Lug mac Ethlenn

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Lug (pronounced /ˈluːɣ/; later Lugh, ), son of Ethliu or Ethniu, is an apparent deity of pre-Christian Ireland. He appears in early Irish literature, as an apparently immortal figure with supernatural powers in some texts, and as a hero and king of the distant past in others. He is known by the epithets Lámhfhada ("long hand"), for his skill with a spear or sling, Ildanach ("skilled in many arts"), Samh-ildánach ("Equally skilled in many arts"), Lonnbeimnech ("fierce striker" or perhaps "sword-shouter") and Macnia ("boy hero"). He is considered a reflex of the hypothetical pan-Celtic god Lugus, and has a Welsh counterpart, Lleu Llaw Gyffes ("Lleu of the Skilful Hand") in the Mabinogion.

Legendary biography


Lug's father is Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his mother is Ethliu or Ethniu, daughter of Balor, of the Fomorians. In Cath Maige Tuired ("The Battle of Mag Tuired") their union is a dynastic marriage following an alliance between the Tuatha Dé and the Fomorians. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn Cian gives the boy to Tailtiu, queen of the Fir Bolg, in fosterage.

A folktale told to John O'Donovan by Shane O'Dugan of Tory Island in 1835 recounts the birth of a grandson of Balor who grows up to kill his grandfather. The grandson is unnamed, his father is called Mac Cinnfhaelaidh and the manner of his killing of Balor is different, but it has been taken as a version of the birth of Lug, and was adapted as such by Lady Gregory. In this tale, Balor hears a druid's prophesy that he will be killed by his own grandson. To prevent this he imprisons his only daughter in the Tór Mór (great tower) of Tory Island, cared for by twelve women, who are to prevent her ever meeting or even learning of the existence of men. On the mainland, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh owns a magic cow who gives such abundant milk that everyone, including Balor, wants to possess her. While the cow is in the care of Mac Cinnfhaelaidh's brother Mac Samthainn, Balor appears in the form of a little red-haired boy and tricks him into giving him the cow. Looking for revenge, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh calls on a leanan sídhe (fairy woman) called Biróg, who transports him by magic to the top of Balor's tower, where he seduces Eithne. It time she gives birth to triplets, which Balor gathers up in a sheet and sends to be drowned in a whirlpool. The messenger drowns two of the babies, but unwittingly drops one child into the harbour, where he is rescued by Biróg. She takes him to his father, who gives him to his brother, Gavida the smith, in fosterage.

There may be further triplism associated with his birth. His father in the folktale is one of a triad of brothers, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh, Gavida and Mac Samthainn, and his father in the medieval texts, Cian, is often mentioned together with his brothers Cú and Cethen. Two characters called Lugaid, a popular medieval Irish name thought to derive from Lug, have three fathers: Lugaid Riab nDerg ("of the Red Stripes") was the son of the three Findemna or fair triplets, and Lugaid, son of Cú Ruí, was also known as mac Trí Con, "son of three hounds". In Ireland's other great "sequestered maiden" story, the tragedy of Deirdre, the king's intended is carried off by three brothers, who are hunters with hounds. The canine imagery continues with Cian's brother Cú ("hound"), another Lugaid, Lugaid mac Con (son of a hound), and Lug's son Cú Chulainn ("Culann's Hound").

Lug joins the Tuatha Dé Danann

As a young man Lug travels to Tara to join the court of Nuadu Airgetlám, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The doorkeeper will not let him in unless he has a skill with which to serve the king. He offers his services as a wright, a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcerer, and a craftsman, but each time is rejected as the Tuatha Dé already have someone with that skill. But when Lug asks if they have anyone with all those skills simultaneously, the doorkeeper has to admit defeat, and Lug joins the court. He wins a flagstone-throwing contest against Ogma, the champion, and entertains the court with his harp. The Tuatha Dé are at that time oppressed by the Fomorians, and Lug is amazed how meekly they accept this. Nuadu wonders if this young man could lead them to freedom. Lug is given command over the Tuatha Dé, and he begins making preparations for war.

