Danu, or Dana is also known as Donand and Danand. Her tribe, the Tuatha Dé Dannan take their name from her: “The People of Danu”.
In an unusual twist, her name is implied, reconstructed from the name of her tribe. She is not mentioned in the literature nor in archeological finds, at least by this name. Scholars believe her name is derived from the Danube river, where the earliest of what we call “Celtic” culture originated. This fits with what we know about the Celts elsewhere – the various Celtic tribes are almost always named after a river mother goddess. Boann and Brigid are well known examples. She is often equated with another Irish goddess, Anu and they may be one and the same, but there is as yet no consensus on this.
Danu is attested in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, where it states that the Tuatha Dé Dannan are named for the three sons of Dana, also called the Gods of Dannan: Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba. However, in Cormac’s Glosssary, which is an older text, Anu is said to be the mother of the gods. Much is made about how mysterious and unknowable Danu is.
In examining the common factors among the various titular river goddesses about whom more is known, we can fill in some blanks. We can see that they are multi-storied, multi-rolled goddesses, presiding over rivers and over all things pastoral. The fertility of the land is one of their more important jurisdictions. River goddesses were propitiated with offerings of various domestic goods. Gold coins and jewelry, weapons, and statuary have been found in rivers, ponds, and bogs, seemingly thrown in to secure their blessings.
River goddesses generally follow a ‘drowned goddess’ motif, in which a woman drowns, metamorphosing into a river, and thus becomes the river itself, giving her life to her people. The river becomes the nourishing land, feeding the people and ensuring their prosperity, and allowing for the domestication of animals. They are often depicted with sisters, either one sister or two, commonly forming a triad.
Thoughts on Danu
Much ado has been made how Danu and Anu could not possibly be the same goddess, often based on the premise that Danu is clearly a river mother, and Anu is associated with the earth. Anu is famed for two hills in Kerry County Ireland, Da Chich nAnnan – “Paps of the goddess Anu” which represent her breasts and support the earth goddess association. Intriguingly, there is a river goddess described in the Rigveda of Hinduism named Danu and alternately as Anu. Hinduism and European pagan cultures share the same Indo-European roots. However, it does not resolve the argument. To muddy the waters further, Danu has been equated with Dôn in the Welsh Mabinogion, who is regarded as a mother goddess, about whom little else is known. This can be confusing, as Dôn’s gender is unspecified and is even masculine at times, tied to the Dagda.
At second glance however, Dôn’s indeterminate gender isn’t a problem in linking with Dana, if we again take a broader view. Next door, in the Germanic sister culture to the Celts (who’s origin was also in the Danube valley in Germany) we find the goddess Nerthus. She is a goddess of both water and earth, of lakes and streams, and is also a mother earth goddess. In a very common Germanic tradition, Nerthus is the feminized name of Njörðr and the two gods rule as variations on a single aspect, in this case sea water and fresh water. Similarly, Frigg is the daughter of Fjörgynn, the Jötunn god of the earth. Fjörgynn is etymologically another name for Nerthus, and this is given to us in the masculine. In other places, Frigg’s parent is female Fjörgyn, Jötunn goddess of the earth. There is a tradition of earth-water mother goddesses changing gender, and why not? She is a goddess, after all. Loki and the Morrigan both swap genders in the literature. Gwydion turns he and his brother into pigs – he a boar and his brother into a sow.
Nerthus, also known as Jörð among the Saxons, was a primordial Jötunn – the tribe of elder gods who predate the Æsir and Vanir – and who are their parents. Like Danu is to the Tuatha Dé Dannan. The Jötnar are described as somewhat indifferent to the race of humans. They are the raw chaotic, elemental forces who couldn’t care less if we are here on this planet or not. The Fomorians, who may be synonymous with the Fir Bolg, are a similar tribe of primordial deities. Their blood runs through the gods of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, including Ogma, Lugh and Nuada. We can take what we know of Danu’s counterparts in the Norse and Mediterranean worlds, and trace the lineage of the later gods to connect the dots: Danu is probably of an older tribe, and very possibly a Fomorian mother goddess.
Signs and Symbols
Rivers, especially the Danube. Earth epochs. Ladies of the Lake in Arthurian myth.
Dana, Donand, Danand, Dôn, Ana, Anu.