Archive for March 2011

The Birth of Lugus I: Towards a reconstruction

13.3.11 § 1 commentarius

While not having a great deal of personal involvement with him, I probably find Lugus the most fascinating of all Celtic deities. He’s one of the few deities that we can be sure was worshipped across the Celtic world, with attestations for him among the Gauls, the Irish, the Celtiberians, the Welsh and the pre-Roman Britons, and the complexity of the Mediaeval stories surrounding him is rather beguiling.

His Welsh reflex, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, is attested primarily in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, although it is not unlikely that he is also reflected in Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys. Today, in an effort to interest myself in, well, anything, I re-read the former in Will Parker’s translation of the the Four Branches- a work I find fascinating and infuriating in equal measures.

Now, I’m well aware that the mediaeval Welsh stories are a product entirely of their time and culture, and that one cannot read them as if by simply deleting all overtly Christian references one would arrive at a “Pure Celtic” proto-myth. For a start, we don’t know how much of the stories the redactor simply made up, or modified in order to better convey his (or her- the arguments that the Mabinogi was written by a woman are actually fairly persuasive) point, and how much is drawn from earlier traditions. To assume that the redactor was like some High Mediaeval precursor to those Victorian folklorists who toured the country faithfully recording folktales, giving these druidic myths only the lightest of Christian veneers is a fatuous idea: that kind of thinking leads us to such horrors as The 21 Lessons of Merlin, Caitlin Matthews and much of modern druidry.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but reading them with a comparativist’s eye, and find it interesting to speculate upon what the “original” myths might have looked like. Particularly of interest to me is the story of Lleu’s conception. Parker’s own speculations on the same are interesting, and his reconstruction of the proto-Celtic mythologem is, in my opinion, persuasive in outline. Below is a slightly abridged version of the beginning of his reconstruction[1]:

*Uuidianos comes from the North and steals the sacred pigs from the aboriginal tribe of the chieftain *Nouda. As a result, the People of *Dânouuiâ defeat Nouda and gain power over the land. In the midst of this chaos, Uuidianos is able to insinuate his way into the island-tower where the sun-giant Belenos has hidden his daughter to protect her virginity. It has been prophesied that should this daughter give birth to a son, the boy would kill her father. After sleeping with Uuidianos, the giant’s daughter gives birth to two baby boys, one of whom immediately turns into a seal and heads for the sea. The other child is nursed and reared, grows and achieves great acclaim even as a boy.

This reconstruction is, of course, an attempt to reconcile the Irish story of Lugh’s conception with that of Lleu: the two stories are at once tantalisingly similar yet obstinately different. While in broad outline, I think that Parker has been overly ambitious here. While his thesis of the “Indigenous Otherworld” is not without merit, I fail to see his point in making *Nouda (recte: *Noudons) its chieftain, nor the victim of the theft. Similarly, I am not sure that Belenos is the deity behind Balor. My own reconstruction is given below, with explanatory notes following:

There is a virginal maiden kept isolated in a tower in the sea(1) by a guardian who wants her to remain a virgin(2). A shape-changing deity(3) is involved in the theft of otherworldly livestock(4). As a result(5), the virginal maiden and the shape-changing deity have sex and the maiden becomes pregnant. The result of this pregnancy is a multiple birth(6): the first children are consigned to the sea, while the last is rescued, raised elsewhere and grows up to be Lugus.
  1. Lugh’s mother Ethniu was imprisoned by her father Balor on Tory Island. Arianrhod’s home was supposed to be an island off the coast of Dinas Dinlle (there’s a rock formation visible there at low tide called “Caer Arianrhod”).
  2. In the Irish story it’s because her father is concerned that her son will kill him. In the Fourth Branch Math’s footholder must remain a virgin.
  3. After being struck by a druid’s wand, Lugh’s father Cían, could turn himself into a pig. Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy were turned into pigs by Math ap Mathonwy.
  4. In the Mabinogi, the livestock are the swine Pryderi received from Arawn. In the Irish tale, it was Goibniu’s cow.
  5. How the theft relates to what follows varies. In the Irish story, Cían finds Ethniu while tracking down Goibniu’s cow, which had been stolen by Balor. In the Fourth Branch, Gwydion steals Pryderi’s pigs in order to provide a diversion for his brother’s rape of Goewin. Either way, livestock gets stolen and a virgin gets knocked up as a consequence.
  6. In the Irish story triplets, in the Mabinogi twins.

