Another famous character of Irish pagan mythology is Balor. He appears to exist as an adversarial character, and leader of the Fomorian race who were supposed to have occupied Ireland before the Tuatha Dé Danann and the humans opposed and replaced them in the medieval pseudo-historical myths, such as those in the famous Lebor Gabála Érenn. His main attribute was a ‘piercing’ (birugderc) , ‘destructive’ (milledach) or ‘poisonous’(neimnech) eye which could, depending on the tradition do anything from making men helpless in battle to blasting, blighting and destroying. This property is often linked to the popular ‘evil eye’ mythology once so common to Europe, and still current in much of Africa and Asia. Balor was supposedly killed by his own semi-divine warrior-grandchild, Lugh, who himself was said to have been fostered by Manannán mac Lir. As such, Balor appears to have been an inspiration for Sauron in Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, chosen perhaps because he operated as a hypostasis for an ‘evil god’ in medieval and early-modern myths. He even operated as a political representation of Ireland’s oppressors in some traditions, and his showdown with Lugh is a popular folktale.
So … who or what was this character really supposed to be? The key to understanding him correctly is understanding the idea of the ‘evil eye’ as it pertains to Atlantic European mythology. The Evil Eye, Bad Eye or Destructive Eye was a phenomenon known in particular from its recorded incidence among peoples from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Isle of Man and Ireland between the 17th and 20th centuries.
The essence of the Gaelic evil eye belief was that the eye emitted a spiritual force (spirit was anciently considered an ethereal form of light) which could alter what it looked at (touched). This idea (the ‘extromission’ of light from the eye) was known from classical antiquity, and discussed in both scientific and religious theory by medieval European authors such as Robert Grosseteste and Thomas Aquinas. Pride and envy were considered the ‘spiritual’ sins and operated through spirit and thus light, which was considered the substance from which spirit was made. The force of the Evil Eye was supposed to be driven by the ‘deadly sin’ of envy, and caused a loss of vitality and well-being in the subject of the envious gaze: it was a metaphysical interpretation of how the spiritual ‘sin’ of envy (literally translating as ‘in vision’) worked as a malign force which could change things at a distance. It could be a passive force (whereas ‘witchcraft‘ or sorcery was considered an active process), and this distinction was perhaps one of the reasons why the Gaelic peoples (preoccupied by fairies and the ‘bad eye’) did not prosecute witchcraft as a general rule. The ‘Evil Eye’ and its associated otherworld theory was the explanation for misfortune! And the ‘Evil Eye’ was a force by which those ‘spiritual’ beings – the fairies – exerted their power on this world. They envied our ‘substance’ and ‘worth’ and tried to take it from us… they abducted our healthy children and left us their unhealthy ones… they sickened and blighted: It was the mode by which the ‘Otherworld’ interacted with ours!
Considering this, we must now turn our attention to the Gaelic Lord of the Otherworld – Manannán mac Lir – who ruled the world beneath the sea and behind the horizon where the sun sets. As ruler of this inverted place and we must consider if he might in fact be identifiable with the ‘Balor’ character of Irish myth – a sea-ruler who originally (in some traditions such as the Manx) held the sovereignty of the Land, and whose eye chose the lives to be transferred to the Otherworld… Balor is associated with Tory Island off Donegal, and his ‘race’ is supposed by the medieval writings to have come from the sea. Traditions tell that he was grandfather or father of Lugh (who eventually killed him) and that Lugh was fostered by Manannán, so there is a reasonable argument in suggesting that Balor may be a part of the Manannán hypostasis.
The early Welsh Arthurian tale known as Culwch and Olwen features a central character with features similar to Balor – the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr. The description of him sounds a little like that of Balor in the Irish tale Cath Maige Tuired (Battles of Moytura) in that he is of a giant size and had eyes (or an eye) so huge that they required great forked sticks to open his eyelids. This begs the question of wether the character is a bardic metaphor or a character nested deep in popular mythology. Other similarities include the possession of a desirable daughter over whom heroes fight – with Balor it is Eithne and with Ysbaddaden it is Olwen.
The concepts of decay and death have stronger ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’ connotations for christians, yet in religious cultures with a belief in reincarnation they are loaded with more positive connotations. This begs the question of why and to whom Balor’s eye was supposed to be ‘evil’? This is not explicit in the descriptions of the ‘Second Battle of Magh Tuired’, in which Balor’s eye is said to be Birugderc – piercing. The ‘evil’ appelation is one of the narrative tales of his behaviour and of christian tradition, such as that collected in the early 19thC by John O’Donovan from Donegal and Tory, and from those of the other folklore records, including those of the goverment-sponsored Folklore Commission (Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann) from the 1930’s onwards, now curated by University College Dublin.