The enigmatic presence of the Tuatha De Danann within Irish lore often ignites a pivotal question: are they truly the divine entities of old, the Gods of Ireland? Morgan Daimler’s exploration into this subject below sheds light on the historical perspectives and the literary evidences that underpin the divine status of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Daimler meticulously dissects the arguments surrounding their designation of ‘deity’, delving into ancient texts and the practices of scribes from the 9th century onwards. The blog post sets out to unravel whether the Tuatha Dé Danann were historically revered as Gods, or if this is a product of literary embellishment over time.
For many people it is simply assumed as fact that the Tuatha De Danann are the old Gods of Ireland, however there are some people who argue against this asserting that they weren’t understood historically as Gods or that they are merely literary creations. While it is true that some particular beings, like Crom Cruach, seem to have been later additions and possibly created in the Christian period, we do have ample evidence that the Tuatha De Danann were understood as Gods at the least by the scribes recording the myths in and after the 9th century, and certainly for the millennia since.
Starting with the claim that the Tuatha De Danann weren’t understood historically as Gods, this is simply untrue. We have a variety of examples from the mythology, most recorded between the 9th and 11th centuries, where the Tuatha De Danann as a group or specific individuals are explicitly called Gods.
The Tuatha De Danann As Gods Through History
Some examples from the source material, in both older Irish and Latin, with the word for god or goddess in bold to show clearly that is the term being used:
“Tuatha Dea (.i. Donann) .i. dée in t-áes dána & andeé in t-áes trebhtha….Batar é a n-dée in t-aés cumhachta & a n-andée in t-aes trebaire.”(Stokes & Windisch, 1897)
Tuatha Dea (that is Donann) that is Gods the people of art and not-Gods the people of the populous….These were their Gods the people of power and the not-Gods the people of husbandry.
“ben in Dagda…día sóach“.(Gwynn, 1906)
the Dagda’s wife…the shapeshifting goddess.
“‘H-i Ross Bodbo .i. na Morrighno, ar iss ed a ross-side Crich Roiss & iss i an bodb catha h-i & is fria id-beurur bee Neid .i. bandee in catæ, uair is inann be Neid & dia cathæ’.(Meyers, 1910)
In the Wood of Badb, i.e. of the Morrigu, for that is her wood, viz. the land of Ross, and she is the Battle-Crow and is called the Wife of Neit, i.e. the Goddess of Battle, for Neit is the same as God of Battle.’
“Brigit .i. banfile…. bandea no adratis filid,”(Sanas Cormac, n.d.)
Brighid, that is a poetess…a Goddess poets used to worship”.
“Manannan Mac Lir… inde Scoti et Britónes eum deum maris uocauerunt…”(Sanas Cormac, n.d.)
Manannan Mac Lir…the Irish and British called him the God of the sea
“Dagda .i. dagh dé .i. día soinemhail ag na geintíbh é, ar do adhradháis Tuatha Dé Danann dó, ar bá día talmhan dóibh é ar mhét a chumachta”(Stokes & Windisch, 1897)
Dagda that is a good god that is an excellent god he was of the pagans; because the Tuatha De Danann adored/worshiped him, because he was a god of the world to them, because of the greatness of his power
“Dían Cecht .i. ainm suithe leigís Eirenn, dían na cumachta….. dian (.i. deus) caech (.i. sui). Ut est deus salúitis.”(Stokes & Windisch, 1897)
Dían Cecht that is the name of the master physician of Ireland, swift the powers…dian (that is a god) caech (that is learning). That is a god of healing.
These are Christian sources choosing to use the terms god and goddess in situations where they could have chosen not to. The fact that they do use these terms shows that the scribes, at least, did think these beings were the Gods of the pagan Irish and that they were understood as such. It was only much later that we start to see scholars arguing against the Tuatha De Danann as deities and suggesting instead they were merely spirits and demoting them from gods to folkloric beings like the leprechaun and banshee.
Were the Tuatha De Danann Just Stories?
The second argument is that these beings were originally literary characters who were only later misunderstood as deities, however it is generally easy to see when this may have occurred and there are only a few arguable examples, including Crom Cruach who was mentioned earlier and whose stories are strong echoes of Biblical tales and concepts. The majority of the Tuath De Danann, in contrast do not fit any external and particularly Biblical or Classical framework.
Instead, we find clear reflections of wider Celtic and Indo-European motifs and in some cases, including Lugh and Brighid, traces of similar deities with similar names in related cultures which supports the idea that these beings were in fact more than medieval literary creations.
Were the Irish Gods understood to be Gods historically? It seems clear that they were, even just looking at this small sample of texts that mention them that way. Beyond that they have sacred sites, they have myths and folklore, they have cognates and related deities in other Celtic cultures, they are explicitly called Gods in the older texts. The evidence here is strong enough to support the existence of these beings as deities at the very least by the 9th century and quite likely prior to Christianization as well.
I think there is also some value in thinking about what exactly we label a god and why, and understanding that it isn’t necessarily the antiquity of a being that matters so much as the body of belief around them.
- Gwynn, E., (1906). Metrical Dindshenchas
- Meyer, K., (1910). The Wooing of Emer
- Sanas Cormac (n.d.) http://www.asnc.cam.ac.uk/irishglossaries/texts.php?versionID=9&ref=150#150
- Stokes, W., and Windisch, E., (1897) Irische Texte