In last month’s blog, we learned about Celtic deities from the Iron Age in various parts of the European mainland. This month we will look at what can be known – or surmised – about gods and goddesses in Ireland, including how their names were pronounced and their primary powers or attributes. Like the Continental deities, the Irish deities may have more than one name, and are often multi-aspected. We should not expect them to conform to Greco-Roman archetypes or to match up with modern Neo-Pagan ideas about deities and the year wheel. The Irish gods are ‘their own thing,’ and should be approached and interpreted on their own terms.
There are a remarkable number of books and websites out there which profess to contain the names and attributes of the Irish gods, which for some reason are almost all wildly inaccurate. I’m not entirely sure why this should be, except that the study of Celtic Paganism and Deities is a relatively more recent field of serious study, especially when compared with the study of Greco-Roman and Egyptian deities. Not all of the Irish sources have been well translated, or compiled into one place (or are in sources that can be readily found). Suffice it to say, that one should stick to the following books when learning about the Irish gods and goddesses – for background information, and also for reading and interpreting the myths themselves. Always better to read a good translation of an Irish tale or legend that contains references to an Irish deity, than to take someone else’s word for it (especially when they cannot tell you where that information comes from).
For starters, make good use of Pagan Celtic Britain by Anne Ross (which includes lots of information about Irish deities as well), Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by McKillop, Celtic Heritage by Rees, Celtic Myth and Religion by S. Paice MacLeod, Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture by Maier, and of course, Celtic Mythology by Proinsias MacCana. These will be your guides to understanding the tangled web of medieval Irish sources that contain information about the pagan gods – most easily accessed by reading Ancient Irish Tales by Cross and Slover, Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Gantz, Tales of the Elders of Ireland (Dooley and Roe) and the Celtic Heroic Age by Koch and Carey.
No blog entry can possibly contain all the information we have about the Irish deities, the inhabitants of the Hollow Hills. However, I hope that this blog will at least provide a solid foundation for some of the major deities, including a useful guide to how to (actually) pronounce their names (properly) in Old Irish:
Dagda [DAGH-duh, the ‘gh’ is a soft G sound made in the back of the throat; anglicized DAHG-duh]: His name means ‘The Good God,’ or ‘Best God,’ as in ‘Good at many things.’ Also known as Echu Ollathair [ECH-oo OLL-uh-therr; the ‘ch’ is as in ‘loch’ or ‘Bach,’ not as in ‘choose’] (‘Great Father of Many Horses’) and Ruadh Rofhessa[ROO-udh ro-ESS-uh; the ‘dh’ symbolizes the ‘th’ sound in the word ‘other’] [‘Red or Noble one of Great Knowledge’) this powerful and beneficent god has a very wide range of attributes: wisdom, battle, fertility, abundance, music, kingship, the weather, the harvest, and more. He appears in a number of Irish myths which should be read in order to understand his attributes fully. He is the father of Bríg (Brigit) and Oengus Mac Óg (whom he has with Boand, goddess of the River Boyne).
Mórrígan / Morrígan [MORE-REE-gun, anglicized as MORE-rih-gun]: Her name is interpreted a bit differently depending on whether the first syllable has an accent (fada) or not. If it did originally have the fada, then it means ‘Great Queen,’ an interpretation I support based on the extremely wide array of attributes she has when one looks at all of the Old Irish sources, and not just a few well known episodes. If the first syllable did not have an accent, then it means ‘Nightmare / Phantom Queen,’ which does reflect one of her aspects (but not all). She is a powerful goddess associated with battle, death, magic and prophecy, as well as the earth, fertility, sexuality, and many other things. To characterize her as a ‘Dark Goddess of Battle’ is to stereotype her to almost a caricature. She is powerful and demands respect, but her aspects include almost everything from creation to destruction. She unites with the Dagda at Samhain, and with her blessing (as a Sovereignty Goddess) and her leadership and magical abilities, she helps the Tuatha De Danann vanquish another supernatural race, The Fomorians, in Cath Maige Tuired. As I have shown elsewhere (Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. XIX), The Morrigan is the same goddess as Anu, and as Danu. This deepens our understanding of her, and that research should by read by anyone wishing to understand the full range of her attributes.
