The Gods – Part One

The previous articles on the gods have given a general idea of some of the ways the gods were are perceived, and have given some bits and pieces on lore and the like. There’s a lot more ground that can be covered, so to speak, that can help us get a better understanding of what we’re looking at. This article will cover a variety of different areas – the sources we can look to in forming a picture of the gods, and the possibe problems inherent with them, and, whether or not we’re dealing with gods at all.

Unfortunately this article didn’t fit on one page, so I’ve had to split it into two parts. The second part covers the question of what to call them, and the issues surrounding Danu – some of which is covered in Alexei Kondratiev’s article Danu and Bile – Primordial Parents? which is well worth a read.

Sources and cognates

One of the most obvious places to look, if we want to get an idea about the gods, are the myths and lore of Ireland, Scotland and Man. These are the stories that tell us about the gods, and their place in the mythological landscape. Some of the stories are old, and some are relatively new, but they can tell us a lot about the character of the gods. We see where they lived, who they loved, the places they went, and even the places they created or lent their names to in other ways. Many of these associations survive today as well.

Given the nature of the sources we’re looking at, however – particularly the medieval sources, written by scribes who often had their own agendas – it is difficult to tell from these sources alone just how far back these associations go. Sometimes the associations might be genuinely pre-Christian, whereas (as we’ve seen) other times we can see that old gods are adopted for more modern political purposes.1 Even then, what we are seeing there is arguably a continuum of belief, if not something that is still in a pre-Christian context.

River and mountain names tend to be less likely to change than the names of towns, villages, and political identifiers, because it is often more important to know who a certain town or area belongs to than a particular mountain or river. Politics and culture may change, but by and large the landscape stays the same – relatively speaking, at least.2 In some cases, the gods lend their names to a place or feature in the landscape, and sometimes we can see a marked continuity of deities being associated with particular places as far back as our sources go. It is with these glimpses that we get our earliest snapshots of the gods, even if the names alone don’t tell us much else.

The earliest evidence that can help us here is Ptolemy’s map of Ireland, which was drawn up in the second century C.E. It appears to have been based on much older information (as far back the first century B.C.E.),3 so it is not necessarily an exact snapshot of Ireland at the time that Ptolemy drew his map in the mid-second century, and nor does it exactly resemble the shape of Ireland, but it does give us some tantalising details:

Ptolemy's map of IrelandFear my awesome map-making skillz. Nyah.4

Firstly, we see that there is a river marked Buvinda, which appears to correspond with the modern River Boyne (named after Boann), and seems to derive from the same root – *Bou-vindā, or ‘cow’ and ‘white’.5 Likewise the river marked Senus corresponds with the modern River Shannon (named after Sinann), and theNagnata who are marked as living in that area of the west have been linked to the Cóiced Ól nÉcmacht, the Fifth of the Fir Ól nÉcmacht.6 In the north-east, O’ Rahilly corresponds the Logia with the River Lagan, while in the south-west the area marked Iverni gives us Ierne, an old name for Ireland and corresponds with the name Érainn, which is consistently associated with that area in the medieval sources.7 The Volu(n)tii appear to relate to the Ulaid (people of Ulster), while Isamnion(the promontory where the Voluntii are situated) appears to relate linguistically and geographically to Emain Macha, the main political centre of the Ulaid.8

The area marked Brigantes suggests that it may have been colonised by the Brythonic tribe of the same name (or have similar continental origins as the Brigantes of what is now north-east England/southern Scotland). The Brigantes of Ireland, while not situated exactly in County Kildare, nonetheless appears to be close enough to suggest some sort of link with Brigit, the name being cognate with the goddess Brigantia of the Brigantes.9 And so on…

These glimpses are the earliest evidence we have of tribes and deities in the Irish landscape, and in many cases we see that the associations survive into the present day. Other associations have been lost, or may be difficult to discern given the problems with Ptolemy’s reliability; that we can recognise certain names as having modern renderings, gives us some confidence that Ptolemy can be relied on at least tentatively.

Ptolemy’s map throws up some other important points, especially in the case of the Brigantes. A ‘cognate’ indicates two words (or more) from different languages that share common origins – words that ultimately come from the same root, and so share similar meanings. This may suggest that some deities found their way to Ireland by way of Celtic settlers (or indeed invaders) from the continent or the Brythonic Brigantes tribe who inhabited northern England, or that the Irish named their gods on the same principles as their Celtic neighbours did (i.e. naming them after similar properties, like ‘shining’, ‘bright’, or ‘high’ that would result in similar names being found across a wide area that identified as Celtic at some point or other).

