Donn was the first to die.
The storytellers don't always say this, as they spin the threads frayed through time and broken tradition. Instead, they say, Éber Donn was the eldest of the seven or eight sons of Míl, brother of Amergin. Sometimes, they say he cursed his brother Ír as he rowed toward Ériu, causing the oar to break and Ír to drown – a crime that made his Druidic brother judge him as unworthy of landing (Jones). Other times, they say he landed and insulted the land-goddess herself, refusing to thank her for their victory. “Thank our gods and our own might,” he retorted (Lebor Gabala Érenn). In return, Ériu cursed him and his progeny to never benefit from the land.
When the Sons of Míl went behind the ninth wave to make their approach, Donn – some tellers say – planned to put the isle's inhabitants to the sword and claim the land for his people. But a great wind caused his ship to founder, drowning him and several of his brothers at the island of Tech Duinn (Lebor Gabala). It was, some storytellers say, due to his insult to the goddess or punishment of his bloodthirsty nature (Rolleson). In the Metrical Dindsennchas, Donn instead climbs the mast of his ship to utter incantations against the Tuatha de Danann, and is cursed by them with disease. Rather than allow the illness he carries to spread to the mainland, Donn consents to being left on the rocky shore of Tech Duinn. As in other tales, the magical wind causes his ship to founder and he drowns, and is later buried on the rocky island (Gwynn 311).
But beneath the unlikely mythic history of the Invasions runs another truth: Donn was the first to die, but not on the coast of Ireland. He is, in short, the first ancestor – the first human to suffer death, and thus the ruler of the land of the dead.
According to Caesar, the Gauls claimed to be descended from Dis – another name of Roman Pluto or Greek Hades – whom they claim as a common father (Chadwick 146). This is a teaching of the Druids, Caesar relates in The Gallic Wars. This identification with the dead influences their timekeeping system, Caesar notes: “Because of this they measure time by the passing of nights, not days. Birthdays and the beginnings of months and years all start at night” (Freeman 43). The First Ancestor thus continues to influence the lives of his many children, establishing their traditions and ultimately greeting them in death.
Abounding in furious horses
Akin to the Greek Hades, the Celtic God of the Dead is aloof, dwelling apart from the rest of the Tuatha de Danann. His name means “dark,” but also the color brown, the hue of the earth and graves. It's a name with old roots, deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root dhus-no for dark or dusky one (Lincoln 35). He was also called Donn Tétscorach, with the latter word seeming to mean “abounding in furious horses,” according to scholar James MacKillop (117). Those furious horses make an appearance in the lore: they are the swift steeds ridden by the three red men in the tale of Da Derga's hostel, whose appearance announces the High King's doom.
“We ride the steeds of Donn Tétscorach from the elfmounds. Though we are alive we are dead,” the riders tell doomed king Conaire Mór. “Great are the signs: destruction of life: sating of ravens: feeding of crows, strife of slaughter: wetting of sword-edge, shields with broken bosses in hours after sundown” (The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel). The omens of death are thus coupled with swift horses whom none can outrun, ridden by spirits between both life and death. It's an image reminiscent to that of the Wild Hunt: the wild dash of Otherworldly riders, associated with the dead.
Donn Tétscorach ultimately becomes conflated with Donn mac Miled of the Invasions, even down to the eponymous island off the southwestern coast: Tech Duinn, the House of Donn. In the pseudo-historical Invasions lore, the island host only the graves of Donn and several other children of Mil. In folklore, however, Tech Duinn is the grave of all mankind; it is Donn's hall, where he hosts the spirits of all those who died, whether on a permanent basis as the Land of the Dead or a temporary one as a way-station to other Otherworld lands or rebirth. The island itself is an inhospitable rocky outcrop, today called Bull Rock and home to a lighthouse
In County Limerick, Tech Duinn isn't an island but a hill with a function akin to a sidhe-mound: Cnoc Firinne. There, the god was known as Donn Firinne, and associated with weather, storms and – again with the equine theme – a white horse. Scholar Sharynne Paice MacLeod notes that people believed they would be brought into Cnoc Firinne after death (57), a function remarkably similar to that of Tech Duinn. Interestingly, Cnoc Firinne means “Hill of Truth.”
Whatever his guise or mythic origin, Donn ultimately represents the oldest reality of all: that of mortality. As the ninth century poet Maél Muru of Othan describes his burial:
A stone cairn was raised across the broad sea for his people,
A long-standing ancient house, which is named the House of Donn after him.
And this was his mighty testament for his hundredfold offspring:
“You shall come to me, to my house, after your death.” (Lincoln 34)
Whether that last statement is viewed as a statement of the afterlife or strictly an allegory – all men must die – is left to the reader.
The Man and the Twin
Befitting the Lord of Death, Donn may be one of the most ancient gods in the Irish pantheon, with firm Proto-Indo-European roots. He has a good deal in common with the Indian Yama, a Vedic god of death who, like Donn, was also the first to die.
Yama means “twin” and in Hindu myth he is the brother of Yami, goddess of the Yamuna river. But Puhvel, noting that Hindu mythology tends to double figures in male-female pairs, believes that his twin is truly Manu, progenitor of humanity, who introduces both sacrifice and religious law. Manu, in fact, makes his twin the first sacrifice (Puhvel 286). Bruce Lincoln speculates that Donn's original name may be Emon, or Twin, in line with the Proto-Indo-European root Yemo, also the source of Yama's name.
Modern Druid Ceiswr Serith, in his reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European mythology and religion, names the pair of primordial twins Yemós (“Twin”) and Mannus (“Man”). Mannus functions as the first priest, making his brother the first blood sacrifice – initiating both religious law and the Underworld. “Yemós gets into the very structure of the world, while Mannus stays behind and starts history rolling,” Serith writes (57).
This pattern is repeated in the story of Donn and his brother Amergin. Described as a poet, the latter acts largely as a Druid priest: offering magical incantations that allow him to call the powers of the land and claim it for his people, as well as parlaying with the Gods (the Tuatha de Danann). His judgment of Donn after Ír's death – or, in the Dindshenchas, his statement that Donn will die of disease – could be seen as a death-curse, a magical sacrifice of his brother. In all the tales of the Sons of Mil, Amergin and Donn are opposites even as they are repeatedly shown together: peace and war, magic and physicality, life and death, sacrificer and sacrificed.
What is the nature of Donn's realm – the twin realm of the Dead? Bruce Lincoln describes the kingdom of Yemo as “a happy one, a paradise where sickness, cares, death, and extremities of climate are all unknown” (41). It is, in short, a paradise similar to other Otherworld isles: Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise; Mag Mell, the Delightful Plain; Tír na nÓg, Land of the Young.
Leader of the Wild Hunt, first ancestor, Lord of the Dead, Donn shows us the pathway to the Otherworld and greets us in his hall after our death.
Donn, the dark one, the brown one, hue of the Earth! Donn, the dark one, first of the Sons of Mil! First ancestor, first one to tread and tend Death's halls, you who entered the Otherworld through the waters of the southwest so soon after sighting Eriu. Donn, dark one, brown one, hue of the Earth! You who welcome us at the Western Isle of Tech Duinn as we make our passage from this life to the next. Father whose halls make room for all the mighty hosts, in whose house we rest at the end of our life-journey, be welcome, welcome and thrice welcome!
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