Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord
by Alexei Kondratiev
Copyright © 1997 Alexei Kondratiev. All Rights Reserved.
published in An Tríbhís Mhór: The IMBAS Journal
of Celtic Reconstructionism #1, Lúnasa 1997.]
May be reposted as long as the above attribution and copyright
notice are retained
Of all the divinities known to have been worshipped in the Celtic
world, the god whom the Continental Celts called Lugus and the
Irish called Lúgh is one of the best documented and best
understood. The sheer volume and widespread range of evidence
related to him testifies to the importance of this god in Celtic
tradition. The evidence includes: iconography from the pre-Roman
period; toponymy; iconography and epigraphy from the period of
Roman occupation; testimony of Greek and Roman writers; literary
traditions of the Insular Celts in the Middle Ages; modern folk
narratives in Celtic languages; and ritual practices of conservative
rural Celtic-speaking communities. Each of these bodies of evidence
provides only fragmentary information; yet when all are taken
together and interpreted in the light each can shed on the other,
a detailed and consistent picture emerges, which can direct us
with a high degree of certainty to an understanding of what the
worship of Lugus/Lúgh entails.
around 500 BCE, and following on the sudden expansion of both
wealth and territory it had experienced in the Early Iron Age,
the Celtic world entered into a period of comfort and self-confidence
where it took great interest in the cultures and artistic expressions
of its neighbours and borrowed freely from them, yet always
adapted such borrowings to native Celtic tastes and values.
This blend of innovation and tradition gave rise to the unique
La Tène style of Celtic art, and doubtless had repercussions
at all levels of Celtic culture, particularly in the realm of
religion. A whole vocabulary of religious symbols of Oriental
origin began to be depicted on art objects during this period,
suggesting a renewed interest in religious ideas as a result
of exposure to foreign traditions, although there does not seem
to have been any break with the fundamental Indo-European heritage.
Many of these imported symbols, as well as some other new ones
of native origin, are found in association with one particular
god whose sudden and widespread rise to prominence must have
been one of the most important events in La Tène religion.
This god is shown together with birds; horses; the Oriental
Tree of Life motif; dogs or wolves; and twin serpents. But the
imagery most intimately connected to him is the mistletoe leaf
or berry. Most often the mistletoe leaves are shown at either
side of his head, like horns or ears; but sometimes the symbolism
is reversed, and the god's head appears as the berry of a mistletoe
plant. During the 300's the mistletoe-leaf motif combines with
that of the twin serpents (portrayed as facing S's) into a new
motif archaeologists call the "palmette". This shape,
crowning the god's head or attached to some animal figure, is
common (especially on coins) until ca. 200 BCE. Thereafter the
twin serpents appear alone in what is still clearly a glyph
representing this particular divinity. The fact that representations
of the god and of his symbols appear most frequently on objects
related to formal aristocratic banquets (such as the famous
wine flagons from the Basse-Yutz burial in the Rhineland) strongly
suggests that he was in some way associated with sacral kingship.1
Because the Iron Age Celts did not use writing in religious contexts,
we have no direct evidence of this god's name. Toponymy, however,
gives us a very strong clue. The name Lugudunon was given to a
very large number of sites (Lyons, Loudun, Laon, Liegnitz, probably
Leiden, etc.) from the later Iron Age. In Old Celtic dunon means
"fort" (the word has modern cognates in Irish dún
"fort" and Welsh din(as) "city"), but the
Lugu- element can only be explained by a proper name. We have
no dedications to a god by that name at those sites, yet the existence
of mythological figures named Lúgh and Lleu in the later
literary tradition of the Insular Celts makes it clear that a
similar figure bearing the name Lugus must have existed in the
Iron Age. In fact, a famous dedication to the Lugoues by the shoemakers'
guild of Uxama (Osma) in Spain; another inscription mentioning
the Lugoues from Avenches in Switzerland;2 and dedications to
Lugubus Arquienobus from Orense and Lugo in Galicia (northwest
Spain)3 all indicate that the name Lugus was indeed known. Interestingly,
in all these cases the name is given in the plural, as though
it referred to a group of divinities rather than to a single god.
We shall have some suggestions later as to why this may have been
Why, if Lugus had played such an important role in Iron Age Celtic
religion, was his name so little used in the period of Roman occupation
that followed? Most scholars agree that it was the result of a
successful interpretatio Romana, an identification of the Celtic
god with a figure from the official Roman cult. In De Bello Gallico,
VI, 17, Julius Caesar, commenting on Celtic society and culture
even as he was crushing the life out of it, stated that "Mercury"
was the most popular Celtic god, the creator of all arts and crafts,
the protector of travelers, and a great patron of trade and wealth.
He was following the common Roman practice of forcing foreign
religions into the categories and terminology of Roman state religion
(in the same passage he uses the name "Minerva" to refer
to a goddess obviously related to Irish Brigit, and known independently
by native Celtic names), and in this case the identification certainly
struck a chord in the conquered Celtic population, as dedications
and representations of "Mercury" began to proliferate
in the Romanized Celtic world and retained their preeminence right
to the period of Christianization. Well over 400 dedications to
"Mercury" or one of his common native titles have been
found: his importance in Gaul and Britain far exceeded anything
that the role of Mercury in Roman religion could have warranted.
Clearly "Mercury" was the new, "modern" disguise
of Lugus, and because the two names were seen to be precisely
equivalent the native one was virtually never used in the Latin
of official inscriptions.
While Romano-Celtic images of "Mercury" often depicted
him with his well-known Classical attributes -- the winged cap
(reminiscent of the earlier mistletoe crown), the caduceus (echoing
the ubiquitous Iron Age twin serpents), the bag of money, the
cockerel, the ram, the tortoise shell, etc. -- many representations
of him diverged considerably from Graeco-Roman canons. Some statues
(e.g. the one from Lezoux) show him not as the usual clean-shaven
ephebos but as a bearded old man wrapped in a Celtic shawl.4 We
will, however, single out three of these purely native traits
as particularly important: his association with heights; his tendency
to have multiple (usually triple) forms; and his role as sovereign
protector, with warrior attributes.
