B) The Isle of Ireland: Ériu, Banba and Fótla

The earlier designation of Ireland, Ériu, the anglicised form of which is Éire, dative Éirinn, genitive Éireann, derives from a Celtic form *Iveriu, signifying ‘land’.627 It is equated with Old Irish íriu, genitive írenn, meaning ‘land’ or ‘ground’, which was certainly the primary form of Ériu. The designation is already attested in Antiquity, for Greek writers used the word Iernē, e.g. Strabo (Ίέρνη), and later Iwernia, e.g. Ptolemy (Ίουερνία), to refer to Ireland.628 Moreover, the term Érainn ‘land-dwellers’, which is related to Ériu and is similar to Ptolemy’s Iverni (Ίoύερνοι),629 was used to designate several Celtic tribes living on the isle and more particularly in the south.630

From Ériu, Thomas O’Rahilly reconstructs the goddess name *Ēvernā or *Ēveriū. He maintains that Ériu is a Sun Goddess whose name must be understood as ‘the one who travels regularly, who moves in a customary course’, that is ‘the Regular Traveller’,631 an etymology* which is rejected by Osborn Bergin.632 O’Rahilly’s theory is all the more unlikely asÉriu does not bear any solar imagery in the literature.633 She is never described wearing circlets or rings inferring a connection with the sun or the moon. It is actually her lover, the Formorian king Elatha (‘Art’ or ‘Science’), who is portrayed in Cath Maige Tuired with golden-yellow hair, wearing five golden ‘wheels’ on his neck and travelling across the sea in a vessel of silver, possibly standing for the barque of the sun.634 These attributes may evidence that Elatha is the embodiment of the Sun. Moreover, in the Lebor Gabála Érenn [‘The Book of Invasions’], Ériu is partnered with a warrior-king, who may be the personification of the sun, since his name Mac Gréine signifies (‘Son of the Sun’).635 The imagery of those accounts tends to illustrate the archaic belief in the union of the Land-Goddess with the Sun God symbolizing the eternal cycle of Nature: the sun indeed fertilizes and grows the fields.636 As the following account exemplifies,Ériu is therefore not a sun-goddess but an earth-goddess par excellence.

In verse, Ireland is generally called by two other poetic names: Banba, originally Banbha meaning ‘[place of] women’s death’, and Fódla, earlier form Fótla, signifying ‘Swarded One’.637 As their names point out, they personify the land of Ireland. Banba may have primarily been the sovereign land-goddess of south Leinster and the plain of Meath, for old place names are reminiscent of her name in those areas.638 The Lebor Gabála Érenn [‘The Book of Invasions’] stages Ériu, Banba, Fótla as a trio of queen-goddesses, respectively married to the three Kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Mac Gréine (‘Son of the Sun’), Mac Cuill (‘Son of Hazel’) and Mac Cécht(‘Son of the Plough’), whose names reflect ancient solar, natural and agrarian functions completing the earth aspect of the goddesses.639

‘Trī meic Cermada Milbeōil meic Eachach Ollathair .i. Mac Cuill 7 Mac Cecht 7 Mac Grēine: .i. Mac Cuill, coll a dea 7 Ethur a ainm 7 Banba a ben ; Mac Cecht īarom, cecht a dea, Tethur a ainm, Fotla a ben ; Mac Grēne didiu, grīan a dea, Cethur a ainm, Hēriu a ben.
The three sons of Cermat Milbel s. Eochu Ollathair were Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, Mac Grene. Mac Cuill, the hazel god, Ethur his name, Banba his wife: Mac Cecht thereafter, the ploughshare his god, Tethur his name, Fotla his wife: Mac Greine further, the sun his god, Cethur his name, Eriu his wife.640

The Lebor Gabála Érenn [‘The Book of Invasions’] recounts that, after the defeat of the Tuatha Dé Danann by the human Sons of Míl, the three goddesses personifying the island met the three Kings and accepted their sovereignty, provided that their name would be on the island from that time on. Ériu met the Kings at Uisneach (Ushnagh, in County Westmeath), the ritual centre of Ireland, Banba at Sliabh Mis (Slieve Mish, County Kerry) and Fótla at Sliabh Eibhlinne (Slieve Felim, east County Limerick). This legend is obviously a medieval dramatization, but it illustrates the ancient belief of the land envisaged as a goddess:

