Deaths of Gods

As I’m working through these retellings, I realized there are a lot of deaths—particularly of beings we recognize as gods, and it’s bothering me that these are the stories we have.
Some years ago on a discussion list, a person newly exploring Gaelic mythology asked how anyone could worship Lug when he was dead—it said so, right in the Lebor Gabala. I responded by saying that first, the Labor Gabala and pretty much everything else we have in the written literature was recorded by medieval Christians, many of whom were working very hard to record but also euhemerize the stories to disguise they were about non-human beings. Second, if we accepted the death tales of the Tuath Déa as written, they are all dead—the Dagda died of a poisoned wound given him by Cethlenn, wife of Balor (though it took him 120 years to die of it!), Nuadu and Macha died at Maige Tuired, as (probably) did Ogma. There are death tales for almost anyone well-known enough to have a story. And third, I’ve experienced Lug as alive and well, so I simply assume the tales of his death are exaggerated…

But these are the stories we have—stories where gods are made into mortals, portrayed as powerful sorcerers maybe, but not divine, with only whispers of what the stories might have been before later cultures wore away the shape and the meaning. We don’t know which parts of the story are old and which are late poetic accretions added by Christians who may not have known or cared that the Tuath Déa were not merely heroic humans but gods. Many of the monks seem to have been more interested in proving that Ireland had just as much history as Israel and Greece combined to worry about muddling stories or making up pieces to fit themselves into the known world.

So how do we find the stories underneath the stories? Different scholars have tried comparing across different Celtic cultures (like Gruffyd’s study of Math vab Mathonwy) to try to determine the ur-story. Some have tried to dig into the names of the personages—a technique favored by the Story Archaeologists. Others have compared medieval literature to recorded folktales to try to determine what is “real” and what is added—but that brings in all the baggage of determining the reality and age of oral traditions and the various pressures they have to deal with over time, particularly in a culture that has adopted a philosophy generally hostile to the subjects of the stories. All of these techniques can be useful, but none are flawless or trouble free; and none can offer a certain answer, only possibilities.

Which leaves us with inspiration. As we develop relationships with these gods, inspired by somewhat distorted stories, we may have insights into what is true rather than historical. How does the Children of Turenn even make sense if Cian is an eternal god? Or did the Gaels never see their gods as eternal? Yet centuries after Lug was supposed to have died, he is said by poets to have visited people—attended Cú Chulain in his hour of weakness, shown a king the future of his dynasty, appeared over embattled people to rally their strength in the fight. Are we then to suppose that the gods were mortal, but then left mortality behind to live in the Otherworld? Is that what it meant when they retreated to the Sidhe mounds, that they gave up a mortal or physical existence?

I don’t have answers, yet, but I’m seeking, and I’ll be glad to hear any thoughts folks might have. How do you work with the stories of gods’ deaths? In this season supposedly driven by Lug’s remembrance of goddesses’ deaths (Tailtiu, Buí, Nás, Carman), this seems like an important problem to think on.

Marriage(s) of Lug

The text traditions, mainly from the Dinsenchas, give Lug four wives: Buí, Nás, Echtach, and Englic*. These four are named in the Metrical Dinsenchas (Gwynn translation):

Echtach, daughter of white-toothed Daig, Englec, Nás, guileless Buí these are the wives of Lug, lord of hosts, who were the flower of gracious queens.

And in an 11th century poem by Flann Mainstrech in the Yellow Book of Lecan:

Echtach, daughter of the Dagda with white smoke, Englic, Nás, Buí, without treachery/cheating, these are the wives of Lug, with many troops.

Various tales of each of them are recorded in the Dinsenchas** but we have no stories of how or why or when Lug married any of them. Some neo-pagan groups have associated Lugnasad with Lug’s marriage to the land—and I’ve seen recons argue that the neo-pagans made this up, but they’re actually in older company.

Lug’s marriage was a topic of interest in the late 19th and early 20th century, with several scholars proposing Lugnasad as being the celebration of his marriage (to someone). The earliest mention of this idea I’ve found is John Rhys in his 1896 Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, where he suggests that nasad is related to Latin nexus ‘a tying or binding together, a legal obligation’ and that a derivative, ar-nass is used to denote betrothing a daughter. He then goes on to connect this with a quote he had from a book in the library of the Royal Irish Academy D, iv..2:

The Refuse of the Great Feast which I mentioned, that is Taillne. It is here that Lug Scimaig proceeded to make the great feast for Lug mac Ethlenn for his entertainment after the battle of Mag Tured ; for this was his wedding of the kingship, since the Tuatha Dé Danann made the aforesaid Lug king after the death of Nuadaa. As to the place where the refuse was thrown, a great knoll was made of it: this was [thenceforth] its name, the Knoll of the Great Feast, or the Refuse of the Great Banquet, that is to say, Taillne, at the present day.

Along with references to Baile in Scal, where Lug is seen with a beautiful woman he names as the Sovereignty of Ireland, Rhys takes this to mean that Lug married the land (the Sovereignty) which he names Eirinn, and that it was this event Lugnasad actually celebrated, rather than the funeral rites of gods who were unlikely to have actually died in truly pagan myths.

This idea was taken up by a number of other early scholars, to the point that it was sometimes mentioned in passing as taken for granted. Westropp (1920) offers this in his “The Marriages of the Gods at the Sanctuary of Tailltiu”:

Oengus, after the so-called ” first battle of Magh Tured,” made the Lugnasad feast for the marriage of Lug to (the kingdom of) Eriu, when Lug was made king after Nuada. One may recall the cryptic allusion in a Gaulish tablet found at Alesia: “May the marriage (?) rejoice the god Ucuetis in Alesia.” Now Eriu was in some tales a daughter of Umor and Tailltiu was daughter of Mac Umoir. The solar god “Mac Greine,” too, had married a goddess (the same, or bearing the same name) Eriu, and was defeated (and “slain”) at Tailltiu by the Milesians. We seem to be hot on the scent of the lost tradition of the goddess who fostered the sun god at the Fir Bolgic sanctuary.

