by Alexei Kondratiev
Because today most of our exposure to mythology takes place through the literary creations of the Greeks and Romans, we’re conditioned to think of it in a literary way and to demand of it a degree of internal logic and consistency which living mythological traditions usually don’t have (or which they approach differently). Trying to use the Irish and Welsh “mythologies” as the basis for a consistent Celtic theology is ultimately fruitless, because they were never designed to be functioning religious systems, but are literary creations elaborated long after the religion in which they had originated had ceased to be practiced. Like the Arthurian mythos, they become more internally consistent as time passes (i.e. as they become more self-consciously literary and less in tune with religious concerns), but the different story traditions also grow farther apart from each other.
I think a better approach is to look at how the gods would have fit into actual religious practice. Who worshipped them, and why? Here’s one way of looking at it:
I. Tribal Divinities
1. Gods of your immediate kin-group (uenia). These would primarily be ancestral spirits, and their worship would be confined to the home.
2. Gods of your occupational group (kerda). These would be gods who serve as archetypes for your occupation, as well as goddesses who give energy to that occupation (I know it sounds sexist, but that’s the way it was!). The worship would take place partly in the home, and partly in a guild shrine if your guild is rich enough to afford one.
3. Gods of your larger tribal area (touta). This would include your own tutelary tribal god, often in conjunction with intertribal divine figures of Indo-European origin which are seen as upholding the tribal order. This is coupled with worship of the sovereignty goddess of the Land you live on, usually identified with the main river that flows through your territory.
II. Land Divinities
The Land itself is full of fertility divinities that are chaotic and independent of the concept of tribal order. They are nevertheless necessary to the tribe’s survival and have to be propitiated (or tamed) as a part of the agricultural cycle.
The “intertribal” divinities are too numerous to discuss fully in this article but we can list the main ones. One can see them going in and out of “fashion” during the Iron Age, with some gaining in prominence while others fade away (exactly like what we see happening in Hinduism after the Vedic period). I’ll use the names of the ‘interpretatio Romana’, not because I think the Romans had the right idea, but because they’re consistent!
1. The Celtic “Mercury”. His rise in prestige is spectacular during the later Iron Age, until he becomes one of the main figures (if not the main figure) in the pantheon everywhere. He is usually called ‘Lugus’ (“Lightning Flash” — the name of the comic book hero is actually a pretty close fit!) or a name similar in derivation and meaning (like ‘Loucetios’). He is a warrior, but also a master of all the crafts and skills necessary to society, and as such becomes a protector of society as a whole — a role he exercises most fully at the beginning of the Harvest, when he wrests control of the fruits of the soil from the Land Spirits, who are also his kin. His weapon is the spear, which is the lightning-flash and also, metaphorically, the flash of inspiration and intuition. His principal animals are the raven, the horse, the lynx, and the wren (part of his myth is that he is a “little” god who outwitted all his rivals). He is the divine sponsor of human sovereigns, and as such his main consort is the sovereignty goddess who presents sovereignty as an intoxicating drink; but as master of crafts he also works with the Celtic “Minerva”, whose festival period balances his within the structure of the Celtic Year.
2. The Celtic “Mars”. He is the god who sets the boundaries of the civilized world and protects them by force of arms. His weapon is the sword and his animal is the dog. Although as a warrior he is a giver of death, the mysteries of death are seen as being closely related to the mysteries of rebirth and healing, so his main shrines are healing shrines. The story in which he loses a hand or arm and has it replaced by a silver one is doubtless ancient, though it’s hard to tell how widespread it was in the Iron Age.
3. The Celtic “Jupiter”. He is the sky god who rules the weather and brings rain. Thunder is caused by the rolling of his wheel across the sky, and his usual name is ‘Taranis’ (“Thunderer”). He is particularly present in mountainous regions. Over time his worship dwindled until he became a mere helper of “Mercury”, who like him was associated with storms and high places. In fact, Sulpicius Severus tells us that Gallo-Romans found it easy to turn away from his worship because he was “stupid” (‘hebetus’), while they found it harder to give up their affection for “Mercury”.
4. The Celtic “Silvanus” or God With Antlers (Karnonos/Cernunnos). He is the god who crosses boundaries, and the god of change. He is the interface between Tribe and Land and between our world and the Otherworld. Through him goods can be passed from one realm to another (hence his association with money), and valuable things can be gotten from raw Nature. He also manifests change as adaptability, as expressed by his antlers that drop off and grow back according to the season. Because some of his functions overlap with those of Celtic “Mercury” they are often shown together, although neither replaces the other, since their basic characters are quite different.
5. The Celtic “Minerva”. Because in Celtic thought goddesses are primarily seen as sources of energy (equivalent to the Hindu concept of ‘shakti’), the distinctions between them tend to blur and to be less clear-cut than in the case of the gods, as many writers on the subject have remarked. But the one that represents all forms of energy and provides them not only to the growth functions in the Land but to all forms of human activity and creativity is usually well characterised. Her name usually contains the element ‘brig’ (“high, exalted, rising, energetic”) although it can take other forms as well. Her animals are the cow and the oystercatcher (and by extension all things in nature that are black, white, and red). Her flower is the dandelion. Her experience with marriage and childbearing is usually unhappy (as with most Indo-European “culture goddesses”), so she is often portrayed as a “virgin”.
Because horses played such a large part in the Celts’ military successes in Europe, the horse was a symbol of sovereignty and political power (as opposed to cattle, which were a symbol of the Land and of material wealth). Thus the goddess who gave legitimacy to the power of the tribe was portrayed as riding on a horse, or as a mare herself. This (Epona, “Great Mare”) was a particular aspect of the sovereignty goddess, distinct from, say, Rosmerta, who gives rulers the intoxicating drink of flaith/wlatis. The Celtic “Minerva”, on the other hand, was a more general representation of goddess-energy, who could be invoked in a far greater range of situations: she gave the energy of rulership to rulers, but also provided every other kind of energy wherever it was needed.
The Hindu model can be very useful in helping us understand the Celtic view of goddesses, which was quite similar. For Hindus, goddesses are sources of energy, and they are often referred to collectively as simply Shakti (which can be personified as Durga, the supreme virgin goddess who is the source of all energy in the universe). But when the energy is applied to a specific purpose, the goddesses become differentiated: as Sarasvati (culture and creativity), Lakshmi (fertility and wealth, material comfort) or Kali (destruction and rebirth). In the same way, virtually all the Celtic goddesses can be said to be sovereignty goddesses, Land-goddesses, etc, but they take on different names and attributes when required by specific circumstances.
6. ‘Sucellos’ (“Good Striker”). Usually portrayed as a mature man with a mallet, the head of which is actually a barrel or cauldron (i.e. giving death with one side, life with the other). This is evidently the same god-type that became known as the ‘Dagda’ “Good (=Efficient) God” in Ireland. He is often chosen to represent the trifunctional tutelary god of a tribal territory (‘Toutatis’). His consort is the territorial river goddess. In southern Gaul he was sometimes interpreted as “Silvanus” (both he and Cernunnos had cauldrons).
7. ‘Maponos’ (meaning “Superboy”, essentially!). This god is associated with youth, vigour and growth, and particularly the power of the waxing Year as the days grow longer, which sometimes led him to become an “Apollo” in the ‘interpretatio Romana’, although the usual Celtic “Apollo” is a different god. Originally he was closely associated with hunting and the Land. He was invoked as a source of energy and quick growth, as illustrated by the Chamalieres inscription. His animal is the swan, and waterfowl in general. In the later literary tradition his name appears as ‘Mabon’ in Welsh and as Aengus’ title ‘in Mac Oac’ in Irish.
I should add that the other animal specially related to Maponos (as hunter) is the boar, and it is through his participation in the ancient mythic device of the “Cosmic Boar Hunt” that the Light and Dark halves of the Year are defined (he dies at the threshold of the Dark half, of course). His consort is the Flower Maiden: his marriage to her marks the apex of his career of “growth”.
8. The Divine Twins. The only literary survival of these important Indo-European divinities consists of Nisien and Efnisien in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. But they were evidently an important part of early Celtic religion, as the proliferation of temples and dedications to “Castor and Pollux” attests. As in most other Indo-European systems, one twin was truly divine and the other was flawed. They were associated with horses, good fortune and the protection of travellers.