While attempting to include the main correspondences between both narratives, my reconstruction probably conforms most closely to the Irish story. Given the greater breadth and detail of the Irish material, this is not an uncommon occurrence in Celtic comparative mythology. However, in this case we should exercise caution: the complete Irish narrative actually postdates the composition of the Mabinogi quite significantly. Nevertheless, I feel that there’s enough material of genuine antiquity here to work with. For the sake of argument, let’s accept the above outline and focus on some of the difficulties of the Welsh story, starting with how the actors of the Fourth Branch fit into this proto-myth.

The shape-changing god: The precise nature of Lleu’s paternity is never overtly stated in the Mabinogi, although it is commonly that Gwydion is his father. In the Harleian genealogies, which provide us with out first Welsh attestation of Lleu, the father of Lou hen is given as Guidgen. If the ultimate etymon of “Gwydion” is *Widugenos “born of the woods”, this could represent a native tradition that Gwydion is Lleu’s father. Similarly, it is commonly inferred that the “shame” to which Arianrhod continually refers to in her encounters with Gwydion and Lleu is the sin of incest: that the father of her son was her brother (sc. Gwydion).

That said, Arianrhod had at least two brothers: Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. I think it’s probable that in the Welsh myth we’ve seen a split, that the violated virgin has been split off from the virgin who was Lugus’ mother: that Goewin and Arianrhod were originally one and the same character. That would place Lleu’s conception at Goewin’s rape, making his father Gilfaethwy. The text describing Goewin’s rape seems to me to be slightly ambiguous. Goewin, in her confession to Math, points the finger of blame not solely at Gilfaethwy, but also at Gwydion. This to me implies that perhaps both Gilfaethwy and Gwydion violated Goewin.

A third possible father figure here is Hyfaidd fab Dôn. In the White and Red Book versions of the Branch the two brothers who fulfil Math’s kingly duties on the circuit for him are not Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, but Gilfaethwy and Hefeydd[2]. That this is simply a scribal slip is possible, but seems unlikely: “Gwydyon” and “Eueyd” are not particularly close in spelling or pronunciation.

Of course, this provokes the question of which pre-Christian figures (if any) are lurking behind the characters in the Mabinogi. Let’s look at each in turn:

  • Gwydion is a puzzle. Etymologically, Gwydion could be either from *Widugenos, as mentioned above, or from *Wetyonos, which presents a few problems philologically speaking. Both these putative etyma open interesting perspectives. The latter etymon is most likely derived from the PIE *wet- “prophesy, see”, which with lengthened o-grade gives Proto-Celtic *wātis, which is the form underlying the ὀυάτεις of Strabo (rendered into English as “ovate”). The same root also underlies the Germanic theonym *Wōðanaz. The implication here is a god of magic and frenzy, and indeed Gwydion is a magician and trickster.
    The former etymology *Widugenos “wood-born” is the one I personally lean towards, although I concede that the evidence is somewhat tenuous. Part of the reason why I favour this derivation is because we have ample evidence for a pre-Christian Celtic deity who was associated with forests: Cernunnos. As outlined in a paper by Ceisiwr Serith, the iconography of Cernunnos points to his being a reflex of the Indo-European “pastoral” god, who is also reflected in the Greek Pan and the Vedic Pūṣan. This deity was primarily a god of liminal spaces and those who go between them. While the word “shamanic” tends to be trotted out all too readily by scholars of ancient religions, I do not think that in this case it is unwarranted. The portfolio of this god includes the wilderness and those who dwell there (and thus by extension herdsmen and traders), the journey to and from the afterlife and, of course, prophecy and magic. Gwydion raises Lleu outside the bounds of society, he is the herdsman who obtains a new kind of livestock for his people, he coaxes Lleu back from death. For these reasons, I see Gwydion as the Welsh reflex of Cernunnos.
  • Hefeydd’s name can be traced with some confidence back to a Proto-Celtic *Ogmiyos, who is an actual attested pre-Christian deity. If the mention of Hefeydd in the Red and White Book manuscripts is not a slip of the scribe’s quill, it is possible then that at one point the tale concerned three brothers rather than two, and Hefeydd’s role has been blended with that of the others. In this, I think that it is perhaps particularly relevant that during the episode at Pryderi’s court Gwydion is referred to as the best cyfarwydd (story-teller). Ogmios is known as a god of eloquence, his iconography shows followers connected to his tongue by chains. Note also that it is Gwydion who meets and defeats Pryderi in single combat. Ogmios’ Irish reflex Ogma is the champion of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and in the Cath Maige Tuired he functions as Lug’s champion specifically.
  • Gilfaethwy is possibly the most curious of the three characters. After the rape of Goewin and his subsequent zoomorphic punishment, he simply fades from the story, nor does he to my knowledge crop up elsewhere in the corpus. Etymologically, his name is something of a puzzler as well. Ifor Williams suggests that the first element of the name, gilf- could be an alternate spelling of gylf “knife”. Isaac Graham suggests that the second element is actually daethwy, a toponym meaning “burnt place”, the whole name meaning “knife of the burnt place”[3]. “Daethwy” as a topoymic element is confined to the mediaeval commote of Dindaethwy (”fort of the burnt place”), in the east of Anglesey. Given the intensely local nature of the name, it’s difficult to see how Gilfaethwy is anything but a literary invention.

