The Women Lugh Wed

I’d been interested in the Irish gods for a long time before I ever knew Lugh had married. His wives are rarely mentioned and even more rarely do we hear anything about them beyond their names listed encyclopedia-like.

From a poem by Flann Mainstrech (d. 1056) found in the Yellow Book of Lecan, according to Hily 2007:

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

Echtach ingen Deagda déid-ghil – Englic, Nas, Búi cen brath, is iad sin mná Logha línmair.

And from the notes of Metrical Dinsenchas III, translated by Gwynn:

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.

I don’t have the original language of the second, unfortunately, but the difference in Echtach’s parentage is curious.

Nás and Buí, daughters of Rúadrí Ruad, King of Britain, are relatively well-known from the dinsenchas stories on Cnogba and Nás (the hill), but all that’s told of them is that Nás died at Nás, and Buí died on hearing the news, and Lugh made a feast to commemorate them on 1 August. Nás is the mother of Lugh’s son Ibec of the horses (Metrical Dinsenchas of Nás), and Buí (also known as Boí, Bua, or Buach) is also (as Buach, probably a genitive form) called daughter of Dáire Donn. At least one researcher has suggested Buí may be cognate with the Cailleach Bhearre, based on the theory that Buí is the personal name of that goddess (Ó Crualaoich 1988). Nás, according to eDil means, poetically, “death” or “death-commemoration,” though it’s related to násad which is listed on that page as “putting to death” although the longer entry suggests a meaning of “a gathering or assembly of a festive or commemorative nature.” Buí is listed without a meaning, though Wagner (1981) suggests it is related to Indo-European *bovina “cow-like-one,” and suggests a connection to the Boyne River.

Buí and Englic share the dubious honor of possibly having had an affair with Cearmait Milbel, son of the Dagda. Lugh is said to have killed Cearmait in jealousy, and it seems to be uncertain both which of the women was supposed to have been Cearmait’s lover and whether the affair even happened, as once source seems to say that the druid told Lugh a lie about his wife (Bergin 1927). (And if you were worried, Cearmait gets better–the Dagda wanders the world with his corpse until he finds a staff that can restore him to life). In the Bansenchas, oddly, an Englic is listed as “mother of the Dagda’s swift son,” a description often given Cearmait. Perhaps a scribe became confused about their relationship?

Englic is the daughter of Elcmar of the Brugh, who just seems unable to get a break: he’s sent on a year long journey by the Dagda so Boann will be free to become the Dagda’s lover and the mother of his son, Óengus; Elcmar loses his home, Brugh na Boinne, to Óengus; and then there’s Englic. Englic is loved by Óengus (which seems to imply she isn’t Boann’s daughter?). Who she loves depends on the dinsenchas you read–either Óengus or Midir, his older half-brother. In the version where she loves Óengus, she’s carried of by the three sons of Derc son of Ethaman; in the version where she loves Midir, he carries her off. Either way, Óengus is heartbroken and makes a lamentation at Cnogba (Knowth).

But that’s the last we hear of her, except for the mentions of her as Lugh’s wife, so somehow after being carried off, she gets married to someone who, apparently, had nothing to do with carrying her off. Maybe Englic just had a tendency to be carried away–in the Acallam na n’eces, a story is told that Ogma invents ogham writing to warn Lugh that his wife is in danger, carving three beith marks to indicate that, unless this woman is protected by the birch, she will be carried off to a/the síd seven times. Sterckx suggested Englic could be derived from én “bird” + gleic “hostility”, and argued she was cognate with Welsh Blodeuwed, based on the folk belief that other birds were hostile to owls. Hily (2007) argues against this, saying the long e in én makes this derivation unlikely, suggesting instead glicc “acute, shrewd, ingenious, skilled” and the intensifying prefix en- and thus meaning “very skilled, very shrewd.” The latter meaning seems to suggest something more than a young woman prone to being carried off. Isolde Carmody, suggests several other possible meanings: “Stone Track” or “Slab Territory” or “Water Wrestling.”