Brigit is not the only goddess with Brythonic or continental cognates – Nuadu appears to be cognate with the Nodens found in an inscription at Lydney in Gloucestershire, while Lug seems to share many characteristics with what we know of the Gaulish Lugus, and the Welsh Llew. Then there is the similarity between the names and characteristics of Ogma and Ogmios (Gaulish), and Badb and Cathubodua (again, Gaulish), or else Manannán mac Lir and Manawydan fab Llyr (Welsh), and Goibniu and Gofannon (also Welsh).10

In each place they are seen to be worshipped and regarded within their specific cultural contexts, and so what we see of the gods in Ireland – their stories, associations, their descendants – cannot be regarded as being the same, or necessarily applicable, elsewhere. Therefore, Lug of Ireland isn’t the same as Lugus of Gaul, and Brigit of Ireland isn’t the same Brigantia of the north-east of England, because in spite of the similarities of name and perhaps even function and origins, they are seen through different cultural lenses and were historically worshipped in different cultural and linguistic contexts.

The myths show the gods as distinct entities, with their own characters and personalities. They are not shown to be facets of something bigger, they are as real and diverse as human beings are. While the origin legends bear memories of several invasions to the island – whether that should be taken as a literal invasion of people, or ideological, in the sense of ideas being spread more than people – and some of the gods may have had their origins outside of Ireland, or spread wider than the place of their origin, at least, whether that was Ireland or not – the myths and literature clearly show them to be Irish. No matter the mechanism of how they got there, they are seen to be a part of the land, and rightfully so.

We therefore see a theology of contradictions, in a way; the gods are integral to the land, and the people of that land, but that doesn’t mean that they are only gods because of where they are or who is descended from them and worships them. They live in the land, but also the Otherworld, which transcends physical geography. The pre-Christian Irish who settled in Scotland left their mark on the Scottish landscape, for example, and also left evidence of Irish mythology being reconciled into the Scottish geography long after Christianity had taken hold. Brigit and Brigantia may be cognates, while the Fir Bolg may have had their origins in continental settlers, the Belgae.11

Clearly, there are hints here that in some cases at least, the Celts themselves moved and brought their gods with them and reconciled the land around them in their own cultural terms, and interpreted it and reinterpreted it over the centuries12 (and we might also wonder how much of the pre-Celtic beliefs and gods came to influence the Celtic ones). In Scotland, this happened in waves, again and again over the centuries as Irish tales grew popular over the centuries, especially with the influence of the tales of Ossian (which eventually caused much controversy).13

We see a similar pattern emerging in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the Clearances and the famines, with the Celtic cultures who went out into the diaspora – to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Settling into their new homes they all left their mark in the land around them to one degree or another, and reconciled it in their own cultural terms (rightly or wrongly, considering the issue of the indigenous peoples they often displaced).They took their tales with them, and their dances, and their traditions.14 They gave their new homes Gaelic placenames,15 and carried with them stories of the Good Folk.16

‘Demotion,’ demonisation, and other options

There is no getting around the fact that we do not have any sources from the pre-Christian Irish themselves that tell us anything explicit about the gods. The evidence is either contemporary, but from a foreign source – such as Ptolemy’s map, as we’ve already seen – or it is Christian in date, and either native or from foreign sources, but outside any sort of pre-Christian context.

The idea of pagan gods isn’t something that sits entirely comfortably within a monotheistic Christian worldview, and yet the Irish monasteries spent great time and effort recording the myths of their pre-Christian forebears, gods and all. In order to try and reconcile the contradictions between the idea of powerful gods roaming the land with that of their own omnipotent, monotheistic God, the Christian Irish had a few options:

  • To not record the myths, and ignore the fact of their pagan past at all
  • To record the myths and simply make the gods mortal, or supernatural beings
  • To record the myths and demonise the gods to illustrate how mistaken such beliefs are, or were

By and large, the second and third options are the routes that were taken, which allowed the myths to be adapted to a Christian world view, to a greater or lesser degree.17

Mostly it was the second option that was taken – that is, the repainting and reinventing of pre-Christian deities within a particularly Christian worldview – immortal gods become mortal, supernatural beings at best. Others might be seen as maybe not good Christians themselves, but not strictly agents of the devil, or explicitly non-Christian in any other way, either.18 This process is both an advantage and disadvantage to us; it means that the stories of the gods survived, at least. But it also resulted in changes that sometimes conflict with and contradict pre-Christian beliefs, or else we may not be able to see exactly what is the result of this process of ‘demotion’, and what is genuinely pre-Christian in origin.

