Few nations can boast folklore as rich and colorful as that of Ireland. From fairies to Leprechauns to the festival of Samhain that has evolved into our modern Halloween celebration, the folklore of the Emerald Isle has rooted itself deeply into modern culture.
And at the beginning of that stand the early gods of Ireland, the Celtic gods and goddesses that shaped the culture that still resonates today. At the beginning of these gods stands the father god of Ireland, the Dagda.
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The Great God
The Dagda’s name seems to come from the proto-Gaelic Dago-dēwos, meaning “the great god”, and it is a fitting epithet given his position in Celtic mythology. He held a paternal role in the Celtic pantheon, and one of his epithets was Eochaid Ollathair, or “all-father,” marking his primordial place in mythical Ireland.
The Dagda held dominion over the seasons, fertility, agriculture, time, and even life and death. He was a god of strength and sexuality and was associated with weather and growing things. Seen as both a druid and a chief, he consequently held authority in almost every area of human and divine affairs.
He was both a sage and a warrior – fierce and fearless, yet also generous and witty. Given his nature and his various spheres of influence, he shows natural parallels to other early pagan gods such as the Norse Freyr and the earlier Gaulish deities Cernunnos and Sucellos.
Chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann
The mythic history of Ireland includes some six waves of immigration and conquest. The first three of these immigrating tribes are mostly obscured by the mists of history and known only by the names of their leaders – Cessair, Partholón, and Nemed.
After the people of Nemed were vanquished by the Fomorians (more on them later), the survivors fled Ireland. The descendants of these survivors would return some years later, however, and constituted the fourth wave of immigrants that would be known as the Fir Bolg.
And the Fir Bolg would, in turn, be conquered by the Tuatha Dé Danann, a race of supposedly supernatural, ageless humans who have at different times been connected with either the fairy folk or with fallen angels. Whatever else they may have been considered, however, the Tuatha Dé Danann were always acknowledged as the early gods of Ireland (an earlier form of their name, Tuath Dé, actually means “tribe of gods”, and they were considered the children of the goddess Danu).
In legend, the Tuatha Dé Danann had lived to the north of Ireland on four island cities, called Murias, Gorias, Finias, and Falias. Here, they mastered all manner of arts and sciences, including magic, before coming to settle on the Emerald Isle.
The antagonists of the Tuatha Dé Danann, as well as the earlier settlers of Ireland, were the Fomorians. Like the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fomorians were a race of supernatural humans – though the two tribes could not be more dissimilar.
While the Tuatha Dé Danann were seen as erudite artisans, skilled in magic and associated with fertility and weather, the Fomorians were somewhat darker. Monstrous creatures said to live either under the sea or underground, the Fomorians were chaotic (like other gods of chaos from the myths of ancient civilizations) and hostile, associated with darkness, blight, and death.
The Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians were in conflict from the moment the former arrived in Ireland. Yet despite their rivalry, the two tribes were also interconnected. One of the first kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Bres, was half-Fomorian, as was another prominent figure – Lug, the king who would lead the Tuatha Dé Danann in battle.
Initially subjugated and enslaved by the Fomorians (with the aid of the traitorous Bres), the Tuatha Dé Danann would eventually gain the upper hand. The Fomorians were finally vanquished by the Tuatha Dé Danann in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired and ultimately driven from the island once and for all.
Depictions of the Dagda
The Dagda was most commonly depicted as a huge, bearded man – and often as a giant – usually wearing a woolen cloak. Regarded as a druid (a Celtic religious figure considered to be highly skilled in everything from magic to art to military strategy) he was always portrayed as wise and crafty.
In many surviving depictions, the Dagda was described as somewhat oafish, often with ill-fitting clothing and an unruly beard. Such descriptions are believed to have been introduced by later Christian monks, eager to repaint the earlier native gods as more comedic figures to make them less competitive with the Christian god. Even in these less-flattering portrayals, however, the Dagda retained his wit and wisdom.
In Celtic myths, the Dagda was believed to dwell at Brú na Bóinne, or the Valley of the River Boyne, located in modern-day County Meath, in central-eastern Ireland. This valley is the site of megalithic monuments known as “passage graves” which date back some six thousand years, including the famous Newgrange site which aligns with the rising sun on the winter solstice (and reaffirms the Dagda’s connection with time and the seasons).
The Dagda’s Family
As the father of the Irish pantheon, it’s unsurprising that the Dagda would have numerous children – and have them by numerous lovers. This puts him in the same vein as similar king-gods, such as Odin (also called “all-father,” the king of the Norse gods), and the Roman god Jupiter (though the Romans themselves linked him more with Dis Pater, also known as Pluto).
The Dagda’s wife was the Morrigan, the Irish goddess of war and fate. Her precise mythology is ill-defined, and some accounts seem to be a trio of goddesses (though this is likely due to the strong affinity in Celtic mythology for the number three).
However, in terms of the Dagda, she is described as his jealous wife. Just before the battle with the Fomorians, the Dagda couples with her in exchange for her aid in the conflict, and it is she who, by magic, drives the Fomorians to the sea.
The Dagda fathered countless children, but the goddess of wisdom, Brigid, was certainly the most notable of the Dagda’s offspring. An important Irish goddess in her own right, she would later be syncretized with the Christian saint of the same name, and much later enjoy prominence among Neo-Pagan movements as a goddess figure.
Brigid was believed to have two oxen, an enchanted boar, and an enchanted sheep. The animals would cry out whenever plunder was committed in Ireland, confirming Brigid’s role as a goddess relating to guardianship and protection.
