First published on November 9, 2009
Lugh (called the Il-Dana, called Lámhfada (“of the long arm”), called Samildánach (“all skilled”)) is possibly the most written about deity in the Celtic pantheon. He is celebrated in song and story, myth and profile, in numerous places on the Internet and books about the Celts. His name is reflected in towns and cities. He is so well known that those who are associated with Him are celebrated as well. There is even a holiday named for him, despite the fact that He originally decreed it’s creation to celebrate his Foster Mother.
But how well do we truly know this god?
Many people try to fit this deity into a box, to be the comprehensive resource for all that Lugh represents and everything that He is. But like His litany of skills upon coming to Tara, there is so much to Him that any attempt to be the sole source of information is futile.
This article will explore some aspects of Lugh, but more than that, it will give you the resources to start your own study of and relationship with this fascinating God.
Lugh, the Early Years
Some facts are readily apparent when one starts studying Lugh. Among them are he was born of Ethlinn daughter of Balor, fathered by Cian son of Dian Cecht. His birth was not celebrated by the Firbolg, as it normally would have been. This was a terrible omen, and his grandfather Balor ordered this newborn be cast into the sea to drown.
Why would a grandfather do something this heinous? Like Oedipus’ geis to kill his father, it was prophesied that this babe would kill Balor in the future. This, quite naturally, was something Balor wished to avoid at any cost.
First Balor locked his daughter in a tower made of crystal. She could not become pregnant, because no man could reach her. When she “miraculously” gave birth anyway, he decreed the child, or children depending on the myth, be drowned like unwanted puppies.
Good plan, but ultimately futile. As many of us know, where there is a will, there is a way. The will in this version was Cian’s, and the druidess, Briog, supplied the way. 1
There are multiple retellings of this story, and they tend to conflict with each other. In one version, Ethlinn has triplets and two are ultimately drowned on Balor’s orders. Lugh survives and escapes due to the carelessness of the manservant ordered to kill the children. Manannan mac Llyr found Lugh and raises him.
In the next version, Cian is on the island searching for a magical cow that Balor has stolen from him. He sneaks into the tower where Ethlinn is living and things follow their natural course. In this version, Lugh is an only child, and he is spirited away by Cian to Ireland. Because Manannan made a deal with Cian to bring him to the island Balor was living on for half of what ever Cian brings away from the island, Cian gives Lugh to Manannan to raise. This is a good solution to avoid a Solomon like division of the child.
Regardless of how he arrives, Manannan began to raise him. Now, whether Manannan was his primary caretaker, or simply the person who facilitated his fosterage, we do not know. There are no stories about Lugh as a child or even as a teen. Most of his past is shrouded in mystery, although we can infer certain things.
We know that Tailtu became his foster mother, since she is credited with teaching him, yet she is not Manannan’s wife. We know that Manannan instructed him and that he was able to borrow Manannan’s weapons, armor, horse and his boat. It is also possible that Goibhniu, Cian’s brother and chief smith of the Tuatha de’ Dannan, wound up teaching him as well.
In several versions of the stories, Lugh comes to Tara on Manannan’s horse, carrying Manannan’s sword, Freagarthach or “Answerer”, and wearing Manannan’s helm and Manannan’s armor. Being outfitted in this manner could only mean that Manannan recognized that Lugh has surpassed Manannan’s standards and hopes for him. By doing this, Manannan is highlighting Lugh’s potential, silently urging everyone to take notice of this new creature’s possible affect on the future. In an interesting sidelight, Manannan, God of the Waves, only loans Lugh his boat.
From the references we have about Tailtu, she raised Lugh from the time of puberty to his leaving to go to Tara. It is possible that this time also coincides with her clearing of the Land in preparation for the Tuatha de Dannan’s coming supremacy. This makes sense if she knew about the prophecy.
The Coming of Lugh
Now Lugh appears as a grown up leaving home to find his place in the world. No mention is made of Lugh while he journeys, of his feats during that time, yet somehow he became the master of every trade.
