Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord
Copyright © 1997 Alexei Kondratiev

[Originally published in An Tribhus Mhor: The IMBAS Journal of Celtic Reconstructionism #1, Lunasa 1997.]

Of all the divinities known to have been worshipped in the Celtic world, the god whom the Continental Celts called Lugus and the Irish called Lugh is one of the best documented and best understood. The sheer volume and widespread range of evidence related to him testifies to the importance of this god in Celtic tradition. The evidence includes: iconography from the pre-Roman period; toponymy; iconography and epigraphy from the period of Roman occupation; testimony of Greek and Roman writers; literary traditions of the Insular Celts in the Middle Ages; modern folk narratives in Celtic languages; and ritual practices of conservative rural Celtic-speaking communities. Each of these bodies of evidence provides only fragmentary information; yet when all are taken together and interpreted in the light each can shed on the other, a detailed and consistent picture emerges, which can direct us with a high degree of certainty to an understanding of what the worship of Lugus/Lugh entails.

Beginning around 500 BCE, and following on the sudden expansion of both wealth and territory it had experienced in the Early Iron Age, the Celtic world entered into a period of comfort and self-confidence where it took great interest in the cultures and artistic expressions of its neighbours and borrowed freely from them, yet always adapted such borrowings to native Celtic tastes and values. This blend of innovation and tradition gave rise to the unique La Tene style of Celtic art, and doubtless had repercussions at all levels of Celtic culture, particularly in the realm of religion. A whole vocabulary of religious symbols of Oriental origin began to be depicted on art objects during this period, suggesting a renewed interest in religious ideas as a result of exposure to foreign traditions, although there does not seem to have been any break with the fundamental Indo-European heritage. Many of these imported symbols, as well as some other new ones of native origin, are found in association with one particular god whose sudden and widespread rise to prominence must have been one of the most important events in La Tene religion. This god is shown together with birds; horses; the Oriental Tree of Life motif; dogs or wolves; and twin serpents. But the imagery most intimately connected to him is the mistletoe leaf or berry. Most often the mistletoe leaves are shown at either side of his head, like horns or ears; but sometimes the symbolism is reversed, and the god's head appears as the berry of a mistletoe plant. During the 300's the mistletoe-leaf motif combines with that of the twin serpents (portrayed as facing S's) into a new motif archaeologists call the "palmette". This shape, crowning the god's head or attached to some animal figure, is common (especially on coins) until ca. 200 BCE. Thereafter the twin serpents appear alone in what is still clearly a glyph representing this particular divinity. The fact that representations of the god and of his symbols appear most frequently on objects related to formal aristocratic banquets (such as the famous wine flagons from the Basse-Yutz burial in the Rhineland) strongly suggests that he was in some way associated with sacral kingship.1

Because the Iron Age Celts did not use writing in religious contexts, we have no direct evidence of this god's name. Toponymy, however, gives us a very strong clue. The name Lugudunon was given to a very large number of sites (Lyons, Loudun, Laon, Liegnitz, probably Leiden, etc.) from the later Iron Age. In Old Celtic dunon means "fort" (the word has modern cognates in Irish dun "fort" and Welsh din(as) "city"), but the Lugu- element can only be explained by a proper name. We have no dedications to a god by that name at those sites, yet the existence of mythological figures named Lugh and Lleu in the later literary tradition of the Insular Celts makes it clear that a similar figure bearing the name Lugus must have existed in the Iron Age. In fact, a famous dedication to the Lugoues by the shoemakers' guild of Uxama (Osma) in Spain; another inscription mentioning the Lugoues from Avenches in Switzerland;2 and dedications to Lugubus Arquienobus from Orense and Lugo in Galicia (northwest Spain)3 all indicate that the name Lugus was indeed known. Interestingly, in all these cases the name is given in the plural, as though it referred to a group of divinities rather than to a single god. We shall have some suggestions later as to why this may have been the case.

Why, if Lugus had played such an important role in Iron Age Celtic religion, was his name so little used in the period of Roman occupation that followed? Most scholars agree that it was the result of a successful interpretatio Romana, an identification of the Celtic god with a figure from the official Roman cult. In De Bello Gallico, VI, 17, Julius Caesar, commenting on Celtic society and culture even as he was crushing the life out of it, stated that "Mercury" was the most popular Celtic god, the creator of all arts and crafts, the protector of travelers, and a great patron of trade and wealth. He was following the common Roman practice of forcing foreign religions into the categories and terminology of Roman state religion (in the same passage he uses the name "Minerva" to refer to a goddess obviously related to Irish Brigit, and known independently by native Celtic names), and in this case the identification certainly struck a chord in the conquered Celtic population, as dedications and representations of "Mercury" began to proliferate in the Romanized Celtic world and retained their preeminence right to the period of Christianization. Well over 400 dedications to "Mercury" or one of his common native titles have been found: his importance in Gaul and Britain far exceeded anything that the role of Mercury in Roman religion could have warranted. Clearly "Mercury" was the new, "modern" disguise of Lugus, and because the two names were seen to be precisely equivalent the native one was virtually never used in the Latin of official inscriptions.

While Romano-Celtic images of "Mercury" often depicted him with his well-known Classical attributes -- the winged cap (reminiscent of the earlier mistletoe crown), the caduceus (echoing the ubiquitous Iron Age twin serpents), the bag of money, the cockerel, the ram, the tortoise shell, etc. -- many representations of him diverged considerably from Graeco-Roman canons. Some statues (e.g. the one from Lezoux) show him not as the usual clean-shaven ephebos but as a bearded old man wrapped in a Celtic shawl.4 We will, however, single out three of these purely native traits as particularly important: his association with heights; his tendency to have multiple (usually triple) forms; and his role as sovereign protector, with warrior attributes.

