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Aengus

Aengus, the Young One, was an Irish deity of love and poetry and youth. His music and poetry charmed women, inspired kings, and won his enemies’ property from under their noses.

Aengus, the Young One, was the Irish god of poetry and love. Inspired and crafty, he inherited much of his guile and charm from his father, the Dagda. Aengus served as one of the chief bards of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a mighty tribe in Irish mythology.

Aengus dwelled in Brú na Bóinne, a home he briefly shared with his father.

Etymology

The name Aengus (Óengus or Oíngus in Old Irish) came from the Proto-Celtic oino- and gus, meaning “one strength.” His titles, which included Aengus Óg (Aengus the Young) or Maccan o Mac Óg (young son), were largely centered around his role as purveyor of youth.

Attributes

Aengus was the Irish god of youth, love, and poetic inspiration. These attributes overlapped with one another, as youthful love often brought poetic inspiration to those within it. His cunning and poetic use of language often allowed him to get the better of his elders.

Aengus’ youth granted him certain powers over life and death, including the ability to resurrect the dead. He would bestow those he wished to resurrect with his breath of life, though the effects were not always permanent. Aengus’ resurrection power was similar to that which resided in his father’s mighty club.

Aengus has the ability to shapeshift, another attribute inherited from his father, and used this ability to help him find a woman that had been transformed into a swan. His magic allowed him to transform kisses into birds—animals he favored above all others.

Aengus’ appearance was that of a young and beautiful man. He was often accompanied by birds that surrounded his head and acted as messengers and tormentors in equal measure. Aengus’ arsenal included four weapons: two swords and two spears. One sword, Moralltach (Great Fury), was a gift from the sea god Manannan mac Lir; the other was named Beagalltach (Little Fury). His two spears were Gáe Buide and Gáe Derg.

Aengus made residence at Brú na Bóinne, in County Meath near Drogheda. He also lent his name to Dun Aengus, on the Aran Islands in County Galway.

Family

Aengus was the son of the Dagda, chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and Boann, goddess of the River Boyne. He was also the stepson of Boann’s husband Elcmar, a judge of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Aengus had many siblings, the most notable of which was Midir, who also served as his foster-father; his other notable siblings included Brigid and Cermait. Later in life, Aengus fostered had a foster-son named Diarmuid Ua Duibhe.

Aengus was married to Caer Ibormeith, a princess (quite literally) of his dreams.

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Mythology

Aengus appeared as an important character in a number of Celtic myths.

Origins

Young is the son who was begotten at the break of day and born betwixt it and evening.1

Aengus’ father, the Dagda, lusted for the goddess Boann, who was the wife of Elcmar. When Elcmar was away, they carried on an affair that resulted in Boann’s pregnancy. In an effort to hide their deed from her husband, Boann and the Dagda enacted a desperate scheme: the Dagda reached up, grabbed the sun, and held it in place for nine months. The plan worked. Boann was pregnant for just a single day, and Elcmar was none the wiser. Boann’s child, Aengus, was then given to the Dagda’s son Midir as a ward to prevent him from incurring Elcmar’s wrath.

Theft of Brú na Bóinne

By the time he came of age, Aengus had become quite clever. One day, he conspired with his father to steal Elcmar’s home—Brú na Bóinne—away from him. The father and son met with Elcmar, and, in accordance with the rules of hospitality, asked him if they could stay there for a day and a night. In Old Irish, “a day and a night” could just as easily mean “all days and all nights.” Elcmar foolishly agreed, giving them permission to remain in the house forever. Their mission a success, Aengus and the Dagda immediately took up occupancy in their beautiful new home.

Wooing of Étaín

Aengus and his brother Midir competed for the affections of Étaín, a mortal woman of great beauty. Ultimately, it was Midir that won her hand. In doing so, however, he incurred the fury of his first wife, Fúamnach, who separated the newlyweds using sorcery. In her anger, she turned Étaín into a fly and used powerful gusts to whisk her away.

