When you search the Irish Pagan School you will find many classes with ‘Introduction’ in the title, followed by one or more of the Irish deities. Much of the teaching is made as accessible as possible so it’s easy for anyone to learn something from the class, be they a beginner, or an experienced pagan. The second function of this type of class is to form a first step in helping people to perceive these deities by connecting them to the information and descriptions of the Gods and Goddesses.
These classes are there to shift a student’s understanding of the deities so that they can be introduced to them, in the same way as we would introduce new acquaintances to each other so that they can begin the process of getting to know each other for themselves. In this way it’s important to do our best to describe the Gods, and so here I will offer you a perspective, by describing the Dagda.
The Good God
The first and most well recognised name, the Dagda, is oddly not his birth name but is a given name.
He goes by the name Eochaid in other stories but when we get to the meeting of the men of the Goddess, he has this name declared upon him by the king, Nuada. In the preparation for the upcoming invasion by the Fomorians that leads to the second battle of Moytura, many powerful people of the Tuatha Dé gather to swear their skills to the conflict.
The druids promise to call the names of the mountains so that they cast their stones upon the invaders. The Cupbearers promise to hide all the rivers and lakes of Ireland so the invaders go thirsty. The sorcerer’s promise to rain fires from the skies against the invaders. Yet at the end of these promises and more the Dagda simply states:
“The labours you have all promised I will take upon myself to complete.”
No one disputes him and here Nuada accepts his offer and puts the name “The Dagda” which means the “Good God” upon him for he is good at all things and the name is said to have been on him for ever after.
The use of this name in describing the Dagda shows us a deity that not only has authority over elemental forces and the detailed knowledge of the island, but also has the recognition of his peers for that ability. It describes a powerful God, but also one whose power serves his people’s purpose.
The next name that we often find when describing the Dagda, speaks to his fecundity and his role in fosterage. He is called in many stories Olathair, and while the word ‘athair’ does mean father, Ol is not ‘All’ and so this name does not link him in some way to the Norse Allfather.
Instead the Ol refers to ‘great’ or ‘ample’ referring in some way to his size, but also to the manner in which he displays his fatherhood. He is not the progenitor of all the Gods as in some other pantheons, but there are many other deities that claim him as father or indeed foster father.
We see his fatherly attributes in a number of stories, but no more so in the tales of his son Oengus. In the course of this tale Midir, another of the Dagda children, suffers accidental harm on account of Oengus, and to make it up to his half brother the Mac Oc promises to win for him the fairest maid for his wife.
So we find the deeds of the Olathair in the Wooing of Etain. Etain’s father is not best pleased with the match that Oengus puts forward and demands a steep payment of the Mac Oc.
Here we see the son Oengus turn to his father for help. The Dagda in one night cleared twelve plains that “under wood and waste” and then the next night drew out twelve great rivers that they might bring:
“…produce from the sea to peoples and kindreds, and drain the earth and the land”.
By his deed in this instance is the Dagda shown to be ‘Olathair’ for as we look upon his relationships with all of his children, it is only just to be describing the Dagda as a ‘Great Father’.
Of the many names that are used when describing the Dagda this is the one that gives us an interesting insight into his physicality. In Irish there are many words that describe colour but those words can often differ when it comes to the colouring of a person.
So it is here with the word ‘ruadh’. What is widely accepted even in older forms of Irish as the colour red is the word ‘dearg’.
Yet though words like ‘glas’ may have been used for green, grey, or even some shades of blue, the word ‘ruadh’ is not the red of flowers, or fires, or blood. It is instead the red of hair colour. Those auburn shades that make up the distinctive colouration that grows from some people.
When coupled with the word ‘rofhessa’ we are describing the Dagda as ‘the red one of excessive knowledge’.
Here we again have the naming of the God as not just a thing to know him by, but as a descriptive insight into another facet of who he is, and what he does.
Fir, Benn, Bruach, Bromide…
In the tale of the Second Battle of Moytura there is a section where the Dagda goes to spy on the arriving Fomorian invaders and here is where most folk both start and sadly stop when describing the Dagda.
The Dagda is described for the rough clothes he is wearing, and later for a grossly abused and distended form that his body took to endure the Fomorian “hospitality”.
Yet where most people stop in describing the Dagda, some others carry on and are rewarded with one of the most interesting if vexing forms of old Irish. The Rosc Poem.
When put upon three times by the daughter of Indech to reveal his name the Dagda eventually recites a string of words in what is recognised by scholars as one of the older forms of Irish.
“Fer Benn Bruach Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Tri Carboid Roth Rimaire Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe”– (Gray, 1983)
Though this may look like a simple list of words, what is most fascinating and frustrating is that the meaning of each word in the sequence changes based on those that come before and after it.
What we find in this Rosc Poem is in fact the Dagda describing himself.
Though I wish I could give you a deeper insight into the translation of this naming of the Dagda I think that is best left to an expert in the form of Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody and her post on Story Archaeology on the Names of the Dagda.
What’s in a Name?
So when we started our journey in describing the Dagda we might have just taken the tales of the “bigness of his belly” or how…
“Unseemly was his apparel. A cape to the hollow of his two elbows. A dun tunic around him, as far as the swelling of his rump. It is, moreover, long-breasted, with a hole in the peak. Two brogues on him of horse-hide, with the hair outside.”
… from his spying trip in the Second Battle of Moytura, as a complete description for the amount of detail they provide.
Yet hopefully now we see that there is more to this Irish God than a physical description. Maybe what is really needed for a deep introduction to deity is to go beyond the simple words, with a willing openness to get to know the Good God of Ireland.