Celtic "Mercury" is unambiguously linked with the high places of each tribal territory in which he was worshipped. Montmartre in Paris, the Puy-de-Dame in the Auvergne, the Mont de Sone in the land of the edui -- to name just a few out of scores of possible examples -- were all originally Mercurii montes. Shrines crowned these heights, and one conventional depiction of "Mercury" was to have him sitting on a mountain.5 The Aruerni commissioned (for a fabulous price) the Greek sculptor Xenodorus to make a gigantic statue of "Mercury" seated atop their sacred mountain, the Puy-de-Dame: it was one of the famous sights of Roman Gaul.6 Clearly the location of a temple to "Mercury" on a high place was of theological importance.

Many representations of Celtic "Mercury" seem intended to suggest that he is several-in-one: usually this takes the form of tricephaly, although not all three-headed figures in Celtic iconography are necessarily this god. One "Mercury" statue from Tongres in Belgium has not three heads but three phalluses: one on the crown of the head and one on the nose in addition to the normal one!7 This widespread motif of triplicity may, in the case of "Mercury", indicate the power of the god being present simultaneously in three different contexts -- quite probably the three Dumazilian functions, as the evidence from the later literary and ritual sources will suggest (it may also explain the dedications to the plural Lugoues). One bronze statue of "Mercury" from Bordeaux has not three but four faces, two beardless and two bearded.8 This may symbolize his all-seeing nature -- lord of all four quarters -- but that would fail to explain the different appearances of the faces. Caitlyn Matthews' intuition that some Celtic divinities had separate manifestations at different ages of life -- for instance, as child, as young hero, as mature ruler and as elderly renunciate -- may be of relevance here.9

Of similar relevance may be the very close link between "Mercury" and the antlered god now usually called Cernunnos. They share a long list of traits: the tendency to tricephaly, the association with money, with twin serpents, etc. Both are threshold figures, facilitating the passage from one state to another, and thus the exchange of money in trading, as well as the transition from life to death and back again. However, since they are often depicted together in the same scene, they are clearly not meant to be identical to each other. An in-depth study of the relation between "Mercury" and Cernunnos would far exceed the scope of this paper, but one suspects that the answer would lie in a now-vanished element of Gaulish mythology. If we compare how, in the later Insular literature, Lugh is fostered to Manannan and Lleu to Gwydion -- both older versions of the young hero in their talents and attributes, and indeed very "Mercury"-like -- we may indeed come very close to understanding the nature of the relation. Also, Cernunnos appears to be exclusively linked to the third function, while "Mercury" is trans-functional and, from his first appearance in pre-Roman iconography on, has a strong link with the first function.

This last aspect of Celtic "Mercury" -- the least "Classical" of his manifestations -- is particularly well-attested in the Rhineland, and more generally in the lands of the Belgic expansion -- the last great population movement in pre-Roman Celtia, and a source of much religious innovation. In this aspect "Mercury" is armed with a spear, and is usually accompanied by his consort, Rosmerta, a purely native goddess whose name means "The Great Provider" (one of "Mercury"'s local titles, Adsmerios "The Provident One", is obviously intended to be an echo of her own).10 While Rosmerta appears with "Mercury" in various guises throughout Gaul and Britain, in these specific representations both of them are particularly linked to the concept of sovereignty. In Iron Age society the cohesion of a group around a chieftain was secured and given a sacred recognition by the means of a communal feast, in which a ritual drink served by the goddess of the land (a role played by a priestess or by the chieftain's consort) was shared, binding all the participants to their land, their ruler, and each other. Rosmerta was the divine keeper of the drink of sovereignty, while the spear-wielding "Mercury" was the archetype of all rulers, the Otherworldly protector of the earthly king.11

This bit of theology had a major impact on the Celts' Germanic neighbours. Around 100 BCE, the western Germans, impressed by the cultural brilliance of the La Tene Celts, converted wholesale to Celtic religion and adopted many aspects of Celtic social organization and culture, to the point of giving their children Celtic names. One of the most important institutional borrowings of this period was the "legitimization" of a warrior-chieftain through a sovereignty ritual, and it necessitated also borrowing the Celtic deities who presided over such a ceremony. Many scholars have preferred to see the many similarities between Lugus/"Mercury" and the Germanic Wodan as separate survivals of an Indo-European prototype; but some now find no reason to believe that Wodan did not originate in the 1st century CE in the lands near the North Sea as a deliberate imitation of Celtic "Mercury" in one of his important guises.12

While the imposition of Roman rule on most Celtic lands made the relevance of "Mercury"'s first-function role less obvious, it was nevertheless exercised in one particularly blatant manner, the import of which is too often ignored. After the Druids of southern Gaul had, in 18 BCE, decided to recognize the legitimacy of Roman rule over their territory (in exchange for a short-lived religious tolerance), the emperor Augustus decided to sacralize that rule in a specifically Celtic manner. In 10 BCE, having made the Lugudunon of the Segusavi (Latinized as Lugdunum) the capital of conquered Gaul, he had the Temple of the Three Gauls dedicated there to the worship of the Roman State, with its main festival on August 1st, the date of Lughnasadh, the feast presided over by Lugh in later Irish tradition. Thus, under the auspices of Lugus, the sacred guarantor of sovereignty, Roman rule was fitted into the fabric of Celtic religion.13

In relation to Lugdunum (which became the administrative capital of most of Roman Gaul) we are introduced to some imagery that may have special relevance to the tradition of Lugus. In the text De Fluviis, which was attributed apocryphally to Plutarch, we are told that at the time of the founding of the city certain ravens flew down from the sky, and were interpreted as a good omen. These were not ordinary ravens, but had some white feathers in their plumage; and they became the focus of a prophetic shrine where, after a querent had made an offering of food on an elevated platform, a priest would divine the answer to his query from the behaviour of the ravens as they went after the food. The main role of these ravens was therefore a (first-function) one of Otherworldly contact, which was made possible by their unusual appearance: although they were traditional examples of blackness, they nevertheless contained their opposite (whiteness) within themselves, and could thus offer passage between seemingly opposed realms, even as Lugus/"Mercury" facilitates such passages. Representations of the unnamed genius loci of Lugdunum (almost certainly Lugus himself, since he has typical "Mercury" attributes) show him accompanied by ravens. Although later literary sources are unclear about Lugh's association with ravens (the only unambiguous example occurs in the Middle Irish poem about the "hawk of Achill"), the prominence of Odin's raven companions in Scandinavian literature (where they are explicitly messenger birds, and faculties of Mind) is certainly of significance here, especially if one remembers the close link between Wodan/Odin and Lugus/"Mercury". Other examples of this imagery in later sources (such as Owain and his army of ravens in Welsh literature) may well be a diffuse echo of a motif that had great importance in earlier times but lost much of its meaning over the centuries as literary mythology drifted farther and farther away from its religious origins.14

Pseudo-Plutarch in fact suggested that the city of Lugdunum was named after the ravens, stating that 'lougon ton koraka kalousi' ("they [the Gauls] call the raven 'lougos'"). No extant Celtic word with such a meaning exists (in Old Celtic lugos is the name of the lynx),15 so the statement is problematic. Meyer-Lebke suggested that it came from an Indo-European model *plugo- (with usual Celtic loss of p), as part of a widespread group of words from the root *pleu- that refer to flowing, flying, feathers and birds.16 Without further evidence the problem must remain unresolved, though it is unquestionable that this is not the origin of Lugus' own name. Nevertheless, the Celtic love of punning would certainly have made a link between such a word for "raven" (if it existed) and the god's name.

A more evident and significant pun exists between the name 'Lugus' and the Old Celtic stem lugi- meaning "to swear, oath" (appearing in Irish as luighe, in Welsh as llw, and in Breton as le). The famous Gaulish text found at Chamalieres in 1971, which is the script of a magico-religious ritual for obtaining the help of Arvernian Maponos in a military revolt, concludes with the thrice-repeated formula "Luge dessumiis [= dexumiis]" ("By an oath I make them ready"), where the echo of the god's name in the expression luge could hardly have failed to impress itself on a Celtic-speaker's ear, and would have underlined his relation to the quintessentially first-function institution of oath-taking.17

While the name of Lugus (though not his importance as a god) was generally eclipsed on the Continent during the Roman occupation, this was not the case in Ireland, where Roman rule had never implanted itself and there had never been any need for an interpretatio Romana of native deities. And when vernacular Irish texts began to appear in abundance around the 8th-9th centuries CE, we find mention in them of a figure named Lugh whose traits are in full harmony with the earlier evidence concerning Lugus/"Mercury".

Before we turn to the mediaeval literature of the Insular Celts for further information on the god, however, we must bear in mind that it was not written for a religious purpose and thus does not represent the sacred mythology of a living religious system, even though it may preserve many traditions from the pre-Christian period. These traditions were recorded by the Christianized Celts for a variety of reasons: because they set precedents that were an important source of authority for legal institutions; because they enhanced the prestige of a certain locality, or a certain lineage; because they were associated with the lore of the educated class; and --last but not least -- for their sheer entertainment value. In all these cases, however, they were stripped of those elements that had an obvious pre-Christian religious significance, and made to conform to a Christian view of the world. Thus they cannot be taken at face value as documents on pre-Christian Celtic belief, but must be investigated in the light of other sources. Fortunately, pre-Christian ritual patterns remained firmly entrenched in rural Celtic communities (side by side with official Christianity), and they have provided evidence that is often more archaic and closer to pre-Christian mythological traditions than the mediaeval literature. Thus the folk mythology and practices associated with the August feast of Lughnasadh (Lunasa in Modern Irish), the opening of the Harvest and explicitly under the patronage of L�gh, are essential to understanding the pre-Christian elements remaining in the literary sources.

The literary stories about Lugh are situated within the narrative framework provided by the Lebor Gabela Erenn ("Book of the Conquests of Ireland"), a compilation put together between the ninth and twelfth centuries as an attempt to harmonize native myths of origins (necessary to the culture as legal and social precedents) with the Biblical version of history that Christians saw as the supreme authority. A large part of this narrative is given over to the struggle between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomfirg (modern Fomh Uraigh) over the control of Ireland. The pre-Christian background to this conflict is clear, and is echoed in most other Indo-European mythologies: the Tuatha De Danann represent the gods of the Tribe, the gods who serve as models for human society, each being the ideal archetype of a social function, and the sum of them a source of support and protection for the human community; while the Fomfirg (who are not counted among the "conquerors" of Ireland, because they were always there) are the powers of the Land itself, givers of both fertility and blight -- but indiscriminately, with no regard for the welfare of humans. Although these two factions appear to be in opposition, they are in fact inextricably linked by all kinds of blood ties, and neither can destroy the other. We find the same pattern in the relationship between the Gods and the Titans in early Greek mythology, the Aesir and the Vanir (and the Jotnar) in Norse tradition, and especially the Devas and the Asuras in India. At the point in the story that interests us, Nuadu, the holder of sovereignty (i.e. the legitimate control over Land) among the Tuatha De Danann, has lost his arm in a battle with the Fir Bolg (the previous wave of "conquerors") and thus comes to lack the physical wholeness necessary to be a sovereign. He is replaced by Bress mac Eladan, who is the son of a Fomorian father and a Danann mother, and thus acceptable to both sides because of his dual lineage. Cian son of Dian Cucht (the physician of the Tuatha De Danann) begets Lug on Ethliu/Ethniu (Eithne in later tradition), the daughter of Balar, the Fomorian champion, and the child is fostered to Tailltiu, a Fir Bolg queen who plays a major role in clearing the central plain of Ireland for agriculture. Hostilities break out again between the two groups and lead to a final confrontation at Mag Tuired, where Lug carries the day by killing his grandfather Balar with a stone from a sling. He then rules Ireland for forty years, and dies in unclear circumstances at the hands of a man whose father he had slain.18

