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Lugh was the ancient Celtic god of thunderstorms, war, justice, and of the all-important harvest. He was a valiant warrior, a master of all arts, and a Druid. He was a member of a mysterious race, wielder of a magical spear, a noble king, and a legend. As one of the most revered deities of Celtic Europe, his mythical origin and heroic tales have been studied and celebrated for centuries.
Who is Lugh Lamhfada?
Lugh (Loo) is one of the most well-known Celtic deities of all time. His innumerable mentions throughout Irish and Gaulish legends portray his immense importance amongst the Celts.
Lugh is considered to be the Irish embodiment of a Celtic deity who went by many names and was worshipped across the Celtic world. In Gaul he was known as ‘Lugos’ and in Welsh as ‘Lleu Llaw Gyffes’ (Lleu of the skillful hand).
In Irish, he was given two popular nicknames: Lugh Lamhfada or “of the long arm” in reference to his skills with the spear, and Samildanach or “master of all arts”.
We can see this prominent connection through the translation of the word August throughout Celtic languages as it is most often related to Lugh: in Irish as ‘lunasa’, in Scottish Gaelic as ‘lunastal’, and in Welsh as ‘luanistym’.
Many Celtic gods, including Lugh, crossed cultures across Europe and were even ascribed counterparts in other mythologies.
Julias Caesar, in his book De Bello Gallico, references six Celtic deities in Gaul, transcribing them into the names of their equivalent Roman deities. Specifically, he mentions the god Mercury, describing him as the god of trade, protector of travelers, and inventor of all arts. In Irish mythology, Lugh Lamhfada was detailed in an extremely similar tone, coinciding with Caesar’s explanation of Mercury.
Lugh was characterized as a great warrior, a peaceful king, and a cunning trickster. In addition to this, he is depicted as being skilled in all the foremost arts of the time. These included his studies of history, poetry, music, as well as war and weaponry.
Origin and Etymology of Lugh
The origin of the etymology of Lugh is somewhat of a debate amongst scholars. Some propose it derives from the proto-Indo-European root ‘lewgh’, alongside the Old Irish ‘luige’ and the Welsh ‘llw’, which all mean “to bind by oath”. However, in earlier times, his name was thought to have come from the Indo-European ‘leuk’ or “flashing light”, an obvious connection to Lugh’s association with thunderstorms, a literal flash of light.
Lugh’s name, wherever it originated, was often used to name cities, counties, and even countries across Europe. Some examples include:
- Lyon, France – once known as ‘Lugdunom’ or Lugh’s Fort
- The ancient province of Ulaidh (Uh-loo) in Ireland
- The town of Carlisle, England was once known as ‘Lugubalium’
- Irish county of Louth (Loo) retains its historical name today
The Mythology of Lugh
Lugh is mentioned throughout Irish mythology, including in the 11th century manuscript ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’ (The Taking of Ireland). Here, his ancestry is traced back to the Tuatha De, one of Ireland’s early pre-Christian races. He received his Tuatha De heritage from his father Cian, son of Dian Cecht, but his mother, Ethnea, was daughter of Balor, a king of the Fomorians, another of Ireland’s legendary races and at times fierce enemies of the Tuatha De.
Birth of Lugh
Lugh’s life was quite miraculous even from birth. It is said that Lugh’s grandfather, Balor of The Evil Eye, had heard a prophecy that he would one day be killed by his grandson. In fear, he decided to confine his daughter to a tower so that she would never bear children.
However, Cian bravely rescued her, and she proceeded to bear him three sons. When Balor heard the news of his grandsons, he arranged for all three to be drowned at sea. Lugh was fortunately saved by the Druid Manannan Mac Lir, one of the wise men of the island and the keeper of the magical items of the Tuatha De, such as Lugh’s future spear.
Mannan fostered and trained Lugh as a warrior, though Lugh eventually moved to the area of Tara, County Meath to be housed by the Queen of the Fir-Bolg, Talitu.
The Death of Balor
Lugh’s mythology is most often focused on his heroic accomplishments in battle. In the second battle of Mag Tuired in West Ireland, Lugh fought under Nuada of the Tuatha De, against his grandfather’s army of Fomorians. When king Nuada was slain, Lugh went on to take his place as king, though only after a faceoff against King Balor. During their combat, Baylor of the Evil Eye opened up his poisonous eye that was known to kill all who looked upon it, but Lugh managed to drive his magical spear through his eye, killing him instantly.
Lugh’s Wit and Skills
One famous tale tells of Lugh’s travels to the court of Tara to ask permission from Nuada, king of the Tuatha De, to serve in his court.
However, the guard would not let him pass without a skill that would benefit the king; to this Lugh replied that he was a blacksmith, craftsman, warrior, harpist, poet, historian, sorcerer, and physician, and yet the guard turned him away, claiming they had experts in all of those classes.
Lugh wittily replied, “But does any man have all of these skills?” When the guards could not answer, Lugh was invited into the court.
Symbols of Lugh
Lugh was not only mentioned throughout various historical, academic, and mythological writings, but he was also represented by many symbols. He is associated with ravens, crows, hounds, harps, and thunderbolts, all the while personifying the bounty of the Autumn harvest.