Probably the most intensive study of this was done in Grufydd’s Math uab Mathonwy, a study of that branch of the Mabinogion, in which Grufydd searched for the Ur-myth that inspired the Mabinogi of Math. Part of the work he did with this was comparing the tales of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Lug Lamfada among other Irish stories presumed to be related, to develop this story skeleton:

(I) A certain Giant (or King) had an only daughter. It had been prophesied that his daughter’s son would kill the Giant with a particular spear, on the night of his wedding.
(2) He, therefore, guarded his daughter from all men in a strong tower, so that she should have no son.
(3) The Hero, by magic help, gained access to the Giant’s daughter, and begat a son.
(4) The Giant’s daughter gave birth to a son.
(5) The son did not prosper until he got a name from the Giant, his grandfather.
(6) By magic means, the Hero forced the Giant to name his grandson Lui Lavada/Lleu Llaw Gyffes.
(7) In the circumstances indicated in the prophecy, that is, on his own wedding night, Lui/Lleu hurled the particular spear as described in the prophecy into the Giant’s eye and so slew him.

Whether this is an accurate reconstruction is uncertain, but the amount of material Gruffydd drew on to develop his hypotheses is impressive. This book is dense with stories from both the texts and from recorded folk tales. Unfortunately his story reconstruction does very little to tell us why this story would have been important, giving only structure and not the meaning held in the culture(s) that told it.

Much of this scholarship is denigrated today, often for good reasons: early methods were not terribly rigorous with random suppositions sometimes replacing well-reasoned hypotheses, there was a tendency to try to crush every mythology into cognates of Greek myths, and the idea that more than one person might have the same name was generally ignored in favor of collapsing them into one, among other issues.

Yet no one can deny the tradition of Telltown marriages, and marriage traditions at a variety of Lugnasad sites, as recored by Marie MacNeill in her masterwork on the holiday. Sadly, none of this answers the question of how and when and why Lug married any of the wives we have recorded or whether Lugnasad actually was originally a commemoration of the marriage of Lug to the Sovereignty of Ireland. There is some tie between Lugnasad and marriages—as well as the more often mentioned funerals of women such as Tailtiyu, Buí, Nás, and Carman.


* Spellings of these names vary, but these seem to be the more commonly used spellings. One text mentions Buach, but scholars seem to have effectively argued that this is a variant of Buí (also Bua, Boí).
** Buí: Knowth, Nás; Nás: Nás; Englic: Bansenchas, Knowth (though the relation to Lug is not mentioned here); Echtach alone is not mentioned in these sources, unless there’s another spelling I’m missing.

For What Do We Strive? Lugnasad Thoughts

For those who set the dates of the festivals by stones and stars, tomorrow is Lugnasad. Although I’ve been writing about Lug this year, his stories aren’t the only one associated with the festival. There are the stories of Carmen, Áine, and Crom Dubh—the harper in the cave, the bull sacrificed and restored, and the Cailleach’s reaping contest.

The Cath Maige Tuired doesn’t end with Balor’s defeat, but goes on to the ransom of Bres—and Bres’s ransom is closer in spirit to many of these other tales, in that it speaks to the harvest and feeding the people, as many of the other stories do. (I don’t think it’s an error that the subtitle of the CMT is “The Battle of Mag Tuired and the Birth of Bres Son of Elatha and his Reign”. The point of the story is to speak of Bres, who resembles many other Lugnasad figures, tied to the harvest, who would prefer to keep it for themselves rather than share it among the people, perhaps because they are greedy—and perhaps because they represent the rights and needs of the land rather than the people. Balor gets all the press, but Bres’s knowledge is the real prize of the battle.

So what is the heart of Lugnasad? I propose that it is this: there is no harvest without striving, no striving without change, and no change without loss. Lugnasad should remind us of what we have let go in striving for what we want, and to honor both the losses and the striving as much as the harvest that is won. Lugnasad’s oldest name is Brón Trogain, which is generally taken to mean something like the sorrow of the earth, with connotations of the sorrows of birth. As the earth gives birth to the harvest—and may thus, like Bres resist giving it away—how do we pay for the harvest? How do we, like Lug, remember the suffering of our foster mother? What do we give up in our striving? And for what do we strive?

There are more stories–of weddings and prophecies and possible deaths–to come!



The Ransom of Bres

Eochu Bres, son of Fire, Bres the Beautiful, son of Elatha, sat with his back to a stone, his sword at his feet. The Fomoire were fleeing, running back to the sea. There would be no rulership again for him in this land that he loved and he wanted no other.

It had always been the land, for him, and he had ruled with a deep love of the soil and field and fruiting bush. It had not been in his heart to rule the people, to be a sovereign to them and concern himself with feasts and judgment. He was a fine warrior, but did not love war and felt no awe of those who did. He loved the poetry of sun on the soil and wind in the wheat too much to care for the ranting of poets.

He had lost his wife—had left her to seek his father and she had returned to hers. Their son had come to him—and his father’s people had convinced the boy to spy on Bríg’s people and he had died a spy before he was old enough to bear a spear and shield. And he, Eochu Bres, would die for trying to take back what he had lost. Let his blood feed the land he loved so well—he head no heart for more fighting.

It was the youth who had defeated Old Balor who found him there, contemplating his losses. Samildánach, they called him, and Lamfada, but he looked only a little older than his Ruadan, dead in Goibniu’s forge, slim and tall and a face that looked like it one easy to smile, the hair golden to Ruadan’s red. Would Bríg’s people be glad to hear of his death? Would the boy boast of it at the feast later?

“You do not reach for your sword,” said Lug.

“No, I do not choose to fight,” Bres answered.

“Will you ransom yourself then?”

Bres looked into the glas-blue eyes, his own widening in surprise. “You would take my ransom rather than my head?”

“If you will offer one I may accept, I will.”

