Of the two Celtic races that settled in our islands, it is the earlier, the Gaels, that has best preserved its old mythology. It is true that we have in few cases such detailed account of the Gaelic gods as we gain of the Hellenic deities from the Greek poets, of the Indian Devas from the Rig Veda, or of the Norse Æsir from the Eddas. Yet none the less may we draw from the ancient Irish manuscripts quite enough information to enable us to set forth their figures with some clearness. We find them, as might have been anticipated, very much like the divine hierarchies of other Aryan peoples.
We also find them separated into two opposing camps, a division common to all the Aryan religions. Just as the Olympians struggled with the Giants, the Æsir fought the Jötuns, and the Devas the Asuras, so there is warfare in the Gaelic spiritual world between two superhuman hosts. On one side are ranged the gods of day, light, life, fertility, wisdom, and good; on the other, the demons of night, darkness, death, barrenness, and evil. The first were the great spirits symbolizing the beneficial aspects of nature and the arts and intelligence of man; the second were the hostile powers thought to be behind such baneful manifestations as storm and
fog, drought and disease. The first are ranged as a divine family round a goddess called Danu, from whom they took their well-known name of Tuatha Dé Danann, 1 "Tribe" or "Folk of the Goddess Danu". The second owned allegiance to a female divinity called Domnu; their king, Indech, is described as her son, and they are all called "Domnu's gods". The word "Domnu" appears to have signified the abyss or the deep sea, 2 and the same idea is also expressed in their better-known name of "Fomors", derived from two Gaelic words meaning "under sea". 3 The waste of water seems to have always impressed the Celts with the sense of primeval ancientness; it was connected in their minds with vastness, darkness, and monstrous births--the very antithesis of all that was symbolized by the earth, the sky, and the sun.
Therefore the Fomors were held to be more ancient than the gods, before whom they were, however, destined to fall in the end. Offspring of "Chaos and Old Night", they were, for the most part, huge and deformed. Some had but one arm and one leg apiece, while others had the heads of goats, horses, or bulls. 4 The most famous, and perhaps the most terrible of them all was Balor, whose father is said to have been one Buarainech, that is, the "cow-faced", 5 and who combined in himself the two classical rôles of the Cyclops and the Medusa. Though he had two eyes, one was always
kept shut, for it was so venomous that it slew anyone on whom its look fell. This malignant quality of Balor's eye was not natural to him, but was the result of an accident. Urged by curiosity, he once looked in at the window of a house where his father's sorcerers were preparing a magic potion, and the poisonous smoke from the cauldron reached his eye, infecting it with so much of its own deadly nature as to make it disastrous to others. Neither god nor giant seems to have been exempt from its dangers; so that Balor was only allowed to live on condition that he kept his terrible eye shut. On days of battle he was placed opposite to the enemy, the lid of the destroying eye was lifted up with a hook, and its gaze withered all who stood before it. The memory of Balor and his eye still lingers in Ireland: the "eye of Balor" is the name for what the peasantry of other countries call the "evil eye"; stories are still told of Balar Beimann, or "Balor of the Mighty Blows"; and "Balor's Castle" is the name of a curious cliff on Tory Island. This island, off the coast of Donegal, was the Fomorian outpost upon earth, their real abode being in the cold depths of the sea.