On arriving at the Gates of Tara, he claimed mastery of the knowledge needed by a Carpenter, a Smith, a Champion (hero), a Harper, a Poet and Teller of Tales, a Magician, a Physician, a Cupbearer and a Brass-worker. He could do it all, and was apparently the master of many trades, Jack of none.
This didn’t sit very well with the gatekeeper of Tara. He dismissed each and every one of Lugh’s skills, saying that they already have a person skilled in the named trade. One can imagine Lugh, young and proud expecting to be admitted immediately and instead being told, “go away kid, we don’t need you.” Here he is, the master of every trade and skill that was considered important, and there is someone inside who can do that skill too and because of that, he was not allowed to enter unless he had a unique skill. Finally, Lugh demands that the gatekeeper ask the king if there is anyone who can do everything as he can.
Off trots the gatekeeper to ask Nuada. Nuada is, of course, impressed by this litany of skills. He had the gatekeeper take some chessboards outside and set them up. Many of the host of the Tuatha de’ challenged Lugh to chess matches. Lugh could be the first recorded Grand Master of Chess, for he beats every challenger easily.
As if that wasn’t enough, Ogma took a huge stone out of the courtyard and hurls it at Lugh. I can only assume that this is the start of Clachneart (Stone Hurling) of the Scottish Highland Games. This stone, which takes 20-yoked horses to pull once it’s moved, is picked up by Ogma, thrown through the castle and outside, miraculously not harming anyone. Lugh, to prove that “anything you can do I can do better”, picked it up and hurled it placing it back exactly where it came from, impressing everyone.
The doorkeeper then asks Lugh which arts that he counted as the greatest. Lugh replied “Swimming forever without tiring, carrying a cauldron with both elbows, outrunning the swiftest of horses and leaping on a bubble without breaking it.” Wow.
Only then, does Nuada say, “Never have we had such a person as him enter. Let him in.” So the gatekeeper trots back and starts to open the gates, but Lugh stops him now. He said that it is unlucky to open the gate after dark, ignoring the fact that it has already been opened and closed many times with the stone and the chessboards. At this point, Lugh jumped the wall in one bound. Truly a man’s man. 2
Traveling with Lugh were retainers, and they could have numbered in the hundreds. Fifty principal retainers are listed as well as “a number of men at arms.” He made no arrangements for their care overnight, and one can only assume that they were used to Lugh’s arrogance in this matter. It is possible that arrangements for retainers like this are so well understood that the servants just went ahead and took care of them and thus they did not have to state them the context of the story, or that the arrangements were made “offstage”.
Lugh sat on the seat of knowledge for a time, dispensing his wisdom to the Tuatha de’ Dannan. He had made it. But wait, there’s more. He was elected King. Yes, since Nuada had the fight called the First Battle of Moytura and has his hand struck off by the Fomorians, he is not really eligible to be king anymore. Bres has been filling in as King and abusing the Tuatha de’ Dannan all this time.
Apparently the rest of the Tuatha de’ have been campaigning for “something to be done” about Bres and his mingy stingy ways. The coming of Lugh offers a new possibility to everyone. With all of his talents, with his lack of enemies, why shouldn’t he be the king? Certainly his lineage, his skills and his already displayed wisdom make him an appropriate candidate for the position.
So, Lugh took his place as the head of the Tuatha de’ Dannan, but only if he can wrest the kingship from the Firbolg.
His first act as this stage is to start plotting a war against the Firbolg. Now, I am not one to question the motives of a God, but this seems a little pre-emptive. Granted they had been abusing the Tuatha de’ for years, ever since the final blows of the First Battle of Moytura, but still…
As for Balor, we can assume that Lugh himself is ignorant of the prophecy. No place does it state that he actually knows that he is supposed to kill his grandfather. But, like the hero of fate that he is, Lugh winds up facing his grandfather across a battlefield.