Bres thought of what he had to offer. His wealth had been the wealth of the Tuath Déa’s ruler. He had no family who would own him but his father, Elatha, if that good man were not dead on the field. He touched the warm soil beneath him, and knew that all he had was his love of this place and the blessing of his hand.

“If I am spared, the cows of this land will always be in milk,” he said. His mother’s people loved milk above all things, and his blessing could make it so, even though he were not king.

The youth looked at him, considering. “I do not think that is a thing anyone can do,” he said, “and if you could, it would be unkind to do it. Is there anything else you can offer?”
Bres nodded to himself. He had his mother’s gift of the soil and its growing things. “If I am spared, your people will reap a harvest every quarter.”

Lug paused, then shook his head. “Each harvest is a sorrow to the earth. I would not have that sorrow multiplied. That will not save you.” He frowned. “Less will save you, cousin.”

“What?” If it was not milk or harvest to feed them and their people, what could he offer?

“Tell me,” said Lug, “how shall we plow? And how shall we sow? And how shall we reap? You know the land and it’s husbandry, tell these things, and you will be saved.”

Bres shook his head and smiled. This young champion understood and made him understand what had never been clear before. The best things were a balance, not an abundance beyond reckoning. And he told Lug the secrets of plowing and sowing and reaping, the secrets he had learned in loving the land, and so Bres was saved.

Defeat of Balor

The heavy heat of the day pressed on the warriors like a relentless hand, sweat soaking clothing and slipping grips. The battle did now wait for a cloud or surcease of wind. Blood ran on heated ground, a deafness of clashing filled every ear, unending.
Lug heard the battle but could not see it from the safe place the Tuath Déa had set him, guarded by his nine foster brothers to protect him and his arts. But he knew the fate on him, know it lay on the field and not in the safety of the hall. No tyrant would release the land because he only lived.

One hour of waiting became two and his brothers did not mind when he began to sing to pass the time and did not hear when he wove the sleep strain into the song. Asleep, they did not see him slip from the hall and race to the field, just as the Tuath Déa fell back, wounded and tired and missing the healers’ well. Lug saw the slaughter, the blood and the torn ground, its harvest only pain and bones, and knew it must end soon.

Lug began to sing the chants of battle, hopping one-footed, one eye closed, one arm behind in the crane stance that called up the powers of the three realms. He sang to them of the death of tyrants, sang them tall in their love of their kin, sang them strong in their hope for a better future and the knowledge of their own gifts. He turned to the Fomoire and sang them fear, the knowledge of their enemies’ strengths and the heat of the long day wearying their arms, weighing on their weapons, too heavy to lift, the weight of death breathing on their necks. *

Heartened, the Tuath Déa cried out in defiance and rushed the field. Fearful, the Fomoire held their ground with the grimness of those who knew death spoke their names.

Lug fought among them, but with his goal always in mind. It was not hard to see Balor—the strong warrior stood a head taller than all those around him, his poisoned eye covered with a flashing metal shield to keep him from burning everything he faced. Lug knew his goal and knew his fate and came to the towering warrior and cried out:

“My challenge to you, O Balor of the Mighty Blows, tyrant who bleeds the land of Eire and harvests the cries of the people! It is I, Lug Lamfada, Samildánach, who calls to you, though you were the one who named me!”

Cold crept into Balor’s belly at the sight of the young man with his daughter’s golden hair and sea-shifting eyes. He heard the name and knew it, remembered the roll of apples and the dark-eyed gardener with his weak little son. If this was his death, if the words of his wife must come to be, he would die with the host of his enemies.

“What chatterer is this?” he cried. “I will look upon you before you die.” He began to lift the metal shield from his poisoned eye turning it to the golden youth, the grandson who was not to be, and the shining host beyond.

Lug held steady, the spear still in his hand, and when the space was enough made the cast, crying its name to speed its flight. Ibar found its mark flawlessly, piercing the poisoned pupil, driving the deadly orb backward, burning the embattled band of Balor with furious fire. The Fomoire wailed as Balor fell and with him nine nines of warriors.

Ibar returned to the call of its master, and spear in hand Lug Lonnbeimnech stood in stillness, Balor beaten, the Fomoire fleeing with their first warriors fallen. Fate was full.
Balor was beaten but not yet dead, beckoned to his grandson, grim and silent. Macnia came to the fallen warrior, looked in his ruined face, the black burning poison that burned his cheek, and wondered what would happen now that he had done what he had been born for.

“You are a brave, strong lad,” Balor said, “and I am not sorry to have such a destroyer, but I would not have all I am lost, grandson. Take my head and put it upon your own and the blood of my head will grant you all my power, all my knowledge, and the leadership of the Fomoire.”

Lug looked again at the burning hole that had been the poisoned eye, the steam that rose from it, hotter than blood. He looked at the strong arms of the man who was his grandfather, saw the light of life fading in him. “I will take your head, grandfather,” he said, and saw triumph in the remaining eye. Lug drew the Answerer, the sword Manannán had gifted him, and cut cleanly. He lifted the great head to the level of his own. “But I do not choose your power. It was no fool Tailtiu raised.” He set the head on a tall stone of the field, and the first drop of blood spilt the stone in two.

And this was the end of Balor, war-chief of the Fomoire, and the fulfillment of the prophecy of his wife Cethlenn. **


* If you’d like to read a translation of the poem that appears as Lug’s speech in the Cath Mage Tuired, Isolde Carmody has a translation here: I’ve taken liberties with this very dense and not entirely intelligible piece of poetics.

** This tale owes inspiration obviously to the Cath Maige Tuired as translated by Elizabeth Grey, but also to folktales of Balor’s defeat. In some, Lug chases Balor all over Ireland before he finally defeats him. I didn’t feel the need to leave the Plain of Pillars, but felt the final test of Lug’s choices was a good inclusion.

The Coming of Lug

Camall mac Riagail stood at the door of Teamhair as the sun settled down in the latter part of the day. The king and his company were already within and no one else expected. The feast would begin at sunset and the planning for war soon after, for Nuada was king again and the Tuath Déa meant to throw off the yoke of the Fomoire.

