There are a few different versions of the Irish God Lugh in the mythology of Ireland, but one thing remains core to his character no matter which tales are being told. Lugh is a God of skill and mastery.
The translation for Ildanach that we generally work with means ‘many interlinked skills’ but of course one might wonder what these are these skills and what it is that links them.
Well we can look no further than the tale of the Second Battle of Moytura from Ireland’s mythical cycle. In this story we have the list of skills as presented by Lugh himself. As the story goes, Nuada had been restored to the seat of the king in Tara and there he gathered about him all the great and talented of the Tuatha Dé Danann. It was said that none could enter the hall of the king, but by declaring what skill they had upon them, or in other words, what talents they brought to the Tuath.
When Lugh approaches he is stopped by two doorkeepers, namely Gamal son of Figal and Camall son of Riagall. They put him to the question and he declares the arts, or skills that he is capable of, yet time and again he is refused for there are others already present who possess the skills he claims. What follows is the exchange as translated by Whitley Stokes.
‘Question me’, saith he; ‘I am a wright.’
The doorkeeper answered: ‘We need thee not. We have a wright already, even Luchtae son of Luachaid.’
He said: ‘Question me, O doorkeeper! I am a smith.’
The doorkeeper answered him: ‘We have a smith already, even Colum Cualléinech of the three new processes.’
He said: ‘Question me: I am a champion.’
The doorkeeper answered: ‘We need thee not. We have a champion already, even Ogma son of Ethliu.’
He said again: ‘Question me’, saith he, ‘I am a harper.’
‘We need thee not. We have a harper already, even Abhcán son of Bicelmos whom the Men of the three gods (chose) in the fairy hills.’
Said he: ‘Question me: I am a hero.’
‘The doorkeeper answered:’ ‘We need thee not. We have a hero already, even Bresal Echarlam2 son of Echaid Baethlam.’
Then he said: ‘Question me, O doorkeeper! I am a poet and I am a historian.’.
‘We need thee not. We have already a poet and historian, even En son of Ethaman.’
He said: ‘Question me’, says he, ‘I am a sorcerer.’
‘We need thee not. We have sorcerers already. Many are our wizards and our folk of might.’
He said: ‘Question me: I am a leech.’
‘We need thee not. We have for a leech Dian-cecht.’
‘Question me’, saith he: ‘I am a cupbearer.’
‘We need thee not. We have cupbearers already, even Delt and Drucht and Daithe, Taé and Talom and Trog, Glei and Glan and Glési.’
He said: ‘Question me. I am a good brazier.’
‘We need thee not. We have a brazier already, even Credne Cerd.’
There is a lot to learn from this interaction, not just of Lugh and his skills, but also those of the Tuatha Dé Danann who have equivalent, or superior skill. Listed among the many skilled individuals within the hall is in fact Lugh’s own grandfather, the leech Dian-cecht.What is also interesting is the form of the exchange itself, forming an almost call and response structure that echoes the age old tradition of putting a bard to the ‘ceist’ or question to learn from them what knowledge of the old tales they had to tell.
At the crux of this exchange Lugh, having been rejected for all of his many talents, must find some solution to his problem and in a quick witted turn he says the following;
He said again: ‘Ask the king’, saith he, ‘whether he has a single man who (possesses) all these arts, and if he has I will not enter Tara.’
With this the doorkeepers are stumped and when they bring this question to Nuada he becomes very interested in this ‘ildanach’ who has come to Tara.
For all the claims of Lugh being a singular person in which many talents are linked, no King worthy of his seat would retain it long where he to not put matters to the test. So it is with Nuada for when the new arrival enters the hall the King arranges a number of tests, not just of his ability, but also of his character. Lugh is tested with games which Stokes translates as ‘Chess’ but which could be an older form of strategic gaming. Either way, Lugh is said to win all stakes set against him showing that he is not just in possession of great knowledge from his many arts, but that he is capable of reasoning and active strategic thinking.
Next comes a test from the Champion of the Tuatha De Danann. Ogma took up one of the great stones, a feat which would have taken ‘four-score yoke of oxen’ and hurled it through the wall of the house until it landed outside Tara. Presented with this many might be daunted,or seen it as an invitation to conflict. Yet Lugh found a solution which showed not just strength, but also skill. Lugh was able to hurl the stone back to its spot ‘and he put the piece which it had carried away into the side of the palace and made it whole’. The resolution of this challenge showed that Lugh had the ability to assess the potential danger of a situation and come to a solution that was not just an act of ‘one upping’ an opponent, but in the restoring of the broken wall he showed his focus not on himself, but on the need of the collective.
The last challenge is one that I find very interesting because of the impact of it. ‘Let a harp be played for us’ was the request and as Lugh had claimed to be a harper in his many skills, this too he stepped up to. Yet he did not just play any music. He played ‘the three things by which a harper is known’ the ‘three strains’. Lugh plays the folk of Tara to a restful sleep and the next day he moves them with the wailing strain so that they weep and mourn, then into the joyful strain so that they revel and laugh. The importance of this act to my mind is not just some performative party piece. It is one of the greatest deeds that only the best may achieve as it allows space in community for emotional release. It makes the processing of all forms of emotion an art not just of healthy emotional balance, but of shared community feeling. In this act Lugh not only shows his mastery of the harp, but his awareness of the importance of emotion and community expression within the Tuath.
From Seat of the Sage, to Seat of the King.
When Lugh proved himself in these challenges he moved to a seat and sat in it. This was the seat that had long been held empty at Tara for it was the seat of the sage. In displaying his many skills, as well as his masterful ability in their use, Lugh had proved that the ‘Ildanach’ was the right title for him and that one of ‘many interlinked skills’ should sit the seat of the sage. Yet he was not long in that chair at Tara.
Nuada had replaced the dethroned Bres as king. Bres, who has proved unfit by his bias against his Tuatha Dé Danann ancestry, poor judgement, and his inhospitality. Bres who had fled to his Fomorian people. Nuada knew that there must come conflict from this and that the Fomorians were a threat not to be taken lightly. So after some consideration he chose to step out of the seat of the king, and give that place to Lugh. Who better to see their people through the upcoming conflict than one with mastery of many skills and the intellect to use them favourably.
Many ‘Interlinked’ Skills
So now we have explored much of the lore of Lugh and his arts. We have seen how he presented himself and how he won the seat of the sage and was eventually given the kingship of Ireland. Yet there is one question that we have not yet explored and maybe some of you have already spotted it?
Lugh has many skills of course, but what is it that links ‘wright’ to ‘smith’ to ‘leech’ to ‘cupbearer’ to ‘harper’ and all the rest..?
Is there one thing apart from Lugh which connects these things or is it just that they are all various forms of skill or knowledge?
In my opinion there is one very important thing that links all of these skills, all of these many arts, and the many people who practise them.
The purpose of these skills are not for the sake of possessing them alone. They exist to be used and the correct use is to my mind, service to the collective. Even Lugh is denied access to community until he can show, not just that he has knowledge and ability, but how he can use those things to fulfil a need for not just himself, but for everyone within the Tuath.
So let me ask you this, in the age old tradition of Ireland’s peoples. What skill do you have upon you, or in other words, what talents do you bring to aid the Tuath?
Where To Now?
If you think that Lugh is interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: