The Paps of Anu

by Patricia Monaghan

Every townland, every parish, every barony in Ireland is beautiful, each in its own way. But everyone knows Kerry is most beautiful. And so its valleys become tourist-loud glades each summer, crowded beyond bearing. Once I missed a meeting in Dingle because, after a half-hour on one quarter-mile of Goat Street, I spied an open lane and fled. Kerry is beautiful, no question. But sometimes in summer, it looks like Chicago with scenery.

That road through the Derrynasaggarts is a different story. It offers no fabulous vistas, no midnight peaks beside a sapphire sea, no mirror lakes under a changeful sky. If you pass that way just once, odds are you will see only an unremarkable stretch of road. But north of Ballyvourney, if the wind lifts the clouds for just a moment—there where the road curves sharply to the east before beginning a steep rise to the southeast—there, I promise you, if you stop by that lonely heritage sight and look back to the northeast, you will see something you will never forget.

On the map, two tiny triangles mark “The Paps.” The word, no longer in general use, once indicated paired mountains: Scotland’s Paps of Jura, the Paps of the Mórrígan near Newgrange. It’s a baby word of untraceable ancestry, supposedly evolved from the lip-smacking sounds (what my mother used to call “blowing bubbles”) of hungry infants,a word that in the singular means a mild baby-pleasing porridge. In Irish, the hills marked by those wee triangles are called Dhá Chíoche Dhanann, Danu’s Two Breasts. The Irish word for “breasts” is, not surprisingly related, to “hungry” (ciocrach) and “craving” (ciocras), but not to any other Indo-European word for mammaries.

Those languages share words for many things—for “sister” and “birch,” for instance—but not for breasts. Our English word births daughters (“breastless” and “breastfeeding”) but is of unclear parentage. It is easy, by contrast, to trace the heritage of those abundant euphemisms: “bosom,” like its relative “fathom,” is a measurement word that indicates how much your arms can embrace; “bust” descends from the vocabulary of sculpture; “chest,” a storage unit, comes from the language of furniture.

But none of those apparent synonyms captures the meaning of “paps,” which describes not the whole breast but just the nipple (another untraceable word, related to “nip” and “nibble”). While the Irish word draws attention to the hills’ shape, their English name emphasizes a different endowment. For lest you fail, some fine day when wind lifts the cloud-veil, to note the hills’ breasty roundness, the ancient Irish offered a visual aid: from earth and rock they erected mounds and cairns, positioned as anatomically correct aureoles and nipples. In the process, they transformed the wild landscape into a gigantic sculpture of a woman’s body, immobile under the moving sky.

Munster has other such mountains: Knockainy with a naval-cairn on its pregnant belly, a one-teated Mother Mountain. That line of nippled hills near Ballyferriter called the Three Sisters, the ones Fiona painted while eight months pregnant, the ones she calls “perfect renditions of our Mother’s body.” With or without cairns, Munster mountains bear goddess names: Slieve Mish, for the wildwoman Mis; Dunmore Head, for Mór, daughter of the sun; Slievenamon, mountain of women; Cnoc Gréine, hill of the bright goddess.

"The Goddess Anu and her Paps" - Geraldine Andrew

The Goddess Anu and her
Paps – Geraldine Andrew

And the Paps of Danu, rising so splendidly beside the Killarney-Cork road, named for a goddess both famous and obscure. Famous, because her name appears in so many place-names and texts. Obscure, because not even its form is definite. It is a reconstructed word, derived backwards from the Irish “Danann,” presumably meaning “of Danu”. Miriam Dexter has traced Danu to an even older hypothesized Donu shared by all Indo-European cultures. The name, which also appears as Dana and Dón and Danand, has been linked to the Old Celtic dan, “knowledge” and to a goddess who gave her name to England’s Dane Hills and Europe’s great river Danube.


Obscure, for despite frequent references, few narratives are told of Danu, daughter of a sorceress, granddaughter of the god of poetry, herself a poet. The Book of Invasions describes Danu as one of a trinity of sisters – although her siblings’ names vary from manuscript to manuscript. Danu was the mate either of Bile, an equally obscure god, or of Bres whose usual spouse is Eithne. Her children are better known: the Tuatha Dé Danann, tribe of the goddess Danu, those magical divinities long ago banished to fairy hills. “She nursed the gods well,” says Cormac the glossarist, emphasizing Danu’s maternity without telling us much more about her. 

Sometimes the hills are called the Paps of Anu, a goddess named by the ninth-century writer Coir Anmnan as the mother of Munster’s wealth. Some see the names as variants of each other, while others claim that Anu (Ana, Anand, Áine) is not Danu at all. Further complic- ating the quest- ion is the fact that six millennia have passed since a stone-enchanted people trained the sun’s eye into the cave at Newgrange, carved spirals on Loughcrew’s granite, and erected the Paps’ paps. We do not even know who lived in Ireland then, much less what they called their goddess.

Whoever they were, whatever they called her, she is beautiful. Photographs do not do justice to her loveliness: the way the Paps rise from the Derrynasaggarts, slightly separated from the ridge that curves up to them like a belly; those breasts pointing skyward, the breasts of a woman in her prime, not the tender buds of youth or the soft breasts of age, but full and firm, sensual and motherly at once. The breasts separate slightly, so you know the woman is languidly stretched out, not curved into herself so that her reasts press together. There is no head, nor arms nor legs, only breasts and a belly, but it is enough. Enough to suggest that somewhere there is a head we might cradle, arms that might embrace us, and a womb from which we might emerge, children of the earth.

Did the sculptors of Danu intend for us to imagine nature as our mother? Or might this gigantic earthwork mean something else entirely? We can scour archaeological texts for clues, but archaeologists, happy to list heights and weights, are slow to explain why people might employ such heights and weights, instead emitting lectures on how ruins do not reveal what their builders believed. Infrequently-ventured explanations even less frequently begin from a woman’s point of view. And while debate surrounds Newgrange and similar complex sites, a deafening silence shrouds the eloquently simple monument that crowns the Derrynasaggarts.

Silence speaks volumes to those who would hear. So let us return to Danu’s paps. Specifically, to Danu’s nipples. I once took a random and totally unscientific survey of friends who had seen the Paps. To a man, my male respondents saw nothing notable about the nipples.

“They’re stone?” one guessed.

“Try again”, I said. They just shook their heads and shrugged.

Women reacted differently. To a woman, they looked side-to-side, then peered at me a bit suspiciously.

“Well…” they began. Then a pause.      “Well…” A long pause.

I finally broke the silence. “They’re erect,” I suggested.

“Yes!” the women said with relief. “They most certainly are!”

There are doubtless men who have noticed Danu’s hard stone nipples, but none in my survey nor in the hundreds of books on my shelves. Those of us who live with nipples day in, day out, realize that if those ancient builders wanted to simply remark upon the earth’s femininity, they could have saved themselves a lot of running up and down. They could have left the mountains as they were; women’s breasts look like hills most of the time. But there was something else the ancient builders wanted us to know: that the great earth grows aroused when loving her mate, when nursing her child. How can we grasp the breadth and beauty of that vision?

What do we lose when we silence women’s private languages? There is a vast territory that we know, beautiful summer mountains full of berries that fill the mouth with sweetness, soft blue lakes on which light shatters into rainbows, valleys filled with countless blossoms. And storms that blacken brilliant skies, penetrating chill, hungers beyond endurance. Familiar roads stop short of those secret lands we know. But we are there, like Danu, to greet the bold ones who will come.

This article will be form part of a new book on Ireland by Patricia Monaghan to be published in 2003, provisionally entitled “The Red Haired Girl: Celtic Spiritual Geography”.