Fortunately, we have other sources that flesh out this material, although not all of them are equally relevant to reconstructing pre-Christian beliefs. By far the most valuable of them is Cath Maige Tuired, a text first known from a 16th-century manuscript written by members of the U' Cloirigh scribal family of Donegal, but reproducing an 11th-century original which may well have been based on material going back as far as the 9th century.19 Early versions of it must themselves have served as sources for the Lebor Gabela. One of the notable characteristics of this text is its narrative style, with repetitive dialogue patterns that are evidently drawn from native oral storytelling: it is thus likely to reflect a well-entrenched tradition that had some sort of ritual association -- probably with Lughnasadh, about which we will have more to say. In this version of the story, which deals specifically with the climactic battle between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomeirh, we learn more about Bres mac Elathan and the way in which he is contrasted with Lugh.20 Although both are part-Danann, part-Fomorian, Bres has a Fomorian father and a Danann mother, and in a patrilinear tradition this places his allegiance with his father's people, so that he comes to exhibit Fomorian traits: his stinginess and greed withhold the resources of the Land from the Tuatha De Danann, driving them to revolt -- which becomes possible when Nuadu's arm is healed, restoring his ability to wield sovereignty. When Lugh (who has a Danann father and a Fomorian mother) returns from his fosterage and seeks to enter at the gates of Tara (the seat of sovereignty), one could say that he is politically superfluous to the Tuatha De Danann's plans; and he is told that none may enter Tara who does not possess a distinctive craft (since the Tuatha De Danann are an idealization of society, each one of them being the patron of a specific occupation). Lugh's distinctiveness, however, is that he is master of all crafts: he is the Samildanach, the "Many-Gifted One". He alone (like Celtic "Mercury") can move between all the activities of society, and be the patron of each one, uniting the three functions. As such he supersedes all the narrowly functional deities (including Nuadu, who is "simply" king) and becomes the ideal defender of the Tribe against the chaotic powers of the Land. After overseeing what each of the functional deities can contribute to the upcoming battle, he himself provides some battle magic (a specifically first-functional approach to a second-function activity). His grandfather Balor has given the Fomorian side a great advantage with his magic eye that consumes anything he looks at, but Lugh destroys the eye with a slingstone, leading to a rout of the Fomeire. Then he prepares to destroy his "dark twin", the usurper Bres, yet spares his life when Bres reveals the secrets of the agricultural cycle -- Fomorian blight having been turned to Fomorian fertility by Lugh's victory (other representations of this motif in Celtic literature include the rivalry between the high king Eochaid Airem ("The Ploughman") and Mider, the Otherworld ruler of Bre Leith, which ends with Mider's defeat and offer of agricultural service; and Arthur's struggle with Gwenhwyfar's Otherworld lover, Melwas).

A substantially different version of the same story is known from a 17th-century manuscript signed by David Duigenan.21 Here Breas is killed by Lugh, and Balor, instead of dying right away, tries to persuade his grandson to behead him and place his head on top of his own, so that Lugh may absorb all of his grandfather's magical gifts. Lugh wisely places the head on a standing stone instead, and the stream of venom issuing from it is enough to blast the stone into four pieces. This episode is still very well known in living folk tradition.

The scene of Lugh's triumphant entrance into Tara and his assumption of sovereignty was often used to evoke actual Irish rulers. The famous 14th-century poem on this theme by Gofraidh Fionn Delaigh (in which Lugh identifies himself as "feile a hEamhain Abhlaigh ealaigh iobhraigh" --"a poet from the Land of Apples, rich in swans and yew trees") was intended as praise for an Anglo-Norman ruler, Maurice FitzMaurice, second earl of Desmond.22 In the 11th-century story Baile in Scoil ("The Trance of the Phantom"), Conn of the Hundred Battles, one of the exemplary kings of pre-Christian Ireland, has a vision in which Lugh, enthroned on a dais, directs a beautiful woman who is Flaith Grenn ("the Sovereignty of Ireland") to give Conn the drink of sovereignty, thus marrying him to the Land and making him king in a sacred sense.23 This is a faithful rendition of some ancient Celtic symbolism we discussed above, with Lugh as "Mercurius Rex" and the woman as Rosmerta, and demonstrates that the concept of Lugh as the archetypal power behind rulership survived long after Christianization.

