Irish Mythology | The Spear of Lugh

Lighting on desert tree

During the late bronze age/ early iron age, the popular weapon of choice amongst our Irish ancestors was the spear, although they also used swords, slings, and many other death tools. Spears were used for both thrusting and throwing. They consisted of iron or bronze heads affixed to wooden poles, or shafts. Iron heads were hammered into shape, whereas those made of bronze were cast in moulds. Most warriors carried up to four spears; a longer thrusting spear for fighting, which could be up to 1.8m long, and a set of shorter, lighter throwing spears.

In Irish mythology, Lugh was said to have killed his grandfather, the Fomori Giant-King Balor, during the Second Battle of Moytura, by casting his spear into Balor’s poison eye, although in some versions of the story, he uses a sling and stones. Personally, I am inclined to believe he used a spear; there is practically no mention of the sling being used as a warrior’s weapon. Lugh was  a High King of the Denann, and as such, it seems highly unlikely to me that he would have used a sling in battle.

Lugh is credited with owning many spears, and as most warriors of the period owned a set of up to four, it’s quite likely that he possessed a fine collection of his own.

Most famous of these is simply named after him as Lugh’s Spear. Its head was made from dark bronze, tapering gracefully into a fine, fearfully sharp point. It was fastened to a rowan haft by thirty rivets of gold, and powerful magic was said to have been woven into its making. It was supposed to have been made in the mythical magical northern city of Findias and brought into Ireland by the Denann. Who brought it and gave it to Lugh, I don’t know. His father was Cian, son of physician Dian-Cecht, but there is no mention of their having possessed the spear, or his having inherited it from them. Perhaps it was gifted to him by Nuada, following his appointment by Nuada as Chief Ollamh.

Ancient Irish Spearheads
Spear heads on display in National Museum of Archaeology. Fig 15 – Fir Bolg. Fig 16 – Denann. Fig 17 – Fiarlann, curved blade.

The ancient text, Lebor Gebala Érenn, states that Lugh obtained the Gae Assail, the Spear of Assail, as éric, or a fine, from the Children of Tuirill Biccreo.

Areadbhair, meaning ‘slaughterer’ (how very charming), was another of Lugh’s spears, which, according to the text of the Children of Tuirrean, had to be kept in a cauldron of cold water to prevent it from bursting into flame with its blood-lust.

A verse inserted into the story of the Children of Tuirrean intriguingly refers to a spear by the name of ‘the most famous/ finest yew of the wood’. It claims that the Luin Celtchair and the Spear Crimmall which blinded High King Cormac mac Airt are actually one and the same, and belonged to Lugh; that in fact, this spear was none other than Lugh’s spear with which he killed Balor.

I know what you’re thinking; that Cormac was contemporary with Fionn mac Cumhall in the C3rdAD, which was long after Lugh’s death. But it should be remembered that weapons, particularly powerful symbolic ones such as Lugh’s Spear, and Nuada’s Sword of Light were seen as representing the right of sovereignty, and often handed down from father to son, or King to King.

Apparently, after the Second Battle of Moytura, Lugh’s Spear was said to have been abandoned, or lost. It was later found by Celtchair mac Uthechar, a hero of the Ulster Cycle, and a champion of the Red Branch Knights. In his possession, it came to be known as the Lúin Celtchair. He was said to have killed a rampant hound with it, but unfortunately, a drop of poisoned blood dripped from the spear onto his skin, and thus he was killed by his own weapon.

Replica of leaf bladed Celtic spear.
Replica of leaf bladed Celtic spear.

The Lúin Celtchair is mentioned in the Ulster Cycle as a long fiery lance which must be kept with its head steeped in a cauldron of dark red fluid in order to prevent it from bursting into flame and killing its wielder. It was restrained from its work by the attachment of several chains, each firmly gripped by a number of strong men.

In the Destruction of the Hostel of da Derga, a character by the name of Fer Rogain observes that ‘the lance that was in the hand of Dubthach (Dóeltenga) was the Lúin Celtchair… that was found at the Battle of Moytura’.

The Battle of Ross na Rig also mentions the Lúin. Interestingly, Ross na Rig is said to be the place where Cormac chose to be buried, rather than at the pagan site of Bru na Boinne (Newgrange) where all the previous High Kings of Ireland  were interred. This was according to Christian scribes, who claimed that Cormac turned to the one true God even though he lived and reigned long before St Patrick ever set foot on Irish soil and converted everyone.

A document now housed in the Trinity College Dublin claims that in Cormac’s time, the Lúin Celtchair was known by the name of the Crimall of Birnbuadach. It also claims that this was the very same spear as the one known as ‘the famous yew of the wood’, as owned by Lugh. This claim is also made in another document called the Expulsion of the Déisi, which is an C8th text forming part of the Cycle of Kings.