Aengus recognized Étaín in this new form, and nursed her back to health as best he could. Much to his dismay, she was swallowed after landing in the cup of the warrior Étar’s wife, causing his wife to become pregnant at the cost of Étaín’s life. Outraged, a vengeful Aengus hunted Fúamnach down and decapitated her.

The Dreams of Aengus

Some time later, a girl began to appear in Aengus’ dreams. She was beautiful, and Aengus fell for her immediately. Though his parents assisted him in his quest to find the dream maiden, their efforts were in vain. After a year of searching, the girl had not been found. Aengus’ parents enlisted others in their search, and, after another year of searching, the Dagda’s friend King Bodg Derg of Munster managed to locate the maiden. As soon as he had given Aengus her name—Caer Ibormeith—the youthful deity went off to retrieve her.

On the shores of a lake called the Dragon’s Mouth, Aengus found 150 women bound in chains. At the conclusion of Samhain, the end of the Celtic year (on October 31st), these women would be forced to spend a year as swans. Believing the woman of his dreams to be part of the group, Aengus struck a deal with the women’s captors: if he could recognize his dream maiden as a swan, he could marry her. As soon as the women were transformed, Aengus turned himself into a swan and called out to his love. Upon finding each other, they flew off together and sang a song so beautiful it caused the captors to fell asleep for three days.

Other Tales

After returning from a long journey (likely seeking out Caer Ibormeith), Aengus came home only to discover that his father had given away all of his land to his children, save Aengus, to whom he gave nothing. Enraged, Aengus asked his father the same question they had once asked Elcmar—if he could stay for a day and a night. The Dagda agreed, and Aengus thus became the sole inhabitant of Brú na Bóinne. Despite this incident, the Dagda was still laid to rest there after his death.

In The Death of the Tuatha de Dannan, Aengus killed his stepfather Elcmar after Elcmar slew his brother and foster-father Midir. In another tale, Aengus avenged his brother Cermait’s honor after the bard of King Lugh of the Long Arm slandered his name, saying Cermait had slept with Lugh’s wife.

Aengus’ foster-son, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, fell for Gráinne, who was engaged to Finn MacCool, the head of the Fianna. When the rival tribe discovered this affair, they pursued Diarmuid across Ireland. Aengus aided his foster-son as best he could, giving him shelter and arming him for future battles. Despite these efforts, Diarmuid was ultimately slain and his body brought back to Brú na Bóinne; Aengus would breathe life into it whenever he wished to speak to his deceased foster son.

Other Mythology

Aengus may have been a form of Maponos, a Britano-Gaullish god of youth known in Wales as Mabon ap Modron. He also resembled the Greco-Roman Eros (more commonly known as Cupid) in both his youth and association with love.

In both his poetry and ability to woo women, Aengus shared similarities with the Greek Apollo and Norse Odr. The name Aengus became quite popular, and several Irish characters have born the god’s name over the years. Many of these characters had unique titles in order to differentiate themselves from the god.

Pop Culture

Aengus has appeared in a number of popular works:

  • Aengus served as the lead antagonist of Hounded, the first book in the Iron Druid series;

  • Aengus appeared alongside his father in Hellboy: the Wild Hunt;

  • In The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Aengus guided the narrator through Tir na Og;

  • Aengus was the primary character of William Butler Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” in which he eternally sought for his lost love;

  • Aengus appeared as one of the gods of youth in James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold.

References

Bibliography

  1. Leahy, A.H., trans. “The Wooing of Etain.” Heroic Romances of Ireland, vol. II. London: David Nutt, 1906. Accessed 4 March, 2019, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/etain.html.

  2. Gantz, Jeffrey. “The Dream of Oengus.” Earth Irish Sagas. Accessed 4 March, 2019, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/oengus.html.

Footnotes

  1. “The Wooing of Etain” Tochmarc Étaíne 

Citation

About the Author

Gregory Wright is a writer and historian with an M.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.