Their origin is uncertain, whether they were of demons or of men¹
The Túatha Dé Danann, the ‘People of the Gods of Danand’, by their association with pagan deities, have excited and inspired Irish folklore for generations. Their legacy has found its way into popular culture through the medium of film; (Hellboy II: The Golden Army) in online role-playing games; (Scion Companion) and books of fantasy fiction, (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings). Within the Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland) they are numbered as the fourth group who migrated to and occupied Ireland, succeeding the tribe known as the Fir Bolg.
Beginning with the chronological order of the LGE texts, as edited and translated by R.A.S. MacAlister (1870-1950), their origin is given as follows;
NEMED: R2 (267) Others say, (the Tuatha De Danann,) that they were of the seed of Beothach son of “Iardanaines” that is of the people of Nemed belonging to the party who went to the east to seek the maiden*: for they captured her, and made a great feast in the east, till their grandchildren and great-grandchildren came afterwards, (at the end of a long time).
(268) Others say that the Tuatha De Danann were demons of a different order, and that it is they who came from heaven along with the expulsion by which Lucifer and his demons came from heaven; having taken an airy body upon themselves to destroy and to tempt the seed of Adam. That is the fortress against which those who made that attempt advanced, in the train of the devil and his followers. So those people go in currents of wind. They go under seas, they go in wolf-shapes, and they go to fools and they go to the powerful. Thence comes it that this is the nature of all of them, to be followers of the devil. No genealogy of those people goes back; nor are they recognised as men of the world in general; and all that multitude broke out against the righteousness of the Sons of Mil and against the people of the faith of Christ.
(269) But in the book De Subternis**, others say that the Tuatha De Danann were poets of the Greeks, and that it was their power that they should sail together on the seas without vessels.
TUATHA DÉ DANANN: Min & R1 (304) Thereafter the progeny of Bethach s. Iarbonel the Soothsayer s. Nemed were in the northern islands of the world learning druidry and knowledge and prophecy and magic, till they were expert in the arts of pagan cunning. (305) There were four cities in which they were acquiring knowledge and science and diabolism these are their names, Failias, Goirias, Findias, Muirias. (306) (F) Their origin is uncertain whether they were of demons or of men, but it is said that they were of the progeny of Beothach s. Iarbonel the Giant.
TUATHA DÉ DANANN: R2 (320) The progeny of Bethach s. Iarbonel the Soothsayer s. Nemed were in the northern islands of the world learning the devil’s druidry, till they were expert in every craft of their pagan cunning, and in very diabolic art of druidry. (322) And there they were, between the Athenians and the Philistines. However, they had completed all their education among the Greeks, and they took territory and estate in the north of Alba, at Dobar and Urdobar, for seven years Nuadu being king over them. And they came to Ireland, on Monday, the kalends of May, in ships (and vessels).
What can be summed up from these origin tales? Firstly that our scribes are agreed on the genealogy of the TDD which links them directly with Nemed, the leader of settlers prior to the arrival of the Fir Bolg. According to the account given in the LGE, the Nemedians demise came as a result of battle in which they were defeated by the Fomorians, the main antagonists to almost every invading tribe throughout the LGE.
After several battles, the Nemedians are enslaved by the Fomorians and must pay an unbearable tribute to them in the form of two thirds of their wheat and milk each November. Tormented by the heaviness of this tribute they try to overthrow Conand’s Tower, a Fomorian fortress at or upon the sea. The tide rises upon the assailants where almost all drown. Those who escape flee by boat into several different regions; the northern islands, Britain and Greece.
Our second conclusion might be that the scribes were uncertain of the exact location of the TDD before their arrival to Ireland. The word ‘northern’ confuses the matter as the TDD are placed ‘between the Athenians and Philistines’ taking their education from the ‘Greeks’ and by unknown means ‘took territories’ in unidentified places called Dobar and Urdobar in the north of Alba, an ancient name for the Kingdom of Scotland which included parts of western Scotland and north-eastern Ireland. While Alba points to the north, the TDD are only placed there after learning their ‘prophecy and magic’ from the Greeks.
So how can these south-eastern locations be reconciled with a northern origin? MacAlister makes the point that hand in hand with a northern origin for the TDD we are told by the scribes of their ‘diabolism’ questioning ‘whether they were demons or men’ ‘learning the devil’s druidry’. He puts forward the theory, “The sunless north, out of which come the cold blasts of boreal winds, is credited with the nature demonic and uncanny; a number of references bearing on this belief can be found in W. Johnson, Byways of British Archaeology, chap. viii.”²
Among the examples given by Walter Johnson, these extracts are probably the most fitting in understanding the meaning the scribes of the LGE might have attached to a northern location;
The South, the region of warmth and midday, has always been beloved by the religious, as well as the superstitious, of most countries, especially in the Northern parts of the world.
The churchyard cross usually stands on the South side of the church. The Southern doorway is somewhat more common than the Northern; where both exists, the Southern is more in favour with the worshippers.
“The front of everything to the South”, is an old Irish maxim, and though as Mr W. G. Wood-Martin suggests, the saying may have reference to the ceremony of making the deiseal, or right hand circle, yet the words are pregnant of folk-custom.
In Lincolnshire, the North door was entirely reserved for funerals, the South and West doors being used for weddings and christenings. At baptisms, again, there was a prevalent belief that the Holy Spirit entered the church by the South door, while the devil departed through the opening opposite – the Devil’s Door.