But, there is a problem; there is always a problem. Originally none of the Tuatha de’ Dannan were willing to let him fight. They spent from one year to seven years planning the battle, using every dirty underhanded trick they could think of to give them an edge in defeating the Firbolg. This included having the Morrigan steal the valor of their liver and two handfuls of blood to give to the Tuatha de’ Dannan. If one assumes that the virtue of the warrior is contained in the liver and blood, this is a terrible loss for the Fomorians.
It is implied that Lugh was too precious to the Tuatha De Dannan to risk in a battle. As a result, the entire battle host of the Tuatha de’ Dannan conspired to keep Lugh out of it. They were willing to do everything necessary avoid his participation and to win the battle without him. Reading through the description of the battle plans sounds like a litany of destruction. Everything Lugh was capable of doing, someone else agreed to do before he could. Warriors were healed, weapons were made, hosts captured with a few words, champions slain, fire rained from the heavens, no water for the enemy and their urine bound into their bodies. Wow. Sounds like a cakewalk.
There was one thing the Tuatha de’ Dannan neglected to take into account, Balor of the Evil Eye and his power. See, Balor didn’t have any reason to keep Lugh alive, and he really wanted Lugh dead. So when Balor waded into the war, the Tuatha De Dannan thought it was all over. They were worried that everything they had worked for up to that point was gone.
Fate not to be denied, the time of the prophecy had come. Lugh entered the fray, just as Balor ordered the patch (or his eyelid) to be removed so he could look at the Tuatha de’ Dannan and kill them all.
Balor orders his men to pull on the chain that is attached to a ring set through Balor’s eyelid and open up the baleful stare. (Could this be the origin of the word “baleful”? Possibly.) Here’s our hero’s chance.
JUST as the eyelid is opening, Lugh strikes. He hurls his stone (or throws his spear) right through grandpa’s eye. He hurled it so hard that it comes right out the back of Balor’s head. Now there is a hole going all the way through Balor’s head, and the eye, deadly still, is staring out the back of Balor’s head, looking at his own army. Oops.
This naturally kills all the Firbolg on the field that day, leaving the Tuatha de’ Dannan as the only people standing at the end, winners by default.
So, Lugh fulfilled his destiny of killing his granddad. I suppose that this would piss off granddad, but he seemed to forgive Lugh, unexpectedly. Ah, I can see the scene now…. (Insert dreamy wavy flashback effects now)
Balor: “Ah, Lugh, you killed me and all my host with me.”
Lugh: “Yeah, but that’s fair, you tried to kill me as an infant, I couldn’t even look at you and kill you, you tried to have me drowned. You also locked Mom in a tower. She didn’t even have hair to climb out on. I mean, talk about abusive relationships…”
Balor: “Yes, I did, and I want to talk to my manservant about that too. But first, I forgive you for killing me. Take my head, put it on your own, and my wisdom will flow into you.”
Lugh: “Ewwwww… gross.”
For some strange reason, Lugh didn’t do it quite that way. (What? You didn’t think I could be sarcastic?) He put the head on a standing stone nearby. I guess he wanted the rock to be smart or something. It turns out that it’s a good thing he did, because the blood of Balor was highly corrosive in nature, and it dissolved the rock as it flowed over the rock. Hmmm, shades of Hercules here? Nah, just a coincidence. Whew, dodged that slung stone….
So, Lugh settled down to ruling the Tuatha de’ Dannan with compassion and kindness.
End of story, right?
Not by a long shot. There are several more stories about what happened next, although they are not in chronological order. One such story is his vengeance against the killers of his father.
It seems that Lugh was aware that Cian was his father, and when Brian, Lucharba and Luchar (collectively known as the Sons of Turenn) killed Cian, well, Lugh had to go after them. It was only fair.
After the events related in the Second Battle of Moytura, Lugh has surrendered the throne to the Dagda. The Firbolg landed and began raiding, robbing and pillaging again, compelling Lugh to do something. The Dagda didn’t want to cause trouble, so Lugh went off to take care of them himself.