This process, as far as we can see in the literature, wasn’t consistent or immediate: Sometimes gods overtly retain their divinity in earlier tales and over time appear to evolve to become mortals possessed of supernatural powers.19 In Cormac’s Glossary, for example, we are told that Manannán was a skilled navigator and merchant who was then made a god because of his skill, which directly contradicts his portrayal in the earliest myths that involve him, which show him to be “a powerful and transcendent deity from a separate land.”20 The Coir Anmann is a little more circumspect on the matter, saying that “the Britons and the men of Erin deemed that he was the god of the sea…”21 The wording here could imply that he was made a god, or else simply be referring to the fact that that, as a god, that is how he was pigeon-holed by the pre-Christian Britons and Irish. Later myths emphasise his skill as a navigator, and perhaps his supernatural abilities, but not his divinity.22

Otherwise, there is evidence of demonisation of some deities as well – not so much in the myths themselves, but elsewhere. An Irish gloss in a Bible text explains the word lamia (a queen who became a child-eating demon) as “Monstrum in femine figura .i. Mórrígan.” Cormac also has a go, equating gúdeman – “fraudulent evil spirits” with uatha ocus morrignae – “spectres and mórrígans.”23 In the case of the Morrígan, it might be argued that her fearsome reputation in battle made an easy fit as a gúdeman, rather than simply a supernatural figure. Or, perhaps, we might consider that Cormac is referring to something that was a genuine tradition, even in pre-Christian times.

Given the fact that some tales may only survive in late forms, it’s possible that some gods may have been ‘demoted’ from deity to supernatural entity/mortal so completely that it’s hard to tell whether or not they were originally gods at all. Or else the ambiguity may have been deliberate – Cú Chulainn, for example, may or may not be considered to be a demi-god given his divine parentage (Lug being his divine father), depending on who you ask, while Medb clearly bears the mark of a sovereignty goddess but is never explicitly said to be so. Medb in particular is a difficult case to prove conclusively one way or another.

But how do we really know without being explicitly told they are gods? For one, we can generalise and look to common associations and characteristics that those we see being referred to as gods, or otherwise suspect them of being, in order to get a basic idea of what we should look for in a deity. These include:

  • An intimate association with the landscape
  • Seen as divine ancestors of a people, or certain families
  • The ability to control crops and weather
  • The ability to transform their appearance, or an emphasis on certain features
  • An idealised description of their appearance – beautiful, tall, well-dressed
  • Associated with specific skills or arts
  • Immortal and ageless

Plenty of lore regarding the gods’ associations with the landscape can be found in modern traditions and throughout the earlier sources. It is most commonly goddesses who are associated with specific features in the landscape, lending their names to them and leaving their mark in placenames,24 and this gives a clue as to their nature – ‘sovereignty goddesses’ or tutelary deities who are associated with a particular area and people, who the king is then seen to marry to legitimise his reign.25 It would be fair to say that when people comment that the gods (goddesses especially) are intimately associated with the land, we can see that in a quite literal sense – there are the Paps of Anu and the Paps of the Morrígan, for one, both referring to hills that are reminiscent of shapely breasts and seen as belonging to these goddesses;26 likewise, there are places that are immortalised for the fact that two gods are said to have had sex there – for one, after the Dagda and the Morrígan have sex in Cath Maige Tuired, the author of the tale comments: “’The Bed of the Couple’ was the name of that place from that time on.”27

On the one hand, it makes sense for the gods to be associated with the landscape, because in an oral tradition the land itself then becomes like a book; features become prompts and memories of stories, embodying mythology and meaning. These stories, many of which are embodied in the medieval Dindshenchas, form the mythological geography of Ireland, as Sjoestedt so aptly put it.28

On the other hand, though, naming a place marks out its form and function, in a way becoming an act of creation itself – either creating its form or function, or confirming it; creating order and meaning to the world around you, defining it terms that are understandable.29 This place may be where the deity is honoured, and the place is set aside as ‘other’, not to be used for everyday purposes, but for fairs and festivals at certain times of the year like Lùnastal.

