Donn, Lord of the Dead

Halloween is the Christian overlay of a celebration far more ancient, a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain. Halloween is thought to be when the dead and the undead walk the earth, bringing havoc  and fear to the living. This is how the good Christian people were encouraged to think of the ancient Gods, ancestors, and fairy-folk, or Sidhe, who were originally honoured at Samhain. As far as we can tell, the ancient Irish people never had a God of the Dead, so who was Donn?

Halloween is fast approaching, and here in Ireland the houses are already decorated, children are planning their trick-or-treat costumes, and the pumpkins in the shops are selling out as people turn their skills to lantern carving. It’s a fun time of year, but few are aware of the festival’s origins, and the true meaning has been all but lost to commercialism and Christian interpretation.

Halloween is the Christian overlay of a celebration far more ancient, a pagan Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sau-ween). Samhain marks the end of the year’s harvest, and the beginning of winter, and begins at sunset on October 31st  and lasts until the sunset of the following day. Cattle were brought down from mountain pastures, and the weakest of them killed for their meat to last through the winter. As at Beltaine, bonfires were lit, and the spirits of the ancestors, and the Gods were remembered and honoured.

Unable to suppress these customs, during the C9th, the Roman Catholic church decided to move All Saints Day from May 13th to Nov 1st, followed by the celebration of All Souls Day on Nov 2nd. In time, these three occasions eventually merged to become Halloween as we know it today.

Halloween is thought to be when the dead and the undead, and all manner of creepy ghouls and mischievous souls walk the earth, bringing havoc  and fear to the living. This is how the good Christian people were encouraged to think of the ancient Gods, ancestors, and fairy-folk, or Sidhe, who were originally honoured at Samhain.

As far as we can tell, the ancient Irish people (amended from ‘Celts’. Please see comments below) never had a God of the Dead. The Otherworld was said to be the domain of Manannán, God of the Sea, but the myths and legends do not tell of him being a God of the Dead. However, there is someone, a mere mortal, who has come to be associated with this role.

Donn was a leader of the Milesians, who invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuatha de Danann roughly four thousand years ago, or thereabouts. The Milesians were a race of mortal man, not supernatural beings like the Danann. There are conflicting versions of Donn’s story… well, this is Irish mythology we’re talking about, nothing is quite what it seems, and part of its allure is that the truth of it can never be pinned down.

When the Milesians arrived off the coast of Ireland in their mighty fleet of ships, a great storm blew up, scattering the ships up and down the breadth of the island. Many of the ships perished, along with all those on board. Some say it was the Danann Druids who raised the storm, in an attempt to protect their land. In any case, Donn was lost at sea, along with twenty four of his companions.

It is said that Donn met his death at Bull Rock, which lies just off the western coast of Dursey Island, Cork. It’s an impressive, craggy lump of rock jutting out out of the foaming ocean, which now has a light-house on it. Here is an amazing picture of Bull Rock. However, his body was supposedly buried at the nearby Skellig Islands.

As the first of the Milesians to die in this invasion of Ireland, and being of high status, Donn’s position soon became elevated to Lord of the Dead. It was said that the Lord made his home at the place of his death, and called it Teach Duinn. It was said that he also had a home in the land of the living, at Knockfierna in Co Limerick. People believed that on stormy nights, he rode across the sky on a white horse, and they would say, “Donn is gallopping in the clouds, tonight.”

In later years, it was believed that after their deaths, the dead continued to walk in the land of the living as ‘shades’ until they heard the sound of Donn’s horn at Samhain, calling them to Teach Duinn, from where they travelled west over the sea to the Otherworld. The Christians, however, claimed that these were the souls of the damned, lingering at Bull Rock before passing on into Hell.

It’s interesting that the places so closely associated with Donn lie so near to Valentia Island. Valentia was said to be the home of the powerful blind sorcerer, Mogh Ruith, who was also thought to be a sun-deity. As such, he would have been seen as the opposite to Donn’s darkness.

Grateful thanks to Carri Angel Photography for the kind use of their stunning image (header)

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32 Comments on “Donn, Lord of the Dead

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  7. A Lord of Dead who galloping in the cloud sounds so much cooler than the “Death Entourage” in our Chinese mythology.

    The underworld in Chinese myth is sooo complicated.
    It has so many layers that I think the most senior priest do not remember each of their names.

    The most well-known figures are: The King of Hell who never leaves his realm and his “death bringer team”.

    The latter one consists of many ghost lead by four figures:
    a man in white with a tongue so long it touches his belly button,
    a black-faced man in black garb who is always wet,
    a minotaur-like creature
    and a horse-faced creature.

    If you visit a traditional Chinese temple one day, please ask around if it has an underworld diorama (there is – usually – at least murals of underworld) which never fails to scare any child into tears.


