Here's a question to test your general knowledge: How many Gods and Goddesses of Ireland could you name? I asked myself this question on being presented with this book and had to admit I knew none of them for certain. Any educated person could name at least a few Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, such as Osiris, Anubis, Isis, Hathor etc., and those of Ancient Greece such as Zeus, Hermes, Aphrodite and Athena.
Obviously, Ireland's pantheon has been somewhat obscured down through the ages for various reasons. Now, as Christianity, in particular the Catholic Church, has lost a great deal of its power and control of the population, interest in Paganism and the old ways is increasing. There have, of course, always been Pagans amongst us preserving and honouring ancient lore.
As Morgan Daimler, a practising Pagan, says in her introductory notes to this slim paperback publication, "...the Gods of Ireland have always been powerful forces that can bless or challenge, but often the most difficult thing is to simply find information about them". Moreover, "...many books freely blend fact with fiction in a way that can be very confusing to readers." Here is the difficulty with a subject such as this. Some would argue that all information about ancient Gods is in the realm of fiction and imagination.
A case in point is the description of 'the Dagda', one of the foremost Irish Gods and the only one, apparently, given a definite article as well as a name. His name itself is an epithet that means 'Good God', a God who is good at all things. He is described as "being a large man, sometimes comically so, with a tremendous appetite and immense capacity. It was said that to make his porridge he needed 80 gallons of milk as well as several whole sheep, pigs and goats, and that he ate this meal with a ladle large enough to hold two people lying down". In addition, he was said to have been red-haired, immensely strong and capable of prodigious building feats. Your typical Irishman of popular imagination, in fact. That's the great thing about the Irish Gods and Goddesses. They are human characters writ large. Their modern-day descendants can be encountered occasionally in Wetherspoons, and other pubs, performing prodigious drinking and talking feats. I believe they are now known as the 'Magonians'!
The Dagda had a daughter called Brighid, although it's not recorded who her mother was. Brighid is a major Goddess of Ireland, appearing with many variants of her name, such as Brigit and Brigid, all familiar names often used for Irish girls. Her Old Irish name Brig has a variety of meanings, such as authority, strength, vigour and power. As the author says, with some understatement, she is a complicated deity, seen as an individual and as three sisters sharing the same name. One wonders if perhaps an Irishman of olden days married a set of identical triplets and could only be seen with one at a time. Well, why not? Those old Gods got up to all kinds of shenanigans.
|BRIGIT DEPICTED AS A TRIPLE GODDESS, IN A MODERN SCULPTURE|
According to a 9th Century source, among the Irish any Goddess was called a "Brigit". To add further confusion, in later times Brighid was syncretized with the Catholic Saint Brigid..."making it hard in many places to distinguish the mythology of one from the other". It is noteworthy that the sacred day dedicated to Brighid is Imbolc, usually celebrated on 1st February, is often called Brigid's Day, and marks the beginning of spring, being mid-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Imbolc is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, the others being Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Lughnasadh corresponds to the harvest festival in late summer, and is dedicated to the God Lugh, another of the major Irish deities, and one of the best known. He was one of the High Kings of the 'Tuatha de Danann' ('People of the Goddess Danu'), a supernatural race in Irish mythology. They dwell in the Otherworld, yet interact with humans in many and various ways. Their enemies are the Fomorians, who represent the destructive forces of nature. So, in general, the Irish deities are seen as representing the multiple nurturing aspects of nature through their myriad identities. They gradually morphed into the 'Aos Si' or the Fairies of popular folklore. Ireland is particularly noted and loved for this culture, as well as the famous 'gift of the gab' propensity for telling stories, often embellished in the re-telling.
Much of Irish mythology was recorded by Christian monks, who recorded the legends of ancient kings, warriors and heroes from the distant past but sometimes modified the material. In the earliest writings these Gods were referred to simply as 'Tuatha De', meaning 'People of God', but later on that phrase was used by monks to refer to the Israelites as the Biblical 'People of God'. The phrase 'Tuatha de Danann' was therefore introduced to refer specifically to the ancient Irish tribe of Gods and Goddesses. Danann or Danu may have the meaning of 'Earth Mother' and has similarities to the names of deities in other ancient cultures and religions. The etymology of the name has been much debated by scholars, and her identity remains a mystery.
As can easily be seen from this brief review, the more one reads about Irish mythology, the more confusing and complex it becomes. There are so many different sources and versions of names, attributes, and stories about these ancient entities. Were they great humans who were later deified? Were they extra-terrestrials or 'fallen angels'. Are they natural forces of nature? Or are they complete fabrications of the collective imagination? Probably all of those, but nonetheless entertaining and instructive.
What Daimler presumably means by 'fact' in her introduction is 'authentic' with regard to sources for information presented and collated. This book shows she has done extensive research into the ancient texts and scholarly analysis. She certainly knows her stuff as a prolific author of many books pertaining to the related subjects of Paganism, Fairy Witchcraft, and Irish Mythology generally. Yet she is more than a specialist author. She has hands-on experience as a priestess of the Goddess Macha, tutelary deity of Ulster. Over more than 25 years of honouring the Irish Gods she has found great spiritual value and experience in learning how to connect to them in a modern context. Practical tips are given for those wishing to do likewise.
In Gods and Goddesses of Ireland Morgan Daimler provides a concise guide to the Irish deities that is approachable and accessible, rather like a mini-encyclopedia, with names arranged by category and alphabetical order. Her motivation to do so was born out of a long search over many years for "this exact book: a text that would let me quickly look up basic information about Irish deities". I would say she has succeeded in that aim. This book does that, and more. It is worth reading for the knowledge alone, for as the author says, "...something valuable can be gained here. Ultimately no knowledge is ever wasted". The bonus is that you will also be entertained. – Kevin Murphy