These places are often remarkable in some way – high up, a lake, prehistoric mounds or stones, the source of a river, or perhaps a particular well that is associated with certain properties (general healing, curing infertility or madness etc), and we see that many mountains and high places especially are named after deities, and said to be their homes. This makes sense, as Mac Cana points out, because “the association of physical elevation with sacred transcendence underlies religious thought throughout the world, and is well attested among the Celtic peoples.”30 The term ‘Dindshenchas‘ itself comes from two words – senchas, meaning ‘knowledge of all that pertains to earlier times’, and dind, which can mean several things – ‘height, hill,’ ‘stronghold,’ or ‘famous or important place.’31 These high places are not necessarily special because they’re high, and therefore closer to the gods up in heaven (or other, similar concepts), but because they are themselves sheltered and set away from normal, everyday activities and settlements (but often otherwise exposed and open to the elements), whilst providing good views of the area that the deity – and the people/tribe – is said to be associated with.

Many goddesses are seen as ancestors of particular families or tribes, and are often seen to take on the role of banshee (bean sidhe, or badhdh). Patricia Lysaght notes that many of these goddesses, associated with particular parts of Ireland as well, are also frequently associated with water in some way or another. These include Mór Mumhan (associated with the stream, Mám Clasach in the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry), Áine with Loch Gur and the River Camóg in County Limerick, Clíona with her famous wave, Tonn Chlíona in County Cork, and Aoibheall with her well near Killaloe in County Clare.32 Water frequently forms a boundary in tales (just like the river Unius that the Morrígan is seen to straddle in Cath Maige Tuired, which separates Aghanagh and Lisconny in County Sligo),33 and stories of goddesses who are seen to form these rivers also feature in Dindshenchas tales that have cosmogonical overtones.34 That the Washer at the Ford is seen foretelling the death of warriors, as she washes their blooded mail,35 also fits with these goddesses’ role as banshee, foretelling the deaths of their own. In the Táin, it is Badb who is the Washer Woman – a name for the banshee commonly found in the south-east of Ireland, specifically in Wexford, Wicklow, south Kildare, Kilkenny, and parts of Laois and Tipperary.36

The gods’ ability to control the weather and the crops is well attested; Manannán (for example) is intimately associated with the weather,37 as is Donn in local lore,38 as well as the Cailleach and related figures such as Gentle Annie in Scotland.39 As for crops, it is said that the Milesians had to come to an agreement with the Tuatha Dé Danann and make ‘friends’ with them before they were able to raise crops or herds without them being destroyed.40 In the Book of Armagh they are called dei terreni (‘gods of earth’), which could be seen as reinforcing their association with the crops of the earth and the blurring of the lines between god and Good Folk, both of whom are said to be able to blight the crops, or bring a good harvest, and both of whom are said to live in the hills and mounds etc.41

Likewise, more recent lore tells of places associated with certain deities where it is considered to be taboo to grow crops, because it displeases the inhabitant.42 More generally the land, reflected in the sovereignty who confirms the king, suffers when the king’s rule is wrongful. Crops fail, people starve, and even the land, rivers, seas and sky turns against them.43 The gods of the Gaelic world can be beneficent and kind if treated well, but destructive and even malevolent if not (much like the Good Folk).44

Staying with the sovereignty, she may appear as an old hag or beautiful young woman, depending on how she is treated. A prospective king who does as he is asked when challenged by an old hag ends up with a beautiful young woman, whereas those who don’t do not have the kingship bestowed upon them, and the hag remains. Likewise, the king who rules wrongfully, like Cormac in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, meets with an old hag who brings about his downfall. The hag in this instance is named as the Morrígan, and elsewhere, in the Táin, we see her going through many transformations in her fight against Cú Chulainn. In addition to all of this, she is shown to be of gigantic proportions when the Dagda meets her for their tryst in Cath Maige Tuired, with her feet set on either side of a river, while the Dagda himself is shown to have a huge penis that drags a track on the ground (euphemistically referred to as his ‘club’);45 the Cailleach is also seen to be a giant, sometimes, wading across the sea and washing her plaids in the Corryvreckan.46

More generally, gods and other Otherworldly figures (because it must be remembered that not all mythological figures are necessarily divine simply because they’re mythological) are sometimes referred to as wearing red, or having red hair, or else have an epithet that refers to the colour (In Ruad Rofhessa, for example – ‘the Red One of Great Knowledge’ is an epithet for the Dagda), and usually this offers the listener or reader a subtle clue as to the nature of the character being described; red signifies their Otherworldly nature.47

Often, however, the gods are described as beautiful and of fair hair and complexion, well-dressed and tall; any references to the contrary are generally an indication of their state at the time – the sovereignty appears as a hag because she has no rightful ruler beside her and is in a state of imbalance; the Dagda appears to be uncouth and wearing ill-fitting clothes that barely cover him adequately in one episode of Cath Maige Tuired because he has been forced to eat an enormous amount of porridge by the Fomorians, so as not to offend their hospitality (as they had hoped), and so has been wronged.48 He eats the porridge and beats them at their own game, but at something of cost to his dignity.

