Prionsias Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology (London: Hamlyn 1970) - ‘The Tuatha Dé Danann’

Table of Contents
[ For full table of contents, see Introduction, supra. ]
The Tuatha Dé Danann [57]: The Book of Invasions [57]; The Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh [58]; The coming of the Gaels [64]; The retreat of the Tuatha Dé [64]; The Dagdha [66]; Irish Nuadha: Welsh Nudd [67]; Manannán Mac Lir [69]

The Book of Invasions
The Celts have left no native myth of the world’s creation, though it would be strange if they lacked one. Caesar [Gallic Wars] speaks of the Gaulish druids’ concern with the nature of the material universe as well as with the powers of the gods, and it may be that he had heard of such a cosmogony at second hand. If so, it is to Irish tradition that one would naturally look for the evidence, and unfortunately, though understandably, Irish tradition is here defective. For the monastic scholars who, in the late sixth and the seventh century, set about compiling a record of the Irish people and its origins were no mere amanuenses to native tradition; their guiding purpose was to accommodate this tradition within the framework provided by the Bible and early Christian historians like Eusebius and Orosius, and to this end they doctored it and grafted it on to the Christian account of man’s origins. Adam became the ancestor of the Irish as of the rest of mankind, though, as we have already seen, Donn was not forgotten.

This re-writing of tradition was progressively elaborated during the following centuries until finally, in the twelfth, it culminated in the pseudo-history entitled Leabhar Gabhála Éireann, ‘The Book of the Conquest of Ireland’, commonly known as the Book of Invasions. The ‘conquest’ of the title refers no doubt to the arrival of the Gaels, but in the extant compilation this is in fact the last of a series of six immigrations. The first of these preceded the Flood and was led by Cesair, who was a daughter of Bith son of Noah, or alternatively by Banbha, one of the eponyms of Ireland. All perished in the Flood except Fintan, who survived through many ages and through the successive invasions in the form of a salmon, an eagle and a hawk and was consequently invoked as a witness to the events of the Irish past. Next came Partholán and his followers. He fought a battle against a race of demonic beings known as Fomhoire, and this was the first battle fought in Ireland. He cleared four plains – hither to there had been only one in Ireland – and during his time seven lakes appeared. He also instituted many crafts and customs for the first time: the first guesting-house was built, the first beer and ale brewed, legal suretyship was established for the first time, and so on. Finally he and his people were wiped out by a plague.

The third invasion was led by Nemhedh. Four lakes were formed in his time and twelve plains were cleared It is evident that this and the preceding invasions were conceived of as imparting to the land of Ireland its geographical definition and identity. By creating its physical features and assigning names to them they may be said, in a mythological sense, to have brought it into existence. However much of the detail of these invasions may be late invention, this conception at least seems old.

After Nemhedh’s death his people lived under the sway of the Fomhoire, and each year on the Feast of Samhain, the first of November, they had to pay a tribute of two-thirds of their corn, their milk and their children. At last in desperation they rose against their masters and attacked their island stronghold, but only one boat’s complement of thirty men survived the battle and of these one section went to ‘Greece’ and another to the ‘north of the world’. It is from these remnants of Nemhedh’s people that the next two settlements of Ireland supposedly derive. Those of them who went to ‘Greece’ multiplied and eventually returned to Ireland, where they constituted the peoples known as the Fir Bholg, the Gailioin, and the Fir Dhomhnann. There is no longer any mention of lakes being formed or plains cleared; the historical land of Ireland is already a reality, and, appropriately, the main innovations credited to the Fir Bholg are socio-political in character. They divided the country into five, thereby instituting the provinces (Irish cúiged, a province’, literally ‘a fifth’) ; these comprise Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht, representing the four cardinal points, together with Meath, which consisted of an area around the centre of the country at Uisnech. This division, as the brothers Rees have pointed out, reproduces a fivefold conception of the world which is more or less universal and is particularly well attested in India and China. The Fir Bholg also introduced kingship and the notion of its sacred character. One of their kings, Eochaidh mac Eirc, was the prototype of the just ruler: ‘No rain fell during his reign, but only the dew; there was no year without harvest. Falsehood was banished from Ireland during his time, and he it was who first established the rule of justice there’. Thus is created the rapport – fundamental to the concept of sacral kingship – that exists between the righteousness of the ruler and the prosperity of his kingdom. Equally indicative of the new order with its warrior aristocracy is the fact that Eochaidh was the first king to be slain by a weapon.