On the way, he saw his father and two uncles. Lugh asked his father and uncles to summon more reinforcements, and along the way the three brothers were separated. Cian, alone, stumbled across the sons of Turenn, who had always had a problem with Cian and had a natural enmity between them. They chased Cian down and slew him with stones and tried to bury him. But the ground wouldn’t take the murdered body, and cast it up. They buried him again, six more times. On the last time, the ground kept the body and they went to join Lugh in defense of the Isle.
There was a mighty battle against Bres (yeah, he came back), and once more the Firbolg were defeated and driven out of Ireland. Serves them right. I mean, really, who told them they had a right to the land they defeated the Fomorians for?
Lugh missed his father and went searching for him. He was able, by his arts, to track his father to where they parted company, and to where he was killed. By his arts as well, he asked the ground what happened, and the ground told him.
This caused Lugh grief, understandably. He vowed to find the slayers of his father and deal with them. You should be able to predict the rest of the story, but there are a few details to be filled in.
He did not give them much of a chance. You know the song “Scarborough Fair” where the singer gives this impossible task to the girl he loved if she wants to be with him again? Same thing, just no lyrics or beautiful melodies. When he finally caught up with them at a king’s house, he asked in a general way what they would do to the slayers of their father. They answered that they would cut off one limb of the criminal each day until they died. Lugh agreed with that, saying that it was a fair price, but then he named a different, “easier” price for Cian’s life, three apples, a pig skin, a spear, two horses and a chariot, seven pigs, a dog’s whelp, a cooking spit and three shouts from a hilltop. The Sons of Turenn agree to this price without thinking this through, because there was a HUGE catch.
The catch was that each of these items was extremely magickal and in the possession of a king, guarded by hosts loyal to that king. For example, the spear was the Spear belonging to the King of Persia, which had to be stored in a cauldron of water so it wouldn’t burn the house down. The Pig Skin, was a skin that would heal anyone that it touched of any wound, but not if they were dead. It was in the possession of the King of Greece and it would be, (in Lugh’s eloquent words) “it will not be easy for you to get it.”
The Sons of Turenn actually managed to gain each of these items for Lugh. In some cases, they had to kill the kings who owned them, in two cases they were able to negotiate for those items and preserve lives. Seeing them so close to accomplishing the honor price he has set, Lugh played dirty pool and had a Druid cast a spell on them to prevent the Sons from remembering the rest of the Honor Price of Cian. As a result, they returned without the spit or the shouts.
Lugh told them that this was a good start, but that they were idiots for not bringing the rest. So they went back to their quest, and managed to get the spit. Still, the last and most dangerous part was to come. Lugh had told them that there were three guardians of the hill they must shout from. Coincidentally the three had been teachers of Cian, and they would certainly not appreciate Bran, Lucharba and Luchar killing Cian. These three guardians had also vowed to never let anyone shout from the hill, and to attempt to do so was certain death.
The guardians were apparently ready for the Sons of Turenn, and attacked them as they approached the hill. The Sons, naturally, defend themselves, killing the guardians in the process. Unfortunately, the Sons are mortally wounded as well, and they still manage to shout, as they needed to. How they were supposed to bring back proof of this to Lugh is anyone’s guess. Each time they shouted, more of their strength and life ran out of their body, bringing them closer to death. They shout their three shouts and are almost dead. They manage to drag themselves back to Lugh and notified him that they were complete, and to beg him for the magickal pigskin that they stole for him as part of his price and his forgiveness since they actually managed to finish his impossible tasks. He refused to loan the pigskin, but he did forgive them. He told them that the only way they would get the pigskin was to die. So they did.
The next story that shows more about Lugh is about his hidden house. Apparently, Lugh disappeared after 40 years of being king, and named the Dagda king in his place. After that, he vanished from the ken of men.
He returned to Ireland on three occasions. When he seduced Cuchulainn’s mother and possibly impregnated her on the same night, to defend his son for three days during the war of the Bulls, and once in the time of Conn of a Hundred Battles.
