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.”


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…”

Lineage of Lugh

I am the son of many mothers
Ethliu bore me
Bírog carried me
Taltiu raised me
Fand saw me armed

I am the son of many fathers
Cían begot me
Eochu raised me
Goibhniu trained me
Oirbsen armed me

I am the husband of many wives
Buí brought me land
Nás brought me people
Echtach brought me plenty
Englic brought me skill

When much has been given, much can be given,
And I am rich with gifts.
Come to me with your needs
And if you are willing to do your work
I will gladly do mine.