Nuada Airgetlam: Story of the King of the Tuatha Dé Danann

The most ancient Celtic or Irish divinity of whom we have any knowledge is Danu herself, the goddess from whom the whole hierarchy of gods received its name of Tuatha Dé Danann.

She was the universal mother. Her husband is never mentioned by name, but one may assume him, from British analogies, to have been Bilé, known to Gaelic tradition as a god of Hades, a kind of Celtic Dis Pater from whom sprang the first men.

Danu herself probably represented the earth and its fruitfulness, and one might compare her with the Greek Demeter. All the other gods are, at least by title, her children.

The greatest of these would seem to have been Nuada, called Airgetlam, or “He of the Silver Hand”.

Powers of Nuada and his magical sword

He was at once the Gaelic Zeus, or Jupiter, and their war-god; for among primitive nations, to whom success in war is all-important, the god of battles is the supreme god.

Nuada possessed an invincible sword emitting bright light, called Uiscias or Uscias, one of the four chief treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann, over whom he was twice king.

There is little doubt that he was one of the most important gods of both the Gaels and the Britons, for his name is spread over the whole of the British Isles, which we may surmise the Celts conquered under his auspices.

We may picture him as a more savage Mars, delighting in battle and slaughter, and possibly worshipped, like his Celtic Gaulish affinities Teutates and Hesus of whom the  Latin poet Lucan tells us, with human sacrifices.

Wives of Nuada

These were shared in by his female consorts, who, we may imagine, were not more merciful than himself.

Of these warlike goddesses, consorts of Nuada, there were five —  Fea, the “Hateful”,  Nemon, the ‘‘Venomous”, Badb, the “Fury”,  Macha, a personification of “ battle”, and, over all of them,  Morrigu, or “Great Queen”.

Morrigu was supreme war-goddess of the Gaels, who resembles a fiercer Greek Hera, perhaps symbolized the moon, deemed by early races to have preceded the sun, and worshipped with magical and cruel rites.

She is represented as going fully armed, and carrying two spears in her hand. As with Arés and Poseidon in the “Iliad”, her battle-cry was as loud as that of ten thousand men.

Wherever there was war, either among gods or men, she, the great queen, was present, either in her own shape or in her favourite disguise, that of a “hoodie” or carrion crow.

With her, Fea and Nemon, Badb and Macha also hovered over the fighters, inspiring them with the madness of battle.

While Nuada, the supreme war-god, vanished early out of the Pantheon — killed by the Fomors in the great battle fought between them and the gods—Badb and the Morrigu lived on as late as any of the Gaelic deities.

Indeed, they may be said to still survive in the superstitious dislike and suspicion shown in all Celtic-speaking countries for their avatar, the hoodie-crow.

Battle of South Moytura or Battle of Mag Tuired

Background & preparation

Before the Tuatha Dé Danann – the tribe of Gods –  arrived in Ireland, the ones who ruled the land were called Fir Bolgs. According to legends the Fir Bolgs were Greek slaves, used to haul heavy loads (fir bolg meaning “men of bags”).

After many years, the Fir Bolgs leave Greece in a great fleet, navigate to Iberia (the Spanish peninsula), and from there to Ireland.

Up until then, the Tuatha Dé Danann had dwelt in four mythical cities called Findias, Gorias, Murias, and Falias, where they had learned poetry and magic. From these cities, they brought to Ireland their four chief treasures.

From Findias came Nuada’s sword, from whose stroke no one ever escaped or recovered; from Gorias, Lugh’s terrible lance; from
Murias, the Dagda’s cauldron.

From Falias came the Stone of Fal, better known as the “Stone of Destiny”, which afterwards fell into the hands of the early kings of Ireland. According to legend, it had the magic property of uttering a human cry when touched by the rightful King of Erin (Ireland).

Tuatha Dé Danann landed in a dense cloud upon the coast of Ireland on the mystic first of May without having been opposed, or even noticed by the “Fir Bolgs ”

To keep the Firbolgs unaware of their coming, the Morrigu, helped by Badb and Macha, made use of the magic they had learned in Findias, Gorias, Murias, and Falias.

