Humans first began to settle in Ireland about 10,000 years ago. These Mesolithic hunters and gatherers brought with them animistic religious beliefs and practices. With the transition to a lifestyle that was dependent upon domesticated plants and animals about 6,000 years ago, the religion changed. Spirits which had once animated animals and places, now became gods and goddesses. With the conversion to Christianity which began about 300 CE, the old deities began to disappear, either subsumed into Christianity or suppressed by the new religion.
Today there is a renewed interest in the old religion—in the deities and rituals—practiced prior to Christianity. Our understanding of the old religions of Ireland is, however, fragmentary at best. Part of the information comes from material collected by Christian writers who sometimes interpreted the material so that it corresponded to Christian worldviews and sometimes they simply suppressed it. At times, the authors simply invented stories about the old religions to show what they felt was the superiority of Christianity. John Price Carey, Lecturer in Early and Medieval Irish at University College, Cork, writes in “Pre-Christian Religions” in the Oxford Companion to Irish History:
“Much has been lost, whether through oblivion or deliberate suppression; and in many cases, the record has been embellished and confused by the invention of clerical authors.”Another source of information about the old religions of Ireland comes from the archaeological record. This archaeological record includes sacred sites, including burials, stonework, and artifacts.
Overall, our knowledge of the pre-Christian Irish deities is fragmentary. We know the names of a few and some of their characteristics. Listed below are some of the pre-Christian Irish deities.
Angus Mac Og: also known as Aengus, Oengus. Mac Og translates as Young Son, the name given to him after his mother said: “Young is the son who was begotten at the break of day and born betwixt it and the evening.” Angus appears to be a trickster god.
Badb: also known as Badbdh, Babdh, Badbh Catha. Badb means Crow or Raven and refers to a group of Goddesses, not a single individual. Badbh Catha means Battle Crow in reference to the crows who were often seen feasting at the battlefield. Badb is also a magick goddess.
Banba: Banba, also known as Banbha, is an Irish sovereignty goddess. Along with Ériu and Fotla, she represents the sovereignty of Ireland. The right to rule Ireland is associated with Banba. In other words, the Irish kings and chiefs had to associate themselves with Banba, Éiru, and/or Fotla in order to claim that they had the right to rule.
Bé Chuille: she is a magick goddess who can enchant the trees and the stones and the sods of the earth.
Bé Néit: Bé Néit seems to be more of a title than the name of a specific goddess. This is a title associated with several of the war goddesses.
Bilé: Bilé is an Irish god whose name means “tree.” He appears to have been an ancestor god.
Boann: also known as Agda, Boand, Boind, Bovinda, Rigan. Boann is an Irish cattle and river goddess associated with the river Boyne. Her name means “White Cow.”
Brian: Brian means “Strong One” and, with his brothers Iuchar and Iucharba, makes weapons. He has an ability to transform people into animal shapes with his druid rod, an indication that he is also a magician.
Brigit: Brigit is an Irish goddess whose name comes from the root brig, and means “High One,” or “Exalted One.” Brigit is the patron of a variety of crafts, including brewing, dyeing, smithing, weaving, medicine, poetry, and seership. Her feast day is Imbolc (February 1). In fact, the old Irish name for February is Mí na Féile Bride” or “The Month of the Festival of Brigit.” Wells are often associated with Brigit.
Búanann: also known as Búan. Búanann appears to be another war goddess. Her name means “The Lasting One.”
Cailleach: also known Caillagh ny Gromagh, Cailleach Beara, Cailleach Bheur. She is described as forming the landscape by dropping stones out of her apron. This shows that she was an earth goddess. Her powers include the protection of animals, control of the weather, and an association with the seasons. This goddess is also found in Scotland and the Isle of Man.
Shown above is Tigh nan Cailleach, the site of a pagan ritual related to the legend of the Cailleach which is still conducted.
Carman: “She of the Weaving Beam” is another goddess of magick.
Clídna: also known as Clíodna, Clíona. Clídna is an Irish otherworld goddess. She is associated with water and thus has healing qualities. She has three magickal singing birds: one is blue with a red head; one is red with a green head; and one is speckled with a gold head. The songs from these birds lulls people to sleep and heals them.
Creidhne: This is a craft god who makes the rivets for spears, hilts for swords, and bosses for shields. He takes only three actions to make these things.
Daghda: also known as Dagda, Eochaid Olathair, Ruadh Rofhessa. Daghda, whose name means the “Good God,” is a fertility god. He is also said to control the weather and give good crops. He is also a god of wizardry. Daghda has a cauldron from which nobody ever goes away hungry. He is renowned for his love of porridge.
Danu: also known as Anu, Anand, Anann, Danand. Danu is a goddess whose name means “River.” There are some who feel that her name is associated with the Danube in Germany where the Celts once lived.