And that leaves us with Echtach. Oddly enough, this name seems to wander across genders, as Echtach is often the name of Nuada’s father (First Battle of Magh Tured, for example). I have yet to find any information on Daig, though the name appears to mean “flame, conflagration, blaze” and is metaphorically applied to heroes, kings, and saints (eDIL). The only information on Echtach I’ve been able to locate so far comes from Monaghan’s Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, where she is described as a goddess, sister and rival of Echtge, the cannibal daughter of Nuada. The author mentions folktales from Co. Clare pictured Echtach as a spectral owl, which could be an interesting link to Blodeuwed, wife of Lleu. The eDIL gives us échtach (note the long e) as “some kind of night bird, perhaps an owl” or “prowessful, death-dealing, destructive.”

I find these hints and half-complete stories tantalizing. I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed, but suspect that we are unlikely to clear up most of the mysteries solely from research. I envy the people of the culture the dinsenchas came from, so steeped in an oral culture so rich with stories that a name or a sideways mention called up whole plots webs of meaning.  If any of my handful of readers have any cites or stories I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments!


Origin of Lugnasad

Lugnasad has as many origin stories as a Marvel comics superheros. Okay, maybe not that many, but more than people generally talk about.

The story that seems the most widely known focuses on the death of Tailtiu, Lugh’s foster mother, daughter of Mag Mór. The general plot has Tailtiu clearing a plain to the detriment of her health and, on her deathbed, begging that she and her work be commemorated in a festival or oenach. Lugh promises her this, she dies, and Lugnasad is instituted in her memory. This story may be referenced in the bansenchas:

The wife of Eochu (loud was his shout) was Tailtiu who cut down the wood, [From her is named green-sloped Tailtiu of the prosperous united assemblies] in Caille Cuan. She cut over a hundred axes: a road for armies.

Note there’s nothing here about Tailtiu dying, only that she cleared the wood.

The Edinburgh Dinsenchas  on Mag Tailten is closer to the model:

Tailltiu, daughter of Maghmor, King of Spain, wife of Eochaid the Rough, son of Dua the Dark-grey. She was Lugh mac Ethlenn’s foster-mother, and ’tis she that used to dig the plain. Or ’tis there that she died. On the first day of autumn her tomb was built, and her lamentation was made and her funeral game was held by Lugh [whence we say Lughnasadh, ‘Lammastide’. Five hundred years and a thousand before Christ’s birth was that, and that assembly was held by every king who took Ireland until Patrick came, and there were five hundred assemblies in Tailtiu from Patrick down to the Black Assembly of Donnchad, son of Flann, son of Maelsechlainn]. And these are the three tabus of Tailtiu: crossing it without alighting; looking at it over one’s left shoulder when coming from it; idly casting at it after sunset. Whence Magh Tailten, ‘Taltiu’s Plain.’
Taltiu, slow Magmor’s daughter,
’Tis she that cut down the forest.
Lugh’s foster-mother, men declare,
The place of this assembly (is) round Tailtiu.

This says she used to dig that plain or it is there that she died, not that she died of digging the plain or cutting the wood. It’s not exclusive of that interpretation, but it also doesn’t require it.

The Metrical Dinsenchas has the longest story and the closest to the model:

Taltiu, daughter of gentle Magmor, wife of Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall, came hither leading the Fir Bolg host to Caill Chuan, after high battle.
Caill Chuan, it was a thicket of trees from Escir to Ath Drommann, from the Great Bog, a long journey, from the Sele to Ard Assuide.

Great that deed that was done with the axe’s help by Taltiu, the reclaiming of meadowland from the even wood by Taltiu daughter of Magmor.
When the fair wood was cut down by her, roots and all, out of the ground, before the year’s end it became Bregmag, it became a plain blossoming with clover.
Her heart burst in her body from the strain beneath her royal vest; not wholesome, truly, is a face like the coal, for the sake of woods or pride of timber.
Long was the sorrow, long the weariness of Tailtiu, in sickness after heavy toil; the men of the island of Erin to whom she was in bondage came to receive her last behest.
She told them in her sickness (feeble she was but not speechless) that they should hold funeral games to lament her—zealous the deed.
About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lugnasad of Lug; round her grave from that Monday forth is held the chief Fair of noble Erin.
White-sided Tailtiu uttered in her land a true prophecy, that so long as every prince should accept her, Erin should not be without perfect song.
A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariots, with adornment of body and of soul by means of knowledge and eloquence.
A fair without wounding or robbing of any man, without trouble, without dispute, without reaving, without challenge of property, without suing, without law-sessions, without evasion, without arrest.
A fair without sin, without fraud, without reproach, without insult, without contention, without seizure, without theft, without redemption:
No man going into the seats of the women, nor woman into the seats of the men, shining fair, but each in due order by rank in his place in the high Fair.
Unbroken truce of the fair the while through Erin and Alba alike, while men went in and came out without any rude hostility.
Corn and milk in every stead, peace and fair weather for its sake, were granted to the heathen tribes of the Greeks for maintaining of justice.
From the lamentation for Tailtiu of the Sele to the reign of Loegaire mac Neill was held by the fairy host a fair every single year,
By the Fir Bolg, who were there, and by the Tuatha De Danann, by the Children of Mil thereafter down to Patrick after the first coming of the Faith.

