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.

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.”

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.”

Ériu’s Lament

I heard you coming in my dreams. It was
no surprise to see your silver ship glide
over the mirror of a waveless sea, the five
gold rings of kingship at your throat, the pale
starlight of your eyes. The stillness
was everything I expected, the sharp crunch of sand
under your boot the sound that stilled my breath.
All that, I knew before you came.
I did not know I would tremble
at the nearness of your touch, the whisper
of your breath on my cheek. I did not know
I could fear when I had such longing.
The moon was a silver halo behind your golden
head. “It is a good night for lovemaking.” These words
were nothing to the desire on your lips
but I saw in your eyes that this
was not a beginning but an ending. I would lose
the dream I had so loved, that had turned
away the wooing of all my people, for the reality
of you, and of your leaving. That knowing held my voice:
“I made no tryst,” though my heart called me liar.
The smile was a fire in your eyes. “What need
for a tryst?” you asked, and I bent to my desire.
What heat, what knowledge in holding
all I had wanted though every joy was a  wound in me.
When you stood, your ship shining its summons,
you asked why I wept. “For two things—
that I love only you and not a man of my people,
and that you are leaving.” You seemed surprised
I knew, as if you expected me to think
you would stay, but you did not correct me, did not
pretend I was wrong, just gave me a ring,
not for me, but for our son when he would need you.
“And have you no name?” I asked, twisting
the ring that was too large even on my thumb.
“Elatha, king of the Fomoire,” you said, and named
our son as well, and left. Could I have killed
my love then, I would have done it.
You never asked my name.