Master of Skills
Similar to the Roman god Mercury, Lugh was known as a god of both skill and the distribution of talent. There are countless inscriptions and statues dedicated to Lugh, and Julius Caesar himself commented on this god’s importance to the Celtic people. Although he was not a war god in the same sense as the Roman Mars, Lugh was considered a warrior because to the Celts, skill on the battlefield was a highly valued ability.
In Ireland, which was never invaded by Roman troops, Lugh is called sam ildanach, meaning he was skilled in many arts simultaneously.
Lugh Enters the Hall of Tara
In one famous legend, Lugh arrives at Tara, the hall of the high kings of Ireland. The guard at the door tells him that only one person will be admitted with a particular skill–one blacksmith, one wheelwright, one bard, etc. Lugh enumerates all the great things he can do, and each time the guard says, “Sorry, we’ve already got someone here who can do that.” Finally Lugh asks, “Ah, but do you have anyone here who can do them ALL?” At last, Lugh was allowed entrance to Tara.
The Book of Invasions
Much of the early history of Ireland is recorded in the Book of Invasions, which recounts the many times Ireland was conquered by foreign enemies. According to this chronicle, Lugh was the grandson of one of the Fomorians, a monstrous race that were the enemy of the Tuatha De Danann.
Lugh’s grandfather, Balor of the Evil Eye, had been told he would be murdered by a grandson, so he imprisoned his only daughter in a cave. One of the Tuatha seduced her, and she gave birth to triplets. Balor drowned two of them, but Lugh survived and was raised by a smith. He later led the Tuatha in battle, and indeed killed Balor.
Julius Caesar believed that most cultures worshipped the same gods and simply called them by different names. In his Gallic War essays, he enumerates the popular deities of the Gauls and refers to them by what he saw as a corresponding Roman name. Thus, references made to Mercury actually are attributed to a god Caesar also calls Lugus, who was Lugh. This god’s cult was centered in Lugundum, which later became Lyon, France. His festival on August 1 was selected as the day of the Feast of Augustus, by Caesar’s successor, Octavian Augustus Caesar, and it was the most important holiday in all of Gaul.
Weapons and War
Although not specifically a war god, Lugh was known as a skilled warrior. His weapons included a mighty magic spear, which was so bloodthirsty that it often tried to fight without its owner. According to Irish myth, in battle, the spear flashed fire and tore through the enemy ranks unchecked. In parts of Ireland, when a thunderstorm rolls in, the locals say that Lugh and Balor are sparring–thus giving Lugh one more role, as a god of storms.
The Many Aspects of Lugh
According to Peter Beresford Ellis, the Celts held smithcraft in high regard. War was a way of life, and smiths were considered to have magical gifts.
After all, they were able to master the element of Fire, and mold the metals of the earth using their strength and skill. Yet in Caesar’s writings, there are no references to a Celtic equivalent of Vulcan, the Roman smith god.
In early Irish mythology, the smith is called Goibhniu, and is accompanied by two brothers to create a triple god-form. The three craftsmen make weaponry and carry out repairs on Lugh’s behalf as the entire host of the Tuatha De Danann prepares for war. In a later Irish tradition, the smith god is seen as a master mason or a great builder. In some legends, Goibhniu is Lugh’s uncle who saves him from Balor and the monstrous Formorians.
One God, Many Names
The Celts had many gods and goddesses, due in part to the fact that each tribe had its own patron deities, and within a region there might be gods associated with particular locations or landmarks.
For example, a god who watched over a particular river or mountain might only be recognized by the tribes who lived in that area. Lugh was fairly versatile, and was honored nearly universally by the Celts. The Gaulish Lugos is connected to the Irish Lugh, who in turn is connected to the Welsh Llew Llaw Gyffes.
Celebrating the Harvest of Grain
The Book of Invasions tells us that Lugh came to be associated with grain in Celtic mythology after he held an harvest fair in honor of his foster mother, Tailtiu. This day became August 1, and that date ties in with the first grain harvest in agricultural societies in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, in Irish Gaelic, the word for August is lunasa. Lugh is honored with corn, grains, bread, and other symbols of the harvest. This holiday was called Lughnasadh (pronounced Loo-NA-sah). Later, in Christian England the date was called Lammas, after the Saxon phrase hlaf maesse, or “loaf mass.”
