Danu is the mother of the Irish gods, whose collective name is Tuatha De Danann, “Tribes of Danu.” In my story, the Celtic Irish refer to themselves as daughters and sons of Danu. Some say she is a river goddess, and that the Danube river takes its name from the same root.
Note: Chapters set in Cúchulainn’s time (roughly the first century CE) are formatted in italics. Chapters set in modern time have regular formatting. Usually these alternate, but sometimes there’s a double.
- Daughter of Danu
All around her they feasted for Beltaine, and the bonfires leapt high. She was tired, so tired, after long weeks of intense study, during which she stood and recited the laws and the songs for hours on end, only to have her efforts mercilessly criticized by the elders. The other novices treated her as a servant, cuffing her and ordering her about contemptuously. They dared not display this cruelty before Cathbad. Instead, they saved it for the hours when the elders were asleep in their own quarters. Tonight, it was her office to pour the mead, and she bustled about as quickly as she could, sometimes tripping in her fatigue and spilling the drink. Finally she passed the jug to another novice, Aodhán, and collapsed gratefully onto a pile of turf and brush under a massive oak.
“Here,” said Aodhán kindly. “You must drink, too.” He handed her a wooden cup full of mead, and hurried off to take up his duties. She rested unnoticed in the shadows and sipped from the cup, as a tiny, golden fly buzzed about her head. Odd, that: flies normally lay low at night. The Beltaine fires must have attracted this one. The fly itself glowed bright, like a shooting star. It left a zigzag trail of light as it flew. The moisture of the mead in her mouth stoked her thirst, and she realized that she was parched. She gulped down the rest of the drink, as the fly circled and suddenly dove into the liquid. Before she realized it, she had swallowed him whole.
“Oh no,” she said, in mingled surprise and regret. “Light-bearing friend, I did not mean to harm you. My blessing on you. May you be reborn.”
The celebration wore on. There was singing, and Aodhán stopped to refill her cup. Drowsy, she burrowed deeper into the brush, inhaling the smells of earth, and leaves, and tree sap.
“Daughter of Danu.” It was a deep, resonant voice, a pleasing voice, and her mind roused itself to savor the sound. No longer did she sense about her the forest and the great clearing with its bonfires. No longer did she lie in a pile of brush. Instead, she reclined on thick, soft grass in the midst of a clearing carpeted with bluebells. A stream babbled nearby, and there was light, yet turn her head as she might, she could not locate the sun.
“Who are you, Lord?” she asked.
“I am your lover,” said the voice. “You will bear my son.”
Lover? “But… Lord, no one has ever loved me,” she said. It was a simple statement of fact. Her father, an Ulsterman wealthy in cattle, had barely been restrained from having her drowned at birth, like an unwanted puppy. Thereafter, she was kept out of the way. Even her mother had disliked the sight of her.
“You have a short memory, Daughter of Danu. Do you not remember how Cruinniuc of Ulster loved you when you came to his house, more beautiful than a swan, and swifter than the roe deer? Cruinniuc was so proud of you, he boasted that you could outrun the king’s chariot. You were forced to race, though heavy with child, and you bested the king, then gave birth to twins on the finish line.”
“I, Lord?” The voice was like a light, enveloping her in its brilliance. She felt a quickening desire in her womb.
“You. You cursed the Ulstermen. That is why the men of Ulster to this day suffer the pangs in the hour of their greatest need, and are as weak as women in labor.”
“But… you speak of Macha, the lady who gave her name to the dún of Emain Macha. She lived more than two hundred years ago.”
“She lives again, to lighten the curse by giving the Ulstermen a champion. Rise, Daughter of Danu.” She got slowly to her feet and looked to the right and left. The bluebell clearing was gone. She saw nothing before her but a gently rolling field of green, and a sky of an eerie lapis blue misted with clouds. Then she discerned an orb of light straight ahead, yet far off to judge from its size. Mesmerized, she watched as it grew larger, and she made out the form of a running man enveloped in light. He ran straight for her, coming closer and closer. In his hand he held aloft a spear, and its brilliance was blinding. She shaded her eyes, wondering why she felt no fear, only desire to be united with the beauty of this blazing, naked runner. She watched joyfully as he cast the spear, and it flew unerringly, dipping low to penetrate her chest and transfix her through the heart.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The goddess Macha is connected with Ulster (the northeastern part of Ireland) and County Armagh. She has to do with horses, warfare, and kingly sovereignty. One day she came to the house of an Ulster farmer named Cruinniuc and began to act as his wife. The longer she stayed, the more prosperous he grew, but she warned him to tell nobody of her presence. At a chariot race, Cruinniuc foolishly bragged that his wife could run faster than the king’s horses. Although very pregnant, Macha was forced to race against the king’s chariot–and won, giving birth on the finish line. She cursed the men of Ulster to feel the pangs of labor during their hour of greatest need. Later in this story, the curse will come into effect!
The ancient Irish believed in reincarnation, and their distinction between gods and humans was not as clearcut as our own. In my story, Macha has been (re)born into a human body, if a rather unexpected one.
This part of the story is told from the point of view of a small, female person. I haven’t given her name yet. That will come later, and at this stage it isn’t important. She’s a novice in a Druidic school in Ulster, overseen by the most famous of Irish druids, Cathbad. The druids were quite active throughout the Celtic areas of Europe during the first century, when this story is set.
The Irish word dún means a fort. The same root is found in many European city names, including Dundee, Donegal, Verdun, Lyon (Lugdunum), and maybe even London.
And finally, a dedication. This book is for Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise, who gave much more than I asked.