View across the Hill of Tara, showing a pillarstone said to be the Lia Fail,
or Stone of Destiny, on which Kings of Ireland were crowned. It was said to
roar if a rightful king stood on it. Point to see view from other side.
The River Boyne, where the Dagda is said to have coupled
with the Morrigan. Nearby is the burial mound of Newgrange; its swirling artwork
(below) may have been influenced by the swirling of the Boyne.
Above: the Cerne Abbas Giant: a club-wielding fertility god associated with the Dagda
The 'Brian Boru' harp, Trinity College, Dublin
The god Lugh
We can see this anthropomorphization clearly with the god Lugh, who gives his name to the Irish summer festival
of Lughnasadh. In the earliest Irish myths he is clearly a deity. As
such, he offers himself as the saviour of the Tuatha dé Danann,
the predecessors of the Milesians or Gaels. Seeking entry at the palace
of King Nuada of the Silver Hand, at Tara, he announces each of his
skills in turn – ‘Blacksmith, warrior, musician, poet, scholar …’. Each
time he is refused entry, until he points out that no one else combines
all these skills in one person, as he does.
In the Mabinogion, the main source of British
myths, Lugh has become the much more human Lleu Llaw Gyfes, nephew (and
possibly son) of the magician Gwydion. He is skilled, and protected
by charms, but he is not obviously a god: in fact at one point he appears
to be mortal.
The Dagda, father of the gods
Lugh shares some characteristics with the Dagda,
a larger-than-life figure prominent in myths of the Tuatha dé
Danann. Like Lugh, he is powerful and omnicompetent. Yet he is often
represented as a rather comic figure whose short tunic fails to cover
his buttocks, and whose huge club has to be carried on wheels.
The Dagda has
great magical powers, and he possesses a harp which comes to him when
he calls, and a cauldron of abundance which restores dead warriors to
life (but without powers of speech, perhaps in case they say too much
about the afterlife).
Powerful though these gods were, the Celtic goddesses
were perhaps even more so. They were closely associated with the land,
and in this identification they sometimes seem to be aspects of a single
all-embracing Goddess. Their link to the seasonal cycles, to fertility
and death, may partly account for the fact that a single goddess often
takes three forms, or aspects – usually maiden, mother and crone.
Celtic goddesses could be life-giving and sustaining,
but were also, in their dark aspect, associated with sex and death, which
in Celtic terms are part of the round of life. The most powerful Irish
example is the red-haired shape-shifting Morrigan, said to have coupled
with the Dagda.
Sources of the myths
The surviving Celtic myths come from Scotland and
Ireland, which were at one time closely related, from Wales (though many
of these originated orally further east), and from Brittany. No myths
survive from Romanized areas, such as Gaul on the Continent. They do not
appear to have been written down in Latin.
The greatest body of myth comes from Ireland, which
was untouched by the Romans, although much of its mythic material was
destroyed by Viking marauders. An Irish myth, ‘The Harp of the Dagda’
is given below.
The Dagda (?), appears to plunge a warrior into a cauldron,
perhaps restoring him to life. (Gundestrup cauldron)
The Harp of the Dagda
This story concerns the most ancient Irish Celtic
gods, the first generation of the Tuatha dé Danaan who had to fight
off the giant races of the Firbolgs and the Formorians. Their history
is found in the Lebor Gabála, ‘The Book of Invasions’.
When the fairy race of the Tuatha dé Danann
arrived in Ireland, they came like a mist across the waters, bringing
with them magical gifts. These were the lia fail – the coronation stone, the spear of Lugh, the sword of Nuada, and the great
cauldron of the Dagda, which was said to be able to restore life.
The Dagda himself was known as the Good God and he
was chief of the gods at this time. Besides his cauldron, he had a harp
which was battle-scarred and made of oak. It was covered in rich decorations
including a double-headed fish which ran up and down the curved pillar
and had jewels for its eyes. Although he had a harper, Uaithne, he could
also play it himself.