"Mercury" is unambiguously linked with the high places
of each tribal territory in which he was worshipped. Montmartre
in Paris, the Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne, the Mont de
Sène in the land of the Ædui -- to name just a
few out of scores of possible examples -- were all originally
Mercurii montes. Shrines crowned these heights, and one conventional
depiction of "Mercury" was to have him sitting on
a mountain.5 The Aruerni commissioned (for a fabulous price)
the Greek sculptor Xenodorus to make a gigantic statue of "Mercury"
seated atop their sacred mountain, the Puy-de-Dôme: it
was one of the famous sights of Roman Gaul.6 Clearly the location
of a temple to "Mercury" on a high place was of theological
representations of Celtic "Mercury" seem intended
to suggest that he is several-in-one: usually this takes the
form of tricephaly, although not all three-headed figures in
Celtic iconography are necessarily this god. One "Mercury"
statue from Tongres in Belgium has not three heads but three
phalluses: one on the crown of the head and one on the nose
in addition to the normal one!7 This widespread motif of triplicity
may, in the case of "Mercury", indicate the power
of the god being present simultaneously in three different contexts
-- quite probably the three Dumézilian functions, as
the evidence from the later literary and ritual sources will
suggest (it may also explain the dedications to the plural Lugoues).
One bronze statue of "Mercury" from Bordeaux has not
three but four faces, two beardless and two bearded.8 This may
symbolize his all-seeing nature -- lord of all four quarters
-- but that would fail to explain the different appearances
of the faces. Caitlín Matthews' intuition that some Celtic
divinities had separate manifestations at different ages of
life -- for instance, as child, as young hero, as mature ruler
and as elderly renunciate -- may be of relevance here.9
similar relevance may be the very close link between "Mercury"
and the antlered god now usually called Cernunnos. They share
a long list of traits: the tendency to tricephaly, the association
with money, with twin serpents, etc. Both are threshold figures,
facilitating the passage from one state to another, and thus
the exchange of money in trading, as well as the transition
from life to death and back again. However, since they are often
depicted together in the same scene, they are clearly not meant
to be identical to each other. An in-depth study of the relation
between "Mercury" and Cernunnos would far exceed the
scope of this paper, but one suspects that the answer would
lie in a now-vanished element of Gaulish mythology. If we compare
how, in the later Insular literature, Lúgh is fostered
to Manannán and Lleu to Gwydion -- both older versions
of the young hero in their talents and attributes, and indeed
very "Mercury"-like -- we may indeed come very close
to understanding the nature of the relation. Also, Cernunnos
appears to be exclusively linked to the third function, while
"Mercury" is trans-functional and, from his first
appearance in pre-Roman iconography on, has a strong link with
the first function.
last aspect of Celtic "Mercury" -- the least "Classical"
of his manifestations -- is particularly well-attested in the
Rhineland, and more generally in the lands of the Belgic expansion
-- the last great population movement in pre-Roman Celtia, and
a source of much religious innovation. In this aspect "Mercury"
is armed with a spear, and is usually accompanied by his consort,
Rosmerta, a purely native goddess whose name means "The
Great Provider" (one of "Mercury"'s local titles,
Adsmerios "The Provident One", is obviously intended
to be an echo of her own).10 While Rosmerta appears with "Mercury"
in various guises throughout Gaul and Britain, in these specific
representations both of them are particularly linked to the
concept of sovereignty. In Iron Age society the cohesion of
a group around a chieftain was secured and given a sacred recognition
by the means of a communal feast, in which a ritual drink served
by the goddess of the land (a role played by a priestess or
by the chieftain's consort) was shared, binding all the participants
to their land, their ruler, and each other. Rosmerta was the
divine keeper of the drink of sovereignty, while the spear-wielding
"Mercury" was the archetype of all rulers, the Otherworldly
protector of the earthly king.11
bit of theology had a major impact on the Celts' Germanic neighbours.
Around 100 BCE, the western Germans, impressed by the cultural
brilliance of the La Tène Celts, converted wholesale
to Celtic religion and adopted many aspects of Celtic social
organization and culture, to the point of giving their children
Celtic names. One of the most important institutional borrowings
of this period was the "legitimization" of a warrior-chieftain
through a sovereignty ritual, and it necessitated also borrowing
the Celtic deities who presided over such a ceremony. Many scholars
have preferred to see the many similarities between Lugus/"Mercury"
and the Germanic Wodan as separate survivals of an Indo-European
prototype; but some now find no reason to believe that Wodan
did not originate in the 1st century CE in the lands near the
North Sea as a deliberate imitation of Celtic "Mercury"
in one of his important guises.12
the imposition of Roman rule on most Celtic lands made the relevance
of "Mercury"'s first-function role less obvious, it
was nevertheless exercised in one particularly blatant manner,
the import of which is too often ignored. After the Druids of
southern Gaul had, in 18 BCE, decided to recognize the legitimacy
of Roman rule over their territory (in exchange for a short-lived
religious tolerance), the emperor Augustus decided to sacralize
that rule in a specifically Celtic manner. In 10 BCE, having
made the Lugudunon of the Segusavi (Latinized as Lugdunum) the
capital of conquered Gaul, he had the Temple of the Three Gauls
dedicated there to the worship of the Roman State, with its
main festival on August 1st, the date of Lúghnasadh,
the feast presided over by Lúgh in later Irish tradition.
