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.


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!]

The Naming of Lug and the Winning of the Cow

Tailtiu stroked the boy’s wheat-gold hair that had never come from his De Danann father, for Cian was dark as his own father. Her Lughaid was a mix of his parents, as all children are, and he would carry something of her with him when he left in the spring.
“Bírog has always been clever, but this was one of her best games. When I went to her to ask how to help you thrive, she knew it was the lack of a name that kept you from growing as you should. And she had been pondering how Cian might win back the cow he had lost for his uncle. The two ideas came together in one bright plan, though I will tell you I was not best pleased with her at the idea of sending you off with your father to Torey Island…”

Cian came to Balor’s court in the guise of a gardener and said he had heard that Balor was fond of apples. This was true—Balor hungered after apples as many hunger after meat, but the winds of Torey Island were hard on any tree, harder still on a tree to bear fruit, and his poor, small, twisted trees grew very little and their fruit was hard and sour. Cian said that he knew a charm that would make the trees grow and the fruit red and sweet, if Balor would meet his price.
Balor was eager for the fruit, so asked the price.

“My choice of your milk cows and all her equipment,” Cian said, as Bírog had taught him.

Balor’s eyes narrowed, for he had lost the wondrous cow once and knew she had only returned to him because he had not lost the halter. He saw what this stranger was after, but he wanted the apples and determined he would find a way to trick the gardener out of the cow, if his charm worked. So Balor agreed.

Cian worked every day with the small, stunted trees, singing the charm Bírog had taught him, which she had learned from Manannán’s mother. And as the summer crept close, the trees burst into bloom, covering the yard with a snow of blossoms so sweet that no one who passed through could help but smile. As the summer warmed, the trees grew green with strong leaves and new branches, all covered with small green apples that seemed to grow larger by the day. And every day, Cian carried on his back the small boy who made no sound, grew no larger, but followed everything with is colorless bright eyes.

Finally, the height of summer was upon them and the apples were red with sweetness, the branches so heavy Cian had propped them up with forked sticks to keep them from breaking. Balor and his court came to see the first apples harvested, for they had never seen such apples, or seen their little trees so hale. For once, Cian took the boy from his back and set him on the ground, putting in his place the basket for apples, and he climbed up, into the first tree. They watched as he plucked the apples carefully, taking only those that were riped and flawless, for he would not have Balor say the apples he had grown were imperfect.

When he had filled the basket, Cian climbed down the tree, but as he was about to step down from the last fork, a sudden wind blew up, shaking the tree and he lost his footing, dropping basket and apples together. The watchers gasped, several of them running forward to catch the apples—but were astonished into stillness as the small, weak-looking boy gathered them all up, his little hands moving so quickly that not a single fruit was bruised.

Balor, moving from anticipation to anger to joy, laughed loud enough to shake fruit from the branches. “Look at that little long-armed one! He must love apples as much as I do!”

And this was how the boy was named, for Balor was his grandfather, and a child must have a name from their mother’s family if they are to thrive. He became the little (Lug) long-armed (lamhada) from that day forward, and though he never grew large, he grew strong and quick, his limbs long and his eyes grew even brighter, catching the color of the sky and its seasons.

“So that is how you won your name, Lughaid,” Tailtiu said.

He frowned. “I do not remember riding on my father’s back, or visiting my grandfather’s court. I would remember a terrible monster with a single eye, wouldn’t I?”

Tailtiu shook her head. “Balor is no monster, and he has two eyes, but one is kept covered because of an accident he had as a youth. He was curious about what the druids did in their secret place and spied on them when they were brewing a powerful potion. The potion’s steam went in his eye and made his gaze a poison so that anything he looks upon is burned to dust. No one wants to burn away everything they look upon, so he covers the eye—unless he looks upon an enemy, and then he uncovers it. Otherwise, he looks like any of the Fomoire, and they look as we do, for we are all cousins.”

The boy frowned, nodded, and looked at Tailtiu. “But what of the cow? Did my father bring it home this time?”

“Yes, he did, though Balor did his best to stop him. Here is how it happened…

Balor tasted the apples and could not deny they were the best he had ever eaten, so he told Cian he would bring all his milk cows out in the morning so that he could choose the best. He had his herdsmen brush the cows and shine their horns and make them all as beautiful as possible—except for the wondrous cow, who’s coat he smeared with ash to make it dull, and who’s eyes he made water with dust. Then the cows were brought before Cian.

Now Bírog had expected Balor would try some trick to keep the cow, so she had reminded Cian to look only for the cow with the mark of a cauldron on her right hip, and to choose that cow no matter what others he was shown. So Cian made a show of looking over the cows and praising them all to Balor, but in the ending he chose the ashy, water-eyed cow with the cauldron on its hip.

