What is the Dagda’s power over life and death?
The Tuatha Dé Dannann came into Ireland out of the North having spent time on their journey learning all the great arts of druidry, magic and other occult knowledge.
They came as a fleet of a thousand heroes to their ancient homeland yet there was one to whom all gave deference when it came to power, and that one was named for his service to the tuath as the ‘Goodly God’ for he was good at all things.
That one person was the Dagda. Yet for all of the Dagda’s powers during the first and second battles of Moytura, he cannot stop folk of his tribe dying. This does not seem like an issue for him, that is until death comes to one of his own children.
The Origin of the Dagda’s Club
When we think of the Dagda’s powers, the story about how he claimed his famous club is one tale that is well worth exploring.
Not just because it shows his many powers, and how he gained the one ability he did not possess, but because it tells us more about the character of this ‘Good God’.
In the story Lugh is now king in Ireland after vanquishing the Fomorian invasion. Yet for all of his many interlinked skills and his position as ruler of the island, his demeanour as an individual is what sets this tale on its track.
Cermait, one of the Dagda’s children forms a tryst with Naas, one of Lugh’s wives. In retaliation to this, Lugh takes up the famous spear, one of the four treasures of the Tuatha De Danann and slays Cermait.
The Dagda comes upon his slain son and laments, for he has no power over life and death. Yet at this moment he refuses to accept that such a power is out of his reach. Using his knowledge of druidry and his magical abilities he stops the corruption of his son’s body. Binding the corpse up he lifts it over his shoulders and sets off on his quest, ‘out of Ireland and into the East’ to seek a way to restore life to his child.
After a long journey he comes across three brothers coming from the East each carrying with them an item of their inheritance, a shirt, a shield, and a staff / club. The Dagda asks what powers are on each item and is told that the shirt changes the wearer’s form, the shield hides a person from sight, and the staff / club has a ‘rough end which takes life’, and a ‘gentle end that restores it’.
Asking for the club he is refused, but then he asks but to look at it yet once it is in his hand he slays all three brothers with the rough end. Taking the gentle end to Cermait’s body he restores the life which had been lost to him.
When Cermait awakens his first act is to berate his father for his actions because why should he have life when it was taken from others. The Dagda relents and restores life to the three slain brothers and offers them an agreement for the loan of the club.
In this agreement we see the Dagda swear an oath upon his power to not just return the club, but he specifies the manner in which he will use this power, ‘to restore life to his friends and take it only from his enemies’.
Understanding this Story of the Dagda’s Power
The mythology of Ireland was originally held by the bards, a specific group in ancient times whose role was to function as the memory of the people and to impart to them the teaching tales of their ancestors.
It was very common for bards to add their own flare to a telling, but they would never alter the main events and themes of the tales for in these the lesson was shared.
Also common practice was how the bard would answer a question with a story, the telling of which would lead the listener to the answers they were seeking. Following that tradition it’s worth exploring this story to assess its events and themes and see what we can gain from it.
In this story we see the Dagda, the ‘Goodly God’ and master of all druidic arts, come face to face with his limitations. For all of the Dagda’s power, there is one that he is not capable of… and so driven by his grief for the loss of his son he seeks out the power over life and death.
The name ’Goodly God’ refers to his mastery of so many abilities, not his morality and we see this in the slaying of the three brothers. When prevented from the use of the one ability that could restore life to his child, he does not hesitate to bring death upon those who refused him.
What is equally fascinating though is the first deed of Cermait. Having been restored to life he berates his father for the injustice done. The Dagda restores the lives he had taken, but goes further in swearing an oath binding all of his great powers to not just the return of the club, but to the manner in which he would use it.
He defines his responsibility in taking up the power of life and death, not as a personal empowerment, but as a functional service to his people. Should any element of this oath be broken, then all of the Dagda’s power would be forfeit.
So is this all we have to learn from this tale?
The Language of a Different Perspective
In my own studies of this story for the teaching of the class, The Dagda’s Tools over at our school, I came to something of a personal revelation. No doubt this is something that would have been readily apparent to my ancestors hearing this tale told in its native language of Irish, but given that I am alas a few generations into a colonised Ireland where the language of Ireland is now predominantly English, it came as something of a surprise to me.
The Irish words used to describe the Dagda’s club are ‘an Lorg Mór’ which is most commonly translated as ‘the big club / staff’. Yet as I dove deeper into the traditions of the bard and the purpose of the storytelling I began to wonder how the definition of the words themselves might change one’s understanding of a story.
Here I looked not just to the modern translations but went exploring into the older Irish. This is where I found my different perspective. The word ‘mor’ was easily reviewed as its meaning has not changed much and so it translates as a descriptor for size specifically ‘big’ ,’large’ or ‘great’. The word ‘lorg’ can mean club or staff. It’s also euphemistically used to refer to a penis, but it was another possible meaning that caught my attention and shifted my viewing of the entire story. That translation is ‘example’.
What if the story is not about power at all?
At the start, for all of the Dagda’s power, he is powerless against death. He seeks out this power and through initially disreputable means he takes it upon himself, gaining the one ability that was beyond him.
Surely if that was the intent of the story then that would be where it ends right?
Instead we have a story, not just about power, but about its appropriate use. The Dagda takes up not just the power, but the responsibility to use it ethically and in service of not just himself but of his people. Is this then the meaning we are supposed to take from the story?
Well, I would suggest that there is one other perspective we need to look to and that is not about the Dagda’s power, or its use. It’s about relationships, specifically parent and child.
The Dagda loves his child so much that he struggles to overcome the one thing he has no skill in facing, death itself.
Yet in doing so he acts unjustly but instead of letting the matter stand his newly restored son, knowing his father as he does, calls out the behaviour and demands that his dad make things right. This is a child raised in such a manner that it knows right from wrong and is willing to speak against injustice, even when they themselves have personally benefited from it, or that injustice was performed by a family member or parent.
This to my perspective is a child raised not just to survive, but to improve the world around them, for not just themselves but for everyone. This is a child who has taken the lessons of justice, hospitality, and service of their parent to heart and has no hesitation reflecting that the same moral code back to them.
This to me is not just a story about a ‘big club’ but is in fact a story of what it means to be a ‘great example’.
Where To Now?
If you think that the Dagda is interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: