Gods or Fighting Men?

Ireland's Immortals by Mark Williams“…the Dagda, with his overflowing cauldron, Lug, with his spear dipped in poppy juice lest it rush forth hot to battle, Aengus, with his three birds on his shoulder, Bodb and his red swineherd, and all the heroic children of Dana…”
—W. B. Yeats, “Rosa Alchemica”

The style of Yeats’s recitation will be immediately familiar to anyone who has read the myths and legends of Ireland, with their richly allusive lists of characters and the extraordinary deeds for which they are known. But what do we actually know of Tuatha Dé Danann (the Peoples of the goddess Danann), of the Sidhe, of the Fianna? And how were the Tuatha Dé understood by the pre-Christian Irish? As gods? Or as something different? The tales in which they appear come down to us in the form of manuscripts written centuries after the tales were first composed. Moreover, these manuscripts were made by monks, whose fervent Christian understanding of the world must surely have colored their view of these pagan figures. Some stories come to us in multiple, widely varying versions, or are frustratingly incomplete. Others must be inferred from entries in monastic glossaries, or from the dindshenchas, the traditional lore of Irish placenames.

In Ireland’s Immortals, Mark Williams describes the efforts of succeeding generations to frame and define the mythic figures of ancient Ireland. The monastic writers struggled to explain the superhuman feats of the Tuatha Dé and their frequent transformations of physical form without ascribing them some measure of divinity. The writers of the Celtic Revival brought their own agenda. Yeats’s fascination with ritual magic led him to attempt to found an Order of Celtic Mysteries (p.332), modeled on the hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with figures such as Lug, Manannán and Brigit as the focus of its rituals. His friend and fellow poet and artist AE (George Russell) was one of several writers who instead saw them as aspects of the gods of Hindu mythology, under the influence of the Theosophical teachings of Madame Blavatsky. The Scottish writer William Sharp developed the fictional persona of Hebridean folklorist and revealer of mysteries Fiona Macleod to express his blend of pagan and Christian mysticism. So successful were Fiona Macleod’s dewy evocations of druids giving tribute to the ancient gods that she received extensive fan mail and even an offer of marriage. Sharp had his sister answer the letters for fear that his masculine handwriting might give the game away (p.372.)

In this ongoing process of reinterpretation and reframing, the errors, conjectures and creations of one generation became part of the corpus of accepted knowledge for the next. Manannán mac Lir is a well-attested figure in the myths and legends, usually associated with the sea. It must have seemed reasonable, given that “mac” means “son of” in Irish, to suppose the existence of a sea god, Lir, as his father and Lir starts to appear in manuscripts from the thirteenth century onwards. By the nineteenth century, AE was depicting Lir as no less than the primordial infinite from which the universe emerged. Yet the absence of Lir from the earliest sources strongly suggests that he is a back-formation who would have been unknown to the early Irish. To add to the confusion, an unrelated Lir appears in the story of the Children of Lir, in which a stepmother’s curse transforms King Lir’s four children into swans. The story is evidently of Christian origin as, after nine hundred years, it is the tolling of a church bell that finally returns the children to human form (terribly aged, they survive only long enough to receive baptism.) Yet some identify the two Lirs, exemplifying the confusion and contradictions that surround Ireland’s immortals. Mark Williams is a fascinating guide to their long life and presence in the literature and culture of Ireland.