Deaths of Gods

As I’m working through these retellings, I realized there are a lot of deaths—particularly of beings we recognize as gods, and it’s bothering me that these are the stories we have.
Some years ago on a discussion list, a person newly exploring Gaelic mythology asked how anyone could worship Lug when he was dead—it said so, right in the Lebor Gabala. I responded by saying that first, the Labor Gabala and pretty much everything else we have in the written literature was recorded by medieval Christians, many of whom were working very hard to record but also euhemerize the stories to disguise they were about non-human beings. Second, if we accepted the death tales of the Tuath Déa as written, they are all dead—the Dagda died of a poisoned wound given him by Cethlenn, wife of Balor (though it took him 120 years to die of it!), Nuadu and Macha died at Maige Tuired, as (probably) did Ogma. There are death tales for almost anyone well-known enough to have a story. And third, I’ve experienced Lug as alive and well, so I simply assume the tales of his death are exaggerated…

But these are the stories we have—stories where gods are made into mortals, portrayed as powerful sorcerers maybe, but not divine, with only whispers of what the stories might have been before later cultures wore away the shape and the meaning. We don’t know which parts of the story are old and which are late poetic accretions added by Christians who may not have known or cared that the Tuath Déa were not merely heroic humans but gods. Many of the monks seem to have been more interested in proving that Ireland had just as much history as Israel and Greece combined to worry about muddling stories or making up pieces to fit themselves into the known world.

So how do we find the stories underneath the stories? Different scholars have tried comparing across different Celtic cultures (like Gruffyd’s study of Math vab Mathonwy) to try to determine the ur-story. Some have tried to dig into the names of the personages—a technique favored by the Story Archaeologists. Others have compared medieval literature to recorded folktales to try to determine what is “real” and what is added—but that brings in all the baggage of determining the reality and age of oral traditions and the various pressures they have to deal with over time, particularly in a culture that has adopted a philosophy generally hostile to the subjects of the stories. All of these techniques can be useful, but none are flawless or trouble free; and none can offer a certain answer, only possibilities.

Which leaves us with inspiration. As we develop relationships with these gods, inspired by somewhat distorted stories, we may have insights into what is true rather than historical. How does the Children of Turenn even make sense if Cian is an eternal god? Or did the Gaels never see their gods as eternal? Yet centuries after Lug was supposed to have died, he is said by poets to have visited people—attended Cú Chulain in his hour of weakness, shown a king the future of his dynasty, appeared over embattled people to rally their strength in the fight. Are we then to suppose that the gods were mortal, but then left mortality behind to live in the Otherworld? Is that what it meant when they retreated to the Sidhe mounds, that they gave up a mortal or physical existence?

I don’t have answers, yet, but I’m seeking, and I’ll be glad to hear any thoughts folks might have. How do you work with the stories of gods’ deaths? In this season supposedly driven by Lug’s remembrance of goddesses’ deaths (Tailtiu, Buí, Nás, Carman), this seems like an important problem to think on.

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Raven Dancer

They call you dark, a phantom,
a hungry ghost laughing at war,
reveling in the gory deaths of thousands.
You show me another face, O raven dancer,
O poet of vision. Your strong hands
do the work of living too,
your dance of death a doorway
that the grave claim only the flesh.
You hold our spirits like spears
sharpened by the words of a poet.