    • Wow that does sound complicated… and most intriguing! I hope I do get the chance to visit China one day… if so, I will definitely follow your advice… although if its really scary, there’s a good chance it wont be the children in tears!


      • I remember the 1st time I visited the ash – keeping room in our local temple (it is the room with such murals). It was such a frightening experience for me.

        They renovated the temple several years ago and the room is not as scary anymore.
        (which I think is a good thing for me because I have to go there several times in a year to offer incenses!)

        Wow, your posts really spark things on my head. I am full of ideas to write several posts now. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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  9. Ali, thanks so much for following my blog — I return the compliment and look forward to your wonderful story-telling — always thought the Irish and the Indians have that in common — a great passion for a good tale. Also plan to reblog your work if that is ok with you — not right now, because I just posted, but in the next couple days. Much love from deep south India!


    • Hi Mira thanks for following my blog! I recently read your book and loved it! I didnt realise you were living in India now… its a country I would love to visit.

      Yes, in the roots of some words in the old Irish language there are similarities with the Indian language, and also in some of our deities and myths. Some believe that that is where the origins of our myths and beliefs lie. I’m open minded about that. Its certainly colourful and full of energy, and I enjoy it for what it is, rather than try to decipher the ‘truth’ in it. It doesnt seem many people can do that; if they cant find a concrete fact in the mythology, they dismiss it as rubbish and worthless. Such a shame!

      Please feel free to reblog anything from my site you feel is of interest to your followers… I am honoured!


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  11. When you say that “the Celts never had a God of the Dead,” you may not be doing justice to the Welsh tradition, which tells of Arawn ruler of Annwn, the Brythonic underworld. Arawn appears in the First Branch of Mabinogion, in which he changes places with Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. He is also a major player in Cad Goddeu (“Battle of the Trees”), the poem which so enthralled Robert Graves. “Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the waiting of Arawn.”


    • My apologies, Michael. You are right, I am certainly aware of the Welsh mythology. I was thinking specifically of the Irish Celts, and should have made that clear. Thank you for pointing that out to me, and thank you for taking the time to read and comment… I appreciate it!


  12. At Halloween at our school there used to be a row of pumpkins hanging on the school railings in company with one solitary turnip (could have been a swede) belonging to us. I felt pretty short changed at the time but perhaps it was just my Irish mother being a traditionalist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess she was, but those little details can be so traumatising to a child!!! I’ve never tried, but they’re meant to be so much harder to carve… they’re hard enough to chop up for dinner!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Still, I’d rather stick a candle in one than eat the horrible things. Sorry turnip lovers. 😀 We see the same Christianisation of pagan festivals where I live with the well dressing. Nobody told 8 year old me what I was doing when I danced around that maypole!

        Liked by 2 people

  13. Great post. Although I am left wondering what on earth happened to Irish Halloween, when we carved turnip heads for a lantern and left a candle burning on the window sill to light the way for the souls of the dead? And we sure as God/ess did not call it trick or treating!
    I would worry less about the Christianisation of pagan festivals and worry more about the Americanisation of pagan festivals!
    On another note though, I believe that all huge religious changes happen when humanity is in need of further growth. The early Christians were wonderful healers and mystics, until they came under the control of Rome! Most of them were killed by the new ‘Christians’!
    I do love our Irish mythology however. Magical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you are so right about that, the Americanisation and the early Christians. I once went to a Celtic Christian wedding, ( please excuse my ignorance, if there is a particular name for it), and I was struck by how ‘pagan’ it felt, how beautiful and natural and informal the service was.

      Perhaps by .Americanisation, you mean how commercial and far removed from religion it has become? In any case, in my opinion, it has become a parody of what it once was, and its not something I enjoy. Where I live, we have a pumpkin festival. One of the most anticipated events is the parade. The street is plunged into darkness, and we have fire-eaters, primeval drum-beating which gets right into your blood, a bonfire and fireworks over the lake. This is something which feels more like what our ancestors may have experienced, I always think!

      Yes we need growth, and it is change which enables that. I think we are seeing a slow return to core values, but its going to be a long, slow revolution, lol! And I don’t really think it is something led by religion.

      As to the old customs of Irish Halloween, I’ve left them to my next post!

      Thanks for reading, and for your comments!


      • Ah, looking forward to that then!
        By Americanisation I mean the Trick or treat thing, and the pumpkins! We never went door to door with the intention of punishing those who gave us nothing! We went for peanuts and oranges and sweets! We made our own costumes and wore them, even if it was only an old sheet! Far more fun! The old men used to tell us terrifying stories around the fire and we believed everyone of them. Watching a horror movie would never have occurred to us! People still had stories to tell! Hey ho!
        I wonder what it will be like in another 40 years?
        How times have changed!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Mishka! If anything I have written has contributed to inspiring you in any way, that is the biggest compiment you could give!!!

      Liked by 2 people

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