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.”