Many of the gods are associated with particular skills, just as the goddesses are associated with the land, but again, this is not exclusively the case. The Dagda and Lug are both gods of exceptional skills in general, while Goibniu can be seen as a smith-god, and Dian Cécht as a healer deity, for example. Brigit can be seen to be a patron of smithing, healing and poetry, perhaps at her core bringing divine inspiration no matter the method of bringing it into the physical world, and Airmid, Dian Cécht’s daughter, was also associated with healing.49

Looking at how they behave in the myths, and then comparing it to our list to see if the picture fits can help us gain some confidence in assigning to divinity to some of the more ambiguous figures of the mythology. Their names also tend to give us handy hints – Medb, meaning ‘intoxicating one’, and relating to the root word for ‘mead’, referring to the libation given to a king at his inauguration, indicates her associations with sovereignty and is one of the main reasons many academics identify her as divine rather than simply mythological;50 or the Dagda, generally accepted as meaning ‘the Good God,’ and so on.

While there are references to the deaths of many of the gods in the tales, Dindshenchas, and more recent lore, many of these appear to be quite late. Flainn Mainistrech, who died in 1056, wrote a poem relating each of the Tuatha Dé Danann’s death and it seems here that quite clearly the aim was to play down their divinity and emphasise their mortality.51 The Lament of the Old Woman of Bere relates how Buí, the Cailleach Bhéarra, used to be immortal but gave that up for Christianity and Heaven. The lament is poignant, mourning for her lost youth as her age inevitably catches up with her, and while the price she pays guarantees the saving of her soul, it is something she seems to almost begrudge. Ultimately, however, the message of her lament is that even she, immortal though she was, gave up her life of sin for her Saviour, and as an early poem (thought to be seventh century), it gives us an idea of how this process of ‘demoting’ the gods was used from the start – the gods chose God, look, so forget your pagan ways.52

Elsewhere, in the tale Altromh Tige Dá Medar (‘The Nurturing of the House of Two Milk Vessels’) we are told that Goibniu held a feast each year for the members of the Tuatha Dé Danann, in which they renewed their youth;53 for the most part the gods were immortal, but they could still be killed in battle, or by poison as the Lebor Gabála Érenn shows.54 The case of Manannán’s uncertain status as god or deified mortal and reference to morrignae as ‘fraudulent evil spirits’ in Cormac’s Glossary is curious then, and not least because in the exact same source, Cormac is not so shy of identifying other gods: We see entries for Ána, Brigit, Dian Cécht, and Neit, all identifying them as deities. A few others, such as Bil, are identified as gods as well, but here the ground is somewhat shaky, since Cormac is the only source for this, and he equates Bil with the Bealltainn fires and then neglects to mention Bil at all in his etymology for the entry of Beltine.55

Taking all of this into consideration, we have to be cautious of relying on Cormac for our information alone, even if he is one of our earliest native sources that we can look at, and even though he might give us some answers we want to find. Later sources may refer to Cormac and fit the evidence with ‘accepted facts’ like those found in the glossary itself, as well, so we have to be analytical. On balance, however, it does seem that most of the time Cormac is drawing on genuine tradition. For Ána we are told:

“ÁNA i.e. mater deorum hibernensium [‘mother of the Irish gods’]. It was well she nursed deos i.e. the gods.”56

Not long after, we find an entry for Buanann:

“BUANANN nurse of the heroes, i.e. bé n-Anann from their similarity to each other, for as the Ánu was mother of gods, Buanann erat [was] mother of the heroes i.e. a good mother.”57

Twice, then, Ána (Anu) is mentioned as a goddess by Cormac, and she gets a longer entry in Coir Anmann, ‘The Fitness of Names,’ where we are told that she was worshipped as a goddess of prosperity in the province of Munster.58 Elsewhere, she is simply equated with Ireland itself, – “Anann I.i Eireann. ‘Ireland.’”59 Or: “Anann of Ana (i.e. of abundance), i.e. Ireland, ut est ‘a casting-up against the and of Erin (Anu), i.e. a goddess, (cast-up), i.e. knowledge to poets.”60 This appears to be referring to an Old Irish poem, ‘Ail tighe tres filidecht’, which has the line brútaidh fri híath nAnann, ‘bursts against the land of Anu.’61 This and the reference by Cormac to her being ‘mother of the Irish gods’ is significant, and something we will come back to later.

