Posted by: Brian | July 29, 2016

Sunshine and Lightning


Lugh, born to Ethniu in her tower of glass, fostered by Manannán and Tailtiu and others, leads the Tuatha Dé to victory in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, defeating his grandfather, Balor of the Baleful Eye, thus fulfilling the prophecy of his birth.

Lugh represents the union of opposites and the victory of law over dissolution and chaos. He presides over communication, commerce, mercantile endeavours (buying, selling, trading, travelling, and moving persons or resources across ‘borders’), oaths, and social contracts. He is a god of the harvest, protection, healing, victory, success, skill in any endeavour, shoes/shoemakers, inspiration, journeys (both worldly and Otherworldly), doorways, borders, games, especially Fidchell/Chess, horse racing and ball sports, especially hurling.  He is strongly associated with Sovereignty.

Lugh is a ‘friendly’ god, a fact attested to by his pan-Celtic appeal. He was worshipped throughout the Celtic world and was popular among all classes of people from kings to shoemakers to farmers.  On the Continent, he is often called by the plural form of his name, which could indicate he can be many places at once, or assist in multiple endeavours. It is obvious, the god Lugh is intimately entwined with many aspects of public and private life.

Lugh’s epithets include: MacEthlenn, ‘Son of Ethniu’; Maicnia, ‘Young Warrior’; Samildanach, ‘Equally Skilled in All Arts’; Lamhfada, ‘of the Long Hand’; Lonnbeimnech, ‘Fierce striker’; Lethsuanach, ‘Half-Cloaked’; and Scal, ‘Phantom/Apparition’.  His name means ‘Illumination’; but is Lugh a sun god?

Many 19th and early 20th scholars, and subsequently many modern pagans, have, in an almost automatic way, associated Lugh with the sun. But is the sun the only form of illumination?  And do his epithets point to the sun in any substantial way?  Given epithets like ‘fierce striking’ and a connection with thunderstorms (see below) some current scholars, like Kondratiev, propose that Lugh’s ‘illumination may mean something more like ‘lightning-flash’ (like the Welsh luched, Cornish luhed, and Breton luc’hed-enn).

Are there other indicators that Lugh may not be a sun god? Manannán, the seafaring god who fostered Lugh, resides in the west.  In Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh’s poem, Lugh arrives at the Royal Seat of Tara from the west. Likewise, in the myth, “The Fate of the Children of Tuirenn”, Lugh arrives on the battlefield from the west.

In both poem and myth a strong connection is made with Manannán and the west, either by eulogizing the beauty of Manannán’s realm, or by Lugh using Manannán’s armour, equipment and horse in battle.

In other myths, both Lugh and Manannán have produced mists or fogs; a phenomenon more strongly associated with cooling the land than is sunshine. This coming from the west resembles the prevailing global weather pattern where cooling rain and thunderstorms, like most other weather patterns, arrive from the west and move eastward, unlike the sun which moves east to west across the sky.

How was Lugh seen on the Continent?  The Galo-Romans never conflated Lugus with Apollo, making it very clear that they did not see Lugh as solar.  Instead, in the iterpretario Romana of the Celtic Lugus was conflated with Mercury. In addition to the Mercury’s trademark caduceus and winked helmet, Romano Celtic ‘Mercury’ or ‘Lugus-Mercury’ was often depicted with Lugh’s trademark spear. We also have some images that have ‘Lugus-Mercury’ holding a spear in one hand and a hammer in the other – the hammer normally being a symbol for thunder in Northern and Western Europe and the spear a suitable representative of lightning.  The facing S-curves associated with some of his images have been interpreted by some as lightning bolts, an idea confirmed by an image of Taranis who is throwing a lightning bolt, with several other curled as S-curves under his other arm.  In addition to this association with Mercury, some modern scholars have begun to do work comparing Lugus with another spear wielding, winged-helmeted god:  Odin.

But how does this view figure in our understanding of the ritual year? Six months ago, at Imbolc, we celebrated the Mysteries of Brighid, indisputably a fire goddess, who prepares the way for spring by bringing the spark of warmth into the icy cold of winter.  At Lughnasadh, we celebrate the mysteries of Lugh, who wins the harvest for us and stands against the blistering heat of summer by bringing cooling thunderstorms.  These two feast days stand in complementary opposition to each other.

So it is clear that Lugh’s role at Lughnasadh is not that of the sun, but the adversary of the sun’s heat. He reaches his full strength and takes up his most vital role at Lughnasadh, not because he is the sun or its light and heat, but precisely because he is needed to balance that very heat with his tempering power, lest it burn up the harvest.  For this reason thunderstorms are deemed auspicious at Lughnasadh.

