Front page: new information and bibliographical details of original publication in Sinsear 8

The Birth of Lugh -
Óðinn and Loki among the Celts

Thor Ewing

Irish folklore has preserved the old account of Balar and his grandson Lugh. Balar has a daughter, Eithne, whose son is destined to kill her father. So Balar locks her away, but MacIneely, or Cian, comes to Balar in pursuit of a cow which Balar has stolen. He succeeds in seducing Eithne, who bears three sons. Balar casts them into the sea, but MacIneely saves one of them, Lugh, and fosters him with his brother, or with Manannan or Goibhniu. Balar kills MacIneely, but Lugh kills him in turn with a red-hot iron or sling-stone through his single eye at the battle of Moytirra.

The fullest account of the Celtic deity Lugh (Celtic ‘Lugus’) is found in an eleventh-century Irish text Cath Maige Tuired (‘the Battle of Moytirra’), which records the origin and development of the conflict between the divine race the Tuatha Dé Danann and the demonic race the Fomhóire. Lugh was the grandson of the Fómhoire leader Balar (Bailcbhéimneach ‘strong-smiting’) who had given his daughter Eithne to Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann in an attempt to make peace between the two races. But in the course of the battle Lugh – known by the sobriquet Lámhfhada (‘long-armed’) – who had become the champion of the Tuatha Dé Danann, killed his grandfather Balar by casting a slingstone at his venomous eye which had been opened in the course of the battle. This drove the eye through the back of his head causing destruction to his own army (1).

In a variant account of the death of Balar in circulation since the twelfth century, Balar is said to have survived the battle and was later decapitated by Lugh after a long pursuit to the southwest of the country. Instead of placing the severed head on top of his own as suggested by Balar in order to gain his powers, he laid it on a rock which was instantly shattered (2). In a further literary version of the Battle of Moytirra from around the fifteenth century, Goibhniu, a smith – mythical smith of the Tuatha Dé Danann and represented in folklore as the smith Goibhleann, the reputed owner of a marvelous cow called Glas Ghoibhneann (3) – works in his forge during the battle and using his tongs, he flings the heavy sling-stone to Lugh with which he kills Balar (4).

Folk versions of the myth of Balar have been collected from oral tradition in the Irish language in parts of the northwest, west and the southwest of Ireland. It is best known in Donegal where it is associated with Tory Island. A delightful version from North Mayo is told by a tradition bearer called Patrick Sean Cregan, in David Thomson’s The People of the Sea (5), and, as in the oral versions in general, the basic plot concerns the youth (Lugh) who is prophesied to kill his tyrant-grandfather (Balar). As well as explaining the ancestors of the seals and the traditional association of a family called Kane with them, the story also incorporates various episodes of the Balar myth found in literary sources and presents a cast of characters whose mythical counterparts are still recognisable (6):

The miraculous cow Glas Ghaibhne (who belongs to a smith not named as Goibhleann) must be watched as she wanders sixty miles each day. Three brothers called Kane (Cian) watch her in turn, but the last of them slips and loses the cow. He sails out in search of her and meets a man on a strand, who is building a fence to keep out the sea. The man tells Kane that he must have a child by Balor's daughter and must also sleep with her nine hundred chaperones and have a child by each, so that they will not betray him.

This Kane duly does, and returns after nine months to the man on the strand with the nine hundred children. The man tells Kane to throw them all in the sea, except for the son of Balor's daughter who he says will be called Lui (Lugh) of the Long Arm. Kane throws them in the sea and the children turn into seals in the water, but he takes the son of Balor's daughter home. The child does not thrive, so he takes him back to the man on the strand, still building his fence, who says he must take the boy to Balor for "The child will not thrive until his grandfather calls him by name."

Kane goes to Balor as a miraculous gardener (his trees bear fruit the day he plants them) and he offers to work for a year and a day in return for the cow Glas Ghaibhne. One day, when working for Balor, he spills an armful of apples. Everyone goes to gather them up, but none is as fast as the son of Balor's daughter. "Take away with you that little Long Arm," cries Balor, and so the child gets his name.

When the year and a day are up, Kane asks for the cow, but Balor says it isn't in his gift - the cow goes to whoever his daughter will throw the halter to. When she sees Kane, she throws it to him, and so he wins back Glas Ghaibhne, and takes child and cow back to the smith.

But when Balor finds out that Lui is his grandson, he comes to Ireland to kill him. Lui kills Balor with a spear through his eye, but the dying Balor asks to rest his head on Lui's body. Lui puts a boulder in his place, and a tear falls from Balor's eye and splits the stone in two.

This story echoes certain passages from the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, the story known as "Math Son of Mathonwy."

Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, the sons of Don, steal pigs from Pryderi, who then attacks their lord Math, who sets out for battle leaving behind his foot-holder, the virgin Goewin - while he is at home he must rest his feet in the lap of a virgin. Gilfaethwy rapes her. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy now join Math, and Gwydion kills Pryderi.

When they return, Math learns of Gilfaethwy's rape of Goewin, and punishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy by turning them into: A hart and a hind for a year, until they bring him a fawn; a sow and a boar for a year, until they bring him a piglet; and a wolf and a she-wolf for a year, until they bring him a wolf-cub.

Now Math must have a new virgin foot-holder, and Gwydion suggests Aranrhod, daughter of Don. But when she steps over Math's magic wand, she drops two children. One of them, Dylan son of the Wave, made straight for the sea and swam off like a fish - we are told that Gofannon, his uncle was to kill him. Gwydion snatched up the second child before anyone could get a look at him, and had him fostered.

He grew up exceptionally fast, and at the age of four went with Gwydion to Aranrhod. When she sees him she swears that he shall have no name until she names him herself. So Gwydion disguises himself and the boy as shoemakers, and they go to make shoes for Aranrhod, and when she sees the boy strike a wren through the leg, she says that the fair one struck with a skilful hand. So the boy is named Lleu (fair) Llaw Gyffes (skilful hand).

Then Aranrhod swears he shall not be armed until she arms him herself. So Gwydion disguises himself and the boy as bards, who come to Aranrhod and entertain her for the night. But in the morning Gwydion has conjured a magical army about the castle, so that she wakes the bards. Her maidens arm Gwydion, while she herself arms Lleu. When she learns what she has done, she swears that he shall have no woman to wife, so Gwydion and Math conjure a wife out of flowers, called Blodeuedd.

But Blodeuedd was unfaithful to Lleu, and slept with a man called Gronw, who has been hunting a stag. Gronw persuaded her to find out how Lleu could be killed; a spear must be forged that is a year in the making, and Lleu must stand with one foot on a buck goat and the other on a roofed bath-tub on a river bank, and the spear cast at him. Gronw makes the spear and Blodeuedd persuades Lleu to stand on the goat and tub. As soon as the spear hits Lleu, he turns into an eagle and flies off.

Gwydion sets out to look for him. He comes to a peasant's house where there is a sow that races away every morning and only comes back at night. Gwydion follows the sow and comes to an oak tree, and at the top was a wounded eagle. The sow fed off the rotten flesh that fell from the eagle. Gwydion called the eagle Lleu down, and struck him with his magic wand so he became a man again, and within a year he was well.

They set out against Gronw. Blodeuedd flees with her women who are so afraid that they will only look backwards, and so fall into a lake and drown. Lleu turns Blodeuedd into an owl. He demands that Gronw stand where he stood when he slew him, and he will stand where Gronw stood and throw a spear at him. Gronw asks that a stone be placed between them, and it is, but Lleu's spear goes through stone and man together, and so Gronw is killed.

The correspondences between these two tales are striking enough, but not wholly surprising given that Lleu and Lugh both equate to the ancient Celtic god Lugos. And if there is a lot that these two tales have in common, there is also a lot which they do not. But the plot thickens when we turn outside the Celtic world to tales of the Norse magicians Óðinn and Loki.

Óðinn, like Lugos, was equated with the Roman Mercury, and like Balar, he has a single eye - Lugh chants before the battle of Magh Tuiredh with one eye closed. The Gallic Lugus was associated like Óðinn, with ravens, as was Lugh (7). Loki and Gwydion are both known by matronymics, while Lleu's father is unknown. And like Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, Loki is both a father and a mother to animal offspring - the horse Sleipnir, the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jörmungandr. The names Loki and Lugos are clearly related, and the names of Óðinn and Gwydion are similarly related; Paulus Diaconus History of the Lombards refers to Óðinn as 'Godan,' which may be derived from an earlier *Gwotan (8).

Loki has been seen as Óðinn's comic side-kick, as a "parody" of Óðinn (9). He is a sorcerer's apprentice figure, though he becomes something much more sinister. Where Óðinn is the All-father, employing his arts with wisdom, Loki is a Trickster, delighting in his own cunning and deceitfulness, which ultimately bring about his downfall.

The Norse material, unlike the Celtic, is not to be found neatly packaged in one individual tale. However there are two Óðinn stories alluded to in the poem Hávamál from The Elder Edda, which are particularly relevant. The first is known from no other source; the verses are cast in Óðinn's words:

I know that I hung on the windy beam
for nights of nine,
gored by the spear and given to Óðinn,
myself to myself
upon that beam which no one knows
where the roots of it run.