‘Imacallsat Meic Mīled i Slēib Mis 7 Banba. Asbert Banba friu: Mās do gabāil hĒrenn tāncabair nīr bo chōir in sēn i tāncabair. Is dō ēcin, ol Amairgen Glūngel, in fili. Ascaid damsa ūaib dana, ol sī. Cia ascid, or siat. M’ainm for in innsi seo or sī. Caidhi t’ainm? or iat. Banba, or sī. Bīd ainm dond indsi seo, ol Amairgen.
The sons of Míl had colloquy with Banba in Sliab Mis. Said Banba unto them: If it be to take Ireland ye have come, not right were the good-fortune in which ye have come. It is by necessity, said Amorgen Gluingel, the poet. A gift from you to me then, said she. What gift? said they. That my name may be on this island, said she. Let it be a name for this island, said Armorgen.
Acallsat Fotla in Eblinniu. Atbert a cētna friu, 7 cuinchid a hainm for in n-insi. Atbert Amairgen: Bud ainm dond insi seo, Fotla.
They had colloquy with Fotla in Eblinne. She spake with them in like manner, and desired that her name should be upon the island. Said Amorgen: Let Fotla be a name upon this island.
Acallsat hĒrind in Uisniuch. Asbert friu: A ōcu, or sī, is mochen dūib; cian ōtā oc fāidib far tuidecht. Bud lib co brāth ind insi seo, 7 nī bia co airther in domuin inis bus ferr. Nī bia ciniud bas chomlāniu inda for [c]ciniud-si. Is maith sen, ol Amairgen; is maith ind fāstine. Nī ria bud maith a buide, ol Ēber Donn, sinser Mac Mīled, acht riar ndēib 7 riar cumachta fēin. Cumma duit, ol Ēriu; nī ba duit tarba na hindsi seo, 7 nī ba dot chlaind. Ascidh damsa, a Maccu Mīled 7 a chland Bregoin, ol sī; .i. m’ainm for in n-insi seo. Bid ē bas prīmainm dī, ol Amairgen.
They had colloquy with Ériu in Uisnech. She said unto them: Warriors, said she, welcome to you. Long have soothsayers had [knowledge of] your coming. Yours shall be this island for ever; and to the east of the world there shall not be a better island. No race shall there be, more numerous than yours. Good is that, said Amorgen; good is the prophecy. Not right there it to thank her, said Éber Donn, eldest of the sons of Míl; thank our gods and our own might. To thee ’tis equal, said Ériu; thou shalt have no profit of this island, nor shall thy progeny. A gift to me, ye sons of Míl, and ye children of Breogan, said she; that my name shall be on this island. It shall be its principal name, said Amorgen.641

Significantly, the Lebor Gabála Érenn [‘The Book of Invasions’] relates that the first invader of Ireland was a woman, called Cessair. Her name was used in poetry to designate Ireland; she is thus another emanation of the goddess embodying the isle.642 It recounts that Cessair fled the Flood and arrived with fifty women and three men at Dún na mBarc, on Bantry Bay, in County Cork, forty days before the Flood. One week after, she died with her fifty maidens of a disease in Cul Cessrach in Connachta. The five invaders who came to Ireland after her were Partholon, Nemed, The Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Sons of Míl. The text is the following:

‘Do gabāil Cassrach andso sīs, 7 dia scēlaib rīa ndīlinn. Ceist: Cia cēta rogab Hērinn ar tūs, īar Tustin talman? Ninsa. Cessair, ingen Betha meic Nōe meic Lāmiach, dalta-side Sabaill meic Manūail […].
Of the Taking of Cessair here below, and of the tales told her of her before the Flood. Who first took Ireland in the beginning, after the Creation of the World? Cessair, daughter of Bith s. Noe s. Lamech; fosterling was she of Saball s. Manual […].643