In view of this role assigned to the Fir Bholg in the creation of the classical Irish social system, it is perhaps significant that they are the first of the Leabhar Gabhála settlers with a foot – albeit -a rather unsteady one – in history. The Gailioin are identified with the Laighin, who gave their name to the province of Leinster, and the Fir Dhomhnann (or Domhnainn), who are attested mainly in Connacht, are no doubt related to the Dumnonii of Britain. It seems clear that at this stage history and mythology coalesce within the framework of the ancient invasion legend.

The next invaders were the Tuatha Dé Danann, ‘The People of the Goddess Danu’, who had become skilled in the arts of druidry and magic during their sojourn in the northern islands of the world. They brought with them four talismans: the stone of Fál which shrieked under a lawful king; the spear of Lugh which ensured victory; the sword of Nuadha from which none could escape; and the cauldron of the Daghdha from which none would go unsatisfied. On their arrival they demanded battle or the kingship from the Fir Bholg, and from this ensued the First Battle of Magh Tuiredh in which the Fir Bholg were defeated. But the Tuatha Dé did not enjoy their supremacy for long unchallenged: soon they were compelled to do battle with the ancient adversary, the Fomhoire.

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The Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh
As well as the references in Leabhar Gabhála there is an independent epic account of this battle which constitutes one of the most important sources of Irish mythology. The origins of the conflict and its development are there recorded.

During the First Battle of Magh Tuiredh, that in which the Fir Bholg were defeated, Nuadha king of the Tuatha Dé lost an arm, and since physical defects were incompatible with the ancient concept of kingship, it was necessary that he should be replaced. The choice fell – rather oddly it might seem at first glance – on Bres, ‘the Beautiful’, whose father Elatha was a king of the Fomhoire, but who was reared among the Tuatha Dé, his mother’s kin. Soon however Bres’s rule became oppressive and the country fell in thrall to the kings of the Fomhoire. The Daghdha was reduced to digging and building a fort for Bres and Oghma to fetching firewood. Moreover, Bres lacked what is the mark of every true king: generosity. The chiefs of the Tuatha Dé complained that ‘their knives were not greased by him, and however often they visited him their breaths did not smell of ale’. There was no entertainment for them in the royal household, no poets, musicians, acrobats or buffoons. In the end retribution was hastened –as so often afterwards in Irish tradition–by a poet’s verses. When Coirbre the poet of the Tuatha Dé was received by Bres with scant hospitality, he retaliated with a magic-tipped satire –the first that was made in Ireland – ‘and nought save decay was on Bres from that hour’. The leaders of the Tuatha Dé demanded that he should renounce the kingship and he then set out to muster an army of the Fomhoire in his support.

In the meantime Nuadha had been fitted by Dian Cécht the leech with an arm of silver and was reinstated in the sovereignty, and from that time forth he was known as Nuadha Airgedlámh, ‘Nuadha of the Silver Hand, Arm’. Then follows the episode of Lugh’s arrival and his admission to the royal court, and this is the prelude to a curious exchange of roles: no sooner had Nuadha proof of Lugh’s polytechnic competence than he relinquished the royal seat to him in the hope that he would lead the Tuatha Dé to victory against the Fomhoire. Under Lugh’s direction preparations are set on foot and each of the craftsmen and magicians of the Tuatha Dé promises his own special contribution: the craftsman to fashion wondrous weapons, the sorcerer to hurl the mountains of Ireland on the Fomhoire, the cupbearer to conceal from them the waters of Ireland’s lakes and rivers, the druid to cast upon them three showers of fire, to deprive them of two-thirds of their strength and valour and to bind in their bodies the urine of men and horses.