What I find interesting about this version is that 1) she is said to have died on “the Lugnasad of Lug” as if that were something already established, perhaps for another cause, and 2) there is no other mention of Lug in this story, no implication that Lug made the oenach for her.

The Rennes Dinsenchas on Nás has a somewhat different take on things:

Eochaid the Rough son of Dua king of Ireland, ’tis he that made a proclamation to the men of Erin to come and cut down the Wood of Cuan, with laigin (broadbladed lances) and bill-hooks and hatchets, in honour of his wife Tailtiu daughter of Magmor. So in a month they cut down the wood, and that plain is (now) Oenach Tailten. He asked whether any of the men of Erin had shirked the work. Bri Brú-glas, Tailtiu’s messenger, answered: ‘There are Ireland’s three rath-builders, Nás and Ronc and Ailestar, three sons of Dorncla.’ ‘Let them be killed for this’, quoth Tailtiu. ‘Not so’, says Eochaid, ‘’tis better they should live than die. But let them keep on building raths.’ ‘So be it’, replied Tailtiu: ‘let them build three raths for me.’

This characterization of Tailtiu seems wildly different from the usual view of the dying queen, sacrificing her life for her people. Instead, she must be convinced that it is more beneficial to have work from those who failed to honor her rather than killing them.  There is no explanation here for Lugnasad, but later in the same entry we find:

Or otherwise: Nas and Bói two daughters of Ruadri son of Caite (?) king of Britain, were the two wives of Lugh son of the Scál Balb ‘the Dumb Champion’. Now Nás was the mother of Ibec son of Lugh. There Nás died, and in Nás she was buried, hence it is called Nás. Her sister Bói died straightway of grief for her, and was buried on Cnogba, whence that name (Cnogba = Cnocbua). Lugh gathered the hosts of the Gaels from Tailtiu to Fiad in Broga ‘the land of the Brugh’, to bewail those women on the first day of August in each year: so thence was the nasad ‘assembly’ of Lugh, whence Lugh-nasad ‘lammasday’, that is Lugh’s commemoration, or remembering, or recollection, or deathfeast.

Lugnasad here is still the funeral feast of a woman or women, but instead of his foster mother, the recipients of the commemoration are his wives. This is one of the few mentions of his wives, but there are enough other mentions that I think we can comfortably accept they weren’t just replacing Tailtiu for a poet who forgot her name and relationship to Lugh.

And then there is, in a fragment from the Lebor na hUidre, Lugnasad as wedding feast:

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 Nuada. 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.

Tailtiu’s funeral is the most-repeated story, and I honor her at the beginning and end of the Lugnasad season, but I find I am enamored of the idea of the wedding feast. It seems to suit the season–late summer and harvest and richness of food–and fit with much of the evidence of the actual festival with its marriages, horse-races, and king’s oenachs (MacNeill 1962). Maybe it’s just that I’ve been researching Lugh’s wives, and so his marriages are much on my mind, but more on that later. In the ending, each story–as well as the stories of the other oenachs–gives us another view, another way of seeing, another piece in a puzzle likely never to be solved only by looking backwards.

What’s in a name: Lugh

Tressa recently posted a solid introduction to the scholarly information on Lugh, which saves me the trouble of doing the same. I wanted to add a few notes, particularly on names and etymologies.

