Ireland’s History and Mythology |The Sword of Light

Replica of a Bronze Age Sword with carved wooden handle lying on rough rock surface

Image kindly supplied by the Wulfland Historical Shop

The Sword of Light, or Shining Sword, is known as Cliamh Solais in Irish (pronounced Klee-uv Shull-ish), and is said to be one of the lost Four Treasures of Eirean. It was made in the northern city of Findias (or Gorias, depending on which version you read) by a powerful fílí and magician named Uiscas.

In the Lebor Gabála Erenn (the Book of Invasions), the Sword was brought to Ireland by King Nuada of the Tuatha de Denann. He led his people in a great battle called the Cath Maige Tuired (the Battle of Moytura, which is a place-name meaning ‘the plain of pillars/ towers’) against the Fir Bolg, who ruled Ireland at the time.

During this bloody conflict, Nuada’s sword arm was cut off at the shoulder by the defending champion, Sreng. Although Nuada survived, he was unable to continue as King, as he was no longer considered whole. His physician, Dian-Cecht made for him a fully working arm of silver, and later Miach, Dian-Cecht’s son grew flesh and skin over it. Thus restored and whole once again, Nuada was able to resume his office as High King.

According to NetPlaces, this story represents more than just an injured King and magical sword. Nuada has always been seen as the Irish God of Justice and and Truth. When his hand is severed, Nuada is no longer balanced, and so is not fit to rule. The silver arm restores balance, and enables Nuada to rule justly and wisely again.

It should be noted that here, it is the left hand which is said to be afflicted, whereas most stories claim it to be the sword hand; this could be right or left, and indeed the ancient Irish were well known for training which enabled them to master swordplay with both hands.

In any case, the left hand made of silver represents attributes of the moon, a symbol of femininity and intuition. Perhaps the loss of his hand allowed Nuada’s masculinity to overwhelm his judgement, but the placement of the silver arm helped restore his equilibrium.

Nuada’s sword is seen as the embodiment of justice by dealing the ultimate punishment to Ireland’s enemies. By its nature, it stabs, cuts, slices. Looking beyond the physical, then, it could similarly be thought to cut straight to the heart of a matter, thus symbolising the wielder’s power to dispense justice, truth and law. The aspect of light suggests illumination, in other words, wise and sacred knowledge.

This really resonates with me; I did a bit of sword fighting in my youth, and the notion of a cruel, cold blade and the wreckage it can cause, quite terrifies me. It is a force to be respected, both for its physical power, and for the magic it represents.

This concept of the sword being more than just a weapon is beautifully explained by the Temple of Denann, from whom the following quote is taken;

“From Findias was brought the Sword of Nuada;
no man would escape from it when it was drawn from its scabbard.
There was no resisting it.”
–Lebor Gabala Erenn

“In the preceding translation, the linguistic scholar, with a decidedly Christian mind-set, blindly follows the surface, observing the mundane wrapping, without opening the spiritual package and viewing the fabulous treasure within.
The first line of the original Gaelic text, “A findias tucadh claidhim nuada,” does not, in reality, say that the sword of Nuada was brought from a city called Findias. We already know that the “ias” endings are fabrications, so the word findias should in reality be find (or variously, finne). Another quick look at our dictionary of early and middle Irish and we find that “finne” means bright. Additionally, the word “Nuadad” does not refer to the God Nuada. Notice that our translator dropped a letter “d.” While spelling variations do occur frequently, this is not one of them. Nuadad and Nuada are two different words with totally different meanings. Nuadad means the process of renewal. Therefor, the line is better translated as “From that bright place (origin of the people) came the Sword of RenewaI”.
The second line, “ni thernadh nech uadha,” more properly translates to “Its singular spirit cannot be escaped.” The third line, “O dobetha as a intig bodha,” more rightly should be translated as “Oh wretched life, (how) you increase when (the sword) is drawn from its sheath.” The final line, ” ni gebtha fris,” can be rightly translated as “Is it not deserved?” or “It is greatly deserved.”
If we put the entire paragraph together and restore some sense of poetic form, I feel it should more accurately read as follows. “From the homeland, the people brought the Bright Sword. Its singular spirit cannot be escaped. O how wretched life increases when it (the sword) is unsheathed (or revealed).
Suddenly our paragraph has taken on a far different tone than that supplied by previous translators. No longer does the sword seem merely an instrument of battle. A thought or implication of something far greater and considerably more mysterious now seems to emerge. In origin, the sword comes from the source of the people. It is of the people and by the creative forces of the people. Its brightness is a signal of illumination of the people, either as source or reflective element. It has a singular, unique spirit. It is also a powerful, immutable force that cannot be overcome.”

That makes so much sense to me. I hope you click the link and go on to read the whole article, it is certainly very enlightening.

So, what did the Sword of Light look like? You may be imagining something along the lines of a light sabre, and what with all this talk of metal arms and shining blades, you could be forgiven for thinking that some kind of mysterious alien technology is at work here.

The truth is, the work of the smith was considered secret, sacred lore, the application of powerful magic, and carefully guarded. To be able to take rock from the ground, the Mother Goddess’s very own bones, and with the application of fire distil from it liquid metal which then solidified into hard, cold metal was something to be admired, feared, revered. The Denann came to Ireland with their weapons of iron in the C13th BC, when everyone else was still firmly in the grip of the Bronze Age. It is no wonder, then, that their advanced knowledge and weapons drew attributes of special power and significance.

However, I have always felt that Nuada’s sword must have been a working weapon, one which he was seen to carry into battle as a symbol of his position and right to be High King, but also as a symbol of the peoples identity, and a beacon for hope and victory. It was not a ceremonial blade, an idol, falsely resplendent with gold and precious jewels. Nuada cut down his enemies with it, and his people saw him do it. It had to be strong, light, balanced, sharp in order to achieve this. I therefore feel it was not a ‘pretty’ sword, but a practical one.

The main weapon in Ireland at the time was not actually the sword, but the spear. The Denann carried three spears, two for thrusting, and one for throwing. At close quarters, where the use of the spear was unwieldy, the sword was drawn. It was therefore quite short, about 40-45cms long, used for stabbing and thrusting rather than long arm slashing, as with a longer sword. Hilts (the handle) were more than likely carved from wood, bone or antler, as these would have been materials readily to hand. It should be remembered that the early peoples of Ireland were great artists in all spheres, and it is quite likely that they would have decorated their weapons in some way, since not only were they a sign of their warrior status, but also often all that stood between life and death; their value went much further than mere wealth.

These images show replicas of Celtic swords from the La Tene period of the Iron Age, which is much later than the Denann invasion, circa C4th BC. They have steel blades and beautiful carved wooden hilts. However, it is possible the Cliamh Solais could have looked similar. This article on the history of early sword making will tell you more about the evolution of the sword from early copper dagger to lethal steel blade, if you’re interested.

Single replica sword with wood handle lying on a rock

A closer look. Image kindly supplied by the Wulfland Historical Shop

I would like to thank The Wulflund Historical Shop for kindly supplying these images.

If you would like to know more about Irish Celtic swords, The National Archaeology Museum in Dublin have great Bronze Age and Iron Age Collections.

3 Comments on “Ireland’s History and Mythology |The Sword of Light

  1. Pingback: Maynooth | Plain of Nuada and Seat of Learning | aliisaacstoryteller

Please feel free to join in the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s