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"Dagda, The Celtic Father God"


The Dagda was the 'father god' in the pre-Christian religion of the Celts. His attributes are paternal, not that he was the forebearer of the gods but in that he was a true omnipotent father figure. The Dagda was one of several "omnicompetent" gods. In other words, there were many skills attributed to him, whereas most other gods were limited in abilities or in their spheres of influence. As an old Celtic god, he was of pagan origin, whose role was woven into the indigenous culture. What happened to him? He was not forgotten, nor was he seen as an enemy to the Christian faith. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the role played by the Dagda in Christianity as it replaced the previous religion. Did the Dagda's role as a deity change with the coming of Christianity? I argue here that the concept of the Dagda was so close to that of the Christian God that he simply took on the new role. In this way, the Celtic expression of Christianity successfully moved into the culture, not by destroying the old beliefs, nor by simply adding Christ to the pantheon. The two belief systems were successfully wedded, allowing the new faith to gain adherents, and at the same time, it allowed those adherents to be true to their culture. The Celtic church (as a faith, not an institution) and its pagan influences were too strong and too much a part of the culture to disappear from the minds of the people in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.


For the Celts, there was nothing separating the divine from the secular. More than likely the subtle difference between spiritual and temporal was never completely made. All of creation was sacred. The Celts' religion was based on the hope that the earth's natural cycles would continue, such as the repetition of seasons, rain, births, etc. Ceremonial rituals and magical rites based on the cycle logically followed. The Celts had a need for prehistoric archetypes that would set precedents, thus legitimizing their actions and beliefs. What happened in the world of the gods directly affected them and served as a paradigm which they, in turn, mimicked, thus participating in the natural cycle. This need to follow a divine pattern applied to the non- religious aspects of life as well. Without archetypes, the Druids, who advised their kings and held the collective memory of the tribes, would have had no basis for their legal influence and the tribal kings would have had no precedent for their sovereignty; in short, their society would not function. This is true for most traditional cultures, not just the Celts. A mortal son could simply mimic the deeds of his mortal father, such as hunting, fishing, fighting, etc., but how was he supposed to understand the import and honor of his deeds? These simple, everyday actions were just as much of a participation in the sacred as the seasonal festivals or druid ceremonies. These Celtic archetypes resided in what was called the 'Otherworld' the eventual home of the Celtic deities. Through the Otherworld the Celts learned things such as honor, bravery, and reverence for nature. Was the Otherworld to the Celts what Forms were for Plato? It may have been similar. In this way, the prototypes of existence in this world were established one after another. The Otherworld was not the equivalent of the Christian heaven. It defined and described the natural world. It told them how to live. It represented the imagination the of the Celts. The Celts put in geographical terms their own hopes, dreams and aspirations. It expressed those things which are eternal. Their dreams were being lived out continuously in the timelessness of the Otherworld, which, with the coming of Christianity, was transferred to Tir na nOg, the Land of the Young, inside of the fairy mounds of Ireland, also called sida. The timeless myths of the old gods are to be found there, except for, as we shall see later, the Dagda.

The Christian authors of the Lebor Gebala, Book of the Taking of Ireland, were careful to record the events when acts were committed or when certain things happened for the first time, such as the first to be king, the first to die, etc., and to document the names of the people involved. They understood the need for precedents. This cultural need was rooted so deep in them that it persisted even after the old religion had been superseded by Christianity, and it persists even today as evidenced in the spells and incantations of Scottish farmers. Anthony Duncan describes the arrival of pre- Augustinian Christianity; "its reception was as immediate as it was remarkable." Celtic myth was not rejected but served as a heroic foundation on which to build the new faith. The figure of the Dagda served as a paradigm after which the Father God of the Christians followed. How were they to worship a new god for which no precedent was set?

The Christian scribes and editors regarded the old gods with honor and venerated them by allowing them to participate in the advent of and transition to Christianity. A noteworthy example of this can be found in the Voyage of Bran, where the goddess visits Bran and tells him how "a great birth will come in after ages":

"The son of a woman whose mate will not be known,

He will seize the rule of many thousands .

