Dagda either share some characteristics with the Dagda, or are in many respects the complete opposite to him. In common with the Dagda, Aed, Oengus and Cermait Caem (possibly another name for Ogma, who was also known as Ogma “honeymouthed” because of his famous eloquence), helped the Dagda build brughs such as Sid in Broga. (113)
In addition, both the Dagda and his son Mider were reputed to have magic cauldrons – the Dagda with his cauldron of plenty, and Mider with something similar. Mider, who lived at Bri Leith,(157) also had “Three Cranes of Denial and Churlishness”, which stood beside Mider's door:
“...and when anyone approached to ask for hospitality, the first one said: 'Do not come! Do not come!' and the second added: 'Get away! Get away!' while the third chimed in with 'Go past the house! Go past the house!' These three birds were, however, stolen from Mider by Atherne, an avaricious poet, to whom they would seem to have been more appropriate than to their owner, who does not otherwise appear as a churlish and illiberal deity...”(3)
The Dagda, on the other hand, does on one notable occasion in particular, and for both deities, they are seen to lose out – because of their obligations to be hospitable – to a greedy poet. That Mider lost the birds could suggest that he was an unsuitable choice to possess them, as Squires intimates.21
In comparing and contrasting certain elements of the Dagda and his sons, for the most part one would not be surprised that a son should take after his father. Even so, it cannot be ignored that there is a strikingly close relationship between Oengus and the Dagda whenever they appear together, but it is impossible to concretely say what this could mean: both Sjoestedt and O’ Rahilly’s theories have merit, but as much as there is supporting evidence for both arguments, there is as much evidence against them as well.
Trickery and negotiation
As Gray would have it, the Dagda is a god that is a master of negotiation and trickery,22 a somewhat controversial idea. We have seen that it is by trickery and deceit that the Dagda rids himself of the troublesome Cridenbél, and by sharp negotiation that the Dagda is saved from the death penalty at the decree of Bres, but this is more thanks to Oengus than the Dagda himself. And then the Dagda is tricked out of his own home by his own son – hardly the sign of a god who is master of trickery and negotiation.
Things are not looking so bright for the Dagda: “The Good God”. By the looks of things, the Dagda is not so much the Good God, as old and past it, constantly taken advantage of. Even when the Dagda is asked what payment he requires for his work by Bres, it is Oengus, not the Dagda “Lord of Great Knowledge”, who makes a wise decision, telling him: “…do not seek payment until the cattle of Ireland are brought to you. Choose from among them the dark, black-maned, trained, spirited heifer.”23 Whilst it seems a small payment at the time for all the Dagda’s work, after the battle of Mag Tuired is won, the heifer turns out to have control over all the cattle of Ireland, thus winning the Dagda and the Tuatha Dé Danann total control over the now defeated enemies’ herds as well as their own. A cunning plan on Oengus’ behalf, but one which has caused criticism by Sayers as a result:
“The ruse is proposed by the Mac Oc and his sharp practices may be contrasted with his father’s relative lack of ingenuity in this and the Cridenbél incident, which seriously undermines Gray’s argument for the Dagda as an effective master of negotiation and contract.”24
A good point, one might say. The Dagda is not so much the master here, but the vehicle to carry out his son’s good ideas. Tricked by Oengus out of his home, unable to resolve his problem with Cridenbél, and now receiving advice from his son on the nature of his payment, the Dagda begins to look not so much a master negotiator, but more of a doddering old fool.
However, Gray’s argument is still quite convincing, in spite of the disparities. A neat example of the Dagda’s cunning and trickery is once again to be found in Cath Maige Tuired: In going to recover his harp that had been stolen by the Fomoire, the Dagda first summons it, magically, and then plays three strains of music that a harper should be able to play: “He played sorrowful music for them so that their tearful women wept. He played joyful music for them so that their women and boys laughed. He played sleep music for them so that the hosts slept…”25 In doing so, the Dagda lulls the enemy to sleep when apparently entertaining them, and so escapes without trouble ensuing – and all by his own ingenuity, not his son’s.