This rule, however, as to the hideousness of the Fomors had its exceptions. Elathan, one of their chiefs, is described in an old manuscript as of magnificent presence--a Miltonic prince of darkness. "A man of fairest form," it says, "with golden hair down to his shoulders. He wore a mantle of gold braid over a shirt interwoven with threads of gold. Five golden necklaces were round
his neck, and a brooch of gold with a shining precious stone thereon was on his breast. He carried two silver spears with rivets of bronze, and his sword was golden-hiked and golden-studded." 1 Nor was his son less handsome. His name was Bress, which means "beautiful", and we are told that every beautiful thing in Ireland, "whether plain, or fortress, or ale, or torch, or woman, or man", was compared with him, so that men said of them, "that is a Bress". 2
Balor, Bress, and Elathan are the three Fomorian personages whose figures, seen through the mists of antiquity, show clearest to us. But they are only a few out of many, nor are they the oldest. We can learn, however, nothing but a few names of any ancestors of the Gaelic giants. This is equally true of the Gaelic gods. Those we know are evidently not without parentage, but the names of their fathers are no more than shadows following into oblivion the figures they designated. The most ancient divinity of whom we have any knowledge is Danu herself, the goddess from whom the whole hierarchy of gods received its name of Tuatha Dé Danann. She was also called Anu or Ana, and her name still clings to two well-known mountains near Killarney, which, though now called simply "The Paps", were known formerly as the "Paps of Ana". 3 She was the
universal mother; "well she used to cherish the gods", says the commentator of a ninth-century Irish glossary. 1 Her husband is never mentioned by name, but one may assume him, from British analogies, to have been Bilé, known to Gaelic tradition as a god of Hades, a kind of Celtic Dis Pater from whom sprang the first men. Danu herself probably represented the earth and its fruitfulness, and one might compare her with the Greek Demeter. All the other gods are, at least by title, her children. The greatest of these would seem to have been Nuada, called Argetlám, or "He of the Silver Hand". He was at once the Gaelic Zeus, or Jupiter, and their war-god; for among primitive nations, to whom success in war is all-important, the god of battles is the supreme god. 2 Among the Gauls, Camulus, whose name meant "Heaven", 3 was identified by the Romans with Mars; and other such instances come readily to the mind. He was possessed of an invincible sword, one of the four chief treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann, over whom he was twice king; and there is little doubt that he was one of the most important gods of both the Gaels and the Britons, for his name is spread over the whole of the British Isles, which we may surmise the Celts conquered under his auspices. We may picture him as a more savage Mars, delighting in battle and slaughter, and worshipped, like his Gaulish affinities, Teutates and Hesus, of whom the
[paragraph continues] Latin poet Lucan tells us, with human sacrifices, shared in by his female consorts, who, we may imagine, were not more merciful than himself, or than that Gaulish Taranis whose cult was "no gentler than that of the Scythian Diana", and who completes Lucan's triad as a fit companion to the "pitiless Teutates" and the "horrible Hesus". 1 Of these warlike goddesses there were five--Fea, the "Hateful", Nemon, the "Venomous", Badb, the "Fury", Macha, a personification of "battle", and, over all of them, the Morrígú, or "Great Queen". This supreme war-goddess of the Gaels, who resembles a fiercer Herê, perhaps symbolized the moon, deemed by early races to have preceded the sun, and worshipped with magical and cruel rites. She is represented as going fully armed, and carrying two spears in her hand. As with Arês 2 and Poseidon 3 in the "Iliad", her battle-cry was as loud as that of ten thousand men. Wherever there was war, either among gods or men, she, the great queen, was present, either in her own shape or in her favourite disguise, that of a "hoodie" or carrion crow. An old poem shows her inciting a warrior:
[paragraph continues] With her, Fea and Nemon, Badb and Macha also
hovered over the fighters, inspiring them with the madness of battle. All of these were sometimes called by the name of "Badb" 1. An account of the Battle of Clontarf, fought by Brian Boru, in 1014, against the Norsemen, gives a gruesome picture of what the Gaels believed to happen in the spiritual world when battle lowered and men's blood was aflame. "There arose a wild, impetuous, precipitate, mad, inexorable, furious, dark, lacerating, merciless, combative, contentious badb, which was shrieking and fluttering over their heads. And there arose also the satyrs, and sprites, and the maniacs of the valleys, and the witches and goblins and owls, and destroying demons of the air and firmament, and the demoniac phantom host; and they were inciting and sustaining valour and battle with them." When the fight was over, they revelled among the bodies of the slain; the heads cut off as barbaric trophies were called "Macha's acorn crop". These grim creations of the savage mind had immense vitality. While Nuada, the supreme war-god, vanished early out of the Pantheon--killed by the Fomors in the great battle fought between them and the gods--Badb and the Morrígú lived on as late as any of the Gaelic deities. Indeed, they may be said to still survive in the superstitious dislike and suspicion shown in all Celtic-speaking countries for their avatar, the hoodie-crow. 2
