Danu, a Pagan Goddess

This entry is a bit temporary as it will be completed and updated with additional information. At the moment it includes information only about the Celtic forms of this Goddess. Eventually it will include information about the forms in all the Indo-European languages.
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Danu, a Celtic Goddess
The word Danu is being used here as a general term for all the forms of this Goddess. There is not a lot of information about this Goddess, but there is some. However the connection between actual deities and the rivers named *danu is somewhat tenuous, so it is divided into three parts.

Brig O'Doon in Ayrshire, Scotland A. The name danu of various forms is found in most Indo-European languages as a word for a river. Linguists generally reconstruct it as PIE *deHanu- meaning ‘run, flow’. There are many rivers with this name in historically Celtic-speaking areas (in fact throughout the Indo-European speaking areas) and the word is used as a common word for a river as well as the proper name of many rivers. The Danube is the most obvious Celtic form and although the word is attested only in a Latin and Greek contexts (as Latin Danuvius, masculine), it is reconstructed to a feminine form in early Celtic as *Danuvia, (by Pokorny). In addition, there are a series of “Dan Rivers” known in eastern Europe as the Dnieper, Dniester and the Don, but the exact form and language are uncertain because the names first appear in Greek or Latin contexts and may be Celtic, Scythian (of uncertain alignment) or Iranian. Insular forms include Don and the like in six rivers in northern England, where I have been able to identify five of them. It is simply a common word in Scots Gaelic where it is now spelled doon as in Brig O’ Doon, the Bridge of the Doon, in the poem by Robert Burns. The name also appears as the Tyne, Teign and Tone, forms known from early sources. And finally the word donwy is used for any river in Welsh.

The derivation of this word as ‘river’ is not debatable. The question here would be, is this a Goddess, that is, do we have evidence that she was worshipped? The evidence is slight but the Don River that runs out through Aberdeen was known from early Roman reports as the Devona “Divine One” and so it seems that she was acknowledged as a Goddess.

B. The second element would be a look at whether there are particular Dan rivers which are personified, deified and worshiped. The Danube is perhaps of this type, because it appears in anthropomorphic form in Roman reliefs on Trajan’s column (which pictures the war on Dacia, in the area of modern Romania). However, this is a Roman image and may represent Roman views, including the Roman tendency to personify “conquered” people and countries. The Romans imagined that they had conquered the Danube when they built a bridge over it, which is indeed an amazing feat of engineering. But it is going too far to conclude from this that the Celts in the area saw the river in the same way. Aside from this, and the information given above about the Don in Aberdeen, there is no specific information that the Celts worshipped these rivers, by these names.

C. Finally we have information from both medieval Welsh sources about Dôn, ancestor of the deities, and from medieval and earlier Irish sources about Danand, ancestor of the deities. First, an explanation should be given about the use of the word deities here. The beings referred to are sometimes known as fairies and sometimes known as “heroes” of romances and only occasionally are referred to as Gods and Goddesses, but they clearly have supernatural abilities. More importantly they can be shown to be cognate with the Indo-European Gods known from other sources, often on a one to one basis. The fact that both Welsh Dôn and Gaelic Danand appear as the ancestor of these beings and are mentioned in what are clearly mythological narratives, even if told in an historicized way following the introduction of Christianity, demonstrates that they themselves are deities also.

Now we will look more carefully at the evidence for these two deities from insular literature, starting with the Welsh material. This will be a continuation of the C. part of the argument.

Welsh Dôn
Dôn is widely accepted as a Welsh deity, based on references in the Mabinogion and also some later sources such as romances and saints tales, where he appears in historicized form. The information is very brief however, and not very informative. The Plant Dôn o Arvon or “children of Dôn of Arvon” is used in Welsh for the characters in the Mabinogion. For example, he is said to be the parent of three Gods, Gwydion, Arianrhod and Gilfaethwy. There is also an entire genealogy in which he stands at the head. It is also worth pointing out that Dôn is the holder of the Llys Dôn “court of Dôn” identified with the constellation we know as Cassiopeia, another supernatural connection, though we don’t know exactly what that is. [fuggle26]

In addition, there is a long list of kings, knights and saints with the same or a similar name but they are not very informative. King Danius is a king of Briton in Monmouth, and is identified as a Celtic Goddess in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but the brief reference to him in the chronology doesn’t allow for any determination. A possible form of Dôn appears as Don, father of Gilfaethwy in Culhwch and Olwen and as Sir Do, Doon or Dos de Cardeul in the romances of King Arthur, but there is nothing that clearly identifies him as to his qualities, abilities or stories and myths. The name also appears as various saints which we will look at near the end of this article.

