View Full Version : The Dagda: the Thunder God's role in Gaelic Society

Monday, September 19th, 2005, 08:32 AM
by Tina Deegan (http://www.thorshof.org)

The most obvious Celtic thunder god to most people is Taranis. The root 'taran', meaning "thunder", still means thunder in both the Welsh and Breton languages. However, Celtic culture covers a number of diverse tribes and societies. I would like to discuss the god who might be seen as fulfilling the thunder god's role in Gaelic society: the Dagda. For those who are unfamiliar with matters Celtic, the term 'Gaelic' is a linguistic term for the Celtic societies in Ireland, Scotland (post purely Pictish period) and the Isle of Man.

Dagda means "good god" but good in the sense of being very skilled rather than in a moral or judgemental sense. This title can also be spelt Daghda or Daghdha and, less commonly, Dagdae or Dagda Mór ("the Great Good God"). He also has some by-names he is known as: Eochaidh Ollathair, which means either "father of many" or "father of all/All-father", and Ruadh Ró-Fheasa meaning "All-knowing noble". This use of the latter title in the sources is to show him as a wise ancestral figure.(1) Miranda Green certainly sees him as a tribal god.(2) It may therefore be appropriate to call him a god of the Gaels. He is listed as a leader of the Tuatha De Danaan ("people of the goddess Danu") and was one of the most important deities.

The thunder god aspect of this deity can be shown in at least two ways. The myths say of the Dagda: 'it was he who used to work miracles for them and to apportion storms and fruits'.(3) This combination of storms, which would include thunder storms, and fertility is most typical of a thunder god archetype. Another indicator is the clear similarities which can be drawn with the Norse thunder god, Þórr or Thor.

The Dagda has a great club which is 'a dreadful iron club --- It has a rough end and a gentle end'.(4) This club was also described as being so big that it took eight men to carry it or it had to be taken around in a wagon which left ruts as boundaries between the provinces in Ireland. An eighth century text (5) tells that when he put the rough end on the heads of nine men (at the same time) it slew them but then he put the smooth end on them and revived the men. Thor is known for his hammer, Mjollnir, and there are not only many tales of him using it to slay the enemies of the gods but there is also a myth where he uses it to bring back to life one of his sacred goats (from just the bones) after he had killed it the night before to provide a stew for his hosts. So the Dagda's club, like Thor's hammer, is a notable instrument of death and life.

Hilda Ellis Davidson mentions a number of other comparisons(6) :

- Thor's hammer was marked on boundary stones while the Dagda's club, through its' carriage in a wagon, marked or dug the boundaries of the provinces.

- This important Gaelic father of the gods was, none the less, a somewhat crude figure even portrayed with his tunic barely covering his bottom. One myth mocks his great appetite and uncouth appearance: Indech and the Fomorians filled a huge hole in the ground with a meaty porridge for the Dagda and threatened him if he did not eat it all. He did indeed eat everything and the Fomorians then laughed at his huge distended belly but, you could say, the Dagda had the last laugh as he still got to have sex with Indech's daughter. A Norse myth tells of Thor cross-dressing as the goddess Freyja, you might say looked ridiculous, to resume his hammer from the giant Thrym and his great appetite was noted with amazement by Thrym.

- The Dagda had a great cauldron, one of the great treasures of the Tuatha De Danaan, which was a source of never emptying hospitality. Thor went to obtain a cauldron for Aegir's feast for the gods.

Yet in some ways it is the classical thunder god, the womanising father god Zeus or Jupiter with whom this god should be compared. They are father of the gods, with plenty of liaisons with desirable women, and the ability to send thunder is just a small aspect of them.

Although the Dagda has been referred to as a god of the Gaels, in one way mythologically the Dagda (like all the Tuatha De Danaan) preceded the Gaels for Mil Espaine (soldier of Spain) led the final pre-historic invasion where the human Milesians defeated the Tuatha De Danaan. The gods then either "emigrated" from the land or retreated into a sidhe (barrow or hillock) which the Dagda divided amongst the deities. The Milesians were forced though, by the power of the Dagda, to make a peace treaty with him to do homage and offerings it is believed (for there are no recorded mythological details of this treaty. The gods and goddesses became Aes Sídhe or "people of the hills"

The tumulus at Newgrange, Brugh na Boinne, was said to be his sidhe originally. and this included the 'Hall of the Morrigu' and the 'Bed of the Dagda'. This is interesting as there is a myth telling of a sexual liaison between the Morrigan (or Morrigu) and the Dagda at Samhain but his wife is normally said to be Boann (a river goddess). A little hill nearby was called "the comb and casket of the Dagda's wife". However his wonderful house was tricked from him by his son Oengus. On the advice of Manaan MacLir Oengus asked his father to give it to him for a day and a night but when the Dagda went to get it back his son said he had given it to him forever because all time is made up of a day and a night. There was no anger or revenge though despite the fact he was supposed to be quick-tempered.

The Dagda was described in the Mescal Ulad as ' great-eyed, great-thighed, great shouldered man, excessively great and tall, with a fine brown cloak about him'. This crude, powerful and compelling Father god, who is both warrior and source of fertility is also a skilled artisan and a god of the druids. This latter, strongly magical, aspect to him is shown as he 'expertly plays the three kinds of magical music on a harp'. Other examples of his magical skill can be seen when he mixes with warring armies to increase battle but they do not see him or when he worked 'mighty spells' on Elcmar so he could sleep with his wife.

1. Dr. D. Ó hÓgain, Myth, Legen & Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition, (Ryan Publishing 1990), p. 145

2. Miranda Green, The Gods of the Celts, (Alan Sutton 1986), p. 149

3. John Carey (trans.), 'Tochmarc Étaíne', John T. Koch (ed.) in collaboration with John Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales, (Celtic Studies Publications 1994), p.135

4. 'Mesca Ulad', John T. Koch (ed.) in collaboration with John Carey, ibid, p. 108

5. Quoted in Dr. D. Ó hÓgain, ibid,p.146

6. H.R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, (Syraceuse 1988), pgs 203-204

Other Sources

Lady Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men, (1904 Colin Smythe © 1970)

Charles Squire, Mythology of the Celtic People, (©1912 Bracken Books 1996)

James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (Oxford University Press 1998)

Bernhard Maier (Cyril Edwards trans.), Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture, (Boydell & Brewer 1994)