After Nuada, the greatest of the gods was the
[paragraph continues] Dagda, whose name seems to have meant the "Good God". 1 The old Irish tract called "The Choice of Names" tells us that he was a god of the earth; he had a cauldron called "The Undry", in which everyone found food in proportion to his merits, and from which none went away unsatisfied. He also had a living harp; as he played upon it, the seasons came in their order--spring following winter, and summer succeeding spring, autumn coming after summer, and, in its turn, giving place to winter. He is represented as of venerable aspect and of simple mind and tastes, very fond of porridge, and a valiant consumer of it. In an ancient tale we have a description of his dress. He wore a brown, low-necked tunic which only reached down to his hips, and, over this, a hooded cape which barely covered his shoulders. On his feet and legs were horse-hide boots, the hairy side outwards. He carried, or, rather, drew after him on a wheel, an eight-pronged war-club, so huge that eight men would have been needed to carry it; and the wheel, as he towed the whole weapon along, made a track like a territorial boundary. 2 Ancient and gray-headed as he was, and sturdy porridge-eater, it will be seen from this that he was a formidable fighter. He did great deeds in the battle between the gods and the Fomors, and, on one occasion, is even said to have captured single-handed a hundred-legged and four-headed monster called Mata, dragged him to the "Stone of Benn", near the Boyne, and killed him there.
The Dagda's wife was called Boann. She was connected in legend with the River Boyne, to which she gave its name, and, indeed, its very existence. 1 Formerly there was only a well 2, shaded by nine magic hazel-trees. These trees bore crimson nuts, and it was the property of the nuts that whoever ate of them immediately became possessed of the knowledge of everything that was in the world. The story is, in fact, a Gaelic version of the Hebrew myth of "the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil". One class of creatures alone had this privilege--divine salmon who lived in the well, and swallowed the nuts as they dropped from the trees into the water, and thus knew all things, and appear in legend as the "Salmons of Knowledge". All others, even the highest gods, were forbidden to approach the place. Only Boann, with the proverbial woman's curiosity, dared to disobey this fixed law. She came towards the sacred well, but, as she did so, its waters rose up at her, and drove her away before them in a mighty, rushing flood. She escaped; but the waters never returned. They made the Boyne; and as for the all-knowing inhabitants of the well, they wandered disconsolately through the depths of the river, looking in vain for their lost nuts. One of these salmon was afterwards eaten by the famous Finn mac Coul, upon whom all its omniscience descended. 3 This way of accounting for the existence of a river is a favourite one in Irish legend. It is told also of the Shannon, which burst.
like the Boyne, from an inviolable well, to pursue another presumptuous nymph called Sinann, a grand-daughter of the sea-god Lêr. 1
The Dagda had several children, the most important of whom are Brigit, Angus, Mider, Ogma, and Bodb the Red. Of these, Brigit will be already familiar to English readers who know no-thing of Celtic myth. Originally she was a goddess of fire and the health, as well as of poetry, which the Gaels deemed an immaterial, supersensual form of flame. But the early Christianizers of Ireland adopted the pagan goddess into their roll of saintship, and, thus canonized, she obtained immense popularity as Saint Bridget, or Bride. 2
Angus was called Mac Oc, which means the "Son of the Young", or, perhaps, the "Young God". This most charming of the creations of the Celtic mythology is represented as a Gaelic Eros, an eternally youthful exponent of love and beauty. Like his father, he had a harp, but it was of gold, not oak, as the Dagda's was, and so sweet was its music that no one could hear and not follow it. His kisses became birds which hovered invisibly over the young men and maidens of Erin, whispering thoughts of love into their ears. He is chiefly connected with the banks of the Boyne, where he had a "brugh", or fairy palace; and many stories are told of his exploits and adventures.
