The fun thing about interpretation is that, even if the writers didn’t intend to convey something, it can still be gleaned by someone else. We all like to see our experiences reflected in the popular culture we consume, and my long-standing adoration with Dragon Age is no exception. My father emigrated from Ireland before I was born, and while half my family still calls fair Éire home, I proudly consider myself half-Irish. With my identity steeped in the lore that came before, it goes without saying that days like St. Paddy’s hold cultural significance for me. Thus, it’s basically inevitable that I would interpret my heritage within the world of Thedas. While I don’t presume to be an expert in historical accuracy, I’d like to touch on a few significant points in Irish mythology within the lens of Bioware’s trilogy, particularly having to do with the elves.
It’s difficult to discuss the tales of ancient Ireland without first understanding that much of the stories we associate with that time were primarily shared verbally. When Christian monks put ink to paper in an effort to preserve these myths, you can imagine their own bias misinterpreted or otherwise omitted entire parts of Irish lore. Though even in this, there’s a clear parallel to the history of the elves: what details the Dalish have managed to preserve is, ultimately, shaped by the remaining people who are still able to tell it. Striking monuments of stone and glass are all that’s left of a once formidable people worshipped as gods.
This brings me to the Tuatha Dé Danann, or the ‘People of the Goddess Danu,’ and how they relate to the ancient elves of the Dragon Age games. Prepare thyself for nerdy rambling!
“We are the last Elvhen.
Never again shall we submit.”
One of the great tribes of ancient Ireland, the Danann are said to have ruled over their conquered domain from 1897 BCE to 1700 BCE. Despite this seemingly short period of time, their arrival was an incredible spectacle of “dark clouds” that “brought a darkness over the sun for three days and three nights,” according to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, a collection of poems from accounts long after this time. It’s safe to say their party arrived in style. The Danann were recognized by their people as immortals, all gifted with skills that had yet to be seen by the world, as well as some seriously powerful magic. Starting to sound familiar?
While we’re framing these comparisons by what the elves in Thedas believe of their history—notwithstanding all egg-headed commentary—there are obvious parallels to note here. The elves’ revered gods are known as The Creators, a race of ageless people also gifted with immense magical power. Leading the pack (haha) was Mythal, the goddess of motherhood, who commanded great respect and reverence, just as Danu existed as a symbol to the people who worshipped her. Each are pivotal fixtures within a diverse assembly of gods and leaders, though so few stories survive of either goddess that could possibly depict them faithfully. It’s a sad reality for both women of legend, and not an uncommon one—even by today’s standards.
Known as the ‘Land of the Young,’ Tír na nÓg stands within the realm of the otherworld where gods and spirits presumably continue to convene among like minds. The Danann made their home there as often as they presided over ancient Ireland, and it should come as no great surprise that these gods spared no expense when describing the décor. Only accessible by sea or passage through Sidhe, or Irish earth mounds, time was a foreign concept in this space of great beauty and knowledge.
Ancient elves similarly claimed a center of political and cultural significance for their own. The lost city of lath’an, or ‘Arlathan,’ acted as a honing beacon for all elven kind—a meeting point to which all of their greatest minds made pilgrimage. Here, time also stood still for its inhabitants, a mythical world untouched by the ages and preserved through immense magical power. Some of that concept still lingers when you meet Abelas and the unchanging elves who remain, but we’ll get to the Temple of Mythal in a minute. For now, enjoy the mental image of an assembly of gods sipping wine and judging mortals. Now where’s my Facebook invite?
One of the four treasures brought to Ireland when the Danann conquered, ‘Dagna’s Cauldron’ symbolized both a relic of mysterious power as well as a ritual object to directly interact with. Its contents could never be emptied, and all who sought to drink from its depths were left satisfied. The cauldron itself was owned by the god Dagna, son of Danu, and symbolized the healing power of the sea and rainfall. In some works of art, warriors were depicted being dipped into the cauldron itself by the hand of a god, and their wounds were healed thereafter.
This symbol of rebirth and renewal bears a strong resemblance to the Well of Sorrows, a shallow pool preserved by the ancient elves who guard the Temple of Mythal erected around it. For the person who wades into its depths, knowledge and understanding of untold power is gifted to them from the elves who came before. They depart restored after the ritualistic ceremony of wading through water infused with magic. Even in Inquisition, the Well remains standing as a formidable, magical relic possessed by the gods and marked by the statue of Mythal that presides at its edge.
“The ancient elves left no roads,
Only ruins hidden in far-flung corners.”
Megalithic sites like the ‘Palace of the Boyne’ offer a physical space by which people today can convene with the ancient past. In particular, these earth mounds and enclosures were revered as passages between the living world and beyond it, or rather, places where that boundary exists at its weakest. This harkens back to the variety of eluvian mirrors we encounter in our exploration of Dragon Age, and how they represent the boundary between the living world and that of the eternal. They stand as physical markers of a once ancient, magical time in history, and are all but the last visual remnants of a time long past.
If you bring Solas along in your party when visiting sites that hold ancient artifacts such as these, he frequently comments, “The veil is thin here,” which is the same for the great passages of the Brú na Bóinne. Morrigan also speaks at length with the Inquisitor about how the eluvian mirrors acted as doorways, or paths that the immortal elves would take to reach places both in the Crossroads and beyond. So too did the Danann travel to the otherworld this way, though what was once their gateway would later become their cell. This brings me to their end, which is an eventuality that all gods must face, for the only thing eternal about immortal kind is their stories.
When the Danann were overthrown by the invading Milesians (known to modern historians as the Gaels), it’s said that a bargain was struck in good faith once the warring stopped. But the Gaels were cunning, and offered to split the lands of Ireland if they were allowed to stake their claim first. When the Danann agreed, the conquerers chose the land above ground, which then left the gods of old to preside over the lands below. They were forced to depart beyond the mortal world through the Sidhe. It’s perhaps most intriguing that their passing was forever shielded by the féth fíada, or ‘magic mist,’ that would forever conceal the gods from mortal eyes.
As with the Danann, the elves of modern Thedas believe their gods were similarly sealed away after the machinations of a rival power, though this time, it was one of their own. It’s said that Fen’Harel betrayed the trust of the ancient elven gods, sealing them away from the living world for all time. At least, that’s what the elves of modern day share in their retelling of The Great Betrayal. We can speculate that the fall of the Danann and their place in the world was also misconstrued in the years hence, but that would constitute an entirely new article and a hell of a lot of insular art. (It’s hilarious. Google some examples.)
All that said, there’s a distinct commonality when it comes to all aspects of human history: storytelling. Sweeping, epic tales of gods, magic, and the spiritual world persist even today. When you weave common themes understood across all boundaries that otherwise divide people and their respective cultures, you start to see a pattern. Humans have always communicated their lives through story. That is a long-standing tradition that won’t ever change. Or, you know, we could just keep writing about elves. That’ll do it for me.
Sláinte agus táinte!