A to Z: Lugh

Published April 13, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

This one is going to prove to be more of a challenge than I expected when I picked him…

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegTen Wiki. Click for link.

Lugh appears in a number of Shin Megami Tensei games (though in the two Persona 2 games, he’s called by one of his other names, Idanach/Il-Dana), but in Devil Survivor 2 he’s a vital plot element.  The Devil Survivor sub-series functions around the premise of limited-range, hyper-accurate predictions of the future, specifically, death predictions which the player can use to prevent the deaths from taking place.  (There are a few characters whose deaths have to be prevented (including the hero, obviously!), but most of the others, if the player messes up, they’ll have to either go on with that character dead, or they’ll have to load a saved game.)  In Devil Survivor 2, a secret organization has sealed powerful demons throughout Japan, and is now having to unseal them in order to fight off a threat to the whole world.  Of course, it’s the player character and his party who are actually doing all the unsealing (and most of the fighting), but Lugh’s seal was compromised, requiring a lot more work, and a medium to facilitate the summoning.  And if the player did the wrong things before the battle, the summoning can cause the death of the medium.  (From what I hear, it’s a particularly horrible death, too.  Thankfully, I haven’t seen it myself.)

…y’know, I’m not sure that was actually relevant information to the post…

Okay, moving on, this is what the Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker compendium has to say about Lugh:

A sun god of Irish lore.  His name means “flashing light.”

He is skilled in many arts, carries his spear Areadbhar, and is known as the Long Arm.

He is father to Cu Chulainn and is said to have many wives, including Bui.  His grandfather Balor was also his greatest foe; during the battle of Magh Tuireadh he pierced Balor’s evil eye with a magic stone.

All right, so first and foremost, since the game text is vague on this point, I’ll be clear:  Lugh is the Irish name for an important god who was present throughout the Celtic world.  He’s not an exclusively Irish figure, though what I’ll be discussing today is strictly the Irish version.  (In the same way that if I was discussing a Roman god, I wouldn’t insert stories about his Greek counterpart.  Not without identifying them as such, anyway.)

As to his name meaning “flashing light”…I’m not sure where to look to get a reputable source.  The Wikipedia article is actually flagged for disputed facts in the section on the meaning and etymology of the name Lugh, so I don’t feel like I can trust much of what it says there.  Though this part seems reputable (if only because of the direct citation right in the text):

He appears in folklore as a trickster, and in County Mayo thunderstorms were referred to as battles between Lugh 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)”.[47]

I’m not really sold on the idea that he’s a sun god, to be honest.  There’s nothing in his story (which I’ll get to in a minute) that really implies any power over or even particular connection to the sun.  It’s hard to know who any of the Gaulish gods were because the Romans (like the Greeks before them) only ever referred to them by the name of the Roman god they figured the “barbarians” were actually worshiping under the wrong name.  However, Lugh (under his Gaulish name) may have been the god that Julius Caesar decided was Mercury…and Mercury has no particular connection to sun gods apart from having once stolen his brother Apollo’s cattle.  (And also having had sex with a(n unaware and sleeping) woman Apollo was courting…*cough*…)

All right, so that aside, the other small points in the game text before I get to Lugh’s story, are his epithet and the name of his wife.  He had four wives (I don’t know if they were contemporaneous or consecutive) and at least one important mistress, and yes, one of them was named Bui, but I wasn’t able to find out what about her makes her more significant than the others.  (She’s the one who always gets listed, though, so something must.  Maybe she was just the primary/first wife?)  As to his epithet, it’s just one of many:

Lámfada ([ˈlaːwad̪ˠə], meaning “long arm” or “long hand”), possibly for his skill with a spear or sling, Ildánach (“skilled in many arts”), Samildánach (“equally skilled in many arts”), Lonnbéimnech (“fierce striker”), Macnia (“youthful warrior/hero”)[4] and Conmac (“hound-son”).[5] As to ancestry, Lugh is given the matrinamemac Ethlenn or mac Ethnenn (“son of Ethliu or Ethniu“, his mother) and the patriname mac Cein (“son of Cian“, his father).[4]

Now that that’s over with, let’s get to the story of Lugh, which will culminate in the other reason that I have trouble seeing him as a “sun god.”

Lugh’s story starts with Balor, who hears a prophecy that he’ll be killed by his own grandson.  Like everyone in every folktale/myth/legend ever, he’s not willing to accept a prophecy of something bad happening to him, so he decides to lock his daughter away in a tower, where she’ll be guarded only by women, to ensure she’ll never get pregnant.  Alas for the best laid plains of mice and men!  Also for the best laid plans of giant cyclopean kings.  (Yeah, forgot to mention that, didn’t I?  Balor was king of the giant people called the Fomorians, and he had only one eye, which had a poisonous gaze that would kill anything.  (Or maybe he had a third eye, and that’s what was poisonous?  Everything seems vague on the subject.))

