My post on the Irish goddess Airmid provoked a discussion on whether the Tuatha de Danann were really deities, or just heroic individuals. The answer, of course, depends on who you ask.
The Irish were proud of their heritage, seeing themselves as civilized people who had preserved their own ways rather than succumb to Roman domination. They took pride in their laws, their art, and their forms of government. A medieval Irish manuscript tells how after the Tower of Babel, an Pharisee with the unlikely name of Fénius Farsaid – Irishman the Pharisee – reconstructed a perfect language out of the jumble of the world’s tongues: Irish, (Williams: 85)
But in the wake of St. Patrick’s mission, and the widespread adoption of Christianity, Irish historians and poets were left in something of a bind. The history of Ireland, as recorded in texts like The Book of Invasions, made no mention of the Christian god or Biblical history, but somehow these beliefs and local traditions had to be fitted together.
They had three ways of doing this:
- acknowledge that there had been other gods in Ireland, like the Roman gods in Latin texts, who had vanished/receded into the background when Christianity arrived (like the encounter with Manannan in Immram Bran (The Voyage of Bran) and Echtra Condla (The Otherworldly Adventures of Connlae) which both look forward to the Christian revelation that will displace the older order (and the Voyage significantly never refers to Manannan as a “god”, but as a fér, man, thus preserving the proprieties)
- turn the gods into more minor mythological beings, like the fairies, who could be incorporated into the Christian schema without invoking the troublesome spectre of other deities (and risking breaking the First Commandment) like Flacc’s hymn, Tirechan’s text of St. Patrick’s Confession, and Echtra Condla (The Adventures of Connla the Fair), which all refer to the “earthly gods” or síde-people,
- or you could discuss the Tuatha as heroic individuals who had been gifted with preternatural strength, skill and long life, like Hercules, a hero who appealed to the Continental Celts and perhaps the Irish as well.
If you’ve followed me this far, you are either familiar with the Tuatha or you’re waiting for me to provide some background on these mysterious beings.
The Irish Pantheon
We think of the Tuatha as a pantheon of deities who work together (or feud amongst themselves) like the Northern Aesir or the Greek Olympians. You can see this vision of an Irish patheon at work in the epic poem Cath Magh Tuiread (The Battle of Moytura) and the pseudo-historical Lebor Gabala, known as The Book of Invasions.
Both these texts describe how the Tuatha defeated the Fomorians (another, rival, group of deities), and the Lebor Gabala also describes how the Tuatha defeated another group of would-be rulers, the Fir Bolg. The texts differ in various details, especially the battle against the Fomorians. (A great many of the Tuatha die fighting the Fomorians in the Lebor Gabala, including Nuada.)
However, they agree about who the Irish deities are, and their positions in society. The main players include:
- Nuada: king of the Tuatha, who loses his hand in battle and has to resign his throne
- the Dagda: former ruler of the Tuatha, who can seem aristocratic or like the lowest peasant, and is skilled in many kinds of magic
- Lug: the young champion, master of all skills, who takes over from Nuada
- Brigit, goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing, whose main function in the epic poems is to marry a Fomorian in an attempt at peace
- Ogma: champion of the Tuatha and discoverer of the ogham alphabet
- the Morrigan: fearsome goddess of war and magic
- various deities defined by their skills: Goibniu the smith, Dian Cecht the healer, Creidne the goldsmith, etc.
As you might expect in two poems about battles, goddesses apart from the Morrigan don’t do much, with Brigit pretty much restricted to marrying Bres and later mourning their son when he’s killed in battle. (The goddess of the Boyne, Boand, gets a mention in the Lebor Gabala, but only by name.)
What About Danu?
If you already know anything about the Tuatha de Danann, you probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned the mother of the gods, Danu or Dana. I have written already about this rather elusive deity, but I’ll summarize here.
Neither the Book of Invasions or The Battle of Moytura mention a goddess Danu. Nor does any other text refer to the gods of Ireland as the “Children of Danu” – they may be known as the “earthly gods”, “gods of the side”, or the “god-people” (Tuatha Dé).