The etymology of Lugus/Lugh is contested, but there seems to be some consensus among English language articles that the most likely root is *leugʰ-“to swear an oath” (Koch 1992; Wagner 1970). Several of the French language articles I’ve been able to access still prefer to the *leuk-“to shine” etymology, arguing the linguistic shift could easily have occurred post the IE to Celtic transition and that the relationship is clear in Brythonic Celtic words rooted in*leugʰ-  (Hily, 2007; Bader 1989). Jordan Cólera (2005) argues both are correct, as both contributed to the formation of the name.

But what I find more interesting than the linguistic root arguments are the punning relationships that are less about the denotation of his name and more about the connotations to native speakers. In some of the medieval Irish texts, Lug and Lugaid are used interchangeably (Grey 1989). More than one author has noted that Lugaid easily puns with luchaid, “mouse” (Koch 1999, Coe 2005). This may explain a strange incident in the Cath Maige Mucrama where Lugaid Mac Con is outed as the leader of his warrior band when they are served mice for dinner by a foreign king, as any Lugaid would likely be unable to eat mice, just as Cú Chulainn had a geas against eating dogs (Koch 1999). This punning also offers an interesting connection between the winner of the harvest story of Lug (Mac Neil 1945) and the fourth branch of the Mabinogi where Manawydan must defeat a troublesome mouse-king, Llwd (grey), to save his ensorcelled land and people (Koch 1999; Coe 2005).

In folktale versions of Lugh’s birth, he is often called Lui Lavada, and his name is said to have been, like Welsh Lleu, won from an unwilling relative, in Lugh’s case, his grandfather Balor. Cian–Kane or McIneely in many folk versions–is working as Balor’s gardener and drops a basket of apples. As everyone hurries to gather them, the yet-unnamed child Lugh manages to pick up more than anyone. Balor exclaims over the “little long arm,” Lui Lavada, and thus gives him his name (Varin 1979; Krapple 1936). This shows another punning relationship with the name, as Lugh sounds like lú, something small or of little value (eDIL), in Irish. In folktales, this often lends him the character of the Jack the Lad character–small, underestimated, yet ultimately victorious, the archetypal underdog who defeats the bullies.

A third pun on the name is lug “lynx,” a word also used to metaphorically mean “warrior” in the early literature (Hily 2007; Maier 1996). I haven’t seen much argument for the use of this pun, however–more often, as in Maier, this is used as an argument that some translations suggested to reference Lugh are really just talking about the lynx, especially regarding names of people and places.

What I find fascinating about all this is the way playing with language (and so far as I can see, Irish speakers love to play with their language) can expand our understanding or widen our vision for possibilities of who Lugh is. As Tressa says, he is a complicated and many-faceted god.

References not linked above

Bader, F. (1989) La Langue des dieux ou l’hermétisme des poètes indo-européens, Pise, Giardini (Testi Linguistici n° 14).

Cólera, J.(2005) “Crónica de un teicidio anunciado”, Estudios de Lenguas y Epigrafia Antiguas, VII, 37-72.

Wagner, H. (1970) ‘Studies in the origins of early Celtic Civilisation’, ZCP 31: 22, 24-25, notes 27-29, et passim.

Lugh replies:

Yes, Mother, I remember-
you taught me to find stillness, rest my hand
on the earth and let my heart sink
into the singing
of root and soil and the tiny lives that join them.
The earth sees all, our daily witness.
(It was your lesson named
my father’s slayers and brought
their justice.)
I could bring you shade, Mother, but
my racing west wind heavy with clouds,
rain to feed the corn, and lightning
to fecundate the soil is not the sighing
of a forest, deep with knowledge.
My healing skill cannot ease you, Mother,
my spear, faultless in battle, fails
against your longing.
I cannot find the strain of joy
and you are full to death with sorrow,
so let me play you sleep and rest
and an end to weariness
on these golden strings.


Put your hand on the soil-
you remember how I showed you?-
hear it’s voice. Do you feel its memory
of trees, the longing
for shade and dancing coins of sunlight
and deep roots singing their charms
of mutual hospitality?
I loved those trees, their shared strength
their afternoon whispers, their indrawn
breath in the hour before dawn.
But the high fields failed
and acorns are no food for cattle.

I cleared those trees, oaks
red and white and black, pulled
their stumps to make this fertile plain.
It was not the labor that was hard,
but saying goodbye.

My trees are gone, and though corn
and clover are on the plain,
milk is on the cows,
children are at the hearths,
I am weary and hunger for shade.