Who Was the Goddess Danu?
The gods of Ireland are called the Tuatha De Dannan, the People of Danu. But who was Danu?
While she is usually interpreted as a mother goddess, Irish texts themselves to not give any information about who Danu was. Even her name is a reconstruction from the title of the pantheon.
Despite this lack of direct evidence, however, historians have been able to make some headway in interpreting Danu.
They believe she was a primordial or elemental water goddess. She was likely the mother of many of the gods of Ireland.
When the Tuatha De Dannan arrived in Ireland, Danu was not with them. She had already faded from the story, having fulfilled her role of giving rise to a new race of gods.
Historians do no come to these interpretations blindly. Looking far beyond Ireland and to a time long before the Celts settled there, they have been able to find compelling evidence to explain what type of goddess the pantheon of pre-Christian Ireland was named for.
Most scholars consider Danu to have been a mother goddess in Irish mythology.
The Tuatha De Dannan, the primary gods of ancient Ireland, are named for her. In English, their name translates as “The People of the Goddess Danu.”
Some later copies of well-known legends name specific gods or goddesses as her children. Brigid, for example, is called her daughter in one myth.
This usually leads people to believe that she is associated with the Dagda, one of the earlier leaders of the Tuatha De Dannan. He is the father of Brigid and several other gods.
There are o myths that specifically name Danu as a character, however. If she was a mother of the Tuatha De Dannan, it appears as though she did not travel with them when they sailed to Ireland.
In fact, she is never mentioned by name at all in earlier works. She is known only in the genitive case, as in Tuatha De Dannan.
Nor does Danu seem to have any direct parallels in other Celtic cultures. Some writers have attempted to link her to the Welsh literary figure Don, but Don’s gender is never specified and the character’s precise role is unknown.
Other than the phonetic similarities to names such as Don or Annan, there is little that contextually links the possible mother goddess of the Irish deities to any other Celtic tradition.
Despite the lack of source material, however, some historians have offered interpretations of who Danu was and what role she might have played.
Without any clear mentions of her in written legends or obvious similarities in nearby religions, how can historians make any assumptions about what kind of character Danu may have been?
To interpret Danu as a character, historians and linguists have looked far beyond the Celtic world.
Most religions belong to broader families. The further one searches up the family tree of a religion, the broader it becomes in terms of both area and timespan.
The Gaelic religions and languages, of which Ireland was one, for example, were small in number. They were part of a broader Celtic family, however, which covered much more of Europe and emerged earlier in history.
The Celtic cultures were Germanic. Following the family tree of Irish mythology back as far as we can, we reach the broad family of the Indo-European cultures.
The languages, traditions, and religions of these cultures date back thousands of years. They can be found throughout Europe, the Near East, and India and influenced neighbors in North Africa and Asia.
One of the earliest Indo-European religions that still exists close to its original form is Hinduism. While its beliefs have evolved over time, the Vedic texts it is based on date back to at least 1000 BC.
The language of these texts has also been preserved in oral traditions for thousands of years. In looking for prototypes in early Indo-European religion and language, therefore, the Vedic texts offer historians some of their best clues.
Amazingly, the Vedas mention a goddess named Danu.
From the Vedas, we know that the Indian Danu was a primordial water goddess. She was also the mother of a race of beings called the Danavas who fought against the other races of gods for control.
While the Danavas were ultimately destroyed, other aspects of the story seem very similar to the Irish myths. There, too, Danu was an earlier goddess whose race of children fought other lineages of gods.
Looking beyond India also shows that Danu, or at least her name, spread into Europe as well.
As a noun, danu is a word that is connected to water. While some related words mean “wet” or “liquid,” it seems to have been most often passed down in regards to rivers.
The Danube, for example, almost certainly gets its name from this early Indo-European word. The Don, Dnieper, and Dniestr Rivers may all also be related to this word, as is the Nepalese Danu River.
These rivers put the word danu as a term for water into the regions that were later home to early Germanic tribes. Some of these eventually became the Celts, including those who moved into Ireland and brought the Tuatha De Dannan with them.
It seems likely, therefore, that the Irish Danu is a close relative of the Vedic Danu. Both were likely primordial water goddesses who largely disappeared as characters after giving birth to a new race of divine beings.
The greatest difference between them seems, in fact, to be that the Irish mother goddess’s children were successful in their battles while the Danavas of India were defeated.
This interpretation of the continuity of Danu leads to a theory that there were two archetypes of the mother goddess in Indo-European religion.
The first is the Earth type of mother, seen in the character of the primordial Greek goddess Gaia, for example. These are goddesses that create life as the soil.
These goddesses do not only create gods. They create plants and animals as well.
The figures of Danu may represent a second tradition of mother goddesses in Indo-European mythology. These were primordial goddesses as well, but they were beings of water.
These goddesses seemed to have created races rather than the world as a whole.
This water-based tradition ultimately lost out to the Mother Earth figure. Even in Hinduism, Danu was recast as a younger goddess in later legends.
Ireland appears to be one of the few places where the water goddess was still the primary source of creation. While Danu likely did not make the plants and animals of the world, she made the gods that ruled over Ireland.
The gods of Ireland are called the Tuatha De Dannan, or “The People of the Goddess Danu.” This title is one of the few attestations we have of a deity who was likely called by that name.
There are no myths by Danu. Only in very late legends is she named as the mother of any specific deity.
Danu does also not seem to be a name with an Irish origin. Unlike some other names and titles, it cannot be translated in the language that used it.
Despite this, however, historians have been able to interpret Danu as a primordial water goddess.
Linguistic evidence and mythical similarities in the Indian Vedas point to a kinship between the Irish Danu and an early Indian goddess by the same name. It is likely that the spread of Indo-European religions allowed this archetype to survive on opposite ends of the region.
Danu’s name likely survives in many of Europe’s rivers, including the Danube and Don. This provides further evidence that the name would have been linked to water in early Celtic and Germanic traditions.
While Danu did not survive in many cultures, her appearance in both Ireland and India shows the wide spread of religious archetypes. Although separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years, both cultures likely saw the goddess Danu in similar ways.