However, where the Dagda is most successful in negotiating is particularly when women are involved. One such example is with the Morrigan, and the episode, short though it is, is rich with many meanings. There are clear elements of their union as being a ritualistic one, not just one that ensures the help of the Morrigan, but sees the Dagda fulfilling his role as chieftain and fertility god.26 In the episode, the Dagda meets the Morrigan at a pre-ordained time and place, and it has been suggested that their union over the river Unius marries the Dagda and Morrigan – in a symbolic rather than literal sense. In sleeping with her, the Dagda ensures the loyalty and help of an otherwise formidable and unpredictable goddess, but more than that, in negotiating her loyalty and help, her subsequent magical attack on Indech foreshadows his downfall, to the benefit of the Tuatha Dé Danann as a whole.27
One could wonder why it is so important for the Dagda to ensure the help of one woman in a war involving many. The Dagda, after all, is skilled in the magical arts himself – why would he need to rely on the Morrigan’s? Gray suggests that it is because the Morrigan’s vast and dangerous powers pose a threat to the Tuatha Dé Danann camp if she is not brought on side. As she uses her power against the Fomoire, so could she use it against the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves, and Gray shows the Dagda’s actions as a shrewd piece of thinking on his part. In having sex with the Morrigan, the union could be seen as a form of marriage, if only temporary, but it could be said that the union obliges her loyalty and help to the Dagda and his kin, if only for a short period of time.28 Under Irish law, there were many different kinds of marriage, but all were based upon the idea of a sexual union taking place. Not all marriages were permanent, and it was also possible for a man to be polygamous – have many wives. But usually, upon more formal types of marriage, the woman would be handed over from her own kin to her husband’s, and her loyalties would then lie with him.29
But this argument does not sit entirely in place, theoretically speaking. The Morrigan’s help consists of advice given to the Dagda of events that will happen, and it is not usual in the Dagda’s repertoire to display powers of prophecy, which was the Morrigan’s particular forte.30 As a goddess of slaughter, often associated with war,31 it is possibly the Dagda’s intent to secure her help in a ritual rendezvous in a more symbolic rather than active sense. Here the Dagda is perhaps more concerned with ensuring “divine benevolence” than absolute, binding loyalty. The Morrigan, after all, is not a deity that ever appears to tie herself down for long, at least.
It should not be forgotten, either, that the Dagda and the Morrigan meet at a pre-arranged time, at the River Unius in Connaught near the Dagda’s house in Glen Edin.32 It seems then, that the Dagda and the Morrigan are already on good terms, unlike in similar episodes like the Morrigan’s meeting with Cú Chulainn in the Tain Bo Cúailnge, where Cú Chulainn refuses to help her. At his refusal, the Morrigan proceeds to hinder his efforts in the Ulaid’s fight against Medb.33 Here, there is no challenge implied on the Morrigan’s part, only a kind of inevitability. The Dagda knows how to play the game, ensuring his people’s protection, whereas Cú Chulainn obviously does not – or at least does not care. For the Dagda, it is his job to care.
The Morrigan stands over the river, one foot on the south bank and the other on the north.34 She is immediately shown to be no mere human then, but huge in size as the Dagda is frequently shown to be as well, perhaps an indication of their underlying divine or supernatural attributes. The timing, near Samain, and the fact that their meeting is pre-arranged, as well as the fantastical elements suggests that the episode has a deeper, more ritualistic meaning, rather than to simply win the Morrigan’s help. The union of a god and goddess near water is a common ritualistic element as well, such as the Dagda’s intercourse with Boann – goddess and personification of the River Boyne.35 Perhaps the Dagda’s union with the Morrigan is more a hierogamical rite – the hieros gamos, “sacred marriage” embodies territorial sovereignty between king and the land over which he rules.36 This perhaps explains the specific location mentioned for the union. Evidence of a sacral duty for the king to join in a hierogamical rite can be seen in various forms throughout Irish literature. For example, the king is often required to sleep with a goddess, or simply kiss her, even though she is hideous to behold, in order to prove his rightful kingship. Whilst it is not necessary for the Dagda to prove his right to kingship with the Morrigan, it is necessary for him to join with her for the sake of his tuath, and so acts in a chieftainly manner in this sense at least.
