The Tuatha Dé Danann forms a significant feature in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology. They are Celtic pre-Christian gods with supernatural ability and were of great importance to Gaelic people. They belong to the Otherworld (Aos Si) community whose world was reached through mists, hills, lakes, ponds, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds. Their association with ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds is probably linked to the importance these sites had for the people of pre-history. They were places of communal interment for the ancestors of the Celts of northwest Europe who are descended from the native Neolithic peoples of these lands. Their story was passed on for many centuries in oral tradition. Many of these legends were recorded in a collection of poems and texts, some dating from the third century AD, and compiled in the eleventh century by Christian scholars in such works as the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann known in English as The Book of Invasions.
The name Tuatha Dé is thought to derive from old Irish Gaelic meaning ‘people of the gods’. The word ‘Danaan’ seems then to have been added later by Christian scribes. This was thought to be in order to differentiate the Tuatha Dé (people of the gods) known to the Gaels of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man as part of their own pantheon, from the Israelites (people of god) highlighted in Christian teaching. The word Danaan is believed to come from old Gaelic literature; Dana being a Celtic female figure and goddess. The idea of waves of ‘invasions’ into Ireland was also probably further developed in an attempt by monastic scholars to create a history of Ireland that would also suggest some kind of link to one of the lost tribes of Israel.
It was important over the period of Christian conversion in Ireland (from the fourth century AD onwards) for monastic scholars to ensure an easy transition from the people’s pre-Christian beliefs. In various ways these scribes attempted to explain away the old pagan gods. Whilst acknowledging that the Tuatha Dé Danann were worshipped as gods, some of the Christian scholars would simply state that the people were wrong to do so. Others would suggest they were fallen angels or just leave them as an historical part of an old belief. Another way to ease the transition from one belief system to another was to incorporate the old pagan deities into Christian belief. This could be said to be the fate of the Pagan Celtic Goddess Brigid. Brigid was written into Christian belief by the monastic scribes. This leaves Brigid keeping her place as Brigid the daughter of ‘The Dagda’ of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Thus she is celebrated in the pagan Gaelic festival of Imbolg on 1st February. Whilst being Saint Brigid in the Roman Catholic Church whose feast day falls on the same date.
‘The Dagda’ was a very important leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann. His brothers included Ogma and according to some sources Lir. Lir was known as the God of the Sea and is said to be the father of the children in the Irish legend of the 'Children of Lir'. He is also said to be the father of Manannán mac Lir, heavily associated with the Isle of Man where he is seen as the Islands first ruler. Manannán is also a significant feature in Scottish and Irish mythology. He is also cognate with the Welsh Manawydan fab Llŷr. Within these old beliefs other entities of the Otherworld are also mentioned. They include the Aos Si, sometimes suggested as separate from the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Fomhóraigh. The Fomhóraigh have been seen by some as a darker more ominous relative. The distinctions between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhóraigh are however, blurred, with many interconnections and shared ancestry between the two. The idea of ‘fairies’ and the old burial mounds as ‘fairy hills’ seem to be a later anglicised invention/interpretation of the old stories.
To conclude; the Tuatha Dé (Danann) formed an important part of the Gaelic peoples understanding of the world in which they lived. The myths and stories of these supernatural entities were handed down in oral tradition for centuries. Over time these stories varied and developed. The ancient tales were further altered and adapted by monastic scribes in order to adhere to their Christian belief whilst at the same time seeking to ease the people’s transition toward Christian conversion. In understanding this it needs to be acknowledged that the monastic scholars provided a valuable written account of elements of these ancient myths. They present some evidence to modern researchers who seek to unravel our ancestor’s beliefs and gain an understanding of the gods they worshipped. It also leads to the need for fair consideration being given as to why the population preferred to adapt themselves to the ‘new religion’. Inevitably because of the subject matter there are also those in recent history and now who prefer to take a very romantic and perhaps mystical view of the old beliefs giving them a ‘new age’ twist. Whether some prefer the adaption of the old stories that fit in with Christian beliefs, or the more modern mystical and romantic versions. The case remains that the Tuatha Dé was an important factor in Gaelic people’s pantheon. Therefore continued factual research and understanding of their place in Celtic history can only be valuable.
Many of the Tuatha Dé Danann are mentioned in the Book of Leinster, compiled in the mid twelfth century but comprising of older texts, themselves based on age-old oral tradition.
Below are just some of the important figures which have been linked by various sources to the Tuatha Dé Danann. Their inter-connections and attributes can vary in different texts and the brief descriptions given underneath are by no means definitive:
In the story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge contained within the stories of the Ulster Cycle, Macha’s curse delays the warriors of Ulster from coming to the aid of Cú Chulainn. He is left alone to fight off the forces of Queen Medb of Connaught until the Ulster warriors recover from the curse. Stories contained in the Ulster Cycle are thought to date from before 400AD.
Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz is a fasincating compilation of early Irish stories first written down in the 8th century. Get your copy from Amazon.com (US$) and Amazon.co.uk (GB£):
The images on this page have been created using designs taken from Celtic Design by Dover Publications. Get your copy from Amazon.com (US$) and Amazon.co.uk (GB£):