An Ancient God for Modern Times
For many Pagans and Wiccans, Lugh is honored as the champion of artistry and skills. Many artisans, musicians, bards, and crafters invoke Lugh when they need assistance with creativity. Today Lugh is still honored at the time of harvest, not only as a god of grain but also as a god of late summer storms.
Even today, in Ireland many people celebrate Lughnasadh with dancing, song, and bonfires. The Catholic church also has set this date aside for a ritual blessing of farmers’ fields.
Lugh’s father is Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his mother is Ethniu, daughter of Balor, of the Fomorians. In Cath Maige Tuired their union is a dynastic marriage following an alliance between the Tuatha Dé and the Fomorians. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn Cian gives the boy to Tailtiu, queen of the Fir Bolg, in fosterage. In the Dindsenchas Lugh, the foster-son of Tailtiu, is described as the “son of the Dumb Champion”.
A folktale told to John O’Donovan by Shane O’Dugan of Tory Island in 1835 recounts the birth of a grandson of Balor who grows up to kill his grandfather. The grandson is unnamed, his father is called Mac Cinnfhaelaidh and the manner of his killing of Balor is different, but it has been taken as a version of the birth of Lugh, and was adapted as such by Lady Gregory. In this tale, Balor hears a druid’s prophecy that he will be killed by his own grandson. To prevent this he imprisons his only daughter in the Tór Mór (great tower) of Tory Island, cared for by twelve women, who are to prevent her ever meeting or even learning of the existence of men. On the mainland, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh owns a magic cow who gives such abundant milk that everyone, including Balor, wants to possess her. While the cow is in the care of Mac Cinnfhaelaidh’s brother Mac Samthainn, Balor appears in the form of a little red-haired boy and tricks him into giving him the cow. Looking for revenge, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh calls on a leanan sídhe (fairy woman) called Biróg, who transports him by magic to the top of Balor’s tower, where he seduces Eithne. In time she gives birth to triplets, which Balor gathers up in a sheet and sends to be drowned in a whirlpool. The messenger drowns two of the babies, but unwittingly drops one child into the harbour, where he is rescued by Biróg. She takes him to his father, who gives him to his brother, Gavida the smith, in fosterage.
There may be further triplism associated with his birth. His father in the folktale is one of a triad of brothers, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh, Gavida and Mac Samthainn, and his father in the medieval texts, Cian, is often mentioned together with his brothers Cú and Cethen. Lebor Gabála Érenn Two characters called Lugaid, a popular medieval Irish name thought to derive from Lugh, have three fathers: Lugaid Riab nDerg (Lugaid of the Red Stripes) was the son of the three Findemna or fair triplets, and Lugaid mac Con Roí was also known as mac Trí Con, “son of three hounds”. In Ireland’s other great “sequestered maiden” story, the tragedy of Deirdre, the king’s intended is carried off by three brothers, who are hunters with hounds. The canine imagery continues with Cian’s brother Cú (“hound”), another Lugaid, Lugaid Mac Con (son of a hound), and Lugh’s son Cúchulainn (“Culann’s Hound”). A fourth Lugaid was Lugaid Loígde, a legendary King of Tara and ancestor of (or inspiration for) Lugaid Mac Con.
Lugh joins the Tuatha Dé Danann
As a young man Lugh travels to Tara to join the court of king Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The doorkeeper will not let him in unless he has a skill with which to serve the king. He offers his services as a wright, a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcerer, and a craftsman, but each time is rejected as the Tuatha Dé Danann already have someone with that skill. But when Lugh asks if they have anyone with all those skills simultaneously, the doorkeeper has to admit defeat, and Lugh joins the court and is appointed Chief Ollam of Ireland. He wins a flagstone-throwing contest against Ogma, the champion, and entertains the court with his harp. The Tuatha Dé Danann are at that time oppressed by the Fomorians, and Lugh is amazed how meekly they accept this. Nuada wonders if this young man could lead them to freedom. Lugh is given command over the Tuatha Dé Danann, and he begins making preparations for war.