MegaTen’s version of Balor. Again, image copyright Atlus but provided by the MegaTen wiki. Click for link.

So, Balor considered himself safe with his daughter locked away, and went about life as he pleased.  Which included stealing (or taking by trickery) the magic cow that belonged to the Tuatha dé Danann.  That, of course, wasn’t going to be taken quietly, and the cow’s guard, Cian, comes looking for it.  In the process, he finds Balor’s daughter and gets her pregnant with triplets.  Well, Balor still wasn’t going to take that lying down, and he had one of his men take the babies to drown them.  Two of them were successfully killed, but the third — as you would expect — survived and was given the name Lugh.

Once he grows to be a young man, Lugh (apparently not knowing his parentage?) decides to join the court of the king of the Tuatha dé Danann.  The guard at the gate isn’t having any of that, though, and says he’ll only be allowed in if he has a skill that will help the king.  Lugh offers skill after skill, and the guard tells him that they already have someone with that skill.  Finally, Lugh asks the guard if they already have someone who has all the skills he just listed as his own.  Flummoxed, the guard has to admit that they don’t, and Lugh is allowed in.  The king must have been impressed by him, because he made Lugh the Chief Ollam of Ireland, which seems a bit like Poet Laureate on steroids.  As Lugh is fitting in, proving his mettle in athletic contests and entertaining the court, he learns that the Fomorians are really lording it over the Tuatha dé Danann, and he’s shocked that his new people are not fighting back against their oppressors.

But before he can try to lead the Tuatha dé Danann to freedom, Lugh’s father, Cian, is killed by the sons of one of Cian’s old enemies.  At some point, Lugh has evidently learned at least half his parentage, because he demands recompense from the three brothers for their murder of his father.  This recompense takes the form of an assortment of magical artifacts that the brothers must retrieve for him.  None of them is easy to get, and the last one leaves the brothers so wounded that they’ll die without the healing effects of one of the earlier artifacts, which Lugh refuses to use to save them, so they also die as well as paying the blood price for their actions.  (Evidently, that was acceptable, because Lugh doesn’t seem to have gotten in any trouble for it.)

Backed up with the power of the magical artifacts, Lugh takes the Tuatha dé Danann into battle against their Fomorian oppressors.

MegaTen’s version of a Fomorian. Again, image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen wiki. Click for link.

In the course of the battle, Balor loses his weapon, and opens his deadly eye instead.  With it, he kills the king of the Tuatha dé Danann before Lugh hits his eye with either a sling stone or a spear, putting the eye out and felling Balor to the ground, giving Lugh the chance to cut his head off.  (My sources are not clear on whether or not he had any idea Balor was his grandfather.)

As a result of the battle, Lugh became king, and he ruled for forty years until one of his wives had an affair.  He killed her lover, but then her lover’s sons killed him in vengeance.

But at some point (pre-death, presumably), he did indeed father Sétanta (who would later gain the name Cú Chulainn, “Hound of Chulann”), and offered his son divine succor in some of his adventures, notably in the form of magical healing.

MegaTen’s version of Cu Chulainn. As always, image copyright Atlus, but obtained from the MegaTen wiki. Click for link.

Okay, so with that out of the way, can you guess my other objection to the description of Lugh as a “sun god”?

That’s right, it’s because…

…he freakin’ dies!

Gods aren’t supposed to die!  They’re supposed to be immortal!  (Okay, yeah, the Norse gods all die in Ragnarok, but…)  Not to mention that his story doesn’t seem the least bit divine; the story seems like that of a mortal hero.  I know the Tuatha dé Danann are a higher race than man — sometimes called “faerie,” other times called “gods” — but still.  Also, this story is not about someone that mortals would have any reason to offer up prayers to.  (Though I’d have said that about Achilles, too, and he got prayed to…)

The question is, was he originally a god in a more traditional sense, and the stories were lessened over time?  (We don’t have any that were written down in pre-Christian times, after all.)  Or have later scholars overstepped their bounds in assigning the name of “god” to him?

I don’t have any idea how to even find out.

But speaking of his story…parts of it sounded very familiar, didn’t they?  I mean, yeah, maybe the “self-fulfilling prophecy” part wasn’t as much a thing as it was with Laius and Oedipus, but the “grandfather told he’ll be killed by his grandson sequesters his granddaughter who gets pregnant anyway so he tries to kill the baby but it doesn’t work and he still dies at the grandson’s hands” thing…it pretty much screams Perseus.

That only raises questions, of course.  Are these “pure” myths that have been handed down across the generations since before contact between the Celtic peoples and all Greco-Roman peoples?  Or do these stories represent a syncretism of a Celtic story and the Greco-Roman ones?  And does it actually matter?  (I’m thinking the answer to that last question is “no, not really.”)

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