Lughnasadh lunacy…

We are entering the next Gaelic year-quarter: The season of  Lughnasadh, Lúnasa, Luanys or Lunastal. It is a time of ripening, harvest and (from the autumn equionox onwards) dieback in northern Europe. The Irish festival was once widely celebrated, being typified by festive gatherings on hilltops, visits to sacred springs, special foods, games and contests, generally themed around harvest. It was also popular in the Isle of Man until the 19th century, but appears to have had less recent prominence in Scotland, and no name-equivalent in Wales.

Based upon the ‘evidence’ of medieval Irish ecclesiastical author, Cormac of Cashel, in his famous ‘Glossary’ (Irish: ‘Sanas Chormaic‘) it was supposed to have been named in honour of Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Dannan:

“Lugnasa .i. nasad Loga maic Ethlend .i. oenach nofertha laissom im thaitti fogomair”

“Lugnasa – the games of Lugh son of Ethlend. A festival held at the beginning of autumn” (AR – ‘Ethlend’ is also called Ethne and Ceithlenn in other versions of the Sanas Chormaic)

This assertion has generally remained unchallenged, even though folk-customs associated with Lugh seem generally pretty hard to come by in the Gaelic world. Indeed, MacNeil found it hard to find any customs suggestive of Lugh in her awesome study, ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’.

Of further interest is the Manx name of the festival/quarter: Luanys. This emphasises that the name may have more to do with the Moon (Ir. Luan) than Lugh mac Eithlenn. That there was a special significance for the moon during this quarter in the Isle of Man is supported by the Manx dictionaries of the 18th/19thC which give the only surviving Manx moon-names as falling in this quarter. These were quoted by William Cashen, custodian of Peel Castle, whose notes were published under the title ‘Manx Folklore’ in 1912 by his friend and protégée, Sophia Morrison of the Manx Language Society:

“…The three moons in the fall of the year would be called Re-Hollys Mooar yn Ouyr, The Harvest Moon to ripen corn. Re-Hollys mooar ny Cabbil, The Horse Great Moonshine, after which the horses would have to be housed at night. Re-Hollys mooar cooil y cleigh , the Great Moonshine that hove no shadow behind the hedge. Whichever way the weather was on the first of these moons, it would be expected to be the same all three…”

None of the other moon names – if such existed – survive. These were the Great Moonlights’ and it seems that a conjunction between these and the Manx name for the period of ‘Lughnasa’ need to be accounted for. Indeed, the Manx preserved intact a lot more of their pagan lore than the Irish and British, as accounted for by their reputation for belief in spirits and the second sight, and their diverse folklore filled with pagan themes.

There was a common belief before the 19thC that the moon played a part in the ripening and growth processes of animals and vegetation, and this generally informed harvest or slaughter times. This could certainly account for the customary importance of the moon in the Manx harvest quarter, where such lunar beliefs were noted by folklorists of the late 19thC and early 20thC. It is also worth noting that the Old English word for ‘month’ was ‘monath’, meaning ‘moon’, indicating that pagan Anglo-Saxons probably originally followed a lunar calendar.

So take a reality adjustment: Forget Lug or Lugh at Luanasa. Look for the moon instead! Isn’t it only the ‘sun’ of the Otherworld?…

The Celtic Sun God

“…in ancient days first of the long-haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme; And those who pacify with blood accursed savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, and Taranis’ altars cruel as were those loved by Diana, goddess of the north; All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards, whose martial lays send down to distant times the fame of valorous deeds in battle done, pour forth in safety more abundant song. While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars to know or not to know; secluded groves your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men seek not the dismal homes of Erebus or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life still rules these bodies in another age…” Lucan –Pharsalia 1stC AD

Lucan’s famous account attempts, in a few lines, to sum up the whole religious worldview of the defeated Gauls – one which he portrays as once savage and dangerous. He names four gods – Teutates, Hesus and Taranis, and very interestingly ‘Diana, goddess of the north’. It is perhaps surprising that he fails to mention by name the two particular gods who seem from epigraphic, numismatic, literary and historical evidence to have been very prominent in religious landscape of the Celts: Bel(enos) and Lug.