The sons of Tuireann
Tuireann and Cian, Lugh’s father, are old enemies, and one day his sons, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba spot Cian in the distance and decide to kill him. They find him hiding in the form of a pig, but Cian tricked the brothers into allowing him to transform back to a man before they killed him, giving Lugh the legal right to claim compensation for a father rather than just a pig. When they try to bury him, the ground spits his body back twice before keeping him down, and eventually confesses that it is a grave to Lugh. Lugh holds a feast and invites the brothers, and during it he asks them what they would demand as compensation for the murder of their father. They reply that death is the only just demand, and Lugh agrees. He accuses them of the murder of his father, Cian, and sets them a series of seemingly impossible quests. The brothers go on an adventure and achieve them all except the last one, which will surely kill them. Despite Tuireann’s pleas, Lugh demands that they proceed and, when they are all fatally wounded, he denies them the use of one of the items they have retrieved, a magic pigskin which heals all wounds. They die of their wounds and Tuireann dies of grief over their bodies.
The Battle of Magh Tuireadh
Using the magic artifacts the sons of Tuireann have gathered, Lugh leads the Tuatha Dé Danann in the Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh against the Fomorians. Nuada is killed in the battle by Balor. Lugh faces Balor, who opens his terrible, poisonous eye that kills all it looks upon, but Lugh shoots a sling-stone that drives his eye out the back of his head, wreaking havoc on the Fomorian army behind. After the victory Lugh finds Bres, the half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, alone and unprotected on the battlefield, and Bres begs for his life. If he is spared, he promises, he will ensure that the cows of Ireland always give milk. The Tuatha Dé Danann refuse the offer. He then promises four harvests a year, but the Tuatha Dé Danann say one harvest a year suits them. But Lugh spares his life on the condition that he teach the Tuatha Dé Danann how and when to plough, sow and reap.
Later life and death
Lugh instituted an event similar to the Olympic games called the Assembly of Talti which finished on Lughnasadh (1 August) in memory of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, at the town that bears her name (now Teltown, County Meath). He likewise instituted Lughnasadh fairs in the areas of Carman and Naas in honour of Carman and Nás, the eponymous tutelary goddess of these two regions. Horse races and displays of martial arts were important activities at all three fairs. However, Lughnasadh itself is a celebration of Lugh’s triumph over the spirits of the Otherworld who had tried to keep the harvest for themselves. It survived long into Christian times and is still celebrated under a variety of names. Lúnasa is now the Irish name for the month of August.
According to a poem of the dindsenchas, Lugh was responsible for the death of Bres. He made 300 wooden cows, and filled them with a bitter, poisonous red liquid which was then “milked” into pails and offered to Bres to drink. Bres, who was under an obligation not to refuse hospitality, drank it down without flinching, and it killed him.
Lugh is said to have invented the board game fidchell.
He had several wives, including Buí and Nás, daughters of Ruadri, king of Britain. Buí lived and was buried at Knowth. Nás was buried at Naas, County Kildare, which is named after her. Lugh had a son, Ibic, by Nás. His daughter or sister was Ebliu, who married Fintan. By the mortal Deichtine, he had another son, the hero Cú Chulainn.
One of his wives, Buach, had an affair with Cermait, son of the Dagda. Lugh killed him in revenge, but Cermait’s sons, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine, killed Lugh in return, drowning him in Loch Lugborta. He had ruled for forty years. Cermait was later revived by his father the Dagda, who used the smooth or healing end of his staff to bring Cermait back to life.
In other cycles and traditions
In the Ulster Cycle he fathered Cúchulainn with the mortal maiden Deichtine. When Cúchulainn lay wounded after a gruelling series of combats during the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), Lugh appeared and healed his wounds over a period of three days.
In Baile in Scáil (The Phantom’s Trance), a story of the Historical Cycle, Lugh appeared in a vision to Conn of the Hundred Battles. Enthroned on a daïs, he directed a beautiful woman called the Sovereignty of Ireland to serve Conn a portion of meat and a cup of red ale, ritually confirming his right to rule and the dynasty that would follow him.