In this story, the Clan Déisi are led by four brothers, Brecc, Óengus ‘of the dread Spear‘, Eochaid and Forad. Forad’s daughter, Forach, is raped and kidnapped by Cellach, the wayward son of Cormac mac Airt. When he refuses to give the poor woman up, Óengus attacks Tara with a group of fifty men (only? Seems odd that one would attack the residence of the High King with so small an army). Óengus succeeds in killing Cellach with his ‘dread spear’, but in the process one of the chains hits Cormac in the face, wounding his eye. Thus disfigured, Cormac was forced to relinquish his position as High King to his son, Cairpre Lifechair, as according to law, a King must be whole and unblemished to be fit to rule.

What became of the Crimall, or the Luin Celtchair, or Lugh’s Spear, or whatever it was called, is not now known, but it certainly had a chequered history. I have no doubt that these weapons were one and the same, and I can’t help but wonder at the technology behind its fiery description… some kind of laser, or flame thrower, perhaps? Lugh himself is often thought of as the God of Lightning, so to my mind, it’s exactly the kind of weapon as befits such a deity.


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25 thoughts on “Irish Mythology | The Spear of Lugh

  1. The thing I find particularly interesting about Irish spears is their transformation. They go from molded bronze styles with mid-ribs and lashing loops to iron versions made in the Bronze Age style, to full Iron Age version with diamond cross sections and sockets that don’t necessarily wrap a full 360deg around the shaft. You can see them transition from working with iron they way they would have bronze, to fully understanding the capabilities/restrictions of the new material over the course of hundreds of years.

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    1. Well now you’re getting technical, and as this is your area of expertise, I bow to your superior knowledge! I guess I’m more into the mythology of it all. But are you saying that they acquired their knowledge and skills with the new material very quickly? Or not?

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      1. In general, not very quickly at all. In fact the metallurgical results even well into the Iron Age seem to indicate a wide variation in the skill of the Celtic blacksmiths with regard to basic heat treating. Viewed with that information it’s quite understandable why well made blades, tools, weapons, were so highly prized and noteworthy.

        Yes, unfortunately, the mythology of it is something I’ve yet to get a good handle on since there are so many variations on the stories. Additionally, a lot of the legends/myths that are readily available over here have been republished from late 19th/early 20th century translations which make them onerous to read with their stilted “official English” style.

        What I like significantly more are newer/modern takes on the myths or early (pre-Viking) Celtic life such as those by Morgan Llewlynn or Pat O’Shea.

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        1. Modern writers do make the stories easier to understand, and more accessible to the general public, and hopefully to the younger generation, although I quite like puzzling over the archaic language. As they are generally translated from the original texts, which were in turn copied from older ones, which were written down from stories told by mouth for hundreds of years, it’s no wonder they are practically impossible for us to make much sense of these days. However, they are all we have, and therefore precious as they stand.

          Its interesting that you say celtic metalworking was so poor. Perhaps it just hadnt caught up with the rest of the ancient world… I believe in Japan and the far east were extremely skilled in the working of metal and even steel from very early on.

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          1. Oh, and if you like modern takes on the legends, have you read any of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s books, I’m thinking of The High Deeds of Fionn mac Cumhall and The Hound of Ulster. She stuck quite closely to the original telling of the Cycles, and her language is a bit ‘flowery’ maybe for some, but I love her style. Her only drawback in these books, in my opinion, is that in following the Cycles so closely, she never fully developed or explored the characters as she has in other books.

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          2. It’s not that Celtic ironworking was poor, it *varied widely* in skill level. There are indications of some smiths using pattern welding techniques that the Vikings would later become famous for, as well jacketing a soft iron core in high carbon steel like the Japanese. But there were also Celtic smiths still using bronze working techniques on iron a couple hundred years after ironworking had become commonplace in Celtic lands.

            I suppose this could suggest a real isolated craft; not readily sharing ideas or processes. So that the smith in each community had to work puzzle things out on his own. I don’t know. It is another weird, quirky aspect of the Celts. Just like the distinct and bizarre lack of pottery in Ireland during the Iron Age and archery as well.