The sons of Tuireann

When the sons of Tuireann, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, kill his father, Cian (who was in the form of a pig at the time), Lug sets them a series of seemingly impossible quests as recompense. They achieve them all, but are fatally wounded in completing the last one. Despite Tuireann's pleas, Lug denies them the use of one of the items they have retrieved, a magic pigskin which heals all wounds. They die of their wounds, and Tuireann dies of grief over their bodies.

The Battle of Mag Tuired

Using the magic artifacts the sons of Tuireann have gathered, Lug leads the Tuatha Dé Danann in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired against the Fomorians. Nuadu is killed in the battle by Balor. Lug faces Balor, who opens his terrible, poisonous eye that kills all it looks upon, but Lug shoots a sling-stone that drives his eye out the back of his head, wreaking havoc on the Fomorian army behind. After the victory Lug finds Bres, the half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé, alone and unprotected on the battlefield, and Bres begs for his life. If he is spared, he promises, he will ensure that the cows of Ireland always give milk. The Tuatha Dé refuse the offer. He then promises four harvests a year, but the Tuatha Dé say one harvest a year suits them. But Lug spares his life on the condition that he teach the Tuatha Dé how and when to plough, sow and reap.

Later life and death

Lug instituted a harvest fair during the festival of Lúnasa in memory of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, held on 1 August at the town that bears her name (now Teltown, County Meath). Horse races and displays of martial arts were important parts of the festival. It survived long into Christian times and is still celebrated under a variety of names. Lúnasa is now the Irish name for the month of August.

According to a poem of the dindsenchas, Lug was responsible for the death of Bres. He made 300 wooden cows, and filled them with a bitter, poisonous red liquid which was then "milked" into pails and offered to Bres to drink. Bres, who was under an obligation not to refuse hospitality, drank it down without flinching, and it killed him.

He had several wives, including Buí and Nás, daughters of Ruadri, king of Britain. Buí lived and was buried at Knowth. Nás was buried at Naas, County Kildare, which is named after her. Lug had a son, Ibic, by Nás. One of his wives, unnamed, had an affair with Cermait, son of the Dagda. Lug killed him in revenge, but Cermait's sons, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine, killed Lug in return, drowning him in Loch Lugborta. He had ruled for forty years.

Appearances in other cycles

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

In Baile in Scáil ("The Phantom's Trance"), a story of the Cycles of the Kings, Lug appeared in a vision to Conn Cétchathach. 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.

Name, role and functions

Lug's name was formerly interpreted as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root *leuk-, "flashing light", and he is often surrounded by solar imagery, so from Victorian times he has often been considered a sun god, similar to the Greco-Roman Apollo. He appears in folklore as a trickster, and in County Mayo thunderstorms were referred to as battles between Lug and Balor, so he is sometimes considered a storm god: Alexei Kondratiev notes his epithet lonnbeimnech ("fierce striker") and concludes that "if his name has any relation to 'light' it more properly means 'lightning-flash' (as in Breton luc'h and Cornish lughes)". However, Breton and Cornish are Brythonic languages in which Proto-Celtic *k did undergo systematic sound changes into -gh- and -ch-. This change did not occur in Irish, so it is unlikely that Lug derives from the root *leuk-, nor is it related to any other Proto-Indo-European root connoting luminosity.

Lug's mastery of all arts has led many to link him with the un-named Gaulish god Julius Caesar identifies with Mercury, whom he describes as the "inventor of all the arts". Caesar describes the Gaulish Mercury as the most revered deity in Gaul, overseeing journeys and business transactions. Juliette Wood interprets Lug's name as deriving from the Celtic root *lugios, "oath", and the Irish word lugh connotes ideas of "blasphemy, cussing, lies, bond, joint, binding oath", which strengthens the identification with Mercury, who was, among other attributes, a god of contracts.