Fomorians vs Tuatha Dé Danann
Just as the Olympians struggled with the Giants, the Æsir fought the Jötuns, and the Devas the Asuras, so there is warfare in the Celtic Gaelic spiritual world between two superhuman hosts.
On one side are ranged the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods of day, light, life, fertility, wisdom, and good; on the other, the Fomors or Fomorians, the demons of night, darkness, death, barrenness, and evil.
The Tuatha Dé Danann were the great spirits symbolizing the beneficial aspects of nature and the arts and intelligence of man; the second were the hostile powers thought to be behind such baneful manifestations as storm and fog, drought and disease.
The gods are described as a divine family round a goddess called Danu, from whom they took their well-known name of Tuatha Dé Danann , meaning Tribe or Folk of the Goddess Danu.
The second owned allegiance to a female divinity called Domnu; their king, Indech, is described as her son, and they are all called “Domnu’s gods”.
The word “Domnu appears to have signified the abyss or the deep sea, and the same idea is also expressed in their better-known name of “Fomors”, derived from two Gaelic words meaning “under sea”.
The waste of water seems to have always impressed the Celts with the sense of primeval ancientness; it was connected in their minds with vastness, darkness, and monstrous births. the very antithesis of all that was symbolized by the earth, the sky, and the sun.
Description of Elatha and his son, Bress
The Fomors were described as being hideous and malformed, but there were exceptions to this.
Elatha, one of their chiefs, is described in an old manuscript as of magnificent presence – a beautiful prince of darkness.
A man of fairest form, with golden hair down to his shoulders. He wore a mantle of gold braid over a shirt interwoven with threads of gold. Five golden necklaces were round his neck, and a brooch of gold with a shining precious stone thereon was on his breast.
He carried two silver spears with rivets of bronze, and his sword was golden-hilted and golden-studded.
Nor was his son less handsome. His name was Bress, which means beautiful, and we are told that every beautiful thing in Ireland, “whether plain, or fortress, or ale, or torch, or woman, or man”, was compared with him, so that men said of them, ” that is a Bress”.
Bress Becomes king of Tuatha Dé Danann
The king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuada, lost his hand in a battle with the Fir Bolgs, over who should rule Ireland.
For Diancecht, the physician of the Tuatha Dé Danann, made him an artificial hand of silver, so skilfully that it moved in all its joints, and was as strong and supple as a real one.
Thus, Nuada got his name of Argetlám, that is, the “Silver Handed “.
But, good as it was of its sort, the silver hand was a blemish; and, according to Celtic custom, no maimed person could sit upon the throne.
Nuada was deposed; and the Tuatha Dé Danann went into council to appoint a new king.
They agreed that it would be a politically wise thing for them to conciliate the Fomors, the giants of the sea, and make an alliance with them. So they sent a message to Bress, the son of the Fomorian king, Elatha, asking him to come and rule over them.
Bress accepted this offer; and they made a marriage between him and Brigit, the daughter of the Dagda.
At the same time, Cian, the son of Diancecht, the physician of the Tuatha Dé Danann, married Ethniu, the daughter of the Fomor, Balor.
Then Bress was made king, and endowed with lands and a palace; and he, on his part, gave hostages that he would abdicate if his rule ever became unpleasing to those who had elected him.
Bress tyrannizes the Tuatha Dé Danann
But, in spite of all his fair promises, Bress, who belonged in heart to his own fierce people, began to oppress his subjects with excessive taxes. He put
a tax upon every hearth, upon every kneading-trough (device used to make dough), and upon every quern, as well as a poll-tax of an ounce of gold upon every member of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
By a crafty trick, too, he obtained the milk of all their cattle.
He asked at first only for the produce of any cows which happened to be brown and hairless, and the people of the goddess Danu granted him this cheerfully. But Bress passed all the cattle in Ireland between two fires, so that their hair was singed off, and thus obtained the monopoly of the main source of food.
To earn a livelihood, all the gods, even the greatest, were now forced to labour for him. Ogma, their champion, was sent out to collect firewood, while
the Dagda was put to work building forts and castles.
Meanwhile Bress was infuriating the people of the goddess Danu by adding avarice to tyranny.
It was for kings to be liberal to all-comers, but at the court of Bress no one ever greased his knife with fat, or made his breath smell of ale. Nor were
there ever any poets or musicians or jugglers or jesters there to give pleasure to the people; for Bress would distribute no largess.