Thus, under the auspices of Lugus, the sacred guarantor of sovereignty,
Roman rule was fitted into the fabric of Celtic religion.13
relation to Lugdunum (which became the administrative capital
of most of Roman Gaul) we are introduced to some imagery that
may have special relevance to the tradition of Lugus. In the
text De Fluviis, which was attributed apocryphally to Plutarch,
we are told that at the time of the founding of the city certain
ravens flew down from the sky, and were interpreted as a good
omen. These were not ordinary ravens, but had some white feathers
in their plumage; and they became the focus of a prophetic shrine
where, after a querent had made an offering of food on an elevated
platform, a priest would divine the answer to his query from
the behaviour of the ravens as they went after the food. The
main role of these ravens was therefore a (first-function) one
of Otherworldly contact, which was made possible by their unusual
appearance: although they were traditional examples of blackness,
they nevertheless contained their opposite (whiteness) within
themselves, and could thus offer passage between seemingly opposed
realms, even as Lugus/"Mercury" facilitates such passages.
Representations of the unnamed genius loci of Lugdunum (almost
certainly Lugus himself, since he has typical "Mercury"
attributes) show him accompanied by ravens. Although later literary
sources are unclear about Lúgh's association with ravens
(the only unambiguous example occurs in the Middle Irish poem
about the "hawk of Achill"), the prominence of Odin's
raven companions in Scandinavian literature (where they are
explicitly messenger birds, and faculties of Mind) is certainly
of significance here, especially if one remembers the close
link between Wodan/Odin and Lugus/"Mercury". Other
examples of this imagery in later sources (such as Owain and
his army of ravens in Welsh literature) may well be a diffuse
echo of a motif that had great importance in earlier times but
lost much of its meaning over the centuries as literary mythology
drifted farther and farther away from its religious origins.14
in fact suggested that the city of Lugdunum was named after
the ravens, stating that 'lougon ton koraka kalousi' ("they
[the Gauls] call the raven 'lougos'"). No extant Celtic
word with such a meaning exists (in Old Celtic lugos is the
name of the lynx),15 so the statement is problematic. Meyer-Lübke
suggested that it came from an Indo-European model *plugo- (with
usual Celtic loss of p), as part of a widespread group of words
from the root *pleu- that refer to flowing, flying, feathers
and birds.16 Without further evidence the problem must remain
unresolved, though it is unquestionable that this is not the
origin of Lugus' own name. Nevertheless, the Celtic love of
punning would certainly have made a link between such a word
for "raven" (if it existed) and the god's name.
more evident and significant pun exists between the name 'Lugus'
and the Old Celtic stem lugi- meaning "to swear, oath"
(appearing in Irish as luighe, in Welsh as llw, and in Breton
as le). The famous Gaulish text found at Chamalières
in 1971, which is the script of a magico-religious ritual for
obtaining the help of Arvernian Maponos in a military revolt,
concludes with the thrice-repeated formula "Luge dessumiis
[= dexumiis]" ("By an oath I make them ready"),
where the echo of the god's name in the expression luge could
hardly have failed to impress itself on a Celtic-speaker's ear,
and would have underlined his relation to the quintessentially
first-function institution of oath-taking.17
the name of Lugus (though not his importance as a god) was generally
eclipsed on the Continent during the Roman occupation, this
was not the case in Ireland, where Roman rule had never implanted
itself and there had never been any need for an interpretatio
Romana of native deities. And when vernacular Irish texts began
to appear in abundance around the 8th-9th centuries CE, we find
mention in them of a figure named Lúgh whose traits are
in full harmony with the earlier evidence concerning Lugus/"Mercury".
we turn to the mediaeval literature of the Insular Celts for
further information on the god, however, we must bear in mind
that it was not written for a religious purpose and thus does
not represent the sacred mythology of a living religious system,
even though it may preserve many traditions from the pre-Christian
period. These traditions were recorded by the Christianized
Celts for a variety of reasons: because they set precedents
that were an important source of authority for legal institutions;
because they enhanced the prestige of a certain locality, or
a certain lineage; because they were associated with the lore
of the educated class; and --last but not least -- for their
sheer entertainment value. In all these cases, however, they
were stripped of those elements that had an obvious pre-Christian
religious significance, and made to conform to a Christian view
of the world. Thus they cannot be taken at face value as documents
on pre-Christian Celtic belief, but must be investigated in
the light of other sources. Fortunately, pre-Christian ritual
patterns remained firmly entrenched in rural Celtic communities
(side by side with official Christianity), and they have provided
evidence that is often more archaic and closer to pre-Christian
mythological traditions than the mediaeval literature. Thus
the folk mythology and practices associated with the August
feast of Lúghnasadh (Lúnasa in Modern Irish),
the opening of the Harvest and explicitly under the patronage
of Lúgh, are essential to understanding the pre-Christian
elements remaining in the literary sources.
literary stories about Lúgh are situated within the narrative
framework provided by the Lebor Gabála Érenn ("Book
of the Conquests of Ireland"), a compilation put together
between the ninth and twelfth centuries as an attempt to harmonize
native myths of origins (necessary to the culture as legal and
social precedents) with the Biblical version of history that
Christians saw as the supreme authority. A large part of this
narrative is given over to the struggle between the Tuatha Dé
Danann and the Fomóirí (modern Fomhóraigh)
over the control of Ireland. The pre-Christian background to
this conflict is clear, and is echoed in most other Indo-European
mythologies: the Tuatha Dé Danann represent the gods
of the Tribe, the gods who serve as models for human society,
each being the ideal archetype of a social function, and the
sum of them a source of support and protection for the human
community; while the Fomóirí (who are not counted
among the "conquerors" of Ireland, because they were
always there) are the powers of the Land itself, givers of both
fertility and blight -- but indiscriminately, with no regard
for the welfare of humans. Although these two factions appear
to be in opposition, they are in fact inextricably linked by
all kinds of blood ties, and neither can destroy the other.
