Danu is the Irish mother goddess. She is the ancestor all Tuatha Dé Danann claim descent from, though she herself is a mystery. An ancient deity with no actual appearances in mythology, many scholars have attempted to derive her identity, and some believe she is a representation of the Danube River.
The roots of the name Danu are a matter of some debate among etymologists. Scholars who connect her to the Danube River point to other Indo-European-derived languages where the name danu means “to flow,” which may be a loanword from Scythian.
Another suggestion is that it comes from the Proto-Celtic duono, or “aristocrat,” which comes from the Proto-Indo-European dueno, meaning “good.”
Danu is the mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann, from whence they get their name. Their nobility, their unity, and their power all comes from her, if not their common heritage. In this she is a goddess of sovereignty and power, granting noble gifts to those noble born and able to rule. What these are and what they look like varies, but each king, chief, and Ollam of the Tuatha Dé Danann draws their power from her. As such, she is the bountiful goddess of creativity, of craftsmanship, and of skill, as these are the defining features of her children.
As a mother goddess, she is believed to have suckled many of the gods, and instilled in them wisdom. Given the migratory nature of the Tuatha Dé Danann in particular, she is a goddess of the wind, and an earth goddess, as all things in Ireland depend upon her blessings. This connection through the earth also ties her to the fairies, fairy mounds, and thus the many standing stones and dolmens of Ireland.
Many scholars theorize that she was a great river goddess. In many parts of the Celtic world, the most powerful mother goddesses are river, lake, or stream deities, and thus this association would draw back to what many scholars believe to be Celtic ancestral memory. The River Danube, one of Europe’s longest rivers, may be one of many rivers named in Danu’s honor. Yet as scholars debate potential migration patterns of the Celtic people (or perhaps the flow of Celtic culture), this theory has been challenged. Its popularity, however, remains.
Neopagan tradition has added much to Danu that was not present in Irish lore. In this she is a triple goddess, sometimes associated with the Morrígan but just as often a triple goddess all her own. Yet there is little unity in what Danu represents among neopagan traditions, and largely she is a blank slate for practitioners to use as they wish.
Of all of Danu’s features, the most well-established is her family. All members of the divine Tuatha Dé Danann descend from her in one way or another. All kings, warriors, craftsmen, musicians, tricksters, judges, poets, and athletes all hail from a single source: Danu. It is not known who her husband might have been, but in Irish tradition, it makes little difference, as Danu is acknowledged as their ancestor of note rather than any husband or father.
Eriu, though it should reach a road-end,
Banba, Fotla, and Fea,
Neman of ingenious versicles,
Danann, mother of the gods.
Danu appears in no myths or stories, and is only known through the name Tuatha Dé Danann, or “Children of the goddess Danu.” She is mentioned in passing as the mother of the gods in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, and this is her lone appearance in medieval Irish literature. Scholars, however, have attempted to derive some sense of the goddess despite a lack of sources.
Medieval Irish lore makes no mention of Danu other than to name her mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann. There is nothing to describe what kind of goddess she was, whence she hails, or what she might have been the goddess of, save an ancestral mother.
With the rise of Indo-European language and Celtic studies, she has been connected to other goddesses of a similar name (such as the the Hindu goddess of the same name) or to concepts popular across the Celtic world, such as the importance of waterways.
The most outstanding connection made is to the River Danube, one of Europe’s widest and longest rivers, that many Celtic migration patterns would have followed. The river’s name is believed to be Celtic or Scythian in origin, lending credence to this theory. Thus many believe that Danu is both a representation of and a call back to the ancient river, which may have been considered their ancestor.
Danu has been connected to a number of important Celtic deities both in and out of Ireland. The similarities to the name Anu or Annan, a member of the Morrígan, has led some to believe that this face of the Phantom Queen is in fact the mother goddess Danu. She may be connected to the Welsh god Dôn, who to some is a mother goddess of the Mabinogi; yet without a clear gender, it is just as likely that Dôn is a male god as female.
Outside of the Celtic world, there are many goddesses to whom Danu may be linked. The most obvious is one with whom she has the same name, the Hindu river goddess Danu. For many scholars this Indian-Irish connection points to a common Proto-Indo-European river goddess. Other goddesses include the Greco-Roman Gaea/Terra or Demeter/Ceres, and the Norse Jord.
In modern neopagan tradition, Danu is a mother goddess and triple goddess, sometimes seen as the most central of triple goddesses in Irish mythology due to the fact the gods are named for her. Outside of Annan, there is no clear connection to any other goddess (unless Danu is a title), and within neopagan traditions there is little consistency about the goddess or even stories attested to her.
Danu appears in several pieces of popular culture, including:
In the television series Sanctuary, Danu is the most prominent member of the Morrigan, able to learn English by touching the forehead of Will, one of the members of Sanctuary with whom she shares an intense, if brief, connection;
In the 2000 AD comic series Sláine, Danu is the mother goddess worshiped by the Sessair, the tribe of the namesake character, who battles the primeval forces and defends the world of men, though she is capricious and fickle;
The Irish folk band Danú derive their name from at least a similar source to the goddess, if not as an outright reference to her and the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Macalister, R.A.S., trans. Lebor Gabála Érenn. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1941. Accessed 11 March 2019, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/leborgabala.html.
Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí. The Sacred Isle: belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland. London: Boydell & Brewer, 1999.