So much of Irish Pagan beliefs were lost in the repeated colonisation of our little island. For all of that, there are some names that seem impossible to forget. From the Morrigan, to Lugh, Nuada of the Silver arm, and of course the Dagda, Boann, Goibhniu and Brigid the stories of these amazing individuals have come down through time and generations of memory to still resonate in not just the mythology of Ireland, but it’s very landscape. These are the Tuatha De Danann.
In this blog we will try to explore some of the ancient legends, mythology and line of descent from the mysterious Tuatha De Danann. Dive into history and uncover how these fabled beings once lived in myth but are now part of our reality!
Who are the Tuatha de Danann?
To answer this we need to go back to the beginning of Ireland’s story, and the tale we need to look at is known as ‘Lebor Gabála Eireann’ of the book of the taking of Ireland. In the beginning there was Ireland, an island at the edge of the known world and into it came the first tribes.
Cessair and her folk are said to have come into Ireland, forty days before the biblical Flood, and there was none but Fintan who survived to remember and tell the tale.
Ireland remained without tribes until Partholon came three hundred years after the Flood. Of this tribe there is not much known, except that a pestilence took them and Ireland was again emptied.
Next came Nemed said to be of the Greeks of Scythia, thirty years after Partholon. The tribe of Nemed thrived, until oppression came upon them by the Fomorians. The sons of Nemed consulted Fintan (yes, that same Fintan from the arrival of Cessair’s folk) and he told them to gather their people and leave.
From this story we have this excerpt;
‘Thereafter the progeny of Bethach son of Iarbonel the Soothsayer son of Nemed were in the northern islands of the world, learning druidry and knowledge and prophecy and magic, till they were expert in the arts of pagan cunning, so that they were the Tuatha De Danann who came to Ireland.’ – SOURCE Lebor Gabála Érenn: Book of the Taking of Ireland. vol. 4. ed. and tr. by R. A. S. Macalister. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1941.
So who were the Tuatha De Danann? They were immigrants, descended from Nemed, who returned to the land of their ancestors.
How have they been represented in myth and legend?
The Tuatha De Danann are often represented in many differing ways depending on the media one explores. They are shown as powerful gods or supernatural entities, depicted as a pantheon of beings living together in harmony, or as warriors with magical powers such as shape-shifting invisibility, and great healing skills. They have also been associated with elemental magic and spiritual power.
Though one would need to explore a large volume of work to find all of this information, I like to point to the first description we have of them in the mythology. A description not given by themselves, but as a prophet of their return to Ireland.
Cesard, druid of the Fir Bolg King Eochaid, by means of ritual and the use of his science revealed the following; and he said:
‘I have tidings for you: warriors are coming across the sea, a thousand heroes covering the ocean; speckled ships will press in upon us; all kinds of death they announce, a people skilled in every art, a magic spell; an evil spirit will come upon you, signs to lead you astray (some text untranslated here); . . . they will be victorious in every stress.’
- SOURCE: Fraser, J. “The First Battle of Moytura.” Ériu v.8 (1915), pp. 1-63 [H 2.17]
From here the tales relate how the Tuatha Dé Danann won their rule of Ireland in fair battle and how, in the end the Fir Bolg were given part of the island as their own given that they too were descended from Semeon, another son of Nemed.
As the story of Ireland unfolds we see the application of the many skills and magical abilities of the Tuatha Dé Danann, from metal working, weapons crafting, restoration of even the most mortal wounds by their healing talents, to knowledge of agriculture and the changing seasons. We also have some individuals like the Dagda, who display elemental powers, calling upon the names of the mountains so that they might hurl their rock upon foes, naming all the rivers and lakes of the island so that the waters would be hidden from invaders, to raining fire from the very sky.
The Tuatha Dé Danann remained in the rule of Ireland until the invasion of the Sons of Mil, a conquering tribe out of the mediterranean. It is this tribe that takes Ireland and in so doing the Tuatha Dé Danann are said to ‘go into the hollow hills’ and become the ‘aos Sidhe’ or people of the hills.
What evidence suggests their existence and how has modern archaeology helped to reexamine their legacy?