The virgin: as I mention above, I think it’s likely that Goewin and Arianrhod represent a bifurcation of one original character. But who is that original character? Arianrhod, as we all know, is a difficult figure in the texts. She has no clear proto-Celtic antecedent, if any at all. It’s commonly suggested that she is a “moon goddess”, based on the meaning of her name (i.e. “silver wheel”), but even that is unsure: her name is also attested as Aranrhod, which form precludes an etymon in *Argantorotā. Aside from the name, there appears to be very little within the textual tradition indicating any particular association with the moon. Indeed, Celtic moon-deities in general are conspicuous by their absence.

Her guardian: in the Irish story, the role of the virgin’s guardian is straightforward: Balor is the leader of the enemies of the gods. He is commonly perceived as the personification of drought, a conclusion which I find little problem with. Math fab Mathonwy, however, is a more ambiguous figure. He is not the villain of the piece, indeed he goes on to help Gwydion’s schemes with Lleu. He is not perceived as an outsider, rather he is the lawful sovereign of Gwynedd.

What he is not, however, is very kingly. His “peculiarity” of having to have his feet in the lap of a virgin when not at war prevents him from exercising all the functions of kingship. He isn’t lauded for his brave deeds, his justice or his generosity. Indeed, he does not fit into the mould of a typical Celtic ruler at all. What he is however, is a practitioner of magic. He turns Gwydion and Gilfaethwy into animals, his wand can reveal the status of a virgin. Interestingly, Parker points out that Mathonwy could be cognate to Mathgen, the name of a druid in the Irish stories about Lugh. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that Math’s name is in fact derived from Goidelic.

Parker makes a cogent case that one of the primary folkloric motifs in the Lugus-cycle is the prophesied death of an old king. Assuming he’s correct, I suspect that Math’s “original” role within this myth was not the king fated to die; but rather more akin to the role of Mathgen in the Irish myths and indeed Math’s role later on in the fourth Branch, that is a “helper” to the hero.

I think that this is as far as we can go without bringing in other material. In my next post, I shall try to place the ideas above in a wider comparative context.


1) Parker, Will. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi: Celtic Myth and Medieval Reality. Bardic Press, 2005.

2) The relevant passage reads as follows in the Red Book (spelling vaguely regularised and manuscript conventions excised): Ac ny allei gylchu y wlat, namyn Giluaethwy uab Don ac Eueyd uab Don y nyeint ueibon y chwaer ar teulu gyt ac wy y gylchu y wlat dros daw. He [Math] could not go on the circuit of the land, but Gilfaethwy son of Dôn and Efeydd son of Dôn his nephews, sons of his sister, and the household with them, went on the circuit on his behalf.

3) As explained in an email cited on this page.

Pissing in the Pierian Spring

10.3.11 § 3 commentarii

Earlier on today I managed to work myself into a complete and utter funk. In an effort to cheer myself up, I had decided to translate one of Aesop’s fables, probably into Gallo-Brittonic, so I went and found the original text. To my not inconsiderable consternation, I discovered that I couldn’t understand a bloody word.