We find the same pattern in the relationship between the Gods
and the Titans in early Greek mythology, the Aesir and the Vanir
(and the Jötnar) in Norse tradition, and especially the
Devas and the Asuras in India. At the point in the story that
interests us, Nuadu, the holder of sovereignty (i.e. the legitimate
control over Land) among the Tuatha Dé Danann, has lost
his arm in a battle with the Fir Bolg (the previous wave of
"conquerors") and thus comes to lack the physical
wholeness necessary to be a sovereign. He is replaced by Bress
mac Eladan, who is the son of a Fomorian father and a Danann
mother, and thus acceptable to both sides because of his dual
lineage. Cian son of Dian Cécht (the physician of the
Tuatha Dé Danann) begets Lúg on Ethliu/Ethniu
(Eithne in later tradition), the daughter of Balar, the Fomorian
champion, and the child is fostered to Tailltiu, a Fir Bolg
queen who plays a major role in clearing the central plain of
Ireland for agriculture. Hostilities break out again between
the two groups and lead to a final confrontation at Mag Tuired,
where Lúg carries the day by killing his grandfather
Balar with a stone from a sling. He then rules Ireland for forty
years, and dies in unclear circumstances at the hands of a man
whose father he had slain.18
we have other sources that flesh out this material, although
not all of them are equally relevant to reconstructing pre-Christian
beliefs. By far the most valuable of them is Cath Maige Tuired,
a text first known from a 16th-century manuscript written by
members of the Uí Cléirigh scribal family of Donegal,
but reproducing an 11th-century original which may well have
been based on material going back as far as the 9th century.19
Early versions of it must themselves have served as sources
for the Lebor Gabála. One of the notable characteristics
of this text is its narrative style, with repetitive dialogue
patterns that are evidently drawn from native oral storytelling:
it is thus likely to reflect a well-entrenched tradition that
had some sort of ritual association -- probably with Lúghnasadh,
about which we will have more to say. In this version of the
story, which deals specifically with the climactic battle between
the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomóirí, we
learn more about Bres mac Elathan and the way in which he is
contrasted with Lúgh.20 Although both are part-Danann,
part-Fomorian, Bres has a Fomorian father and a Danann mother,
and in a patrilinear tradition this places his allegiance with
his father's people, so that he comes to exhibit Fomorian traits:
his stinginess and greed withhold the resources of the Land
from the Tuatha Dé Danann, driving them to revolt --
which becomes possible when Nuadu's arm is healed, restoring
his ability to wield sovereignty. When Lúgh (who has
a Danann father and a Fomorian mother) returns from his fosterage
and seeks to enter at the gates of Tara (the seat of sovereignty),
one could say that he is politically superfluous to the Tuatha
Dé Danann's plans; and he is told that none may enter
Tara who does not possess a distinctive craft (since the Tuatha
Dé Danann are an idealization of society, each one of
them being the patron of a specific occupation). Lúgh's
distinctiveness, however, is that he is master of all crafts:
he is the Samildánach, the "Many-Gifted One".
He alone (like Celtic "Mercury") can move between
all the activities of society, and be the patron of each one,
uniting the three functions. As such he supersedes all the narrowly
functional deities (including Nuadu, who is "simply"
king) and becomes the ideal defender of the Tribe against the
chaotic powers of the Land. After overseeing what each of the
functional deities can contribute to the upcoming battle, he
himself provides some battle magic (a specifically first-functional
approach to a second-function activity). His grandfather Balor
has given the Fomorian side a great advantage with his magic
eye that consumes anything he looks at, but Lúgh destroys
the eye with a slingstone, leading to a rout of the Fomóirí.
Then he prepares to destroy his "dark twin", the usurper
Bres, yet spares his life when Bres reveals the secrets of the
agricultural cycle -- Fomorian blight having been turned to
Fomorian fertility by Lúgh's victory (other representations
of this motif in Celtic literature include the rivalry between
the high king Eochaid Airem ("The Ploughman") and
Mider, the Otherworld ruler of Brí Léith, which
ends with Mider's defeat and offer of agricultural service;
and Arthur's struggle with Gwenhwyfar's Otherworld lover, Melwas).
substantially different version of the same story is known from
a 17th-century manuscript signed by David Duigenan.21 Here Breas
is killed by Lúgh, and Balor, instead of dying right
away, tries to persuade his grandson to behead him and place
his head on top of his own, so that Lúgh may absorb all
of his grandfather's magical gifts. Lúgh wisely places
the head on a standing stone instead, and the stream of venom
issuing from it is enough to blast the stone into four pieces.
This episode is still very well known in living folk tradition.
scene of Lúgh's triumphant entrance into Tara and his
assumption of sovereignty was often used to evoke actual Irish
rulers. The famous 14th-century poem on this theme by Gofraidh
Fionn Ó Dálaigh (in which Lúgh identifies
himself as "feile a hEamhain Abhlaigh ealaigh iobhraigh"
--"a poet from the Land of Apples, rich in swans and yew
trees") was intended as praise for an Anglo-Norman ruler,
Maurice FitzMaurice, second earl of Desmond.22 In the 11th-century
story Baile in Scáil ("The Trance of the Phantom"),
Conn of the Hundred Battles, one of the exemplary kings of pre-Christian
Ireland, has a vision in which Lúgh, enthroned on a dais,
directs a beautiful woman who is Flaith Érenn ("the
Sovereignty of Ireland") to give Conn the drink of sovereignty,
thus marrying him to the Land and making him king in a sacred
sense.23 This is a faithful rendition of some ancient Celtic
symbolism we discussed above, with Lúgh as "Mercurius
Rex" and the woman as Rosmerta, and demonstrates that the
concept of Lúgh as the archetypal power behind rulership
survived long after Christianization.
Lúgh's story was popular in mediaeval literary circles,
and we have many allusions to it in both prose and poetry. From
such allusions we learn that Lúgh was one of a triad,
the two other members of which died at birth24 -- reminding
us of the triplicity of Celtic "Mercury", and of the
plural Lugoues. We learn that he was fostered not only to Tailtiu
but to Manannán mac Lir, the ruler of the Otherworld
Feast in the Land of Apples, and that he had inherited the use
of Manannán's sword Freagartach ("The Answerer").