Although the Tuatha De Danann are mostly regarded as mythology, there is evidence that suggests they may have had an ancient origin.
Archaeological evidence points towards the presence of a variety of people in Ireland during the Iron Age, bronze age, neolithic and mesolithic ages. There is even evidence that shows even older occupations of the island. A reindeer bone found in Cork cave shows human activity in Ireland 33,000 years ago as it has ancient stone tool markings on it.
When we look at the mythology of ‘the great flood’ as mentioned in stories preceding the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann’s ancestors, there are many recorded examples of flood tales in mythology from all around the world. The extensive spread of this story motif existing in cultures all around the world shows that such events did occur and had a lasting impact on cultural memory. It is suggested that these floods came about in the wake of the Last Glacial Period c. 115,000 – c. 11,700 years ago. AS the flood waters receded, surviving populations of early humans would have moved into these newly revealed and restored lands, possibly following roaming herds of animals like the reindeer mentioned above.
As tribes moved about the growing world, conflicts would have occurred and indeed some tribes may have been more technologically advanced than others. This then could form the basis for the origins of the mythology surrounding the Tuatha De Danann, although this connection is largely speculative.
There is additional exploration to be found in linguistics as scholars try to chase the roots of language from its earliest origins and to trace its spread through the world. It is from this linguistic study that we get the term ‘Celtic’ which indicates one distinct branch of the Indo-European languages. The modern Celtic languages are divided into two subfamilies P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. P-Celtic refers to the Brythonic/Brittonic languages, and Q-Celtic refers to the Goidelic/Gaelic languages. The modern Goidelic languages include Irish (Gaeilge) and Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), the former spoken in Ireland and the latter in Scotland.
Finding the evolution of language as it moved across the world has helped to shed light on the legacy of the Tuatha De Danann, and encourages deeper exploration into Irish mythology and ancient Irish society.
How does their lineage impact present day beliefs, cultures, and concepts about them?
The legacy of the Tuatha De Danann has had a lasting impact on modern beliefs, cultures, and concepts.
The tales of the Tuatha De Danann have given names to many seasonal practices, and even locations in Ireland which are still in use today. From the month of August being named Lughnasa after the Tuatha De Danann king Lugh, to the town in county Kildare which still bears the name of one of his wives, Naas.
The coming of the Tuatha De Danann into Ireland form part of a narrative of emigration and immigration that still defines the island today. These people come bringing their skills and arts that they learned by journeying through the world. Yet when they came to conflict with the Fir Bolg over their return to the lands of their ancestors, these technologies were not used to unfair advantage, but shared in exchange with the other tribe so that any decision which came of conflict could be based on ability and skill, not some secret technical advantage.
Even in the recent history of Ireland we can see time and again many generations of Irish people emigrating from Ireland to bring their talent and skill to other lands, only for them or their descendants to return bringing new experiences and information with them.
The Tuatha De Danann also held to an ancient structure of law known as the Brehon Laws. As part of these societal rules there was an established protocol of hospitality where those who had the most in any tribe were honour bound to support the basic living requirements of food and housing for those who had less, or those who were travelling from one place to another. The roots of this societal attitude towards giving to those who have less than us may have been compounded by the famine of the 1840’s, but can still be seen today in the charitable donations that the Irish people make to support others in need.
In the end of tales the Tuatha De Danann were replaced in the rule of Ireland by the Sons of Mil, a tribe from which the Gaels are said to descend, but these beings were not eradicated. Instead they are said to have journeyed through the hills and mounds of Ireland into the Otherworld, a place in which a parallel life exists. In this Other Life, their skills, talents and powers are still experienced through the ages as members of the Tuatha De Danann continue to steer the course of humanity in Ireland.
There are many tales of Irish heroes journey through this Otherworld, from the Connaght hero of Queen Medb’s court, Nera, to the voyages of Bran, and famously Oisin and his journey to Tir na nOg the land of eternal youth. For many this forms the basis for the spiritual belief in the Tuatha De Danann as deities or at the very least ancient ancestors worthy of respect and reverence.
Their stories continue to be told in Ireland even today. In this way, the Tuatha De Danann are still considered a part of Irish cultural identity today.
Where To Now?
If you think that Ireland is interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: