Myths & Legends | Irish magic and Tuatha De Danaans

By far the most interesting of the peoples that formerly inhabited Ireland were the Tuaths, or Tuatha de Danaans, or Dananns. There is much mystery about them in Irish traditions. They were men, gods, or fairies. They came, of course, from the East, calling in at Greece on the way, so as to increase their stock of magic and wisdom... This is a chapter from James Bonwick's 1894 book 'Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions'.

he credulous Four Masters have wonderful tales of Tuath doings. In their invasion of Ireland, Tuaths had to deal with the dark aborigines, known as the Firbolgs, and are said to have slain 100,000 at the battle of Magh-Tuireadh Conga. Driven off the island by their foes, they travelled in the East, returning from their exile as finished magicians and genuine Druids. Mr. Gladstone, in Juventus Mundi, contends that Danaan is of Phoenician extraction, that a district near Tripoli, of Syria, is known as Dannie He adds, "Pausanias says that at the landing-place of Danaos, on the Argive coast, was a temple of Poseidon Genesios, of Phoenician origin."

After reigning in Ireland two hundred years, the Tuatha were, it is narrated, invaded by the children of Gail Glas, who had come from Egypt to Spain, and sailed thence to Erin under Milesius, the leader of the Milesians. When their fleet was observed, the Danaans caused a Druidic fog to arise, so that the land assumed the shape of a black pig, whence arose another name for Ireland—"Inis na illuic, or Isle of the Pig." The Milesians, however, employed their enchantments in return, and defeated the Tuatha at Tailteine, now Teltown, on the Blackwater, and at Druim-Lighean, now Drumleene, Donegal.

The Tuatha have been improperly confounded with the Danes. Others give them a German origin, or a Nemedian one. Wilde describes them as large and fair-complexioned, carrying long, bronze, leaf-shaped swords, of a Grecian style, and he thinks them the builders of the so-called Danish forts, duns, or cashels, but not of the stone circles. McFirbis, 200 years ago, wrote—"Every one who is fair-haired, revengeful, large, and every plunderer, professors of musical and entertaining performances, who are adepts of druidical and magical arts, they are the descendants of the Tuatha-de-Danaans."

"The Danans," O'Flanagan wrote in 1808, "are said to have been well acquainted with Athens; and the memory of their kings, poets, and poetesses, or female philosophers, of highest repute for wisdom and learning, is still preserved with reverential regret in some of our old manuscripts of the best authority." Referring to these persons, as Kings Dagad, Agamon and Dalboeth, to Brig, daughter of Dagda, to Edina and Danana, he exclaimed, "Such are the lights that burst through the gloom of ages." The Tuatha, G. W. Atkinson supposes, "must be the highly intellectual race that imported into Ireland our Oghams, round towers, architecture, metal work, and, above all, the exquisite art which has come down to us in our wonderful illuminated Irish MSS." The polished Tuatha were certainly contrasted with the rude Celts. Arthur Clive declares that civilization came in with an earlier race than the Celts, and retired with their conquest by the latter.

"The bards and Seanachies," remarks R. J. Duffy, "fancifully attributed to each of the Tuath-de-Danaan chiefs some particular art or department over which they held him to preside;" as, Abhortach, to music. The author of Old Celtic Romances writes—"By the Milesians and their descendants they were regarded as gods, and ultimately, in the imagination of the people, they became what are now in Ireland called 'Fairies.'" They conquered the Firbolgs, an Iberian or a Belgic people, at the battle of Moytura.

 

 

There is a strong suspicion of their connection with the old idolatry. Their last King was Mac-grene, which bears a verbal relation to the Sun. The Rev. R. Smiddy assumes them descendants of Dia-tene-ion, the Fire-god or Sun. In the Chronicles of Columba we read of a priest who built in Tyrconnel a temple of great beauty, with an altar of fine glass, adorned with the representation of the sun and moon. Under their King Dagda the Great, the Sun-god, and his wife, the goddess Boann, the Tuaths were once pursued by the river Boyne. This Dagda became King of the Fairies, when his people were defeated by the warlike Milesians; and the Tuatha, as Professor Rhys says, "formed an invisible world of their own," in hills and mounds.

In the Book of Ballimote, Fintan, who lived before the Flood, describing his adventures, said—

"After them the Tuatha De arrived
Concealed in their dark clouds—
I ate my food with them,
Though at such a remote period."

Mrs. Bryant, in Celtic Ireland, observes:—"Tradition assigns to the Tuatha generally an immortal life in the midst of the hills, and beneath the seas. Thence they issue to mingle freely with the mortal sons of men, practising those individual arts in which they were great of yore, when they won Erin from the Firbolgs by 'science,' and when the Milesians won Erin from them by valour. That there really was a people whom the legends of the Tuatha shadow forth is probable, but it is almost certain that all the tales about them are poetical myths."

 

Muiredach's Cross Monasterboice
Muiredach's Cross and the round tower at Monasterboice at night.

 

Elsewhere we note the Tuath Crosses, with illustrations; as that Cross at Monasterboice, of processions, doves, gods, snakes, &c. One Irish author, Vallencey, has said, "The Church Festivals themselves, in our Christian Calendar, are but the direct transfers from the Tuath de Danaan ritual. Their very names in Irish are identically the same as those by which they were distinguished by that earlier race." That writer assuredly did not regard the Tuatha as myths. Fiech, St. Patrick's disciple, sang—

"That Tuaths of Erin prophesied
That new times of peace would come."

Tuatha Dé Danann magic

Magic—Draoideachta—was attributed to the Irish Tuatha, and gave them the traditional reputation for wisdom.

"Wise as the Tuatha de Danaans," observes A. G. Geoghegan, "is a saying that still can be heard in the highlands of Donegal, in the glens of Connaught, and on the seaboard of the south-west of Ireland." In Celtic Ireland we read—"The Irish worshipped the Sidhe, and the bards identify the Sidhe with the Tuath de Danaan.—The identity of the Tuath de Danaan with the degenerate fairy of Christian times appears plainly in the fact, that while Sidhes are the halls of Tuatha, the fairies are the people of the Sidhe, and sometimes called the Sidhe simply."

The old Irish literature abounds with magic. Druidic spells were sometimes in this form—"I impose upon thee that thou mayst wander to and fro along a river," &c.

In the chase, a hero found the lost golden ring of a maiden:—

"But scarce to the shore the prize could bring,
When by some blasting ban—
Ah! piteous tale—the Fenian King
Grew a withered, grey old man.

Of Cumhal's son then Cavolte sought
What wizard Danaan foe had wrought
Such piteous change, and Finn replied—
'Twas Guillin's daughter—me she bound
By a sacred spell to search the tide
Till the ring she lost was found.

Search and find her. She gave him a cup—
Feeble he drinks— the potion speeds
Through every joint and pore;
To palsied age fresh youth succeeds—
Finn, of the swift and slender steeds,
Becomes himself once more."

Druidic sleeps are frequently mentioned, as—

"Or that small dwarf, whose power could steep
The Fenian host in death-like sleep."

Kennedy's Fictions of the Irish Celts relates a number of magical tales. The Lianan might well be feared when we are told of the revenge one took upon a woman—"Being safe from the eyes of the household, she muttered some words, and, drawing a Druidic wand from under her mantle, she struck her with it, and changed her into a most beautiful wolf-hound." The Lianan reminds one of the classical Incubi and Succubi. Yet Kennedy admits that "in the stories found among the native Irish, there is always evident more of the Christian element than among the Norse or German collections."

The story about Fintan's adventures, from the days of the Flood to the coming of St. Patrick, "has been regarded as a Pagan myth," says one, "in keeping with the doctrine of Transmigration."

 

Newgrange aurora
Newgrange with aurora borealis ... Angus the Tuath had a mystic palace by the Boyne.

 

In the Annals of Clonmacnoise we hear of seven magicians working against the breaker of an agreement. Bruga of the Boyne was a great De Danaan magician. Jocelin assures us that one prophesied the coming of St. Patrick a year before his arrival. Angus the Tuath had a mystic palace on the Boyne. The healing stone of St. Conall has been supposed to be a remnant of Tuath magic; it is shaped like a dumb-bell, and is still believed in by many.

In spite of the Lectures of the learned O'Curry, declaring the story to be "nothing but the most vague and general assertions," Irish tradition supports the opinion of Pliny that, as to magic, there were those in the British Isles "capable of instructing even the Persians themselves in these arts." But O'Curry admits that "the European Druidical system was but the offspring of the eastern augurs"; and the Tuaths came from the East. They wrote or repeated charms, as the Hawasjilars of Turkey still write Nushas. Adder-stones were used to repel evil spirits, not less than to cure diseases. One, writing in 1699, speaks of seeing a stone suspended from the neck of a child as a remedy for whooping-cough. Monuments ascribed to the Tuatha are to be seen near the Boyne, and at Drogheda, Dowth, Knowth, &c.

According to tradition, this people brought into Ireland the magic glaive from Gorias, the magic cauldron from Murias, the magic spear from Finias, and the magic Lia Fail or talking coronation stone from Falias; though the last is, also, said to have been introduced by the Milesians when they came with Pharaoh's daughter.

Enthusiastic Freemasons believe the Tuatha were members of the mystic body, their supposed magic being but the superior learning they imported from the East. If not spiritualists in the modern sense of that term, they may have been skilled in Hypnotism, inducing others to see or hear what their masters wished them to see or hear.

When the Tuatha were contending with the Firbolgs, the Druids on both sides prepared to exercise their enchantments. Being a fair match in magical powers, the warriors concluded not to employ them at all, but have a fair fight between themselves. This is, however, but one of the tales of poetic chronicles; of whom Kennedy's Irish Fictionreports—"The minstrels were plain, pious, and very ignorant Christians, who believed in nothing worse than a little magic and witchcraft."