Why I should have felt put out by this though is absolutely beyond me. It’s entirely irrational. I never bloody studied bloody Greek. I did Latin at school for six years[1]. What Greek I do know has entirely been gleaned from handbooks on Proto-Indo-European and fitful efforts with a teach yourself book which have always gently petered out some time after the aorist is introduced. I have nothing against the aorist, it’s just that my attention wanders and I start reading about clitic structures in Modern Western Armenian. So I have a working knowledge of the language’s morphology, and can recognise cognates fairly easily. However I managed to convince myself that this might translate into even a basic reading knowledge is beyond me. I still get confused over the breathings, for god’s sake. I can never remember if the one that looks like a c is a dasia or a psili.

Nevertheless, this ego-shaking discovery set me on a plainly insane spiral of panic. I began to question whether this was actually the case for all the languages I think I know. Panicking, I began to paw madly through my books, attempting to reassure myself that it wasn’t. Can I still actually read Old English? Sweet’s Reader in Prose and Verse came out: thank fuck, I can still understand it[2]. German: check. Cornish: yes, but still failing to see the point. Now for the big test: have I retained my Latin? Yes, I have. Barely. It’s a good eleven years since I had any formal instruction in it, and being honest these days I’m far more familiar with Latin as the raw material which would become the Romance languages. Those structures and morphology lost in Vulgar Latin tend to give me trouble, and I have to remind myself that focus, say, does not mean “fire”. On the other hand, I feel confident enough that I could translate a reasonable length of text with only minimal recourse to a grammar. Unless it was Tacitus or Virgil, obviously. Something by Cato, perhaps.

Of course, it doesn’t help that I set unreasonably high standards for myself. I honestly don’t think I will be content, for example, until I can write basic texts without aid in all the major extant Romance languages, excluding the silly ones like Gallo or Romagnol. And Wallon, obviously, which I am convinced is actually a collective hallucination caused by an unhealthy exposure to cow dung. When I look at all the languages I’ve tried to learn, I feel very depressed and realise that I’ve done no more than dabble with virtually all of them. One of the courses I had to attend at university was all about “getting to know yourself as a language learner”, and it was as dull as it sounds. However, I have subsequently realised something very important about myself as a language learner: a mere interest (even a strong one) in a language is not enough motivation for me to actually stick to it. It is no coincidence that most of the languages in which I maintain a reasonable competence are those which I had to study: French, Latin, German and Italian at school because it wasn’t something I could get out of, and Spanish at work, because there was no way of communicating with half the staff otherwise. I needed to know these languages for practical purposes: passing exams, asking where the hell the fish hasn’t been cut yet. Old English I scraped through by pegging it to my German lessons. Cornish I’m not entirely sure how to explain. It’s like a feral cat that finds a sucker who’ll feed it and subsequently keeps turning up at unexpected intervals yowling piteously.

All this has convinced me that I simply can’t do independent learning for any length of time. My attention wanders, my motivation fades and I start doing something else. I need someone to keep me at it. In order to test this theory, and to reassure myself that it’s just a lack of motivation that’s the problem rather than some kind of sudden inability to learn languages, I’m thinking of taking lessons in a language I don’t actually speak. Possibly Russian, as Japanese and Mandarin make me nauseous, and the only other course on offer at the moment is “Get By in Portuguese”, which sounds positively dreadful.


1) Having said that, though, had I not dropped out after only half a term in the Lower Sixth, I’m relatively certain that I could have persuaded my Latin teacher to add Greek into the curriculum. I often wonder what my life would be like had I not actually succumbed to the tedious teenage bacchanal of drugs, booze, casual sex and casual violence but rather continued with my education. More erudite, possibly, but certainly less rich in anecdotes suitable for startling elderly relatives.

2) I taught myself Old English while still a teenager, possibly as a result of Tolkien, possibly as a result of being really interested in runes at the time, I forget which. What I do remember is being entirely insufferable about it. Half of one English Lit class every week would be set aside for pupils to read something of their own choosing, the principle being to “get kids reading”. I remember smugly taking in an untranslated copy of Beowulf, and smugly waiting, just waiting to be taken to task for this so I could smugly point out that it was actually English and therefore perfectly admissible. Instead the teacher asked me to translate a few lines and pulled me up on mistranslating a preposition and thereby completely mangling the sense. He had done his MA thesis on some aspect of Beowulf. Not infrequently do I think that my aforementioned sink into depravity was probably a benefit to all concerned. The violent, promiscuous drunkard I turned into was infinitely preferable to the insufferable little prig I could have become.