Mider, also the hero of legends, would seem to have been a god of the underworld, a Gaelic
[paragraph continues] Pluto. As such, he was connected with the Isle of Falga--a name for what was otherwise, and still is, called the Isle of Man--where he had a stronghold in which he kept three wonderful cows and a magic cauldron. He was also the owner of the "Three Cranes of Denial and Churlishness", which might be described flippantly as personified "gentle hints". They stood beside his door, and when anyone approached to ask for hospitality, the first one said: "Do not come! do not come!" and the second added: "Get away! get away!" while the third chimed in with: "Go past the house! go past the house!" 1 These three birds were, however, stolen from Mider by Aitherne, an avaricious poet, to whom they would seem to have been more appropriate than to their owner, who does not otherwise appear as a churlish and illiberal deity. 2 On the contrary, he is represented as the victim of others, who plundered him freely. The god Angus took away his wife Etain, 3 while his cows, his cauldron, and his beautiful daughter Blathnat were carried off as spoil by the heroes or demi-gods who surrounded King Conchobar in the golden age of Ulster.
Ogma, who appears to have been also called Cermait, that is, the "honey-mouthed", was the god of literature and eloquence. He married Etan, the daughter of Diancecht, the god of medicine, and had several children, who play parts more or less prominent in the mythology of the Gaelic Celts. One of them was called Tuirenn, whose
three sons murdered the father of the sun-god, and were compelled, as expiation, to pay the greatest fine ever heard of--nothing less than the chief treasures of the world. 1 Another son, Cairpré, became the professional bard of the Tuatha Dé Danann, while three others reigned for a short time over the divine race. As patron of literature, Ogma was naturally credited with having been the inventor of the famous Ogam alphabet. This was an indigenous script of Ireland, which spread afterwards to Great Britain, inscriptions in ogmic characters having been found in Scotland, the Isle of Man, South Wales, Devonshire, and at Silchester in Hampshire, the Roman city of Calleva Attrebatum. It was originally intended for inscriptions upon upright pillar-stones or upon wands, the equivalents for letters being notches cut across, or strokes made upon one of the faces of the angle, the alphabet running as follows:
When afterwards written in manuscript, the strokes were placed over, under, or through a horizontal line, in the manner above; and the vowels were represented by short lines instead of notches, as:
A good example of an ogmic inscription is given in Professor Rhys's Hibbert Lectures. It comes from a pillar on a small promontory near Dunmore Head, in the west of Kerry, and, read horizontally, reads:
ERC, THE SON OF THE SON OF ERCA (DESCENDANT OF) MODOVINIA. 1
[paragraph continues] The origin of this alphabet is obscure. Some authorities consider it of great antiquity, while others believe it entirely post-Christian. It seems, at any rate, to have been based upon, and consequently to presuppose a knowledge of, the Roman alphabet.
Ogma, besides being the patron of literature, was the champion, or professional strong man of the Tuatha Dé Danann. His epithet is Grianainech,
that is, the "Sunny-faced", from his radiant and shining countenance.
The last of the Dagda's more important children is Bodb 1 the Red, who plays a greater part in later than in earlier legend. He succeeded his father as king of the gods. He is chiefly connected with the south of Ireland, especially with the Galtee Mountains, and with Lough Dearg, where he had a famous sídh, or underground palace.