Balor tried to dissuade him, of course, saying this was the worst of the cows, not the best, and Cian deserved better for his good work with the apples. Cian said it was only a charm he had learned from his old aunt, and this cow was the one he wanted. Balor finally gave in and said he might take the cow and wished him well on his journey.

But Cian remembered the importance of the halter—he had seen the cow race across the waves to the island with his own eyes—and asked for it. Balor offered him many halters, each one set with gold and gems and braided of fine leather. But Cian refused them all, saying they were too grand for the cow he had chosen, he simply wanted the halter that belonged with the cow. Bírog, of course, had told him how to know it: it was braided of three colors of leather, pale, dark, and blood red; and buckled with plain bronze with the mark of Credne Cerd’s work.

Finally, Balor told Cian he could not give him the halter of the ashy cow because it was not his to give—it belonged to his daughter Ethliu, and they would have to ask her if she would part with it. Cian agreed it was only fair to ask her, if it were hers—but his heart leapt at the thought of seeing again the maiden who had won and kept his love.

Balor went to his daughter and told her she must throw the halter to the one she loved the best—and he was sure she loved him better than she could a gardener she had never met. So he and Cian stood below her window as the sun rose the next morning and Ethliu looked down on them. Of course, she knew who she loved the best, and it was no longer her father who had kept her locked away so many years and taken away her little son to drown. She saw the gardener and knew him, for she had seen him in her dreams for two years. She took the halter in her hands and threw it—and Cian caught it, almost as sure as their son.

Balor cried out and stumbled, for the loss of the cow was nothing compared to the loss of his daughter’s love. He would have turned on Cian then, but he knew the duty of a host and would not harm a guest, but sent him away that very morning, warning him never to come within his sight if he would live.

“And it was then that Balor began arguing to increase the tithes on the Tuath Déa, and then the hand of the Fomoire became hard on us all, and then that Bres turned his face away from his mother’s people and turned their gifts to bitter burdens,” Tailtiu said.
“Balor keeps his daughter in the tower still?” he asked.

“Yes.” Tailtiu sighed. “She and her women are still captive there, and will be until Balor is gone. He will not forgive her for giving her heart, though he forgave her for the son he tried to drown.”

The boy held the charm he had made and traced the veins of the oak leaf. “It is a yew I will need, not an oak, a yew red as blood and swift as lightning. That will be the long arm I will show to Balor. Gobhniu will show me how to make it.”

Tailtiu felt the cold of winter touch her heart. “It is already made, my Lughaid, and came from the islands of the north with your father’s people. They have held it, waiting for the hand that can hold it, and there are already those who speak of you.”

The boy nodded. “I will be a smith, still, for who can wield well a weapon they do not understand? And I will be a champion, and a warrior, so that I may free us all from Balor’s angry heart.”

Lug’s Mothers

“Who is Bírog?” the boy asked.

“I have told you before I am not your first mother.”

“Yes, but you are the only mother I know or need.”

Tailtiu smiled, stroking his hair. “Yes, you tell me so. Bírog is your second mother, and she is the one who introduced your father to your first mother, the one who bore you.”

“But who is she?”

“Bírog is a druid woman, who lives in the northern mountains…

Bírog lived among the northern mountains, listening to the trees and stones and the wind. So she heard Balor roar, even from Torey Island, when he learned his daughter had born a son, the son he had forbidden her because of a prophecy. She heard him bellow to his man to take the babe—and the babes of the women who were his daughter’s companions—out to the sea to be drowned. Bírog knew that a prophecy could be delayed—and Balor had tried, locking his daughter away from men in a doorless tower of glass—but they could not be denied, and she felt the stirring of action in her heart even while she heard the babies cry as they were bundled into a rough blanket, pinned tight with a thorn.

So it was Bírog was flying over the sea when Balor’s man rowed out into the bay with a coracle full of babies, and so it was that her whisper pulled the thorn from the thick wool, and so it was that the babies, only a few days old but every one a child of Cian, son of Dian Cécht, crawled straight over the side and into the water. Bírog flew down and snatched up the smallest and last of them as he just touched the waves’ foam, and her cloak brushed the others, turning them to seals. But the last babe, the tiny son of Ethliu, she carried in her arms to the plains of Eire. And it was these arms of mine that she put him in, the salt scent of the sea mixing with the warm scent of a new babe.

“So you see, my Lughaid, you were born first from your mother, Ethliu, and second from the sea itself, and third by the arms of Bírog who carried you on the winds with her magic.”