Evidently Lgh's story was popular in mediaeval literary circles, and we have many allusions to it in both prose and poetry. From such allusions we learn that Lugh was one of a triad, the two other members of which died at birth24 -- reminding us of the triplicity of Celtic "Mercury", and of the plural Lugoues. We learn that he was fostered not only to Tailtiu but to Manannan mac Lir, the ruler of the Otherworld Feast in the Land of Apples, and that he had inherited the use of Manannan's sword Freagartach ("The Answerer"). His usual personal weapon, however, was the Spear of Goirias, echoing the spear of Celtic "Mercury". He also inherited Manannan's corrbolg or "crane bag" filled with magical treasure,25 again recalling Celtic "Mercury"'s bag of wealth. In the 11th-century text called Imthecht Clainne Tuirill we first hear of an interesting tradition about Lugh's natural father, Cian (here called 'Ethlenn' through confusion with Lugh's mother, the author having assumed that "Lug mac Ethlenn' was a patronym instead of a matronym): he was a shape-shifter, capable of turning into an oirce or "lap-dog" (i.e. a dog kept as a pet rather than as a hunting animal),26 of the kind widely associated with healing shrines throughout the ancient Celtic world, especially in relation to Celtic "Mars" -- an appropriate attribute for a son of the physician-god, and a reflection of the canine imagery that sometimes accompanies Iron Age Lugus. During the later Middle Ages this story was further embellished (it is best known in its 14th-century version, Oidheadh Cloinne Tuireann), but in the process it acquired many extraneous elements and ceased to be an accurate reflection of the earlier mythological patterns. Similarly, traditions about Lugh's two wives, Bua and Nas (one of them buried at Knowth, the other one at Naas in Co. Kildare), and about his death, are clearly late inventions to explain literary allusions that were no longer understood.

When we turn to modern folk traditions about Lugh, however, we find a rich and consistent body of material (some of it still being passed down today) that in many ways seems closer to the patterns of Indo-European myth than the literary sources. Lugh appears here as a vivid and engaging personality, both hero and trickster. Where the Lebor Gabela presents the union of his parents as an unproblematic political marriage, the oral sources give a dramatic and complex account of his birth. Balor, whose magical stronghold is on Tory Island (many of these stories have been passed down in Donegal), is aware of a prophecy that he will be killed by his grandson; accordingly, he keeps his daughter Eithne sequestered in a tower, out of the reach of men. The Tuatha De Danann, however, are also aware of the prophecy and eager to be rid of Balor's invincible fiery eye, and one of their number, Cian (called Fionn in some versions), contrives, with the help of the druidess Biorag, to win past Balor's magical defenses and break into his stronghold. Before he is let into Eithne's presence, her handmaidens (who, in some versions, number as many as nine hundred!) insist that he sleep with all of them. They all become pregnant as a result, and give birth to the race of seals, who are thus Lugh's half-brothers. When Eithne's child is born, efforts are made to destroy the infant, but he, being already a tricksy lad, manages to foil them. Cian tries to protect the child magically, and as a result is found out by Balor and killed himself, which leads to the young Lugh vowing to avenge his father's death. It is his own grandfather who gives him his name, calling him "little one with the long hand" when, mistaking him for the gardener's assistant, he remarks on his ability to reach many apples at once (introducing the pun that links the name 'Lugh' with lu "small, puny, of little worth", which is important in understanding the god's character).27

In the oral sources the battle between the two groups of gods is not the result of a dynastic conflict but of a quarrel over the possession of a wondrous cow, very similar to the Kamadhenu or "Wishing Cow" who comes out of the Churning of the Sea of Milk and is coveted by both Devas and Asuras in Indian mythology. It is thus an unambiguous reflection of the old Indo-European motif of the forces of culture and anti-culture (i.e. wilderness) struggling over the disposition of the Land's fertility. Lugh is the champion who, because of his links with both sides but his primary allegiance to the forces of culture, wins that fertility for the Tribe (in the folk versions he usually kills Balor not with a slingstone, but with his emblematic spear -- the significance of which we will discuss shortly). In practical terms, the prize of the battle is, of course, the Harvest, the fruit of the agricultural cycle; and the full significance of the myth can only be understood in the ritual context of the harvest festival of Lughnasadh, Lugh's own feast.

Before we turn fully to the ritual aspects of the myth, however, we should mention the scanty but significant allusions to this material in mediaeval Welsh literature. The most explicit occurs in the cycle of four tales known as the Mabinogi, which was composed no earlier than the 12th century and shows the strong influence of the international feudal culture of its day, yet still retains some archaic features. In the Fourth Branch,28 the Plant Dan ("the Children of Dan", Welsh cognates of the Tuatha De Danann), who rule over Gwynedd (North Wales), have fought a war with Dyfed (South Wales) over the possession of some Otherworld pigs, at the conclusion of which Math, the ruler of the Plant Dan, loses the virgin in whose lap his feet must, by royal taboo, be held. His sister's son Gwydion, a powerful magician and trickster, offers his sister Arianrhod as a replacement. When her virginity is tested by Math's magic wand, however, she gives birth to one full-formed son, Dylan, who immediately dives into the sea and swims away, and an unformed "little thing" (pethan) which Gwydion snatches up and places into a chest. After a suitable number of months has passed, the chest is opened and a healthy baby emerges. Thus, like Lugh, he is born to a woman who "should not have had a child"; and Dylan clearly corresponds to Lugh's half-brothers who fell into the water and became seals. When confronted with her son, Arianrhod places a threefold curse on him: that he will have no name unless she names him herself; that he will bear no weapons unless she arms him herself; and that he will not have a wife from any race that now lives on this earth. Gwydion undoes the first curse by disguising himself and the child as shoemakers and, while Arianrhod is being fitted for shoes, having the child strike the leg of a wren with a slingstone, so that she exclaims "the little one (or the bright light) has done it with a sure hand", giving him his name, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (corresponding exactly to 'Lugh Lamhfhada' "Little One/(Lightning-Flash?) of the Long Hand", a name which was, as in Lleu's case, bestowed unwittingly by an ill-intentioned kinsman). To undo the second curse, Gwydion conjures up an imaginary army around Arianrhod, and has her arm him and Lleu (again in disguise) to defend her. To obtain the "woman of no earthly race", Gwydion and Math create a wife for Lleu out of flowers (the Flower Maiden of Celtic May rituals). These three trials correspond closely to the three Dumuzilian functions: name = social and ritual identity (first function); weapons = status as a warrior (second function); wife = fertility, physical reproduction (third function). Lleu is thus shown mastering all three functions and thereby becoming a representative of all facets of human society, like Celtic "Mercury".