Then there is Brigit:

“BRIGIT i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician [woman of leechcraft,] Brigit the female smith [woman of smithwork]; from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”62

Likewise Dian Cécht gets a nod for his association with leechcraft:

“DIAN CÉCHT a name for the sage of leechcraft of Ireland, i.e. dia na-cecht, ‘god of the powers’: cecht then is a name for every power. Diancécht i.e. deus salutis i.e. of health. Diancecht then is the god of health…”63

This is repeated almost word for word in Coir Anmann – ‘The Fitness of Names.’64 Given that he is consistently associated with leechcraft in the myths we might think that the descriptions given here are sound, even if Coir Anmann seems to have copied directly from Cormac so can’t exactly considered to be an independent, corroborative source. In Lebor Gabála Érenn, for example, Dian Cécht helps to heal Delbaeth, and in Cath Maige Tuired, he fashions a silver arm for Nuadu, and then ultimately ends up killing his own son for surpassing his skill in healing when Miach makes Nuadu’s arm completely whole, of flesh and blood.65 There is also an early charm, dating to the eighth or ninth century (and so just before, or contemporary to the time that Cormac’s Glossary was written) that calls on Dian Cécht for healing of various ailments:

“I save the dead-alive. Against eructation, against spear-thong (amentum), against sudden tumour, against bleedings caused by iron, against …which fire burns, against …which a dog eats, …that withers: three nuts that … three sinews that weave’ (?). I strike its disease, I vanquish blood… : let it not be a chronic tumour. Whole be that whereon it (Diancecht’s salve) goes. I put my trust in the salve which Diancecht left with his family that whole may be that whereon it goes.”66

Another charm from the same source calls on Goibniu to remove a ‘thorn’, calling on his association with sharp metal objects to remove something sharp from the flesh.67 Clearly during Cormac’s time, pre-Christian influences were close to the surface.

With Neit, we see Cormac making it clear that he is a pagan deity, almost distancing himself from such a notion:

“NEIT…i.e. A god of battle with the pagans of the Gael.”68

Other deities get a mention in the glossary, but these are not explicitly shown to be gods. The Dagda gets two brief mentions aside from being identified as the father of Brigit, but in both cases there is no mention of his status as a god. The first entry, for ‘Cera’ simply gives “.i. In dagdae (‘the Dagdae’).” A note from the author suggests that the word “…may come from the root KAR, and be connected with the Latin cerus, ‘creator’, Ceres, etc.”69 If this is the case then we might see a hint of his divinity, and likewise with the other entry:

“RUAD-ROFHESSA (‘Lord of Great Knowledge’) i.e. nomen for the Dagda.”70

But Cormac is otherwise reluctant to expand any further, it seems. Coir Anmann, on the other hand, gives the Dagda a glowing review:

“Dagda, that is dag dé ‘fire of god’. He was a beautiful god of the heathens, for the Tuatha Dé Danann worshipped him: for he was an earth-god to them because of the greatness of his (magical) power.”71

The etymology is shaky, but his status is clear here. We can look to Cath Maige Tuired to get a better idea of his name, though, because there it is explained clearly that he was given the name because he is the ‘Good God’ (from dagh – ‘good, skilled,’ and dea – ‘god’).72

Áine gets a similar treatment to the Dagda in Cormac’s Glossary, where she is simply identified as:

“AINE ‘name of a place,’ a nomine Aine, daughter of Eogabail.”73

Clearly this is referring to Áine, who lends her name to Cnoc Áine (Knockainy) and is the ancestral deity of some septs of the Eoganacht in Munster, but here she isn’t named as such. That she’s mentioned at all might be seen as some way of giving a hint, though.

