Humans have been working with metal for a long time: from the Copper Age (approx. 3500 – 1700 BCE) when the soft, malleable metal was the first to be smelted and used. So it’s not surprising that many cultures have smith-gods, and that in the Celtic world the smith-god and his name occur in Gaul, Wales, England and Ireland, making him one of the few pan-Celtic deities.1
And a very literal one – Goibniu, Gofannon and Cobannos all mean “Smith”.
One of the things everyone knows about Irish mythology is that the deities we all know (Brigit, the Dagda, Boand, Ogma, etc.) are all members of the Tuatha de Danann, the people or tribe of the goddess Danu.
However, none of the Irish sources mention this goddess, who was an important enough ancestor that her name identified all of her descendants. (Imagine if the Olympian gods of Greece were known as the Gaians, for example.) Some Celtic scholars have gone so far as to doubt the existence of any such deity. Why?
Human rulers die, and the next generation takes over. Sometimes the older generation gets “helped” off the throne, either by assassination or war. So it’s not surprising that mythology has many versions of this succession story, which rarely involve peaceful inheritance.
Back in 1977 Patrick Ford published a paper called “Celtic Women: the Opposing Sex”. It could have been tailor-made for the Morrigan, a fearsome goddess who spends most of the Tain trying to destroy the hero Cúchulainn. By contrast, Brigid seems to be the “good girl” of Irish myth.
There are many different ways to become god of the dead. You can win the job by chance (Hades/ Pluto), you can be cast into the underworld by other gods (Hel), marry into the job (Nergal), or you can be the first person to die.
Donn was one of the invaders known as the Milesians, after their father Mil. He was the warlike one, while his brother Armaigen was the poet/judge. They eventually did take Ireland, but not easily, and Donn never got to enjoy their victory.
I don’t normally like “list posts”. Those neat lists of deities and powers are certainly easy to remember, and good for beginners, but I find that now I want more context and explanation. (Or it could be a warning sign of old age. Who knows.)
Just this once, however, I have broken down and made a list of Irish sea-gods. When I was writing my posts on Donn and Tethra, I took a lot of notes trying to get all these gods straight in my head. This post is for anyone who shared my confusion.
Flidais was a figure of Irish mythology, surnamed Foltcháin, “beautiful (or soft) hair”. She had a magical cow, the Maol, as well as herds of cattle and of deer. She is usually considered a goddess of abundance (cows were wealth), sovereignty, feasting, magic, hunting and sexuality. Her dual nature, exemplified in the cows and deer, mingles the domesticated with the wild. Continue reading →
Manannán is in many ways like a more benign version of Oðin. Like the Norse god, he is the patron of many heroes, is skilled in both battle and magic, moves easily between the worlds and has many lovers as well as a wife. On a more fantastic level, both have horses that can travel over land and sea, and a boar or pigs that renew themselves after being eaten.
He seems to have been one of the old gods, rather than the Tuatha de Danann. Unlike them, however, he seems to have made his peace with the new order, as he appears in their adventures. (He was close enough to them to be foster-father to the young god Lugh.) When the Milesians (humans) came, and the TDD went into the hollow hills, Manannán divided up the otherworld into parts for each.
The Irish goddess Brigit and the god Lugh have a great deal in common. Both have a triple form, both are powerful at every level of society, and both have a major calendar holiday associated with them. In the myths of the war between the two groups of gods, they have family on both sides.
Who tells the ages of the moon, if not I?
Who shows the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?
Who calls the cattle from the House of Tethra?
On whom do the cattle of Tethra smile?
This comes from the Irish poemThe Song of Amairgen. It was sung by the ollamh (poet) named Amairgen Glúingelas he first set foot on Irish soil. (He was one of the Milesians, who conquered Ireland after the Tuatha de Danann.) It is certainly an enigmatic verse, but I will just tackle one riddle in this post: what are the cattle of Tethra?