The Book of Invasions gives the Tuatha a very different ancestor: Nemed, leader of the Muintir Nemid (People of Nemed). The name Nemed means “privileged” or “holy”, reflecting a basic distinction in Irish society between the free/privileged and the unfree (slaves, servants, peasants).
The name Danu is a linguistic reconstruction of a female name from the word Danann, and many scholars have questioned whether there was ever a goddess to match the name. (The Welsh goddess Dôn may not help; her name doesn’t map linguistically onto Danu, either, according to John Koch.)
On the other side of the argument, Sharon Paice MacLeod and Andrei Kondratiev have argued the case for Dana-the-goddess. See the references for more.
The Gods of Skill and the Non-Gods
The word “Danann” can also be translated as “skilled”, dána meaning skill in Old Irish. (As in “people of skill, áes dána) This fits with the Tuatha’s nature as expressed in the Lebor Gabala and Cath Magh Tuiread. All the deities have valuable skills of one sort or another, and Lug’s fitness for kingship comes from his mastery of all the skills, summed up in his title Samildánach, skilled in many arts.
Mark Williams has a more cynical take on this in his book Ireland’s Immortals, where he views the “gods of skill” as stand-ins for the real-life “people of skill” (áes dána) like filids, bards, goldsmiths, etc. They wanted to set themselves apart from the common people, who were under someone’s authority (Williams: 82), and used literature to vaunt their own status and put themselves closer to the aristocracy.
This real-life snobbery may help to explain a couple of puzzling passages in the Irish sources that distinguish between dee and andee, aristocratic gods and the gods of herders and farmers (or non-gods, in a literal translation).
The Lebor Gabala, the Tain, and a few others refer to this distinction, and while it may well reflect the filid’s attempt to bolster their own status by connecting with the old Irish gods, it also may find an echo in various spells from Gaul invoking the infernal gods, andedion. This would suggest that the distinction between gods of husbandry and gods of skilled trades and war had deeper roots.
The Israelites and the Tuatha Dé
A third option, suggested by Hamp, is that the Tuatha de Danann were the people of the Irish earth (from Old Irish don, earth, place). It’s an interesting suggestion because while the Book of Invasions says that the Tuatha were invaders, the Cath Magh Tuiread seems to think that the Tuatha are on their home ground.
A fourth suggestion is that the Tuatha were re-named the Tuatha de Danann because their other name, Tuatha Dé or God-People, was also used for the Israelites, people of the true God. You can see how the name could apply to both of them, the Tuatha being of the tribe (people) of the gods, and the Israelites people of the true God. But you can also see how Christians might not want the two confused.
So it would seem that while the Christian Irish may have been religious enough to be wary of pagan deities, they were too proud of their own heritage to just let them go. This led to a number of work-arounds which either denied the divinity of their gods, or demoted them to síde-dwellers or unfallen angels. Sometimes this disguise is a mere figleaf, other times, as in Manannan’s appearance to St. Brendan, it’s part of a complex schema uniting pagan and Christian realities.
One thing that is certain, is that we should be grateful for their pride in their heritage, and the purchase that the Tuatha had on the Irish imagination, since without it we would never know these deities and their lore.
Links and References
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)
Koch, John T. 1989: “Some Suggestions and Etymologies Reflecting upon the Mythology of the Four Branches”, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 9 (1989): 1-10.
Kondratiev, Alexei: “Danu and Bile: the Primordial Parents”, retrieved from the Wayback Machine, originally published in An Tribhis Mhor: the IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism 1/4 (Bealtaine 1988).
Mac Cana, Proinsias 1997: Celtic Mythology, Chancellor.
MacLeod, Sharon Paice, 1998-9: “Mater deorum Hibernensium: identity and cross-correlation in early Irish mythology”, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 18–19 (1998–1999): 340–384. (JSTOR)
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP. (Oxford Reference)
Mees, Bernard 2008: “Fate and Malediction in Early Celtic Tradition,” Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association 4: 139-58. (see here for summary)
Sim-Wiliams, Patrick 2011: Irish Influence on Welsh Literature, OUP. (Google Books)
Williams, Mark 2016: Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Princeton University Press. (Google Books)