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 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’.

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!]