His usual personal weapon, however, was the Spear of Goirias,
echoing the spear of Celtic "Mercury". He also inherited
Manannán's corrbolg or "crane bag" filled with
magical treasure,25 again recalling Celtic "Mercury"'s
bag of wealth. In the 11th-century text called Imthecht Clainne
Tuirill we first hear of an interesting tradition about Lúgh's
natural father, Cian (here called 'Ethlenn' through confusion
with Lúgh's mother, the author having assumed that "Lúg
mac Ethlenn' was a patronym instead of a matronym): he was a
shape-shifter, capable of turning into an oirce or "lap-dog"
(i.e. a dog kept as a pet rather than as a hunting animal),26
of the kind widely associated with healing shrines throughout
the ancient Celtic world, especially in relation to Celtic "Mars"
-- an appropriate attribute for a son of the physician-god,
and a reflection of the canine imagery that sometimes accompanies
Iron Age Lugus. During the later Middle Ages this story was
further embellished (it is best known in its 14th-century version,
Oidheadh Cloinne Tuireann), but in the process it acquired many
extraneous elements and ceased to be an accurate reflection
of the earlier mythological patterns. Similarly, traditions
about Lúgh's two wives, Buí and Nás (one
of them buried at Knowth, the other one at Naas in Co. Kildare),
and about his death, are clearly late inventions to explain
literary allusions that were no longer understood.
we turn to modern folk traditions about Lúgh, however,
we find a rich and consistent body of material (some of it still
being passed down today) that in many ways seems closer to the
patterns of Indo-European myth than the literary sources. Lúgh
appears here as a vivid and engaging personality, both hero
and trickster. Where the Lebor Gabála presents the union
of his parents as an unproblematic political marriage, the oral
sources give a dramatic and complex account of his birth. Balor,
whose magical stronghold is on Tory Island (many of these stories
have been passed down in Donegal), is aware of a prophecy that
he will be killed by his grandson; accordingly, he keeps his
daughter Eithne sequestered in a tower, out of the reach of
men. The Tuatha Dé Danann, however, are also aware of
the prophecy and eager to be rid of Balor's invincible fiery
eye, and one of their number, Cian (called Fionn in some versions),
contrives, with the help of the druidess Bioróg, to win
past Balor's magical defenses and break into his stronghold.
Before he is let into Eithne's presence, her handmaidens (who,
in some versions, number as many as nine hundred!) insist that
he sleep with all of them. They all become pregnant as a result,
and give birth to the race of seals, who are thus Lúgh's
half-brothers. When Eithne's child is born, efforts are made
to destroy the infant, but he, being already a tricksy lad,
manages to foil them. Cian tries to protect the child magically,
and as a result is found out by Balor and killed himself, which
leads to the young Lúgh vowing to avenge his father's
death. It is his own grandfather who gives him his name, calling
him "little one with the long hand" when, mistaking
him for the gardener's assistant, he remarks on his ability
to reach many apples at once (introducing the pun that links
the name 'Lúgh' with lú "small, puny, of
little worth", which is important in understanding the
the oral sources the battle between the two groups of gods is
not the result of a dynastic conflict but of a quarrel over
the possession of a wondrous cow, very similar to the Kâmadhenu
or "Wishing Cow" who comes out of the Churning of
the Sea of Milk and is coveted by both Devas and Asuras in Indian
mythology. It is thus an unambiguous reflection of the old Indo-European
motif of the forces of culture and anti-culture (i.e. wilderness)
struggling over the disposition of the Land's fertility. Lúgh
is the champion who, because of his links with both sides but
his primary allegiance to the forces of culture, wins that fertility
for the Tribe (in the folk versions he usually kills Balor not
with a slingstone, but with his emblematic spear -- the significance
of which we will discuss shortly). In practical terms, the prize
of the battle is, of course, the Harvest, the fruit of the agricultural
cycle; and the full significance of the myth can only be understood
in the ritual context of the harvest festival of Lúghnasadh,
Lúgh's own feast.
we turn fully to the ritual aspects of the myth, however, we
should mention the scanty but significant allusions to this
material in mediaeval Welsh literature. The most explicit occurs
in the cycle of four tales known as the Mabinogi, which was
composed no earlier than the 12th century and shows the strong
influence of the international feudal culture of its day, yet
still retains some archaic features. In the Fourth Branch,28
the Plant Dôn ("the Children of Dôn",
Welsh cognates of the Tuatha Dé Danann), who rule over
Gwynedd (North Wales), have fought a war with Dyfed (South Wales)
over the possession of some Otherworld pigs, at the conclusion
of which Math, the ruler of the Plant Dôn, loses the virgin
in whose lap his feet must, by royal taboo, be held. His sister's
son Gwydion, a powerful magician and trickster, offers his sister
Arianrhod as a replacement. When her virginity is tested by
Math's magic wand, however, she gives birth to one full-formed
son, Dylan, who immediately dives into the sea and swims away,
and an unformed "little thing" (pethan) which Gwydion
snatches up and places into a chest. After a suitable number
of months has passed, the chest is opened and a healthy baby
emerges. Thus, like Lúgh, he is born to a woman who "should
not have had a child"; and Dylan clearly corresponds to
Lúgh's half-brothers who fell into the water and became
seals. When confronted with her son, Arianrhod places a threefold
curse on him: that he will have no name unless she names him
herself; that he will bear no weapons unless she arms him herself;
and that he will not have a wife from any race that now lives
on this earth. Gwydion undoes the first curse by disguising
himself and the child as shoemakers and, while Arianrhod is
being fitted for shoes, having the child strike the leg of a
wren with a slingstone, so that she exclaims "the little
one (or the bright light) has done it with a sure hand",
giving him his name, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (corresponding exactly
to 'Lúgh Lámhfhada' "Little One/(Lightning-Flash?)
