Gods as Ancestors

 

 

Sinn ag loighe ar in lucht romhainn, lucht oile orainn san úaigh
We rest on those who came before us, and others will rest on us in the grave1

 

Early medieval Ireland was split into four main political divisions, with the Ulaid (Ulster) in the north, Mumu (Munster) in the south, the Laigin (Leinster) in the east, and Connacht in the west. In the centre was Mide (Meath), which encompassed the political centre of Tara and was associated with the high-kingship. Each province was known as a cóiced, or 'fifth', and according to some schemes Meath formed a fifth province, or else Munster was split into two – East and West Munster.2 The four main provinces remain today:

 

Coiceda of Ireland
Provinces of Ireland (based on a map from Wikimedia)3

 

 

As we will see, the evidence suggests that each province had an overarching goddess of sovereignty, from which many claimed descent from: In Ulster, the main goddess we find is Macha; in Leinster, there is Brigit; in Munster there is Anu; while in Connacht (and Meath) there is Medb. Within these areas, distinct dynasties rose and fell over the centuries, and we can often see from the genealogies and toponymics that these families had their own ancestral deities and sovereignty goddesses.

 

It is often said that ancestor worship was (and still is) prevalent in Celtic cultures, as it has been throughout the Indo-European cultures. We can see from the archaeological evidence that generations and generations of people were often buried in the same burial mounds, Iron Age remains being interred in the same area as their prehistoric ancestors. The inference is that it was believed that ancestors remained important long after their death, perhaps being seen as welcoming the more recently deceased into the afterlife. Certainly it was important to know where you came from – the pedigree of your ancestors, the names of the people who came before you – affected the status and political standing of you and your offspring in the present.

 

It is natural, then, in this respect, to see that one's own ancestors are worthy of veneration; after all, we wouldn't be here today without them. Looking at the evidence, however, we see another reason being suggested; often, families traced their genealogical pedigrees back to the gods themselves.

 

 

Genealogies

 

In the rise and fall of dynastic fortunes, various families endeavoured to keep detailed family genealogies. A large part of the reason for this was political – a good pedigree helped support political claims to power and territories, because they helped to show that the family making the claims had the right sort of connections to the area. Over time, a lot of these families weren't averse to basically re-writing their ancestry (to a greater or lesser extent) in order to fit their purpose of the time, although there was a limit to what they could get away with – it was far easier to change their earlier ancestry, rather than their more recent histories, which other people would be more likely to know.4

 

Most of the surviving genealogies date to the twelfth century, but some of the earliest (of the Laigin) date as far back as the seventh century.5 Many of these genealogies bear the marks of careful editing, with many families tracing their ancestry back to Éremón, one of the sons of Míl, and through him, back to Noah – all firmly and neatly in line with the Bible and the Lebor Gabála Érenn.

 

Not everything fits so tidily within this Christian framework, however. Some genealogies clung to a descent from other waves of invaders who took, or claimed influence, over Ireland, such as the Fir Bolg or the Fomorians.6 The Tuatha Dé Danann get several mentions as well, with the Lebor Gabála Érenn going so far as to say:

 

...for what learned men say is, that every princely family that is in Ireland, save the Eoganacht, is of the seed of Nuadu Airgetlám.”7

 

Otherwise, members of the Tuatha Dé Danann pop up here and there, giving their name to certain dynastic septs – such as the Uí Méith Macha, who are connected with the ecclesiastical establishment of Armagh (Ard Macha) from as early as the sixth century.8 Given Macha's close ties with the area, it's tempting to see their name as linking themselves directly with a divine ancestry.

 

Similarly, the Delbnae Nuadat, situated just east of Lough Corrib in around the early sixth century9 (so conceivably still bearing genuine pre-Christian origins), appear to have traced their descent from Nuadu based on their name for themselves.10 Unsurprisingly, given the lough's associations with Manannán mac Lir (as Oirbsen), at least one sept of the Connmaicne, who were based beside the lough (the Conmaicne Meic Oirbsen Máir), traced their descent back to Oirbsen and therefore Manannán mac Lir. On the whole, however, the Conmaicne took their name from Cormac, who descended from Medb and Fergus mac Roic.11

 

In Munster, the Eoganacht traced their descent back to Míl's son Eber, through Áine, her father Fer Í ('man of yew' – hinting at a reference to a bile, sacred tree), his father Eógabal, and so on back to Eber. Sometimes Áine is listed as the daughter of Manannán mac Lir, however.12 Yews figure elsewhere in the origin legends of the Eoganacht, with Conall Corc's founding of Cashel – the royal seat of Munster – being prompted by a vision of seeing it built on a rock where a yew grows out of it.13 The main religious foundation of the Eoganacht, at Emly (Imleach Ibar) in County Limerick, also gets its name from a word for yew (ibar).14 All of this suggests a long established pedigree going back to a sovereignty goddess that has been tweaked into a more acceptably Christian, although still thoroughly Irish, framework.