Julius Caesar, instigator of the ‘glorious’ events recounted in the Pharsalia, claimed that Mercury was the Gauls’ chief god:

“…They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions…” (De Bello Gallico, Book 6)

Secondarily he mentions that they also worshipped Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. ‘Teutatis’, ‘Esus’ and ‘Taranis’ are the names Lucan gives for Caesar’s interpretatio romanum of ‘Apollo’, ‘Mars’ and ‘Jupiter’ but in Pharsalia, he substitutes ‘Minerva’ with ‘Diana’. Given that he was writing almost 100 years after Caesar’s Gaulish conquest, it is fair to say that he may have had better information, but it is clear from the tone of Pharsalia that Lucan considered continental Celtic culture (except, of course, for the poetic arts) to already have been largely smashed and replaced by the Romans. So what of the Gaulish ‘Mercury’ mentioned by Caesar? On this he seems – on the face of things – to be silent, but analysis reveals a more interesting aspect:

It is fairly self-evident from Pharsalia, that Lucan has used Caesar as his source, albeit updated with the names of the indigenous gods. Lucan’s version, however, commences not with a mention of Mercury but with the allusions to the overly-proud barbarians and their fiery flowing locks of hair. Pride, as they say, comes before a fall – and perhaps the greatest and well-known example of this for the people of the ancient Roman world was the story of Alexander of Macedonia – whose ambition so famously over-reached his ability to outlive his conquests. The Celts were well aware of Alexander – they used his image on almost all of their coins.

A horned Alexander from a coin of the Sequani (Jura mountains, France)

A horned Alexander from a coin of the Sequani (Jura mountains, France)

So, what is the connection between Celts, Roman Mercury and Alexander? Caesar’s statement about the ‘many images’ of Mercury is interesting when one considers the most prevalent images created by the Celts were not apparently statuary idols, but coins. To the Romans and Greeks, Mercury (Hermes) was the god of trade, crafts and was generally seen as what Plato might have termed a Daemone or spiritual intermediary between man and the gods. He was also the god of poets such as Lucan perhaps being the reason Lucan does him honour with a form of circumlocution when repeating Caesar’s account of Celtic religion. Mercury was also the psychopomp who conveyed the souls of the dead on their mystical journey – something which was of core interest to Celtic religion, and upon which Lucan remarks. He was usually depicted wearing a winged traveller’s sun-hat or petasus and with winged shoes. It is therefore not inconceivable that the similarity between the ‘horned Alexander’ iconography of the coins and the images of Mercury common in the Greek and Roman world led to Caesar’s assertion that the Gauls venerated Mercury as their chief god. Indeed, on the Gallo-Roman ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’ from Lutetia (modern Paris) on the Seine, the horned figure ‘Cernunnos’ occurs. Note that his horns are adorned with rings – possibly symbolic of the older form of Celtic money before coins became popular:

Horned figure from the 'Pillar of the Boatmen', named 'Cernunnos'.

Horned figure from the ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’, named ‘Cernunnos’.

‘Cernunnos’ is a name obviously derived from the Celtic name for ‘Soldier’ (Cern), and he appears to be wearing a helmet with stags antlers on it: The image of the stag with adorned antlers is specifically associated with therut’ during which combats occur over mating rights, typically at territorial boundaries such as on plains near river crossings (such as with the battles in the Irish epic tale Tain bo Culainge). In a warrior-pastoralist culture the link between battles and fecundity is explicit in this image. In the same way, the branch is a symbol of fecundity for more arable-agrarian societies, and was widely used in Greek and Roman iconography. In fact, the antlers combine both images on account of their shape.  Wings for that matter are also branched, as are bolts of lightning and rivers. The Pillar des Nautes is awash with Roman-Celtic syncretism.