of the Long Hand", a name which was, as in Lleu's case,
bestowed unwittingly by an ill-intentioned kinsman). To undo
the second curse, Gwydion conjures up an imaginary army around
Arianrhod, and has her arm him and Lleu (again in disguise)
to defend her. To obtain the "woman of no earthly race",
Gwydion and Math create a wife for Lleu out of flowers (the
Flower Maiden of Celtic May rituals). These three trials correspond
closely to the three Dumézilian functions: name = social
and ritual identity (first function); weapons = status as a
warrior (second function); wife = fertility, physical reproduction
(third function). Lleu is thus shown mastering all three functions
and thereby becoming a representative of all facets of human
society, like Celtic "Mercury".
the Third Branch of the Mabinogi29 the main character is Manawyddan
fab Llyr, who is generally recognized to be a borrowing of the
Irish Manannán mac Lir, Lúgh's foster-father.
Although he has no direct relation to Lleu, he exhibits a variety
of "Mercury"-like traits. He is the consort of Rhiannon,
who recalls the horse-goddess of Land-sovereignty and who is
here the mother (by a previous consort) of the rightful ruler
of Dyfed, Pryderi. When both Rhiannon and Pryderi are spirited
away by the trickery of Otherworld beings and a spell of depopulation
is cast upon Dyfed, Manawyddan becomes the protector of Pryderi's
wife, Cigfa, and supports them both through the exercise of
his craftsmanship, showing wondrous skill as a shoemaker. Like
Lúgh, he serves as an interim ruler, not within the line
of dynastic succession, but taking responsibility for first-function
obligations in the absence of the legitimate ruler. Eventually
the Otherworld powers manifest themselves as an army of mice
who, Fomorian-like, devastate his crops, and he uses his own
reserves of trickery to defeat them and restore the social order
they had destroyed. Again, this is a myth of culture vs. nature,
where the human community and the powers of the Land vie for
control over the Harvest -- in short, a Lúghnasadh myth.
emphasis on shoemaking in both the Third and Fourth Branches,
taken together with the dedication to the Lugoues by the Spanish
shoemakers' guild, suggests that this was an ancient and important
attribute of Celtic "Mercury". It may, of course,
have been no more than a symbol of craftsmanship in general,
but some recent finds in Romano-Celtic cemeteries imply a more
specific association of this image with the god. In British
graves of the 3rd and 4th centuries, together with other paraphernalia
related to the cult of Lugus, one typically finds a pair of
hobnailed boots, obviously intended for the use of the dead
in the Otherworld.30 "Mercury", as the archetypal
mover between states, is the patron of all roads and travelling,
but particularly of the ultimate journey between the realms
of life and death. Shoes are a basic need of the traveller,
in this world and the next, so Lugus, in his knowledge of all
crafts, is the specific provider of this necessity.)
independent Welsh tale probably first composed in the 11th century,
Cyfranc Llud a Lleuelys, treats some of the same material in
a different way.31 Lludd (whose name was originally Nudd) is
the cognate of Irish Nuadu, and is here represented as ruling
over Britain from his seat in London. The name of his brother,
who rules over France, is usually rendered as "Llefelys"
nowadays, but this is probably an error, the first element in
this otherwise unexplainable name being almost certainly Lleu-,
suggesting that he is in fact a form of Lugus. Having Lludd
reign over Britain and Lleuelys over France could possibly reflect
a memory of the importance of "Nodens" (Old Celtic
Noudons, whence Nuadu and Nudd) in early British worship and
that of Lugus/"Mercury" in Gaul. Lludd is concerned
about three "oppressions" (gormesoedd) that are plaguing
the island of Britain, and goes to his brother for advice on
how to deal with them. The first gormes consists of a supernatural
race that can hear everything that is being said, so that secrets
and privacy cease to exist (a violation of the mental and social
realms, thus relating to the first function). The second gormes
is a horrible scream that echoes every May Eve and robs men
of their courage (a violation of defensive bravery, and thus
of the second function). The third gormes is the inexplicable
vanishing of the royal provisions (a violation of material nourishment,
which is the third function). Lleuelys is able to solve all
three problems: the supernatural meddlers are destroyed by being
sprinkled with certain insects crushed in water; the scream
is caused by battling dragons that are tricked into being locked
in a chest and buried under Eryri (Snowdonia); and the provisions
are being stolen by a Fomorian-type giant who, once defeated,
offers his services to the ruler. Lludd is thus reaffirmed in
his rule, but Lleuelys has, in a very subtle way, shown his
control over all three functions and his ability to confirm
a ruler in his hold on sovereignty. This, again, replays some
of the basic themes of Lúghnasadh.
come now at last to the ritual practices surrounding Lúghnasadh
itself, some of them still very much alive today, and forming
a consistent body of symbolic material with obviously ancient
roots (since, as we have seen, the date already had significance
in Roman times). Throughout Ireland, but also in many other
parts of the Celtic and ex-Celtic world, the celebration of
Lúghnasadh (or however else the feast of the Harvest
may be called) is centred on the high places of individual territories:
the Mercurii montes of ancient times.32 Most auspicious as Lúghnasadh
sites are high hills that nevertheless have a source of water
near their top -- because they are able to join the Above and
the Below, the sky-realm of the gods of culture and the watery
Underworld (the Fomorian realm). First fruits of cultivated
crops, as well as examples of wild crops (usually bilberries),
were brought to the site to be blessed and to be shared by the
community. In modern times this agricultural core of the festival
is all that has survived, but formerly, when Celtic lands were
under native rulers, Lúghnasadh was the occasion of major
assemblies where legal matters were settled, political problems
were discussed, craftsmen, artists and entertainers got a chance
to show off their talents, and sporting events brought scattered
communities together. All this was under the patronage of Lúgh
(the 9th-century Sanas Cormaic explains 'Lúghnasadh'
as "the assembly of Lúgh"),33 who was said
to have instituted the games in memory of either his wives or
of his foster-mother Tailtiu, whose name (from Old Celtic Talantiu,
"The Great One of the Earth") and life-history give
her a special affinity with the Harvest.34 But it is Lúgh
alone who allows the Harvest to actually begin, by setting the
right conditions for it and by combating the hostile elements
in the Land that are trying to destroy the crops.
