Apparently my coverage of Graham Robb’s book is one of the least popular things I’ve ever written, if page views are a reliable judge of interest. I will accordingly try to read the rest of the book this week and post a final summary post of the whole thing rather than drag it out any more. In the meantime, since we are talking about Celtic people, it seems like a good time to revisit a claim David Childress made in Ancient Aliens on Friday that I did not have time to research for my review. He described the Tuatha De Danann, a fictional invading people in Irish myth, as arriving in Ireland in dark clouds and blocking the sun for three days. He says these clouds were alien spaceships, and the on-screen graphics depict them as flying saucers.
And… he’s almost right!
The story is told originally in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions), compiled in the eleventh century in Middle Irish from a set of loosely related poems and histories, and currently extant in a number of divergent manuscripts usually categorized as the First Redaction, Second Redaction, Third Redaction, and two other less important ones of different names. The book was heavily influenced by Classical and Christian sources and is not an unambiguous source for Irish myth, especially since, like Snorri’s Eddas, it has been heavily euhemerized to make the gods into humans connected to the Greco-Roman past. The Tuatha de Danaan were among these victims.
The two manuscripts preserving the First Redaction in its entire, called the Book of Leinster (L) (c. 1150) and the Book of Fermoy (F) (1373), differ in wording and material, with F providing additional, probably interpolated, details. Here is how they present the story of the “UFO” invasion, in the translation of R. A. Stewart Macalister:
306 (L). So that they were the Tuatha de Danann who came to Ireland.
Here F adds a note:
Their origin is uncertain, whether they were of demons or of men; but it is said they were of the progeny of Beothach s[on of] Iarbonel the Giant (sic).
The two sources then pick up the story, which I will follow mostly in L, as it is the version that is closest to the “ancient alien” idea, and is older:
306 (L). In this wise they came, in dark clouds. They landed on the mountains of Conmaicne Rein in Connachta and they brought a darkness over the sun for three days and three nights.
To this F adds a note derived from a different manuscript tradition, obviously euhemerized from the older myth:
Another company says that the Tuatha De Danann came in a sea-expedition, and that they burnt their ships thereafter. It was owing to the fog of smoke that rose from them as they were burning that others have said that they came in a fog of smoke. Not so, however: for these are the two reasons why they burnt their ships: that the Fomoraig should not find them, to rob them of them; and that they themselves should have no way of escape from Ireland, even though they should suffer rout before the Fir Bolg.
This material is repeated across the manuscripts in section 322, emphasizing the burned-boat version.
This is all suggestive, but how do we know that they weren’t ancient aliens? If you expect to take the text literally, it becomes very easy. A few lines earlier, in 304 (L & F) and 305 (F), the poem states that the Tuatha De Danann learned science and magic from the Druids and scholars of four (human) cities! Also, their leader in section 310 and thereafter is Nuada, the king that Ancient Aliens told us only weeks ago was a human the aliens gave a bionic arm. Actually, though, they probably did originate as gods in mythology, before rationalization, since Nuada is undoubtedly Nodens, the great god.
As for the darkness, it isn’t the result of great ships as Childress implies; instead, it is a smoke screen, just like the one Athena uses to cloak Odysseus in the Odyssey and the one that hides Jason’s approach to Colchis in the Argonautica. Divine, yes; alien, not according to the text. And at any rate, a cloud is not a ship or a spacecraft. To make it so, you have to allow for symbolism, which negates the idea of taking the description literally.
Naturally, ancient astronaut theorists have made this into a Sitchin-inspired racist nightmare. According to online ancient astronaut claims like this one posted less than two weeks ago, the Tuatha De Danann were the Anunnaki from some Sitchinite fantasy, and they first settled in Ireland in search of (of course) gold. There, these writers claim, the Tuatha De Danann founded the homeland of the Aryan race, making Ireland both the font of human civilization and the home of the purest white people in the world.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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