Once the battle was joined, the slaughter was great on both sides. But whereas the slain of the Fomhoire remained so, those of the Tuatha Dé were cast into a well over which Dian Cécht and his three children sang spells, and by its magic efficacy they were restored to life. Lugh also had recourse to his magic powers: moving around the men of his army ‘on one foot and with one eye’ he chanted an incantation to lend them strength and courage. He thus assumed a characteristic posture of the sorcerer and one which reproduced the monstrous form ascribed by tradition to the Fomhoire. He then faced the dreaded Balar ‘of the baleful eye’. Balar’s eye was such that it required four men to raise its lid, and when uncovered its venomous gaze could disable an army. But as soon as Lugh saw the eye open against him he cast a sling-stone which drove it through to the back of Balar’s head so that it wrought destruction on his own followers. The Fomhoire were routed and expelled for ever from Ireland. Bres himself was captured and sought to save his life by promising, first that the cattle of Ireland should always be in milk, and secondly, that there should be a harvest in every quarter of the year. Both offers were rejected, but he was finally spared in return for advice as to the proper times for ploughing, sowing and reaping.

This is in substance the story of the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh. Its mythological importance is obvious, its meaning rather less so. It has been argued by T. F. O’Rahilly that the essential part of the tale is a myth of the slaying of Balar by Lugh and that the rest has been assembled artificially around this nucleus, and his argument is buttressed by the fact that such an opposition between an elder established deity and a younger and versatile rival was evidently a familiar one to Irish tradition. On the other hand, it is questionable whether the extant narra tive of the Battle of Magh Tuiredh can be plausibly reduced to this elemental theme, and it may legitimately be objected that O’Rahilly has taken no account of comparable traditions of theomachy from within the Indo-European field that had long since been referred to by earlier scholars. For example an analogy has been drawn more than once between the Tuatha Dé and the Fomhoire on the one hand and the Devas and the Asuras of India on the other. In both these instances the demonic powers wage a continual struggle against the gods and the cosmic order which they command, though in Irish tradition as recorded this contest has been given a historical cast and has become securely localised on Irish soil. In more recent times the problem of the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh has inserted itself discreetly but firmly within the framework of Professor Georges Dumézil’s structuralist comparative studies of Indo-European mythology, and this has led to certain penetrating and plausible suggestions regarding the inner meaning of the tale.

The kernel of Dumézil’s ideas on Indo-European mythology is his theory of the ‘three functions’. These, he claims, are the basis of a tripartite classification which manifests itself both in mythology and in social organisation. The first function concerns the administration of the universe and has two aspects, the one magico-religious, the other rational and juridical. In the Indian context it is embodied in the Brahman caste and its two aspects are assigned to the gods Varuna and Mitra respectively. The second consists in the exercise of physical force, ‘primarily but not solely of a warlike nature’. It is embodied in the Kshatriya or warrior caste and its divine personification is the god Indra. The third comprises all the manifestations of the notion of fertility: prosperity, health, fecundity in plant and animal life, peace, voluptuousness and numerical weight. It is embodied in the vaishya or farmer caste and is promoted by a number of deities of whom the most prominent are the Ashvins. But this inner system, Dumézil argues, is not merely Indian or Indo-Iranian, but Indo-European, and his constant endeavour has been to demonstrate its reality within the different societies and traditions of the Indo-European family. And even though his researches have not been uniformly successful in this regard, the cumulative weight of the evidence shows beyond reasonable doubt that the formal recognition of some kind of tripartite classification based on functional differentiation is an inherent characteristic of the Indo-European heritage.

Among the Celts the stratification of Indian society is closely paralleled by the early Irish classification of druids, warrior nobles (flatha) and freemen (bó-airigh), which in turn corresponds to Caesar’s division of Gaulish society into druides, equites and plebs. On the other hand, the tripartite division of the Indian pantheon is not obviously paralleled among the Irish deities, though it should be pointed out that the extant record of the early Irish social system is undoubtedly more authentic and unadulterated than that of the Irish gods and their spheres of activity. Even as the tradition stands, the Irish deities do not lack definable functions, but that these constitute, or formerly constituted, a hierarchy of three distinct levels awaits clear demonstration.

