Lugh (modern Irish Lú, earlier Lug) is an Irish deity represented in mythological texts as a hero and High King of the distant past. He is known by the epithets Lámhfhada ("long hand"), for his skill with a spear or sling, Ildanach ("skilled in many arts"), Samh-ildánach ("Equally skilled in many arts"), Lonnbeimnech ("fierce striker" or perhaps "sword-shouter") and Macnia ("boy hero"), and by the matronymic mac Ethlenn or mac Ethnenn ("son of Ethliu or Ethniu"). He is a reflex of the pan-Celtic god Lugus, and his Welsh counterpart is Lleu Llaw Gyffes "Lugh Strong Hand".
Lugh in Irish tradition
Lugh's father is Cian
of the Tuatha Dé Danann
, and his mother is Ethniu
, daughter of Balor
, of the Fomorians
. In Cath Maige Tuired
their union is a dynastic marriage following an alliance between the Tuatha Dé and the Fomorians. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn
Cian gives the boy to Tailtiu
, queen of the Fir Bolg
, in fosterage
A folktale told to John O'Donovan by Shane O'Dugan of Tory Island in 1835 recounts the birth of a grandson of Balor who grows up to kill his grandfather. The grandson is unnamed, his father is called Mac Cinnfhaelaidh and the manner of his killing of Balor is different, but it has been taken as a version of the birth of Lugh, and was adapted as such by Lady Gregory. In this tale, Balor hears a druid's prophesy that he will be killed by his own grandson. To prevent this he imprisons his only daughter in the Tór Mór (great tower) of Tory Island, cared for by twelve women, who are to prevent her ever meeting or even learning of the existence of men. On the mainland, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh owns a magic cow who gives such abundant milk that everyone, including Balor, wants to possess her. While the cow is in the care of MacKineely's brother Mac Samthainn, Balor appears in the form of a little red-haired boy and tricks him into giving him the cow. Looking for revenge, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh calls on a leanan sídhe (fairy woman) called Biróg, who transports him by magic to the top of Balor's tower, where he seduces Eithne. It time she gives birth to triplets, which Balor gathers up in a sheet and sends to be drowned in a whirlpool. The messenger drowns two of the babies, but unwittingly drops one child into the harbour, where he is rescued by Biróg. She takes him to his father, who gives him to his brother, Gavida the smith, in fosterage.
There may be further triplism associated with his birth. His father in the folktale is one of a triad of brothers, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh, Gavida and Mac Samthainn, and his father in the medieval texts, Cian, is often mentioned together with his brothers Cú and Cethen. Two characters called Lugaid, a popular medieval Irish name thought to derive from Lugh, have three fathers: Lugaid Riab nDerg (Lugaid of the Red Stripes) was the son of the three Findemna or fair triplets, and Lugaid mac Con Roí was also known as mac Trí Con, "son of three hounds". In Ireland's other great "sequestered maiden" story, the tragedy of Deirdre, the king's intended is carried off by three brothers, who are hunters with hounds. The canine imagery continues with Cian's brother Cú ("hound"), another Lugaid, Lugaid mac Con (son of a hound), and Lugh's son Cúchulainn ("Culann's Hound").
Lugh joins the Tuatha Dé Danann
As a young man Lugh travels to Tara
to join the court of king Nuada
of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The doorkeeper will not let him in unless he has a skill with which to serve the king. He offers his services as a wright, a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcerer, and a craftsman, but each time is rejected as the Tuatha Dé Danann already have someone with that skill. But when Lugh asks if they have anyone with all those skills simultaneously, the doorkeeper has to admit defeat, and Lugh joins the court. He wins a flagstone-throwing contest against Ogma
, the champion, and entertains the court with his harp
. The Tuatha Dé are at that time oppressed by the Fomorians, and Lugh is amazed how meekly they accept this. Nuada wonders if this young man could lead them to freedom. Lugh is given command over the Tuatha Dé, and he begins making preparations for war.
The sons of Tuireann
When the sons of Tuireann
, Brian, Iuchar
, kill his father, Cian (who was in the form of a pig at the time), Lugh sets them a series of seemingly impossible quests as recompense. They achieve them all, but are fatally wounded in completing the last one. Despite Tuireann's pleas, Lugh denies them the use of one of the items they have retrieved, a magic pigskin which heals all wounds. They die of their wounds, and Tuireann dies of grief over their bodies.
The Battle of Magh Tuireadh
Using the magic artifacts the sons of Tuireann have gathered, Lugh leads the Tuatha Dé Danann in the Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh
against the Fomorians
. Nuada is killed in the battle by Balor. Lugh faces Balor, who opens his terrible, poisonous eye that kills all it looks upon, but Lugh shoots a sling
-stone that drives his eye out the back of his head, wreaking havoc on the Fomorian army behind. After the victory Lugh finds Bres
, the half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé, alone and unprotected on the battlefield, and Bres begs for his life. If he is spared, he promises, he will ensure that the cows of Ireland always give milk. The Tuatha Dé refuse the offer. He then promises four harvests a year, but the Tuatha Dé say one harvest a year suits them. But Lugh spares his life on the condition that he teach the Tuatha Dé how and when to plough, sow and reap. It is widely held by scholars that the battle between Lugh and Balor reflects a common Indo-European motif, the battle between the youthful hero and his tyrant grandfather.
