Celtic Gods and Heroes: The Gods of Ancient Ireland
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Celtic peoples established themselves in Ireland about 2,500 years ago.
But humans had inhabited the island long before that, as evidenced by the
monument site at Newgrange dating to 3000 B.C., as well as the prehistoric
megaliths at Carrowmore in Sligo, and other dolmens and cairns. The Celts
formed myth to make an accounting for these earlier peoples, and to fit the
existing Celtic gods into the Irish landscape.
What resulted from such myth-making was the Lebor Gabala, or in English,
the "Book of Invasions," written with the Roman alphabet in the Gaelic
tongue, presumably originating in the Dark Ages. Two general threads of myth
exist in this work. First, stories recount the successive waves of conquests
of Ireland up to the coming of the Celtic Milesians, and including the entry
of the gods and divine beings onto Ireland. Second, intricate stories tell
the beginnings and successive wanderings of the Celtic Milesians before they
came to the Emerald Isle.
According to the Book of Invasions, there were five earlier conquests or
"takings" of Ireland before the arrivals of the Celts: 1) Cessair and her
group; 2) the Race of Parthelon; 3) the Race of Nemed; 4) the Fir Bolgs; and
5) the Tuatha Dé Danann, or gods and goddesses of the ancient Celts in
Ireland. To review these briefly:
Cessair, as fashioned a bit by the monk transcribers, was said to be the
granddaughter of Noah, and arrived in Ireland forty days before the Flood,
thus becoming the first human on the island. She came with a entourage of
fifty maidens and three men. These men quickly did their arithmetic and
divvied up Cessair's women, such that each man had 17 maidens for himself.
Well, this didn't last long. Though Noah calculated that the Flood would not
reach the Western World, his estimates were wrong, and the waters swept
Ireland and all of Cessair's following--except for Fintan, a male who pops up
now and again over the centuries to help retell various other myths. (Such
is the freedom of the Celtic mind!)
The Race of Parthelon, according to the Book of Invasions, arrived in
Ireland about three hundred years after the Flood, during the age of the
Biblical Abraham. Parthelon and his people were an industrious lot, clearing
plains for planting and constructing buildings. They rewarded themselves by
brewing the first beer in Ireland. Although they began only as a group of
forty-eight men and women, over the three centuries they lived in Ireland,
their numbers grew to five thousand. But ill-luck came upon them by way of a
plague, wiping out the Race of Parthelon.
Next came the Race of Nemed, a people who carried on the diligent work of
Parthelon. But bad fortune struck again, as Nemed and many of his followers
died in an epidemic, and the remaining population experienced other sore
pains and eventually left Ireland. The next colonizers were the Fir Bolgs,
who some experts believe were the Celts' representation of the pre-Celtic
indigenous peoples of Ireland. The Fir Bolgs were said to be the first to
divide Ireland into its historical provinces: Leinster, Munster, Connaught,
Meath, and Ulster. A famous mythic king of the Fir Bolgs was Eochaid the
Another breed of beings were a source of menace to the peoples of
Parthelon, Nemed, and the Fir Bolgs. These were the Fomors, often called the
Fomhoire, or "under-demons." The Fomors were malevolent giants, fearsome
diabolical creatures, who lived beneath the sea near the northwest part of
Ireland. They had a Glass Castle on Tory Island, their surface stronghold off
of the coast of County Sligo. Awful stories abound about the Fomors, for
instance, that two-thirds of the children born to the Race of Nemed were
surrendered to the Fomors every Samhain.
The Tuatha Dé Danann
In the age when the Fir Bolgs and Fomors roamed
Ireland, the gods and goddesses made their appearance on the feast of
Beltaine. Some sources say they descended from the sky. The deities brought
with them four important talismen: the magic sword of Nuada, the enchanted
spear of Lugh, the charmed cauldron of Dagda, and the Stone of Destiny (which
uttered a loud cry when touched by the rightful king of Ireland). The gods
and goddesses were called the Tuatha Dé Danann, or the "Tribe of the Goddess
Danu." They became the divine beings homaged by Gaelic peoples, though not
before an ironic story of conquest.
