Nuada Airgedlamh, First King of the Tuatha Dé Danann

Or more precisely, the first king of the Tuatha Dé when they arrived in Ireland from the north, their ships descending from the sky in great clouds of mist, as depicted in this gorgeous image by Jim Fitzpatrick from his collected illustrations of Celtic legends…but more on that fascinating yet peculiar description another time. The Dananns were invaders, but they saw themselves as reclaiming the island that had once been theirs. They defeated the resident Fir Bolg (Men of the Bag) in a four-day battle  at midsummer, and after a second battle, only four men of the Fir Bolg survived. These last four were driven from Ireland at Samhain by the Mórrigan.

“Anguish kept the Fir Bolg from rest that night and as for the Tuatha Dé, even their victory could not dispel their grief for the death of many of their finest young warriors, who had fallen on that day and the two before.

The cost of the battle was great on both sides, and the terrible cairns grew higher that night.” 

The legends of the Tuatha Dé form part of the ‘pre-history’ of The Seventh Gate series, and the story of Nuada, Bres, and Balor comes to influence events and the characters over the course of the series.

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Nuada Airgedlamh – or Nuada of the Silver Hand – was a son of the goddess Danu. When he lost a hand in battle, he had to give up his kingship, for in order to rule a leader must be whole in body as well as skilled in battle and leadership.  *This stricture regarding physical ‘wholeness’  may have carried over from the mythological past  into  historical times in Ireland, but the laws of succession are not well-documented in those early centuries.*

nuada3 header
Also by Jim : Nuada in battle against the Fomori – before he lost his hand.

Bres, son of the Danann Eri and the Fomorian Elathan, was elected king of the Dananns in Nuada’s place, but he proved to be harsh and cruel, and prone to over-taxing his people.  DianCecht, supreme master of the healing arts, fashioned an articulated hand from silver for Nuada,  so the Tuatha Dé were able to reinstate him as king.  DianCecht’s son, Miach, was an even more talented healer than his father, and replaced Nuada’s silver hand with the original severed one, fully healed and restored to use, but Nuada was ever after known as “Silver Hand”. He later died in battle against Balor, leader of the Fomori.

The Dream of Nuada

(as told by Tuan, the White Ancient, one of the Partholans who sailed to Ireland with Cessair forty days before the Great Flood, long before the invasions of the Fir Bolg, the Fomori, or the Tuatha Dé Danann. The last verse fascinates me – a figure of our legends lucid dreaming, perhaps, of times even more remote.)

morrigan and nuada2
One of my favourite images by Jim … the Mórrigan and Nuada.
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     “Tuan was sleepless too that night; crouched in my eyrie high above Belgaran, my eyes pierced the dark.”

  I looked out towards the camp of the Tuatha Dé Danann and saw a huge raven drift across the night sky and alight on the blood-stained head of Cirb.  Its wings shone blue-silver in the moonlight.  Then it fluttered from its death-perch into the darkness and as I watched it vanish I saw a woman glimmering in the shade of Nuada’s tent; a woman standing where the bird had gone.

  She was Mórrigan, bearer of dreams that tangled in the darkness of her hair; dealer of death, war-witch blessed with beauty.

Beauty, death, and dreams

Are the substance of my myth.

  So it was on the night of that third day of terrible battle that Mórrigan of the Baedb put off her guises of witch and raven and stood a gentle maiden by Nuada’s couch, her milk-white breasts scarce veiled by silks of saffron laced with gold.

  ‘Come to me,’ he said.  And she did.  They lay long together that night wrapped in a cloak of darkness, and the moon watched over them like the eye of the grey God of the Otherworld.

As they lay in the embrace of life, the moon gazed indifferently on the dead warriors locked in the embrace of death.  Their arms had fallen across the still breasts of their fellows, hand touched hand, frozen gestures that mocked the brotherhood that had been forged in high heart and warm blood.

Nuada buried his face in the scent of Mórrigan’s hair.  The faces of the dead warriors were turned up towards the moon, some frozen in masks of horror, others made falsely young again, sleeping for ever like innocent children immune to harm or fearful dreams.