In the Fenian Cycle the dwarf harper Cnú Deireóil claimed to be Lugh’s son.
The Luigne, a people who inhabited Counties Meath and Sligo, claimed descent from him.
Ainle is listed as the son of Lug Longhand and is killed by Curnan the Blacklegged in the Rennes Dinsenchas. Ainle, whose name means “champion” is described as being renowned and glorious, but in the same poetic verse is also described as being a weakling with no grip in battle.
In the Dindsenchas, Luat the son of Scal Balb (another name of Cian) is mentioned as the husband of Bairend.
Lug possessed a number of magical items, retrieved by the sons of Tuirill Piccreo in Middle Irish redactions of the Lebor Gabála. Not all the items are listed here. The late narrative Fate of the Children of Tuireann not only gives a list of items gathered for Lugh, but also endows him with such gifts from the sea god Manannán as the sword Fragarach, the horse Enbarr (Aonbarr), the boat Scuabtuinne / Sguaba Tuinne (“Wave-Sweeper”), his armour and helmet.
The lore around Lugh’s Spear is traced as follows:
Four Treasures Spear of Lugh
Lugh’s spear (sleg), according to the text of The Four Jewels of the Tuatha Dé Danann, was said to be impossible to overcome, taken to Ireland from Gorias (or Findias).
Lugh obtained the Spear of Assal (Irish: Gae Assail) as fine (éric) imposed on the children of Tuirill Piccreo (or Biccreo), according to the short account in Lebor Gabála Érenn (Poem LXV, 319), which adds that the incantation “Ibar (Yew)” made the cast always hit its mark, and “Athibar (Re-Yew)” caused the spear to return.
In a full narrative version called [A]oidhe Chloinne Tuireann (The Fate of the Children of Tuireann), from copies no earlier than the 18th century, Lugh demands the spear named Ar-éadbair or Areadbhair (Early Modern Irish: Aꞃéadḃaiꞃ) which belonged to Pisear, king of Persia, that its tip had to be kept immersed in a pot of water to keep it from igniting, a property similar to the Lúin of Celtchar. This spear is also called “Slaughterer” in translation.
Finest Yew of the Wood
There is yet another name that Lugh’s spear goes by: “A [yew] tree, the finest of the wood” (Early Modern Irish: eó bo háille d’ḟíoḋḃaiḃ),:204-5 occurring in an inserted verse within The Fate of the Children of Tuireann. “The famous yew of the wood” (ibar alai fhidbaidha) is also the name that Lugh’s spear is given in a tract which alleges that it, the Lúin of Celtchar and the spear Crimall that blinded Cormac Mac Airt were one and the same weapon (tract in TCD MS 1336 (olim H 3. 17), col. 723, discussed in the Lúin page).
Lugh used the “sling-stone” (cloich tabaill) to slay his grandfather, Balor the Strong-Smiter in the Battle of Magh Tuired according to the brief accounts in the Lebor Gabála Érenn. The narrative Cath Maige Tured, preserved in a unique 16th century copy, words it slightly different saying that Lugh used the sling-stone (here liic talma § 133, i.e. lía “stone” of the ‘tailm “sling”) to destroy the evil eye of Balor of the Piercing Eye (Bolur Birugderc).
A certain poem recorded by O’Curry in English translation says that the missile fired by Lugh was a tathlum (táthluib “(slingstone made of) cement”).
Nature Myth Items
Lugh’s projectile weapon, whether a dart or missile, was envisioned by symbolic of lightning-weapon. Lugh’s sling rod, named “Lugh’s Chain”, was the rainbow and the Milky Way. Unlike the rod-sling, Lugh had no need to wield the spear himself. It was alive and thirsted so for blood that only by steeping its head in a sleeping-draught of pounded fresh poppy seeds could it be kept at rest. When battle was near, it was drawn out; then it roared and struggled against its thongs, fire flashed from it, and it tore through the ranks of the enemy once slipped from the leash, never tired of slaying.