9. The Celtic “Apollo”. A healing god of light and warmth and the power of sight, particularly invoked for eye problems. He also seems to have been associated with dreaming and prophecy. His healing shrines — which he shared with a goddess-consort — were important centres of pilgrimage in the early Celtic world. Although there’s no direct evidence of it in the sources, I strongly suspect that the god/goddess pair here were brother and sister (rather than married consorts as in most other cases), and were related to the cult of a brother/sister prophetic and healing pair that spread across Europe (from Central Asia, apparently) in the early Iron Age (and best known as Apollo/Artemis).
Danu and Bile: The Primordial Parents?
by Alexei Kondratiev
It is now commonplace among people with an interest in early Celtic tradition to believe that the gods of pre-Christian Ireland were the Tuatha De Danann, the “peoples of the goddess Danu”. This goddess is pictured as their progenitor and as a general Earth-mother, tying both the nature of the gods and the manner of their worship to the physical reality of the Land. In Neo- Pagan circles a vivid sense of the character and personality of this goddess has emerged, so that some people can now describe themselves publicly as “ardent devotees of Danu”. Also widespread is the notion that Danu’s consort is Bile, and that he is either the first male ancestor of both gods and mortals and therefore a kind of Lord of the Dead, or that, because of his name (which means “tree”), he represents the World Tree that is the axis of the universe and of any ritually consecrated area. These are powerful theological concepts, which provide revived Celtic religion with some much-needed focus and depth. Yet what are our textual sources for them? How solidly are they rooted in the historical record?
Our most immediate sources are certain popular Victorian and Edwardian books (many of them still in print) that first attempted to bring the complicated and chaotic material from mediaeval Irish and Welsh manuscripts into a form that the non-scholarly public could understand and enjoy. They transmitted the conclusions of more scholarly discussion about the nature and meaning of the texts, without, however, going over the arguments of the discussion in detail, or indicating the reservations some scholars might still have had about the conclusions. It is in these books that the Tuatha De Danann are first presented unambiguously as “the peoples of the goddess Danu”, with Danu and Bile as the most ancient ancestors within the pantheon. In the words of Charles Squire, for example:
“… The most ancient divinity of whom we have any knowledge is Danu herself, the goddess from whom the whole hierarchy of gods received its name of Tuatha De Danann … She was the universal mother.… Her husband is never mentioned by name, but one may assume him, from British analogies, to have been Bile [sic], known to Gaelic tradition as a god of Hades, a kind of Celtic Dis Pater from whom sprang the first men. Danu herself probably represented the earth and its fruitfulness, and one might compare her with the Greek Demeter. All the other gods are, at least by title, her children.” 1
Let us examine the foundation for these statements, beginning with the figure of Danu herself.
First, it must be recognised that *Danu is a reconstructed form: it never occurs as such in any Irish source. If one assumes that Danann (as in Tuatha De Danann) is the genitive form of an n-stem noun, one can also assume — on the analogy of other n-stem nouns like Eriu gen. Erenn, bru gen. bronn, etc. — that its nominative form would be *Danu. However, even this supposed genitive form is of very limited distribution (usually found only in the expression De Danann), and when it occurs in other constructions it seems to refer to a male name (e.g. in the patronymic mac Danann meic Bratha, which clearly indicates a *Danu son of Brath).2
Next, it should be pointed out that nowhere in the Lebor Gabala Erenn (Book of Conquests of Ireland) — our earliest source on the material related to the Tuatha De Danann, compiled between the ninth and the twelfth centuries — does Danu appear (under any form of her name) in the role of primordial mother. The one figure who appears prominently in the text and has a similar name is Danand (or Donand) daughter of Delbaeth son of Ogma, who cohabits with her own father and has three sons by him, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba. These three come to be known as the tri De Danand, the “three gods of Danand”, and we are told that all the Tuatha De Danann took their name from them, although no logical reason for this appears in the narrative, nor any sense of why the three alone are “gods”.3 A story already current at the time of the compilation of the Lebor Gabala made them the enemies of Lugh, because they had killed Lugh’s father when he was in the shape of a lap-dog.4 The magical tasks which Lugh imposed on them and the cruel death they suffered in spite of all their efforts were the subject of a literary tale from the later Middle Ages, Oidheadh Cloinne Tuireann (The Violent Death of the Sons of Tuireann), which was counted as one of the “three sorrowful tales of Ireland” (Tuirell [or Tuirenn] Biccreo was, according to the Lebor Gabala, another name of Delbaeth).5 Elsewhere in the Lebor Gabala the “three gods of Danand” are stated to be Triall, Brian and Cet, sons of Bres (presumably also by Danand), the half-Fomorian ruler who is the antagonist of Lugh in Cath Maige Tuired, the story of the great climactic battle between the Fomorians and the Tuatha De Danann; indeed, the compilers of the Lebor Gabala seem to have been uncertain as to which trio merited the name.6
Danand is described as having four daughters: Airgdean, Barrand, Be Chuille and Be Thedhe.7 Elsewhere they are presented as her sisters, and in that context all of them are said to be the daughters of Flidais.8 Be Chuille is particularly linked to Danand: they are mentioned in several places as di bantuathaig (“two female farmers [or landowners]”)9 among the Tuatha De Danann.10 These are surely the same pair as Be Culde and Dinand who are called upon by Lugh in Cath Maige Tuired to serve as bantuathaid (“witches”, practitioners of destructive magic) in the battle.11 Finally, to make matters even more confusing, one passage states that the Morrigu was the mother of the Three Gods, and that her other name was Danand — despite the fact that elsewhere in the same compilation the Morrigu and Danand are presented as sisters, both daughters of Earnmhas who was herself a bantuathach.12
What we undoubtedly have here is the work of loremasters dealing with a vast number of regional tales, many of them very similar to each other but involving differences in detail and in the names of their protagonists. In attempting to weave all of these elements into a consistent whole they were unable to avoid some confusion, giving incompatible genealogies to some characters and assigning the same narrative role to different characters in different passages. Thus the role of the “three gods” appears to shift between several triads of characters (the three sons of Delbaeth; the three sons of Bres; the three sons of Cermait) at various points in the text. Also, harmonising different stories from different sources required coming up with a single name for each functional character. Some of the names used (Lugh, Brigit, Nuadu) are corroborated by ancient Celtic sources and are certainly authentic survivals of pre-Christian Celtic theonyms. Others (In Dagda, Goibniu, probably Dian Cecht and Oengus), though not confirmed by the same kind of evidence, appear equally authentic on the basis of their structure. But some (e.g. Partholon, Cessair) are obviously complete inventions, and others appear to be adaptations of names found in Classical sources (as has been suggested in the case of Ogma, whose name appears to be borrowed from Lucian’s Gaulish god Ogmios). Thus the Lebor Gabala is no trustworthy guide to the names and relationships of the figures in pre-Christian Celtic mythology. What evidence it gives us of the earlier tradition is to be found in the overall patterns of the stories, and in the basic functions exercised by the more important characters.
In the case of “Danu”/Danand, one particular element should hold our attention: her relation to a specific feature of the Irish landscape, the Dha Chioch Anann, two hills in Luachair in West Munster whose shape suggests the breasts of a vast supine woman whose body is the Land itself. This was the site of one of Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s most famous boyhood deeds (his victory over the fairy woman of Sid Breg Ele) and was recognised as a place of importance in some of our earliest written sources. Many linguists have supposed that Anann is, like Danann, the genitive of an n-stem noun whose nominative form would be *Anu. In the Lebor Gabala, however, the di chich Anand are linked to a figure named Anand who is also a daughter of Earnmhas, and who in another passage is stated to be identical to both Danand and the Morrigu (dia forainm Danand o builed Da Chich Anann for Luachair, 7 o builed Tuatha De Danann – “from whose supplementary name ‘Danand’ the Two Breasts of Anann in Luachair are called, as well as the Tuatha De Danann”).13
(One should also make note here of a phrase used several times in the Lebor Gabala: Danand mathair na ndee (“Danand, the mother of the gods”).14 In context, it clearly refers to her as mother of the Three Gods only; but it would suggest something rather different to a later readership with different expectations.)
Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the Lebor Gabala remained the prime authoritative source on the origins of Ireland. All literate people were expected to be familiar with its basic plots and characters, and it gave rise to countless secondary tales and poems. In the seventeenth century, as the native lore was coming to be challenged by a new elite of foreign settlers, the great Irish scholar Geoffrey Keating (Seathrun Ceitinn) produced his encyclopaedic work Foras Feasa ar Eirinn (Foundation of Knowledge About Ireland), an updated and re-organised compilation of material from the Lebor Gabala and related sources that made the lore more accessible to the people of his time. Keating was a man of formidable erudition and had a deep understanding of the traditions he collected. It is thus significant that he stresses the link between Danann and the two hills in his native Munster. He explains the “divine” status of her three sons by their excellence i gceardaibh gintli (“in pagan crafts”), which led to their people worshipping them as gods and calling themselves “Tuatha De Danann” after them. And he adds: Is on Danann ba mhathair don triar seo ghairtear Dha Chioch Dhanann den da chnoc ata i Luachair Dheaidh i nDeasmhumhain (“And it is from the Danann who was the mother of these three that the two hills that are in Luachair Dheaidh in Desmond are called The Two Breasts of Danann”).15 His choice of spelling — Dhanann instead of Anann — has led many scholars to suppose that the second name was derived from the first. Since in modern Irish pronunciation the lenited d sounds like a voiced guttural spirant, coming after the other guttural spirant ch it would tend to be assimilated, and one might hear Dhanann as Anann. So this would seem to be a tidy solution to the problem of the two goddesses Anann/*Anu and Danann/*Danu: Anann is simply a corrupt form of Danann, and they were always the same figure.
Yet is this really the full answer? There are many reasons to think that it isn’t. For one thing, the name Danand was already associated with the two hills during the Middle Ages, when the lenited d had a quite different sound and was less likely to be dropped. Also, the name of the hills is already di chich Anand in the earliest sources, which suggests that Danand is the secondary rather than the primary form. Most importantly, the prominence of the cult of santez Anna (‘St. Anne’) in southern Brittany, often associated with pre-Christian religious sites, strongly suggests the widespread worship in the region of a Land-goddess with a name that sounded like “Ana”. The origin of the name is obscure, and may even be pre-Celtic. But another, similar-sounding name — Danann — was known to Irish scholars of the Middle Ages, who decided that it referred to a figure of identical function, and led to both being conflated with each other in the syncretistic history that became the Lebor Gabala. One can speculate that the name Danann was introduced by one of the later Celtic groups that had an influence on Ireland. Since, as we shall see, it has a Welsh cognate, a good guess is that it was a Belgic name; and its probable derivation from a root dan- meaning “low ground” or “moist earth” makes it plausible that it was the name of a Land-goddess.
At this point we may want to consider the provenance and original meaning of the term Tuatha De Danann. Whether or not it ever meant “peoples of the goddess Danu”, it isn’t likely to have originally been a theonym: there’s no precedent in Indo-European tradition for gods or groups of gods being referred to by a term of this kind. Indeed, it fits perfectly into the pattern so well-attested in the Lebor Gabala of using the names of historical ethnic groups to designate mythological peoples: Fir Bolg (Belgians), Fir Domnand (Dumnonians), Fir Gaileoin (Gauls), and so on. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the Tuatha De Danann were also an ethnic group known in Ireland’s distant past — perhaps the people who worshipped the goddess whose name we have been considering. This is not to suggest that the compilers of the Lebor Gabala were the first to apply that name (arbitrarily) to figures based on Celtic gods: the name is too deeply entrenched in Irish literary and folk tradition to have been invented in the Middle Ages. But it may have been in use for some centuries to mean “magical ancient people”, ascribing all strange, unexplainable structures in the landscape to a real people vaguely remembered from the distant past — much as rural French folklore today ascribes all ancient ruins indiscriminately to the “Romans” or “Saracens”. The makers of the ancient wonders would have been imagined with godlike traits, which would have made it all the easier to place the gods of the older religion among them, reducing them to mortals with magical powers (with the exception of Danand’s three sons, the Lebor Gabala never portrays them as actual gods). A tradition existed that they were demons and beings from the Otherworld, but the compilers of the Lebor Gabala preferred to think of them as ordinary humans with arcane knowledge.16 Their association with the sid-mounds and ancient burial sites made it possible to conceive of them as both supernatural creatures and human ancestors.
Let us now turn to Bile, *Danu/Danann’s supposed consort. A figure by that name does appear in the Lebor Gabala, but is not related in any way to Danand in the narrative. Bile is one of the ten [some recensions say six] sons of Bregon [or Breogan] who originally lived in Spain. One of them, Ith, first saw the land of Ireland when gazing out to sea from the top of a tower, and mounted an expedition to investigate it. Arriving just after the death of Net son of Indui at the hands of the Fomorians, he gave advice on the matter of that chieftain’s inheritance, and then was murdered by the Tuatha De Danann, who were jealous of his charisma and wisdom and suspicious of his motives. His body was brought back to Spain, whereupon the other sons of Bregon decided to go to Ireland themselves to avenge their brother and seize the island, taking with them their own sons and retainers. Bile’s son was Mil, after whom the “Milesian” invasion of Ireland was eventually named, since it was from Mil’s sons alone that the Gaels were said to be descended. Bile, therefore, can indeed be seen as a “first ancestor” figure, and was explicitly declared to be such in mediaeval Irish literary tradition, since the Lebor Gabala states several times: Bile 7 Milid, is dia cloind Gaidil uile (“Bile and Mil, it is from their progeny that all the Gaels come”) — obviously a well-known item of historical lore.17 It is not Bile, however, but his grandson Donn who takes on the role of “first ancestor to die in Ireland” and therefore the leader and host of all those who will die subsequently in that land — something like the “god of Hades and Celtic Dis Pater” suggested by Squire. Donn (whose name means “lord”) was the chief of the eight sons of Mil and commanded one of the ships in the invasion. A magical wind sent by the Tuatha De Danann wrecked his ship against a small island off the southwestern coast, drowning three of the sons of Mil (Donn himself; Airech the steersman; and the youngest, Eraind [or Erennan] the lookout on the mast, who fell into the sea), as well as their grandfather Bile.18 Although all of these characters could have qualified as “first dead in the land” and leaders of the later dead, and were perhaps recognised as such in parallel traditions,19 Donn gave his name to the islet where the wreck took place (Tech Duinn, “the House of Donn”), after which it became the focus of folk traditions about the Otherworld, with himself as Lord of the Dead.20 As for Bile, apart from his position of primacy and the manner of his death, he plays no active role in the narrative at all.
What grounds do we have, then, for linking Bile with *Danu/Danann? Squire mentioned “British analogies”. There is indeed in mediaeval Welsh literature a figure named Don whose name appears to be a cognate of Danann. She never appears as a character in the stories, but is known only as the mother of the Plant Don, a group of figures with traits suggestive of pre-Christian divinities, very similar to the Tuatha De Danann in concept and function and most probably cognate to them. Unlike the Tuatha De Danann, however, whose precise relation to *Danu/Danann is somewhat confused, the Plant Don are explicitly Don’s children. Although there are more than three Plant Don, three among them are set apart by the similarity of their names, which are descriptions of occupations with augmentative suffixes: Gwydion (“Great Wizard”), Gofannon (“Great Smith”) and Amaethon (“Great Farmer”). Not only does this at once suggest an Indo-European functional triad, but it also obviously presents an analogy with the tri De Danand who are Danand’s sons. The names in both traditions are sufficiently different to make certain that one wasn’t simply a borrowing from the other, but that both are descended from a common theme in the Celtic past, whatever role culture contacts may have played in the subsequent development of the stories. However, the main source in which the Plant Don appear (the Four Branches of the Mabinogi) makes no mention of Don’s husband, and the only male figure of her generation who plays a major role in relation to her is her brother Math, the magician-ruler of the Plant Don (in an arrangement many scholars have found to be reminiscent of a matrilineal social system). The only place where Don’s husband is fleetingly identified is the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Isle of Britain), a collection of lore in triadic form, found in several manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which was intended to serve as a memory aid for native Welsh storytellers, linking characters by common themes relating to their roles. Many of the stories would now be completely unknown to us if we didn’t have these brief, cryptic allusions to them in the triads. Triad 35 (Tri Chyuor a aeth o’r Enys hon, ac ny doeth dracheuyn yr un onadunt – “Three emigrations that went from this island, and not one of them ever came back”) mentions Arianrhod — the daughter of Don who is famous for being the mother of Lleu in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi — as Aryanrot merch Veli, “daughter of Beli”.21 This is evidently Beli Mawr son of Mynogan (or Manogan), who appears frequently in chronicles and genealogies relating to Celtic Britain. Like Bile, he plays no active role in any story, but is important chiefly as the “first ancestor” of virtually all the lineages of native British rulers, most of whom claimed kinship with one of his descendants, Coel Hen (“Old King Cole”) of Colchester. According to Genealogy 10 in the Harl. MS 3859, Beli’s grandson was Afallach, whose name is directly linked to Ynys Afallach, the Island-Paradise of Apples, cognate to Eamhain Abhlach of Irish tradition; and, most importantly, in the same source his wife is called Anna (quam dicunt esse consobrinam Mariae virginis – “who was said to be the cousin of the Virgin Mary”).22 We have already noted the confused relationship between Danand and Anand in the Irish texts, so it is significant to see a similar relationship suggested between the names Don and Anna. The linking of Beli to Don by way of Arianrhod appears very tenuous, of course, especially since the figure of Arianrhod in Triad 35 bears little resemblance to her character in the Mabinogi. Here she has a husband, Lliaws son of Nwyfre, and two sons, Gwenwynwyn and Gwanar, who join their uncle Caswallawn son of Beli (the same character who was depicted as ruling Britain in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi; he was modeled after the historical figure Cassiuellaunos) in an expedition to pursue Julius Caesar’s army after the latter’s attempted invasion of Britain. One could well be tempted to assume that this is a completely different character coincidentally bearing the same name as Lleu’s mother. Yet Arianrhod’s name is both unique and extremely well-known in Welsh tradition, so that if there really had been “two Arianrhods” in the literature of the Middle Ages some allusions to that fact surely would appear elsewhere in the extant poetry, contrasting the two and making it clear that one and not the other was meant. It is actually simpler to accept that there was a sequel to the Mabinogi, in which she married and had two other children besides Dylan and Lleu (the chronology of the stories indeed makes this possible). So the thread uniting Beli and Arianrhod and Don, though barely visible, still holds plausibly.
Although their roles and names appear strikingly similar, it is in fact difficult to find an etymological link between Bile and Beli. We will deal with the name Bile in the next paragraph; Beli, despite its close similarity to the former, doesn’t seem to be either a cognate or a borrowing — although the resemblance between the two names may have guided the development of the characters’ parallel roles in Irish and Welsh tradition. Since in Latin texts Beli sometimes appears as Belinus, it was once widely assumed to be related to the Gaulish theonym Belenos, but this no longer seems so likely. It is most probably derived from the stem bel- meaning “battle, tumult”, exemplified in words like the British theonym Bellatucadros (Beautiful in Battle) and perhaps early Welsh belu “to kill” (although there may also have been some influence from Breton beli “power, authority”).
The most plausible etymology of Bile (though even this isn’t certain, since the mediaeval copyists seemed unable to decide whether the i in the name was long or short) derives it from a word that means “tree”, especially in the sense of “sacred tree”. Throughout Irish tradition the term bile has been used to designate particularly large and ancient trees that served as focal points for ritual spaces or tribal territories. The lore of places frequently mentions the trees that marked the centres of the provincial divisions, with the centre of Ireland as a whole indicated by the biggest of them all, the Craeb Uisnig (Tree of Uisnech), an ash tree of such proportions that it was said to have covered twenty miles of ground when it finally collapsed. It was described as dor nime (“door of heaven”), suggesting that it was a means of gaining access to other worlds, a role often played by great and wonderful trees in Celtic stories, and which certainly points to the fundamental Indo- European motif of the world-tree or world-pillar which serves as the axis of the entire universe and whose immense height penetrates all the levels of existence and unites them all.23 The importance of this concept to the Celtic theory of sacred space is further reinforced by the architecture of the later temples of the “Belgic” type (like the particularly elaborate one discovered at Gournay-sur-Aronde), where great posts were strategically placed to indicate the centre and the four quarters, exactly like the famous bili of Irish sacred geography.24 The term bile is also known (as a rare and archaic term) in Scots Gaelic, while in Manx billey has become the ordinary word for “tree”. It has its origins in Old Celtic bilios, attested in Gaulish place- names like Biliomagos “Plain of the Sacred Tree” (modern-day Bilem).25 No cognate has survived in Welsh, but in Breton bilh can still mean the trunk of a very large tree that has been cut down.
These linguistic and theological features could indeed suggest that the figure of Bile, “first ancestor” of human lineages in time, is also “first point in space” out of which all subsequent spatial dimensions grow. That the name of the character did have such symbolic associations cannot be ruled out by any means, but there are simpler reasons why a human could be compared to a bile. In literary Irish — and especially in the praise-poetry the fili addressed to their aristocratic patrons — the term bile is often applied to the scions of noble families, with the sense of “eminent warrior”.26 Sometimes a poet might make a playful allusion to the “tree” meaning (as when, for example, we read in the Metrical Dinnshenchas: mac Gollain cen imduibe/ba bili ban Bregmaige – “the son of Gollan without darkness of dishonour was the white bile of the plain of Brega”),27 but the basic characteristics invoked were visible glory and solid, immovable strength. These are, in fact, the main qualities suggested by bile when it refers to a tree. The word is ultimately derived from an Indo-European root *bhel- applied to things that are bulky and swollen, or in the process of swelling and growing (it is, in particular, the root from which the word “phallus” developed). The idea, then, is great size and solidity with a specifically masculine, virile flavour. In relation to the trees, it originally expressed their size rather than their sacredness, although the longevity of a giant tree, remaining as an unchanging landmark for centuries in the shifting landscape, would have naturally made it the focus of religious awe. But given the generalised meaning and diversified usage of the term, and even while noting the fascinating correlation between trees, maleness, and the centre of ritual space, it becomes less compelling to link the literary character Bile directly to the concept of the World Tree.
Where does this leave our original pair of “primordial parents”? The evidence linking the two figures to each other in a literary context is, as we have seen, almost nonexistent. Bile/Beli is indeed associated with a “first ancestor” motif (and in both Irish and Welsh traditions he has a grandson who rules an Otherworld place for the dead), and his name (at least in its Irish form) does contain a possible reference to sacred trees, but this seems to be little more than an instance of a widespread Celtic metaphor (albeit a powerful one) in which male strength and dependability are compared to the solidness of a giant tree. As for *Danu, although it remains possible that this was the original nominative form of the name, in all extant sources the nominative in fact appears as Danand (modern Danann).28 The scant literary evidence concerning her places her within the now-familiar Celtic pattern of a Land-goddess linked to three male divinities who represent either a functional triad, the three vertical divisions of the universe, or something less clearly defined. In the mediaeval texts these goddess-figures are never shown as primordial mothers, but always as daughters of some pre-existing character. Danand is specifically identified as a bantuathach (“female farmer or landowner” — one can assume that the term bantuathaid “sorceress, witch” used in Cath Maige Tuired came from a misunderstanding of the original word), which links her to the world of third-function activities, and may indicate the context of her worship in pre-Christian times. Squire’s comparison of her to Demeter is particularly apt, since the Greek goddess was, despite the more exclusive Eleusinian mystery cult that grew up around her, first and foremost tied to the processes of the agricultural cycle, and relevant to the lives of farmers (as she still is in her guise of St. Demetra); and although her name meant “Mother Earth” (suggesting that she once had a more primordial role), the official theogony didn’t portray her as the progenitor of the other gods, but made her a child of Rhea and Kronos. The association of Danann with a probably much older figure named ‘Anann’ or ‘Anna’ also suggests that she may have been superimposed on a goddess with more primeval “Mother Earth” traits.
“Moist earth” and “pillar of strength”: although one can no longer point to them as characters in an explicit mythology of origins, they are still powerful archetypes of the primordial qualities of the divine female and the divine male, as expressed by the Celtic imagination. As symbols, they remain basic to the vocabulary of Celtic myth, and exploring the intricate patterns into which they have been woven throughout the literature and lore of the Celtic languages will continue to be a fruitful and enriching endeavour.
1. Squire:1979, 50-1.
2. DIL:1983, 182.
3. LGE:1941, 128, 156, 160, 192.
4. LGE:1941, 134-6.
6. LGE:1941, 162, 198.
7. LGE:1941, 182.
8. LGE:1941, 132, 158.
9. Tuathach can also mean “lord, chief representative of a tribe”, which complicates the picture. However, since the term bantuathach is unique to this text (and to texts derived from it), I have chosen to retain R.A.S. MacAlister’s interpretation.