They gave me no bread nor any drink;
I looked below;
I took up the runes, shrieking took them;
I fell back from there.

I took nine power-chants from the famous son
of Bölthorr, Bestla's father,
and a drink I got of the mead so dear,
sprinkled from Soul-stirrer.

Then I took seed and started to grow
and well I was and wise;
word from word led me to word;
deed from deed led me to deed. (10)

Further verses go on to tell more about runes and sacrifice. The "windy beam" is taken to be the world-tree Yggdrasil, the name of which means "steed of Óðinn."

Here Óðinn, like Lleu, is wounded by a spear in a tree. Óðinn's transcendental vision on the tree may explain the original mythical significance of Lleu's death. As Dr. Anne Ross points out, referring to The Mabinogion:

  • The reference to nine-score hardships endured by the 'fair lord' in the tree top is reminiscent of the sufferings endured by Óðinn in the ash tree Yggdrasil when he sacrificed himself to himself. (11)
  • Perhaps the numbers "nine-score hardships" and "nights of nine" are significant themselves. Also important is that an eagle is said to nest in the highest branches of Yggdrasil, a bird associated with Óðinn - one hovers above Óðinn's hall Valhöll, and he takes eagle form himself on occasion (12).

    An important relationship in the Mabinogion story is that of sister's son and maternal uncle. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are specifically said to be Math's sister's sons, and Lleu is the son of Aranrhod, Gwydion's sister. Lleu clearly learns his art from Gwydion, and it is likely that Gwydion has learnt his from Math. Óðinn too, in the verses above, claims to have learnt magic from his maternal uncle - Snorri Sturluson tells us in Snorra Edda that Bestla is his mother and Bölthorn (Bölthorr) his grandfather (13).

    The second Óðinn story appears to be a parallel to the first, for it also tells how he came to taste "the mead so dear" as well as explaining its magical significance. Bölthorr's role as mead-keeper is taken by another giant, Suttungr. It is told in full in Snorra Edda.

    After the gods of the Æsir make peace with the gods of the Vanir, they spit together into a vat, and make from their spittle Kvasir, the wisest of men. Two dwarfs murder him and make mead from his blood, which they put into three vats. The mead comes into the hands of Suttungr, who set his daughter Gunnlöð to guard it under a mountain.

    Óðinn sets out in search of the mead, and meets nine thralls mowing. He sets them fighting over a whetstone and they all kill each other. Then, calling himself Bölverkr, he goes to Baugi, Suttungr's brother, whose thrall's they were, and offers to work for him in return for the mead. Bölverkr did as much work alone as the nine thralls had done between them. When winter came he went with Baugi to ask Suttungr for the mead, but he refused. So Bölverkr took an auger, and asked Baugi to bore a hole in the mountain. Baugi tries to cheat Óðinn and stab him with the auger, but Óðinn succeeds in getting through the hole in the shape of a worm. (14)

    Óðinn lay with Gunnlöð for three nights, and drained the three vats of mead. Then he turned into an eagle and flew home. Suttungr saw this and changed into an eagle and flew after him, but Óðinn got home with the mead, which he distributed among the Æsir and poets.

    In this story, Óðinn's entry into the mountain is equivalent to his hanging on the tree, and Baugi's attempt to stab him with the auger, may parallel his wounding with a spear. Like Lleu in the story of Math, Óðinn turns into an eagle, and like Gilfaethwy, who rapes the virgin foot-holder of his maternal uncle Math, he seduces the virgin daughter of the mead-keeper, a role fulfilled in the alternative version by "the famous son of Bölthorr," his own maternal uncle.

    But the similarities to the Irish story are more far reaching, for the Irish hero Cian also seduces the imprisoned daughter of a giant in order to win a prize which he also earns as wages, and is unsuccessfully pursued as a result. Of course this is a fairly common theme in folktale, but in view of other more detailed correspondences, and the three-way link with the Mabinogion story it does not appear to be insignificant.

    The main points of similarity between the stories are set out below. I refer here to other Norse stories from Snorra Edda, and alternative versions of the Irish material are included.