Movement, on the western horizon, and the flash of metal, drew Camall’s eyes. A host of armed riders swept up to the foot of Teamhair’s hill carrying no sign or device of the expected company and at their head was a warrior whose helm shone so bright it seemed a second sun rising out of the sun’s setting. Their horses were surely of the plains of Tethra, foam-bright and swift as wind on waves. The leader dismounted and walked up to the door, removing his helm to reveal a rosy, youthful face, not the mature warlord Camall expected.

“Who comes?” Camall asked.

“Lug Larmansclech, called Samildánach, is here, the son of Cian son of Dian Cécht and of Ethne daughter of Balor. He is the foster son of Tailtiu, the daughter of Magmor, the king of Spain, and of Goibniu the Smith, and of Manannán son of Alloth.”

“And whence came you?” Camall asked, not at all sure that a grandson of the Fomoire war-chief was welcome in the hall.

“From where the yew trees shadow the gliding swans of Ethan Ablach,” he said.

“And what art do you practice? For the first geas of Teamhair is that none enter without an art.”

“I am a builder,” the youth said, showing his calloused hand.

“We have a builder already, Luchta, fair brother of one you claim as fosterer. We do not need you.”

“Well do I know him, for he taught me. I am a smith,” he said.

“We do not need you. We have a smith already, Colum Cualeinech of the three new techniques.”

The youth frowned a little, but said, “I am a champion.”

“We do not need you, champion, for we have one already in Ogma mac Ethlenn.”

“I am a harper,” he said, showing his hard nails cut to catch the strings.

“We do not need you,” Camall said, “for we have a harper already, Abcan mac Bicelmois, who was chosen in the sidhe-mounds.”

The youth gave a small smile, as if he expected no different answer. “I am a warrior.” He waved to the host behind him. “And my foster brothers come with me to join your people.”

Camall shook his head. “We do not need you. We have a warrior already, Breasal Etarlam mac Echdach Baethlaim.”

“I am a poet and a historian,” Lug said.

“We do not need you. We already have a poet and historian, En mac Ethamain.”

A small frown barely touched his lips, but he smiled again. “I am a sorcerer, trained in the magics of three peoples.”

“We do not need you,” Camall said. “We have sorcerers already. Our druids and our people of power are many.”

“I am a physician.”

“We do not need you, for we have Dian Cécht, whom you claim as kinsman.”

“I am a cupbearer,” he said, with a graceful turn of his hand.

“We do not need you. We have cupbearers already: Delt and Drucht and Daithe, Tae and Talom and Trog, Gle and Glan and Glesse.”

“I am a good brazier.”

“We do not need you. We have a brazier already, Credne Cerd.”

The youth smiled, as if this were a game and he saw the winning move turns back but had played out the gambit anyway. “Ask the king whether any here possess all these arts: if they do, I will not enter Teamhair.”

Camall nodded and turned from the door and into the hall to stand before Nuadu on the king’s seat, with Ogam and the Dagda beside him. He told them who and what stood at the door and they listened intently.

“Three challenges to test this Samildánach,” Nuadu said, “and the first is mine before he may enter. Bring out my fidchell boards to the door and we will play.”

The boards were set out in the doorway and Nuada sat to play against the newcomer. Nuadu played the first game to lose, to understand the youth’s strategy, but even so did not win the other two games, learning only that the lad had surely fostered with Manannán of the Seven Gambits, for he knew each one of them.

“You may enter Teamhair,” Nuadu said. “My challenge is answered.”

Before Lug could pass the doorway, Ogma issued his challenge, throwing a flagstone of the great hall, so large twenty own had put it in its place, out through the wall of the hall. Lug took up both the flagstone and the stone of the wall and threw them both, each landing in their places as if a master builder had laid them. And so he passed the challenge of Ogma.

Camall stood aside to let him enter, but as he did the sun dipped below the horizon and Lug shook his head, saying, “I shall not enter through the door for I know the second geas of Teamhair: that none may enter through the door past the sun’s setting and before the sun’s rising. I will not break it.” Instead, he took a few steps back and leapt over the wall, landing on the stones of the court as light as the seed of a thistle settling on the surface of water.

As he stepped into the gathering, Nuadu offered him the seat of the sage, which he accepted. Finally, the Dagda offered his challenge in the body of a harp. “Play for us, oh son of Tailtiu of the sweet voice.”

Lug took the harp and touched its strings to test the tuning, then settled it in the crook of his arm. He played for them the first strain of music, the sleep strain, that he had learned at his foster-mother’s knee and all in the hall slipped into rest. He played for them the second strain, the strain of sorrow, and all woke to cry and lament every sadness in their hearts. Then he played the final strain, the strain of joy, and all their sadness was forgotten in the brightness of his tune.

The Dagda nodded, and caught Nuadu’s eye. “He has passed the third test.”

And Nuadu, having seen him pass the challenges, wondered if this youth might b the one to release them from the Fomoire’s bondage. Nuadu spoke with Ogma and the Dagda and they all agreed that this was the leader they had waited for. So Nuadu and the Samildánach exchanged their seats, and soon after Lug called the council of the two brothers, the Dagda and Ogma, and his two kinsmen, Goibniu and Dian Cécht, and they held council on Grellach Dollaid to plan the path to their victory.

The Gods of Art?

Where Lug was fostered is one of those things that isn’t entirely clear in the texts we have to hand. That he was fostered with Tailtiu is clear, but there are other suggestions that he was fostered with Cian’s uncle, Goibniu, and, particularly in later texts, with Manannán. My stories accept both as true, with Goibniu coming first, then Manannán.

Goibhniu the Smith, Luchta the Carpenter or Builder, and Credne Cerd the Brazier, with Dian Cécht the Healer as a sometime fourth, are sometimes known as the Gods of Art. Now that title is often given to another set of brothers, the three sons of Brig and Bres, or of Tuiren/Tuirell. I’ve always found this a bit odd, being as those three, whom we will discuss in more detail later, seem to have very little in the way of arts beyond cheating, stealing, and general mayhem. On the other hand, Goibhniu et al are known for the arts they practice, to the point that early medieval law texts around their arts were named for them, though we have only parts of the Book of Dian Cécht extant, if I recall correctly.