10. LGE:1941, 150, 182.
11. CMT:1982, 52-4.
12. LGE:1941, 122.
13. LGE:1941, 188.
14. LGE:1941, 182, 216.
15. FFE:1982, 86.
16. LGE:1941, 134, 165.
17. LGE:1956, 44, 90.
18. LGE:1956, 38, 54-6, 70, 80.
19. Ir, another son of Mil, was drowned at Sgeilig, which also became an important sacred site associated with death and the Otherworld.
20. Davidson:1988, 176.
21. TYP:1979, 75-82, 277-8.
22. TYP:1979, 281-3.
23. Davidson:1988, 178-81.
24. Brunaux:1986, 20.
25. Ross:1967, 34.
26. DIL:1983, 73.
27. LL:1965, 867.
28. In some later texts, Danann is given a new genitive form Danainne, treating it as a feminine noun of the second declension (cf. DIL:1983, 182).
Book of Leinster (vol. 4), ed. by Anne O’Sullivan. Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1965. [LL]
BRUNAUX, Jean-Louis. Les Gaulois: Sanctuaires et rites. Editions Errance, Paris, 1986.
Cath Maige Tuired, ed. by E.A. Gray. Irish Texts Society Vol. LII. Dublin, 1982. [CMT]
CEITINN, Seathrun (Geoffrey Keating) (ed. by Padraig de Barra). Foras Feasa ar Eirinn, vol. 1. FNT, Dublin, 1982. [FFE]
DAVIDSON, H.R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1988.
Dictionary of the Irish Language, (E.G. Quin, general editor). Royal Irish Academy, Dublin,1983. [DIL]
Lebor Gabala Erenn, parts IV and V, ed. by R.A.S. MacAlister. Irish Texts Society Vols. XLI and XLIV. Dublin, 1941, 1956. [LGE]
ROSS, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1967.
SQUIRE, Charles. Celtic Myth and Legend, Poetry and Romance (original title: The Mythology of the British Islands). Bell Publishing Company, New York, 1979 .
Trioedd Ynys Prydein, ed. by Rachel Bromwich. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1978 . [TYP]
Brighid, Bright Goddess of the Gael
by Branfionn NicGrioghair
WHO IS BRIGHID?
Brighid is the Daughter of the Dagda, one of the more universal deities of the pagan Gaelic world. She is known as the Goddess of Healers, Poets, Smiths, Childbirth and Inspiration; Goddess of Fire and Hearth and a patron of warfare or Briga. Her soldiers were called Brigands. Her name means “Exalted One.” She is also known as Brigantia, Brid, Bride, Briginda, Brigdu, and Brigit. She is said to lean over every cradle. The lore and customs have continued to this day regarding Brighid, more vividly than all the other Gaelic deities combined.
In the middle ages, Brighid is in many stories. In one she is the wife of Bres, the half-Fomorian ruler of the Children of Danu. Their son, Ruadan, wounded the smith god Giobhniu at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh but he himself was slain in the combat. Brigid then went to the battlefield to mourn her son. This was said to be the first caoine (keening), or lament, heard in Ireland. Until recent time, it was a tradition to hire women to caoine at every graveside. In another story, Brighid was the wife of Tuireann and had three sons: Brian, Iuchar and Ircharba. In the tale, The Sons of Tuirean, these three killed the god Cian, father of Lugh Lamhfhada when he was in the form of a pig.(2)
She was transformed by the Church of St. Brigid into St. Brigid about 453 C.E. Saint Brighid is known as the patroness of farm work and cattle, and protector of the household from fire and calamity. To this day, one of her most common names in Gaelic is Muime Chriosd, “Foster-Mother of Christ.” St. Brighid was said to be the daughter of Dubthach, a Druid who brought her from Ireland to be raised on the Isle of Iona, sometimes called “The Druid’s Isle.”
“A fascinating link to the traditions of the saint Brigid is the fact that a woman called Darlughdacha appears in St. Brigid’s community in Kildare as her close companion, sharing Brigid’s bed. Darlughdacha, who became abbess of Kildare on Brigid’s death, means ‘daughter of Lugh’ and the ‘saints’ lists’ also give her feastday as 1st February…Mary Condren thinks that Darlughdacha might even be the original name for the goddess Brighid, presumably as Brigid (Exalted One) is a title rather than a name.” (2)
It is said that by repeating the genealogy of Brighid, you will always be protected.
“This is the geneology of the holy maiden Bride,
Radiant flame of gold, noble foster mother of Christ,
Bride, daughter of Dugall the Brown*,
Son of Aodh, son of Art, son of Conn,
Son of Crearer, Son of Cis, son of Carmac, son of Carruin,
Every day and every night
That I say the genealogy of Bride,
I shall not be killed, I shall not be harried,
I shall not be put in a cell, I shall not be wounded,
Neither shall Christ leave me in forgetfulness.
No fire, no sun, no moon shall burn me,
No lake, no water, nor sea shall drown me,
No arrow of fairy nor dart of fay shall wound me
And I under the protection of my Holy Mary
And my gentle foster-mother is my beloved Bride.” (1)
One of the most ancient rituals known is reflected in this piece. It is known as the Three-fold Death by burning, drowning and stabbing. This was usually the form of death of the Sacred King, after which time, he became one with his Land.
“Brighid is known in the Hebrides as the foster mother of Christ, and this clearly shows the mixing of Christian and pagan influence that is so common here. As foster mother she is of course exceptionally honoured, since in Celtic society the foster parents had special place, they ranked higher than the natural parents, the relationship being considered extremely sacred.” (3)
“St. Brighid (in Gaelic pronounced sometimes Bride, sometimes Breed), St. Bride of the Isles as she is lovingly called in the Hebrides, has no name so dear to the Gael as “Muime-Chriosd”, Christ’s Foster-Mother, a name bestowed on her by one of the most beautiful of Celtic legends. In the isles of Gaelic Scotland, her most familiar name is Brighid nam Bhatta, St Briget or St. Bride of the Mantle – from her having wrapt the new-born Babe in her Mantle in Mary’s hour of weakness. She did not come into the Gaelic heart with the Cross and Mary, but was there long before as Bride, Brighid or Brighid of the Dedannans, those not immortal but for long ages deathless folk who to the Gael were as the Olympians to the Greeks. That earlier Brighid was goddess of poetry and music, one of the three great divinities of love, goddess of women, the keeper of prophecies and dreams, the watcher of the greater destinies, the guardian of the future. I think she was no other than the Celtic Demeter – that Demeter- Desphoena born of the embrace of Poseidon, who in turn is no other than Lir, the Oceanus of the Gael, and instead of Demeter seeking and lamenting Persephone in the underworld, it is Demeter- Brighid seeking her brother (or, it may be, her son) Manan (Manannan), God of the Sea, son of Oceanus, Lir…Persephone and Manan are symbols of the same Return to Life.” (9)
“O’Hogain makes connections between the saint, the goddess, the sun, poetry, cows, Vedic tradition and the Goddess Boann (eponym of the River Boyne), who may have been the mother of Brigit, and whose name seems to come from bo/-fhionn (white cow, she of white cattle,) cognate with Sanskrit Govinda.” (5)
“The epithet buadach, ‘victorious’…is one commonly applied to Brigit…A national saint in her own right, Brigit has been somewhat overshadowed by Patrick, but the variants of her name current for Irish girls are in themselves evidence of her enduring importance: compare the forms Brigid, Breege, Breda, Breed, Bride, Bridie, beside the diminutive in -een. Behind the Christian saint of the hagiographers and the accounts of wonders ucriously performed, and behind the oral and literary traditions, one can spy the figure of a pre-Christian goddess. Brigit is represented in the early poetry as Mother of Christ and equal in rank to Mary, and as ‘The Mary of the Gael”. Hence the tradition of Brigit goes deeper as well as further back than that of the Briton, Patrick.” (4) And from the same book on page 50, this poem:
Buaid na fine,
Siur Rig nime,
Nar in duine,
Riar na n-oiged,
Glory of kindred,
She has reached holy Heaven,
Support of strangers,
Spark of wisdom,
Daughter of Dubthach,
The living one of life.
