As a polytheist I recognize all gods, I honor many, and I work with and for a few. But I have a very close relationship with two: Cernunnos and Danu. They claimed me as theirs and I serve them as priest.
Cernunnos is first among equals. He spoke to me long ago when I still thought there was only one god. He introduced himself again when I began my Druid studies. I’ve communed with him (intimately at times), I’ve written about him, and I’ve led rituals in his honor.
Danu has been more reserved. She doesn’t ask for much – she seems to show up when I need her, then step back again. I honor her in my nightly prayers and I’ve included her in several rituals, including our Winter Solstice working last year (you may remember a little chatter about the Mayan calendar and it’s supposed end…). But a local friend has asked about her and she seems to be stepping forward again.
So it’s time to write about Danu.
Danu is a very old goddess and like many old, primal deities there are few stories about her. I haven’t found any that say anything more than listing her as the mother of the Tuatha De Danann – the Children of the Goddess Danu. Most of what we know about her history comes from etymological studies: her name is connected to several rivers in central Europe, most notably the Danube.
Danu is associated with the Irish Anu and Danann and the Welsh Don. There is a Danu in the Hindu Rig-Veda – I’ve read arguments both for and against connecting her to the Celtic Danu. Given the age of the Rig-Veda and the general migration of Indo-European peoples, it’s a plausible connection.
In this 1998 essay, Celticist Alexi Kondratiev argued that the idea of Danu as the mother of the gods of Ireland is a fairly recent concept. He went on to say:
The association of Danann with a probably much older figure named ‘Anann’ or ‘Anna’ also suggests that she may have been superimposed on a goddess with more primeval “Mother Earth” traits.
Are these different names for the same goddess or different goddesses who do similar things in different places and times? I don’t know and I’m not sure we can know. If any academically inclined readers have sources that didn’t turn up in Google, I’d be interested in checking them out.
That’s about all I can tell you about the historical and mythical Danu. What I can add to this is my own experience of Danu, my own unverified personal gnosis (UPG) and my own practice. I went back to my private journals and searched for “Danu” (one of the advantages of keeping electronic journals). Here are two encounters with her that were particularly important to me. From November 2006:
I went straight into the vision. I went up a mountain to a rocky clearing about 2/3 of the way up. It was night, but the clearing was as bright as day. There were torches and a full moon, but the bulk of the lighting was supernatural.
From the southwest corner came a goddess. Tall, pale, long dark hair, 35-45 in appearance, wearing a flowing white robe. I didn’t know her name – she may be older than any name. She looked at me and said “be what you need to be” and I knew she meant that I need to be a priest and an exemplar.
In doing some research, I found/remembered the name of the goddess. She is Danu, the Great Mother of the Celts.
From April 2007:
Avebury was awesome. The bank, the ditch, and all the stones… Like Stonehenge, it’s a place of natural power that still has traces of power built-up from spiritual use.
And it was in Avebury that the whole pilgrimage concept congealed. I felt Danu speaking to me, and she said “you have seen your heritage, and you have seen what can be done. Now go home and do it.” It wasn’t a call to go build a Stonehenge in my back yard. Rather, it was a call (yet again) to be a priest and to help re-create the Old Ways for our time.
In a way, I’m disappointed I didn’t feel a surge of energy or have a literal vision. But I think it’s better (and when you think about it, far more reasonable) that my message is to honor the past and our heritage, then focus primarily on what we can accomplish here and now.
I see Danu as a mother goddess because that’s how I’ve experienced her. Like the rivers that bear her name, she brings life to the land and the people. Also like the rivers, she demands respect.
She is a patient and loving mother, but she is not a divine helicopter parent. There have been more than a few times when I’ve heard/felt her say “it’s OK, you’re still loved. Now what are you going to do to clean up this mess you made?” She’s not unconcerned with my feelings, but she’s more concerned that I grow up and be who and what I’m meant to be.
When deities tell me to write about them it’s because they have a message they want spread. Morrigan wants people to reclaim their sovereignty. Cernunnos wants people to care for the forest and the animals – including our fellow humans.
(The gods are complex beings who are more than human. I would have to be a naive fool to believe I could fully understand what they want, much less that it could be distilled into a simple sentence. This is what they’ve told me to write. If it sounds simplistic, it’s because their messages are being filtered through my limited understanding of them.)
Danu is a mother goddess. She calls us to create, to give birth to new ways of living and being. She calls us to nurture these new ways until they can mature and stand on their own. What can you create? Perhaps more importantly, what can you co-create with your family, your community and your gods?
At last year’s Winter Solstice ritual, our introduction of Danu ended with this call and response. It seems like an appropriate way to end this post.
The world is changing. The ways we have been living cannot continue for long. That which does not serve the common good will fade away. What will replace the institutions and infrastructure and ways of life that support us today? Will you create them? Will you give them birth? Will you nourish them? Will you be a spiritual midwife and help those who do?
Danu, Mother Goddess and Lady of the Waters, we will follow your example and become creators of the new world.