In the Third Branch of the Mabinogi29 the main character is Manawyddan fab Llyr, who is generally recognized to be a borrowing of the Irish Manannan mac Lir, Lugh's foster-father. Although he has no direct relation to Lleu, he exhibits a variety of "Mercury"-like traits. He is the consort of Rhiannon, who recalls the horse-goddess of Land-sovereignty and who is here the mother (by a previous consort) of the rightful ruler of Dyfed, Pryderi. When both Rhiannon and Pryderi are spirited away by the trickery of Otherworld beings and a spell of depopulation is cast upon Dyfed, Manawyddan becomes the protector of Pryderi's wife, Cigfa, and supports them both through the exercise of his craftsmanship, showing wondrous skill as a shoemaker. Like Lugh, he serves as an interim ruler, not within the line of dynastic succession, but taking responsibility for first-function obligations in the absence of the legitimate ruler. Eventually the Otherworld powers manifest themselves as an army of mice who, Fomorian-like, devastate his crops, and he uses his own reserves of trickery to defeat them and restore the social order they had destroyed. Again, this is a myth of culture vs. nature, where the human community and the powers of the Land vie for control over the Harvest -- in short, a Lughnasadh myth.

(The emphasis on shoemaking in both the Third and Fourth Branches, taken together with the dedication to the Lugoues by the Spanish shoemakers' guild, suggests that this was an ancient and important attribute of Celtic "Mercury". It may, of course, have been no more than a symbol of craftsmanship in general, but some recent finds in Romano-Celtic cemeteries imply a more specific association of this image with the god. In British graves of the 3rd and 4th centuries, together with other paraphernalia related to the cult of Lugus, one typically finds a pair of hobnailed boots, obviously intended for the use of the dead in the Otherworld.30 "Mercury", as the archetypal mover between states, is the patron of all roads and travelling, but particularly of the ultimate journey between the realms of life and death. Shoes are a basic need of the traveller, in this world and the next, so Lugus, in his knowledge of all crafts, is the specific provider of this necessity.)

An independent Welsh tale probably first composed in the 11th century, Cyfranc Llud a Lleuelys, treats some of the same material in a different way.31 Lludd (whose name was originally Nudd) is the cognate of Irish Nuadu, and is here represented as ruling over Britain from his seat in London. The name of his brother, who rules over France, is usually rendered as "Llefelys" nowadays, but this is probably an error, the first element in this otherwise unexplainable name being almost certainly Lleu-, suggesting that he is in fact a form of Lugus. Having Lludd reign over Britain and Lleuelys over France could possibly reflect a memory of the importance of "Nodens" (Old Celtic Noudons, whence Nuadu and Nudd) in early British worship and that of Lugus/"Mercury" in Gaul. Lludd is concerned about three "oppressions" (gormesoedd) that are plaguing the island of Britain, and goes to his brother for advice on how to deal with them. The first gormes consists of a supernatural race that can hear everything that is being said, so that secrets and privacy cease to exist (a violation of the mental and social realms, thus relating to the first function). The second gormes is a horrible scream that echoes every May Eve and robs men of their courage (a violation of defensive bravery, and thus of the second function). The third gormes is the inexplicable vanishing of the royal provisions (a violation of material nourishment, which is the third function). Lleuelys is able to solve all three problems: the supernatural meddlers are destroyed by being sprinkled with certain insects crushed in water; the scream is caused by battling dragons that are tricked into being locked in a chest and buried under Eryri (Snowdonia); and the provisions are being stolen by a Fomorian-type giant who, once defeated, offers his services to the ruler. Lludd is thus reaffirmed in his rule, but Lleuelys has, in a very subtle way, shown his control over all three functions and his ability to confirm a ruler in his hold on sovereignty. This, again, replays some of the basic themes of Lughnasadh.

We come now at last to the ritual practices surrounding Lughnasadh itself, some of them still very much alive today, and forming a consistent body of symbolic material with obviously ancient roots (since, as we have seen, the date already had significance in Roman times). Throughout Ireland, but also in many other parts of the Celtic and ex-Celtic world, the celebration of Lughnasadh (or however else the feast of the Harvest may be called) is centered on the high places of individual territories: the Mercurii montes of ancient times.32 Most auspicious as Lughnasadh sites are high hills that nevertheless have a source of water near their top -- because they are able to join the Above and the Below, the sky-realm of the gods of culture and the watery Underworld (the Fomorian realm). First fruits of cultivated crops, as well as examples of wild crops (usually bilberries), were brought to the site to be blessed and to be shared by the community. In modern times this agricultural core of the festival is all that has survived, but formerly, when Celtic lands were under native rulers, Lughnasadh was the occasion of major assemblies where legal matters were settled, political problems were discussed, craftsmen, artists and entertainers got a chance to show off their talents, and sporting events brought scattered communities together. All this was under the patronage of Lugh (the 9th-century Sanas Cormaic explains 'Lughnasadh' as "the assembly of Lugh"),33 who was said to have instituted the games in memory of either his wives or of his foster-mother Tailtiu, whose name (from Old Celtic Talantiu, "The Great One of the Earth") and life-history give her a special affinity with the Harvest.34 But it is Lgh alone who allows the Harvest to actually begin, by setting the right conditions for it and by combating the hostile elements in the Land that are trying to destroy the crops.