In point of fact, however, for the purpose of Dumézil’s views on the Tuatha Dé and the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh it is only necessary that he should demonstrate a real distinction between the deities of the third function and the rest. For in a number of separate studies he has argued persuasively that within the tripartite system there is an inherent dualism which tends to unite the two higher functions in opposition to the third. This dualism gave rise to a myth which may be traced in several branches of Indo-European tradition and which recounts how the gods of the lowest function were admitted to the community of the higher gods only after a struggle in which each side had threatened to destroy the other He instances the Scandinavian tradition of the war of the Aesir and the Vanir and their subsequent reconciliation: the Aesir combine the gods of the first function (represented by Odin) and the second (Thor), while the Vanir embody the third (Njord, Freyr and Freyja). Similarly, he claims that the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh is but another reflex of the Indo-European myth. The Tuatha Dé, when they arrived in Ireland, did not command all the competences necessary to a settled society. In the persons of their leaders they had at their disposal druidic magic (the Daghdha), warrior prowess (Oghma), the totality of arts and crafts (Lugh), and the important techniques of medicine and smith-work (Dian Ucht and Goibhniu), but they completely lacked the third function in its most necessary form: agriculture. On the contrary, it fell to their oppo nents, the Fomhoire, to supply this lack, and this is epitomised in the agreement by which Bres is granted his life in return for the secrets of agricultural prosperity.

This interpretation leaves certain loose ends which have not gone unnoticed by Dumézil. In the first place, the battle ends in the total subjection of the Fomhoire, not in a reconciliation and fusion with the Tuatha Dé, as the proto-myth would imply, and secondly, the Fomhoire are consistently pictured elsewhere in Irish tradition as demons, not as gods (their name means literally ‘ under-demons’, that is to say, inferior or perhaps undersea demons). The answer proposed is that these inconsistencies with the postulated proto-myth are secondary and derive from their actual context. When the battle of the gods was included within the pseudo-history of the invasions and its primary significance obscured, the opponents of the Tuatha Dé were confused with the Fomhoire, the traditional enemies of cosmic order, and this in turn entailed a change in the outcome of the struggle. In favour of this line of argument one may adduce the fact that the Fomhoire of the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh have personal links with the Tuatha Dé and are described in terms which are more appropriate to the latter than to the monstrous Fomhoire of other texts. For this in itself strongly suggests that the opponents of the Tuatha Dé in this particular battle were themselves gods.

Dumézil’s interpretation of the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh is not beyond controversy, but nevertheless it is highly plausible and has the not inconsiderable merit of recovering order and purpose from apparent chaos. Apart from its central thesis, it argues the existence of a coherent system of gods inherited from the Indo-European past – which has sometimes been disputed– and in this lies much of its importance for the study of Irish, and Celtic, mythology.

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The coming of the Gaels
In the scheme of Leabhar Gabhála all that has preceded is merely by way of leading up to the advent of the Sons of Mil, whose descendants, the Gaels, were henceforth to be the dominant people of Ireland. The scholastic provenance of the account of this invasion is obvious: the Sons of Mil come to Ireland from Spain because it was believed that Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland, was derived from Iberia, while their father’s name Mil Espáine is simply the Latin miles Hispaniae, ‘soldier of Spain’, in Irish dress. But, despite its transparent fabrications, there is much in this account that is evidently traditional.

The Sons of Mil landed in the south west of Ireland on the feast of Beltene (1 May) and, as the poet Amhairghin set his right foot upon Ireland, he sang this poem in which, like Vishnu’s avatar Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, he claims to subsume all being within himself:

I am an estuary into the sea.
I am a wave of the ocean.
I am the sound of the sea.
I am a powerful ox.
I am a hawk on a cliff.
I am a dewdrop in the sun.
I am a plant of beauty.
I am a boar for valour.
I am a salmon in a pool.
I am a lake in a plain.
I am the strength of art …

Having defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Sons of Mil set out towards Tara. On their way they encountered the three divine eponyms of Ireland, Banbha, Fódla, and Ériu, and each of the three won from them a promise that the island would bear her name. To Amhairghin the fili, who assured her that hers would be its principal name, Ériu foretold that Ireland would belong to the Sons of Mil for all time, but to Donn, their chief, who addressed her with scant courtesy, she announced that neither he nor his children would have benefit of the island. In the event, he was drowned off the south-west coast and buried on the island known ever since as ‘The House of Donn’. At Tara the Sons of Mil found the three kings of the Tuatha Dé, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Greine, husbands of the three goddesses, and called upon them to surrender the land, but instead the kings claimed a respite and referred its conditions to the judgement of Amhairghin. The poet’s decision was that the Sons of Mil should re-embark and retire beyond the ninth wave (which for the Celts constituted a magic boundary). But when they sought to land again, the Tuatha Dé created a ‘druidic’ wind which carried them out to sea. Then Amhairghin arose and addressed himself directly to the land of Ireland (‘I invoke the land of Ireland...’), and immediately the wind abated and the sea was calmed. The Sons of Mil came ashore and inflicted a final defeat on the Tuatha Dé at Tailtiu, site of the annual festival instituted by Lugh.