scholars have interpreted the name Lugus as a derivation of
the Indo-European root *leuk- "light", which also
gave rise to Latin lux. This is partially confirmed by the meaning
of lleu in Welsh (especially as part of (go)leu "light").35
As a result, and helped along by Victorian scholars' obsession
with "solar myths", it was taken for granted that
Lúgh was a solar god. Moreover, a comparison between
Lúgh's title Lámhfhada ("long-armed")
and the title Prithupâni ("broad-handed") given
to the Vedic god Savitr (the god of the first light of day)
seemed to confirm such a notion36 -- and it is now firmly entrenched
in popular literature about Irish "mythology". However,
traditional, ritual-associated ideas about Lúgh show
no trace of this. Lúghnasadh is a day on which thunderstorms
with plentiful rain are expected and welcomed.37 They provide
a respite from the fierce summer heat that endangers the crops
and encourages insect pests. The pitiless sun is Balor's scorching
eye, and the spear of Lúgh is needed to tame its power.
Lúgh is called Lonnbeimnech ("fierce striker")
as well as Lámhfhada.38 Celtic "Mercury" is
sometimes shown not only with his spear but with the easily
recognizable Indo-European thunder-hammer.39 In Mayo the Lúghnasadh
thunderstorms where seen as the battle between Lúgh and
Balor: 'Tá gaoth Logha Lámhfhada ag eiteall anocht
san aer. 'Seadh, agus drithleogaí a athar. Balor Béimeann
an t-athair" ("The wind of Lúgh Long-arm is
flying in the air tonight. Yes, and the sparks of his father
[sic]. Balor Béimeann is the father").40 From these
and other examples it is abundantly clear that Lugus has his
domain in storm rather than in sunlight, and that if his name
has any relation to "light" it more properly means
"lightning-flash" (as in Breton luc'h and Cornish
lughes). This is the principal function of his invincible spear.
Although there may be some thematic relation between the titles
of Lúgh and Savitr, they are clearly not equivalents
of each other.
to the Lúghnasadh ritual in its oldest form was an enactment
of the myth of the season. Certainly some version or other of
Cath Maige Tuired would have been the most popular material
for this in early Ireland (even though the literary sources
had the battle -- like virtually all supernatural events --
taking place on Samhain!), but a huge number of variants were
possible. A person playing the role of Lúgh -- or of
a local saint or hero who had taken on Lúgh's attributes
-- would fight against the various monsters sent against him
by the Fomorian god of the Land, and eventually triumph over
the god of the Land himself. In modern Ireland the god of the
Land is almost always Crom Dubh ("The Bent Black One"
-- the holiday is often called Domhnach Croim Dhuibh -- "Crom
Dubh's Sunday" -- after him), and one of the principal
adversaries he sends against his challenger is a great bull41
(unlike horses, who symbolize the power of the Tribe, cattle
represent the Land: cows are its nurturing aspect, but bulls
show its destructive side). Lúgh's victory, in some cases,
may have been dramatized as leaping over a stone head. "The
Gaulish figure of the mounted cavalier prancing over a head
emerging from the ground,or over a giant emerging from the ground,
seems to illustrate this myth and may even be a representation
of an acted rite."42
we have mentioned, the myth could be presented in many different
ways. One of the most striking involves the Cornish tales of
"Jack the Tinkard" which were enacted on the occasion
of Morvah Fair, one of the greatest Lúghnasadh celebrations
outside Ireland.43 This is a very long and complex narrative
dealing with "giants", which in Cornish folklore is
a conventional way of referring to the old Fomorian gods. The
beginning of the story tells how a hero named "Tom"
defeated a local giant by battling him with a cartwheel (recalling
the thunder-wheel of early Celtic art). "Tom" becomes
established and prosperous, but is eventually challenged by
"Jack", another hero, who carries a hammer and wears
a black bull's hide that weapons cannot pierce. "Jack"
agrees to cooperate with "Tom", and goes on to demonstrate
that he is the master of all crafts, dazzling the ignorant and
slow-witted "Tom" in the process (and providing an
echo of Lúgh's entrance into Tara). In order to win the
hand of "Tom"'s daughter, "Jack" then successfully
fights (mostly through trickery) other destructive giants of
the area. Many versions of the Lúghnasadh myth do indeed
focus on winning a woman's hand, or (in ritual terms) persuading
her to serve as Queen of the Harvest. Often the implication
is that she is a Fomorian woman, a power of the fertility of
the Land who defects to the side of the Tribe -- and perhaps
this would include Lúgh's mother, Eithne, whose name
could be understood as "kernel".
version of this myth, which illustrates how simple and humble
the imagery can become without changing anything that is important
to it, is the famous Scottish story Cath nan Eun ("The
Battle of the Birds"), collected in several versions by
John Francis Campbell in the early 19th century.44 A wren offers
to help protect a farmer's crops, but he is immediately challenged
by a mouse, who of course wants the harvest for himself and
his kind. The wren musters an army of all the birds of heaven,
but the mouse gathers together an equivalent army of rodents
and creeping things. A great battle is fought, and the hero
of the tale, Mac Rìgh Cathair Shìomain (a "king's
son" and therefore a destined holder of sovereignty), decides
to attend it but arrives when it is almost over, and the only
combatants left are a raven and a serpent. He chooses to aid
the raven, and in exchange receives magical aid in defeating
a giant and marrying the giant's daughter. Just as the adventures
start, the raven turns into a handsome young man and gives the
king's son a bag filled with magical treasures, reminiscent
of the corrbolg, or "Mercury"'s bag. The essence of
the myth is preserved completely here: the battle between the
birds and the creeping things is the battle between Above and
Below, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhóraigh,
the Tribe and the Land, over the ownership of the Harvest. Both
the wren and the raven have ties to Lúgh, the leader
of the Danann side; and he here fulfills his usual role by restoring
the rightful ruler and pairing him off with the woman who is
the fertility of the Land.
