12 October 2007
I actually started out this article as one on Celtic mythology. Umm, no. The concept of the Celt is too big for just one article. There are the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh and the Britons. Then there’s the whole historical influence of the Gauls and Romans. So today’s article is just about Irish mythology.
And I say mythology because I can’t really talk about a pantheon, per se -- a system of god-worship. Irish mythology focuses on the Tuatha Dé Danann, or “the people of the goddess Danu.” There, I’ve just contradicted myself. However, little is known about Danu as an individual. She’s “the mother,” but there doesn’t seem to be much focused worship of her as a mother goddess the way, say, Venus or Cybele were revered in classical mythology.
The Dagda was a powerful god figure, and several of the Tuatha had specific focii – the Morrigan was a goddess of war, Aengus was a god of love, and Manannán was the lawgiver and the keeper of the doorway to the Otherworld. Yet these characters are often portrayed as magical beings, immortals, and legendary characters, rather than gods to worship.
The stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann are recorded in the Mythological Cycle of the Lebor na hUidre, a manuscript that can be dated from the 11th century, along with the Book of Leinster (c. 1160), and the Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of Invasions) from the late 11th century.
As in many other mythos, numerology plays an important role. There are four treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann:
The Dagda’s Cauldron: A large cooking pot that never emptied and none left hungry.
The Spear of Lugh: A spear that lived. So bloodthirsty that it could only be controlled by keeping its head steeped in a vat of opium. When it was awake, it roared and struggled against its holder, eager for the slaughter.
The Stone of Fal: The Lia Fáil, also, the Stone of Destiny. When the rightful King of Ireland places his feet upon the stone, it roared in joy. Cúchulainn split the stone in half when it did not acknowledge his heir. After that, it roared only under the feet of Conn of the Hundred Battles and Brian Boru.
The Sword of Light of Nuada: Nuada Airgetlám was the first king of the Tuatha. He lost his arm in battle, and had it replaced by one of silver. The Sword glowed with a silver light and was irresistible in battle.
Four treasures, four elements, four suits in the Tarot. Balance is important in this mythology, as in most.
For the most part, Irish mythology is a tradition of heroic tales, of kings and courts, politics and war. By the Middle Ages, the Tuatha themselves were less magical and godlike than legendary figures of history.
Magic, however, still thrives on the Green Isle. A lack of gods does not preclude an active folklore filled with pixies, brownies and leprechauns, as well as other magical peoples connected to the land and nature.
There is always more to learn about this complex culture, so I encourage you to read through the following list to discover more.
Irish mythology at Wikipedia
The Tuatha at Encyclopedia Mythica