Easily the most prominent of the Dagda’s many sons was Aengus. The god of love and poetry, Aengus – also known as Macan Óc, or “the young boy” – is the subject of a number of Irish and Scottish myths.
Aengus was the result of an affair between the Dagda and the water goddess, or more precisely river goddess, Boann, wife of Elcmar (a judge among the Tuatha Dé Danann). The Dagda had sent Elcmar to meet with King Bres so that he could be with Boann, and when she became pregnant, the Dagda locked the sun in place for nine months so that the child was born on the single day that Elcmar was away, leaving him none the wiser.
When he was grown, Aengus would take possession of Elcmar’s home in Brú na Bóinne by asking if he might reside there for “a day and a night” – a phrase which, in Old Irish, could mean either a single day and night or all of them collectively. When Elcmar agreed, Aengus claimed the second meaning, granting himself Brú na Bóinne for eternity (though in some variations of this tale, Aengus seizes the land from the Dagda using the same ploy).
The parentage of the Dagda is imprecise, but he is described as having two brothers – Nuada (the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and apparently merely another name for Elcmar, the husband of Broann) and Ogma, an artificer of the Tuatha Dé Danann who legend says invented the Gaelic script Ogham.
However, as with the Morrigan, there is speculation that these were not truly separate gods, but instead reflected the Celtic tendency toward trinities. And there are alternate accounts that have the Dagda with just one brother, Ogma.
Sacred Treasures of the Dagda
In his various depictions, Dagda always carries with him three sacred treasures – a cauldron, a harp, and a staff or club. Each of these was a unique and powerful relic that played into the myths of the god.
The Cauldron of Plenty
The coire ansic, also called The Un-Dry Cauldron or simply the Cauldron of Plenty was a magic cauldron that could fill the bellies of everyone who gathered around it. There are hints that it could also heal any wound, and perhaps even revive the dead.
The Dagda’s cauldron was particularly special among his magical items. It was of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann, brought with them when they first came to Ireland from their mythical island cities to the north.
The Club of Life and Death
Called either the lorg mór (meaning “the great club”), or the lorg anfaid (“the club of wrath”), the Dagda’s weapon was variously depicted as either a club, staff, or mace. It was said that a single blow of this mighty club could kill as many as nine men with one blow, while a mere touch from the handle could restore life to the slain.
The club was said to be too large and heavy to be lifted by any man other than the Dagda, similar to Thor‘s hammer. And even he himself had to drag it as he walked, creating ditches and various property boundaries as he went.
Uaithne, the Magic Harp
The third magical item of the Dagda was an ornate oaken harp, called the Uaithne or the Four-Angled Music. The music of this harp had the power to change the emotions of men – for instance, removing fear before a battle, or dispelling grief after a loss. It could also wield similar control over the seasons, allowing the Dagda to keep them moving in the proper order and flow of time.
With such potent abilities, the Uaithne was perhaps the most powerful of the Dagda’s relics. And while we have only the broad outlines of his first two magical items, the Uaithne is central to one of Ireland’s most famous myths.
The Fomorians were aware of the Dagda’s harp (another god known for his harp is the Greek Orpheus), having noticed him playing it before battles. Believing that its loss would greatly weaken the Tuatha Dé Danann, they snuck into the Dagda’s home while the two tribes were locked in battle, grabbed the harp, and fled with it to a deserted castle.
They bedded down so that all of them were between the harp and the castle entrance. That way, they reasoned, there would be no way the Dagda could get past them to retrieve it.
The Dagda went to reclaim his harp, accompanied by Ogma the artificer and the aforementioned Lug. The trio searched far and wide before eventually finding their way to the castle where the Fomorians hid.
The Harp’s Magic
Seeing the mass of Fomorians sleeping in the way, they knew there was no way they would be able to approach the harp. Fortunately, the Dagda had a simpler solution – he merely extended his arms and called to it, and the harp flew to him in response.
The Fomorians woke instantly at the sound, and – greatly outnumbering the trio – advanced with weapons drawn. “You should play your harp,” Lug urged, and the Dagda did so.
He strummed the harp and played the Music of Grief, which caused the Fomorians to weep uncontrollably. Lost in despair, they sank to the ground and dropped their weapons until the music ended.
When they began to advance again, the Dagda played the Music of Mirth, which caused the Fomorians to erupt into laughter. They were so overcome they again dropped their weapons and danced joyously until the music stopped.
Finally, when the Fomorians again a third time, the Dagda played one final tune, a tune so soft the music could scarcely be heard – the Music of Sleep. This time, the Fomorians collapsed and fell into a deep sleep, at which point the Tuatha Dé Danann slipped away with the harp.
His Other Treasures
In addition to these three relics, the Dagda had a few other possessions of note. He had an orchard of bountiful fruit trees that bore sweet, ripe fruit all year long, as well as some unusual livestock.
The Dagda possessed two pigs, one always growing whilst the other was always roasting. As payment for his feats in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, he was given a black-maned heifer which, when it called for its own calf, also drew all the cattle from Fomorian lands.
The Dagda in Summary
Early Irish gods are sometimes vague and contradictory, with multiple sources varying on the nature and even number of any particular god (such as the confusion about whether the Morrigan was one or three). That said, the myth of the Dagda provides a fairly coherent image of a boisterous, randy – yet wise and learned – father god who exists as a benevolent presence over his own tribe of gods and the world of man.
As is usually the case in mythology, there are still blurry edges and missing pieces in the story of both him and the people he led. What cannot be denied, however, is that the Dagda still stands as the root and foundation of much of Irish mythology and the culture itself – an outsized figure, both warrior and poet, generous and fierce and full of passion for life.