Between the hints at Goibniu fostering Lug and his reputation as master of all arts, it makes sense to me that he studied those arts with his father’s uncles. In fact, in the Coming of Lug (to be told shortly), two of the three are named as the masters of their arts when Lug claims his own mastery (oddly, Goibniu is replaced by Colum Cualeinech of the three new techniques, who I haven’t otherwise heard of).

So what do we know of these artisans (for they are artisans, rather than artists, I would argue)? I think one of the most known of their stories is how they continually supplied the Tuath Déa with weapons in the Cath Maige Tuired:

One thing which became evident to the Fomoire in the battle seemed remarkable to them. Their weapons, their spears and their swords, were blunted; and those of their men who were killed did not come back the next day. That was not the case with the Tuatha De Danann: although their weapons were blunted one day, they were restored the next because Goibniu the smith was in the smithy making swords and spears and javelins. He would make those weapons with three strokes. Then Luchta the carpenter would make the spearshafts in three chippings, and the third chipping was a finish and would set them in the socket of the spear. After the spearheads were in the side of the forge he would throw the sockets with the shafts, and it was not necessary to set them again. Then Credne the brazier would make the rivets with three strokes, and he would throw the sockets of the spears at them, and it was not necessary to drill holes for them; and they stayed together this way.

And here we see Goibniu is back as a member of the trio—and meanwhile Dian Cécht their sometimes fourth, is, with his children, healing all wounds at the Well of Slaine. These arts are turning the battle for the Tuath Déa, until the traitor among them, Ruadan, son of Brig and Bres, betrays the secret of their success.

Luchta is called mac Luachada in the Cath Maige Tuired, and a builder, and when Lug asks after the talents of the Tuath Déa for the coming battle, Luchta says he will supply their hosts with shields and spearshafts. Beyond this, I haven’t found more mentions of him, though another Luchta, son of Lugar son of Lugaid White-hand, and father of Eochu the King of Munster who had only one eye and gave it away to pay a poet for a hen in the Rennes Dinsenchas. Credne Cerd again shows up mainly in the Cath Maige Tuired so far as I’ve found: he helps Dian Cécht build Nuadu’s silver hand, and promises to supply all the rivets and shield bosses and shield rims the Tuath Déa will need. I would very much like to find more, as these two seem very important.

Goibniu, on the other hand, while also appearing in the Cath Maige Tuired, seems to have made his way into folktales as the Goban Saor, taking the role of a trickster smith and builder who, with his less than clever son, wanders through story after story and given credit for building many of the great old building of Ireland, ruined or otherwise. Goibniu, along with the feat listed above, was one of the five (with Lug, Ogma, the Dagda, and Dian Cécht) who held secret talks to plan the Battle. Not only does he promise to renew the weapons daily, but:

No spearpoint which my hand forges will make a missing cast. No skin which it pierces will taste life afterward.

And it is Goibniu whom the Fomoire send Ruadan to kill:

They sent him back to kill one of the aes dana, Goibniu. He requested a spearpoint from him, its rivets from the brazier, and its shaft from the carpenter; and everything was given to him as he asked. Now there was a woman there grinding weapons, Cron the mother of Fianlach; and she ground Ruadan’s spear. So the spear was given to Ruadan by his maternal kin, and for that reason a weaver’s beam is still called “the spear of the maternal kin” in Ireland.
But after the spear had been given to him, Ruadan turned and wounded Goibniu. He pulled out the spear and hurled it at Ruadan so that it went through him; and he died in his father’s presence in the Fomorian assembly. Brig came and keened for her son. At first she shrieked, in the end she wept. Then for the first time weeping and shrieking were heard in Ireland. (Now she is the Brig who invented a whistle for signalling at night.)

Goibniu is healed in the Well of Slaine, and continues to provide weapons to his kin.
The other mention I’ve found of him in the texts is from the Edinburgh Dinsenchas which appears to be about his father, if Gobbán and Goibniu are the same:

Traig Tuirbi, whence is it?
Not hard (to say). Tuirbe Trágmar, father of Gobbán the Wright, ’tis he that owned it. ’Tis from that heritage he, (standing) on Telach Bela (‘the Hill of the Axe’), would hurl a cast of his axe in the face of the floodtide, so that he forbade the sea, which then would not come over the axe. And his pedigree is not known, unless he be one of the defectives of the men of art who fled out of Tara before Samildánach, (and whose posterity) is in the secret parts of Bregia. Whence Tráig Tuirbi, ‘Turbe’s Strand.’
Tuirbe Trágmar was a negligent man,
Father of Gobbán with pure desire.
Unknown is his bright pedigree,
From him Tráig Tuirbi is named.

Who are the “defectives of the men of art who fled out of Tara”? I haven’t sorted that out yet, but it’s an interesting piece of data, and relevant to the current project being as they fled before Samildánach, aka Lug.

Dian Cécht, though, is probably the one with the most story around him in the texts we have. Cian, Lug’s father, is of course his son. It is he who puts a silver hand on Nuada after Nuada loses his hand to Sreng, the Fir Bolg champion. Dian Cécht’s son, Miach replaces the silver hand with one of real flesh—which leads to Dian Cécht killing him, and all the herbs of healing growing out of the son’s grave*. He promises in the battle:

Any man who will be wounded there, unless his head is cut off, or the membrane of his brain or his spinal cord is severed, I will make him perfectly whole in the battle on the next day.

And he does just that, with the help of Airmed and his two sons, Octriuil and Miach (who appears to have recovered from his death and burial quite well).

The Dinsenchas don’t ignore the great healer either. We learn he had a harper, Corann, who summoned a pig from his harp, and my have also been another of his children (Mag Corainn, Edinburgh). Corann, here Coronn, is mentioned again in the Rennes, as the harper of Dian Cécht, and says he was given land, Mag Coroind. Lusmag (herb-plain) is named because of the work of gathering and grating herbs for the well of Slaine (Edinburgh).