Waves

It was surely a comfort to Christians that magic-working Druids were often checkmated by the Saints. When St. Columba, in answer to an inquiry by Brochan the magician, said he should be sailing away in three days, the other replied that he would not be able to do so, as a contrary wind and a dark mist should be raised to prevent the departure. Yet the Culdee ventured forth in the teeth of the opposing breeze, sailing against it and the mist. In like manner Druid often counteracted Druid. Thus, three Tuatha Druidessess,—Bodhbh, Macha, and Mor Kegan,—brought down darkness and showers of blood and fire upon Firbolgs at Tara for three days, until the spell was broken by the Firbolg magic bearers—Cesara, Gnathach, and Ingnathach. Spells or charms were always uttered in verse or song. Another mode of bringing a curse was through the chewing of thumbs by enchantresses. Fal the Tuath made use of the Wheel of Light, which, somehow, got connected with Simon Magus by the Bards, and which enabled the professor to ride through the air, and perform other wonders. We hear, also, of a Sword of Light. The magic cauldron was known as the Brudins.

Some of the Tuath Druids had special powers,—as the gift of knowledge in Fionn; a drink, too, given from his hands would heal any wound, or cure any disease. Angus had the power of travelling on the wings of the cool east wind. Credne, the Tuath smith, made a silver hand for Nuadhat, which was properly fitted on his wrist by Dianceht, the Irish Æsculapius. To complete the operation, Miach, son of Dianceht, took the hand and infused feeling and motion in every joint and vein, as if it were a natural hand. It is right to observe, however, that, according to Cormac's Glossary, Dianceht meant "The god of curing."

Finn as elsewhere said, acquired his special privilege by accidentally sucking his thumb after it had rested upon the mysterious Salmon of Knowledge. He thus acquired the power of Divination. Whenever he desired to know any particular thing, he had only to suck his thumb, and the whole chain of circumstances would be present to his mind. The Magic Rod is well known to have been the means of transforming objects or persons. The children of Lir were changed by a magic wand into four swans, that flew to Loch Derg for 300 years, and subsequently removed to the sea of Moyle between Erin and Alba.

Transformation stories

Transformation stories are numerous in the ancient legends of Ireland. A specimen is given in the Genealogy of Corea Laidhe. A hag, "ugly and bald, uncouth and loathesome to behold," the subject of some previous transformation, seeks deliverance from her enchanted condition by some one marrying her; when "she suddenly passed into another form, she assumed a form of wondrous beauty."

Some enchanters assumed the appearance of giants. The Fenians of old dared not hunt in a certain quarter from fear of one of these monsters. Cam has been thus described in the story of Diarmuid—"whom neither weapon wounds, nor water drowns, so great is his magic. He has but one eye only, in the fair middle of his black forehead, and there is a thick collar of iron round that giant's body, and he is fated not to die until there be struck upon him three strokes of the iron club that he has. He sleeps in the top of that Quicken tree by night, and he remains at its foot by day to watch it." The berries of that tree had the exhilarating quality of wine, and he who tasted them, though he were one hundred years old, would renew the strength of thirty years.

The Fate of the Children of Tuireann, in an Irish MS., gave a curious narrative of Tuath days and magic. It was published by the "Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language." The sons had to pay heavy eric, or damages, on account of a murder. One failed, and died of his wounds. Lugh got helped by Brian the Druid against the Fomorians, who were then cruelly oppressing the Tuaths, exacting an ounce of gold from each, under penalty of cutting their noses off. Druidical spells were freely used by Lugh, the hero of the story.

The eric in question required the three sons to procure the three apples from the garden of the Hesperides,—the skin of the pig, belonging to the King of Greece, which could cure diseases and wounds,—two magic horses from the King of Sicily,—seven pigs from the King of the Golden Pillars, &c.

Once on their adventures, Brian changed them with his wand into three hawks, that they might seize the apples; but the King's daughters, by magic, changed themselves into griffins, and chased them away, though the Druid, by superior power, then turned them into harmless swans. One son gained the pig's skin as a reward for reciting a poem. A search for the Island of Fianchaire beneath the sea was a difficulty. But we are told, "Brian put on his water-dress." Securing a head-dress of glass, he plunged into the water. He was a fortnight walking in the salt sea seeking for the land.

Lugh came in contact with a fairy cavalcade, from the Land of Promise. His adventure with Cian illustrated ideas of transformation. Cian, when pursued, "saw a great herd of swine near him, and he struck himself with a Druidical wand into the shape of one of the swine." Lugh was puzzled to know which was the Druidical pig. But striking his two brothers with a wand, he turned them into two slender, fleet hounds, that "gave tongue ravenously" upon the trail of the Druidical pig, into which a spear was thrust. The pig cried out that he was Cian, and wanted to return to his human shape, but the brothers completed their deed of blood.

Not only the pig, but brown bulls and red cows figure in stories of Irish magic. We read of straw thrown into a man's face, with the utterance of a charm, and the poor fellow suddenly going mad. Prince Comgan was struck with a wand, and boils and ulcers came over him, until he gradually sunk into a state of idiocy. A blind Druid carried about him the secret of power in a straw placed in his shoe, which another sharp fellow managed to steal.

 

This page was last updated on Monday, 6th November 2017 @ 19:19:31