'Tis He that made the heaven,

Happy he that has a white heart,

He will purify hosts under pure water,

'Tis He that will heal your sicknesses."

Manannan Mac Lir also makes a prophecy concerning the demise of the gods and how

"A noble salvation will come

From the King who has created us,

A white law will come over the seas,

Besides being God, He will be man."

The Christian Celts made the gods and heroes to honor the new faith, while they were still able to narrate the mythic stories about them and conserve "the tender grace of a day that is dead."

For the Celts, Christ performed and continued to perform the eternal acts of the hero/god, much like Cu Chulainn. Like other people converted to Christianity, the Celts visualized Christ as being the meaning and completion of history, but, unlike others, they realized Him as fulfilling the archetypal image of the hero-god of Celtic legend. By taking this into account, Christianity did not force the Celts to change the way they saw the universe.

Among the main influences on Celtic Christianity, the first and greatest was that of the Druids, of whom the Dagda was the patron god. Despite the contests we read of between the Druids and such saints as Patrick and Columba, the Celts incorporated many of their concepts, symbols and ceremonies, into their Christianity, instead of discarding their old religion. The philosophy of the Druids emphasized love, forgiveness and justice. Therefore, no change in moral belief was required upon conversion to Christianity. Neither was there revolutionary change in the society as a whole, nor was there cultural upheaval. Christ did not make the Druids obsolete, their heritage and function were satisfied.

To say that the Dagda simply received a simple change in nomenclature would not be farfetched. There are several instances in which pagan deities seemingly step into Christianity from the ancient religion without attempting to hide their true identities. For example, the Dagda's daughter Bridget, or Bride was originally a goddess of poetry and fire. She was eventually canonized as a saint. The following poem is entitled 'The Genealogy of the Holy Maiden Bride':

Radiant flame of gold, foster mother of Christ.

Bride the daughter of Dugall the brown,

Son of Aidh, son of Art, son of Conn,

Son of Crearar, son of Cis, son of Carmac, son of Carruin.

Every day and every night

That I say the genealogy of Bride,

I shall not be killed, I shall not be harried,

I shall not be put in cell, I shall not be wounded,

Neither shall Christ leave me in forgetfulness.

No fire, no sun , no moon shall burn me,

No lake, no water, nor sea shall drown me,

No arrow of fairy nor dart of fay shall wound me,

And I under the protection of my Holy Mary,

And my gentle foster- mother is my beloved Bride.

And the following :

Come, Mary, and milk my cow,

Come, Bride, and encompass her,

Come, Columba the benign,

And twine thine arms around my cow.

Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer...

My heifer dear, gentle and kind.

For the sake of the High King, take to thy calf.

There is also the example of the Gaulish spirit 'Esus', patron of trees. Esus is often depicted as hewing down trees possibly as a carpenter. The Celts revered the tree because of the supreme sacrifice it made for man. It gave it's own life to provide man with warmth, food, and shelter. In addition, it is reported that men were sacrificed to Esus by being hung on trees. The similarity to Jesus is obvious. With these examples in mind, it is not difficult to see how the Dagda would have filled the role of the Christian God.

Having established the needs of the Celtic society and how Christianity approached them, we will now look into the character and role of the ancient god Dagda, then we will consider the possibility of his survival in Celtic Christianity as God Himself.


The Dagda is depicted as being uncomely, unrefined, having a pot belly, and wearing the clothes of a peasant. He carried a club of such size that it was mounted on wheels, and it was so heavy eight men were needed to lift it. He could kill nine men with a single stroke from one end and could bring them back to life with the other. He also possessed a cauldron which never cease to be full and from which no one ever went away unsatisfied. The Dagda also had a harp; which caused the seasons to follow one another in their proper sequence. His physical attributes cause him to appear somewhat comic and make him difficult to be taken seriously. It has been suggested that certain of the cruder aspects attributed to the Dagda may simply be later embellishments and exaggerations of his character. Examples of such exaggeration can be found in early Celtic literature such as Culhwch and Olwen, where we find characters such as Cei, who could hold his breath for nine days and nine nights, or Ysbaddaden, Chief Giant, who was so big he needed forks to hold open his eyelids. We would not want his course image to obscure the facts concerning his power. It is by looking at the various names of the Dagda that one can begin to understand his function and abilities.