 

Contrary to the claim of the Lebor Gabála Érenn, however, Nuadu does get a mention in the Eoganacht genealogies, albeit indirectly. Those who traced their descent through the founder of Cashel, Conall Corc (c400C.E.) have Mug Nuadat as a distant ancestor; the name means 'servant of Nuadu',15 suggesting that Mug Nuadat – also known as Éogan Taídlech, or Éogan Fitheccach – was a devotee of Nuadu.16 In the myths, Nuadu is often shown as a good king – so beloved, in fact, that the leeches of the Tuatha Dé Danann fashioned him a new hand, first of silver, and then of flesh and blood, so that he could reclaim his seat.17 It makes sense, in this respect, for kings to associate (and perhaps even devote) themselves with such a paragon of kingly virtue.

 

It is said that Mug Nuadat negotiated the splitting of Ireland into two parts, with Conn Cétchathach, 'Conn of a Hundred Battles.' Mug's half was called Leth Moga (literally – 'Mug's Half'), while Conn was given Leth Cuinn ('Conn's Half), and it is all very reminiscent of the splitting of Ireland by the sons of Míl – Éber and Éremon. Éber got the Munster half.18

 

Áine is said to have been raped by the Munster king Ailill Olum, but later tradition has her popping up again in the fourteenth century, giving a good Irish pedigree to the Anglo-Norman Fitzgerald family after having a passionate affair with the third Earl of Desmond.19 Again, genealogy is seen to be used for political gain.

 

The tract on 'The History of the Descendants of Ir' (Ulaid) traces their origins to Munster as well, but also we see at least one mention of a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann in an offshoot of the sept:

 

The seventh was Domongort of whom the hero Ronan was the son from the middle. But the other part was like Manannán son of Lir. For Ronan was sprung from both viz; a half from head to heel from each respectively, the right side from Domangort, the left from Manannán.”20

 

Ronan, it seems, had two fathers, perhaps in attempt at boosting his pedigree, like the legendary Cruithin king Mongán (whose father was also Manannán, according to Immram Brain, for one). Or else perhaps we might see it in a comparable way to that of Cú Chulainn, who is said to have had both a mortal father – Sualtaim – and a divine father, Lug.

 

Otherwise certain septs of the Ulaid (the Dál Fiatach and Dál Riata, of the east and north-east of Ulster in particular) were known as the Dáirine, descendants of Dáire (who seems to have been an ancestral deity).21 They had their origins in the Corcu Loígde of Munster, who along with the Uí Liathain traced themselves back to Dáire and were associated with the Fir Bolg.22 The Corcu Loígde, along with the Corcu Duibne, also held Buí (later known as Cailleach Bhéarra) as one of their mutual ancestors.23

 

In what is now County Wexford, there were the Benntraige, who traced their descent from Benta, son of Mál, all the way back to Lug son of Ethnenn (Ethne).24 James MacKillop makes Lug the god of the Laigin, being of the opinion that Lug is who they derived their name from; this is linguistically unlikely,25 however, and looking at the names of septs in the area – the Uí Brigte, for example, and possibly the Bairrche (though less likely to derive their name from Brigit),26 along with the foundation of Brigid's monastery in Kildare – all suggests that Brigit was very much the goddess associated with the area.27

 

 

Summary

 

Overall then, the gods are as much a part of the people as they are the lore and landscape. The following map details the areas referred to in the article above, and also incorporates some of the genealogical information detailed in the previous article The Gods of Landscape and Lore, which didn't need repeating here; the names listed span many centuries, and is not meant to suggest a snapshot of Ireland from a specific period. The accompanying table summarises all of the above, for ease of reference, listed by province:

 

Tribes claiming divine ancestry

Tribes with divine ancestry (based on a map from Wikimedia)28

 

Name

Deity

Summary

ULAID

Macha

Sovereignty goddess of the Ulaid

Dál Riata

Dáire

Claiming descent from Dáire through the Corcu Loígde of Munster

Dál Fiatach

Dáire

As the Dál Riata, claiming descent from Dáire through the Corcu Loígde of Munster

Uí Méith Macha

Macha

Associated with the ecclesiastical foundation of Armagh (Ard Macha) from the sixth century onwards