They spread “druidically-formed showers and fog-sustaining shower-clouds ” over the country, and caused the air to pour down fire and blood upon the Fir Bolgs, so that they were obliged to shelter themselves for three days and three nights. But the Fir Bolgs had druids of their own, and, in the end, they put a stop to these enchantments by counter-spells, and the air grew clear again.

Finally, the armies of the Fir Bolgs and that of the Tuatha Dé Danann met, but before doing battle the Tuatha Dé Danann offered the Fir Bolgs peace and requested they divide Ireland in half. The Fir Bolgs refused, fearing that one half might soon become the whole of the Ireland.

After a short truce, where they prepared their armor and weapons, the battle commenced.

The Battle of Mag Tuired

It was on Midsummer Day that the opposing armies at last met. The people of the goddess Danu appeared in “a flaming line”, wielding their “red-bordered, speckled, and firm shields”.

Opposite to them were ranged the Fir Bolgs, “ sparkling, brilliant, and flaming, with their swords, spears, blades, and trowel-spears “.

So the fight went on for four days, with terrible slaughter upon each side. A Fir Bolg champion called Sreng fought in single combat with Nuada, the King of the Gods, and shore off his hand and half his shield with one terrific blow. Eochaid, the King of the Fir Bolgs, was even less fortunate than Nuada; for he lost his life.

When only 300 Fir Bolgs remained, the Tuatha Dé Danann offered them truce, and letting them choose one fifth of Ireland as their home. The Fir Bolgs accepted, and so the Tuatha Dé Danann were now the rulers of Ireland.

Nuada is deposed as King, replaced by Bress

It was as a result of the loss of his hand in this battle with the Fir Bolgs that Nuada got his name of Airgetlam, that is, the “Silver Handed”.

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. But, good as it was of its sort, it 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 politic 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, Elathan, 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.

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.

Soon however, Bress began to oppress the Tuatha Dé Danann with taxes so high, even the highest among the Tuatha had to resort to hard labor.

Nuada’s hand is healed and returns as King

It was at this crisis that two physicians, Miach, the son, and Airmid, the daughter, of Diancecht, the god of medicine, came to the castle where the dispossessed King Nuada lived.

As they came in, they heard the king groaning, for Nuada’s wrist had festered where the silver hand joined the arm of flesh.

Miach asked where Nuada’s own hand was, and they told him that it had been buried long ago. But Miach dug it up, and placed it to Nuada’s stump; he uttered an incantation over
it, saying:

“Sinew to sinew, and nerve to nerve be
joined!”

In three days and nights the hand had renewed itself and fixed itself to the arm, so that Nuada was whole again.

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.

To depose the foreign tyrant, the greatest poet of the Tuatha Dé Danann, uttered a magical satire towards Bress:

“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.

War preparations for the throne of Ireland

The dishonor inflicted upon Bress, the son of the Fomorian King Elathan, caused outrage among the sea giants and so they prepared for war, hoping to recapture Ireland and it’s throne.

During this time, Lugh the Sun-God, one of the greatest and wisest of the Tuatha Dé Danann, made his appearance before King Nuada. So amazed was the Kind of the Gods at Lugh’s wisdom and prowess, that he made Lugh responsible with the war preparations against the Fomorians.

These preparations had lasted 7 years, until at last the Fomorians had landed on the shore of Ireland.

Death of Nuada at The Second and Final Battle of Mag Tuired

The armies of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians finally meet.

Before giving battle however, the two armies engaged in ritual combat, where each sent some of their best warriors to do one-to-one battles. Sometimes the Fomorians won, sometimes the Gods.

However, the Fomorians were amazed to see slain Tuatha Dé Danann warriors seemingly coming back to life after every battle, while their own lay dead.

They uncovered the trickery used by the Tuatha: a magical spring whose waters would heal and revive fallen Tuatha Dé warriors.

After sealing the spring, the Fomorians engaged in a pitched, all-out battle against the Tuatha Dé Danann.

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, 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.

And so, the Tuatha Dé Danann remained rulers of Ireland for many years until the arrival of the tribes of Man.

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