The Lebor Gabála Érenn [‘The Book of Invasions’] also stipulates that the first woman who invaded Ireland was Banba. Similarly, it recounts that she came with one hundred and fifty women and that she gave her name to Ireland after dying of an illness:

‘Cia didida cia [sic] ragab Erinn iar tusmid talman? Is ed isbert Lebar Droma Snechta comad Banba ainm na ced ingine fogabad Erinn ria ndílind, .i. comad uaithi nobet Banba for Erinn. Tri cόicait ogh do dechaid 7 triar fer. […] Catracha bliadan badar is an indsi: dosainic iaram galar, conerbailtar uili an aen sechtmain.
Now who (was the first) who took Ireland after the creation of the world? This is what the Book of Druim Snechta says, that Banba was the name of the first woman who found Ireland before the Flood, and that from her Ireland is called ‘Banba’. With thrice fifty maidens she came and three men. […] Forty years were they in the island: thereafter a disease came upon them, so that they all died in one week.644

It is of great interest to note that this paragraph (167) of the Lebor Gabála Érenn [‘The Book of Invasions’] is an extract from the Leabhar Droma Sneachta [‘The Book of Drumnat’], also called Cín Droma Sneachta [‘Quire of Druim Snechta’]. This manuscript, which has been lost since the Middle Ages, was written in County Cavan in the early 8th c.645 This early text offers an independent account of the story of the Antediluvians and attests of the antiquity of Banba as a divine figure, who was later supplanted by the humanized character of Cessair.646 Another interesting point is the idea of the goddess dying and giving her name to the land. It explains and illustrates how the goddess literally becomes the land. This pattern is well-known in Irish mythology and the texts sometimes describe the land as though it was the body of the goddess.


O’Rahilly, 1946a, p. 10 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 191 ; Vries, 1963, p. 136.


Strabo, in his Geography, 1.4.3, written in c. 19 AD, was the first to use the term Iernē (Ίέρνη), the most common and long-lasting name for Ireland among the Greek writers, used until the end of the Roman empire. For Ptolemy, Geography, 1.2, see Freeman, 2001, pp. 38-39, 66-67. In Latin, it became Hibernia by the contamination of the word hibernus (e.g. Caesar, Pliny and Tacitus).


Ptolemy, Geography, 8.3 ; see Freeman, 2001, pp. 74-75: “Ptolemy himself notes that the town of Iwernis has the same basic name as Ireland (Iwernia).”


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 204-206


O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 297 ; O’Rahilly, 1946a, p. 26 sees a root *ēv < *ēiv and compares it to Sanskrit ēva, which signifies ‘to hasten’ or ‘course’, ‘habit’ and thus believes in a solar deity moving according to her usual course.


Bergin, 1946, pp. 147-53 ; Vries, 1963, p. 136, note 1.


O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 305 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 192.


Elatha and Ériu’s union gave birth to the King Eochaid Bres and triggered the war between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhoire off. Gray, 1982, § 16-24 and p. 123 ; O’Rahilly, 1946a, p. 27 ; O’Rahilly, 1946, pp. 304-305 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 177.


Macalister, 1941, pp. 152-153, 122-123, 182-183 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 192 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 318.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 192.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 30 (Banba) and p. 191 (Fótla) ; Hogan, 1910, p. 95. For instance, Fótla is used as the personification of Ireland in the poetry of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn (1550-1617) ; see Mackillop, 2004, p. 237.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 30 ; Makillop, 2004, p. 33.


Vendryes, 1997, p. 44 ; De Vries, 1963, pp. 164-165 ; O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 304 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 317-318.


Macalister, 1941, pp. 152-153 and 122-123, 182-183.


Macalister, 1956, pp. 34-37, 76-79.


Mackillop, 2004, p. 86.


Macalister, 1939, pp. 180-183.


Macalister, 1939, pp. 176-177, § 167, also told pp. 184-185, § 175, pp. 196-197, § 187.


Macalister, 1939, p. 167.


Carey, 1987, p. 40.