So – the god of wealth and fertility whom Caesar likened to Mercury and had ‘many images’ made of him was represented using the traditional image of Alexander with a cornucopia attached to his head. Lucan’s triple-set of names: Teutates, Hesus and Taranis (and their ‘blood-stained’ altars) may well all be a ‘triple aspect’ of the one he leaves un-named, teasing us with his palpable circumlocution of the underlying divinity he must have realised was represented. Lucan was a clever lad, and the gods (no doubt Mercury himself) were to receive him into Elysium at a young age – a ‘rock and roll’ life and death.

But what about ‘Belenos’? Or, for that matter, ‘Lugus’? What even of the ancestor-god Caesar remarked upon as being called (or like) Dis Pater…. Might they all be one and the same?

In terms of likeness to Mercury, it is Lug(us) who has usually been given this honour, and for whom there have been parallels found in the mythology of the ‘surviving’ Celtic language cultures of Wales (Lleu) and Ireland (Lugh), both of which associate with crafts. Lug (like Belenos) appears in placenames and inscriptions from all across the Atlantic European world, and into the reaches of the Danube river basin.

Evidence for Belenos’ prominence is shown by tribal or kin-group designations such as ‘Belgae‘, and personal names such as that of British King Cunobellin(us) (1stC AD).   In the early medieval ‘Harleian Genealogies’ (British Library Harleian MS 3859) of the Kings of west Britain (Wales) and the ‘Henn Ogled’ (Old North – Southern Scotland down to Lancashire), ‘Beli’ and his wife ‘Anna’ are named as the ultimate ancestors of King Owen of Gwynedd. Anna is even said (like Brighid in Ireland) to be a relative of the Virgin Mary – further proof of attempts at early christianising attempts at syncresis with biblical narratives:

“…Beli magni filius, et Anna, mater eius, quam dicunt esse consobrina Mariae uirginis, matris Domini nostri Iesu Christi. …”

With the Romanisation of the barbarian Celtic cultures, the worship of Bel/Belenos would become submerged in the cult of Apollo, demonstrating that Bel/Belenos was an overtly solar deity.

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of 'Minerva Aquae Sulis' at Bath displayed this magnificent head of 'Manannan'. Note the 'solar' rays of the hair and the 'watery' appearance of the beard...

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of ‘Minerva Aquae Sulis’ at Bath displayed this magnificent head of  ‘Apollo  Grannus’. Note the ‘solar’ rays of the hair and the ‘watery’ appearance of the beard…

The association of Apollo Grannus with Mars at various spa shrines in the Romano-Celtic world maintains the martial link of the Celts’ beloved warrior/sun-god icon, Alexander, whose conquests (and failure) had inspired the Celtic invasion of the Balkans, Thrace, Macedonia, Greece and Phrygia in the 3rdC BCE. At some of these, the ‘Celtic’ Mars is also sometimes depicted in attire we would more associate with Mercury, demonstrating a syncresis between the two Roman gods in the Celtic mindset:

A 'Celtic Mars' - note the combined imagery of Mercury and the warrior

A ‘Celtic Mars’ – note the combined imagery of Mercury and the warrior

Some depictions even show Mars with wings – perhaps a convenient spiritual representation of what the Celts desired: Death in glorious battle and an ‘autopsychopompic’ flight to the Otherworld.

A 'winged Mars'. Cunobelinus had a winged figure on some his 1stC CE coins.

A ‘winged Mars’ – A winged figure is also seen on some Celtic 1stC BCE/CE coins. The horse depicted is also sometimes winged.

The conjecture I should like to raise again is this:

That the Atlantic Europeans before the Romans had a principally duotheistic religion comprising of a god and a goddess who each had a ‘triple’ identity. The imposition of Roman culture and then the overlay of Christianity created a ‘Celtic Pantheon’ which in truth never really existed. ‘Lugh’, ‘Belenos’, ‘Teutates’, ‘Esus’, ‘Taranis’ were all epithets of the same solar deity who conducted the souls of the dead in their Otherworld destinations. His companion ‘Diana’ (De Áine) had similar multiple-epithets and was associated with the worldy creation and manifestation.

Balor of the ‘Evil Eye’

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 OtherworldManannán 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.