We see then, that from the earliest sources onwards they are clearly regarded as gods, even if they aren’t always explicitly shown in that light. Clearly at least some of the scribes had a hard time reconciling what they were writing with their beliefs and with what others might think, with one poet feeling the need to say that “though he enumerates them [the gods], he does not worship them.”74

Comments were made on their supposed origins, as the scribes struggled to figure out their place in a Christian schema:

“Their origin is uncertain, whether they were of demons or of men: but it is said that they were of the progeny of Beothach s. Iarbonel the Soothsayer.”75

This appears to echo a ninth century tale, where we are told that as far as the origins of the gods are concerned, “the learned do not know; but they think it likely that they belong to the exiles who came from heaven.”76 The tale also gives them the same ancestor (here written as “Beothecht son of Iordanen”), and seems to suggest that they are a branch of fallen angels – a common belief in later fairy lore.77

Sometimes, the scribes might even come across as being a little defensive about them:

“And though some say that the Tuatha Dé Danann were demons, as they came into Ireland unperceived, and they themselves said that they came in dark clouds, and for the greatness of their learning and their knowledge, and the obscurity of their genealogy being traced backward; howbeit they learned knowledge and poetry. For every darkness of art and every clearness of reading and every craft of cunning that is in Ireland, they are of the Tuatha Dé Danann by origin, and though the Faith came into Ireland those arts were not abolished, for they are good.”78

It seems that their stubborn association with the arts is one of the reasons they remained so popular, even if they didn’t sit so comfortably in a Christian world view. A contradiction though it may have been, such fine praise poetry, and such fine reliquaries and other crafts that exalted God and those who were holy, ultimately had their source from the gods…(?) No wonder there was some discomfort as to how to approach them, portray them, and even to refer to them.

