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Irish Astronomical Mythology


Donn was a mythical figure in Irish literature and folklore. His name, according to Daithi O hOgain, represents the adjective 'donn', meaning 'brown'. It is possible his name also meant 'dark', and O hOgain tells us his character is associated with the shadowy realm of the dead. One reference describes him as 'Donn, king of the dead at the red tower of the dead'. His three sons are reported to have said 'we ride the horses of Donn - although we are alive, we are dead!'

The name Donn is tentatively associated with the bull through the story of another Donn, one of the sons of Mil, who was drowned at Inbhear Sceine (Kenmare Bay, Co. Kerry), and this story echoes an earlier tradition which said the deity Donn lived on an island in the Bay called Teach Duinn, now called Bull Rock. This island was said to have been the 'place where the dead assemble' and was also regarded as the westernmost part of Ireland.

Donn, meaning darkness, could also be the opposite of Find (or Finn) meaning brightness. In the Tain Bo Cualnge, the two bulls were called Finnbheannach, 'the white horned one' and Donn Cuailnge, the dark bull. Donn sometimes rode his horse through the sky, suggesting some kind of astronomical link, and he was regarded as a personification of the weather. When there was thunder and lightning it meant that he was travelling wildly through the sky, and if it was cloudy over Knockfierna that meant he would soon make it rain.

One folk tale tells how a man being brought into a fine palace in Knockfierna (a hill in Co. Limerick) finds Donn as an old man, clothed in white, instructing a large number of students in 'the mysteries of the creation since the stars began to shine'.


Astronomical mythology from the Tain Bo Cuailnge, IX - The Pact is Broken:

The Great Carnage The four provinces of Ireland settled down and camped on Muirtheimne Plain, at Breslech Mor (the place of their great carnage). They sent their shares of battle and plunder southward ahead of them to Clithar Bo Ulad, the Cattle-Shelter of Ulster. Cuchulainn took his place near them at the gravemound in Lerga. At nightfall his charioteer Laeg mac Riangabra kindled a fire for him.

And he saw in the distance over the heads of the four provinces of Ireland the fiery flickering of gold weapons in the evening sunset clouds. Rage and fury seized him at the sight of that army, at the great forces of his foes, the immensity of his enemies. He grasped his two spears, his shield and his sword and he shook the shield and rattled the spears and flourished the sword and gave the warrior's scream from his throat, so that demons and devils and goblins of the glen and fiends of the air replied, so hideous was the call he uttered on high. Then the Nemain stirred the armies to confusion. The weapons and spear-points of the four armed provinces of Ireland shook with panic. One hundred warriors fell dead of fright and terror that night in the heart of the guarded camp.

From Martin Brennan's
"The Stones of Time"

In ancient Irish literature and place-names there are a number of astronomical references concerning the site of Tara. In view of this, it is interesting that the remains of what was once the Hall of Tara seem to be in alignment with the megalithic mound north-south, marking the position of the midday sun.

There is a very curious tale in one of the ancient Irish manuscripts concerning Conn, a High King, and the Ri Raith (Royal Fortress) at Tara which encompasses the megalithic mound. The manuscript is entitled 'The Magical Stone of Tara', and it states:

'one evening, Conn of the Hundred Battles repaired at sunrise to the Ri Raith at Tara, accompanied by his three druids, Mael, Bloc and Bluicne, and his three poets, Ethain, Corb and Cesare; for he was accustomed every day to repair to this place with the same company, for the purpose of watching the stars, that no hostile aerial beings should descend upon Ireland unknown to him.'

THE SKY - from Daithi O hOgain's "Myth, Legend and Romance"

The sky and its phenomena are an obvious subject of lore. The druids are said to have been students of the heavenly bodies, and the early literature has several mentions of oaths being taken by reference to sun, moon and stars. The sun figured most prominently in ancient tradition, and the myth of Lugh and Balar shows how it could be personified.

There are other indications, such as in descriptions of the mythical Brighid, Conaire, and in seasonal lore generally, of how the sun was understood to be the source of energy, both agricultural and mystical. In folk speech, the sun and moon are sometimes referred to as if they have influence on human affairs, and in Irish 'by the strength of the sun and moon' was a common exclamation.

What appear to be echoes of ancient beliefs are the idea that if a woman slept in the sunlight she was more likely to become pregnant, and that the waxing of the moon was a propitious time to undertake new work, whereas its waning was the opposite. The light of the full moon was said to make fairies more active in their affairs, and it was also supposed to cause insanity to some people. Fanciful explanations were offered, especially to children, of the obvious aspects of these bodies. The sun was said to be inhabited by a fox, and food melting due to its heat was said to be eaten by him, while the 'man in the moon' was said to have once been a boy who was transported there due to his laziness at sweeping with a brush or drawing water with a bucket. Various stories told of how persons were born under a certain star and as a result had either good or bad fortune in their lives, while a meteor was taken to be a soul passing from purgatory to heaven. A sunburst through clouds, causing clear rays to descent to the earth, was interpreted as the track made by the souls of good people passing to heaven immediately after death.


The story of Balor and the Cow and Calf is fascinating in light of how it seems to describe the movement of the rising sun along the horizon as far as Rockabill, where sunrise occurs on Winter Solstice as viewed from the standing stones at Baltray, at the mouth of the Boyne River.


Did the ancient people see their gods among the constellations? Were the Tuatha De Danann beings of the sky? Read this page for some fascinating stories relating to the ancient god-like people.

An Irish Myth Concordance A-C D-L M-Z
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