The Ancient Greeks had Zeus and the Olympians. The Vikings had Odin and Thor. Not to be outdone, the Celtic Irish had their own unique family of gods.
By Elaine Kavanagh
We’re surrounded by the beliefs of our pagan ancestors. Dolmens, holy wells and passage tombs are a constant reminder of those who came before us. Diluted versions of their rituals have filtered into Christianity, so we now recognise Brigid the Saint instead of Brigit the Goddess, and our Christmas candles guide Mary and Joseph instead of the souls of the Celtic dead.
Modern Ireland is a product of its pagan past, and the stories of our ancestors teach us where we come from. And what incredible stories they are: Irish mythology is full of tales about divine and supernatural beings. Take the one about the god Midir’s jealous wife, Fúamnach the sorceress. She turned her husband’s second bride into a purple bluebottle the size of a man’s head. As if that wasn’t far-fetched enough, the bluebottle’s wings made music and shed healing dew as it flew. When it came to explaining their world, our ancestors certainly didn’t opt for the predictable or ordinary.
Layers of Myth
It’s thanks to the efforts of Christian monks that we know the stories our ancestors handed down for centuries. But the monks didn’t just write the stories as they heard them. In their hands, the pagan gods became fallen angels, demons, or celebrated people who were falsely worshipped as gods. Queen Maeve from The Cattle Raid of Cooley, for instance, had been a goddess. So had Brigid, who became a Christian saint. And King Lir, whose children were turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, had originally been a god of the sea. Clearly, the monks put their own slant on Irish mythology. But they weren’t the only ones to do so.
In pre-Christian Ireland records were kept by learned men called filid who composed and remembered poems about their chieftains, tribes and history. The stories they told were a great source of material for the monks, but historians think they felt threatened by the monks, and altered parts of their stories to underline their own importance. In the nineteenth century, the mythology was altered once more, this time by Irish nationalists. They wanted to portray Ireland as a distinguished country with its own rich history, so they romanticised the stories from our past.
When it comes to the gods of our ancestors, we can’t take the mythology we read today at face value. There are some things we do know, however. We know that Newgrange and similar monuments were built by Neolithic people some 2,500 years before the Celts arrived. The society of these people is a bit of a mystery to us, although we can at least guess that the winter solstice was important to them, as was honouring their dead.
The Celts arrived in Ireland from Europe around 500 BC. In Celtic society, Newgrange and the other passage tombs became houses of the gods. These were called sídh (fairy mounds) and each was inhabited by a different god or supernatural entity. In fact, the word banshee comes from the Irish bean sídhe (woman of the sídh).
The Celts worshipped many gods, but evidence uncovered by archaeologists suggests that across Europe, they did not worship the same gods. Some of the Irish gods and goddesses did appear to be versions of pan-European gods, but perhaps the ones with no obvious European counterpart had filtered down through the ages from the people who built Newgrange.
THE TUATHA DÉ
The Irish gods were called the Tuatha Dé (god-peoples) and much of what we know about them comes from a manuscript called Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions of Ireland). This complex work, composed by monks in 1075 and revised many times in the following years, was a brave attempt to reconcile the history of Ireland – as told by the filid – with the Christian history of the world as it appears in the Bible. At that time, the Bible was considered a primary source for ancient history. Scholars used it to trace the descent of the world’s populations all the way back to the Book of Genesis. The problem was it didn’t mention the Irish. So, The Book of Invasions, in an attempt to fill in the blanks, tells a story about how Ireland came to be settled by the Gaels and where the pagan gods fit into it all.
The story went like this: the first people to arrive on Irish shores were Noah’s granddaughter Cessair and her followers, seeking shelter from the coming flood. They all drowned except for one man who escaped in the form of a salmon and lived on for 3,500 years in various different guises.
Next arrived some people led by a Greek called Partholón, who again, all died (plague this time). The people of Nemed came next, but they were almost all wiped out by another group of invaders called the Formorians. Some surviving Nemed went to Britain and become the ancestors of the Britons. Others fled to Greece where they were enslaved and made to haul sacks of earth around to create farmland. These Fir Bolg (bag men) as they were called, eventually escaped and returned to Ireland.
Other remnants of the Nemeds had gone north where they became skilled in magic, developing super-human powers. These were the Tuatha Dé. In time they returned to Ireland, defeated the Fir Bolg and took Ireland for themselves. The Book of Invasions gives lots of detail about the Tuatha Dé, telling us about the reigns of their kings, the talents they possessed and their family tree.
In another strand of the story, The Book of Invasions introduces a nobleman called Fénius Farsaid, who composed Irish – the world’s first perfect language – at the Tower of Babel. His descendants settled in Spain. One day, their king spied Ireland from a tower and some years later, his grandson, Míl Espáine (Spanish soldier), invaded Ireland. Míl and his followers, the Gaels or Milesians, defeated the Tuatha Dé and drove them into the sídh mounds. Although it’s not what we think of as history today, it did the job a thousand years ago.
