Explaining Gaelic Gods
By: Murfie / Novice Feb 16, 2013
Post # 1
So I've been posting this in my coven forum lately and it got me thinking as to why I wasn't sharing it with anyone else. So if anyone's interested in reading all my ramblings then here they are. Additionally though if anyone would like to contribute to it, draw parallels with their own path or just generally comment please do as I always welcome any information or ideas on the matter.
So I've been slinging a few terms around, Sons of Mil, Tuatha De Danann etc, without actually explaining what they are. So I thought I'd go through the history of Ireland and its many different religions, all of which fall under the umbrella terms of Celtic paganism.
So we start with the Fomorians. These are the primordial gods of Ireland and the peoples that were thought to originally inhabit the land long before it was ever inhabited by men. To draw a par with Greek mythology these can typically be considered in a similar manner to the Titans as they represent the chaotic elements of nature.
There was then an invasion by Partholon and his followers who encountered the Fomorians and lived in harmony for a while until the Partholons eventually died of plague. It wasn't a very exciting invasion but does give a hint to the heritage of Gaelic gods being actual men, after all it's very unusual for gods to die of disease.
Next up though came Nemed and his followers who also encountered the Fomorians although this wave warred with them and killed two of their kings. The Formorians though proved too powerful and eventually repelled the invasion, managing to hang on to their territory for quite a while longer.
We then encounter the Fir Bolg, who colonised island in three waves and bizarrely didn't encounter the Fomorians at all, although they do later reappear again so I don't know where the Fomorians went exactly but they simply didn't really seem to care about this lot apparently. The Fir Bolg are the first generation of what you would consider gods we see in Island until the Tuartha De Danann comes along.
Now the Tuartha De Danann is my own pantheon and the one I pay head to but I'm fully well aware that they are not as virtuous as many other pantheons. These were the first successful invaders of Island that demanded (for no real reason) half of the island from the Fir Bolg. Rather obviously the Fir Bolg refused and they went to war, the Tuartha De won and the Fir Bolg were either killed, exiled or condemned to be a lower class. The Fomorians on the other hand allied with the Tuartha De during the battle and through a union of their peoples the first king of Island was half Fomorian and half Tuartha De Danann. This union though didn't last. The King (Bres) ignored his duties of hospitality and so was struck from kingship to be replaced by the previous ruler of the Tuartha De, Nuada who was originally forced out of the throne by loosing his arm (the king of Island was supposed to be perfect in every way) but the Dagda forged him one out of silver so he could once again rule. Bres obviously didn't like this very much and surprise surprise we have another war going on. To cut a long story short the Fomorians lost this time and the majority of them killed giving rise to the first unified pantheon and the one most people (including myself) refer to as the Gaelic pantheon.
Although because this is Ireland after all it didn't stay quiet for long and we have the Sons of Mil coming in. These, whilst viewed as gods, are men and believed to be the true ancestors of most Irish people (I'll explain that later). What basically happened is that a guy called Ith was killed by the kings of the Tuartha De Dannan and his brother's (Mil's) Sons got upset thus? war again. In this battle the Sons of Mil eventually proved themselves victorious but interestingly the Tuartha De didn't die but instead retreated into the land itself by becoming one with the ground, a trait more characteristic of godhood than the other pantheons.
So that's the history, but the Irish are descended from gods are they? No. The reason being is that Gaelic mythology is based quite strongly to actual colonisations of Ireland and so whilst these characters are likely fictitious the stories bare an element of truth so whilst there is likely to be some Fomorian, Fir Bolg and Tuartha De Danann blood flowing around the majority of true blooded Irish people really are descended from the Sons of Mil, although even that has been dilutes in recent years obviously. And there you have it, a very brief history of the Gaelic pantheon and a couple of the reasons why it's so blooming complicated to study as all these pantheons overlap making it exceptionally difficult to distinguish who belongs to which faction the only common theme is that everyone fights everyone else.
So as I've said a couple of times the Tuartha De Danann is the pantheon I actually worship and so I thought I'd go into a bit more detail than the sweeping statements I already made.
Firstly though let's go through their history a little so I can explain who they are. They are unquestionably the closest thing we have to gods in Ireland however there is a rather peculiar fact about them, they worship a deity. The name Tuartha De Danann translates as "peoples of the goddess Danu". Danu is the mother goddess although not the ruler of the Tuartha but goddess of the Otherworld and of running water. In a way she is comparable to the notion of Gaia in Greek legend, a mother being that sires the gods although she did not give rise to the Fomorians and is actively worshiped by her children.