The Dagda is an excellent example of how a variety of local names applied to gods of basically the same nature and role. In Dagda, or 'the good god', a rendering supported by present-day philologists, was also referred to as Aed Alainn, and Ruad Rofhessa, Eochaid Ollathair. He is also referred to as the god of the magic arts and druidism (draidecht) of the Tuatha, which would make him very important indeed.

Aed Alainn (aed = fire, alainn = swift, beautiful) reveals the Dagda to us as a sun god although, not in the sense that the strange, blazing orb flying through the sky was a mystery to the superstitious, barbarian Celts. No, the Celts were a bit more sophisticated than that. In his book, Early Irish History and Mythology, Thomas O'Rahilly says, "The question 'Who was the Dagda?' is fully answered if we say that he was the god of the Otherworld, or the god of the sun. That he possessed other attributes follows as a matter of course." He was the sun god in the sense that he was lord over time itself, a concept which will be discussed later.

Ruad Rofhessa can be translated as 'Lord of Great Knowledge' or 'Red One of Great Wisdom'. The fact that he is associated with the color red would put him in the role of warrior as well, being that many times, the Celts assigned the color red with their gods of war. In the Goidelic languages, the words for red ( dearg and ruadh ) convey not only the idea of color itself but they can also mean mighty, quick, and boisterous. Hence the name Ruad Rofhessa.

Eochaid Ollathiar (Eochaid the Father of All) conveys the idea that he is the father of mankind perhaps in the same sense as the Biblical Adam. 'Father' denotes fertility. This would seem to place him in the role of a fertility god, an idea supported by the stories of his union with the goddesses Morrigan by the river Unius and Boann of the River Boyne. Both of these sexual encounters took place on the first of November, the end of Samhain, when the fragile barrier between the natural world and the Otherworld was at its weakest and beings from either side could pass freely from one to the other, thus allowing 'Mother Earth' to join with 'Father Sky'. It was at this time, as well, that he was obligated to devour an immense meal of stew from a huge hole in the ground . Afterwards, he and a daughter of the Fomorians (enemies of the Tuatha De Danaan, the Tribe of the Goddess Danaan) had intercourse. It has been said that this episode might have been a ritual expected of tribal chieftains at certain points in the year in order to insure the fruitfulness of the soil and the health of the tribe.

But he is not only a giver of life, he takes it as well, evidenced by his great club. This indicates to us that he is lord over life and death, order and chaos. The 'father' aspects of provision, and the giving of life operates hand in hand with the notion of the sun god. By playing his harp, the Dagda had the power to keep the seasons in their rightful order. Being that the Celts depended on the agricultural cycle for their very existence, this would seem to heighten his importance to them. The very concept of time was under his control. It is interesting to note that the passage of time itself is connected with the playing of music. This would seem to be the archetypal precedent for the function of the druids, or bards, who in Celtic society recorded the passage of time (deeds of kings, genealogies, wars) with music. Unfortunately, Stuart Piggott in his definitive book, The Druids, doesn't make this connection.

In the 'Colloquy with the Ancients', Acallamh na Senorach, a survivor of the ancient world into the days of Saint Patrick, indicates that shortly the Tuatha De Danann would lose their authority, for Saint Patrick "will regulate them to the foreheads of hills and rocks, unless that now and again thou see some poor one of them appear as transiently he revisits the earth." Those tribes that had converted to Christianity had abandoned the old gods as far as worshipping them was concerned, but they still believed in their existence as a fairy people, living in hiding but still available for help in time of need. It seems as though this was the manner in which the Celts went about disposing of their old gods with the advent of Christianity.