Many scholars have interpreted the name Lugus as a derivation of the Indo-European root *leuk- "light", which also gave rise to Latin lux. This is partially confirmed by the meaning of lleu in Welsh (especially as part of (go)leu "light").35 As a result, and helped along by Victorian scholars' obsession with "solar myths", it was taken for granted that Lugh was a solar god. Moreover, a comparison between Lugh's title Lamhfhada ("long-armed") and the title Prithuponi ("broad-handed") given to the Vedic god Savitr (the god of the first light of day) seemed to confirm such a notion36 -- and it is now firmly entrenched in popular literature about Irish "mythology". However, traditional, ritual-associated ideas about Lugh show no trace of this. Lughnasadh is a day on which thunderstorms with plentiful rain are expected and welcomed.37 They provide a respite from the fierce summer heat that endangers the crops and encourages insect pests. The pitiless sun is Balor's scorching eye, and the spear of Lugh is needed to tame its power. Lugh is called Lonnbeimnech ("fierce striker") as well as Lamhfhada.38 Celtic "Mercury" is sometimes shown not only with his spear but with the easily recognizable Indo-European thunder-hammer.39 In Mayo the Lughnasadh thunderstorms where seen as the battle between Lugh and Balor: 'Ti gaoth Logha Lamhfhada ag eiteall anocht san aer. 'Seadh, agus drithleogad a athar. Balor Beimeann an t-athair" ("The wind of Lugh Long-arm is flying in the air tonight. Yes, and the sparks of his father [sic]. Balor Beimeann is the father").40 From these and other examples it is abundantly clear that Lugus has his domain in storm rather than in sunlight, and that if his name has any relation to "light" it more properly means "lightning-flash" (as in Breton luc'h and Cornish lughes). This is the principal function of his invincible spear. Although there may be some thematic relation between the titles of Lugh and Savitr, they are clearly not equivalents of each other.

Central to the Lughnasadh ritual in its oldest form was an enactment of the myth of the season. Certainly some version or other of Cath Maige Tuired would have been the most popular material for this in early Ireland (even though the literary sources had the battle -- like virtually all supernatural events -- taking place on Samhain!), but a huge number of variants were possible. A person playing the role of Lugh -- or of a local saint or hero who had taken on Lugh's attributes -- would fight against the various monsters sent against him by the Fomorian god of the Land, and eventually triumph over the god of the Land himself. In modern Ireland the god of the Land is almost always Crom Dubh ("The Bent Black One" -- the holiday is often called Domhnach Croim Dhuibh -- "Crom Dubh's Sunday" -- after him), and one of the principal adversaries he sends against his challenger is a great bull41 (unlike horses, who symbolize the power of the Tribe, cattle represent the Land: cows are its nurturing aspect, but bulls show its destructive side). Lugh's victory, in some cases, may have been dramatized as leaping over a stone head. "The Gaulish figure of the mounted cavalier prancing over a head emerging from the ground,or over a giant emerging from the ground, seems to illustrate this myth and may even be a representation of an acted rite."42

As we have mentioned, the myth could be presented in many different ways. One of the most striking involves the Cornish tales of "Jack the Tinkard" which were enacted on the occasion of Morvah Fair, one of the greatest Lughnasadh celebrations outside Ireland.43 This is a very long and complex narrative dealing with "giants", which in Cornish folklore is a conventional way of referring to the old Fomorian gods. The beginning of the story tells how a hero named "Tom" defeated a local giant by battling him with a cartwheel (recalling the thunder-wheel of early Celtic art). "Tom" becomes established and prosperous, but is eventually challenged by "Jack", another hero, who carries a hammer and wears a black bull's hide that weapons cannot pierce. "Jack" agrees to cooperate with "Tom", and goes on to demonstrate that he is the master of all crafts, dazzling the ignorant and slow-witted "Tom" in the process (and providing an echo of Lugh's entrance into Tara). In order to win the hand of "Tom"'s daughter, "Jack" then successfully fights (mostly through trickery) other destructive giants of the area. Many versions of the Lughnasadh myth do indeed focus on winning a woman's hand, or (in ritual terms) persuading her to serve as Queen of the Harvest. Often the implication is that she is a Fomorian woman, a power of the fertility of the Land who defects to the side of the Tribe -- and perhaps this would include Lugh's mother, Eithne, whose name could be understood as "kernel".

Another version of this myth, which illustrates how simple and humble the imagery can become without changing anything that is important to it, is the famous Scottish story Cath nan Eun ("The Battle of the Birds"), collected in several versions by John Francis Campbell in the early 19th century.44 A wren offers to help protect a farmer's crops, but he is immediately challenged by a mouse, who of course wants the harvest for himself and his kind. The wren musters an army of all the birds of heaven, but the mouse gathers together an equivalent army of rodents and creeping things. A great battle is fought, and the hero of the tale, Mac Regh Cathair Sheomain (a "king's son" and therefore a destined holder of sovereignty), decides to attend it but arrives when it is almost over, and the only combatants left are a raven and a serpent. He chooses to aid the raven, and in exchange receives magical aid in defeating a giant and marrying the giant's daughter. Just as the adventures start, the raven turns into a handsome young man and gives the king's son a bag filled with magical treasures, reminiscent of the corrbolg, or "Mercury"'s bag. The essence of the myth is preserved completely here: the battle between the birds and the creeping things is the battle between Above and Below, the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomhmraigh, the Tribe and the Land, over the ownership of the Harvest. Both the wren and the raven have ties to Lugh, the leader of the Danann side; and he here fulfills his usual role by restoring the rightful ruler and pairing him off with the woman who is the fertility of the Land.