As for the actual Tuartha De Danann though they are not peaceful gods but are in fact quite violent in nature. They first arrived in Ireland on dark clouds from the north and on ships that they burnt on the beech to ensure that they would never retreat then demanded half the island from the current residents the Fir Bolg. Now as much as this does seem demanding there is actually a reason for it. During the invasion of Nemed he had two sons, Semeon who left for Greece and became the founder of the Fir Bolg, and Bethach who went to the northern islands and met Danu, founding the Tuartha. Thus both groups were descended from the previous owners of Ireland and the Tuartha just wanted half of what was essentially their inheritance. The Fir Bolg though refused and war broke out. Eochaid (The Fir Bolg King) was killed in the first war but the Tuartha De King (Nuada) lost his arm in the process. The Irish King was required to be both physically and socially perfect in every way so he was forced to step down from kingship and allow the half Fomorian (Bres) to step in.
Bres though turned out to be a tyrant and brought the Tuartha De under Fomorian oppression meaning that they rose against him and put Nuada back on the throne who now had a working arm made from silver by the Dagda. This led to a second war where the Formorians eventually lost. In the process though Nuada was killed by the Fomorian Balor who in turn was slain by Lugh, the next king of the Tuartha De.
From here there reign went on for quite a while and I'm afraid there events are too numerous to go into any real detail on although I shall try to write some up in the near future, most of this falls into the Mythological Cycle of Ireland if you'd like to do some reading on it before then though.
There is however an element to their being that requires explanation, the Otherworld, home to faeries and other mythical creatures it can today be considered the astral plane, although it should be noted that the Otherworld is said to be quite specifically under Ireland. This is where the concept of sidhe or faerie mounds originates, as a means for fairies to travel between worlds, they do not live in the mound but merely travel through it. The Tuartha De were capable of existing in both worlds although now they only reside in the Otherworld. A concept that I'm looking into at the moment is that of henges as I personally believe that it explains them somewhat. Henges are circular areas surrounded by a bank and used during druidic worship, they are typically built in low lying areas near running water and good agricultural land. For a long time the notion of them confused us but I personally find itself explanatory, Danu was a goddess of running water and the Tuartha De reside under the land so the best area to contact them would be in lowlands where there influence can be seen (the farm land) and the running water is a tribute to their own deity.
The next invasion of the Milesians or Sons of Mil (who are men and actual humans not gods) braught the end to their reign as war broke out. Eventually though neither side truly won the war and a treaty was drawn where by the Milesians would rule Ireland and the Tuartha would rule the Otherworld. Another slightly strange concept in a belief as it places man and god as equals and the Sons of Mil continued to worship the gods even after they waged war against them.
The Tuartha De are renowned for owning four treasures and objects of power that they acquired in the northern islands before they came to Ireland itself that are spread among the most powerful of members. The Dagda's Cauldron, the Spear of Lugh, The Stone of Fal and The Sword of Light (of Nuada).
The Coire Dagdae or Dagda's cauldron is a large cooking pot that is continually full of porridge and never runs dry. As the Dagda is a chieftain figure it was used to ensure his followers would never go hungry and that the land would always be plentiful. It made the Dagda one of the best hosts as no body would ever leave unsatisfied and meant that he was one of the most important deities. It was found in the city of Muirias. The Dagda also wielded a mighty staff with the power over both life and death, able to bring the dead back to the realm of the living and to strike down any that stood in his way although this was not considered to be one of the great treasures as the Dagda's strength is in his family not in his arsenal.
The Slea Bua or Spear of Lugh is a legendary spear that had the power to win any battle and made the wielder invincible. Lugh was technically only half Tuartha De as his mother was a Fomorian however after pledging himself to Nuada's service he was admitted into their pantheon. Unlike the Dagda Lugh's strength reside in mainly in war which reflects his treasure but the also possesses an item important for healing, a pig skin that when used to bind a wound will cure all injuries. It has only featured once to my knowledge however Lugh refused to use it as the individuals in need had killed his father shortly before hand. The spear was from the city of Goirias.
The Claiomh Solaris or Sword of Light was another legendary weapon that was impossible to beat but only after it was drawn from its sheath which is how Nuada was defeated. The sword reflects Nuada's personality somewhat as it as a mighty and brutal weapon but unlike Lugh's Spear it is only so when drawn and allows Nuada to be both fair and merciful outside of battle.
