The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 37

Smiths have everywhere been regarded as uncanny—a tradition surviving from the first introduction of metal among those hitherto accustomed to stone weapons and tools. S. Patrick prayed against the "spells of women, smiths, and Druids," and it is thus not surprising to find that Goibniu had a reputation for magic, even among Christians. A spell for making butter, in an eighth century MS. preserved at S. Gall, appeals to his "science."259 Curiously enough, Goibniu is also connected with the culinary art in myth, and, like Hephaistos, prepares the feast of the gods, while his ale preserves their immortality. The elation produced by heady liquors caused them to be regarded as draughts of immortality, like Soma, Haoma, or nectar. Goibniu survives in tradition as the Gobhan Saer, to whom the building of round towers is ascribed.

Another god of crafts was Creidne the brazier (Ir. cerd, "artificer"; cf. Scots caird, "tinker"), who assisted in making a silver hand for Nuada, and supplied with magical rapidity parts of the weapons used at Mag-tured. According to the annalists, he was drowned while bringing golden ore from Spain. Luchtine, god of carpenters, provided spear-handles {77} for the battle, and with marvellous skill flung them into the sockets of the spear-heads.

Diancecht, whose name may mean "swift in power," was god of medicine, and, with Creidne's help, fashioned a silver hand for Nuada.264 His son Miach replaced this by a magic restoration of the real hand, and in jealousy his father slew him—a version of the Märchen formula of the jealous master. Three hundred and sixty-five herbs grew from his grave, and were arranged according to their properties by his sister Airmed, but Diancecht again confused them, "so that no one knows their proper cures." At the second battle of Mag-tured, Diancecht presided over a healing-well containing magic herbs. These and the power of spells caused the mortally wounded who were placed in it to recover. Hence it was called "the spring of health." Diancecht, associated with a healing-well, may be cognate with Grannos. He is also referred to in the S. Gall MS., where his healing powers are extolled.

An early chief of the gods is Dagda, who, in the story of the battle of Mag-tured, is said to be so called because he promised to do more than all the other gods together. Hence they said, "It is thou art the good hand" (dag-dae). The Cóir Anmann explains Dagda as "fire of god" (daig and déa). The true derivation is from dagos, "good," and deivos, "god," though Dr. Stokes considers Dagda as connected with dagh, whence daghda, "cunning."267 Dagda is also called Cera, a word perhaps derived from kar and connected with Lat. cerus, "creator" and other names of his are Ruad-rofhessa, "lord of great knowledge," {78} and Eochaid Ollathair, "great father," "for a great father to the Tuatha Dé Danann was he." He is also called "a beautiful god," and "the principal god of the pagans."269 After the battle he divides the brugs or síd among the gods, but his son Oengus, having been omitted, by a stratagem succeeded in ousting his father from his síd, over which he now himself reigned270—possibly the survival of an old myth telling of a superseding of Dagda's cult by that of Oengus, a common enough occurrence in all religions. In another version, Dagda being dead, Bodb Dearg divides the síd, and Manannan makes the Tuatha Déa invisible and immortal. He also helps Oengus to drive out his foster-father Elemar from his brug, where Oengus now lives as a god.271 The underground brugs are the gods' land, in all respects resembling the oversea Elysium, and at once burial-places of the euhemerised gods and local forms of the divine land. Professor Rh[^y]s regards Dagda as an atmospheric god; Dr. MacBain sees in him a sky-god. More probably he is an early Earth-god and a god of agriculture. He has power over corn and milk, and agrees to prevent the other gods from destroying these after their defeat by the Milesians—former beneficent gods being regarded as hurtful, a not uncommon result of the triumph of a new faith. Dagda is called "the god of the earth" "because of the greatness of his power." Mythical objects associated with him suggest plenty and fertility—his cauldron which satisfied all comers, his unfailing swine, one always living, the other ready for cooking, a vessel {79} of ale, and three trees always laden with fruit. These were in his síd, where none ever tasted death;274 hence his síd was a local Elysium, not a gloomy land of death, but the underworld in its primitive aspect as the place of gods of fertility. In some myths he appears with a huge club or fork, and M. D'Arbois suggests that he may thus be an equivalent of the Gaulish god with the mallet.275 This is probable, since the Gaulish god may have been a form of Dispater, an Earth or under-Earth god of fertility.

If Dagda was a god of fertility, he may have been an equivalent of a god whose image was called Cenn or Cromm Cruaich, "Head or Crooked One of the Mound," or "Bloody Head or Crescent." Vallancey, citing a text now lost, says that Crom-eocha was a name of Dagda, and that a motto at the sacrificial place at Tara read, "Let the altar ever blaze to Dagda." These statements may support this identification. The cult of Cromm is preserved in some verses:

"He was their god,

The withered Cromm with many mists...

To him without glory

They would kill their piteous wretched offspring,

With much wailing and peril,

To pour their blood around Cromm Cruaich.

Milk and corn

They would ask from him speedily

In return for a third of their healthy issue,

Great was the horror and fear of him.

To him noble Gaels would prostrate themselves."278


Elsewhere we learn that this sacrifice in return for the gifts of corn and milk from the god took place at Samhain, and that on one occasion the violent prostrations of the worshippers caused three-fourths of them to die. Again, "they beat their palms, they pounded their bodies ... they shed falling showers of tears."279 These are reminiscences of orgiastic rites in which pain and pleasure melt into one. The god must have been a god of fertility; the blood of the victims was poured on the image, the flesh, as in analogous savage rites and folk-survivals, may have been buried in the fields to promote fertility. If so, the victims' flesh was instinct with the power of the divinity, and, though their number is obviously exaggerated, several victims may have taken the place of an earlier slain representative of the god. A mythic Crom Dubh, "Black Crom," whose festival occurs on the first Sunday in August, may be another form of Cromm Cruaich. In one story the name is transferred to S. Patrick's servant, who is asked by the fairies when they will go to Paradise. "Not till the day of judgment," is the answer, and for this they cease to help men in the processes of agriculture. But in a variant Manannan bids Crom ask this question, and the same result follows.280 These tales thus enshrine the idea that Crom and the fairies were ancient gods of growth who ceased to help men when they deserted them for the Christian faith. If the sacrifice was offered at the August festival, or, as the texts suggest, at Samhain, after harvest, it must have been on account of the next year's crop, and the flesh may have been mingled with the seed corn.

Dagda may thus have been a god of growth and fertility. {81} His wife or mistress was the river-goddess, Boand (the Boyne),281 and the children ascribed to him were Oengus, Bodb Dearg, Danu, Brigit, and perhaps Ogma. The euhemerists made him die of Cethlenn's venom, long after the battle of Mag-tured in which he encountered her. Irish mythology is remarkably free from obscene and grotesque myths, but some of these cluster round Dagda. We hear of the Gargantuan meal provided for him in sport by the Fomorians, and of which he ate so much that "not easy was it for him to move and unseemly was his apparel," as well as his conduct with a Fomorian beauty. Another amour of his was with Morrigan, the place where it occurred being still known as "The Couple's Bed."283 In another tale Dagda acts as cook to Conaire the great.