wren serves to remind us of an aspect of Lúgh that is
too often eclipsed by his heroic appearance in so many of the
Irish literary tales: that he is lú, "little",
easily dismissed before his powers have been revealed. The wren,
too, despite his tiny size, is a "king", the king
of all birds: in a folktale known throughout Eurasia (including
the Celtic lands) he gains that title through trickery, stowing
away on the eagle's back during a contest of which bird can
fly the highest, and then flying up when the eagle has exhausted
himself and can go no higher. The symbolism of the wren helps
us understand one of the symbols associated with Lugus in his
earliest manifestations: the mistletoe, who is the smallest
of all trees, yet grows at the top of the tallest tree, the
oak, and is thus closest of all the trees to heaven. It is also
green in winter, when the oak itself is bare, so that it manifests
life even in the midst of death. There is a striking similarity
between Lugus and Vishnu, who first appears in the Vedas as
very much a "little" god, but one capable of saving
the day during the great battle against the fertility-withholding
monster Vrtra because of his unique talent of creating new space
in the universe with his steps -- a talent that would, after
centuries of reflection on its theological implications, turn
him into one of the major gods of Hinduism, and even into the
equivalent of God himself. In the same way, Lugus' role in saving
the Harvest through his gift of uniting opposites and moving
between realms would, after the same type of theological reflection,
make him into (as Caesar tells us) the Celts' "main god".
there is no doubt that Lugus related to the vast majority of
Celtic people in the most intimate and satisfying way. However
much he may have been associated with the first-function domain
of kingship, his involvement with all of the functions of Celtic
society made him a cooperative protector for any individual,
from the highest noble to the humblest craftsman. The weaker
members of the community would have felt a special affinity
for a god "who succeeds by the skill of his more subtle
magic rather than through the brute force of his physical strength."45
Wherever doors were to be opened, exchanges were to be made,
boundaries were to be crossed, his special gifts could be invoked
with profit (the Lebor Gabála, interestingly, makes Lúgh
the inventor of chess (fidchill) and ball-games (líathroit)46
-- both of which are games that involve the interpenetration
of opposite realms). For the poet or the intellectual seeker,
the lightning-flash of his spear was the insight (imbas) that
pierces the darkness of chaos, so that he was truly Amairgen's
"dé delbas do chind codnu" ("the god that
sets the head on fire"). He could also father heroes on
the earthly plane -- such as Cú Chulainn who, like his
father, had a threefold birth, and whose special weapon, the
gae Bolga, was, on one level, merely an exotic earthly weapon
(the "Belgic spear"), but on another was the "lightning
spear" his father wields in the heavens. Even the coming
of Christianity could not eradicate the hold that Lugus had
on the hearts of ordinary people in the Celtic lands. Sulpicius
Severus, in his biography of St. Martin of Tours, notes that,
of all the gods of Gaul, the saint found Mercury "infestior"
-- "most troublesome, hardest to get rid of".47 Outside
Ireland the imagery associated with St. Michael the Archangel
-- the young warrior triumphing over the Satanic dragon -- was
naturally assimilated into the lore of Lugus, so that many Mercurii
montes became "St. Michael's Mounts", and St. Michael
was given a special role in relation to the Harvest season.
today, the spirit of Lugus pervades the Celtic world, second
only to Brigit in significance and accessibility. Trickster,
psychopomp, experimenter, mover between worlds, granter of success
and wealth through intelligent manipulation, and granter of
continuity through change, his many gifts remain at the disposal
of those who trouble to seek him out.
2.De Vries:1963, 59.
6.De Vries:1963, 50; Enright:1996, 251-2.
7.De Vries:1963, 52; Green:1992, 150.
10.De Vries:1963, 49; Duval:1957, 69.
11.Green:1995, 39, 125-9; Enright:1996, 217-8, 240-59.
12.Enright:1996, 227-8, 277-8.
13.Fishwick:1987, 97-107, 118-37, 308-16.
14.Ross:1967, 249-52; De Vries:1963, 58-9.
15.De Vries:1963, 59.
16.De Vries:1963, 59n.
20.cf. also Oosten:1985, 116-33.
22.Knott:1981, 54-8, 101.
23.Rees:1961, 312-3; Green:1995, 73.
24.Mac Néill:1962, 8.
26.O'Rahilly:1946, 38n., 310-1; Ross:1967, 341-2. Ross mistakenly
assumes that 'Ethlenn' refers to Lúgh's mother.
27.This is a synthesized compilation of the accounts given by
Larminie:1893, 1-9, 241-5; Curtin:1894, 283-311; Ó Searcaigh:1908,
3-7; Laoide:1913, 63-5; and some versions heard by myself.
32.Mac Néill:1962, 71-242.
33.Mac Néill:1962, 3.
34.Mac Néill:1962, 3; De Vries:1963, 138.
35.There remains, for instance, the problem of why PIE *k would
here become Old Celtic g.
36.Cf. Ellis:1994, 125-6.
37.Mac Néill:1962, 421.
38.De Vries:1963, 61.
39.De Vries:1963, 52.
40.Mac Néill:1962, 408.
41.Mac Néill:1962, 422-3.
42.Mac Néill:1962, 426.
43.Mac Néill:1962, 383-5.
44.Campbell:1983 , I, 25-63.
47.Mac Néill:1962, 417.
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