Preserved in the Book of Leinster is a story called De Gabaile in t-Sida or 'The Seizure of the Fairy Hill', a mythic account that illustrates this transition in which we get a significant look at the Celtic idea of time and the Dagda's relation to it. In the story, the Dagda is distributing what available fairy mounds or sida (pronounced shee'-dah) there are among the Tuatha, who were preparing to relinquish their rule in this world. One god, Mac Og, Young Son, was left without a sid (pronounced sheed) and came to the Dagda to claim his share:

"I have none for thee", said the Dagda. "I have completed the division."

"Therefore let be granted to me", said the Mac Og, even a day and a night in thy own dwelling."

That then was given to him.

"Go now to thy following", said the Dagda, "since thou hast consumed thy allotted time."

"It is clear", said he, "that night and day are the length of the whole world, and it is that which has been given to me."

Thereupon the Dagda went out, and the Mac Og remained in his Sid.

The account of the sida teaches us something vastly more important, however, concerning the importance of the Dagda. Christa Loffler says the following regarding significance of the sid in the De Gabaile in t-Sida, "Here night and day are clearly presented as a microcosm of time, of the whole world, and as a unit they partake of the nature of perpetuity or eternity." In other words, in the never-ending seasonal cycle of time, night and day embody the totality of the cycle just as completely as eternity itself. And inside the sida exist separate eternities, or universes, accommodating the old gods. In this manner the old gods lost authority in the world of men but were allowed to depart with honor and maintain their position, albeit in another realm. How does this affect the Dagda? It seems as though the purpose of this myth is to communicate to the reader a certain truth concerning the concept of time and not the loss of one god to another. There is no evidence in this mythic account that the Dagda lost status as a god when he lost his sid. There seems to be quite a trade-off here in the Dagda's favor if we look closer. Like the other gods, Mac Og is doomed to eternity inside the fairy mound, leaving Dagda (still the lord of time or the representative of the sun and it's marking of the day) outside, in the world of men. It seems as though the old gods were disposed of except for the Dagda. The story is reminiscent of Jesus Christ's entrance into history, a 'young' son, forever replacing the old, patriarchal structure with a revolutionary concept of God.

If we look into the realm of ancient Irish philology for the relationship of time with God, we find something very interesting. In Early Irish Lyrics, a collection of Goidelic poetry compiled by Gerard Murphy, we see that the ninth century Irish word for the concept of 'day', dia (pronounced jee'-ah), is the same word by which God is named, Dia (pronounced the same). Ever since the ninth century, Dia has been the Irish name for God. Dia, day, has long since been replaced by latha (la'-uh) in Scots Gaelic, la, in Irish. Could we assume that the Celtic concept of God was one that personified the renewable cycle (time) or perhaps light itself? If so, it seems that the idea of god simply underwent a name change while retaining the very characteristics and symbolism held sacred by the Celts.


The character of the Dagda as it is viewed here could be challenged, however the ideas contained herein can be sufficiently defended. The first potential challenge is the fact that, even though Dagda was the father of mankind, he was not the father of the gods. It is the figure Danu who is referred to as progenitor or 'mother of the gods' (hence the Tuatha De Danaan) which would mean that the Dagda is not the supreme creator. On the contrary, we find recorded in myth that the only direct descendants of Danu are Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba. In addition, the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology states that the Dagda was occasionally referred to as being her father, which would support his role as creator.

Secondly, consider this poem from the Black Book of Carmarthen entitled 'God':


I am the wind that breathes upon the sea,

I am the wave on the ocean,

I am the murmur of leaves rustling,

I am the rays of the sun,

I am the beam of the moon and stars,

I am the power of trees growing,

I am the bud breaking into blossom,

I am the movement of the salmon swimming,

I am the courage of the wild boar fighting,

I am the speed of the stag running,

I am the strength of the ox pulling the plow,

I am the size of the mighty oak tree,

And I am the thoughts of all people

Who praise my beauty and grace.

The feeling one gets from the above passage is that the God described here is not a personality controlling specific forces of nature like the Dagda, but the collective force of nature itself, which in contrast to the Dagda, is omnipresent. But none of the Celtic gods fit the description of being omnipresent, for that matter. We have no other candidates, except for the Dagda, who comes closest to filling this role.

The third argument comes from the earliest reference to Irish pagan beliefs. In the 'Confessio' of St. Patrick there is a passage that refers to sun worship among the Irish in the fifth century. Thomas O'Rahilly paraphrases:

The splendor of the material sun, which rises every day at the bidding of God, will pass away, and those who worship it will go into dire punishment; whereas 'the true sun, Christ', whom we Christians worship, shall endure forever, and those who do His will shall abide with Him forever.

Patrick understood the culture of which he was a product infinitely better than we could ever hope to, so it is doubtful he misunderstood their worship. The passage makes no reference to any specific gods. It plainly says sun, so we should take it to mean that at least some of the Celts did in fact worship the strange blazing orb flying through the sky. With what little we are given in this passage, the conclusion cannot be made that Patrick was critical of worshiping the person of Dagda. More interestingly, could it be that Patrick was referring to seasonal rituals of the Druids?


The Dagda did not disappear with the coming of Christianity. His name 'Dagda' left no lasting impression, but as the representative of the sun and its marking of the day (or as the Gaels called it then, dia) which was the essence of his character, he remained with his attributes intact as God, or as the Gaels call Him now, Dia. We can see that the Dagda's role in the Celtic concept of time and the universe was too important for him to be forgotten with the coming of Christianity. He was a god of war, healing, provision, taker and giver of life, and sustainer of time itself.

Regardless, it can be seen that the Dagda's importance does not depend on whether he survived as a deity or not. His character played an important role, nonetheless. Once the old pagan shrines to Dagda had been purified by Christian rites, adherents to the old religion would be pleased to see that homage was still being paid to him, as he was a relevant and essential master over the land. In addition to fulfilling the archetypal precedent for the Christian God, he became a tool by which the Celtic church could apply itself in a cultural context. The following parable illustrates this point:

The Dagda had a wife named Boan. It was she who was responsible for the existence of the Boyne River. Before the Boyne became a river it was simply a well, around which nine hazel trees grew. It was forbidden to anyone, including the gods themselves, to eat the fruit of the hazel trees. As the fruit, or nuts rather, fell into the well, they were eaten by the divine salmon that lived in the well. These salmon were the only ones in all of creation who had permission to eat them. These nuts were invested with the knowledge of everything that can be known, therefore the salmon were the wisest of creatures.

This is an obvious reiteration of the Biblical story, but . Not only were the scribes able to relate the story in Celtic terms but at the same time they provided a Christian origin for the character of the wise salmon who frequently appears in Celtic myth.

What purpose did the Dagda's new role serve within the Christianity ? It can be said that his role was to ease the transition into a new era.

Thus, while the church set it's face against the old cults, so that only slight traces remain, or gave a Christian aspect to popular customs by connecting them with saints' days or sacred places, it was on the whole rather proud than otherwise of the heroes of the past and preserved their memory, together with much of the gracious aspect of the ancient gods.

He represented the continuity of Celtic culture, to dispose of him, as well as the other gods, would be to dispose of the cultural identity held by the population. This was especially important for a society that lived in the timeless repetition of the seasonal cycle. The concept of linear time would eventually become a part of the Celtic mind, which was and always has been an inevitable byproduct of Christianity. Linear time gave the gods and heroes a place in history as they met saints face to face or became saints themselves. The Dagda never became one, but he did meet the Celtic saints face to face in their daily prayers and devotions. There was no reason why he should have passed away with the old gods. 'The Good God' had always been with the Celts; and the message of the Christian gospel was that He would never leave them.


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Copyrighted 1994, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 David Schneider