Likewise, the custom of running horses through water depicts a typically solar or fiery animal being tempered and balanced by the cooling power of water; an obvious inversion of the Beltaine custom of herding cattle between two fires, which depicts a typically watery animal being tempered and balanced by the warming power of fire.

So, if Lugh is not a sun deity, who is? As in most other religions of Western and Northern Europe, the sun in Celtic religion is represented by various goddesses.  Like the Germanic Sunna, the Baltic Saule, and further a field, the Vedic Surya, the sun is venerated in Celtic countries as Sulis, Aine, Grainne, Brighid, and possibly Cigfa.

In Brighid’s case, her solarity is well depicted by the sun-wheel shaped Bride crosses made for Imbolc.  As well, there are references to Saint Brighid, the canonized version of the goddess, being prayed to in solar terms:

“Brighid, excellent woman,
Flame golden and sparkling,
May she bear us into the eternal kingdom
She, the sun, fiery, radiant!”

We also have a seasonal myth from Scotland which depicts her solar character at Imbolc:  In this tale the Cailleach (the hag of winter) captures Bride at Samhain and secrets her away in mountain until she is eventually rescued by her brother Aengus (the subject of this month’s New Tara lecture) at Imbolc, returning her life-giving, warmth-restoring power to the world.

That the feminine character of the sun survived well into the Christian period is attested in prayer 316 from the Carmina Gadelica, which refers to the Sun as the ‘glorious mother of the stars’ and ‘a young maiden in flower’.

Conversely, another prayer from the Carmina Gadelica refers to the sun as the Eye of God, an idea which points to a concept of Immanent Divinity, but is also reminiscent of other gods, namely Dagda as Eochaid Deirgderc, ‘Horse-lord Red-eye’ and Balor Birugderc, ‘Baleful-eye’.

I think there is an important distinction between being a sun god(dess), and a god who is not a sun god per se, but whose eye is the sun. In the case of Dagda, a fire god, I see no contradiction between the sun as his eye, a part of a greater whole, and Brighid, as a whole and complete sun goddess in her own right, and not merely a part of Dagda, but his daughter.  This points to a complexity of Celtic world view that is not easily explicated by a simplistic or singular way of understanding divine relationships.

In the case of Balor, the sun is his baleful eye, a tool or weapon to be used by him against his enemies.  Balor, and the fomoire who sided with him, represent chaos and a more pervasive danger; in this instance, the fierce heat of summer itself, when the crops could be ruined and winter could mean a time of starvation.

This is a necessary tactic, as the sun when personally represented as a goddess, is depicted as almost universally generous and well disposed toward humanity – quite unlike the potential danger of the sun in the Lughnasadh season.  Of course, even at Lughnasadh, the sun is not totally vilified; while Balor is getting his eye struck out by Lugh, in some regions of south western Ireland, Aine is being thanked and propitiated along with the dark god Crom for their respective roles in bringing the harvest this far to fruition.  This theological complexity is interesting, but even in these instances; the god in question is not Lugh, nor does the god in question take on a uniquely solar function or have the sun as his primary sphere of influence.

In fact, a feminine understanding of the Sun may be an essential difference between Celtic religion and the religions that come out of the Mediterranean; a difference which aligns the Celts more closely with other peoples of Western and Northern Europe, like the Germans, Scandinavians, and Balts, and perhaps an older stratum of Indo-European belief; given that sun goddesses are found at the two ends of the Indo-European world.  Given this understanding of Celtic sun goddess, how can we attribute their sphere of influence to any male divinity, let alone Lugh?

This being the case, Lugh is not unique in having his ‘solarity’ questioned.  Other Celtic gods once assumed to be sun gods are having this designation questioned.  Advances in etymology are now questioning whether Belenos, once assumed to mean ‘Shining One’, might actually be ‘Powerful One’, and Grannus, once assumed to mean ‘Fiery One’, might actually be ‘Bearded One’.  Thus Belenos and Grannus, despite being equated with Apollo in his healing aspect by the Romans, may have to yield their solar status to Celtic goddesses like Sulis.

Despite the antiquated ‘solar’ theory of Frazer and other Victorian scholars, an idea which remains popular among many pagans, and given the evidence provided above, I think it is a mistake to see Lugh as a ‘sun-god’.  Though this view would likely not go uncontested, in the opinion of many, Lugh is better understood as a god, not of sunshine, but rather of lightning.

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