It is in this third tale that we find information about Lugh’s hidden home. It seems that Conn chanced to step upon the Lia Fal, which promptly screamed under him three times. Conn asked his Druid about this, and after 53 days, his Druid answered him. As Conn is learning about the Lia Fal’s origin from his chief druid, a mist came and obscured their way. They along with 2 other druids and Conn’s three chief poets find themselves at the Rath of a King. Inside they find a silver haired lady who brought them in, offered them wine and allowed them speak to the man who lived inside. He tells Conn which of his descendants will be the King after him, and introduced the Lady as the Sovereignty of Ireland and himself as Lugh. 3
These are just three of the most well known stories about Lugh; there are more, many of them retranslations of the same documents, which give different insights or emphasis to what we know about Lugh.
That’s fascinating Daven, but the point of all this is…?
But does any of this actually tell us who Lugh is? We can extract clues and find aspects of his personality from these stories, but to get the whole story we have to look further field.
As a member of the Tuatha de Dannan, Lugh is one of the older Gods of Ireland. Given that, it’s interesting to note that Lugh seems to be a “Johnny come lately” deity, as he showed up after the rest of the Gods were already established. Some scholars point to this as proof that Lugh migrated from other cultural groups into the Celts. 4
Lugh is most commonly known as a God of the Sun, and because of that the Romans related him to Apollo. Lugh’s name means, “shining one” but there is a substantial body of evidence that suggests that Lugh was not the Sun God, but the Lightning God instead. The best explanation of this evidence follows:
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”). As a result, and helped along by Victorian scholars’ obsession with “solar myths”, it was taken for granted that Lúgh was a solar god. Moreover, a comparison between Lúgh’s title Lámhfhada (“long-armed”) and the title Prithupâni (“broad-handed”) given to the Vedic god Savitr (the god of the first light of day) seemed to confirm such a notion — and it is now firmly entrenched in popular literature about Irish “mythology”. However, traditional, ritual-associated ideas about Lúgh show no trace of this. Lúghnasadh is a day on which thunderstorms with plentiful rain are expected and welcomed. 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 Lúgh is needed to tame its power. …. 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. 5
I personally find the association to lightning to feel more correct than an association to the sun.
A few more facts that are not explored in the stories of Lugh:
- He decreed that Lughnasdh was to be the Funeral Games for his foster mother Tailtu
- He was married to 4 different women at various times, and was the possible lover of Rosemertia or Rosmerta as well as Dectara or Decataira. In one story an unnamed wife was unfaithful with Cermait and he killed her and her lover.
- He abducted Dactera, the sister of Conchubar on her wedding night to Sualtim son of Roig. He impregnated her in one night of loving, and a whole year later she gave birth to the person who would become Cuchulainn.
- When Caesar associated Lugus to Mercury, the Gallic Celts took it and ran with the concept, creating over 400 shrines to Mercury and changing the image of Mercury to their image of Lugus, a.k.a Lugh.
- He is one of only a couple deities in the Celtic Pantheon who appear across the entire culture of the Celts. He is identifiable in various forms in the Welsh Celts, the Gallic Celts and even the Germanic Celts.
- The sons of Cermait in revenge for killing their father killed him.
- He is credited with inventing the game of Fidhchell, a classic board game of Celtic tradition, as well as ball games and horsemanship.
There is also some confusion as to his education. In some stories Mannanan Mac Lyr teaches Lugh and then Tailtu teaches Lugh next, in others Mannanan takes him as a babe to Goibhniu to be taught and then he goes to Tailtu. In still other tales, He is taught first by Mannanan and then by Goibhniu, and only fed and cared for by Tailtu, not formally educated by her. So where he acquired his formal skills from is somewhat of a mystery although most stories attribute this to Goibhniu.
The fact remains that he is the single most skilled deity there is or ever was. No one else can come close to his mastery of so many skills. For that reason alone He deserves our respect and honor. Since we as Druids are should strive to be accomplished in just as many aspects of our craft as he was, it is also logical that we honor him.