Bearing these facts in mind, we are not astonished to learn that early beliefs allocated the North to the Spirit of Evil. The idea is rife throughout the heathen legends of Northern nations. The underworld, in Teutonic mythology, is placed under the third root of the ash tree, Yggdrasill, “low down toward the North,” where there is cold, eternal night.³
In further passages of the LGE, no northern origin is given for the TDD and subsequently any question regarding their human form or their practice of what we might call their dark arts is retracted;
TUATHA DÉ DANANN: R2 (353) Though some say that the Tuatha De Danann were demons, seeing that they came unperceived (and they themselves said that it was in dark clouds that they came, after burning their ships) and for the obscurity of their knowledge and adventures, and for the uncertainty of their genealogy as carried backwards: but that is not true, for their genealogies carried backward are sound: howbeit they learnt knowledge and poetry; for every obscurity of art and every clearness of reading, and every subtlety of crafts, for that reason, derive their origin from the Tuatha De Danann. And though the Faith came, those arts were not put away, for they are good, and no demon ever did good. It is clear therefore from their dignities and their deaths that the Tuatha De Danann were not of the demons nor were they sidh-folk.
TUATHA DÉ DANANN: R3 (371) And though some say that the Tuatha De Danann were demons, as they came into Ireland unperceived, and they themselves said that they came in dark clouds, and for the greatness of their learning and their knowledge, and the obscurity of their genealogy being traced backward; howbeit they learned knowledge and poetry. For every darkness of art and every clearness of reading and every craft of cunning that is in Ireland, they are of the Tuatha De Danann by origin, and though the Faith came into Ireland those arts were not abolished, for they are good.
Of the four cities, Failias, Goirias, Findias and Muirias where the TDD were said to have acquired knowledge, MacAlister notes that Failias evolved from the Irish fál, (hedge), Goirias from gor (fire), Finnias from finn (white) and Muirias from muir (sea). He concludes that “these etymologies lie on the surface, but they do not reveal the essential meaning of the names, if any.”⁴
From these conflicting accounts of their origin, their entity and the nature of their arts, we can see why of all tribes in the LGE, the Tuatha Dé Danann appear again and again in Irish folklore as a magical, mystical people. Their ‘pagan cunning’ and several attempts to mystify their existence have only added to their intrigue. Of all tribes in the LGE, only the TDD are introduced in this way. A simple synopsis of the arrival of other migrant groups who preceded the TDD, illustrates this below.
PARTHOLON. R1 (199) Now Ireland was waste, for a space of three hundred years, till Partholon s. Sera s. Sru came to it. (200) Four chieftains strong came Partholon … (206) It was the four sons of Partholon who made the first division of Ireland in the beginning.
NEMED. R1 (237) Now Ireland was waste thereafter, for a space of thirty years after Partholon, till Nemed son of Agnomain of the Greeks of Scythia came thither, with his four chieftains … Forty-four ships had he on the Caspian Sea for a year and a half, but his ship alone reached Ireland.
THE FIR BOLG. R1 (278) Now as for the Fir Bolg, they brought five chieftains with them… (279) They made one Taking and one princedom, for they were five brethren…
The TDD on the other hand, as will be revealed in later posts, are given supernatural abilities to fuse an arm with a metallurgical hand, conjure up spirits to overthrow their opponents and live long enough to rule for up to 80 years.
The continued intrigue in the TDD and their pagan deities up to present day, would not have been the outcome our scribes had hoped for. Folklore was passed down through an oral tradition by the illiterate in their colloquial language. That is not to say that the absence of pre-Christian literature, necessarily means that it never existed.
MacAlister has argued that evidence of some form of written record before the coming of the Christian missionaries, would explain the archaic language used in Ogham stone inscriptions, the archaeological accuracies found in the romance saga called the Táin Bó Cúalnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), which referenced the culture of the first or second century A.D. and the non-metrical character of early poems which lost their original rhythm and pattern through translation⁵.
These examples are compelling enough to show that an archaic written form of language might have existed. The Christian missionaries, with their objective of teaching the new religion set about creating a literary language using a new phonetic system, adopting the ancient traditions of Irish folklore, albeit a censored version, to suit their own agenda.
These ancient oral traditions, including the stories of the Túatha Dé Danann, represented pagan religion and customs that threatened ‘the Faith of Christ’. The scribes, under the influence of a new religion, are simply attempting to mark the difference between the two religions where theirs, Christianity, is given as the ‘true’ one.
In referencing the TDD at all, they are also attempting to gradually remove whatever perceived religious influences their pagan beliefs still had over the people of Ireland during the 12th century. This might explain why some scribes condemned the TDD outright, while others used the softly, softly approach.
¹ MACALISTER, R.A.S. (1941) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Irish Texts Society Dublin, p.107.
² MACALISTER, R.A.S. (1941) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Irish Texts Society, p.292.
³ JOHNSON, Walter (1912) Byways of British Archaeology, Cambridge University Press, p.328-334.
⁴ MACALISTER, R.A.S. (1941) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Irish Texts Society Dublin, p.293.
⁵ MACALISTER, R.A.S. (1919) Temair Breg: A Study of the Remains and Traditions of Tara, P.R.I.A. Dublin, p.302-303.
*MacAlister notes that the reference to the quest for “the maiden” (267) is a figure unknown to him.
** MacAlister notes that he found no reference to the book called De Subternis in any bibliography or medieval literature he had consulted during his research.
Túatha Dé Danann (TOOHA day DAN-ann)
Lebor Gabála Érenn (LE-bor gab-AALA AIR-ren)
Fir Bolg (fir BOLG)
Táin Bó Cúalnge (TAWN BOWE KOOL-ang-GEH)
People of the Gods of Danand
Book of the Taking of Ireland
Right hand turn
Cattle Raid of Cooley