The divine pantheon of the Gaels were children of Danu, a symbol of the
universal mother. Among the greatest of her children was Nuada the Silver
Handed, the early king of the gods. He possessed an invincible sword, as
well as the powers of the throne. A table of the successive deity kings is
given below. Morrigan (or Morrigú) was a supreme war goddess, someone you
didn't mess with. She had a triad of female personifications: Nemen the
Venomous, Badb the Fury, and Macha the Battle. Morrigan's favorite
shape-shifting disguise was a crow.
The doyen of the gods was the Dagda, or the "Good God." The Dagda had
three prized possessions. First was his eight-pronged war-club, which he
moved with the help of a wheel. Second was his magic cauldron, called "The
Undry," which was sort of a cornucopia for porridge (Dagda's favorite food),
and from which none went away unnourished. Dagda's third prized possession
was his enchanted oak harp, which enabled the seasons to follow in order when
he played on its strings. The Dagda had numerous children, including Brigid,
Angus, Mider, Ogma, and Bodb the Red.
Brigid was the goddess of fire and the hearth, as well as of poetry. She
invented keening, the Irish wailing song for loved ones at death. Brigid also
had some fertility aspects, for the Celtic feast of Imbolc in early February
was in her honor. For sake of diplomacy, Brigid married Bress the Fomor, and
they had a son named Ruadan.
Kings of the Irish Gods (in succession over time)
- Nuada (king when the gods came to Ireland)
- Bress the Fomor (made king for diplomatic reasons)
- Nuada (reinstated as king upon Bress's downfall)
- Lugh (one of the kings after Nuada's death)
- Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, Mac Greiné
(sons of Ogma; these three kings were on the throne when the
Celtic Milesians arrived; their wives: Banba, Fotla, and Eriu)
- The Dagda (assigned sídh "fairymounds" to gods after Celtic conquests)
- Bodb the Red (king even to the time of the Fenians)
- Finvarra (present king of the fairies; also called Fionnbharr)
NOTE: Other sources include additional names of kings of the Gaelic
gods, such as Delbaeth and Fiachna.
Angus the Young was a sort of Gaelic god of love. He was very handsome
and had a golden harp that played so sweetly that maidens were naturally
drawn to it. The kisses of Angus were transformed into birds which whispered
thoughts of love into the ears of girls. In one story, Angus is visited by a
beautiful dream maiden each night during sleep. Angus pines for her, and
being lovesick, refuses nourishment. Finally he discovers that the dream
maiden is named Caer, an enchantress surrounded by thrice times fifty
attending nymphs. After much wooing, Caer finally agrees to marry Angus, and
they find much happiness at his palace.
Lir was the primary sea god of the Gaels. Among his children were
Finola, a daughter, and three sons: Aed, Fiachra, and Conn. A jealous
stepmother named Aeife cast a cruel spell with a magic wand, turning these
four children of Lir into swans, and they flew and wandered about Ireland
until the coming of St. Patrick. This is one of the saddest stories in Celtic
Another son of Lir was Manannán, a Gaelic god for whom the Isle of Man is
named. Manannán had a whole array of treasured possessions: three magic
swords, called The Retaliator, The Great Fury, and The Little Fury; two magic
spears, called Yellow Shaft and the Red Javelin; a boat propelled and guided
by his wishes, called the Wave-sweeper; a horse that could run swiftly over
the sea, named Splendid Mane; invincible armor and helmet; and a cloak that
made the wearer invisible. Manannán was the host of the Feast of Age, a
banquet where the guests never grew old.
