A while back, a well-meaning friend gave me a book called "A Druid's Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year." While I have to admit that the book does have some useful information as far as herbology goes, the mythological and theological approach the author took was frustrating, to say the least. I can't help it; anytime someone goes around saying that Morrighan is a triple goddess, I kind of want to smack them. (She isn't. The triple goddess concept is not Celtic.)
Now, I could continue to pick apart all the nonsense the author said about Morrighan, but I'll settle for telling you that if you decide to read or have read that book, you might as well disregard everything the author says about Morrighan. Today, there's another deity I feel I need to stand up for. And that god is Diancecht.
Poor Diancecht has such a bad reputation. In the retelling of his story in "A Druid's Herbal," as well as retellings I've heard many other Pagans repeat, it's the same thing. "He's angry! He's jealous! He murdered his son!" Ok, so that last one may be true, but that's not what I'm going to focus on at the moment. It is the words "angry" and "jealous" that I get hung up on when people try to tell his myth, and I'm going to try to explain why.
The story in question occurs after the battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolg. Nuadu's hand had been cut off, and Diancecht created for him a new one made of silver, which had the movement of a real hand. However, Diancecht's son Miach wasn't at all satisfied with this cure. Miach restored Nuadu's severed hand, healing the king. It is at this point that Diancecht seems to loose his shit. He threw his sword at Miach's head, cutting into the flesh. Miach healed himself, and Diancecht struck him again, this time cutting into the bone. Again Miach healed himself, and for a third time Diancecht struck him, cutting into his brain and killing him instantly. Diancecht buried his son, and 365 herbs grew from the grave, the same number as the joints and sinews of his body. At that point Airmed, Diancecht's daughter and Miach's sister, spread her cloak on the ground and picked and sorted the herbs according to their properties. Diancecht then mixed up all of the herbs, so that no one knows all of their healing properties.
Now I'm going to talk about the texts themselves, how I interpret them, and why. If you want to read them for yourself, translations can be found here and here.
Regarding Diancecht's "jealousy" about Nuadu's newly healed hand, one of the texts says simply that "Dian Cecht did not like that cure." Another says "But Diancecht was vexed when he saw his son doing a better cure, than
himself..." Admittedly, it is an argument of semantics to say that Diancecht's annoyance at his son doing better cure isn't the same as saying that he was jealous of it, but I will take on that argument.
In this story, I look at Diancechet as a god of doctors, healers, and physicians. Miach is also a god of healing, but more than that, I see him as a god of regeneration. Therefore, to say that Diancecht was annoyed by his son's cure or that he simply didn't like it, is a mythological statement of fact. Humans cannot regenerate missing appendages. Until recently, reattaching missing body parts was a medical impossibility, and even now the process is iffy. This is why I say Diancecht's dislike of Miach's cure was not borne of jealousy. It is simply a statement that Miach's cure was something outside the scope of human ability.
So how do you get from disliking something that someone does, to repeatedly hurling a sword at that someone's head? Well, for one thing, I think this is another exploration of human ability. Flesh wounds and broken bones can heal on their own, barring any sort of infection, but once you damage the brain, you're pretty much screwed unless you have immediate and extensive medical care. In some movies, damaging the brain is even how you kill zombies, like in "Shaun of the Dead." Remove the head or destroy the brain, right?
More significantly, I see this as a sort of origin story of healing herbs. Just think about it - from the grave of the god of healing and regeneration comes 365 herbs, each corresponding to his body parts. In a mythological sense, the herbs that heal us could have only come from there. And in this sense, Diancecht's act is one of necessity, for without the felling and burial of Miach, we would have no medicine. Likewise, I see Diancecht's scattering of Aired's collection of these herbs as an explanation of their complexity. Being a competent herbologist takes years of study, and even so, no matter how experienced you are, there is always more to learn and discover.
Some may think that my interpretation of this myth is a stretch, but one has to remember that mythology is metaphor. In my experience, myths are about more than they appear to be on the surface. So the next time you tell this story, or hear someone else doing so, please don't be so hard on Diancecht. He is not a villain. He is one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He is a god.