Gods in Irish & Celtic Mythology

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

A great god represented with a club and a cauldron is a famous image in ancient Irish art. This figure is the Dagda, the ~'Good God~' of Irish mythology. This lesson looks at the Dagda and other gods of the ancient Irish people.

Celtic and Irish Mythology

Irish mythology is the ancient stories and beliefs of the Gaelic people who were the ancestors of the modern Irish. The Ancient Gaels were a Celtic people and their mythology developed from the diverse beliefs and stories told by the Celts; since the Irish recorded many of their old stories, Irish mythology is the form of Celtic mythology that is best known to us. Since the Irish were an Indo-European people, their mythology has much in common with that of other Indo-European peoples, such as the Romans, the Greeks and the Indians, to name but a few.

The Irish myths that have come down to us were transcribed in Gaelic by monks during the Middle Ages; they are some of the earliest vernacular literature in Europe. Irish myths are often broken into four cycles of stories: the Mythological Cycle, the Cycle of Kings, the Ulster Cycle and the Fenian Cycle. Each cycle includes different sources and has a different focus. The Mythological Cycle, the Cycle of Kings and, to a lesser extent, the Ulster Cycle are the ones that contain the most tales of the ancient Irish gods.

The Tuatha de Danann

The Gods of the ancient Irish were said to be members of the Tuatha de Danann, the Children of Danu. Danu is largely thought to be an earth and mother goddess. These gods are said to not be native to Ireland, but came from an island far to the west (although some stories claim they came from the north). In Irish mythology, the west is often associated with magic and other worldliness; it is the home to Hy-Brasil, Tir na Nog and other magical islands.

Coming to Ireland

When the Gods came to Ireland they found that it was already ruled by another people known as the Fir Bolg, as well as older gods known as the Fomorians. This older generation of gods was monstrous and physically deformed; their leader was a one-eyed giant called Balor whose gaze was said to be able to kill anyone he looked upon. This theme of a generation of monsters preceding the gods is also found in Greek (the Hundred-Handed Ones and the Cyclopes), Norse (the Ice Giants), and several other mythologies.

The Tuatha de Danann went to war with the Fir Bolg and Fomorians, and were eventually victorious after the god Lugh used a sling to kill Balor; the stone was said to have hit him with such force that it knocked his cursed eye out from the back of his head and rolled down a hill, killing all of the Fomorians who saw it.

Although the Tuatha de Danann ruled Ireland for many years, they themselves were eventually defeated by the Milesians, the human ancestors of today's Irish, who drove the gods underground. It was said that the gods then resided in massive halls deep underground and in the ancient mounds that litter the Irish landscape.

Important Gods and Goddesses

The Dagda

The king of the Tuatha de Danaan was a god known as the Dagda. He became king after the wounding of the previous king Nuada, for the laws of the gods and men at the time stated that kings must be whole in body in order to rule. The Dagda possessed a club which was said to be able to kill nine men with a single blow but, as it could take life it could also grant it, for the hilt of the club was able to bring the dead back to life. The Dagda was also known to possesses a magic cauldron called the Undry that was bottomless and could feed any man his fill without running out of food. The Dagda was often called the 'Good God' or the 'All Father' and was depicted either as a shining and great god by later writers and scholars, or as a buffoonish figure with a large phallus.

Like many other kingly gods in world mythology, he was known as a philanderer and had numerous affairs with other goddesses and humans. Because of this, he was seen as the father of Angus, the God of Love; Oghma, the God of Writing and Eloquence; and Brigid, the Goddess of Spring and the Dawn.

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