Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Book Review: Pagan Portals – The Dagda: Meeting the Good God of Ireland by Morgan Daimler


Pagan Portals – The Dagda: Meeting the Good God of Ireland
Morgan Daimler (2018)

 It’s strange to feel so excited to read a book that has actually been waiting in my bedside cabinet for nearly two years. But that’s how it is. And now that I have now finally read The Dagda, I can’t stop raving about it. It is a jewel on my bookshelf.

 Pagan Portals – The Dagda is far from the first book I’ve read by Morgan Daimler, nor will it be the last. They have become one of my favourite authors for a few simple reasons: their research is meticulous, they draw together the important myths, gleaned from early and modern texts – they even taught themself how to read old Irish because they wanted more than the translations they had on hand were offering. Daimler has a wonderful way of looking at things from a new angle, and this book continues in that tradition.

 I was looking forward to this book in particular because I was drawn to The Dagda, personally. He drew me initially by his own personality and his actions in the tales, particularly of his building single-handed a fort for Bres, and carving out twelve plains in a one day. But more important was his being father to the sisters Brigit. Because Brigit is so important to me, I wanted to cultivate an acquaintance, at least, with someone who helped shape these sisters as they grew.1

 The Pagan Portals series is devoted to short books up to around a hundred pages long that are meant to introduce the key elements of a deity or topic. In this case the book is nearly eighty pages, and they have divided the material up well. In chapter one, “Who is The Dagda?” they begin by giving his names and the epithets that describe him, and address how a sense of his nature can be drawn from them. This necessarily takes us into the myths themselves, so although they don’t tell them exhaustively, they reveal enough that we can understand why he might be called Eochaid Ollathair, and that “The Dagda” means “The Good God.” But what does that mean? Does it mean he’s a nice guy? Well, no. It means he is good at all things. So just the definition of this one name, and he has many, tells us something important about him. This initial chapter grounds us not only in his names, but in how he’s been described physically in the tales, and gives a glimpse of his relationships with others. (This is a complicated kettle of fish as he has many lovers, many children, and his children, like himself, have run into real difficulties because of some of those lovers).

 One thing that Morgan always does which I greatly appreciate, is they provide useful end notes to each chapter, and provide a good bibliography. I can see where they’re getting their information from; I don’t have to just trust them. I can then decide whether I agree with their take on things, and that is important to me, especially in something so essential as the nature of the deities.

 The second chapter is “The Dagda in Mythology.” Here they explore where The Dagda figures most prominently in the different texts. As they work through these, his personality and what he may represent to the devotee become more and more clearly defined, leading to an overall sense of what we know of him. This chapter also has an interesting reassessment of the Samhain sex tryst between The Dagda and The Morrigan.

 Chapter three, “The Dagdas Possessions and Associations,” continues to draw together pieces of information that are far flung from each other in the myths. Normally, you may read one tale today and another one never, and a third two years from now, meaning the different elements don’t necessarily ever come together in your mind. But when Daimler collects together his possessions – his cauldron, from which no one goes away unsatisfied; the staff which can kill with one end and heal with the other, and which he obtained in a less than honourable way when searching for a means to revive his dead son; the harp, which comes to him when he calls out to it and kills whoever is in its path; as well as the various places, times, plants, and animals with which he has had a special relationship, and then explains their significance and their derivation, they present an infinitely more coherent whole than when cobbled together over time, with its attendant failures of memory.

 Daimler prevents all this from being a purely intellectual exercise and ensures it is one of the spirit by writing at the end of each chapter about The Dagda in their life. This can be a very simple and practical few words or it can be quite profound. For instance, their personal search for his symbolic cauldron gives insight into devotional practice, itself. Having the chance to read these more intimate words helps me connect more meaningfully to him, myself. These short personal sections illuminate further both our perceptions of the deity and the evolution of religion in our lives, always with humility and insight.

 Chapter four, “Good God of All Skills,” is a beautiful chapter which shows the known range of the god who is capable of so much more – of all things.  It goes in more depth into his nature – as a god who is both a giver of life and death, as one of fire and the earth, who is associated with weather and crops. As a warrior poet, musician, and king. His connection to farmers and workers, his role as a grieving parent. These are the kinds of associations we might read in a list and then forget immediately or work to connect them to our own lives, to add meaning to them, to give them flesh. But in this short book Daimler manages to bring out The Dagda in a more robust way than I have read before. Their summary of their relationship to him as a child and then as an adult, and how many of his stories make him relatable through the range of their own life experience, is touching. It reminds me of my experience with Brigid, which, taking goddess and Saint together, has proven to be similarly comprehensive in covering the range of my life. And so my own appreciation of and affection for The Dagda grows as I read.         

 “The Dagda in the Modern World,” chapter five. I have to say that I very much enjoyed this chapter. Daimler covers a lot in it with clarity and depth, both scholarly and personally. They begin by addressing how he is seen today in modern mythologies, fiction, and video games, which influence our perception of him just as the old texts do. As I was with their similar chapter on Brigit in Pagan Portals – Brigid, I’m grateful to them for tracing where our different ideas come from and comparing them to what we know from the texts. They do this without rancour and accept that there is validity in different approaches to him, but they value clarity on sources, as do I. Daimler points out modern changes to the deities, which are often received as traditional, in a clear and well supported way that insults no one. You may disagree with them, but you know where they’re coming from.

 They go on, equally gently, to ask why our representations of him and the other deities nearly always include archaic dress, pointing out that in the original tales, the depictions were of contemporary clothes. They then discuss possible reasons for our choosing to stick with the original dress and why it may also be helpful to envision him dressed as a modern man. I found it useful to reflect on this section, and the ways I do and don’t have visual pictures of the deities, and how that affects my relationship to them. Daimler winds this chapter up with some good suggestions for altar pieces, a few prayers and invocations, and more thoughts on The Dagda in their life.

 For the Brigidines among us, Morgan does refer to Brigit in the book on a few occasions, helping to clarify both her and her father. For instance, on page sixty-nine,

 Like his daughter Brighid, he is a deity of compromise and community building rather than burning to the ground. When his son is killed by Lugh he’s seeks a way to revivify his child, not destroy Lugh.”

 In their conclusion, they say, “… The Dagda, in many ways, is exactly the deity that the world most needs right now.” I suggest you read this short, powerful book to see clearly just why.


Image by Mael Brigde 

[1] Eel and Otter’s anthology, Harp Club & Cauldron, is also very helpful in this venture, as is Scealai Beag’s Facebook group of devotees and interested others, “The Dagda's Hearth.”


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