Next, he cut down the very subsistence of the gods. So scanty was his allowance of food that they began to grow weak with famine. Ogma, through feebleness, could only carry one-third of the wood needed for fuel; so that they suffered from cold as well as from hunger.
Bress is deposed, Nuada returns as king
During this time of crisis, Airmid and Miach, the gods of healing, sons of Diancecht, found the deposed King Nuada and healed him, by digging out his lost hand and reattaching it with a magic incantation. Nuada, thus being healed and whole again, is eligible to retake his place as King of the Tuatha Dé Danann
The healing of Nuada’s blemish happened just at the time when all the people of the goddess Danu had at last agreed that the exactions and
tyranny of Bress could no longer be borne.
It was the insult he put upon Cairpré, son of Ogma the god of literature, that caused things to come to this head.
Poets were always held by the Celts in great honour; and when Cairpré, the bard of the Tuatha Dé Danann, went to visit Bress, he expected to be treated with much consideration, and fed at the king’s own table. But, instead of doing so, Bress lodged him in a small, dark room where there was no fire, no bed, and no furniture except a mean table on which small cakes of dry bread were put on a little dish for his food.
The next morning, Cairpré rose early and left the palace without having spoken to Bress.
It was the custom of poets when they left a king’s court to utter a panegyric [a flattering and praising speech] on their host, but Cairpré treated Bress instead to a magical satire.
It was the first satire ever made in Ireland, and seems to us to bear upon it all the marks of an early effort. Roughly rendered, it said:
“No meat on the plates,
No milk of the cows;
No shelter for the belated;
No money for the minstrels:
May Bress’s cheer be what he gives to others”
This satire of Cairpré’s was, we are assured, so virulent that it caused great red blotches to break out all over Bress’s face.
This in itself constituted a blemish such as should not be upon a king, and the Tuatha Dé Danann called upon Bress to abdicate and let Nuada take the throne again.
Bress, Indech and Elatha prepare Fomorians for war
According to his own promise and Tuatha Dé Danann custom, Bress was now obliged to abdicate as king.
He went back to the country of the Fomors, underneath the sea, and complained to his father Elatha, its king, asking him to gather an army to reconquer his throne.
The Fomors assembled in council – Elatha, Tethra, Balor, Indech, and all the other warriors and chiefs – and they decided to come with a great host, and take Ireland away, and put it under the sea where the people of the goddess Danu would never be able to find it again.
“Do you think they will really dare to give us battle?” said Bress to Indech, the son of Domnu.
“If they do not pay their tribute, we will pound their bones for them.” replied Indech.
Indech dies in battle, Bress and Elatha are chased underwater
The armies of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians finally meet.
The battle was long and fierce, and so many dead that the feet of those on one side were touching the heads, hands, and feet of those on the other side.
They shed so much blood on to the ground that it became hard to stand on it without slipping; and the river of Unsenn was filled with dead bodies, so hard and swift and bloody and cruel was the battle.
Many great chiefs fell on each side. Ogma, the champion of the Tuatha Dé Danann, killed Indech, the son of the goddess Domnu.
But, meanwhile, Balor of the Mighty Blows raged among the gods, slaying their king, Nuada of the Silver Hand, as well as Macha, one of his warlike wives.
At last Balor of the Mighty Blows met with Lugh, the Sun-God. The latter proved so formidable, that he blinded the giant eye of Balor, soon after killing him, thus turning the tide of the battle and giving heart to the Tuatha Dé Danann.
With renewed hearts, and at the war cry of Morrigu, the Tuatha fought more fiercely than ever, pushing the Fomorians back to the sea in their underwater realm, never to return.
Lugh, the Dagda, and Ogma still pursued the Fomors, who had carried off in their fight the Dagda’s harp.
They followed them into the submarine palace where Bress and Elatha lived, and there they saw Dagda’s harp hanging on on the wall. This harp of the Dagda’s would not play without its owner’s leave.
After recovering his magical harp, the Dagda used it’s powers to render Bress, Elatha and all other Fomorians harmless, thus escaping the underwater world back to Ireland.
And so, the Tuatha Dé Danann remained rulers of Ireland for many years until the arrival of the tribes of Man.