Dian Cecht: Dian Cecht, whose name means “Swift/Powerful Judge,” is a god of healing.
Donn: Donn, whose name means “Lord” or “The Dark One,” is an Irish death god. He is associated with red as the color of death and with three red horsemen riding red horses.
Ériu: also known as Eri. Ériu, whose name means “Earth or Soil,” is associated with Ireland’s sovereignty. She is also associated with the crow.
Ernmas: Ernmas, whose name means “Iron Death,” is often described as a mysterious goddess. Some sources describe her as a magick goddess and suggest that she is a witch. Other sources suggest that she is an earth goddess.
Étaín: also known as Étaín Echraide. She is another Irish sovereignty goddess.
Fea: Fea is an Irish war goddess whose name can be translated as “Death” or as “That Which Causes Death.”
Fedelm: Fedelm is a prophetic goddess.
Fergus: also known as Ro-ech. Fergus, whose name means “Strong or Vigorous Man,” is a horse god. He is often described as having very large genitals. According to the stories it takes seven women to satisfy him sexually. His sacred number appears to be seven.
Flidais: Flidais is an Irish goddess associated with deer and cattle. She is sometimes described as riding a chariot pulled by deer.
Fotla: Also known as Fodla. Fotla is a sovereignty goddess.
Goibniu: also known as Goibhniu. Goibniu is an Irish smith god whose spears never miss and always take a life when they hit.
Iuchar: The month of July is named for Iuchar.
Iucharba: also known as Iuchairba. The meaning of this name is unknown, but he is associated with his brother Iuchar.
Kymideu Kymeinvoll: Kymideau Kymeinvoll means “Pregnant in Battle.” She is portrayed as an un-killable hideous giant woman. She has a cauldron of rebirth which means that she can produce full-grown warriors from conception in six weeks.
Lir: Lir is an Irish sea god. His name means “The Sea.”
Luchta: also known as Luchtaine, Lucraidh. Luchta is the maker of spear shafts and shields. He required only three chippings to make a complete spear shaft. The meaning of his name is unknown.
Lugh: also known as Lugh Lamfada. Lugh, whose name means “Shining One,” was worshipped from the first to the tenth century C.E. He is the god of all crafts. It is said that he described himself as a builder, a smith, a harper, a champion, a warrior, a poet, a historian, a sorcerer, a physician, a cupbearer, and a brazier. The Spear of Lugh ensured that no battle was ever won against whoever held it in their hand. The Christians assimilated and canonized Lugh as Saint Lughaidh.
Macha: also known as Macha Mongruad. Macha means “Pasture,” or “Plain,” or “Field” which suggests that she was an earth goddess, possibly a horse goddess. She is also a war goddess and a champion of the power of women. In the stories she demonstrates her superiority to boastful men when challenged. Macha is a triple goddess who is described as having three different depictions.
Manannán Maclir: Manannán is an Irish sea and magick god. He is the son of Lir. He carries a magickal bag made from the skin of a crane in which he carries his treasured possessions. He rules over the Blessed Isles of the Otherworld—Tír na mBean (the land of women), Tír fo Thonn (the land beneath the wave), Tír Tairnigir (the land of promise), Tír na nOg (the land of youth), Emhain Abhlach (The Plain of Apples), and Magh Mell (an afterlife paradise).
Medb: Mebd means “Drunk Woman or Intoxicating One.” She is a warrior queen whose name is pronounced Maeve. She is a great warrior with an insatiable sexual appetite, sleeping with thirty men per day.
Midir: Midir is an Irish otherworld god. He is described as being very beautiful.
Morrígan: Morrígan can be translated as “Great Queen,” “Terrible Queen,” “Fairy Queen,” “Queen of Death,” “Sea Queen,” or “Witch Queen.” She is an earth goddess, water goddess, and queen of battle. She has a shape-shifting ability and the power of prophecy.
Nechtan: also known as Nechtain. Nechtan is an Irish water god. His name may be translated as “The Pure One.” His well was situated under nine hazel trees (which is associated with wisdom) and the nuts fell into the well where they were eaten by the salmon of wisdom.
Néit: also known as Net. Néit is an Irish battle god.
Nemain: also known as Nemon. Nemain is an Irish warrior goddess whose name means “Frenzy, Panic, or Venomous.”
Nuada: Nuada has an invincible sword and is considered the king of the gods.
Ogma: also known as Oghma, Ogmia. Ogma is the Irish god of poetry and eloquence. He is the creator of the Ogham script.
Scáthach: Scáthach is an Irish war goddess whose name means “Shadowy One.” She also has ability for prophesy.
Sionna: The River Shannon is named after this Irish river goddess. The name Sionna means “Fox.”