The Dagda had this harp with him always – he even took it into battle. So it was, that after the second Battle of Mag Tuiread, or Moytura, the Dagda discovered that his harp, together
with his harper, had been captured by the Formorians and taken with them
in their flight. Angered beyond measure, he set out with his son Aengus
Og to reclaim it.
Stealthily they approached the Formorian camp. Soon
they could hear the sounds of the feasting hall in which Bres, the Formorian
king, was dining. Approaching the doorway, they could just make out through
the smoke and candle-flame the outline of the old harp hanging on the
wall. Then the Dagda entered boldly and summoned his harp with this chant:
Come Daurdabla, apple-sweet
Come, Coir-cethair-chuir, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter,
Out of the mouths of harps and bags and pipes!
Immediately the old harp flew to his hand across the hall, killing nine
men as it came. A shocked hush fell on the company. In the silence the
Dagda laid his hands on the strings and unleashed the Three Noble Strains
of Ireland that he had bound into his harp. First he played the goltrai,
or strain of weeping, so that all present began to mourn and lament their
defeat. Then he played the geantrai, the strain of merriment, so
that the company turned to laughter and drunken foolery. Lastly he played
the suantrai, or sleep-strain, whereupon the warriors fell into
a profound slumber. After this the Dagda and Aengus Og left the camp as
quietly as they had come, taking Uaithne and the harp with them.
The Tuatha de Danann
The Tuatha dé Danann were the children of the great goddess Dana.
They are depicted as magical fairy people who were later overrun by the
Milesians who allowed them to reside underground in the sidhe,
or fairy mounds. They were traditionally believed to have arrived like
a mist, but this is a poetic reflection of the fact that they ritually
burned their boats on landing in Ireland so that they could never leave.
The Dagda was the chief of the Tuatha but,
because he is much coarser than their other gods, he might be a remnant
of a much older deity. His antiquity is demonstrated by the fact that
he carried a great club. At the same time, like Lugh, he claimed to be
multi-skilled. This is indicated by his name, the Good God: to the Celts,
‘good’ meant skilled, and the Dagda is depicted as being a master of music
along with a range of other magical and warrior attributes.
He also had a prodigious appetite and earlier in
the Battle of Moyturah was forced by the Formorians to eat a huge amount
of porridge which had been prepared in his own cauldron. Undaunted, he
ate the lot, after which his stomach was so distended that his tunic no
longer covered it.
The Dagda can be seen as an ancient father-god who was symbolically linked
to the great mother goddess through his great cauldron of regeneration.
(The Dagda’s cauldron became a forerunner of the Arthurian Holy Grail.)
Being multi-skilled, he also demonstrates the Celtic understanding that
gods were not limited to a single skill or attribute.
The Three Noble Strains
These relate to the three sons that Uaithne, the Dagda’s harper, fathered
on the Goddess Boann. She gave birth to the oldest, Goltraiges,
in great pain, to the second, Gentraiges, in joy, while, after
the third one, Suantres, she became heavy with fatigue. All three
were harpers and became representative of the three main effects, or strains,
The power of music
Music was of great importance to the Celts because they believed it had
the power to enchant. The names of the Three Noble Strains end in trai,
which means enchanter. Music could therefore magically summon or control
emotion. It could also take the hearer into a place of dream and vision
or bring the soothing of forgetfulness. It was an integral part of the
The sound of beautiful music greeted the entry of every hero into this
realm, often being produced by magical birds. Magical birds also attended
the silver-stringed harp of Aengus Og who used it, like Apollo, to charm
them. For the harp was considered particularly magical. It was often owned
and played by gods. It was the favoured accompaniment for telling the
old tales, being able to conjure all the different moods as well as to
accompany the vocal declamations of poetry. Thus every bard was expected
to be skilled on it. Later, broken-stringed, the harp came to symbolize
the sorrows of Ireland. Its magical music also retreated, along with the
Tuatha, into the sidhe. Some evocative Irish music today is said
to have come from tunes overheard in fairy revels.
Adapted from Celtic Myths Retold and Interpreted