Gaelic Danu
Danu or Danand is widely accepted as a Gaelic deity but the exact form of her name is controversial, and she is usually referred to as Danu by folklorists and worshippers alike. The name appears in the phrase
Donand mathair na ndea ‘Donand mother of the Gods’

There is also the explicit statement or reference in the Cath Maige Tured:
Indech mac Die Donann “Indech son of the God(dess) Donann”
This is possibly masculine according to Carey.

It also appears in the common expression
Tuatha da Danand `the Tribe of Danand’ or the “children of Danand”
This phrase is equivalent in meaning to the one in which we usually see the Welsh Dôn, given above. The term is definitely applied to the fairies/Gods in the Book of Invasions, an early miscellany of mythological happenings, and it appears in the 9th century Tochmarc Etaine. But it has also been reinterpreted as originally meaning the “tribe of the smiths or artisans” and possibly identifies the folk who introduced a culture with advanced technology that entered Ireland at some point historically.

These evidences have been dismissed as invalid, too late or as interpolations by Carey (see useful article, even if I disagree with it), but in fact, this is the information we have and it seems counterproductive to dismiss it just because there isn’t more of it.

Some Conclusions
So examining all three of these arguments or rather sources we can see that A. and B. both clearly identify rivers but with little evidence of worship while C. clearly identifies supernatural beings which we can see are deities, but there is not an overwhelming connection between them.

In fact, Welsh Dôn and Gaelic Danand have no watery qualities whatsoever. Their identification with the Dan rivers is based mainly on reconstructed etymology, though not entirely. In the whole scheme of things, there is a possibility that they simply have similar names. But within the broad terms of the larger Indo-European pantheon, Celtic Danu slots in perfectly with the qualities of other cognate deities which are major water sources, powerful and worshipped. Another speculative possibility is that, when the Celts moved beyond the area of the Danube, they kept the memory of their ancient ancestor but lost the details when separated from the actual river. This might be the reason for such high status (mother of the Gods) but relatively little evidence of actual worship.

Pagan Saints
There is a small amount of information about possible forms of *Danu, christianized as a saint which is an absolutely typical development throughout the Pagan world, where Pagan elements are incorporated into a more or less christianized context for which there is not a particle of actual evidence. These at least provide a little information that may illuminate the subject. Saints Don of various spellings are found in Scots Gaelic, Welsh and even one or two in Breton-speaking areas. As much of this nonsense is made up based on attempts to provide a Christian explanation for geographic features, the reader should be aware that although forms like don or dun may refer to a river or, by this time, other body of water including lakes, the word may also mean a ‘hill’ or ‘hill fort’ where it is borrowed from a Scandinavian language (and borrowed into English as dune) or it may mean ‘dark’ e.g. dun, which has been borrowed into English as a dull golden brown color.

We’ll start with the Gaelic versions. There are either twelve Saint Donnans or one Saint Donnan with twelve churches, or more likely any Holy Creek along the coast of the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland became sacred to Saint Creek. Most of this is nonsense, but the more interesting bit, which I mostly include for the amusement value, is St. Donnan of Eigg. St. Donnan is said to be one of the few Irish saints that died by martyrdom, however the stories about him are so absurd and contradictory, it is unlikely that he ever existed at all. One story though, is told in an 18th century publication and is known as St. Donnan and the Island of Big Women. It’s the Big Women we are interested in, one of whom is known as the Queen of Moidart. St. Donnan apparently offended her and was executed along with 50 of his BFF’s but the big women who were blamed were eventually led into the lake on the island of Eigg and there they were absorbed by the water. For St. Donnan there is a croon (a poem of lamentation) which may have been once in honor of the Queen of Modiart, ruler of the lake, if we may reinterpret our material to that degree. It only takes a little bit of rewriting to turn the ‘sûil bhlâth Chriosd’ “eye of Christ” back into the actual Sun and provide a blessing in Gaelic and English for the lake on the island and for the Goddess.

For the Welsh saints we have some equally ridiculous nonsense. First Dona ap Selyf is a male saint in Anglesey. Another saint is Saint Dwynwen and she has a holiday in January which is considered the “Valentine’s Day” of the Welsh since it is a day to celebrate love and do something romantic for your sweetheart. St. Dwynwen used to have a “prophecy by fish” in which suppliants could have their future romantic success revealed to them according to which fish were seen in a tide pool but that practice seems to have washed away over the years. Despite that they are of different gender, these two saints are apparently considered the same saint, because really they are not even trying.

The information about saints is only useful for what it may tell us about the original Goddess, which has been occulted by Christianity.

I apologize that there are no references here at the moment. I promise to add them in soon.

© 2017. This is a brand new page, first published 11/18/2017, at piereligion.org/danu.html

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