But where did the story originate? Did the monks invent it so they could fit Ireland’s history into one tidy account, incorporating the Gaels into Biblical history while at the same time dealing with the problem of the Irish pagan gods? It seems not, because it’s similar to an earlier poem called Whence Did the Irish Originate (Can a mBunadas na nGaedel) composed – most likely by the filid – during or before the ninth century. Some details were changed, however. In the monks’ account, the Tuatha Dé came from overseas but previously, Ireland had been the native land of the god-peoples. The monks also left out details about inter-marriage between the Gaels and the Tuatha Dé.
It’s obvious why the monks put their own slant on pagan stories. The bigger question is why did they indulge in such fantasy at all? Why not spend their time writing good Christian stories? Most likely they had to explain the existence of supernatural beings because people refused to stop believing in them. Even to this day, many Irish people put their faith in holy wells and faery rings, so perhaps the monks were onto something.
The Irish Celts called their gods the Tuatha Dé, which means god peoples. Sometime around the tenth century, this name evolved into Tuatha Dé Danann (tribe of the goddess Danu) to avoid confusion with the biblical Israelites who were also called the Tuatha Dé. The Dagda – the Good God Also called Eochaid Great-Father, this chief of the Tuatha Dé controlled the weather and crops. He was associated with magic and carried a huge club, one end of which killed the living while the other revived the dead. He had a huge cauldron that never ran out of food.
The Daghda was portrayed as both wise and uncivilised. He was said to wear a very short tunic and in The Second Battle of Moytura is described as being naked with a long penis. He was responsible for assigning a sídh to each god. The twelfth-century Book of Leinster tells us the Dagda’s power was great, even over the Milesians after they had taken control of the land – he blighted their grain and milk until they made a treaty with him.
In theory, she is the mother-goddess from whom the Tuatha Dé came. However, little is known of her and she is frequently confused with a fertility goddess called Anu – it’s thought they may have been the same goddess. Anu was associated with Munster in particular, and her name lives on through a mountain in Kerry called Dá Chích Anann (the breasts of Anu).
Lugh (or Lug) – the Shining One
This charismatic and multi-talented figure, whose surname was Lámhfhada (of the long arm), was related to both the Tuatha Dé and the Formorians. The Cattle Raid of Cooley notes that Cú Chulainn was a son of Lugh, although this may not have been meant literally. Nineteenth century scholars identified him as a god of the sun but there is no evidence that this was the case.
Lugh is believed to have originated from a god called Lugus who was worshipped by Celtic people across Europe. Lugh seems to have been important in pagan Ireland because at least two tribes named themselves after him. He was also associated with the annual óenach or fair at Tailtiu (Teltown) and he gave his name to the harvest festival, Lughnasa, as well as the Irish word for August.
The Morrigán – the Phantom Queen
Irish war-gods were female. The Morrigán was one of these along with Macha, Nemhain, the Badbh and Maeve. They all shared similar characteristics – they could appear as a single entity or as part of a trio and they were all powerful symbols of fertility and sexuality, as well as being fierce and aggressive. They did not engage in war but could destroy armies by confusing or frightening them.
The Morrigán took the guise of many different animals but most often appeared as a raven or crow. She was a symbol of sexuality, said to have slept with the Daghda and with Cú Chulainn. A prophet, she would predict the deaths of warriors. She could also cast magic spells – in one story, she turned a woman into a pool of water because the woman’s bull mated with her cow.
Brigit – Exalted One
Daughter of the Daghda, Brigit was another goddess who could appear either as a trio or a single entity. Brigit was associated with fertility, healing and crafts. Her festival was the feast of Imbolc in February. Her birth and upbringing were steeped in magic. She was born in the house of a druid and fed on the milk of magical cows. She was said to have limitless supplies of food and milk. She may, perhaps, have had some association with the British goddess, Brigantia.
Oenghus of the Birds
One of the Tuatha Dé and a god of love, Oenghus was said to aid lovers in their misfortune. It was Oenghus who helped Midir after his second wife was turned into a bluebottle by the jealous Fúamnach – he was able to turn her back into human form, but only between dusk and dawn.
Manannán mac Lir
Son of the sea-god Lir, Manannán was a sea-god and protector of Ireland, although he was not mentioned in the early texts as one of the Tuatha Dé. Associated with many tales of magic, it was said he had pigs which could be killed and eaten but were alive the following day. Manannán’s name was connected to the Isle of Man and an Irish text describing him as god of the sea claimed that he was recognised as such both in Ireland and Britain. In an example of a myth being altered to reinforce Christian teaching, The Voyage of Bran refers to him as a man rather than a god.