The boy looked at her, the brightness in his eyes darkened with thought. “I am glad I came here, to you, but why did the others give me away?”

“Well, Bírog gave you to me because she knew I needed a boy to raise and because she knew you needed a mother to raise you. Ethliu… she has had few choices, and keeping you was not one she could make.”

Ethliu, daughter to Balor, war-chief of the Fomoire, was born under a prophecy her mother gave. It rested on Ethliu like a heavy cloak, making everything in her life more difficult: she would bear a son, and that son would have a destiny, and that destiny would destroy her father. Balor loved his child, but he had no wish to be destroyed, so he built a beautiful glass tower and put Ethliu into it before she was old enough to know men or bear children. He sent women to keep her company, and Bírog to train her in knowledge and wisdom. The glass tower let her look out on the world, but she could not be part of what she saw, for fear of the prophecy on her.

More than one who knows her has called Bírog a thorn in their side, and this is in part because she serves the powers. Balor sought to deny the prophecy, but she knew it could only be delayed, and when Cian came searching on Torey Island for a cow he had lost, she knew him for the man to move the prophecy forward.

Bírog greeted him on the strand, asked his intention in coming to the island, and his honest answer assured her he was the man she needed. She told him that the only way he would ever win the cow was to enter the doorless glass tower. She knew that, once in the tower, Cian would forget the cow and think only of Ethliu and that he would do all that was needed to move the prophecy forward.

Bírog carried Cian to the tower and set him before Ethliu and the women with her and he did all he was asked by them, so that three quarters of a year later, Balor heard the cries of babes from the tower he had built and called for them to be drowned. He opened the door to the tower, the door that did not exist, and carried the babes away, giving them to his man to drown in the bay.

The boy looked more serious still. “My grandfather wanted to kill me. And my first mother is imprisoned.” He looked up at Tailtiu, a little afraid perhaps but certain she would answer him truthfully. “What is the destiny that is laid on me? How will I destroy my grandfather—and why?”

Tailtiu sighed. “That story is long and longer and goes back to the time when your father’s people and my people were one, before we fled, north and south, from this island to travel on foreign shores.”

“But you will tell me why, won’t you?”

She nodded. “I will tell you the story, why there is unkindness between our peoples, but the short of it is this: your mother’s people—who are no distant relations to any of us—laid claim to this place after your father’s people won it from mine. They have a hold over the Tuath Déa, for your father’s people allied with them before asking us for a place here. They made promises, and the Fomoire hold them to those promises to the very letter, even if it crushes the spirit. The king, Eochu Bres, the flower of the Tuath Déa, does not speak against them, but instead enslaves even the highest of your kinsmen and withholds both food and comfort at the bequest of the Fomoire.”

“And your mother, your first mother, is Fomoire.” She looked at the solemn boy and spoke what she had not meant to. “And this is a secret that not even the king knows: his father is of the same people as your mother, sweet boy. But this is not a thing to speak of and you must keep it quiet in your heart.”

The boy nodded. “The king is like me then—he was raised by his mother, as you raise me. He must wonder about his father, since he has never known him.”

Tailtiu stroked the boy’s hair, hearing what he did not say. “It is hard for a boy not to know his father. I sometimes think Bres sees Balor as his, though it is not so. We had all hoped his marriage to Bríg would set his heart toward her father, but instead he treats him poorly and hardly will look on him. Perhaps someone told him the Dagda voted against his leadership.”

The boy twisted a stem of yarrow through the hole in one of the stones, then used the stem to tie an oak twig to it. She hadn’t shown him the way of that, hadn’t worked that charm for him, but he seemed to know the working anyway. Holey stone for hearing and yarrow for sight, the oak for strength to bear the message. He had always been a clever child, but as she watched him she realized he was less of a child than she imagined. He was and had always been small for his age, but he was almost old enough now to be fostered for training instead of raising. They would want to take him away to foster with a warrior’s house and make the weapon of him they thought he must be. His size had fooled her, lulled her into peace, but she saw by the lines of his face that he would not be with her much longer. She took one of the oak twigs and squeezed it in her hand.

“I will kill my grandfather and make my mother an orphan,” he said quietly. “Because he will not lift his hand from the people, because he will not share the bounty of the land. And you have told me, it must be shared or all are lost.”

“Yes, my heart, that is all true.”

“My father will come for me in the spring.”

“Yes,” she said and her heart was heavy because it was true, “but before then there are still things I must teach you. Like how you earned your name.”

“My name? Didn’t my mother name me?”

“No, it was your grandfather who gave you your name, and a better piece of cunning I never heard. It was Bírog who planned it…”