O' Corra

Áine

Claim descent from Áine29

Maguire

Donn

The Maguires of Co. Fermanagh claim Donn as the first Maguire lord, and so trace their ancestry to him. It is said that when a true Maguire descendent of Donn dies, a splinter falls off the mountain peak he is said to reside in, in the Co. Fermanagh area. Donn is still thought to live in the mountain and helps the Maguires in battle; it is said that he helped to defeat an English force who tried to invade Fermanagh, by throwing stones at them30

 

 

 

LAIGIN

Brigit

 

Uí Brigte

Brigit

As suggested by the name

Bairrche

Brigit

The association may be a little shaky here; the name is thought to derive from Brigit, though the linguistic basis is questionable

Benntraige

Lug

Claiming descent to 'Lug son of Ethnenn' (an incorrect male rendering of the matronymic, Ethne – Lug's mother) through Benta, son of Mál

 

 

 

MUNSTER

Ánu

The Coir Anmann gives an etymology of Mumu (Munster) as mó and ána, meaning 'greater wealth', and says: “for in it [Mumu] was worshipped the goddess of prosperity, whose name was Ana, and from her are named the Two Paps of Ana over Luachair Degad.”31

Éoganacht Áine

Áine

Situated in the region of Knockainy, as well as the ecclesiastical foundation of Imleach Ibar (Emly)

Uí Liathain/Corcu Loígde

Dáire, Buí

Tracing their descent from Dáire, and encompassing the Beara Peninsula

Corcu Duibne

Dáire

Also tracing descent to Dáire. Duibne appears to derive from/relate to the name Dovinia, found on an ogam stone. Byrne claims the name is connected to Buí

O' Carrolls

Úna

Trace their ancestry to Úna, who appears to be the sovereignty goddess for the area

 

 

 

CONNACHT

Medb

All of the tribes of Connaught traced descent to Medb and Fergus mac Roic

Delbnae Nuadat (Nódot)

Nuadu

As suggested by the name

Conmaicne

Oirbsen, Medb

One sept traces descent to Oirbsen (often given as an alternative name for Manannán mac Lir); all of the Conmaicne trace descent, ultimately, to Medb

Fir Domnann

Fir Bolg

Named as one of the three Fir Bolg tribes in Lebor Gabála Érenn, and according to one tale, they were given this part of Connacht by the Tuatha Dé Danann out of respect for their dignity in defeat (when the Tuatha Dé Danann ousted the Fir Bolg)32

 

 

 

 

References

1 Bergin, Ériu 9, p118.

2 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p118.

3 Please note that under the terms and conditions of use as detailed on the Wikimedia, this image is under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence, and may be shared or altered, with attribution and the same or similar licensing to the original image.

4 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 2001, p11; Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p798-799.

5 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p798-799.

6 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p798.

7 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn Book V, 1956, p27.

8 Dooley and Roe, Tales of the Elders of Ireland, 1999, p239.

9 Knox, 'The Early Tribes of Connaught,' JRSAI Vol 30, 1900, p348.

10 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 2001, p237.

11 Ó Muraíle, 'Some Connacht Population-Groups,' in Seanchas: Studies in Early and Medieval Archaeology, History and Literature in Honour of Francis John Byrne, 2000, p176.

12 O' Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p288.

13 Dillon, 'The Story of the Finding of Cashel,' in Ériu 16, 1952, p63.

14 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p705.

15 O' Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p191.

16 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 2001, p291; Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p705.

17 Cath Maige Tuired, 33 onwards. Note also the cosmogonic elements of the refashioning of Nuadu's arm.

18 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p705.

19 Lysaght, The Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger, 1986, p195.

20 Dobbs, 'The History of the Descendants of Ir,' in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie Vol 13, 1921.

21 Ó hÓgain, The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopedia of Myth, Legend and Romance, 2006, p486.

22 O' Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p48.

23 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 2001, p166-167.

24 O' Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p38.

25 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1079.

26 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p284.

27 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p287-288.

28 Please note that under the terms and conditions of use as detailed on the Wikimedia, this image is under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence, and may be shared or altered, with attribution and the same or similar licensing to the original image.

29 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p151; Ó hÓgaín, The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopedia of Myth, Legend and Romance, 2006, p8.

30 Logan, The Old Gods: The Facts about Irish Fairies, 1981, p34-35.

31 Stokes, 'Coir Anmann,' in Irische Texte III, 1897, p289.

32 Squire, Celtic Myth and Legend, 1905, p75.

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 August 2011 09:54