The Stone of Fal also known as the Lia Fail is a legendary stone still found in Ireland today that is legend to sry out under the touch of the true king of Ireland. Unlike the other three treasures it does not belong to any one god but instead is property of all the Tuartha De. Unfortunately the stone was vandalised last year and although no great damage was done to it it's an insult to anyone that worships the Tuartha De (but that's just me ranting again).
So there's a lot of material in this coven about the Norse pantheon which is great, but something that I can't contribute to all that much so I thought it time to add something from the Celts. I apologize if this makes little sense to people in my sleep deprived state but the advantage is that it's given me plenty of tie to work on things just like this.
So I work mainly with Brighid (daughter of the Dagda) and information on her may follow this if I can still focus to write some but I thought I'd start in a more logistical order right at the top with one of the older deities and who better than her dear old dad.
Who is the Dagda?
The Dagda literally means "The Good God" not for moral reasons however but instead simply because he is talented in many areas, although as he is known as a father figure and a general teacher and protector the moral title is not unsuited to his role. He got this title when he was asked what he could contribute to the Tuatha De Danann and replied that he would carry out all the worked pledged by all of the other skilled men himself. He is also known however as Raud Rofhessa or "The Red One of Great Knowledge" or as the Eochaid Ollathair, "Great Father". All these interpretations are titles however and not his full name, perhaps because his full name is quite so complex being, "Fer Benn Bruach Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Tri Carboid Roth Rimaire Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe" as relieved in the Cath Maige Tuired.
The Dagda is a father figure in Irish mythology and popular Celtic deity that is often depicted as both a chieftain and father figure. His role however extends far beyond that of a tribal chieftain as he is seen with many facets. He is a chieftain god; fertility god; Otherworldy god; conqueror of women and goddesses; negotiator; father; churl; and a member of the s?de. Not only does he appear as a mythological figure and a divine figure, but also a more political figure, in the Dinnshenchas.
Undoubtedly he is a complex god in no small part due to his prevalence throughout many eras and his nature changing through time as well as changes in modern interpretation. The divine functions and character of the Dagda have evolved, just as Irish society and mythology has, from pagan times and through Christian, he is not now, nor has he ever been, a static figure.
However complex or paradoxical the Dagda may seem though, there is also a certain symmetry to his character: as a chieftain god, he cares for and protects his people which is shown through his unions with the Morrigan and Indech to ensure their help, and his negotiations of truce with the Fomoire at his own expense. As a chieftain he must provide for his people, and as a fertility god, his sexual vigour and cauldron of plenty enables him to do so. Finally, the Dagda is their father, a wise patriarch with great knowledge of Otherworldly origin - and the Otherworld is intimately linked with fertility and kingship as well.
The Dagda as Chieftain
The role of chieftain or king was not taken lightly in early Irish culture. A king was required to not only by strong, generous and wise but it was vital that he be physically perfect for his body would reflect the land he reside over, if he was imperfect then crops would fail and the land would also become imperfect so the Dagda's nature as chieftain alone reflects his rather supreme nature. The Dagda is known to exhibit a high level of magical and sacred knowledge as well as being physically perfect in his skill at all things and extremely generous. These traits are shown through two of the Dagda's most treasured possessions is undoubtedly his cauldron which is enchanted as to never run out of porridge and his magical staff powered to bring people back from the dead.
Where did the Dagda come from?
The The Lebar Gabala describes through a series of poems an invasion of Ireland by a group of supernatural or divine beings. For obvious reasons this book can not be taken completely literally, putting aside the aspect of heavenly gods wanting to conquer quite specifically Ireland it was written during the 11th century during the decline of the Celtic faith as a merging of old mythological ideas and principally a method of new Christian ideas to convert Irish Celts by giving them a specific legend (McCone 1990). Therefore the tales and the mythology contained therein are not solely pre-Christian in origin, but a mixture of pre-Christian, Christian and Classical ideals, with a healthy dusting of misinterpretations sprinkled throughout the whole text. Unfortunately though many of the tales within do not exist in their original forms (assuming that the origin of the stories was before this book as some may not be). In short the book describes how the Tuatha De Danann conquered the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha De Danann wanted half of Ireland for their people but for obvious reasons the Fir Bolg refused. During the battle the king of the Tuartha De Danann was mortally injured and would have died if not for the Dagda and his soldiers carrying him from the field. This is the first origin that I know of about the Dagda and sets him up as a kind and protective god which his name certainly shares throughout his later interpretations. Having lost his arm however the King was replaced by a half Fomorian (the native primordial gods of Ireland much like the concept of the Titans or Jotun in a way) prince. When the King's arm was replaced however the prince was overthrown and the Fomorians defeated although the King also died in the battle. They were later defeated by the Sons of Mil who gave rise to the medieval Irish bloodline however this is largely an interpretation and addition of the Christian framework where by reducing divinity to the ranks of mortal men did not break the tradition of having one true god (MacQuarrie, 1997). Although the deity were always seen to be close to mortal men they were never recognised to be the same as mankind and were far less literal than this text and later belief has made them but more conceptual very much in the manner of more traditional deity worship.
Other than this rather inaccurate but abundant reference to the Dagda he can be found woven throught the Gaelic beliefs and more specifically in a collection of myths known as the Dinnshenchas. Whilst originating in the twelfth century this text is based far more on folk lore than religion and thus at least partially more reliable in its origin. Instead of being defeated the tales imply that the Tuatha De Danann retreated into the grounds of Ireland itself to become aes s?de , or loosly "fairy folk", when the sons of Mil appeared and they lost their supremacy. It also deals with the Tuatha De Danann as residing in the side or "Otherworld" which could today e interpreted as the Astral.
McCone, Kim: Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature (Maynooth, 1990).
MacQuarrie, Charles: The Waves of Manannan: A Study of the Literary Representations of Manna mac Lir from Immram Brain (c700) to Finnegans Wake (1939) (University of Washington, 1997).
So those of you with a good memory may recall an article I wrote entitled "The Dagda" at that time I believe I promised an article featuring some information on his daughter/s Brigid. Well it's been a long time coming but here it finally is. Unfortunately it's not quite as detailed on my post of the Dagda, why? Because she survived. Worship of the Dagda lapsed in the eleventh century meaning any records of his worship have been relatively unchanged however Brigid's worship persists even today meaning that much of the information on her has been adapted to a Christian perspective and her original embodiments have been lost from the pages of history and merged into one solid belief making it difficult to pick apart across eras. However by making certain assumptions over her various roles and from my own experiences working with her she can be seen as a nurturing and motherly figure to both the Gaels and the country itself.
Who is Brigid?
A more complex question than it first seems as Brigid is one of the few Celtic deities that has survived not just one but two religious reforms retaining at the very least her name and a part of her purpose even if she has lost her stature somewhat. Today Brigid is a saint and features in Christianity however for the purpose of this article I am aiming to distinguish her original role from her more recent interpretations and get a grip on the character she possesses as a deity.
Originally she is the daughter of the Dagda and thus instantly granted a position of authority amongst the pantheon by birth right alone. However we do not really know if Brgid is even one goddess, like many Celtic deities she is a triple goddess and is seen as having three aspects all of which named Brigid. It's not entirely known whether or not she is a single being or a trinity of sisters by the same name however in my workings with her I have come to appreciate her as a multi-faceted being rather than this group of sisters, that is my opinion only though and a very different thing from fact. Her names sake can be literally translated as ?flaming arrow? which is more of a physical description of her red hair and slender frame than one of her position.
The Roles of Brigid
Now before I start this section it's time for my rather familiar rant about how we interpret the Celtic faith. The Celts kept very few written records and most of what we know is what was recorded by Christian monks and nuns who documented the faith with the ultimate goal of strengthening Christianity and so the records can not be expected to be accurate depictions of how the faith operated. That's it I promise, I'll now get back to the story but it's an important point to bear in mind when interpreting any Celtic myth.
Her three aspects have been recorded as a deity of healing and magic, of smith work and craftsmanship and of poetry and art (from Cormac's Glossary). Although it has been noted that Brigid's reign extends far beyond these three separate attributes as she is also seen as a mother and fertility goddess that nourishes the land with her milk and thus many rivers and wells all across Ireland either bore or still retain her names sake which is what truly marks her importance in the faith. Yet furthermore to mark her importance a temple was devoted to her faith served by nineteen women that continually kept the ?flame of Brigid? burning for one night each until the twentieth night were the priestesses would rest and the goddess herself would tend the flame. She is one of few Celtic deities to ever be attributed the honour of a dedicated temple.
As I said Brigid not only penetrated Christianity but she survived another religious over hall when the Sons of Mil conquered the Tuatha De Danann. Many of the Gaelic gods at that time were reported to retreat ito the land itself, effectively becoming one with the soil, and lie dormant however Brigid never diminished. Instead her worship remained prevalent throughout this era and her relative importance only diminished with the rise of Christianity as her title was altered from Goddess to Saint in order to fit in with the Christian belief in a single deity.