The Poseidon of the Tuatha Dé Danann Pantheon was called Lêr, but we hear little of him in comparison with his famous son, Manannán, the greatest and most popular of his many children. Manannán mac Lir 2 was the special patron of sailors, who invoked him as "God of Headlands", and of merchants, who claimed him as the first of their guild. His favourite haunts were the Isle of Man, to which he gave his name, and the Isle of Arran, in the Firth of Clyde, where he had a palace called "Emhain of the Apple-Trees". He had many famous weapons--two spears called "Yellow Shaft" and "Red Javelin", a sword called "The Retaliator", which never failed to slay, as well as two others known as the "Great Fury" and the "Little Fury". He had a boat called "Wave-sweeper", which propelled and guided itself wherever its owner wished, and a horse called "Splendid Mane", which was swifter than the spring wind, and travelled equally fast on land or over the waves of the sea. No weapon could hurt him through his magic mail and breast-plate, and on his helmet there shone two magic jewels
bright as the sun. He endowed the gods with the mantle which made them invisible at will, and he fed them from his pigs, which, like the boar Sæhrimnir, in the Norse Valhalla, renewed themselves as soon as they had been eaten. Of these, no doubt, he made his "Feast of Age", the banquet at which those who ate never grew old. Thus the people of the goddess Danu preserved their immortal youth, while the ale of Goibniu the Smith-God bestowed invulnerability upon them. It is fitting that Manannán himself should have been blessed beyond all the other gods with inexhaustible life; up to the latest days of Irish heroic literature his luminous figure shines prominent, nor is it even yet wholly forgotten.
Goibniu, the Gaelic Hephaestus, who made the people of the goddess Danu invulnerable with his magic drink, was also the forger of their weapons. It was he who, helped by Luchtainé, the divine carpenter, and Credné, the divine bronze-worker, made the armoury with which the Tuatha Dé Danann conquered the Fomors. Equally useful to them was Diancecht, the god of medicine. 1 It was he who once saved Ireland, and was indirectly the cause of the name of the River Barrow. The Morrígú, the heaven-god's fierce wife, had borne a son of such terrible aspect that the physician of the gods, foreseeing danger, counselled that he should be destroyed in his infancy. This was done; and Diancecht opened the infant's heart, and found
within it three serpents, capable, when they grew to full size, of depopulating Ireland. He lost no time in destroying these serpents also, and burning them into ashes, to avoid the evil which even their dead bodies might do. More than this, he flung the ashes into the nearest river, for he feared that there might be danger even in them; and, indeed, so venomous were they that the river boiled up and slew every living creature in it, and therefore has been called "Barrow" (boiling) ever since. 1
Diancecht had several children, of whom two followed their father's profession. These were Miach and his sister Airmid. There were also another daughter, Etan, who married Cermait (or Ogma), and three other sons called Cian, Cethé, and Cu. Cian married Ethniu, the daughter of Balor the Fomor, and they had a son who was the crowning glory of the Gaelic Pantheon--its Apollo, the Sun-God,--Lugh 2, called Lamhfada 3, which means the "Long-handed", or the "Far-shooter". It was not, however, with the bow, like the Apollo of the Greeks, but with the rod-sling that Lugh performed his feats; his worshippers sometimes saw the terrible weapon in the sky as a rainbow, and the Milky Way was called "Lugh's Chain". He also had a magic spear, which, unlike the rod-sling, he had no need to wield, himself; for it was alive, and thirsted so for blood that only by steeping its head in a sleeping-draught of pounded poppy leaves could it be kept at rest. When battle was near, it
Click to enlarge
LUGH'S MAGIC SPEAR
From the Drawing by H. R. Millar
was drawn out; then it roared and struggled against its thongs; fire flashed from it; and, once slipped from the leash, it tore through and through the ranks of the enemy, never tired of slaying. Another of his possessions was a magic hound which an ancient poem, 1 attributed to the Fenian hero, Caoilte, calls--
"Other virtues had that beautiful hound
(Better this property than any other property),
Mead or wine would grow of it,
Should it bathe in spring water."
