The Tuatha Dé Danann came back to Éireann leaving their four great cities and unifying as one people to journey to their ancestral homeland. A foretelling of their coming by the wizard Cesard of the Fir Bolg described them as follows;
“Warriors are coming across the sea, a thousand heroes covering the ocean; speckled ships will press in upon us; all kinds of death they announce, a people skilled in every art, a magic spell; . . . they will be victorious in every stress.”
So what kind of person could lead this tribe of heroes, artisans, and practitioners of every magic? What does it take to bring your people out of oppression, into a new land and seek a home there?
The answer, it seems, is Nuada of the Silver Arm, Nuada Airgetlám.
The spelling of Nuada’s name appears in many forms within Irish literature, this being common enough when the tales moved from the original oral format into writing. You see it written as Nuadha, Nuadea, Nuadai but in all cases this refers to the one deity. The etymology of this name is as complex as one would expect with some linguists translating it as ‘cloudmaker’ or ‘catcher’ using a variety of indo-european and proto-indo-european words. However given that all of these are in essence reconstructions of ancient languages there is much that could be misconstrued.
Some even take these root words as a possible connection to another named Irish God, Nechtan who was said to be married to Boann and connected with rivers and water working. This Boann connection in turn suggests a connection to Brú na Boinne, now known as Newgrange, and a further individual named Elcmar. Though there are linguistic possibilities to support this, it is also wise to be wary of forcing commonality where none might otherwise exist.
What is beyond dispute though is Nuada’s very famous epithet, Airgetlám (in modern Irish, Airgeadlámh) which means silver hand/arm, so he is ‘Nuada of the Silver Arm’, in English. Now this is no affected descriptor like the more common ‘silver tongue’ applied to one who is a smooth talker. Nuada’s silver arm is a very literal prosthesis, crafted for him after a mortal wounding from Shreng, champion of the fir Bolg, during the first battle of Moytura. Having survived the war, and lost his seat as king because of the blemish on his form, Nuada has a replacement crafted for him but Credne the God of fine metal work, and Dian Cecht the God of healing. This prosthetic was said to have ‘the Vigour of every hand in it’, meaning it performed the full range of motion as his original arm. So the epithet in this case was a very real descriptor of the deity.
Who is Nuada in Celtic Mythology?
We are often asked what each Irish deity is ‘God of’ and though there are no set roles or domains in the Irish pantheon, there are areas of influence in which a God’s predisposition might align. So of course the only way to know those areas, is to get to know the deity themself.
Nuada, like the rest of the Tuatha Dé Dannan are descended from the Nemed tribe who once lived in Ireland. The sons of Nemed were forced to emigrate from the island because of oppression from a foreign power. Beotach ‘of the clear-spoken judgments’ Mac Nemed led his group of emigrants out to ‘the islands of the north and west’. It was in their time away from Ireland that these people grew not just in number but also in knowledge of crafts, heroics, and druidry and it was as one people they would eventually return as the Tuatha Dé Danann.
When the Fir Bolg king’s prophetic dream was unravelled for him by Cesard his druid, we gain some insight into the nature of this new tribe. They are described as ‘a thousand heroes’ and ‘a people skilled in every art’. What then does it say of Nuada that these ‘thousand Heroes’ ‘skilled in every art’ had him as their first king, not just to rule, but to lead them into the home of their ancestors?
Warrior – Nuada is of course one of the greatest warriors of his tribe. He had not just seen battle but also led others in it. It was Nuada who was chosen to wield the ‘Cliabh Solais’ or sword of light which was one of the four great treasures the tribe brought out of Gorias on their journey home. This weapon was said to be so mighty that once drawn, ‘no battle could be stood against it’.
When the arrival in Ireland is challenged we see that Nuada is aware of the loss that battle brings and so his first overtures to the Fir Bolg are ones of peace and cohabitation in the island. When the attempts are rebuffed and he is resigned to the conflict, he still works to ensure that it will be one of battle skills, not some technical advantage. The Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann send craftsmen to each other so that the knowledge of spears may be exchanged for that of javelins.