To unite on such a day would be a symbolic renewal of the vitality of the tribe, “represented by the chief and the river-goddess who fertilises it.”37 Here, the Dagda’s union with the Morrigan, or even Boann, projects on a mythological plane the ritual union of the king with the earth in a form of marriage that ensures the prosperity of the tribe and their territory as a whole.38 In terms of Cath Maige Tuired the Dagda’s hierogamical rite here ensures not only the Morrigan’s help through his union with her, but by his very actions ensures the prosperity of his tribe in the coming year. To draw a comparison with Bres again, it could be said that the Dagda, although not a king in this tale, understands more fully the qualities of a king and protector of a tribe than Bres ever will - a fact which is illustrated time and again and leads to Bres’s ultimate downfall. While the Dagda is more than willing and able to give for his tribe and fulfil his obligations, Bres is more interested in acting for his own gains. What we have here, as Sjoestedt puts it, is “mythico-ritual complex which belongs to the most ancient deposit that Irish tradition has preserved”.39
Another example of the Dagda’s successful negotiation is also to be found in Cath Maige Tuired, where the Dagda successfully manages to secure the help of the daughter of the king of the Fomoire. This episode is an altogether different kettle of fish. Here, the episode appears to be more of a proof of the Dagda’s virility than a ritual union, and is ultimately a further insult to the Fomoire after their attempted trickery. The episode carries obvious humour and exaggeration, as does the porridge episode before it, but even for the Dagda, the episode involving Indech’s daughter is packed with the gory details that have resulted in it being condemned as “obscene”. The emphasis on such obscenity is surely a part of the point for the whole episode. The Dagda is so grotesque at this point, that to portray him otherwise would detract from his position. While the Dagda is at his weakest, most grotesque and ugly in form, Indech’s daughter tries to overpower the Dagda by words, demanding by the right of her sex a lift on the Dagda’s back. And despite it all, he still manages to turn the tables and regain power from what is no more than a chit of a girl, after all.
By terms of a geis – a tabu – the Dagda cannot carry Indech’s daughter until she says his full name.40 The girl tries to dominate him by beating him, but the Dagda is resolute, and her violence effectively helps the Dagda – “She fell upon him again and beat him hard so that the furrow around him filled with the excrement from his belly…”41 As he is obliged to carry her, she is obliged to say his whole name before he may do so, and with the time it takes her to get his full name out of him, the Dagda has been able to relieve himself of the rest of his huge dinner in the furrow, and has recovered himself physically.42
When he first met Indech’s daughter, the Dagda desired her but was impotent, and was therefore weak. Once recovered, he “gains a mistress”,43 in the form of Indech’s daughter, and in sleeping with her, gains her help for the Tuatha Dé Danann against her own father and kin, rather like he did with the Morrigan. As Gray notes, it is with the recovery of his sexual potency that the Dagda is truly able to regain control and dominance over Indech’s daughter. For the Dagda to be dominated by a woman would be a weakness, and it only happens in his weakened, ungainly state. But on regaining his vigour and physical form, he turns the tables back to a more balanced male-female relationship.44
That the union is situated around the time of Samain is perhaps indicative of a deeper meaning for the episode – not just the securing of Indech’s daughter’s help – but the meeting of order (the Dagda), with chaos (Indech’s daughter, through her attempts at domination) for the rebirth of order (in other words, normal male-female interaction).45 This is paralleled neatly with the Gray’s idea of the Tuatha Dé Danann representing order and the Fomorians representing chaos as a whole, the battle being situated at Samain to symbolise the rebirth of order, by the victory of the Tuatha Dé Danann. It could equally be paralleled with the Dagda’s union with the Morrigan, who is consistently portrayed throughout literature as being a chaotic and destructive force, commonly associated with war.46 Through their union, peace is ultimately born – albeit at a slightly later date.