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            1. Hmmm… that’s interesting. I guess the work of the smith was seen as a powerful magic, the key to which must have been kept very secret, I’m sure, revealed only to a very few. Perhaps each smith guarded their knowledge to keep their own position in the community safe. The problem with that is the knowledge dies with them, should the worst happen. And as they were a very volatile, warlike people, the worst often did happen! Yes, I’ve often wondered about the lack of evidence regarding archery! I know that the fact archaeologists have not (yet) found evidence in no way indicates archery was not used, but I have not seen it mentioned in any of the stories I have read, either, whereas swords, spears and what have you are mentioned often. Its hard to believe that the bow and arrow would not have been used, even if just for hunting…

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  2. Another fasinating piece Ali, You have a way with words and your retelling of our heritage is uncomparable. An interesting point you make about there being no mention of Lugh using a sling! Well I have an alternative explanation, which may explain the descrepancy.
    You are right about the warriors carrying more than one spear.
    When training with the smaller spears which we called darts, we would sometimes use a leather tong to gain greater range in our throw, it’s very primitive but effective for a long range shot. One side of the cord would run down part of the shaft to the base and up the other side, both ends would be end in the hand, with one being released at the right moment.
    Similar tools were used by the ancient Greeks, Native American Indians and even the Romans. Perhaps this is were the idea for Lugh using a sling came from?

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    1. Ed that’s really exciting! I never considered that! I think that strap was called a suanem (soonev) but I didn’t give it much thought to be honest, because I was under the impression that there was no evidence to support their use in Ireland. I don’t remember reading anything about it in any of the old stories, but of course, that it is not to say they weren’t used. or maybe I read it and didn’t make the connection, and mentally dismissed it, I don’t know. That throw Lugh made to kill Balor was a very long one; those straps increased speed and distance of throw, didn’t they? So if he was going to make a really important long shot, it is quite likely he would have used one, hence the confusion with the sling! Ed you are a genius! I think your theory is spot on! How exciting! I may have to amend my post now! I am very envious that you got to learn how to use all these weapons and techniques.

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      1. They sure did Ali, a hand thrown spear can easily be deflected or grabbed if you are feeling particulary brave or stupid 🙂
        But a dart released from one of these straps would travel much further and faster, quite similar to an arrow loosed from a bow string. I dont recall what they were called, but you sure did not want to get hit by one.
        It seems like it was a different lifetime now Ali, about 10 years since I last used any of it, but im sure it would come flooding back if required 🙂

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        1. Im sure it would! You can get back into it with your kids when they’re a bit older… they’d love that! My 12 yr old has taken possession of my old fencing swords. Every day he goes outside by himself and practices his moves. When I asked him if hed like lessons he said no, he wanted to learn real sword fighting lol!

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    1. Ooooh now you’re getting deep! I admit that I don’t know about Jung, but yes, why not? When researching for my post on Hy-Brasil I came across an article which said a similar thing about the mass sighting of the appearance of the island off the western coast once every seven years. Perhaps people were seeing it because they wanted to, or there was an expectation of seeing it.

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      1. I’m a big fan of the old man. 🙂

        That’s the general idea, yes. In “Memories, Dreams and Reflections,” Jung’s autobiographical work, he describes how he and a friend entered a chapel in Florence (if memory serves). The next day they tried to visit it again, only to find it had been demolished centuries earlier.

        I love how he struggles to make sense and explain rationally his many unusual experiences.

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  3. Fascinating post, Ali! Love your conjectures and I also just wanted to thank you for all your awesome descriptions. I’ve never gotten a clear idea, just from reading the ancient stories, what a typical iron age spear looks like, for instance. I’ve always found the image of Lugh’s spear being held back by heavy chains quite eerie. But then sometimes I wonder whether perhaps it’s place is to point, no pun intended, toward the extreme of killing just for its own sake contrasted with killing only defensively (I’m assuming that doing nothing was not an extreme option even under consideration.) I come across this more than I’ve previously realized, objects taking on a life of their own and symbolizing an extreme way of being which forms a type and isn’t generally reflective of the original person’s personality. I’ve just often wondered if that’s actually helped people deal with realities of character that are hard to talk about directly, because I think it would. That’s easier for me to rap my head around than the taking of it literally! But anyway it is late and I’m rambling and just hope I’ve made some sense. 🙂

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    1. Wow Éilis! I never thought about it that way, but you could be right. A weapon thirsting for blood of its own accord that takes so many men to restrain it and someone so special to wield it could absolve the owner from the dreadful deeds attributed to it, at least in the minds of the observers.

      I had always thought of it in more literal terms; that the cauldron it was stored in was a kind of battery or power source which ‘charged’ it; that the fire which burst from it was the laser or missile it fired, that the chains or biindings attatched to it were perhaps the connection to the power source. The Denann certainly had strange powers/ technology which could not be explained by those who were not Denann, or by the scribes who later wrote the stories. They just tried to explain it to the best of their knowledge, or just ignored it completely.

      I like your interpretation though. I’d never thought of it that way… thanks Éilis!

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