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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lugh the Many-skilled

One of the most well known of the Irish Gods is Lugh, Lug in Old Irish, who is given several epithets including Lamhfada [long arm], Ildanach [many skilled], and Samildanach [many joined skills]. He is also sometimes called either Mac Céin, son of Cian, or Mac Ethlenn, son of Eithne (MacKillop, 1998). One of the epithets applied to him in the Lebor Gabala Erenn is ‘rind-agach’ which Macalister gives as ‘spear slaughterous' (Macalister, 1944) although ‘spear-combative’ is a closer translation. 

Lugh was one of the High Kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, ruling after Nuada, and he was the only one who could defeat his grandfather, the Fomorian Balor, in the second Battle of Maige Tuired. During this battle we see Lugh earning his epithet of many-skilled as he earns his way into the High King’s hall by proving he has more skills than any other individual member among the Gods. Later before the battle itself we also see him actively using his magical skill to rally his army and to curse the opposing army (Gray, 1983).

Lugh was the son of the Dé Danann Cian and the Fomorian Eithne; his paternal grandfather was the physician God Dian Cécht and his maternal grandfather the dangerous Fomorian Balor who had an evil eye that could kill anyone it looked on. There had been a prophecy that Balor’s grandson would kill him so Balor imprisoned his daughter in a tower; Cian snuck in and had a tryst with Eithne which resulted in triplets. When Balor found the babies he cast them into the sea where two of them either drowned or were turned into seals, while Lugh was saved and fostered by either Manannan or Tailtiu (MacKillop, 1998). In the Ulster cycle he is said to be the father of the hero Cu Chulainn by a mortal mother although Cu Chulainn does simultaneously have a mortal father as well. We see Lugh coming to Cu Chulainn’s aid in the Tain Bo Cuiligne when the hero is gravely injured, taking him into the Otherworldly sí in order to heal him. In myth and folklore Lugh is given four different wives: Buí (better known as the Cailleach Bhéirre), Nás, Echtach, and Englic (MacKillop, 1998). One of these wives was unfaithful and had an affair with the Dagda’s son Cermait, prompting Lugh’s vengeful killing of him; this in turn eventually led the three sons of Cermait to seek revenge on Lugh for their father’s death.

Lugh is most strongly associated with the festival of Lúnasa, which bears his name, although it is more properly understood as a memorial for his foster mother Tailtiu. Lúnasa in old Irish is Lughnasadh meaning ‘funeral assembly of Lugh’ while in more modern Irish the name means ‘games or assembly of Lugh’. According to the Lebor Gabala Erenn Lugh instituted the games of Lúnasa in honor of his foster mother after she died clearing the plain that bore her name (MacAlister, 1941). The holiday itself focuses on the celebration of the beginning of the harvest with things like dressing holy wells, horse races, athletic games, and the preparations of special foods. Today many Lúnasa celebrations center on Saint Patrick as a divine protector of the harvest but it is likely that Lugh originally held this role and was only later replaced when the new religion came in (McNeil, 1962).

Lugh may be seen as one of the kings of the Otherworld, particularly associated with Teamhair, as he is depicted as such in the story of Baile in Scáile (Smyth, 1988). He is also strongly associated with the founding of different mortal family lines and several different tribes were named after him (Smyth, 1988). Lugh was the king of the Gods for a time and is portrayed as having a very important role among the others, being both well-known and appearing in a variety of myths. Some scholars suggest that Lugh was an interloper to the Irish pantheon who was only added later and that his mythology reflects this, showing him being born and coming into the crisis between the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomorians in a way that displaces the existing king Nuada (O hOgain, 2006). Whether this is so or not, Lugh was almost certainly a pan-Celtic deity who can be found under similar names in different related cultures, although one should note the mythology is very different elsewhere. To the Welsh he was Llew Llaw Gyffes, and to the Gaul’s he was Lugos; the name is derived from the proto-Indo-European root *leug(h) which most likely means ‘to swear an oath’ (O hOgain, 2006).

Lugh possessed one of the four treasures of the Tuatha De Danann, said in myth to be either a sword or spear, although it is most often believed to be a spear (Daimler, 2015). It is said that whoever had the spear of Lugh could never lose in battle. In the story ‘Tuath De Danand na Set soim’ we are told that this treasure was acquired by Lugh in a city before the Gods came to Ireland, a version echoed in less detail in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, although there is another story about how he gained the spear as well. The ‘Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann’ tells us that after Lugh’s father Cian was killed by the children of Tuireann, Lugh required them to fulfill a series of impossible tasks and in so doing gained his famous spear; although the children of Tuireann did fulfill all of the things asked of them they ultimately died in the effort.

Lugh is a multi-faceted and multi-skilled deity who is well known even today among many pagans. His mythology is complex and shows us a deity who is bold and powerful, but also stubborn and sometimes unforgiving. He was a successful king to the Tuatha De Danann, and in the story of Baile in Scáile he appears alongside the personification of sovereignty, speaking to the one who would be the human king of Ireland. And in later folklore it was Lugh who secured the harvest by contesting against Crom Cruach, reinforcing his role as a God who supports the proper order of civilization. There are certainly many things in Lugh that a modern pagan might choose to connect to or honor.



References:

MacKillop, J., (1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Gray, E., (1983) Cath Maige Tuired
MacAlister, R., (1941) Lebor Gabala Erenn
Smyth, D., (1988) A Guide to Irish Mythology
O hOgain, D., (2006) The Lore of Ireland
Daimler, M., (2015) The Treasure of the Tuatha De Danann

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