Lugh is also seen girt with the Freagarthach (better known as Fragarach), the sword of Manannán, in the assembly of the Tuatha Dé Danann in the Fate of the Children of Tuireann.
Lugh’s horse(s) and magic boat
Lugh had a horse named Aenbharr which could fare over both land and sea. Like much of his equipment, it was furnished to him by the sea god Manannán mac Lir. When the Children of Tuireann asked to borrow this horse, Lugh begrudged them, saying it would not be proper to make a loan of a loan. Consequently, Lugh was unable to refuse their request to use Lugh’s currach (coracle) or boat, the “Wave-Sweeper” (Irish: Sguaba Tuinne).
In the Lebor Gabála, Gainne and Rea were the names of the pair of horses belonging to the king of the isle of Sicily [on the (Tyrrhene sea)], which Lug demanded as éric from the sons of Tuirill Briccreo.
Failinis was the name of the whelp of the King of Ioruaidhe that Lugh demanded as éiric (a forfeit) in the Oidhead Chloinne Tuireann. This concurs with the name of the hound mentioned in an “Ossianic Ballad”, sometimes referred to by its opening line “Dám Thrír Táncatair Ille (They came here as a band of three)”. In the ballad the hound is called Ṡalinnis (Shalinnis) or Failinis (in the Lismore text), and belonged to a threesome from Iruaide whom the Fianna encounter. It is described as “the ancient grayhound… that had been with Lugh of the Mantles, / Given him by the sons of Tuireann Bicreann;…”
That hound of mightiest deeds,
Which was irresistible in hardness of combat,
Was better than wealth ever known,
A ball of fire every night.
Other virtues had that beautiful hound
(Better this property than any other property),
Mead or wine would grow of it,
Should it bathe in spring water.
O’Curry’s excerpt ends here, but the subsequent verse runs “The three full-fledged heroes are called Sél, Donait and Domhnán. The dog of the fairest figure, Failinis was brought to Finn”. These threesome also appear in Acallamh na Sénorach though in that work the wonder-dog is called Fer Mac.
Name and nature
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Lugh’s name has been interpreted as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root *leuk-, “flashing light”, and he is often surrounded by solar imagery, so from Victorian times he has often been considered a sun god, similar to the Greco-Roman Apollo though historically he is only ever equated with Mercury. He appears in folklore as a trickster, and in County Mayo thunderstorms were referred to as battles between Lugh and Balor, so he is sometimes considered a storm god: Alexei Kondratiev notes his epithet lonnbeimnech (“fierce striker”) and concludes that “if his name has any relation to ‘light’ it more properly means ‘lightning-flash’ (as in Breton luc’h and Cornish lughes)”. However, Breton and Cornish are Brythonic languages in which Proto-Celtic *k did undergo systematic sound changes into -gh- and -ch-.
Lugh’s mastery of all arts has led many to link him with the unnamed Gaulish god Julius Caesar identifies with Mercury, whom he describes as the “inventor of all the arts”. Caesar describes the Gaulish Mercury as the most revered deity in Gaul, overseeing journeys and business transactions. Juliette Wood interprets Lugh’s name as deriving from the Celtic root *lugios, “oath”, and the Irish word lugh connotes ideas of “blasphemy, cussing, lies, bond, joint, binding oath”, which strengthens the identification with Mercury, who was, among other attributes, a god of contracts.
It is also worth noting that parallels exist between the Irish Lugh, British Lleu, Gaulish Lugus, German Wotan, the English Woden, and Norse Odin. Odin was worshipped by the Norse as a god of war among other things, including poetry and the arts. Odin may have replaced Tyr as god of war among north Germanic peoples. As such, it may be that Lugh was also worshipped as a god of war by the Irish. On that note it is worth noting that the ultimate Irish warrior hero Cu Chulainn is cited as the son of Lugh.
Locations named after Lugh
The County of Louth in Ireland is named after the village of Louth, which in turn is named after the God Lugh. Historically, the place name has had various spellings; “Lugmad”, “Lughmhaigh”, and “Lughmhadh”. Lú is the modern simplified spelling.