Later life and death
Lugh instituted a harvest fair during the festival of Lughnasadh
in memory of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, held on 1 August
at the town that bears her name (now Teltown
, County Meath
). He likewise instituted Lughnasadh fairs in the areas of Carman and Naas
in honour of Carman
and Nás, the eponymous tutelary goddess of these two regions. Horse races and displays of martial arts were important activities at all three fairs. However, Lughnasadh itself is a celebration of Lugh's triumph over the spirits of the Other World
who had tried to keep the harvest for themselves. It survived long into Christian
times and is still celebrated under a variety of names. Lúnasa
is now the Irish
name for the month of August.
According to a poem of the dindsenchas, Lugh was responsible for the death of Bres. He made 300 wooden cows, and filled them with a bitter, poisonous red liquid which was then "milked" into pails and offered to Bres to drink. Bres, who was under an obligation not to refuse hospitality, drank it down without flinching, and it killed him.
Lug is said to have invented the board game fidchell. He had a dog called Failinis.
He had several wives, including Buí and Nás, daughters of Ruadri, king of Britain. Buí lived and was buried at Knowth. Nás was buried at Naas, County Kildare, which is named after her. Lug had a son, Ibic, by Nás. His daughter or sister was Ebliu, who married Fintan. One of his wives, unnamed, had an affair with Cermait, son of the Dagda. Lug killed him in revenge, but Cermait's sons, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine, killed Lug in return, drowning him in Loch Lugborta. He had ruled for forty years.
Lugh in other cycles and traditions
- In the Ulster Cycle he fathered Cúchulainn with the mortal maiden Deichtine. When Cúchulainn lay wounded after a gruelling series of combats during the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), Lugh appeared and healed his wounds over a period of three days.
- In Baile in Scáil (The Phantom's Trance), a story of the Historical Cycle, Lugh appeared in a vision to Conn of the Hundred Battles. Enthroned on a daïs, he directed a beautiful woman called the Sovereignty of Ireland to serve Conn a portion of meat and a cup of red ale, ritually confirming his right to rule and the dynasty that would follow him.
- In the Fenian Cycle the dwarf harper Cnú Deireóil claimed to be Lugh's son.
- The Luigne, a people who inhabited Counties Meath and Sligo, claimed descent from him.
Lugh’s sling rod was the rainbow and the Milky Way was called "Lugh's Chain". He also had a magic spear (named Brionac), which, unlike the rod-sling, he had no need to wield, himself; for it was alive, and thirsted so for blood that only by steeping its head in a sleeping-draught of pounded fresh poppy seeds could it be kept at rest. When battle was near, it was drawn out; then it roared and struggled against its thongs; fire flashed from it; and, once slipped from the leash, it tore through and through the ranks of the enemy, never tired of slaying.
Another of his possessions was a magic hound which an ancient poem, one attributed to the Fenian hero, Caoilte, calls,
That hound of mightiest deeds,
Which was irresistible in hardness of combat,
Was better than wealth ever known,
A ball of fire every night.
Other virtues had that beautiful hound
(Better this property than any other property),
Mead or wine would grow of it,
Should it bathe in spring water.
Lugh's name and nature
Lugh's name was formerly interpreted as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European
, "flashing light", and he is often surrounded by solar imagery, so from Victorian times he has often been considered a sun god
, similar to the Greco-Roman Apollo
. He appears in folklore as a trickster
, and in County Mayo
thunderstorms were referred to as battles between Lug and Balor, so he is sometimes considered a storm god: Alexei Kondratiev
notes his epithet lonnbeimnech
("fierce striker") and concludes that "if his name has any relation to 'light' it more properly means 'lightning-flash' (as in Breton luc'h
and Cornish lughes
)". However, Breton and Cornish are Brythonic
languages in which Proto-Celtic
did undergo systematic sound changes
. This change did not occur in Irish, so it is unlikely that Lugh derives from the root *leuk-
, nor is it related to any other Proto-Indo-European
root connoting luminosity.
Lugh's mastery of all arts has led many to link him with the un-named Gaulish god Julius Caesar identifies with Mercury, whom he describes as the "inventor of all the arts". Caesar describes the Gaulish Mercury as the most revered deity in Gaul, overseeing journeys and business transactions. Juliette Wood interprets Lugh's name as deriving from the Celtic root *lugios, "oath", and the Irish word lugh connotes ideas of "blasphemy, cussing, lies, bond, joint, binding oath", which strengthens the identification with Mercury, who was, among other attributes, a god of contracts.
Lugh in other media
- Cross, Tom Peete and Clark Harris Slover. "Ancient Irish Tales, Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1936. ISBN 1-56619-889-5
- Ellis, Peter Berresford. "Dictionary of Celtic Mythology." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-19-508961-8
- Kinsella, Thomas. "The Táin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969. ISBN 0-19-280373-5
- MacKillop, James. "Dictionary of Celtic Mythology." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-280120-1.
- Ovist, Krista L. "The integration of Mercury and Lugus: Myth and history in late Iron Age and early Roman Gaul." Chicago: University of Chicago Divinity School dissertation, pp. 703, 2004. (link)
- Wood, Juliette. "The Celts: Life, Myth, and Art." Thorsons Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-00-764059-5
- Lugh's Song, by T. Thorn Coyle, summarizes and recounts several of the myths about Lugh.