Said to be a god of healing in The Book of Invasions, he seemed to be both a healer and a smith. He fashioned a silver arm for King Núadu after he was wounded in battle, which enabled him to rule once more after having to step down when he lost his arm. Dian Cécht’s healing powers seem to have come from magic and the use of herbs.
Maeve (Medb) – She Who Intoxicates
Maeve is well known as the queen of Connaught who coveted the prize bull of Ulster, but she was actually a goddess queen and one of the war deities. She was very promiscuous and refused to allow any king to rule in Tara unless she had her way with him first. Maeve could shape-shift. In Niall of the Nine Hostages, she appeared as an old crone guarding a well and gave Niall water. When he agreed to have sex with her, she was transformed into a beautiful woman who granted him kingship of Ireland. She could bring about death by magic, which she did to both Cú Chulainn and to her husband Ailill when he cheated on her. In what was probably the most bizarre death in Irish mythology, she was killed by a slingshot loaded with a lump of cheese.
Nemhain, Badbh & Macha
These war goddesses shared similar attributes to the Morrigán and Maeve. Badbh’s name means rage or violence. She was closely associated with Cú Chulainn, whom she helped and encouraged. Nemhain, whose name means frenzy, would spread panic amongst an army. In the last battle of the war between Connaught and Ulster, she howled so dreadfully over the armies facing Cú Chulainn and the Ulstermen that one hundred Connaught soldiers died of fright. Macha gave her name to Eamhain Macha, the royal court of Ulster. Before she died, she put a curse of paralysis on the armies of Ulster, so that at times of great danger they would be as weak as a woman in childbirth for five days and four nights. Only Cú Chulainn was exempt from the curse.
Goibhniu, Luchta, Creidhne
These were a trio of craft gods. Goibhniu, the smith, was the most important of the three. Luchta was the wright and Creidhne the metalworker. They forged weapons for the Tuatha Dé in The Second Battle of Moytura. Goibhniu also had a special ale which conferred immortality on those who drank it.
Banbha, Ériu and Fódla
According to The Book of Invasions, these goddesses gave their name to Ireland. The story goes that these queens of the Tuatha Dé took it in turns to have Ireland bear their name. When the Milesians invaded, each goddess tried to persuade them to name the island after her, but as it was Ériu’s turn at the time of the invasion, her name stuck. In return, Ériu foretold that the land would belong to the Milesians for all time.
Donn – the Dark One
Known as god of the dead, he was mentioned in The Book of Invasions as a Milesian leader who, after offending Ériu, was drowned off the south-west coast and buried on a rocky island known as Tech Duinn (the house of Donn). Tech Duinn is thought to be Bull Rock, an islet off the Beara Peninsula. His legend predates The Book of Invasions, however, because Tech Duinn is mentioned in earlier poems. The Celts had a strong belief in an afterlife and Irish myth is full of stories about the Otherworld. This was a vague place, sometimes portrayed as being Tech Duinn but also including the sídh mounds. It could be reached by travelling across the sea, through caves or beneath wells. This peaceful, happy place always had a feast, music and some kind of contest or fight going on. Nobody aged or grew sick in the Otherworld, but humans who went there couldn’t return, as the story of Tír na nÓg warns. Heroes like Cú Chulainn were constantly being enticed to the Otherworld by gods. There was also a dark side to it; in some stories, it was a place of horrors and during Samhain (Halloween), spirits and humans could move freely between it and the real world.
Bres – the Beautiful
The Book of Invasions identifies him as one of the first kings of the Tuatha Dé. His mother was Ériu of the Tuatha Dé and his father was a Fomorian warrior named Elatha. Bres was a bad king who oppressed and humiliated the Tuatha Dé. He was also mean and inhospitable, which caused the land to become barren.
Balor of the Baleful (or Evil) Eye
This king of the Formorians had a single enormous eye and could kill his enemy by just looking at them. He could not be killed with any weapon. In old age his eyelid became so heavy that it took four men using pulleys and ropes to open it. Balor hurled his grandson, Lugh, into the sea on account of a prophecy that his grandson would kill him. Lugh, who was saved and reared by a blacksmith, did indeed slay Balor. In The Second Battle of Moytura, he fired a slingshot through Balor’s eye, smashing it out through the back of his head and decimating the Formorians in the process.
A water god who was married to Boann. Nechtan possessed a sacred well which only he and his three cup bearers were allowed to visit. When Boann broke the rules and visited the well, its waters rose in anger and flowed out in a great stream, engulfing Boann and creating the River Boyne.
The Forgotten Ones
Many gods and goddesses didn’t make it into The Book of Invasions and are now largely forgotten – like Munster goddess, Loigodēvē. She gave her name to an early medieval tribe called the Corcu Loígde (Seed of the Calf Goddess) and to the River Bandon, whose Irish name was Loígde. Doubtless there are many others like her, lost to us through the mists of time.