Story Archaeology

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Lugh Who? Where did Lugh come from?

Lugh of BourayIn the Irish stories, Lugh, sometimes Lug, is a central and popular figure.

To summarise his story, as it is given in text and tale, he is a child born in secret to a Fomoire mother and a Dé Danann father.

  • In text, his father and mother are contracted to each other to form an alliance between the two peoples, but, in tale, his father encounters his mother by chance while on another quest.
  • It is prophesied that any son born to this mother will grow to kill his grandfather, the battle captain of the Fomoire, Balor.
  • Lugh is one of three babies born at a single birth. The other two are seemingly lost in the sea.
  • Lugh is brought up in secret, by Manannán, although nine foster-fathers are mentioned.
  • Lugh presents as the Ildánach, the many-crafted one.
  • Lugh demands a high honour price for the killing of his father, Cían.
  • He tricks Bres into drinking poisonous red bog-water in a Dindshenchas story.
  • Lugh acts as war leader for the Dé Danann.
  • He kills Balor, after a sling stone has taken Balor’s poisonous eye.

The Welsh stories from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion offer a tale which has some similarities, although the stories focus mainly on Lleu’s birth and growth into adulthood.

  • Lleu (Llew  Llaw Gyffes) is a second, secret baby born to Arianrhod, the birth exposed by trickery.
  • The first baby, Dylan, takes to the sea. (Dylan may be cognate with Ruadhán. See The Battle of Moytura, Episode 5: The Four Craftsmen” for more on this subject).
  • Lleu is fostered to Gwydion (rather than Manawydan) who aids him in winning a name, arms and a wife in the face of his mother’s hostility.
  • Name, arms  and wife are won for Lleu by Gwydion’s magical trickery.
  • Lleu Llaw Gyffes is described in the Welsh Triads as one of the “three golden shoemakers of the island of Britain”. He is recognised as an exemplary  craftsman.
  • When betrayed by his wife, Blodeuwedd, the woman made magically by Gwydion from flowers, he lays heavy penance on his betrayer, Gronw.
  • He kills  his betrayer with a magical spear, powerful enough to pierce a millstone.
  • The tale ends with Lleu ascending to the throne of Gwynedd.

Therefore, while the Irish stories of Lugh’s birth are only found in folk tale variants, and there is no central exploit of the Welsh Lleu, equivalent to the killing of Balor in battle, both Lleu and Lugh are thoroughly “crafty”, in skill of hand and in mental acuity. They are both represented as young and full of golden promise. They both have secret and perilous beginnings. They both have lost siblings and they both become the fine and favoured leaders of their people.

Neither have further complete stories, although they both continue as popular folkloric figures. A number of references to Lleu can be found in early Welsh poetry. According to the Book of Taliesin, he fought alongside Gwydion at the Battle of the Trees, in which he assisted his uncle in enchanting the trees to rise up in battle against Arawn, king of Annwn. The poem Prif Gyuarch Taliessin asks “Lleu and Gwydion / Will they perform magics?”, while in the same corpus, the poem Kadeir Taliesin refers to the “golden pipes of Lleu”.

Lleu’s death is mentioned a number of times in medieval texts. In the Stanzas of the Graves, it is claimed that Lleu’s grave lies “under the protection of the sea”.

Lugh Is also referenced in other stories. In the Ulster Cycle, he fathered Cú Chulainn with the mortal Deichtine. When Cú Chulainn lay wounded after a gruelling series of combats during the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), Lugh appeared and healed his wounds over a period of three days.

In Baile in Scáil (The Phantom’s Trance), a story of the Historical Cycle, Lugh appeared in a vision to Conn of the Hundred Battles. Enthroned on a daïs, he directed a beautiful woman called the Sovereignty of Ireland to serve Conn a portion of meat and a cup of red ale, ritually confirming his right to rule and the dynasty that would follow him.

In the Fenian Cycle, the dwarf harper Cnú Deireóil claimed to be Lugh’s son.

It is said that he was drowned in Loch Lugborta, after a rule of forty years.

It is curious that both boys are born alongside siblings who take to the sea, and that both die by drowning or are, at least, buried in the water. Lugnasagh festivals are frequently held on high places, but there is one Lughnasagh custom, in the Outer Hebrides, where first-fruit gifts were given to the sea. However,  I suspect this is quite understandable on an island surrounded by treacherous waters.  This needs further exploration.

There is one amusing, if remote  possibility. If Lugh / Lleu are trickster craftsmen, particularly shoemakers, from the sea, adept at gathering treasure, does this make them the original Leprechauns? Hmm! Maybe not!

[Note from Isolde: Unfortunately, lucorpain (“Leprechauns”) do crop up in Irish saga.  Echtrae Ferguso Mac Léite involves a group of lucorpain on the shores of Loch Rudrige.  They are small enough for Fergus to catch them in his hands, and they must grant him a wish when he does so.  Could lucorpain be *Lug-orpain?!  Much more research and exploration is needed….]

However, it is very likely that both the Irish Lugh and the Welsh Lleu are closely connected with the continental Celtic figure of Lugos.

Lugos gives his name to a variety of places such as Lugdunum – Lyon, France, capital of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis. Other such place-names include Lugdunum Clavatum – Laon, France and Luguvalium – Carlisle, England. Other places which are likely named after him include:

  • Loudun and Montluçon in France;
  • Loudoun in Scotland;
  • Dinlleu in Wales;
  • Leiden in the Netherlands;
  • Lugones in Asturias, Spain Legnica in Silesia.

Julius Caesar, in his “De Bello Gallico”, recognised six gods worshipped in Gaul, by the giving them names of their nearest Roman equivalents.  He said that “Mercury” was the god most revered in Gaul, describing him as patron of trade and commerce, protector of travellers, and the inventor of all the arts. This connection with the title Samildánach, the “many-crafted one”, has strengthened the identification with the Celtic “Mercury”. There are more than 400 inscriptions to him in Roman Gaul and Britain.

Lugos is often seen as triple, having three faces or three phalluses. This may offer a connection with the triple birthing of Lugh and his sea-taken siblings. Common iconography of Gaulish “Mercury” also includes birds, particularly ravens, the cock, horses, the tree of life, dogs or wolves, mistletoe, shoes and bags of money. Oh dear! There’s that leprechaun pot of gold again!

The name Lug / Lleu / Lugos has been translated as meaning “light, shining”, but Lugh is no sun-bright Apollo. His attributes are more quicksilver, tricky and mercurial. Juliette Wood interprets Lugh’s name as deriving from the Celtic root lugios, “oath”, and the Irish word lugh connotes ideas of “blasphemy, cursing, lies, binding oath”. It has  also been suggested that Lugh derives from , “small”. This might be appropriate to the Welsh stories, but I prefer Isolde’s translation giving  the root meaning of “lynx”, the tricky cat.

In Irish mythology, the cat is the keeper of caves and the guardian of treasure. It plays a similar role to the dragon in other cultures.

Lugh was the most popular figure on the continent in antiquity, and continues as a favourite with the insular British and Irish. Tricky, lucky, Lugh is remembered in the favoured younger son who succeeds where his elders fail, and the brash, brave figure of Jack the Giant killer. Maybe there is even an echo of him in the crowing heroics of Peter Pan.

So Lugos / Lugh/ Llew is still with us; not as the eternal and transcendent “Solus Invictus”, but ubiquitous as the familiar hero of pantomime and comic book. .

Chris Thompson 

December ’12

1 Comment

  1. I love it, thanks so much on all your hard work, but . . . never Llew (old Anglicised spelling that translates as ‘lion’) always Lleu (cognate with Lugh and lux and light and all other relevant things.

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