Tuesday, May 2, 2023

The Tuatha Dé Danann

The Tuatha Dé Danann, or "the folk of the goddess Danu," are a cornerstone of early Irish literature and mythology. Arriving from the north on dark clouds, they demand half of Ireland from the current inhabitants, the Fir Bolg, who refuse and are slaughtered. The Tuatha, in turn, are defeated years later when the Milesians arrive in Ireland. The result is that Ireland is shared 50-50: the Milesians (ancestors of the Gaels) get the aboveground Ireland, and the Tuatha have to live below the surface, eventually become the sidhe of Irish folklore. They are described as gods and goddesses, kings and queens, druids and bards, warriors and healers, all with supernatural powers. They are also the possessors of the Four Treasures of Ireland.

They are sometimes described as descendants of Nemed; the Nemedians were an earlier group of settlers who were driven out by the Fomorians. Some of the Nemedians fled to Greece, returning years later as the Fir Bolg. Some fled north, and somehow became the Tuatha. Therefore, many of the Irish "Invasions" are groups fighting other groups who were descendants of a common ancestor.

Attempts to determine their origin/meaning linguistically have led to many theories, none of them universally agreed upon. The phrase Tuath Dé meaning "tribe of god(s)" was used by Irish monks to refer to the Israelites. The word tuatha was commonly used for the various kingdoms/tribes under different chieftains. Adding Danann was done by Irish monks recording "history" to distinguish the Israelites from the Tuatha of legend. Tuatha Dé Danann, however, prompts the question "Who was Danu?"

Skipping over the initial consonant, scholars leap to Anu, called "mother of the Irish gods" by the 10th century king (and bishop) of Munster, Cormac Mac Cuilennáin. Others point to Danu, a goddess of Hindu mythology, and wonder if this shared name is "simply" an Indo-European parallel.

Danu may be a blend of the goddess Anann and the word dán, "skill" or "craft": maybe the magical powers attributed to the Tuatha in history come from their introductions of smithing, weaving, tanning, brewing, etc. After all, the Tuatha are sometimes referred to as Eladan, "children of art."

Some seeking to explain the name look to proto-Celtic don meaning "earth," which compares to the Old Irish doman, "earth." A 7th century bishop and biographer of St. Patrick, Tírechán, describes the sidhe as dei terreni, "earthly gods."

Whatever their origin, their stories are foundational to Irish mythology. It is one of their goddesses, Ériu, whose name is the origin of the modern name Éire. Eventually, however, medieval historians had to eliminate them from the scene to explain their absence, and the Milesians were the instrument of their elimination.

Who were the Milesians, the ancestors of the Gaels? They were a little more grounded in history—a little—and we'll look at their "Spanish" origin tomorrow.

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