The Harp of the Dagda Mór

An Irish Myth retold by Barra the Bard

It was after the Battle of Moytuirné between the Fomorians and the Tuatha de Danann, in which the Children of Danu were victorious, when the birds flew from the trees to be away from the clash and scream of the fighting, and the kine and other creatures refused to drink from the red-flowing streams and rivers, that the Morrigan, the grey raven of battles, called aloud a great vaunt of their victory.

The Tuatha returned to their camp and sat down to a great feast to celebrate their victory. They had eaten from the great cauldron of the Dagda Mór, and drunk from brimming tankards and cups. The Dagda had drawn the great Sword of Tethra that had fallen into his hands, and bidden it tell them the tale of its making and deeds, for a spirit lived inside it that had the power of speech.

Then the people called for the Dagda's harp-playing-and he found that the Harp was gone, carried off by the Fomorians.

“My sweet-tongued Harp is a captive!” said the Dagda. “But it shall be a silent mouth to them; no music shall they have from it. But who will go with me to rescue it?”

This was indeed a serious matter, for not only was it a great insult and shame that it had been stolen, but amongst its powers were its regulating the seasons' weather-vital for a folk that farmed as well as hunted.

Then Ogma the Artificer rose and said, “I will go!”

And Lugh Longarm also rose and said, “I will go!”

“Then ready yourselves and your weapons,” ordered the Dagda.

In a short time they went forth, with polished shields and spears so sharp that they cut sparks from the air. And they traveled over nine mountains, and nine valleys, and nine rivers, until they came to the camp of their enemies.

But where the camp of the Children of Danu was shining and fair, that of the Fomorians was cold and dark, for they had been defeated, and they had little to eat, and many to mourn.

When the three gods of skill came upon the edge of the camp, Ogma whispered to the Dagda, “There are many between us and them; how do you intend to gain it?”

For answer, the Dagda stood forth, his eyes like lightning sparks, stretched out his willow-slim arms, and called, “Come, Apple-Tree Murmur! Come, Melody's Hive! Come, Summer and Winter! Come, Oak of Two Green! Come, my Four-Angled Music!”

And the Harp lifted itself from where it had been hung upon the wall when they found no sound would come from it because of his enchantments and spells, and it came! Like a child running to its mother, like a maid to her lover, it came. Nine foes uprose to prevent it; and all fell, the first and last dead.

A cry swelled from the Fomorians, and Lugh said, “I think you should be playing your Harp!”

“I can do that,” said the Dagda, and swept his fingers across the strings. Out poured music of mirth and laughter, and the enemy found themselves laughing until the spears fell from their hands and the cups rolled broken upon the ground, and their feet danced-if they had seen their best-beloved slain before them, still the Music of Mirth, the Gentrai, would have forced them to rejoice.

When the music stilled, the men seized their spears and took a step towards the three heroes.

Ogma said, “I think you should be playing your Harp!”

“I can do that,” replied the Dagda, and smote the strings again, with Goltrai, the Music of Grief, so that the babes sobbed, the women wept, and the men drew their mantles across their faces that none would see the showers of tears falling from their eyes. No victory, no wonderful joy, could have kept them from the depths of grief.

Again the music faded, and the enemy advanced. Lugh said, “I think you should be playing your Harp!”

“I can do that,” said the Dagda, and this time touched the strings so lightly they seemed to barely stir-but the Fomorians, one and all, sank down where they were, deeply asleep, such was the enchanted power of the Suantrai, the Music of Comfort and Slumber.

Then did the three come away-or should I say four? And the Dagda never again lost his Harp, but gained one more fine tale to tell, and this is the end of it!

This legend is truly an ancient Irish myth, pre-Christian in origin. The version represented here was put together from several sources relating to Irish myth. For a direct translation from the Battle of Magh tuireadh, Harleian MSS. 5280, Brit. Mus. see the work of Professor Eugene O'Curry

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