The wren serves to remind us of an aspect of Lugh that is too often eclipsed by his heroic appearance in so many of the Irish literary tales: that he is lu, "little", easily dismissed before his powers have been revealed. The wren, too, despite his tiny size, is a "king", the king of all birds: in a folktale known throughout Eurasia (including the Celtic lands) he gains that title through trickery, stowing away on the eagle's back during a contest of which bird can fly the highest, and then flying up when the eagle has exhausted himself and can go no higher. The symbolism of the wren helps us understand one of the symbols associated with Lugus in his earliest manifestations: the mistletoe, who is the smallest of all trees, yet grows at the top of the tallest tree, the oak, and is thus closest of all the trees to heaven. It is also green in winter, when the oak itself is bare, so that it manifests life even in the midst of death. There is a striking similarity between Lugus and Vishnu, who first appears in the Vedas as very much a "little" god, but one capable of saving the day during the great battle against the fertility-withholding monster Vrtra because of his unique talent of creating new space in the universe with his steps -- a talent that would, after centuries of reflection on its theological implications, turn him into one of the major gods of Hinduism, and even into the equivalent of God himself. In the same way, Lugus' role in saving the Harvest through his gift of uniting opposites and moving between realms would, after the same type of theological reflection, make him into (as Caesar tells us) the Celts' "main god".

For there is no doubt that Lugus related to the vast majority of Celtic people in the most intimate and satisfying way. However much he may have been associated with the first-function domain of kingship, his involvement with all of the functions of Celtic society made him a cooperative protector for any individual, from the highest noble to the humblest craftsman. The weaker members of the community would have felt a special affinity for a god "who succeeds by the skill of his more subtle magic rather than through the brute force of his physical strength."45 Wherever doors were to be opened, exchanges were to be made, boundaries were to be crossed, his special gifts could be invoked with profit (the Lebor Gabela, interestingly, makes Lugh the inventor of chess (fidchill) and ball-games (luathroit)46 -- both of which are games that involve the interpenetration of opposite realms). For the poet or the intellectual seeker, the lightning-flash of his spear was the insight (imbas) that pierces the darkness of chaos, so that he was truly Amairgen's "de delbas do chind codnu" ("the god that sets the head on fire"). He could also father heroes on the earthly plane -- such as Cu Chulainn who, like his father, had a threefold birth, and whose special weapon, the gae Bolga, was, on one level, merely an exotic earthly weapon (the "Belgic spear"), but on another was the "lightning spear" his father wields in the heavens. Even the coming of Christianity could not eradicate the hold that Lugus had on the hearts of ordinary people in the Celtic lands. Sulpicius Severus, in his biography of St. Martin of Tours, notes that, of all the gods of Gaul, the saint found Mercury "infestior" -- "most troublesome, hardest to get rid of".47 Outside Ireland the imagery associated with St. Michael the Archangel -- the young warrior triumphing over the Satanic dragon -- was naturally assimilated into the lore of Lugus, so that many Mercurii montes became "St. Michael's Mounts", and St. Michael was given a special role in relation to the Harvest season.

Even today, the spirit of Lugus pervades the Celtic world, second only to Brigit in significance and accessibility. Trickster, psychopomp, experimenter, mover between worlds, granter of success and wealth through intelligent manipulation, and granter of continuity through change, his many gifts remain at the disposal of those who trouble to seek him out.


1.Kruta:1985, 103-6.
2.De Vries:1963, 59.
3.Tranoy:1981, 289-90.
4.Duval:1957, 68.
5.Duval:1957, 68-9.
6.De Vries:1963, 50; Enright:1996, 251-2.
7.De Vries:1963, 52; Green:1992, 150.
8.Duval:1957, 68-9.
9.Matthews:1987, 18-9.
10.De Vries:1963, 49; Duval:1957, 69.
11.Green:1995, 39, 125-9; Enright:1996, 217-8, 240-59.
12.Enright:1996, 227-8, 277-8.
13.Fishwick:1987, 97-107, 118-37, 308-16.
14.Ross:1967, 249-52; De Vries:1963, 58-9.
15.De Vries:1963, 59.
16.De Vries:1963, 59n.
17.Savignac:1994, 76-8
18.LGE:1941, 91-205.
19.CMT:1982, passim. also Oosten:1985, 116-33.
21.CMT:1945, passim.
22.Knott:1981, 54-8, 101.
23.Rees:1961, 312-3; Green:1995, 73.
24.Mac Neill:1962, 8.
25.O'Rahilly:1946, 73.
26.O'Rahilly:1946, 38n., 310-1; Ross:1967, 341-2. Ross mistakenly assumes that 'Ethlenn' refers to Lugh's mother.
27.This is a synthesized compilation of the accounts given by Larminie:1893, 1-9, 241-5; Curtin:1894, 283-311; Searcaigh:1908, 3-7; Laoide:1913, 63-5; and some versions heard by myself.
28.PKM:1930, 67-92.
29.PKM:1930, 49-65.
30.Green:1986, 130-1.
31.CLL:1975, passim.
32.Mac Neill:1962, 71-242.
33.Mac Neill:1962, 3.
34.Mac Neill:1962, 3; De Vries:1963, 138.
35.There remains, for instance, the problem of why PIE *k would here become Old Celtic g.
36.Cf. Ellis:1994, 125-6.
37.Mac Neill:1962, 421.
38.De Vries:1963, 61.
39.De Vries:1963, 52.
40.Mac Neill:1962, 408.
41.Mac Neill:1962, 422-3.
42.Mac Neill:1962, 426.
43.Mac Neill:1962, 383-5.
44.Campbell:1983 [1860], I, 25-63.
45.Ross:1967, 168.
46.LGE:1941, 128-9.
47.Mac Neill:1962, 417.


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