Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord
By Alexei Kondratiev
Copyright © 1997 Alexei Kondratiev. All rights reserved.
May be reposted as long as the above attribution and copyright notice are retained.
[Originally published in An Tríbhís Mhór:
The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism #1, Lúnasa 1997.]
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.
Beginning 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 the case.
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.
Celtic "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 importance.
Many 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
Of 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.
This 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
This 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
While 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
In 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
Pseudo-Plutarch 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.
A 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
While 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".
Before 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.
The 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
Fortunately, 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).
A 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.
The 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.
Evidently 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
When 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 god's character).27
In 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.
Before 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".
In 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
(The 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.)
An 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.
We 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
Many 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
Lúghes). 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.
Central 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
As 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
Another 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 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".
For 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
Even 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.
3 Tranoy:1981, 289-90.
4 Duval:1957, 68.
5 Duval:1957, 68-9.
6 De Vries:1963, 50; Enright:1996, 251-2.
7 De Vries:1963, 52; Green:1992, 150.
8 Duval:1957, 68-9.
9 Matthews:1987, 18-9.
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.
17 Savignac:1994, 76-8
18 LGE:1941, 91-205.
19 CMT:1982, passim.
20 cf. also Oosten:1985, 116-33.
21 CMT:1945, passim.
22 Knott:1981, 54-8, 101.
23 Rees:1961, 312-3; Green:1995, 73.
24 Mac Néill:1962, 8.
25 O'Rahilly:1946, 73.
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.
28 PKM:1930, 67-92.
29 PKM:1930, 49-65.
30 Green:1986, 130-1.
31 CLL:1975, passim.
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.
45 Ross:1967, 168.
46 LGE:1941, 128-9.
47 Mac Néill:1962, 417.
Campbell, J. F. Popular Tales of the West Highlands.
Wildwood House, Hounslow, 1983. [Edinburgh, 1860]
Cath Maige Tuired, ed. by E. A. Gray. Irish Texts Society
Vol. LII. Dublin, 1982. (CMT)
Cath Muighe Tuireadh, ed. by Brian Ó Cuív.
Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1945. (CMT)
Curtin, Jeremiah. Hero-Tales of Ireland. London, 1894.
Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys, ed. by Brynley F. Roberts.
Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1975. (CLL)
De Vries, J. (trans. by L. Jospin) La Religion des Celtes.
Payot, Paris, 1963. [Stuttgart, 1960]
Duval, Paul-Marie. Les Dieux de la Gaule. Presses Universitaires
de France, Paris, 1954.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Constable, London,
Enright, Michael J., Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy
and Lordship in the European Warband From La Tène to the Viking Age.
Four Courts Press, Dublin & Portland, 1996.
Fishwick, D. The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies
in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire. Vol. I 1
& 2. E.J. Brill, Leiden, New York, Copenhagen & Cologne, 1987.
Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. Alan Sutton, Gloucester,
Green, Miranda. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend.
Thames and Hudson, London & New York, 1992.
Green, Miranda. Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers.
George Braziller, New York, 1996.
Knott, Eleanor. Irish Syllabic Poetry 1200-1600. Dublin
Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1981.
Kruta, Venceslas (trans. by Alan Sheridan). The Celts of
the West. Orbis, London, 1985.
Larminie, West Irish Folk-tales and Romances. London,
Laoide, Seosamh. Cruach Chonaill. Dublin, 1913.
Mac Néill, Máire. The Festival of Lúghnasa.
Matthews, Caitlín. Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain:
An Exploration of the Mabinogion. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London &
New York, 1987.
Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí. Myth,
Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition. Prentice
Hall, New York & London, 1991.
Oosten, Jarich G. The War of the Gods: The Social Code in
Indo-European Mythology. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Boston, Melbourne
& Henley, 1985.
O'Rahilly, T. F. Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin
Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1946.
Ó Searcaigh, Séamus. Cloich Cheann-Fhaolaidh.
Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, ed. by Ifor Williams. U. of
Wales Press, Cardiff, 1930. (PKM)
Rees, Alwyn & Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition
in Ireland and Wales. Grove Press, New York, 1961.
Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography
and Tradition. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1967.
Savignac, Jean-Paul. Les Gaulois, leurs écrits retrouvés.
Editions de la Différence, Paris, 1994.
Sjoestedt, M. L. (trans. by Myles Dillon). Gods and Heroes
of the Celts. Turtle Island, Berkeley, 1982. 
Tranoy, A. La Galice Romaine. Publications du Centre
Pierre, Paris, 1981.