(Poor grammar in title intentional.)
In an effort to do some more background research for the yet-incomplete third novel of my epic urban fantasy trilogy (genre coined by this hopeful and not at all out of conceit), I’ve begun delving into Celtic mythology. Partly because I’ve always wanted to learn more about it, and partly because I have a masochistic attitude toward the amount of projects currently occupying my schedule.
The gods of the Gaels are a dark and mysterious lot. Most of them evolved in the British Isles, and as such are often concerned with water and darkness as much as venerated for bringing sunshine and light. In an area that sees epic amounts of rainfall, it makes perfect sense for the Gaels to have created an even more discrete dichotomy for their diametrically opposing forces of gods.
Dark and light, night and day, crunchy and smooth.
A dichotomous arrangement of pagan gods was not uncommon in pre-Christian civilisations. Thor and Odin fought the Jötuns; Zeus, Hera, and Co. fought the giants; and the Indian Devas fought the Asuras. The X-Men fought the Brotherhood of Mutants.
For the Gaels, their gods presided on opposite sides of the horizon. The Tuatha Dé Danann were the gods of sun, light, fertility, prosperity, hugs, and puppies. The Fomors reigned over night, darkness, and everything nature does to make your day more obnoxious.
The former are named for the over-goddess Danu, the mother of all other Gaelic gods. More about her later. The Fomors, whose name comes from the Gaelic for “under the sea” (not a reference to a wee red crab singing to a recalcitrant mermaid) have even more levels of interesting within their appellation.
For dwellers of an island nation, especially one prone to as much sogginess as those that occupy the North Atlantic, the sea represented a cold mystery that could (and did) hold death as much as it provided sustenance. Dark and wet and hostile — these were the Fomors. Often ugly and misshapen (with a few notable exceptions), even the deities themselves were analogies of the strange creatures that lurk beneath the waves.
Even beyond that, the line between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomors is all the more distinct for the extremities of night and day that exist in the northern latitudes. Winter is long and dark, buffeted by winds from the seas. Summer is brief, but full of light and stretching days. These natural elements shaped the Gaelic gods like a pudding in a mould.
While Danu is credited as the mother of all Celtic gods, it should be said that she is the oldest goddess we have record of, and it’s likely that farther back in time, there were tales of her forbears as well.
Danu is the quintessential fertility goddess, bringer of light and the one to chase barrenness out of your bedchamber with a broom. The etymology of her name (because I’m a nerd about things like that) comes from the Indo-European root meaning “flowing water,” and interestingly there is a mother-goddess of the Indian Asuras by the same name. You’ll also find it as a name for rivers like the Danube.
Danu’s benevolent counterpart (though not her husband) was Dagda, whose name means “the good god.” He was an earth god and can sometimes be seen depicted as a green man, though in most stories he’s wearing more brown tunic than leafy-face.
Dagda had a cauldron called “Umbry,” from which people were given food according to their merit (I assume that applies to the quality of the food, because it’s also said that no one would leave unsated — though if you sucked as a human, you’d likely be sated on stale lumpy porridge rather than roast veal and honeycakes). Benevolent as he was, Dagda also toted a massive war club around with him that took eight men to lift — so don’t doubt his smiting abilities by the fact that he named his cauldron.
This is all much too friendly for the warlike Celts, so let’s move on to…
Dubbed Argetlán for his shiny metallic appendage, Nuada wasn’t all about the glitz. Or at least, not the sort of glitz one might expect. Nuada delighted in slaughter and surrounded himself with warlike consorts (who were incidentally also known for their skill in the battleground of bed).
Savage and bloodthirsty, Nuada was twice the High King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, ousted for seven years by Bress (a half-Fomor and one of the few exceptions to the “all Fomors are really hideous” clause”), and restored when he gained a fully-functional silver hand to replace the one that got sliced off in battle. In Welsh mythology, he is known as Lludd Llaw Eraint (which also means Silver Hand).
The Mother, the Giver, the Warlord. These form the cornerstones of Gaelic mythology and provide a window into the values of my ancestors. They worshiped gods who provided life and acted with generosity, and they worshiped gods who protected their lands from the already-evident pattern of encroaching invaders. Gods who they hoped would keep the night and the sea at bay (no pun intended) and create a bountiful land from the lush but isolated islands of the North Atlantic.
Next time we’ll get ugly and talk about the Fomors — until then I am going to see if I can go find myself the Undry to see what food I’m worthy of consuming.
Dichotomies and symbolism are inherent in all religions. In what ways do you see the similarities between the ancient faiths and contemporary religion?
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