His most well-known symbol was his spear, named Assal, which took the form of lighting when thrown. Although he was known to have many magical items from Tuatha De, it was his spear and his mystical ‘cu’ or hound, who aided him in battle, that made him an invincible warrior.
Lugos, the Gaulish representation of Lugh, is symbolized throughout Gaul with stone head carvings which often bear three faces. Several were recovered throughout France. In Paris, one carving which was first identified as Mercury, is now widely recognized as the Gaulish Lugos.
It is likely that the composition of the three faces represent the three well known Gaulish deities Esus, Toutatis, and Taranis. This may provide an explanation for Lugos’ many different attributes that he shares with these other prominent gods, such the connection with thunder he shares with Taranis.
Representations of three faced stone carvings have also been found in Ireland, such as one found in the 19th century in Drumeague, County Cavan, and their similarities to the Gaulish representations of Lugos can suggest their connection to their beloved counterpart, Lugh.
Lughnasadh – A Festival for Lugh
The early peoples of Celtic Europe, especially the Irish, held their astronomical calendar in high reverence because of its ability to provide agrarian guidance. The calendar was split into four major events: the winter and summer solstices and the two equinoxes. Halfway between each of these events, people celebrated smaller festivals such as Lughnasada or “The Assembly of Lugh”, which took place between the summer solstice and the Autumn Equinox.
This important festival marked the first harvest of the year. It included a large trade market, competitive games, storytelling, music, and traditional dancing to celebrate the coming bounty. Legend says that Lugh himself held the first Lughnasada in honor of his foster mother Tailitu, which was held in Teltown, County Meath, where Lugh had once been fostered.
Lughnasadh was not simply fun and games. The festival followed the tradition of the ancient rite of offering the first fruits of the harvest to the old gods, and in doing so, made sure they would receive a plentiful and bountiful harvest.
What was once a pilgrimage to pay homage to Lugh Lamhfada in pagan times, is now known as the Reek Sunday pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick Mountain in County Mayo. Homage was often paid to Lugh on mountain tops and high places.
Further east in Lugdunon, modern Lyon, France, the Roman festival of Augustus also originated as a festival to celebrate Lugus. Though the gathering was started by the Celts of Gaul, it was later Romanized with the advent of Rome throughout Gaul.
The festival of Lughnasadh has survived into the modern day but is now celebrated as the Anglican harvest festival known as Lammas, or “Loaf Mass”. Celebrated throughout Britain and Northern Ireland shares many of the same traditions as the original pagan celebration.
The Ould Lammas Fair has been held in Ballycastle, County Antrim on the last Monday and Tuesday in August every year since the 17th century. Like Lughnasadh, it celebrates the ending of the summer growth and the beginning of the autumn harvest.
Elsewhere in Ireland there are multiple modern celebrations linked to the ancient Lughnasadh festival such as the Puck fair in Killorglin, Co.Kerry. This three-day festival has been running since the 16th century and includes traditional music, dancing, storytelling, art workshops, and markets.
Symbolism of Lugh
The god Lugh was directly connected to the arcane agrarian traditions of Europe, in which he was a protector and overseer of a bountiful harvest. The Celts believed in the cycle of life and death in all things, which can be seen in the epic story of Balor and Lugh.
While in mythology, Lugh defeats Balor in battle, in the agrarian story the two were important counterparts in nature. Balor, as the sun, gave the energy needed for successful crop growth, but with the arrival of August, or Lugh, the sun would be sacrificed to ensure a good harvest. This tale, though based in magical imagery, represents the natural decline of the sun’s hours in the sky and the coming of autumn.
Other scholars, such as Maire Macneill, have ascribed a different but similar legend. In this version of the tale, Balor is acquainted with the god Crom Dubh, who guarded the grain as his treasure, and the brave and powerful Lugh had to rescue the harvest for the people. In this myth of Lugh’s defeat of Balor, people of the earth could explain and celebrate the overcoming of drought, blight, and the end of the scorching summer sun.
Through his many legends, myths, and battles, Lugh was also known as an all seeing or knowing god. His symbolic representation as ravens, crows, and multiple faced carvings portrays the other, much revered side to this deity: his skill in all arts and reputation as a wise Druid. His spear was not only a weapon, but was symbolic of the power of thunderstorms, which were prevalent at the time of the August harvest season. In County Mayo legends, the August thunderstorms were known as the battles between Balor and Lugh.
Lugh continues to be worshipped and honored today in Pagan and Wiccan circles as a god of agriculture, summer storms, and the harvest. Devotees of Lugh look to him for inspiration and creativity, and he’s known as the patron of artists, craftsman, musicians, poets, and artisans.
Ceremonies which pay tribute to Lugh live on in Ireland, although most have been rebranded and are now connected to the Christian faith. However, many still worship the ancient deity during Lughnasadh.
Lugh’s importance throughout Celtic culture is evident in his many legends and representations. Feeding the community was essential, and in the worship and understanding of Lugh, the people could ensure a bountiful harvest. Over time his story evolved into a great saga that would be told at many festivals, ensuring Lugh’s significance would never be forgotten. Today, many of the original rituals and festivals of Lugh have morphed into modern, anglicized versions.