This marvellous hound, as well as the marvellous spear, and the indestructible pigs of Manannán were obtained for Lugh by the sons of Tuirenn as part of the blood-fine he exacted from them for the murder of his father Cian. 2 A hardly less curious story is that which tells how Lugh got his name of the Ioldanach, or the "Master of All Arts". 3
These are, of course, only the greater deities of the Gaelic Pantheon, their divinities which answered to such Hellenic figures as Demeter, Zeus, Herê, Cronos, Athena, Eros, Hades, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aesculapius, and Apollo. All of them had many descendants, some of whom play prominent parts
in the heroic cycles of the "Red Branch of Ulster" and of the "Fenians". In addition to these, there must have been a multitude of lesser gods who stood in much the same relation to the great gods as the rank and file of tribesmen did to their chiefs. Most of these were probably local deities of the various clans--the gods their heroes swore by. But it is also possible that some may have been divinities of the aboriginal race. Professor Rhys thinks that he can still trace a few of such Iberian gods by name, as Nêt, Ri or Roi, Corb, and Beth. 1 But they play no recognizable part in the stories of the Gaelic gods.
48:1 Pronounced Tooăha dae donnann.
48:2 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, 1886. Lecture VI--"Gods, Demons, and Heroes".
48:4 De Jubainville: Le Cycle Mythologique Irlandais, chap. v.
48:5 De Jubainville: Cycle Mythologique Irlandais, chap. IX.
50:1 From the fifteenth century Harleian MS. in the British Museum, numbered 5280, and called the Second Battle of Moytura.
50:2 Harleian MS. 5280.
50:3 "In Munster was worshipped the goddess of prosperity, whose name was Ana, and from her are named the Two Paps of Ana over Luachair Degad." From Coir Anmann, the Choice of Names, a sixteenth-century tract, published by Dr. Whitley Stokes in Irische Texte.
51:1 Attributed to Cormac, King-Bishop of Cashel.
51:2 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, 1886--"The Zeus of the Insular Celts".
51:3 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, 1886--"The Gaulish Pantheon".
52:1 Pharsalia, Book I, 1. 444, &c.:
52:2 Iliad, Book V.
52:3 Op, cit., Book XIV.
52:4 It commemorates the battle of Magh Rath.
53:1 The word is approximately pronounced Bive or Bibe.
53:2 For a full account of these beings see a paper by Mr. W. M. Hennessey in Vol. 1 of the Revue Celtique, entitled "The Ancient Irish Goddess of War".
54:1 De Jubainville: Le Cycle Mythologique. Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, p. 154. The Coir Anmann, however, translates it "Fire of God".
54:2 The Second Battle of Moytura. Harleian MS. 5280.
55:1 The story is told in the Book of Leinster.
55:2 Now called "Trinity Well".
55:3 See chap. XIV--"Finn and the Fenians".
56:1 Book of Leinster. A paraphrase of the story will be found in O’Curry's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, Vol. II, p. 143.
56:2 See chap. XV--"The Decline and Fall of the Gods".
57:1 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, p. 331.
57:2 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, p. 331.
57:3 See chap. XI--"The Gods in Exile".
58:1 See chap. VIII--"The Gaelic Argonauts".
59:1 Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, p. 524.
60:1 Pronounced Bove.
60:2 Lêr--genitive Lir.
61:1 Pronounced Dianket. His name is explained, both in the Choice of Names and in Cormac's Glossary, as meaning "God of Health".
62:1 Standish O’Grady: The Story of Ireland, p. 17
62:2 Pronounced Luga or Loo.
62:3 Pronounced Lavāda.
63:1 Translated by O’Curry in Atlantis, Vol. III, from the Book of Lismore.
63:2 Chap. VIII--"The Gaelic Argonauts".
63:3 Chap. VII--"The Rise of the Sun-God".
64:1 Rhys: Celtic Britain, chap. VII.