While Eros from Greek mythology and his equivalent Cupid from Roman mythology may be the most famous deities devoted to romantic love, they are by no means the only divine beings capable of making us swoon.
Irish mythology is rife with tales of star-crossed lovers, and at the center of many of them (or, more often than not, hovering in the background), is Aengus Óg, the Irish god of love and youthful pleasures.
What’s in a Name?
As is the case with many gods of Irish and Celtic mythology, there is no universally agreed upon spelling for the Irish god of love. He is alternately referred to as Aenghus, Aengus, Angus, Aonghus, Aongus, Óengus, and Oíngus. What we can all agree on, however, is that his title “Óg” means “young” (just as it does in the Irish language). Hence, Aengus Óg translates to “Aengus the Young.”
But what about his first name? What are the origins of “Aengus?” According to Mythopedia, one of my favorite Irish mythology resources, the name comes from the proto-Celtic words oino (one) and gus (strength). But as Irish author Lora O’Brien points out, the name has been interpreted in several ways. The most common interpretation for Aengus is “true vigor.”
If only that were end of the story. Because it turns out Aengus Óg also went by another title: Mac Óg, variants of which include Maccan Óc, Mac Óc, Mac ind Óg, Mac ind Óic, Mac in Dá Óc, and In Mac Óc. Instead of getting further bogged down by linguistic nuances, I’ll jump to the conclusion: This alternate name for the love-god likely means “the young son” or “the young boy,” which is fitting given both Aengus’s association with youth and his physical appearance.
Let’s Get Physical
Aengus Óg was renowned for his beautiful and youthful physical appearance. But his most distinguishing feature was the the flock of four birds perpetually aflutter around his head. These birds were said to be physical manifestations of the love-god’s kisses, and like Cupid’s mythical arrows, they had the power to charm and romantically influence those they came in contact with.
Of course, even gods of love are not strangers to war, and Aengus Óg was always well-prepared for battle. He possessed four legendary weapons from Irish mythology, which he received from the sea-god Manannán mac Lir: Two swords—Great Fury (Fraoch Mór, or Moralltach) and Little Fury (Fraoch Beag, or Beagalltach)—and two spears—Red Javelin a.k.a. Red Spear (Gae-Ruadh, or Gáe Dearg) and Yellow Spear (Gáe Buide).
Aengus Óg would later pass these mythical weapons down to his foster-son, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne (Diarmuid of the Love Spot), a warrior of the Fianna.
Aengus Óg was the son of the Dagda, the father of the gods, and Boann (sometimes Boand), a water-goddess whose name means “she of the white cattle.”
Boann was married to another man (Elcmar of the Bruig) when the Dagda began feeling the warm-and-fuzzies toward her. So he did what any reasonable god would do and sent the husband away on an errand that lasted nine months but felt like one day. In the meantime, Boann and the Dagda got busy, and Boann gave birth to Aengus Óg. The husband, Elcmar, was none-the-wiser.
As a result of this unusual, time-bending origin, Boann gave Aengus the title Óg, saying:
“Young is the son who was begotten at break of day and born betwixt it an evening.”(source: Peter Berresford Ellis, A Dictionary of Irish Mythology)
As mentioned earlier, Aengus Óg became a foster father to Diarmuid Ua Duibhne and famously aided him (and his forbidden love, Gráinne) during the events of “The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne.” When Diarmuid eventually met his demise at the hands—or tusks, rather—of his step-brother (who had been turned into a magical boar), Aengus Óg placed Diarmuid’s body on a gilded bier and, by breathing a soul into it, was able to temporarily resurrect his foster-son and engage in conversation with him.
Aengus Óg’s ability to the resurrect the dead parallels the resurrection powers of his father, the Dagda. With one swing of his giant club, called Lorg Mór (The Great Staff), the Dagda could slay nine enemies—and with one touch from the handle of that same club, he could revive those slain.
Home Sweet Home
What does a palace fit for the Irish god of love look like? See for yourself.
According to legend, Aengus Óg lived at Brú na Bóinne (“Palace of the Boyne” or “Mansion of the Boyne “) in what is now County Meath, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Dublin. Also known as Bruigh na Bóinne or Brugh na Bóinne, the now-historic site sits in the bend of the River Boyne and features three massive passage tombs: Knowth, Dowth, and, the most famous of the trio, Newgrange.
As the story goes, when the invading Milesians defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann (the ancient gods of Ireland, which included Aengus and the Dagda), they were driven underground. It was the Dagda’s job to assign each god a sídhe, or hill, that they could call home. Thus, the Tuatha Dé Danann became the people of the hills, or aes sídhe… better-known as fairies (the most famous of which is the bean sídhe, or banshee).
But here’s the thing: The Dagda refused to designate Brú na Bóinne as Aengus’s official sídhe because he wanted to keep it for himself. After confronting Aengus about the matter, Aengus made his dad promise that he be allowed to spend a day and a night at the old palace before he left. The Dagda agreed, only to learn later that he’d been deceived. Through the use of some subtle, poetic wordplay, Aengus had actually gotten his dad to promise that he could live at Brú na Bóinne day and night, i.e. eternity. So Aengus stayed in his palace—and also solidified his reputation as being a cunning poet and trickster.
Finding the Girl of His Dreams
In the story “The Dream of Aengus,” Aengus Óg dreamt of a beautiful maiden and fell in love with her, making it his life’s mission to find her.
Of course, finding a literal dream-girl is no easy task, so he asked his mother Boann for help, who in turn enlisted the help of her brother, the god Bodb Dearg (also given as Bodb Derg and Bodhbh Dearg). However, in some versions, Bodb, like Aengus, is a son of the Dagda, which makes the family tree considerably more entangled. Moving on…
Bodb helped Aengus identify the maiden of his dreams as Cáer Ibormeith, daughter of Ethal Anubhail (or Anbuail) of the sídhe Uaman (or Uamuin) in Connacht. At this point, Aengus asked the king and queen of Connacht, Ailill and Medb, to persuade Ethal to give him his daughter. What a romantic! But Ethal replied that it wasn’t his decision to make—not because he had super modern or enlightened notions of courtship, mind you, but because his daughter Cáer had shape-shifted into a swan. (How has this not been the plot of a rom-com yet?)
If Aengus wanted to be with Cáer, he’d need to go to the Loch Bel Dragon (Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth) on the Feast of Samhain, identify her among a hundred and fifty other swans, and then convince her that he was her soulmate. The smooth-talking god of love succeeded on all fronts, and Aengus and Cáer lived together, happily ever after, at the palace by the Boyne.
P.S. Are you the romantic type?
Irish mythology is full tales of romance, ripe for reimagining in the fantasy genre. These are the top 14 Celtic fantasy romance novels.
Not the romantic type? Learn about the darker side of Irish mythology…
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More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.