Prior to meeting Indech’s daughter, the Dagda performs perhaps his most successful negotiation. Sent on an errand to secure a truce between the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomoire until a more advantageous day for the Dagda’s people, the Fomoire are obliged to see the Dagda satisfied by provision of refreshment. Knowing that the Dagda is trying to trick them to gain advantage for the Tuatha Dé Danann in the coming battle, the Fomoire attempt to trap him by making a huge amount of porridge for him to eat, which they knew he loved. If the Dagda went unsatisfied, it would mean the Fomoire would have offended him and committed a crime. If the Dagda could not finish the porridge, the offence would be his, as it would be a slight against the Fomoire – an implication that their hospitality was not to his taste.47 So, the Fomoire:
“…filled for him the king’s cauldron, which was five fists deep, and poured four score gallons of new milk and the same quantity of meal and fat into it. They put goats and sheep and swine into it, and boiled them all together with the porridge. Then they poured it into a hole in the ground…”48
The image of the porridge in a ground could be seen to be a direct caricature of the Dagda’s very own cauldron of plenty.49 In this case, however, the Dagda has more than his fill but gamely sets to it and gets one up on the Fomoire. His act of gluttony is forced upon him, turning him into a grotesque looking figure – “His belly was as big as a house cauldron, and the Fomoire laughed at it…His appearance was unsightly: he had a cape to the hollow of his elbows, and a grey-brown tunic around him as far as the swelling of his rump…His long penis was uncovered. He had on two shoes of horsehide with the hair outside.”50
He is so grotesque from having gorged himself on food, he is almost comparable to the satirical poet Cridenbél, who is also hideous to behold – “a sightless man with his mouth in is chest”,51 because of his blind and grotesque greed – a literally blind greed that results in his death. Where the Dagda differs, is that he fares considerably better than Cridenbél in his greed, possibly because in Cridenbél’s case he was wrong in his greed, whereas the Dagda’s greed is the result of him being wronged.
The Dagda’s attire portrays him as being a churl, not a formidable god52 a paradox of sorts – a ridiculous, uncouth figure in an indecently short tunic, while at the same time a powerful father of his tribe,53 still able to best the Fomoire once more in seducing the king’s daughter and securing her help for the Tuatha Dé Danann. His grotesque appearance is evidence of too much of a good thing being very bad indeed, the extreme side of the abuse of abundance, even if it has been imposed upon him. His appearance is also evidence of his state of unbalance, and is perhaps all part of his symbolism as a god of fertility.
But such grotesque and exaggerated appearances are not restricted to gods in their fertility aspect. MacQuarrie notes that Manannán also appears in churlish form, a bodach, or fool. Here, Manannán’s identity is much harder to deduce, and in many respects is comparable to a ship – “his legs are like the masts of a ship, and his boat-sized brogues splash out water with every step thundering against his cloak like a sea-storm.”54 The comparisons with the sea are natural for Manannán, so fixedly associated with the Isle of Man and the Irish Sea, but if we look at the Dagda’s description when he appears as a churl, we can see a different comparison: to that of a horse. He is described above as wearing horse-hair shoes, with the hair on the outside, and a grey tunic barely covering his rump. Could it be coincidence that one of the Dagda’s epithet’s, Eochaid Ollathair, derives from the root ech, meaning horse? If so, then perhaps we are seeing elements of the Dagda’s divine aspect now lost, or perhaps the reference draws attention to the fact that as Eochaid Ollathair, Father of All, he is acting in his paternal, chieftainly capacity to negotiate a truce for the benefit and protection of his tuath.
One final point should be made here concerning the Dagda’s appearance. While it has been noticed by previous scholars that the Dagda’s attire is comparable to that of a churl, a very wretched individual indeed, recent work by Angelique Epstein notes that there is a similarity here in the Dagda’s dress with an apparently Celtic phenomenon of the genius cucullatus – “Hooded Spirits”. These figures appear throughout Roman Gaul and Britain, in the form of small statuettes, wearing a hooded cloak.55 In the case of the Dagda, Epstein suggests that while Gray translates the Dagda’s attire as being a cape “cochline”, it is perhaps more accurate to consider it referring to a small cochall, which would translate as being a hooded cloak.56 If we turn to the Ulster based tale, The Intoxication of the Ulaid, we can see that once again the Dagda is described as wearing a hooded cape of some sort – in fact, not just one, but seven:
“Outside and to the east of the fort…I saw a large-eyed, broad-thighed, broad-shouldered, huge, tall man with a splendid tawny cloak about him. Seven smooth black hoods about him, each upper one shorter, each lower one longer…”57
On two occasions, then, we have the Dagda wearing a hood – or many hoods. Whilst this attire may be that of the peasantry, we also repeatedly have references to the Dagda’s size and greatness – often taken to refer to his divine status. It would seem therefore, that the hoods are an important image to associate the Dagda with. The parallels between the Dagda and the genius cucullatus are unmistakable. As in the porridge episode, where the Dagda is described as wearing an indecently short tunic, exposing his long penis, many of the figures of the genius cucullatus are portrayed as being naked, even with erect members such as one from Autun.58 With the Dagda’s imminent tryst with Indech’s daughter, the mention of the Dagda’s penis at this point may refer to the indecency of it being shown, or that it is because of its size that it can be seen.59 Whatever the case, the fact of the Dagda’s virility – or temporary lack thereof - is emphasised. At the point where the Dagda’s penis can be seen, and he is described as being dressed as a churl, the Dagda is impotent, unable to take the girl even though he desires her. However, on his recovery, he is able to function as normal. That the genius cucullatus are associated with matters of earthly and human fecundity, as is the Dagda, further compounds their possible associations.