Continue to Part Two


1 Lysaght, The Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger, 1986, p195.
2 The large majority of prehistoric monuments of pre-Celtic Ireland, and any associations in the landscape appear to have been throughly co-opted into a Celtic worldview over time, with places like Brugh na Boinne, Loughcrew, Knowth, Dowth, Dun Ailinne, and so on, all being expressed in thoroughly Celticised, Irish mythological terms, of course. Likewise, many of these places with pre-Christian associations have subsequently been co-opted into a Christian landscape as well – wells in particular. Mac Cana, Placenames and Mythology in Irish Tradition: Places, Pilgrimages and Things, in Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies 1986, 1988, p338.
3 O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p1.
4 Adapted from the open domain image of Ptolemy’s map of Ireland on Wikimedia. I’ve simplified the map, leaving out the placenames to avoid over-cluttering.
5 O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p3.
6 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 2001, p231.
7 O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p3-9.
8 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1471; 1707.
9 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p287-288; p1695.
10 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p26, p277, p329; Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1695.
11 O’ Rahilly, Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p749; O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p56.
12 Mac Cana, ‘Placenames and Mythology in Irish Tradition: Places, Pilgrimages and Things,’ in Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies 1986, 1988, p338.
13 See this article.
14 See for example: MacNeill and Shaw, Tales until dawn: the world of a Cape Breton Gaelic story-teller, 1987. Examples are also given in Wright-Popescul, The Twelve Winds of the Ancient Gaelic World, 1997.
15 As Mac Cana puts it: “To get to know the features of one’s environment and their names is to form an indissoluble association with them, amounting at times almost to a kind of empathy.” This is why learning the stories and origins of places and deities is so imperative, as is connecting to the land around you as well. Mac Cana, ‘Placenames and Mythology in Irish Tradition: Places, Pilgrimages and Things,’ in Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies 1986, 1988, p341. An example of Gaelic placenames and speakers outside of Scotland or Ireland can be found here.
16 See Bennett, The last stronghold: Scottish Gaelic traditions of Newfoundland, 1989; Rieti, ‘ “The Blast” in Newfoundland Fairy Tradition, in Narváez, The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997.
17 Herbert, ‘Transmutations of an Irish Goddess,’ in Billington and Green (Eds.), The Concept of the Goddess, 1996, p148.
18 O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p261. O’Rahilly refers to this process as ‘euhemerism’, “treating…divine beings as if they were men of a far-off age,” and so “By thus humanizing and mortalizing the divinities of pagan Ireland, they hoped to eradicate the pagan beliefs that still lingered on among many of their countrymen.” Following this (and having learned the term used in such a manner during my studies) I initially used the term in this article, but in fact the term means quite the opposite. As a result, in spite of its popular usage in many Celtic books to convey the meaning that O’ Rahilly gives (as an example), I’ve opted to remove the word and, for lack of a better alternative at the moment, have opted for ‘demoting’ where necessary – the quote marks, I hope, will serve as a reminder that this is a for-lack-of-a-better-term word than anything exact.
19 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p165.
20 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p165.
21 Stokes, Coir Anmann in Irische Texte III, 1898, p357.
22 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p165.
23 Herbert, ‘Transmutations of an Irish Goddess,’ in Billington and Green (Eds.), The Concept of the Goddess, 1996, p148.
24 Sjoestedt (trans. Myles Dillon), Celtic Gods and Heroes, 1949, p25; Clark, The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan, 1991, p191.
25 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1696.
26 Herbert, ‘Transmutations of an Irish Goddess,’ in Billington and Green, Concept of the Goddess, 1996, p143.
27 Cath Maige Tuired, 84.
28 Sjoestedt (trans. Myles Dillon), Celtic Gods and Heroes, 1949, p1. See also: Mac Cana, Placenames and Mythology in Irish Tradition: Places, Pilgrimages and Things,’ in Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies 1986, 1988, p333.
29 Mac Cana, Placenames and Mythology in Irish Tradition: Places, Pilgrimages and Things,’ in Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies 1986, 1988, p321.
30 Mac Cana, Placenames and Mythology in Irish Tradition: Places, Pilgrimages and Things,’ in Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies 1986, 1988, p323.
31 Mac Cana, Placenames and Mythology in Irish Tradition: Places, Pilgrimages and Things,’ in Proceedings of the First North American Congress of Celtic Studies 1986, 1988, p333.
32 Lysaght, ‘Traditions of the Banshee,’ in Billington and Green, Concept of the Goddess, 1996, p159.
33 Cath Maige Tuired, 84.
34 See Creation Myths.
35 Clark, The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan, 1991, p24-25 and p209-210.
36 Lysaght, ‘Traditions of the Banshee,’ in Billington and Green, Concept of the Goddess, 1996, p154; Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopedia of Myth, Legend and Romance, 2006, p27-28. For an in-depth study of the Banshee, see Lysaght, The Banshee.
37 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p329.
38 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p201-206.
39 See Bride and the Cailleach.
40 Hull, ‘De Gabail in t-Sida’ in ZcP Volume 19, 1933, p57.
41 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p291.
42 Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland Volume I, 1902, p372.
43 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p18. See the section on Sovereignty in the Talam article.
44 See Tymoczko, ‘Unity and Duality? A Theoretical Perspective on the Ambivalence of Celtic Goddesses,’ in Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Volume V, 1985, p30.
45 Epstein, “Gods in the Hood”, in Proceeding of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Volume XIV, 1997, p96.
46 See Murray, The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan, 1950. Some fantastic bits of lore here.
47 Ó Crualaoich, The book of the Cailleach: stories of the wise-woman healer, 2003, p39; p209.
48 Gray, “Cath Maige Tuired: Myth and Structure (84 – 93)” in Éigse XIX, 1983, p232.
49 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p586.
50 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p109; Clark, The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan, 1991, p126; Sessle, ‘Misogyny and Medb: Approaching Medb with Feminist Criticism,’ in Mallory and Stockman (Eds.), Ulidia, 1994, p137; Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p75-76. See Marriage: Part One.
51 O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p261.
52 For commentary on this poem, see “Transmutations of Immortality in ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare'” by John Carney, in Celtica 23. (pdf)
53 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p830.
54 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn Book IV, 1941, p137; cf p341.
55 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p19; p23.
56 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p4.
57 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p17.
58 Stokes, ‘Coir Anmann,’ in Irische Texte III, 1898, p289.
59 Miller, ‘O’Clery’s Glossary,’ Revue Celtique IV, 1879-1880, p366.
60 Stokes and Meyer, ‘O’ Davoren’s Glossary,’ in Archiv für Celtische Lexikographie, 1904, p204.
61 Carey, ‘Notes on the Irish War Goddess,’ in Éigse, p270.
62 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p23.
63 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p56.
64 “Dian-cecht the name of Erin’s sage of leechcraft, ‘the god of the powers’, for cecht means ‘power’.” Stokes, ‘Coir Anmann’ in Irische Texte III, 1898, p357.
65 Cath Maige Tuired, 33.
66 Stokes and Strachan, Thesaurus Paleohibernicus Volume II, 1903, p249.
67 Stokes and Strachan, Thesaurus Paleohibernicus Volume II, 1903, p248.
68 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p122.
69 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p47.
70 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p144.
71 Stokes, ‘Coir Anmann’ in Irische Texte III, 1898, p355.
72 Cath Maige Tuired, 81; Sjoestedt (trans. Myles Dillon), Celtic Gods and Heroes, 1949, p38.
73 Stokes and O’Donovan, Sanas Chormaic, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p9.
74 O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p261.
75 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn Volume IV, 1941, p169.
76 Carey, Scél Tuáin Meic Chairill, in Koch and Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age, 1995, p212.
77 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p67.
78 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn Volume IV, 1941, p203.