As yet, one cannot say with any assurance just how much of this account is pseudo-historical invention; it is easier to say what is not. Amhairghin, like Donn, is wholly mythological, and it is noteworthy that it is he who, as seer and arbiter, takes precedence of all the rest of the Sons of Mil. It is he who ensures their landing by appeasing the divinity of Ireland and who symbolises the beginnings of their settlement by proclaiming himself the embodiment of all creation. And in his invocation of Ireland as in the triad of eponymous goddesses married to the kings of Tara we find eloquent expression of one of the dominant themes of Irish tradition: the personification of the land as a goddess who is joined in marriage to her rightful king.

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The retreat of the Tuatha Dé
Despite their defeat, the Tuatha Dé still retained the power of their magic arts and they deprived the Gaels of their corn and milk until they forced them to come to terms. It was then decided that the country should be divided into two parts, the lower half going to the Tuatha Dé and the upper half to the Gaels. Thus the Tuatha Dé retired underground and the Daghdha assigned to each of their chiefs a sídh or ‘ fairy mound’, and throughout the countryside such mounds are still regarded – or were until very recently – as the special dwelling plates of the fairy people. Already in the late seventh century a clerical biographer of St Patrick refers to the ‘sídh or gods who dwell in the earth’ (side aut deorum terrenorum), thus evidently taking for granted the tradition that placed the native gods under the earth’s surface.

This modus vivendi serves to explain how the Tuatha Dé came to be securely established in the Irish landscape, living in close proximity to its human inhabitants who are ever and always conscious of their presence. Theirs is the other, the hidden face of Ireland and it tends increasingly to reflect the features of the visible one. They have their local and provincial kings and their whole social organisation resembles that of the human community. They have the same local loyalties, the same internal dissensions and petty warfare, and indeed, as this suggests, their divinity does not render them permanently invulnerable nor exempt from violent death. Yet, paradoxically, the quality that most clearly sets them apart is their immortality, by virtue of which they live ‘without grief, without sorrow, without death ... without age, without corruption of the earth’. If there is a contradiction here it is not one which demands to be resolved by rational argument. One of the characteristics of the otherworld with which the Irish and Welsh imagination makes constant play is the relativity of time and space: perspectives are reversed and brevity becomes length and length brevity as one crosses the tenuous border between the natural and the supernatural. No doubt the violent deaths of some of the Tuatha De should be viewed in a similar light. At all events, it is clear that in this mythic environment where opposites combine and interchange, the Irish storyteller saw nothing amiss in the occasional mortality of the immortal gods.

The other feature which conspicuously distinguishes the lords of the sídh from mortal kings and heroes is their control of magic, and it is this rather than the notion of divinity which characterises their role in most of the early literature. In this respect the early literary tale and the modern folk tale are at one. Theirs is an idealised, magic counterpart of the natural world into which mortal men rarely intrude except by invitation or by accident. Conversely, the people of the sídh do not normally intervene in the affairs of men, and the idea that men should invoke them as deities is almost entirely absent. But it would be unwise to assume too readily that this was always so. There are at least two considerations to be kept in mind. In the first place, while the attitude of the monastic redactors to the traditions of native paganism was a remarkably liberal one, it nevertheless preserved its own order of emphasis and there were certain matters on which it allowed little compromise: supplication and adoration of the native deities would have been one of these. An eighth-century hymn declares that until St Patrick preached the Gospel the Irish people adored the gods of the sídh: St Patrick knew his priorities and so, presumably, did the clerical literati of later centuries. The second consideration is less obvious, but no less important. We know that the Celts were not the first people to settle in Ireland, and it would be unrealistic to suppose that the traditions and beliefs of the indigenous population were annulled by their arrival. There is in fact a strong presumption that the literary account is coloured by this popular substratum which came in to its own once more as the Celtic gods were depreciated through the establish ment of Christianity and the influence of its teaching.