Lug [LOOGH, the ‘gh’ is a soft ‘g’ sound in the back of the throat; anglicized as Loog or Loo]. The meaning of his name is not known (no matter what people tell you), although it may derive from an Indo-European word meaning ‘light’. This does not mean he is a ‘sun god,’ which is an outdated Victorian way of looking at deities. It has tenuous possible linguistic link with Gaulish words denoting ‘raven’ or ‘lynx,’ but these are problematic and best avoided. Lug is sometimes referred to as Lug Mac Eithlenn [MAHK ETH-lenn] (‘Son of the divine figure Ethliu) and also by the epithet Samildánach [SAH-vill-DAH-nach; the ‘ch’ is as in ‘loch’ or ‘Bach,’ not as in ‘choose’] which means ‘Many Skilled.’ Lug appears to be the Irish reflex of a pan-European Celtic deity elsewhere known as Lugos / Lugus (on the mainland) and later in the medieval Welsh figure of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. His many skills are enumerated in Cath Maige Tuired, when he approaches Tara and declares himself to be a warrior, poet, harper, craftsman, cupbearer, physician, and so forth.
Bríg [BREEGH, the ‘gh’ is a soft ‘g’ sound in the back of the throat; anglicized as Brigid; it is not spelled or pronounced BREED or BRIDE, which are modern Irish or Anglicized versions of the name). She is the daughter of the Dagda, and mother of Bres, whose unworthy kingship is enumerated in Cath Maige Tuired. In the 9th century source Sanas Chormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) she is described as a goddess of poetry, who, along with her two sisters also named Brig, were goddesses of healing and of smithcraft. This triplicism is a huge part of the Celtic spiritual and symbolic tradition, which they inherited from their Indo-European ancestors and antecedents (and does not reflect the modern notion of ‘Maiden, Mother, Crone,’ a creative and non-historical theory first postulated by the poet and Classics scholar Robert Graves in his 1949 work, ‘The White Goddess.’) Cormac’s Glossary states that Brigid was very beloved by the poets, because ‘very great was her protective care.’ Brigid only appears in a few short episodes in the Early Irish materials, where, for example, she was said to have raised the first keening when her son Bres was killed. She appears to have continued on in a new form in the person of Saint Brigid of Kildare, about whom we know quite a bit more; her story contains many interesting and possibly pre-Christian allusions.
Ogma [OHG-muh]. The meaning of this god’s name is not entirely clear, but John Carey has recently published an article in the journal Cosmos showing that his name and attributes appear to be connected with those of the Gaulish god known as Ogmios, known as both a strong-man / warrior and as a poet / god of eloquence. Similarly, in Irish sources Ogma is a beneficent warrior and champion of the Tuatha De Danann, and was also credited with the invention of the Ogam alphabet.
Ériu, Banba and Fotla [AYR-ee-yoo, BAHN-vuh, FODE-luh]. These are the three eponymous goddesses of the land of Ireland, whom the Gaels encounter when they first land on the island. Each wishes to have her name be upon the land, but only Eriu welcomes the Sons of Mil, saying that their arrival had long been prophesied. Indeed, it is her name that is found in the Old Irish name of Ireland (Ériu), which comes from an Indo-European root word *Iweriju, meaning ‘Fat / Fertile land.’ She displays attributes of a land or sovereignty goddess, and is the mother of Bres (whom she has with one of the kings of the Fomorians). All three names were used to denote Ireland by Irish poets throughout the Medieval Period. The consorts of these three goddesses were three kings of the Tuatha De Danann: Mac Cuill (‘Son of Hazel’), Mac Gréine (‘Son of Sun’) and Mac Cecht (‘Son of Plough’).
Goibniu, Luchte, and Creidne [GOV-nyoo, LOOCH-tuh, CREDH-nuh; the ‘dh’ is the ‘th’ sound in ‘other’): These three brothers are Divine Craftsmen, a smith, carpenter and brazier, who were sometimes known as na tri dée dána, ‘the three gods of skill.’ They work with The Dagda and Ogma to defeat the Fomorians in Cath Maige Tuired by creating magical weapons. Goibniu was also said to preside over the Otherworld Feast of Immortality.
Boand: [BOE-and; later spelled Boann and pronounced BO-uhn]. Her name means “White / Blessed Cow,’ coming from the root word find (later spelled finn), which means ‘white, bright or blessed.’ She has an affair with the Dagda, resulting in the birth of Oengus mac Óg. There is an important place-name story in which she approaches the Well of Segais, which could only be approached by Nechtan and his three cup-bearers. She walks around it in a non-sunwise direction and as a result the river rises up and disfigures and drowns her; she then becomes the spirit of the River Boyne. Boand also appears in the Accalam, in some very interesting stories.