(*dangerous to swear – for perjurers.)” (4)
To this day there is the unusual blending of Brighid the ancient Goddess with the Saint and how typically Gaelic this is; this mixture of Christian and Old Celtic and pagan lore, exemplified in poetry like this:
Is tu gleus na Mnatha Sithe,
Is tu beus na Bride bithe,
Is tu creud na Moire mine,
Is tu gniomh na mnatha Greuig,
Is tu sgeimh na h’Eimir aluinn,
Is tu mein na Dearshul agha,
Is tu meann na Meabha laidir,
Is tu taladh Binne-bheul.
Thine is the skill of the Fairy Woman,
And the virtue of St. Brigit,
And the faith of Mary the Mild,
And the gracious ways of the Greek woman,
And the beauty of lovely Emir,
And the tenderness of heartsweet Deirdre,
And the courage of Maev the great Queen*,
And the charm of Mouth O’ Music**.”
*Literally, “the strong”
**Literally “honey-mouthed” (9)
“…And I was putting another word to it, for her, fair Foster-Mother of Christ, when she looked at me and said, “I am older than Brighid of the Mantle…I put songs and music on the wind before ever the bells of the chapels were rung in the West or heard in the East. I am Brighid-nam-Bratta, but I am also Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, and Brighid-sluagh, Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brighid-Binne-Bheule-lhuchd -nan-trusganan-uaine, and I am older than Aone and am as old as Luan. And in Tir-na-h’oige my name is Suibhal-bheann; in Tir-fo-thuinn it is Cu-gorm; and in Tir-na-h’oise it is Sireadh-thall. And I have been a breath in your heart. And the day has its feet to it that will see me coming into the hearts of men and women like a flame upon dry grass, like a flame of wind in a great wood…”
“The other names are old Gaelic names: Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, Brighid Conception of the Waves; Brighid-Sluagh (or Sloigh), Brighid of the Immortal host; Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brighid of the Slim Fairy Folk; Brighid-Binne-Bheule-lhuchd-nan-trusganan-uaine, Song-sweet (literally: melodious mouth’d) Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles. She is also called Brighid of the Harp, Brighid of the Sorrowful, Brighid of Prophecy, Brighid of Pure Love, St. Bride of the Isles, Bride of Joy and other names. Aona is an occasional and ancient form of Di-Aoin, Friday and Luan of Diluain, Monday.”
“Tir-na-h’oige (commonly anglicised as Tirnanogue) in the Land of (Eternal) Youth; Tir-fo-thuinn is the Country of the Waves and Tir-na-h’oise is the Country of Ancient Years. The fairy names Suibhal-bheann, Cu-gorm; and Sireadh-thall respectively mean Mountain-traveller, Grey Hound and Seek-Beyond….”
“…that older Brighid of the West, Mother of Songs and Music – she who breathes in the reed, on the wind, in the hearts of women and in the minds of poets…Banmorair-na-mara, the Lady of the Sea…a woman of the divine folk, who was called the Lady of the Sea, and was a daughter of Lir, and went lamenting upon the earth because she had lost her brother Manan the Beautiful, but came upon him at last…and wooed him with songs and flowers and brought him back again, so that the world of men rejoiced, and ships sailed the seas in safety and nets were filled with the fruit of the wave…that passing world of songs and beauty, of poets’ dreams and of broken hearts, that even now…is loved again by Brighid the White…”
“(And with you for guidance be)
The fairy swan of Bride of flocks,
The fairy duck of Mary of peace.” (9)
BRIGHID AND THE SACRED FIRE
In her earliest incarnation, as Breo-Saighit, she was called the Flame of Ireland, Fiery Arrow. She was a Goddess of the forge as well, reflecting on her fire aspect. Legend says that when She was born, a tower of flame reaching from the top of her head to the heavens. Her birth, which took place at sunrise, is rumored to have given the family house the appearance of being on fire.
For many centuries, there were 19 virgins (originally priestesses and later nuns) who tended Her eternal flame at Kildare. There they are said to have sung this song (until the 18th century):
“Bride, excellent woman,
may the fiery, bright sun
take us to the lasting kingdom.”
These women were the virgin daughters of the Fire and were called Inghean au dagha; but, as fire-keepers, were Breochwidh. The Brudins, a place of magical cauldron and perpetual fires, disappeared when Christianity took hold. “Being in the Brudins” now means in the fairies. Brigid’s shrine at Kildare was active into the 18th century. It was closed down by the monarchy. Originally cared for by nineteen virgins, when the Pagan Brighid was Sainted, the care of her shrine fell to Catholic nuns. The fire was extinguished once in the thirteenth century and was relit until Henry VIII of England set about supressing the monastaries. (8) Sister Mary Minchin, a Brigedian nun at Kildaire relit the flame on Febuary 2, 1996 and the intention is to keep it burning perpetually once again.
In an ancient Irish text Giraldus Cambrensis, she and nineteen of her nuns took turns in guarding a sacred fire which burned perpetually and was surrounded by a hedge within which no male might enter. In this, Brighid is like the Gaulish ‘Minerva’.” In Minerva’s sanctuary in Britain there was also a perpetual flame. According to the Irish Text “The Book of Dunn Cow,” Brighid’s sacred number was nineteen, representing the nineteen year cycle of the Celtic Great Year, the time it took from one new moon to the next to coincide with the Winter Solstice. It was believed though, that on the twentieth day of each cycle Brighid herself would tend the flame.
Of this fire, it was said, during the time of the Norman conquest, that although it was fed the sacred wood of the hawthorn over a long period of time, “yet the ashes have never increased.” The area was said to be twenty feet square with a roof. The sacred fire was sometimes called a “need-fire.” Alexander Carmichael, the author of Carmina Gadelica, states that “teine eiginn was last made in Uist about 1829, in Arran about 1820, in Helmsdale about 1818, and in Reay about 1830.” (1)
PATRONESS OF THE HEARTH
The household fire is sacred to Brighid. The fire should be kept going, and each evening the woman of the household would smoor the fire, (cover it over to keep the fire overnight), asking for the protection of Brighid on all its occupants. The following is from volume 3 of the Carmina Gadelica:
Smuraidh mi an tula
Mar a smuradh Brighde Muime.
Ainm naomh na Muime
Bhith mu’n tula, bhith mu’n tan,
Bhith mu’n ardraich uile.
I will smoor the hearth
As Brighid the Fostermother would smoor
The Fostermother’s holy name
Be on the hearth, be on the herd
Be on the household all. (1)
PATRONESS OF THE SMITHS
As patroness of Smiths, there is the mention of a forge in a Old Irish poem in praise of Brighid. The poem contrasts Brighid’s lasting strength to the passing glory of the Fortress of Alenn, where once were witnessed:
Gles a hindeon cotad cuar,
cluas a duan do thengthaib bard,
bruth a fer fri comlann nglan,
cruth a ban fri oenach n-ard.
The ringing of its busy bent anvils,
the sound of songs from poets’ tongues
the heat of its men at clean contest,
the beauty of its women at high assembly.
Beannachtaн ar an gCearta — Blessings on the Forge! (5)
BRIGHID AND THE SACRED WELLS
In a Druidic ritual, Brighid is honored with a central well containing candles. It was common in olden times to dress the well with flowers and greenery. Often coins and other silver objects were offered to the well. Many of Brighid’s Holy Wells still exist, some sacred to Her for thousands of years. Her waters were said to heal all manner of disease. (5)
“I live in the Hebrides, in one of the many parishes of Kilbride that you find all over the islands. I’ve also visited several of her sacred wells in Ireland, where you find all sorts of votive offerings laid out (and no-one ever touches them). The best site was a kind of grotto, at Kilfenora in Co. Clare – it’s a very important shrine to Saint Bride, and it is looked after by nuns. The feeling there was wonderful.” Lorraine Macdonald. (3)
BRIGHID AND THE SACRED EARTH
On Imbolc, in Ireland, they make Bride’s Cross. Brigit’s cross is usually three-legged; in other words, a triskele, which has been identified as an ancient solar symbol. It is sometimes also made as an even-armed cross woven of reeds. Rites for Bride have been preserved to this day by the women of the Outer Hebrides. At La Fheill Brighid, the women gather and make an image of the Goddess as Maiden. They dress her in white and place a crystal over her heart and place her in a cradle-like basket. Bride is then invited into the house by the female head of the household with sacred song and with chanting. (6)
There is also the tradition of leaving a loaf of bread, pitcher of milk and a candle out for Brighid. the villagers of Avebury in Wiltshire climb the earthen mound called Silbury Hill to eat fig cakes and sugar and water. They also climb Cley Hill to play a game within the earthwork at the summit. (6)
The references in the Carmina Gadelica to the serpent coming out of the mound on Latha Fheill Bride from these older associations; that she may be a Fomorian Earth goddess. (3)
In support of this, there is an ancient rhyme which is still said in the Western Highlands:
“Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole.