When the days of conflict came, Nuada took to the field himself and suffered the price of bodily harm, pain and loss and though he personally suffered, it was still by his words that peace was agreed and the Fir bolg given their own lands in the west of the island to call home.
King – Nuada is given as not just the first king of the Tuatha De Danann, but also through some strange circumstance, it’s third. After the close of the war with the Fir bolg, Nuada’s grievous injury was considered a physical blemish and under the laws of kingship he could no longer rule. It was into this power gap that Bres came, and though many thought he would bring a balance of peace between the tribe of his mother and the Fomorian’s who were the tribe of his father, the opposite was to come to pass. Bres favoured his father’s people to the detriment of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Through the wondrous skills of Miach, son of Dian Cecht, Nuada’s original arm was restored to him and the physical blemish removed. Around the same time Bres’ rule came to an end compounded by his own deeds. A King must never give a false judgement nor could he be without hospitality. Bres wrongfully judged the Dagda as a murderer in a case of death by mishap involving a fomorian lampooner who had been threatening the God as he laboured. Yet it was not until Bres gave extremely poor hospitality to Caipre, a bard, that he earned the legal satire against his name. Satire being considered a blemish as assuredly as a wounding, Bres was deposed and the people called for Nuada.
Judge – By now it should be clear that a king was not just someone of privileged title. Irish kings were beholden to their tribe to provide safety, security, fair judgement and, warm welcome. A good King was said to wed the land and under their rule the island would be abundant and prosperous.
Nuada was a person of kingly judgments and one of the most interesting decisions of his was to step aside from the kingship he had been restored to in favour of one who would see his people best survive. The fall of Bres could only lead to a Fomorian invasion and so it was by Nuada’s judgement that the newly arrived Lugh should take up the seat of the king instead of himself.
From here Nuada gathers the greatest members from among the tribe and hosts a war council so that his people might be best prepared. In this we see the wise judgement of not just a warrior facing conflict, but of a king focused on what is best for his people, not just himself. It is said that in this second battle upon the plains of Moytura Nuada and his wife Macha fell.
What Does Nuada Look Like?
Descriptions of deities are few in Irish lore and in many cases the words used when talking of them are often allegory. When we look at the language itself there are sometimes differing meanings applied to a word depending on which words group around it. What we can say of Nuada is therefore understandably limited.
When Eochaid king of the Fir Bolg described his vision, he spoke of ‘a great flock of black birds’ coming in across the island from the sea and that one of his people ‘struck the noblest of the birds and cut off one of its wings’.
It’s possible to presume the ‘black’ applying to Nuada but as with a lot of visions images may be less about the physical and more about the essence of a character. If we consider things from this angle then the word we should look to is in fact ‘noble’.
Going from what we have already learned about this deity, it is likely that Nuada of the silver arm presents as a warrior in form and taking his weapon as a sword he would no doubt have the shoulder, arms and hands to best swing it.
What might be of more interest is the aspect that, though his form was restored in full, one cannot erase the lessons that pain and debility teach. Looking upon Nuada would be akin to seeing a survivor, one who knows pain and loss, but doesn’t let it define him.
Who is Nuada of the Silver Arm Today?
Nuada is an immigrant descended from an emigrant, returning to the land of his ancestors. He is a leader of his tribe, but his leadership is based on his good judgement and understanding that his purpose is not to serve himself but to serve his people.
Nuada is a deity who has known pain and loss, not just figuratively in a loss of status but in a visceral and literal manner with the harm done upon his body. He experienced all of that and yet overcame it to carry on in service to his people. He is a survivor but is not made harsh or callous by his loss, nor defensive or resentful of his status.
Nuada is the one hero in a thousand that all others would follow and it is by his good judgement and care for his tribe that he can still be considered the noblest.
Where To Now?
If you think that Nuada of the Silver Arm is interesting, and might even be an Irish God you’d like to explore further, you can always: