The Dagda is the head of the Irish pantheon, whose name means the “Good God”. He is head of the Tuatha de Danann, and was king of Ireland between Nuada and Lugh, but he can also take on the appearance and manners of a peasant farmer. He has been compared to his fellow Celts Sucellos and Cernunnos, but he also resembles the Norse god Odin, being changeable and tricky as well as a great magician.
One of his by-names is Eochaid Ollathair, “horseman father of all” (Smith: 1). While that’s not strictly true, he is the father of several notable deities: Brigit (goddess of healing, smithing and poetry), Aengus mac Og (god of love and youth), Áine (goddess of Limerick), Bodb Derg (king of the Munster side), Midir (Etain’s husband), Aed (killed by a jealous husband), and Cermait (called Honey-Mouth).
His brothers were Ogma, the god of writing, and Ler, a sea-god. HIs best-known love affairs were with the Morrigan and Boand, two very different goddesses. Boand was the goddess of the Boyne river, whose name means either “White Cow” or “She who has white cows”, while the Morrigans was a goddess of war and sexuality.
God of Many Names
One characteristic he shares with Odin is his many names, perhaps because both of them like to wander around in disguise. Several different stories, including the tale of how the Dagda got his club, involve him getting the better of unsuspecting mortals.
- An Dagda: The Good God (or the Noble God), possibly a title
- Eochaid Ollathair: Horse All-Father
- Ruad Rofhessa: Red Great-Knowing (Sayers: 343)
- Aed Abaid of Ess Ruaid (Asseroe Falls, one home of the salmon of wisdom)
- Fer Benn: Man of the Peaks, or Horned One
- Cerce: Striker
- Labair: Talker/Noisy
- Athgen m Bethai: “rebirth of land”
- Oldathair: from Ollathair, “great father”
- Several other variants of the name Dagda, like Dagda donn (dark or noble), Dagda dein (swift), Dagda duir (harsh/stern, although possibly “oak”), and Dagdai deirg (red). Martin (4) notes that while these names many have been chosen to alliterate, but they fit with what we know of the god.
There are several stories about how the Dagda became “the Good God”. The most canonical comes from The Second Battle of Magh Tuiread (Cath Magh Tuiread), after the Dagda has a pre-battle conference in which they go through each one’s skills, to which he responds:
81. The Dagda said, “The power which you boast, I will wield it all myself.”
“You are the Dagda [‘the Good God’]!” said everyone, and “Dagda” stuck to him from that time on.
Another version comes from The Wooing of Etain, or Tochmarc Étaíne:
There was a famous king of Ireland of the race of the Tuatha Dé, Eochaid Ollathair his name. He was also named the Dagda i.e. good god, for it was he that used to work wonders for them and control the weather and the crops. Wherefore men said he was called the Dagda.
While most scholars have followed the “good god” interpretation, from dag “good and dia “god”, some interpet his name as “noble god”, which would fit a god who ruled the Tuatha de Danann.
But sometimes he’s more like Thor
The Dagda had a common side to him, though. The Second Battle of Magh Tuiread, which tells how the Tuatha de Danann won back rulership of Ireland from the Fomorians, is a perfect example of this.
Part of the story tells how the Dagda went to the Fomorians to ask for a truce in battle (a delaying tactic, to allow the Tuatha time to gather their forces). The Fomorians agreed to a truce, but then, knowing that the god loved porridge, they mocked him by making enough to fill a trench and forcing him to eat it all.
He ate it all, then fel asleep. The author then provided a very Irish bit of description: medieval Irish writers tend to stop the story for set-piece descriptions of the beauty of a woman, or the splendour of a warrior, or the grotesquerie of a giant or monster. This description of the Dagda is well within the tradition:
Then he went away from them to Traigh Eabha. It was not easy for the warrior to move along on account of the size of his belly. His appearance was unsightly: he had a cape to the hollow of his elbows, and a gray-brown tunic around him as far as the swelling of his rump. He trailed behind him a wheeled fork which was the work of eight men to move, and its track was enough for the boundary ditch of a province. It is called “The Track of the Dagda’s Club” for that reason. His long penis was uncovered. He had on two shoes of horsehide with the hair outside.
(Cath Magh Tuiread: 93)
He then met a woman who hurled him on his back, satirized him, and indeed seemed to be his equal in power and magic. At first she said she will hinder him from battle, but finally he seduced her and she gave him advice on how to win against the Fomorians.1
She is actually the second woman who gives him such advice; before the episode with the porridge, the Dagda has an encounter with the Morrigan, a fearsome goddess of war, death and sex, who promises him magical help. Say what you like, he doesn’t pick the easy ones.
Episodes like this show the trickster side of the Dagda, who does not spare us the grossest parts of human existence (the woman beats him so badly he shits himself, for instance), but he always manages to come out of it with some benefit for his people.
His Treasures and Powers
The Fomorians’ mockery is double-edged, too, because the Dagda had his own cauldron, the inexhaustible coire ansic, which could never be emptied. It was one of the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann, the only one that was not a weapon.
His cauldron, along with one of his by-names, Fer Benn (meaning either horned man or man of the peak) has led some to link him with Cernnunos. (This is the name he gave to the woman who humilated him after the porridge incident.)
Besides the cauldron, he had a giant club which could kill and revive those it touched. This in turn has led some to connect him to the Good Striker, the Gaulish God Sucellos:
“Here in front of them to the east, outside,” said Crom Deroil, “I saw a large-eyed, large-thighed, noble-great, immensely-tall man, with a splendid gray garment about him; with seven short, black, equally-smooth cloaklets around him; shorter was each upper one, longer each lower. At either side of him were nine men. In his hand was a terrible iron staff, on which were a rough end and a smooth end. His play and amusement consisted in laying the rough end on the heads of the nine, whom he would kill in the space of a moment. He would then lay the smooth end on them, so that he would reanimate them in the same time.”
(“The Intoxication of the Ulstermen”, from The Tain, Wikisource)
HIs hooded cloak was typical Celtic clothing. (The genii cucullati, groups of three men in the Celtic cloak, were probably protective deities, who looked after the place and its people.) As this passage shows, sometimes the Dagda dressed the part of a noble.
Certainly his other great possession was an aristocratic one: his Four-Cornered Harp, named Uaithne, which could alter people’s feelings from sorrow to joy or vice versa, and made the seasons come in order.
During the wars between the Fomorians and the Tuatha, the Fomorians stole the harp, but when the Dagda got near their camp, he called to his harp and it returned to him:
Then the harp came away from the wall, and it killed nine men and came to the Dagda; and he played for them the three things by which a harper is known: sleep music, joyful music, and sorrowful music. 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. So the three of them escaped from them unharmed–although they wanted to kill them.
(Cath Magh Tuiread)
The Dagda and Newgrange
The Dagda made his home at Newgrange, in the Boyne Valley in central Ireland. This is a magical place, with a Neolithic passage tomb aligned to the rising sun at Winter Solstice. Ireland’s equivalent to Stonehenge, it is a fitting residence for the king of the gods. The whole Brú na Bóinne area is rich in ancient monuments, and of course the Boyne river had its own goddess, Boand, who had an affair with the Dagda.
The Dagda worked his magic for her, for when she told him she feared her husband, who was also a great magician, the Dagda sent him away on a journey, and made the nine months it took Boand to conceive and bear their son seem like a day to her husband, so that by the time he returned she was recovered from childbearing, and he knew nothing. (Some sources say that they had a daughter as well,
His encounter with the Morrigan, too, suggests some sort of ritual or at least magical significance, as they meet at Samhain, when the veil between the worlds is thin, and they mate while astride a river, so encompassing water and land.
The Dagda is a complex deity, the Good God who provides for his followers, a noble king and yet occasionally a figure of fun. Unwise to laugh too much, though, as he usually has a trick up his sleeve, or a magical weapon to wield.
1. Scott Martin (2012b) has suggested that the first, more uncouth, appearance of the Dagda is meant as a satire on peasant farmers who tried to raise their status by providing hospitality, thus becoming a briugu and moving up in the world. He also thinks that when the Dagda identifies himself as Fer Benn, it should be read as “man of cows”, in other words one of the aes trebtha who were the non-gods. (As opposed to the aes dana or people of skill who formed the Tuatha de Danann.↩
Hamp, Eric P. 2002: “The Dag(h)d(h)ae and his relatives” in Donum Grammaticum: Studies in Latin and Celtic Linguistics in Honour of Hannah Rosén, eds. Lea Sawicki and Donna Shalev, Peeters Publishers. (Google Books)
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP. (Oxford Reference)
Martin, Scott 2012a: “The Name and Epithets of the Dagda” (pdf available here)
Martin, Scott 2012b: “Following a Fork in the Text: the Dagda as briugu in Cath Maige Tuired”
Sayers, William 1988: “Cerrce, an archaic epithet of the Dagda, Cernunnos and Conall Cernach,” in The Journal of Indo-European Studies 16(3-4): 341-364. (pdf available here)
Williams, Mark 2016: Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Princeton University Press. (Google Books)
The Dagda in Marvel Comics
Finally, life lessons we could learn from the Dagda
The image at the top is of Newgrange, in Co. Meath.