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The Daghdha
Of the leaders of the Tuatha Dé only two remain to be discussed, the Daghdha and Nuadha. The Daghdha, literally the ‘Good God’, was their doyen and king and was known also as Eochaidh 0llathair, ‘Eochaidh the Great Father’. He was credited with much wisdom, and another of his names or titles describes him as the Ruadh Rofhessa, ‘The Mighty One of Great Knowledge’. It is fitting therefore that he should also be qualified, as he is on several occasions, as a god of druidism.

He has two special attributes, his club and his cauldron. The latter is the characteristic vessel of plenty of the Celtic otherworld ‘from which no company ever went unsatisfied’. Its possession identifies him as lord of the other-world and its eternal abundance, and it was no doubt in this capacity that he was reputed `to control the weather and the crops’. His marvellous club was such that one end killed the living and the other revived the dead, and when he dragged it behind him, it left a track as deep as the boundary ditch between two provinces. It corresponds to Thor’s hammer and the vajra or ‘thunderbolt’ of Indra, and it also suggests a comparison between the Daghdha and the Gaulish Sucellos, ‘The Good Striker’(?). In battle it strewed the bones of the enemy upon the ground ‘as numerous as hailstones under the hooves of horses’.

The Daghdha provides a striking instance of the ancient tendency to treat gods and father-figures as objects of fun and ridicule. Though short garments were the mark of the churl and the vagabond entertainer the Daghdha’s tunic barely reached as far as his rump. And if his dress was uncouth, his behaviour at times was even more so. Before the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh he was sent by Lugh to spy out the enemy position and to delay the engagement. The Fomhoire granted him a truce and prepared for him a prodigious porridge –’and this was done to mock him, for he had a great weakness for porridge’. They filled the king’s cauldron with eighty measures of milk and the same of meal and fat, and to this they added goats and sheep and swine. When the contents were boiled, they were poured into a hole in the ground – an effective caricature of the cauldron of abundance – and the Daghdha was ordered to eat the lot or be slain. So he took up his ladle, ‘which was so big that a man and woman could have lain together in it’, and began to eat; and when he was finished, he scraped the gravelly bottom of the hole with his finger and then dozed off to sleep. There follows a humorously grotesque account of his love-making with the daughter of one of the Fomhoire, as a result of which she promises to turn her magic arts against her own people. This parallels an earlier episode in which the Daghdha goes to a tryst with a woman on the feast of Samhain (1 November). He finds her standing astride the river Unius in Connacht, washing, and has intercourse with her, and she promises her assistance in the coming battle. The text identifies her as the Morrighan, the goddess of war, but in any event it is already clear from the circumstance in which the Daghdha finds her that she is in fact the war fury, here in the familiar guise of the dread female who is seen before a battle washing the mangled heads and limbs of those who are destined to die.

These incidents are a testimony – perhaps an unconscious one on the part of the redactor – to the status of the Daghdha; paradoxical as it may appear, it is by virtue of his seniority that he is made a figure of fun. In the eating episode there is obvious comedy in his making a pleasure, if not a virtue, of necessity, and this the redactor has pointed up neatly, but in the light of the evidence for ritual over-eating in other parts of the world it can hardly be doubted that the Daghdha’s voracity derives from myth and not from some monastic storyteller’s fertile imagination. His tryst with the Morrighan is still more significant. She is the goddess of slaughter who prefigures and in certain measure decides the outcome of battle, and by his physical union with her he ensures victory and security for his people. Nothing could more clearly underline his role of father-figure among the gods.

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Irish Nuadha: Welsh Nudd
Nuadha Airgedlámh, ‘Nuadha of the Silver Hand, or Arm’, has a namesake in Welsh. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen mentions a Lludd Llaw Ereint whose name evidently derives by alliterative assimilation from Nudd Llaw Ereint, the exact counterpart of the Irish Nuadha Airgedlámh. Almost nothing is known of him under this name, but he can hardly be dissociated from the Lludd son of Beli who is the hero of the Middle Welsh tale Lludd and Llefelys. The original Welsh equivalent of Nuadha, viz. Nudd, also crops up in mythological contexts, but its related traditions have almost completely perished. Its former importance in British tradition has, however, been confirmed by the discovery at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire of the remains of a Romano-British temple containing dedications to a god Nodons (or Nodens), whose name corresponds etymologically to Nuadha and Nudd.