An interesting sidelight is an article comparing Lugh and Loki.6 A comparison of this kind presupposes that there was interaction between the Celts and the Germanic tribes before Rome conquered many of their tribes. Many of the items that Lugh has or won, have their counterpart in Loki’s myths. For example, Lugh inherits Manannan’s magickal crane bag which holds many treasures of the Tuatha de’ Dannan and Loki, while not having a magickal bag specifically like that, is responsible for most of the Norse god’s magickal artifacts. Both are also shape-shifters. Lugh and Loki have both been associated with serpents and serpent iconography, not for evil, but as a healer.
One note about this comparison: The gods I am referring to are the Germanic tribal Loki, and the Gallic Lugus. There would have been interaction between the two at their borders, and the Romans did conquer the German tribes. The Scandinavian and Norse Loki and the Irish Lugh are not included in this comparison since the cultures honoring them were physically so far away from each other to allow this kind of crossover.
In the cited article, it is suggested that the Germanic Loki is, actually, Lugus. The point is raised that they are the same exact deity. It also goes on to state that it is possible that while Lugus was “over there” and actively working with the Celts, that the Germanics were “safe” for Loki was not present in Asgard and Midgard to cause trouble. Eventually, as always happens, Loki would have to return to the halls of Asgard, which would start Ragnarok. So long as he was “over there” the world could not end.
If this comparison is also true, then Lugh is probably the most disguised deity in Celtic mythology. He appears in the Welsh Mabinogion as Llew Llaw Gyffes, the new king after Gwydion, the deity at the balance point, who can only be brought down during the Solstice. When Lugh and Llew are compared side by side, discounting the similarities in their name entirely, the parallels are obvious.
- Both were taken from their mothers upon birth and raised by men
- Both became kings
- Both were accurate and strong with spears and slings
- Both their times of the year are in the Autumn (the only time when Llew could be killed is at the Autumnal Equinox and Lugh’s strength wanes from Lughnasdh)
- Both were extremely strong warriors
- Both are associated with the Wren (Lugh is compared to a wren as he is very small and insignificant in one story, Llew slays a wren to achieve his name by Arianhrod) 7
- Both had unfaithful wives
- Neither actually died when reported to have died and both wreaked vengeance on those who were their enemies
- Both had a god that was opposite of them, and ruled their kingdom at the opposite time of the year. Lugh had Crom Dubh (The Bent Black One) and Llew had Gronw Pebyr.
While many of these associations may seem superficial, when the name is added back into the mix, one cannot help but agree that it’s the same deity given a different mask.
Additionally, Lugus is another personification of this God. Lugus is the name of the Celtic Mercury that was worshiped in Gaul. Lugus’ chief city (Lugdunum) eventually became Lyon France. Lugus also had many skills, one of which was healing, and was called the Sun God as was as Lugh. This is the association that prompted the Romans to identify him with Mercury and Apollo in the first place.
One important aspect that has not been examined yet is Lugh’s ancestry. His genetic ancestry is Tuatha de’ Dannan by his Father, Firbolg by his mother. He was raised and cared for by one of the Fomorians. Therefore, it can be stated that through birth and fosterage, Lugh was the child of all three cultures. Thus it is possible that Lugh was the most appropriate king of Ireland, as he encompassed all the descendants of the Nemedians in himself.
So, do we know Lugh now? We have more information on him, more facts and stories. The Bards and Historians of the past would be happy with this, but they would also point out that this is only the beginning of knowing him. One must work with a deity and talk to a deity as one would talk to a friend in order to “understand” them.
At least we now have a starting point to learn from, and in any path, one must always have a starting point.
- Gods and Fighting Men, Part I Book II: The Coming of Lugh
- Celtic Wonder Tales: The Cow of Plenty
- Lugus the Many Gifted God
- Lugh (Calling tribal gods)
- Lugh, the Shining One (humor)
- Lugh the Longhanded
- Lugh and Working with Lugh
- Llew Llaw Gyffes: The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion:
- The Death of Llew, a Seasonal Interpretation:
- Gods and Fighting Men Book 1, Part 6