    · Math goes to war against Pryderi
    · The Tuatha De Danann go to war against the Fomhóire
    · The Æsir go to war against the Vanir

    · Gilfaethwy evades Math and rapes Goewin
    · Eithne is imprisoned by her father, but Cian gets in and seduces her
    · Gunnlöð is imprisoned by her father, but Óðinn gets in and seduces her

    · Eithne's father Balar is a giant who steals the cow the Glas Ghoibhneann
    · Gunnlöð's father Suttungr is a giant who steal's the mead, Kvasir's blood

    · Gwydion and Gilfaethwy become the male and female of deer swine and wolves, and bear animal progeny
    · Loki bears the horse Sleipnir, and fathers the wolf Fenrir and serpent Jörmungandr

    · Lleu's father is unknown; Gwydion is known by the matronymic Son of Don
    · Lugh's fathering is secret
    · Loki is known by the matronymic Son of Laufey

    · Lugh's maternal ancestors are giants
    · Óðinn's maternal ancestors are giants

    · Dylan runs into the sea and swims like a fish
    · Lugh's two brothers are drowned; the nine-hundred children of Cian become seals
    · Loki and Heimdall fight in the shape of a seals; Loki takes the shape of a salmon before he is finally caught and bound

    · After Gilfaethwy's rape of Goewin, his brother fosters a child
    · After Cian's seduction of Eithne, his brother fosters a child

    · Gofannon the smith, Dylan and Lleu's maternal uncle, kills Dylan
    · Goibhniu the smith fosters Lugh, but his brothers are killed

    · Gwydion protects Lleu
    · Cian protects Lugh
    · Óðinn is Loki's blood-brother

    · Lleu must be named by his mother
    · Lugh must be named by his maternal grandfather

    · Lleu is named Skilful Hand for a feat
    · Lugh is named Long Arm for a feat

    · Gwydion poses as a shoemaker and bard to win a name and arms for Lleu
    · Cian poses as a miraculous gardener to win the cow and a name for Lugh
    · Óðinn poses as a miraculous harvester to win the mead

    · Though wages are agreed, when it comes to payment Balar claims it is not in his power to pay
    · Though wages are agreed, when it comes to payment Baugi claims it is not in his power to pay

    · Eithne gives her father's cow to Cian
    · Gunnlöð gives her father's mead to Óðinn

    · Blodeuedd's affair with Gronw results in Lleu's death
    · Eithne's affair with Cian results in Balar's death

    · Nuadha loses his hand by Balar, Lugh's grandfather
    · Tyr loses his hand by Fenrir, Loki's son

    · Lleu is killed beside a river
    · Loki is caught in a river

    · Lleu, killed by a spear, becomes an eagle in a tree
    · Óðinn, killed by a spear, hangs in a tree, at the top of which is an eagle; after drinking mead with Gunnlöð, Óðinn turns into an eagle
    · Balar's head is placed in a tree after his death; he is killed by a spear

    · Gwydion follows a wandering sow
    · Cian follows a wandering cow

    · Lleu's maternal uncle meets him in the tree and tends him using magic
    · Óðinn on the tree, meets his maternal uncle, who gives him mead and teaches him magic

    · Lleu kills Gronw with a spear
    · Lugh kills Balar with a spear

    · At Gronw's death, the spear goes through a stone
    · At Balar's death, his tear splits a stone in two; Lugh kills him with a stone
    · Loki, when captured, is bound on three slabs of stone with a hole knocked in each

    · Balar intends to weep a poisonous tear on Lugh, but is prevented
    · A serpent is set above Loki to drip poison on him, but is prevented

    · Lleu is rejected by his mother, but fostered by Gwydion
    · Lugh wins acceptance among the Tuatha for his skills
    · Loki is not truly one of the Æsir but becomes Óðinn's blood-brother before being finally cast out

    Whilst there is a fundamental correspondence between these myths, there is no simple correspondence of one god to another. The interweaving patterns of the tales make it clear that we are dealing with a magical partnership. Óðinn and Loki individually share aspects with several Celtic figures, and no neat summation on the lines of Óðinn = Gwydion = Balar, Loki = Lleu = Lugh is possible. It is not Óðinn alone who is important, but in relationship with Loki, not Lleu alone, but with Gwydion and Math, not Lugh alone, but with Cian and Balar. It is in the patterns within the myths that the primary parallels are found, and definite but inconsistent correspondences of individual characters from these myths appear to be a function of this.

    Outside the realms of myth, it is no doubt significant that while the cults of Lleu, Lugh and Óðinn appear to have been popular, there is no trace of any cult surrounding Gwydion or Math, Balar or Cian, or Loki or Bölthorr's anonymous son.

    The complex inter-relationship of these tales appears to underline the assumption that the root-myth is of ancient origin. Each tale is deeply embedded in the characterisation of its heroes, and in no case appears to be grafted on to an existing religious system. Without any one of them, the relationship between these stories would appear to concern mainly details, but when we look at all of them together, we see that the links go deeper. Of course some borrowing may well have taken place as the myths rubbed shoulders down the centuries, but if this were simply a case of borrowing, one might expect the pattern to be more obvious. Rather than the result of borrowing on either side, these tales appear to be the common inheritance of Celtic and Germanic peoples alike.