The obvious syncretism of the Lydney Park cult makes it difficult to assess the significance of the objects found there. Thus some of them would suggest that the god had strong aquatic associations, and yet these are not noticeably re flected in the legends of Nuadha and his Welsh congeners. What we know for certain of this insular god can therefore be summed up very briefly. According to the Irish evidence Nuadha was a king of Ireland who relinquished his sacred office twice, first when he suffered a physical blemish and secondly when he stood down so that the hero-figure Lugh might defend the country against a race of invaders. In the Welsh tale of Lludd and Llefelys Lludd was the king of Britain who sought the advice of his brother Llefelys in order to rid the kingdom of three oppressions, and one of these was an invasion by a magic people known as Coraniaid. One may discern a possible parallel here, allowing for divergent evolution of the two literatures: Nuadha and Lludd find their respective kingdoms threatened from outside and win relief through the aid of Lugh and Llefelys. The interventions of the two latter take quite different forms, but in their effect they are identical.

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Manannán mac Lir
It would be strange had the Irish, whose fortunes were so permanently bound up with the seas around them, not known a god who claimed the sea for his special realm. In fact the indications are that they may have known several such deities, but of these the only one adequately documented is Manannán mac Lir, whose patronymic means literally ‘ son of the sea’. His name is related to that of the Isle of Man, and the waters with which he is particularly associated are those between north-east Ireland and Britain. He had, moreover, a near namesake in Britain: the names Manannán mac Lir and Manawydan fab Llyr form a close, though not an exact, correspondence.

In the earlier texts Manannán is not specifically numbered among the gods of the Tuatha Dé and he is not mentioned in the tales of the two battles of Magh Tuiredh. Whether this differentiation is original or merely springs from his functional specialisation as god of the sea is not certain, but it is worth noting that another god connected with the sea, the rather shadowy Tethra, does take part in the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh, but on the opposite side to the Tuatha Dé. Like Manannán, Tethra was also known as lord of the joyous otherworld.

It is in fact the legend of the sea- journey to the joyous otherworld that has established Manannán’s image in Irish literature. In the Voyage of Bran, which was probably composed in the late seventh century, he travels over the sea in his chariot and addresses the mortal voyager Bran in words which express vividly the inversion of reality which characterises the otherworld vision of things:

It seems to Bran a wondrous beauty
in his curragh on a clear sea ;
while to me in my chariot from afar
it is a flowery plain on which I ride.

What is a clear sea
for the prowed craft in which Bran is,
is a Plain of Delights with profusion of flowers
for me in my two-wheeled chariot.

Bran sees
a host of waves breaking across the clear sea ;
I myself see in Magh Mon
red-tipped flowers without blemish.

Sea-horses glisten in summer
as far as Bran’s eye can stretch ;
flowers pour forth a stream of honey
in the land of Manannán son of Ler.

Speckled salmon leap from the womb
of the white sea on which you look ;
they are calves, they are bright-coloured lambs,
at peace, without mutual hostility …

It is along the top of a wood
that your tiny craft has sailed across the ridges,
a beautiful wood with its harvest of fruit
under the prow of your little boat.

A wood with blossom and fruit
and on it the true fragrance of the vine;
a wood without decay or death,
with leaves the colour of gold....

Elsewhere Manannán is ‘the rider of the crested sea’, the waves are his steeds, and when the sea is agitated ‘the tresses of Manannán’s wife are tossed’. His traditional home is the Isle of Man – conceived less as a geographical reality than as a terrestrial location of the otherworld – but he is also associated with the supernatural island of Emhain Abhlach, ‘Emhain of the Apple-trees’, which the literature identifies with the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde and of which the title is echoed in that of King Arthur’s Avalon. In later texts he is explicitly included among the Tuatha Dé, and in one of them he leads King Cormac mac Airt from Tara to his otherworld court – which by implication is near at hand in Ireland – just as Lugh had led there Cormac’s grand father, Conn ‘of the Hundred Battles’. At the same time an attempt was made among the literati to transform Manannán into a historical character and already c. A.D. 900 Cormac mac Cuilennáin in his Glossary turns him in to a marvellous merchant and skilled navigator who lived in the Isle of Man and who was later deified by Irishmen and Britons. But far from concealing Manannán’s divinity, this merely confirms what we have otherwise good reasons to assume, namely that Manannán and his British counterpart Manawydan represent a single deity who was known and honoured both in Britain and in Ireland.

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