Among others of the Irish pantheon were Goibniu, the metal worker of the
gods, and the brewer of the ale of immortality, a beer that enabled the
drinkers to live forever. Diancecht was the god of medicine, and was
responsible for naming the River Barrow. Ogma was the divine champion, a
patron of literature, and the inventor of the ogham alphabet. Among his sons
was Cairpré, the bard of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The Conquest by the Gods
When the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland,
being gods and goddesses, they realized immediately what a marvelous isle it
was. Of course, they wanted Ireland for themselves, to serve as their new
home. But first they needed to contend with the Fir Bolgs and the Fomor
The Tuatha Dé Danann moved on the Fir Bolgs first. Morrigan with the
help of Badb and Macha sent a shower of fire and blood upon the Fir Bolgs
for three days and nights, to warn them that change was impending. Nuada, the
king of the gods, attempted to work diplomacy with the Fir Bolg king Eochaid
the Proud, offering to divide Ireland in half between the gods and the
humans. But Eochaid rejected this, saying: "If we once give these beings
half, they will soon have the whole."
So the winds of war stirred between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir
Bolgs. Their two armies met near the village of Cong in the province on
Connaught, in western Ireland. At first, fighting began as a sort of deadly
hurling match where thrice nine warriors on each side fought to the death.
Then single combats commenced, and continued on for four days. In one, Streng
the Fir Bolg shore off the hand of King Nuada. But, the Fir Bolgs, thirsty
and in search of water, then travelled as far as Ballysadare in County Sligo.
They were pursued by the gods, and there, King Eochaid of the Fir Bolgs was
killed. By then the Fir Bolgs were down to three hundred men. The Tuatha Dé
Danann offered them peace and a fifth of Ireland. The Fir Bolgs consented,
and chose Connaught as theirs. And even up to the 17th century of our age,
there were men in Connaught who claimed their lineage traced back to Streng
the Fir Bolg!
But the war with the Fir Bolgs left a toll on the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Nuada had lost his hand in battle. Diancecht, the physician of the gods,
made Nuada a silver artificial hand that worked nearly perfectly (hence
Nuada's name, the Silver Handed). But this artificial hand was still a
blemish, the gods could not have an impaired being sitting on their throne.
So Nuada was required to step down.
The gods decided that it would be wise to make a diplomatic move with the
Fomor giants, and form a peaceful alliance with them. So, they offered the
throne of the gods to Bress, the son of the Fomor king. And too, marriage
unions were formed: Brigid of the gods married Bress the Fomor; and Cian,
the son of the god Diancecht, married Ethniu, the daughter of Balor the Fomor.
But, the idea of Bress the Fomor being king of the Tuatha Dé Danann
wasn't working out. Bress was oppressive. He exacted heavy taxes on the
gods, and Bress required that even the greatest of gods do work tolls for
him. So there were situations like Ogma being sent to chop fire wood for
Bress, and the Dagda being required to build forts and castles for him. To
make matters worse, Bress had no largesse at feasts: he would provide no
bards, musicians, or jugglers to give pleasure to the gods. Discontent was in
the air. Finally, Bress made a grave mistake--he insulted the bard of the
gods, Cairpré. To this, Cairpré wrote a stinging satire against Bress,
ending with these words: "May Bress's cheer be what he gives to others."
The children of Diancecht thus went to work to fix Nuada's hand. With
great magic, they restored his hand from silver to actual flesh. No longer
with a blemish, Nuada was now free to regain his throne of the gods. Bress
was forced to abdicate. He went back to the Fomors, and their assembly agreed
to make war against the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Preparations for war lasted seven years. In this time, Lugh arrived at
the court of the gods at Tara, and took a leadership position under King
Nuada. The Dagda was sent as a pre-battle ambassador to the Fomors, and there
ate an enormous meal of porridge, a meal that took so long that it gave the
Tuatha Dé Danann more time to prepare for war. On the eve of Samhain the
hostilities began. The battles were so fierce that Nuada was slain. But the
gods and goddesses won the war with the Fomors. In vengeance the retreating
Fomors stole the Dagda's harp, but Lugh, Ogma, and the Dagda pursued them and
fetched the prized possession, thus assuring the change of seasons. Morrigan,
Badb, Mider, and Angus finally forced the last Fomors off of Ireland for all
time. The gods and goddesses now possessed the Emerald Isle.
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