Some scholars have identified Dian Cécht with Mac Cécht, one of another triad with Mac Coll and Mac Grian, the sons of Cermait, son of the Dagda, partly because a story of Mac Cécht killing the Mórrigan’s son, Méche**, has Dian Cécht instead of Mac Cécth in one recension of the text. Now, I find myself a little doubtful that Mac Cécht and Dian Cécht are the same—they seem to have very different roles.



* I’ll note here that the meaning of this story is much debated by scholar’s studying the medieval texts. Why does he kill Miach, and why does he scatter the herbs once they’re grown? Is he just a father jealous of his son or is there some deeper meaning that has been obscured by time? I don’t have answers for this, but again, Story Archaeology has talked about this more than once and put forth some interesting theories of their own,

** In the Bodleian Dinseanchas:
Berba, into it were cast the three adders that abode in the 
hearts of Méche, son of the Morrígain, after his death by Mac 
Cecht in Mag Méchi (Mag Fertaigi, now was the name of that 
plain formerly). The shapes of three adders’ heads were on
the three hearts that were in Méche, and, unless his death had
occurred, the adders would have grown in his belly till they would 
not have left an animal alive in Ireland. So after slaying him on 
Mag Luadat, Mac Cecht burnt them [the hearts] and cast their 
ashes with yon stream, and it boiled, and it dissolved every one of
the animals that were therein. Wherefore thence are “Mag
Luadat”, and “Mag Méchi”, and “Berba”. Hence said the poet:
‘Méche’s hearts, hard the wound,
Have been drowned in the Barrow;
Their ashes, after being burnt by you,
Mac Cecht, slayer of a hundred, cast in.’

And in the Rennes:
Meche son of the Mor-rígain, in him were the three hearts till Mac Cecht killed him on Mag Mechi, which till then had been named Mag Fertaigi. Thus were those hearts, with the shapes of three serpents through them. Now if death had not befallen Meche the serpents in him would have grown, and what they left alive in Ireland would have wasted away. Then Mac cecht burnt those hearts on Mag Luathat ‘Plain of Ashes’, and cast their ashes with the stream, whereupon the rapids of the river stayed, and every creature therein died and boiled.
Or maybe it was on Ard Luaithrid ‘Height of Ashes’ that he burnt the hearts; whence Berba is said, and Mag Méchi and Ard Luaithrid.
Or Ber-ba may be (a compound of) ber or bir ‘water’ and ba ‘dumb’. Whence is said Berba, that is, ‘dumb water’.

The Second Fostering

No weeping was heard from the Fir Bolg queen as Cian rode away with his little son behind him, but singing. She sang in the dialect of her people and the boy sand the song back to her, a wild, heart-trembling tune that caught in the ear and made the tongue long to join in. Both voices, high and fine, sounded across the wide plain and even through the woods they passed into, until the travelers stopped for the evening.

At Goibhniu’s forge, the lad was eager and never made complaint for having to learn to raise the fire before shaping metal. He sang to the wood and the flames and made a steady, strong fire as good as Goibhniu himself, and whether making the fire or forging a blade, the sparks never burned him.

When Goibhniu taught him the charms for the hammer and for the metal’s shaping, he set them to tunes, singing them in soft drones like bees as he worked, beating the shapes to the rhythm of the singing, rather than singing to the hammer’s calling.

He did the same with the charms Luchta taught him to see the shapes within the wood, to know where knots would lie and how to work them into the strength of a shape instead of its weakness. Credne’s brazing was also set to song, as he taught the way of shaping the soft metals into coils and curves, how to set the pins that held spear head to haft, how to read the strength of the softer metals and how to blend them for their purpose.

And so it was when Airmed and Miach, his aunt and uncle, came to teach him healing. Airmed would teach him the lists of plants and their ailments, and the lad would recite them back to her in his sweet voice giving them tone and rhythm not in the words. He sang the charms for setting bones and restful sleep for the ill and for drowning out pain as his hands moved gently over the ill bodies of animals and men.

It was his aunt, Etan, who rejoiced in him, for he would learn any lay she gave him on the first hearing, rhythm for rhythm and point for point, and when she questioned him on the meaning, thinking he simply leaned the sound and not the sense, his exposition startled her, for he had heard not only the surface of the story but often the words set sidewise and the judgment of the rhythm on the story’s meaning. He seemed to devour every story she could give him and taught her a few of the Fir Bolg tales. She called him a well of stories, for they seemed to sink into him and fall his depths. It was Etan who was most sorry when Manannán sent for him, for she feared his harper’s fingers would break in the learning of the sword.

The lad went to Emhain Ablach with the mastery of his kinsmens’ arts: smithing. brazing, carpentry, poetry, and healing. From Tailtiu he had learned harping and sorcery. Manannán would add to his store of spells and teach him the arts of war and water.

Notes on Eithliu

Eithliu/Ethliu, also Ethniu, or more commonly Eithne or Ethne, is a name that wanders through the stories of Ireland. For a really interesting study of the many Ethne’s, I recommend Story Archaeology’s episode on Eithliu  as well as the follow-up here*. Now clearly, my main interest here is in Eithliu, mother of Lug, but one of the interesting threads (that I have not woven into this telling of the tales) is that Eithliu, Lug’s mother, was also the mother of several of the major Tuath Déa we know and love.

In Lug’s tales, Eithliu is the daughter of Balor, war-chief or sometimes king of the Fomoire, and Ceithlenn, his wife, who I’ve found very little about except that she had a gift of prophecy and gave the Dagda an eventually-deadly blow at the Battle of Moytura. But in the Lebor Gabála Érenn section on the Tuatha de Danann, we read:

A Taking of Ireland, a strength that was not weak,
The Tuatha De Danann took it :
the name of their leader which they had, it was lucky,
was Bethach, noble son of Iardaines.