In light of this, the question is begged as to why the Dagda and these genii are portrayed as being “lowly”. Is it that the Dagda and the genius cucullatus are not that lowly, being gods? Or, in such humble attire, the Dagda embodies all levels of society and nature – including the genius cucullatus – or that he is not dressed humbly at all. After all, he is described as being “wondrous” by Medb in The Intoxication of the Ulaid.60 Is this referring to the quality of his clothing, or his bizarre appearance? On the back of the porridge episode, we could perhaps conclude that the Dagda’s lowly appearance comes from his state of imbalance. With two such appearances, the meaning is perhaps deeper.
Returning to the porridge episode, despite appearances, Gray suggests that here the Dagda is superior to the Fomoire because his capacity for porridge is linked inextricably with the boundless capacity of his cauldron.61 The Fomoire, in attempting to trick the Dagda into insulting their hospitality by providing too much for him, are shown to misunderstand the concept of hospitality and generosity, which the Dagda effectively embodies. It is natural that he should overcome their challenge, as he embodies a system “that must be maintained (even toward one’s enemies) for the advantage of the society as a whole”.62 But then, the Dagda can hardly fail, as to do so would mean his death. More simply, the episode, like that of his subsequent seduction of Indech’s daughter, could be a display of the Dagda’s voracity (and then sexual vigour), which are attributes necessary for the prestige of a good chieftain.63 Such an example of gorging on vast amounts of food has been compared by Sjoestedt to ritual ordeals imposed upon kings of ancient China64 – an interesting, if tenuous comparison.
The Fomoire’s mockery of the Dagda’s appearance is a form of illegal satire, and is thus damaging to the Dagda’s honour – satire can take the form of mocking a person’s physical appearance, blemishes or deformity, and taunting anyone is illegal.65 Whilst the Dagda gains a victory for the Tuatha Dé Danann, he does so at personal expense.66 However, with the following seduction of Indech’s daughter shortly after the porridge episode, the Dagda effectively gets his own back, by engaging in an illegal union with the enemy. The egg is well and truly on the Fomoire’s face, and it is all their own fault. No matter how grotesque the Dagda appears, nor however churlish, he rises above his enemy without even raising a sweat.
It should be noted from these episodes that where the Dagda is successful in his negotiation and trickery, it is almost exclusively within the contexts that the Dagda is most well known to be associated with: in the case of the successful recovery of the Dagda’s harp, it is perhaps because the Dagda is master of the instrument (whereas the Fomoire obviously are not), that the Dagda overcomes them and tricks them so easily. Equally, it is perhaps because of the Dagda’s aspect as a fertility and chieftain god, that he is so successful in negotiating the help of the women for the benefit of his tuath. With the porridge episode, it is the Dagda’s understanding of the laws of hospitality and his inherent associations with abundance that enable him to overcome the Fomorians clumsy attempt at trickery and deceit.
In contrast, where the Dagda is unsuccessful, or the victim of trickery and negotiation, it is because the solution to the problem lies outwith his abilities: the solution to Cridenbél lies with using the poets greed against him, a notion that is perhaps alien to the Dagda until it is forced upon him later. With Oengus, he is tricked by a younger generation, who turns the Dagda’s words back on him, and as the episode with Cridenbél the satirist, words are not something that the Dagda is particularly aux fait with.
Go to Part Three
19See Thomas Owen Clancy, "Fools and adultery in some early Irish texts" in: Ériu 44 (1993) 105–124.
33 Kinsella, 1969, 132-133
38 Sjoestedt, 1949, 93-94