I will not molest the serpent
Nor will the serpent molest me. (7)
1. Carmina Gadelica, by Alexander Carmichael
2. Celtic Women by Peter Berresford Ellis ISBN 0-8028-3808-1
3. Dal Riada Celtic Heritage Trust, Registered Scottish Charity, Isle of Arran, Lorraine Macdonald.
4. Danta Ban: Poems of Irish Women Early and Modern – A Collection
5. Email from “Donncha, Dennis King.
6. Fire Worship in Britain by T. F. G. Dexter
7 The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands by Anne Ross, ISBN 0-87471-836-8
8. Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions by James Bonwick
9. Winged Destiny by Fiona MacLeod
Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord
by Alexei Kondratiev
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 Lъgh 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/Lъgh 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 Tиne 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 Tиne 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 dъn “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 Lъgh 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-Dфme in the Auvergne, the Mont de Sиne in the land of the Жdui — 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-Dфme: 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 Dumйzilian 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. Caitlнn 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, Lъgh is fostered to Manannбn 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 Tиne 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 Lъghnasadh, the feast presided over by Lъgh 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 Lъgh’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-Lьbke 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 Chamaliиres 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 Lъgh 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 Lъghnasadh (Lъnasa in Modern Irish), the opening of the Harvest and explicitly under the patronage of Lъgh, are essential to understanding the pre-Christian elements remaining in the literary sources.
The literary stories about Lъgh are situated within the narrative framework provided by the Lebor Gabбla Йrenn (“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 Dй Danann and the Fomуirн (modern Fomhуraigh) 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 Dй 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 Fomуirн (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 Jцtnar) 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 Dй 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 Cйcht (the physician of the Tuatha Dй Danann) begets Lъg 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 Lъg 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 Uн Clйirigh 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 Gabбla. 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 Lъghnasadh, about which we will have more to say. In this version of the story, which deals specifically with the climactic battle between the Tuatha Dй Danann and the Fomуirн, we learn more about Bres mac Elathan and the way in which he is contrasted with Lъgh.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 Dй Danann, driving them to revolt — which becomes possible when Nuadu’s arm is healed, restoring his ability to wield sovereignty. When Lъgh (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 Dй Danann’s plans; and he is told that none may enter Tara who does not possess a distinctive craft (since the Tuatha Dй Danann are an idealization of society, each one of them being the patron of a specific occupation). Lъgh’s distinctiveness, however, is that he is master of all crafts: he is the Samildбnach, 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 Lъgh destroys the eye with a slingstone, leading to a rout of the Fomуirн. 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 Lъgh’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 Brн Lйith, 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 Lъgh, 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 Lъgh may absorb all of his grandfather’s magical gifts. Lъgh 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 Lъgh’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 У Dбlaigh (in which Lъgh 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 Scбil (“The Trance of the Phantom”), Conn of the Hundred Battles, one of the exemplary kings of pre-Christian Ireland, has a vision in which Lъgh, enthroned on a dais, directs a beautiful woman who is Flaith Йrenn (“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 Lъgh as “Mercurius Rex” and the woman as Rosmerta, and demonstrates that the concept of Lъgh as the archetypal power behind rulership survived long after Christianization.
Evidently Lъgh’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 Lъgh 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 Manannбn mac Lir, the ruler of the Otherworld Feast in the Land of Apples, and that he had inherited the use of Manannбn’s sword Freagartach (“The Answerer”). His usual personal weapon, however, was the Spear of Goirias, echoing the spear of Celtic “Mercury”. He also inherited Manannбn’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 Lъgh’s natural father, Cian (here called ‘Ethlenn’ through confusion with Lъgh’s mother, the author having assumed that “Lъg 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 Lъgh’s two wives, Buн and Nбs (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 Lъgh, 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. Lъgh appears here as a vivid and engaging personality, both hero and trickster. Where the Lebor Gabбla 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 Dй 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 Biorуg, 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 Lъgh’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 Lъgh 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 ‘Lъgh’ with lъ “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 Kвmadhenu 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. Lъgh 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 Lъghnasadh, Lъgh’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 Dфn (“the Children of Dфn”, Welsh cognates of the Tuatha Dй 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 Dфn, 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 Lъgh, he is born to a woman who “should not have had a child”; and Dylan clearly corresponds to Lъgh’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 ‘Lъgh Lбmhfhada’ “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 Dumйzilian 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 Manannбn mac Lir, Lъgh’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 Lъgh, 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 Lъghnasadh 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 Lъghnasadh.
We come now at last to the ritual practices surrounding Lъghnasadh 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 Lъghnasadh (or however else the feast of the Harvest may be called) is centred on the high places of individual territories: the Mercurii montes of ancient times.32 Most auspicious as Lъghnasadh 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, Lъghnasadh 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 Lъgh (the 9th-century Sanas Cormaic explains ‘Lъghnasadh’ as “the assembly of Lъgh”),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 Lъgh 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 Lъgh was a solar god. Moreover, a comparison between Lъgh’s title Lбmhfhada (“long-armed”) and the title Prithupвni (“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 Lъgh show no trace of this. Lъghnasadh 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 Lъgh is needed to tame its power. Lъgh is called Lonnbeimnech (“fierce striker”) as well as Lбmhfhada.38 Celtic “Mercury” is sometimes shown not only with his spear but with the easily recognizable Indo-European thunder-hammer.39 In Mayo the Lъghnasadh thunderstorms where seen as the battle between Lъgh and Balor: ‘Tб gaoth Logha Lбmhfhada ag eiteall anocht san aer. ‘Seadh, agus drithleogaн a athar. Balor Bйimeann an t-athair” (“The wind of Lъgh Long-arm is flying in the air tonight. Yes, and the sparks of his father [sic]. Balor Bйimeann 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 Lъgh and Savitr, they are clearly not equivalents of each other.
Central to the Lъghnasadh 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 Lъgh — or of a local saint or hero who had taken on Lъgh’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). Lъgh’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 Lъghnasadh 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 Lъgh’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 Lъghnasadh 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 Lъgh’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 Rмgh Cathair Shмomain (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 Dй Danann and the Fomhуraigh, the Tribe and the Land, over the ownership of the Harvest. Both the wren and the raven have ties to Lъgh, 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 Lъgh that is too often eclipsed by his heroic appearance in so many of the Irish literary tales: that he is lъ, “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 Gabбla, interestingly, makes Lъgh the inventor of chess (fidchill) and ball-games (lнathroit)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 “dй delbas do chind codnu” (“the god that sets the head on fire”). He could also father heroes on the earthly plane — such as Cъ 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.
2.De Vries:1963, 59.
6.De Vries:1963, 50; Enright:1996, 251-2.
7.De Vries:1963, 52; Green:1992, 150.
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.
20.cf. also Oosten:1985, 116-33.
22.Knott:1981, 54-8, 101.
23.Rees:1961, 312-3; Green:1995, 73.
24.Mac Nйill:1962, 8.
26.O’Rahilly:1946, 38n., 310-1; Ross:1967, 341-2. Ross mistakenly assumes that ‘Ethlenn’ refers to Lъgh’s mother.
27.This is a synthesized compilation of the accounts given by Larminie:1893, 1-9, 241-5; Curtin:1894, 283-311; У Searcaigh:1908, 3-7; Laoide:1913, 63-5; and some versions heard by myself.
32.Mac Nйill:1962, 71-242.
33.Mac Nйill:1962, 3.
34.Mac Nйill: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 Nйill:1962, 421.
38.De Vries:1963, 61.
39.De Vries:1963, 52.
40.Mac Nйill:1962, 408.
41.Mac Nйill:1962, 422-3.
42.Mac Nйill:1962, 426.
43.Mac Nйill:1962, 383-5.
44.Campbell:1983 , I, 25-63.
47.Mac Nйill:1962, 417.