2. The seven other chieftains thereafter,
with splendour, with combat,
they were powerful against their firm conflict,
the seven lofty great sons of Ethliu.

3. Dagda, Dian Cecht, Credne the wright,
Luichne the carpenter, who was an enduring consummate plunderer,
Nuada who was the silver-handed,
Lug mac Cein, Coibninn the smith.

The LGE recension 2 has a similar list for the sons of Eithliu: the Dagda, Dian Cecht, Creidne, Luchne, Nuadu Argatlam, Lug s. Cian, Goibhniu s. Ethliu**.

Lug mac Cein is, of course, Lug son of Cian. This appears to come from a slightly different tradition than the folktales, since Lug is listed as one of seven sons, and surely any one of those listed might have been the bane of Balor. But here we have a tradition that makes Lug the half brother of many of the other major figures of the Tuath Déa. There’s a bit of oddness if you accept Dian Cécht as Cian’s father, in that Lug would then be his grandfather’s half brother, but mythical genealogies are often a bit tricky. Cian is also known as one of the sons of Cainte, so perhaps that unsnarls the thread?

If we compare the list of Eithliu’s sons with a later list of Elatha’s sons, we see some interesting overlap. Both the LGE and its first recension list Bres, the Dagda, Delbaeth, and Ogma while the third recension gives a longer list:  Ogma Grianainech, Alloth Alaind (also called Elloth, father of Manannán), Bresa Brathbemnech, Delbaeth Dana, The Great Dagda. These lists suggest that Eithliu, mother of Lug, and Elatha, father of Bres, had several children between them who are half-brothers to both. Elada appears in the Cath Maige Tuired as a Fomoire king, even as Eithliu is called Balor’s daughter in the same text. An argument could be made, then, that all these  Tuath Déa are, essentially, Fomoire by birth.

To this, let’s add one more odd snippet from the LGE recension 3:

The gods of whom are the kings, these were their names — the three sons of Bres s. Elada, Triall and Brian and Cet, or three sons of Tuirell Biccreo, Brian, Iuchair and Iucharba, the three gods whom the kings used to worship. Through that it is clear that the kings were not of the Tuatha De Danann but of the husbandmen, that is of the sons of Ethliu. Other scholars say that the Tuatha De Danann were named from the three druids, Rabb, Brod, and Robb.

This seems to imply that the husbandmen of the TDD were the sons of Eithliu, while the three sons of Bres s. Elada (aka Elatha) (or Tuirell Bricreo) are the gods the kings used to worship. I’m not at all sure what to make of this yet, but it brings up again the importance of Elatha and Eithliu as progenitors.

But what of Eithliu herself? Is she the maiden, captured to prevent a prophecy, like Danae, mother of Perseus (who was likewise prophesied to kill his mother’s father)? Is she the mother of many of the major figures of the Tuath Déa? Her name appears to mean something like “kernel” or “seed”, and is used for a number of characters whose main role in their stories seems to be to have a wondrous child. As with the many Machas, it’s difficult to see these Eithlius as all one character reappearing over and over—and might be a bit troublesome at times, if Eithliu is the Dagda’s mother and also a by-name of Boand***, mother of his son, Oengus.

There is one mention of our Eithliu/Ethne in the Banseanchas, the Stories of Women:

Feada was the real name of noble Ethne who was wife of strong stout Cian, and mother of Lug the impetuous superman, and daughter of swift smiting Balor son of Dod son of mighty Net a greater man than pleasant Hector. From him is famed the cairn at Ath Feindead because he fought a duel.

So here again, Ethne/Eithliu is listed as daughter of Balor, and wife of Cian, but she is also given another name: Feada. I haven’t found another mention of that name so far, so I’m not sure it illuminates much. I also haven’t found any suggestions of what the name means.

She appears again in the tales of Fionn MacCumhail, in Murphy’s 1933 translation of Duanaire Finn in section XLIV: Lugh’s Kinship with certain Members of the Fian:

Lugh’s mother. Eithne, was given as wife, to Tadhg, son of Nuadha. By him she had two daughters Uirne and Muirne. Uirne was given as wife to Conall. Dáire was their son. From Lughach, Fionn’s daughter, and Daire sprang Gaoine, called Mac Lughach. Uirne was given as wife to the king of Ulster. The king of Ulster’s former wife, the Bodhbh’s daughter, turned Uirne into a dog. Uirne as a dog gave birth to Bran and Sgeolang. Lughaidh Lagha had Uirne turned back into a woman. She was given to him as wife. Lughaidh Lagha’s sons were Gaol Crodha, Sgiath, Aodh and Iollann. Uirne had seven sons; Muirne one son. Fionn. Thus was Lugh related to certain of the Fian.

And section XLV: The Kinship of Cnu Dheireoil with Fionn:

Eithne, daughter of Balor, was mother of Lugh. Lugh was father of Cnu Dheireoil. Lugh slew Balor. Eithne followed Lugh to Tara. Tadhg asked Lugh to give him his mother, Eithne, in marriage. Muirn, Fionn’s mother, was the first child of that marriage. Fionn’s kinship with Cnu Dheireoil is clear : Eithne was grandmother to both.

And in Murphy’s translation of the verse of the same (XLIV):

1 I remember how Lugh and a portion of the Fian were related. Although the host has all gone I tell it without falsehood.

2 Tall Eithne was Lugh’s mother : she was given to Tadhg : from her sprang a noble progeny, great Tuirn [Uirne] and smooth-necked Muirn.

3 To Conall was given (I shall not conceal it) the queen, Uirne Sharpmouth : she bore a son (and it was no misery) princely Dáire of the bright teeth.

4 The comely pleasant lad Mac Lughach was son to Dáire: Lughach, daughter of forceful Fionn, was the mother of Gaoine of the clear deeds.

5 Fionn, the prince of heroes, bound Tuirn to the good lord of Ulster : she lived with that prosperous king and so became heavy and with child.

6 The king had a wife before her, the very powerful daughter of Bodhbh: she cast Uirne Sharpmouth into the shape of a hound (a great tale to tell).