Oengus mac Óg [OYN-ghus mahk OGE] His first name comes from the word ‘oen’ meaning ‘one’ and here denoting ‘singularity’ and ‘gus’ meaning ‘life force or virility.’ He is called ‘the Young Son’ (the Mac Óg) because he was conceived, gestated and born all in one day. When the Dagda and Boand united, the Dagda kept the sun in the sky for nine months (Boand’s husband, Elcmar, was away for the day). Oengus is a young man and warrior, and in some tales helps young lovers. He eventually inhabits Brug na Boinne (Newgrange).
Sinann: [SHIN-unn] The story of Sinann is quite similar to that of Boand, in that she was pursuing the illuminating property of imbas (‘Great Wisdom’) and followed red bubbles containing this property (perhaps hazelnuts? or amanita muscaria mushrooms) into the water, where she was drowned and became the spirit of the Shannon. There is a wonderful description of this episode in the Metrical Dindshenchas.
Manannán Mac Lir [MAHN-uh-NAHN mahk Leer]: This root of this god’s name ‘Mannan’ is believed to be the root of the name of the Isle of Man. He is the son of a primal ocean god, Lir (whose name, somehow, Shakespeare got ahold of for the name of his character King Lear). Manannán also presides over the ocean realms, and appears to live apart from the rest of the Tuatha De Danann whose abodes are under the earth. He appears in short episodes in a number of early Irish sources, and seems to have a connection with magic.
Midir [MIDH-err; the ‘dh’ symbolizes the ‘th’ sound in ‘other’]. The root of this deity’s name may be related to a word meaning ‘to judge’ (midithir); he does perform this function in some tales. He owned several white cranes, as well as a Crane Bag, made from the skin of a woman he admired who was transformed into crane form, and which contained a number of magical objects.
Dian Cecht [DEE-uhn Cecht; the ‘ch’ is as in ‘loch or ‘Bach,’ not as in ‘choose’]. His name could be translated as ‘Swift One of Power or Cutting,’ and he is a Physician God. He helps heal wounded warriors of the Tuatha De Danann in Cath Maige Tuired. He makes a silver hand for the wounded Tuatha De Danann king Nuadu, but his son Miach [MEE-uch, ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’ or ‘Bach, not as in ‘choose’] creates a flesh-and-blood arm for him; out of jealousy, Dian Cecht kills Miach. The spell Miach uses to heal Nuadu comes from an old Indo-European magical formula. After his death, his sister Airmid gathered up the 365 herbs and spread them out on her cloak according to her healing properties. The angry Dian Cecht mixed them up so their properties were not known. (Naughty Dian Cecht. Luckily, we have unscrambled many of the herbs!) :
Nuadu [NOO-uh-dhoo; the ‘dh’ represents the ‘th’ sound in ‘other’]. The name of this deity is cognate with that of a British deity named Nodons / Nodens, who is known to have been venerated at a Romano-Celtic healing sanctuary. Nuadu Airgetlam [AHR-get-lahv, which means ‘Silver Hand / Arm’] was an early king of the Tuatha De Danann. Rather than a god who provides healing, he seems to have received healing at the hands of Dian Cecht and then Miach. He gives up his throne to Lug after he arrived at Tara.
Flidais [FLIDH-ish; the ‘dh’ is the ‘th’ sound in ‘other’]. This goddesses’ name appears to come from the words ‘fled’ (‘feast’) and ‘os’ (‘deer’). Like Manannán mac Lir, she seems to live somewhat separately from the rest of the Tuatha De Danann. She is an independent goddess who lives not in the hollow hills but in the forest or wilderness, where she herds wild cattle and deer, who she milks and protects. She is the divine consort of the human or semi-divine hero Fergus Mac Roich; it was said that when not with Flidais, it took seven ordinary women to satisfy him sexually. She travels by chariot drawn by deer, and although her legend may be influenced by that of Artemis, there are also reports of the Gauls worshipping a Divine Huntress; therefore, these attributes may be native.
There are other very interesting Irish gods and goddesses in other sources, but these are the most well-known, who appear in a number of tales and sources, and about whom we have the most information.
Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several well known books on Celtic religion including ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ as well as ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’.