Campbell, J. F. Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Wildwood House, Hounslow, 1983. [Edinburgh, 1860]
Cath Maige Tuired, ed. by E. A. Gray. Irish Texts Society Vol. LII. Dublin, 1982. (CMT)
Cath Muighe Tuireadh, ed. by Brian У Cuнv. Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1945. (CMT)
Curtin, Jeremiah. Hero-Tales of Ireland. London, 1894.
Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys, ed. by Brynley F. Roberts. Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1975. (CLL)
De Vries, J. (trans. by L. Jospin) La Religion des Celtes. Payot, Paris, 1963. [Stuttgart, 1960]
Duval, Paul-Marie. Les Dieux de la Gaule. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1954.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Constable, London, 1994.
Enright, Michael J., Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband From La Tиne to the Viking Age. Four Courts Press, Dublin & Portland, 1996.
Fishwick, D. The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire. Vol. I 1 & 2. E.J. Brill, Leiden, New York, Copenhagen & Cologne, 1987.
Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. Alan Sutton, Gloucester, 1986.
Green, Miranda. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. Thames and Hudson, London & New York, 1992.
Green, Miranda. Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers. George Braziller, New York, 1996.
Knott, Eleanor. Irish Syllabic Poetry 1200-1600. Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1981.
Kruta, Venceslas (trans. by Alan Sheridan). The Celts of the West. Orbis, London, 1985.
Larminie, West Irish Folk-tales and Romances. London, 1893.
Laoide, Seosamh. Cruach Chonaill. Dublin, 1913.
Mac Nйill, Mбire. The Festival of Lughnasa. Oxford, 1962.
Matthews, Caitlнn. Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain: An Exploration of the Mabinogion. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London & New York, 1987.
У hУgбin, Dбithн. Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopѕdia of the Irish Folk Tradition. Prentice Hall, New York & London, 1991.
Oosten, Jarich G. The War of the Gods: The Social Code in Indo-European Mythology. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Boston, Melbourne & Henley, 1985.
O’Rahilly, T. F. Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1946.
У Searcaigh, Sйamus. Cloich Cheann-Fhaolaidh. Derry, 1908.
Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, ed. by Ifor Williams. U. of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1930. (PKM)
Rees, Alwyn & Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. Grove Press, New York, 1961.
Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1967.
Savignac, Jean-Paul. Les Gaulois, leurs йcrits retrouvйs. Editions de la Diffйrence, Paris, 1994.
Sjoestedt, M. L. (trans. by Myles Dillon). Gods and Heroes of the Celts. Turtle Island, Berkeley, 1982. 
Tranoy, A. La Galice Romaine. Publications du Centre Pierre, Paris, 1981.
by Danielle Ni Dhighe
The Morrigan is a goddess of battle, strife, and fertility. Her name translates as ‘Phantom Queen,’ which is entirely appropriate for Her. The Morrigan appears as both a single goddess and a trio of goddesses, which includes the Badb ‘Vulture’ and Nemain ‘Frenzy’. The Morrнgan frequently appears in the ornithological guise of a hooded crow. She is one of the Tuatha De Danann (People of the Goddess Danu) and She helped defeat the Firbolgs at the First Battle of Magh Tuireadh and the Fomorii at the Second Battle of Mag Tured.
By some accounts, She is the consort of the Dagda, while the Badb and Nemain are sometimes listed as consorts of Neit, an obscure war god who is possibly Nuada the Sky Father in His warrior aspect. It is interesting to note that another battle goddess, Macha, is also associated with Nuada.
The origins of the Morrнgan seem to reach directly back to the megalithic cult of the Mothers. The Mothers (Matrones, Idises, Disir, etc.) usually appeared as triple goddesses and their cult was expressed through both battle ecstasy and regenerative ecstasy. Later Celtic goddesses of sovereignty, such as the trio of Eire, Banba, and Fotla, also use magic in warfare. “Influence in the sphere of warfare, but by means of magic and incantation rather than through physical strength, is common to these beings.” (Ross 205)
Eire, a goddess connected to the land in a fashion reminiscent of the Mothers, could appear as a beautiful woman or as a crow, as could the Morrнgan. The Disir appeared in similar guises. In addition to being battle goddesses, they are significantly associated with fate as well as birth in many cases, along with appearing before a death or to escort the deceased. It is interesting to note that some sources present Eire and the Morrнgan as half-sisters.
There is certainly evidence that the concept of a raven goddess of battle wasn’t limited to the Irish Celts. An inscription found in France invoking Cathubodva, ‘Battle Raven’, shows that a similar concept was known among the Gaulish Celts.
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE MORRIGAN AND THE VALKYRIES
The Morrнgan’s role in the Irish cosmology is quite similar to the role played by the Valkyries in Norse cosmology. Both use magic to cast fetters on warriors and choose who will die.
During the Second Battle, the Morrнgan “said she would go and destroy Indech son of De Domnann and ‘deprive him of the blood of his heart and the kidneys of his valor’, and she gave two handfuls of that blood to the hosts. When Indech later appeared in the battle, he was already doomed.” (Rees 36)
Compare this to the Washer at the Ford, another guise of the Morrнgan. The Washer is usually to be found washing the clothes of men about to die in battle. In effect, She is choosing who will die.
An early German spell found in Merseburg mentions the Indisi, who decided the fortunes of war and the fates of warriors. The Scandinavian Song of the Spear, quoted in Njals Saga, gives a detailed description of Valkyries as women weaving on a grisly loom, with severed heads for weights, arrows for shuttles, and entrails for the warp. As they worked, they exulted at the loss of life that would take place. “All is sinister now to see, a cloud of blood moves over the sky, the air is red with the blood of men, and the battle women chant their song.” (Davidson 94)
An Old English poem, Exodus, refers to ravens as choosers of the slain. There are links between ravens, choosing of the slain, casting fetters, and female beings in many sources.
“As the Norse and English sources show them to us, the walkurjas are figures of awe and even terror, who delight in the deaths of men. As battlefield scavengers, they are very close to the ravens, who are described as waelceasega, ‘picking over the dead’…” (Our Troth)
“The function of the goddess [the Morrнgan] here, it may be noted, is not to attack the hero [Cuchulainn] with weapons but to render him helpless at a crucial point in the battle, like the valkyries who cast ‘fetters’ upon warriors…thus both in Irish and Scandinavian literature we have a conception of female beings associated with battle, both fierce and erotic.” (Davidson 97, 100)
THE MORRIGAN AND CUCHULAINN
She appeared to the hero Cuchulainn (son of the god Lugh) and offered Her love to him. When he failed to recognize Her and rejected Her, She told him that She would hinder him when he was in battle. When Cuchulainn was eventually killed, She settled on his shoulder in the form of a crow. Cu’s misfortune was that he never recognized the feminine power of sovereignty that She offered to him.
She appeared to him on at least four occasions and each time he failed to recognize Her.
1. When She appeared to him and declared Her love for him.
2. After he had wounded Her, She appeared to him as an old hag and he offered his blessings to Her, which caused Her to be healed.
3. On his way to his final battle, he saw the Washer at the Ford, who declared that She was “washing the clothes and arms of Cuchulainn, who would soon be dead.”
4. When he was forced by three hags (which represent the Morrнgan in Her triple aspect) to break a taboo of eating dogflesh.
THE ROLE OF THE MORRIGAN
For modern Celtic Pagans, the role of the Morrнgan in our religion is different than what it was for our ancestors. Most of us are not involved in life-or-death struggles on a daily basis. The Morrнgan is an appropriate deity for strong, independent people, particularly those on a warrior path.
RITUALS FOR THE MORRIGAN
Many devotees of the Morrнgan have a permanent shrine set up in Her honor. They use such items as a bowl of brine and blood, a raven or crow feather, or even a piece of red cloth (to symbolize the Washer at the Ford). Some people use menstrual blood, which is very appropriate. Blood, especially menstrual blood, is a symbol of both life and death, fertility and war.
Rituals should be kept simple. Find something that symbolizes the Morrgan and meditate on it. When you feel Her presence, you may wish to offer Her something of value. This can be as simple as some ale or as difficult as spilling your own blood.
When I dedicated myself to Her, I meditated on a crow’s feather and a candle flame. I called Her name until I could feel Her definite presence. When I offered myself to Her, the flame blazed up and filled the entire room and I felt that my offer had been accepted.
Davidson, H. R. Ellis, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988)
Our Troth (Ring of Troth)
Rees, Alwyn and Brinley, Celtic Heritage (NY: Thames & Hudson, 1994)
Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967)