1 Tell, mighty Oisin, of the clear pure active mind : was Cnu Dheireoil related to Fionn of the cleanly shaped kindred?

2 Cnu Dheireoil, the nut of my heart, the sweetest, music I have heard, the best jewel that ever was in fairy mansion, the powerful gifted one!

3 He was an excellent glorious offspring, maker of famed non-discordant music at which wounded men might sleep, the good son of Lugh, son of Eithne.

4 Great Lugh, son of Cian, son of Cainte, was son to the loveliest woman in Ireland : that woman of the billowing fair-tressed hair was Eithne, Balor’s daughter.

5 When Lugh of the stout strong blows had assumed the kingship of Ireland, his fierce airy (?) plundering brought death on the Fomorian race.

6 When Balor of the blows had been killed by Lugh of the manful clothing, Eithne, Balor’s daughter, followed him to the house of Tara.

7 Great Tadhg, son of Nuadha, came with a noble band to the fair (The witnesses of the marriage were good) to seek Eithne from her only son.

8 The lady was given to him, to Tadhg, the brave excellent man : she was his sole wife till his stern death came.

9 The first child born to those two as a result of that marriage in the house of Tara was Muirn daughter of Tadhg, son of Nuadha, the woman of noble accomplishments.

10 There is their relationship to one another, cleric who hast visited us: Eithne, daughter of warlike Balor, was the mother of the mother of the son of Cumhall.

11 Pray for my soul, cleric of the full pleasant learning: Heaven will be obtained for my soul from the King of Paradise, Tailgheann.

12 Pray for the soul of Cnu Dheireoil who was musical by nature when men played together, a lad who uttered poems : never did I hear music so sweet.

This suggests that Eithliu went with Lug to Tara (a story yet to come) and later married Nuada’s son, Tadhg (or Tadg in other texts), so Fionn’s mother was Lug’s half-sister. This makes a bit of sense out of the tradition that Fionn inherited many of Lug’s treasures—many of which Lug was given by Manannán (yet another story for another day).

So what do we know of Eithliu? She is an important link in the genealogies of many important figures, centrally for us, Lug, but she ties him to the leadership of the Tuath Déa and to the hero, Fionn. She is, perhaps, as they say at Story Archaeology, the seed of many stories.


* Honestly, Story Archaeology is a treasure trove of translations, stories, and interesting speculations about the tales we have. If you’re interested in Irish mythology, go there and listen and read their additional materials.

** Yes, it does seem odd that in a list of Ethliu’s sons, they list Goibhniu son of Ethliu. I feel I must be missing something here.

*** In the Tocmarc Étaine: “Elcmar of the Brug had a wife: i.e. Eithne was her name.  Another name for her was Boand.”

Notes on Bírog

Much of the recovery and reconstruction of our Gaelic stories comes from medieval texts, but other stories lived past the conversion of Ireland in the folk memory, and some of these stories did both.

In the Cath Maige Tuired, the story of Lug’s birth is simple:

The Tuatha Dé then made an alliance with the Fomoire, and Balor the grandson of Net gave his daughter Ethne to Cian the son of Dian Cécht. And she bore the glorious child, Lug.

This dynastic marriage, meant to create peace between their peoples doesn’t seem to have helped much, given the latter Battle the text is named for. It also doesn’t explain why no one seems to remember who Lug is later in the story when he arrives at Teamhair. The folktale, with its fairytale structure, is richer and more interesting, with an imprisoned maiden, terrible prophecies, and a hero born out of a secret tryst.*

It is one of these folktales, collected from the area nearest Toraigh or Tory Island, a windswept, treeless place off the north coast of Ireland, that features Bírog. Toraigh is traditionally, in that area at least, held to be the home of Balor, and this is the case in our story as well. Bírog, the druid woman, does not exist in the medieval texts (if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know!). Instead, she is a sort of Merlin character brought into the folktale to nudge things in the right direction for the prophecy of Ceithlenn to come true. She ensures that Cian comes to Tory Island, and ruthlessly distracts him from finding Goibhniu’s cow by pointing him in Ethliu’s direction. All this, to ensure that Lug, the prophecied child, will be born—even as Merlin pushes Uther toward Igraine to ensure Arthur will exist. And, again like Merlin, she saves the baby Lug from the drowning his grandfather decreed for him, freeing his half-brothers as well, but leaving them in the sea to become seals.**

Bírog’s name may mean “thorn” and ties into another version of the tale, where the babies are taken out to be drowned but the thorn holding them in their blanket falls loose and the babies fall out in a bay, called afterward the Bay of the Thorn, for the fallen thorn. Lug is saved, perhaps by luck, washing up on the shore, or perhaps by Manannán, that watery trickster, and his half brothers or sisters (most stories say they are all boys, but not all) become the first seals. Many researchers equate these seal-brothers with the elder brother of Lleu Llaw Gyffes of Wales, Dylan of the Sea, who upon his birth immediately leapt into the sea and swam away, while Lleu, unnamed and unformed, was gathered up by his uncle, Gwydion, to incubate in a trunk at the foot of his bed. I hope to talk more about the parallel stories later.

But the folktale, as is the way with such stories, doesn’t really tell us who Bírog is, only that she is a druid woman from the mountains who decides to involve herself in the story. Is she simply an artifact of storytelling? Is she the memory of a lost Fomoire or Tuath Déa? Why did the storytellers choose a druid woman instead of the more common male wizard/druid to fill this role? I don’t have answers for these questions, but find them interesting to consider nonetheless.

Bírog is a creature of folk tale, not literature—yet she speaks to me as much a part of the story as anything written in the old texts. She emphasizes the complex connections Lug has with women (mothers, wives, aunts…) throughout his stories. More on that later!


*Some parallels with the story of Perseus son of Danae have been noted by scholars as well.

**Interestingly, the parallel here is with Arthur drowning the May Day babies to try to rid himself of Mordred.

[Cites to be added later, hopefully!]