At last they slept and Nuada dreamed.  But his dreams were troubled.  He saw mighty Empires rise and fall, the golden spires of legendary cities sink beneath raging seas, and great armies move endlessly across barren continents.

His sleeping swept him back to the beginning of time far beyond memory and history.  He walked with dreaming footsteps across the innocent brightness of a world remembered only in myth and legend …”

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6 thoughts on “Nuada Airgedlamh, First King of the Tuatha Dé Danann

  1. I want to go to Ireland with you and listen to you tell the old legends by a campfire in the countryside. Beautiful post, and edifying too. I love the stories of the Tuatha De Danann… aren’t they where redheads come from? I use them a bit in my stories too, but I bastardize them beyond all recognition. You’re much more faithful–and it makes for a much richer experience. The world you write feels so real!

    1. Thanks, Bradley – and I would love to do a trip like that, too! *scribbles another line on bucket list* I’ve taken extreme liberties with the tales myself. :) As for readheads, I think it’s entirely possible the Tuatha de were more than myth, and left traces of their presence in the celtic gene pool.

      “The host is riding from Knocknarea
      And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
      Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
      And Niamh calling Away, come away.”

  2. I was under the impression that the Lady Morrigan was the daughter of the Lady Ernmas, who was the daughter of the Lord Nuada Airgetlám.

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping in, and apologies for the delay!

      Yes, the Morrigan is named amongst the second set of three daughters of Ernmas in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, which appears consistent with her apparent role as one aspect of the triple goddess, since both sets of three sisters appear to fulfill the triple goddess role in various tales. However she does appear in other, older stories as a singular entity and is frequently interchangeable/conflated with Baedb. As I’m sure you know and as I mention elsewhere, it’s part of the beauty and the frustration of the Celtic mythological cycle, the way in which some figures seem to shift names and roles, and are often quite contradictory, even when it comes to the manner of their deaths and at whose hand, as well their possible geneaology . Given that the “histories” like the Lebor Gabála Érenn were only written down in the 12th century, and prior documentation of the oral tradition was minute and fragmentary at best, bits of unclear references from the 8th and 9th centuries,there is no way to say with any kind of certainty what the full, original understanding of the Morrigan was.

      In this particular version, it seems she appears to Nuada as an aspect of the triple goddess, the war goddess, who puts off that identity for this one night. But sure, if the idea expressed in one source that she was Nuada’s granddaughter is taken as a literal fact, well…then this “recording” of Nuada’s dream becomes a bit awkward. She is also said to have kept a similar tryst with the Dagda on the eve of his battle against the Fomorians, so it’s likely that this notion of coupling with the Morrigan/war goddess on the eve of battle is a talisman of sorts, to ensure victory, or even a reward post-battle.

      Was she Nuada’s granddaughter? Possibly that’s the way the old Celts understood her. Did the Morrigan, the war goddess, visit the heroes of great battles in the guise of a young woman for a sexual tryst? Very likely that was part of the Celtic belief system, too, as it was in many contemporary systems – the intertwining of sex and battle and death. Was Morrigu, daughter of Ernmas and granddaughter of Nuada understood to be the same entity as Morrigu the war goddess? There is no way to know.

      The fact is we simply do not know exactly what the ancient understanding was of the Morrigan, either in the 12th century when the Lebor Gabála Érenn was written, or in the older oral tales, or even how “fixed” their notion of her was. By the time of the “histories” a tradition that had spanned who-knows-how-many centuries was already all but lost. What is left to us of the Mythological cycle is particularly fluid, and perhaps that is even how it was for the ancient Celts, too.

      Phew – long reply, sorry! But Ive come to find there are no simple answers when it comes to this mythology. It’s complicated, intricate, beautiful, and clearly carries the weight of ages in what little is left to us, covered by even further centuries of overlay influenced by the church, the romanticism of the late middle ages and then the 17th century, up to and including the modern revival movement. Hope you enjoyed it anyway!

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