These Greek, Nordic and Celtic gods may not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they resemble each other in several ways, all of which illuminate aspects of their characters. All three are intellectual, associated with the arts, and have magical or oracular powers in addition to an unforgiving nature.
Superficially, however, they couldn’t be more different. As Jaan Puhvel says, “With his one-eyed paralyzing battle magic (herfjöturr, literally “host fetter”) and spear Gungnir [Odin] resembles Lugh, but the external appearance of the Celtic whiz kid could not be more unlike the old man with his slouch hat…” (195) Lugh and Apollo fit together better, both being young and radiant, and many-skilled.
I have summarized their similarities below:
The Sun, Mercury, and Triplets
First, both Lugh and Apollo have solar characteristics. Apollo took over from Helios as sun-god in the Classical world, especially during the late, Hellenistic period. Lugh’s name mgiht come from a word for light. Odin is the outlier here, although a late and non-canonical tradition has the sun and moon as his eyes. (I suspect it comes via Horus, the Egyptian god.)
Tacitus said that the Germans worshipped Mercury. Many have seen the German Woden as Mercury, and some dedicatons of altars in Germany to Mercury seem to back this up. Mercurius Rex, for example, sounds more like the Germanic All-Father than the Roman god. (Simek: 214) Lugh in his versatility (one of his names was Samhildánach, “skilled in all arts”) and as patron of travelers would fit as a Celtic Mercury.
The image at the right is often connected to the Lugoves, who may have been a triple version of Lugh. (See my article on Lugos for more on this.)
Some Irish folktales tell how Lugh’s two brothers either died at birth or became seals. Odin often appears with two other gods, either his brothers Vili and Ve or Loki and Hoenir. Apollo is the odd one out here, literally, since he never appears as anything but a singular god.
Poetry, Shamanism, Magic
In the interpretatio romana Celtic gods associated with the arts were compared to Apollo, and if the Romans had reached Ireland, no doubt this would have included Lugh. Among his many skills he could play the harp and sing, and one of his names was Ildánach (“skilled in many arts”). Odin, too, is the god of poets, having gone to considerable trouble to get the mead of poetry.
Closely allied to Odin’s poetic inspiration is his more shamanic or at least magical side. (The extent of circumpolar religion and shamanism’s influence on Norse religion is still the subject of vigorous debate – the subject is very much a live one.) West (164) thinks that all three gods were influenced by shamanic ideas:
I should be inclined to ascribe them not to (Indo-)European inheritance but to the diffusion of shamanistic motifs from the Finno-Ugric peoples, from the east to Scandinavia and from the north, across Scythia and Thrace, to the Greeks.
Of course, such an assertion is hard to prove, and there has to be more than shamanic influence to these many-sided gods. Also, as Fritz Graf points out (40), the further we get from the Siberian home of shamanism, the less likely that there is any real connection between it and whatever behaviour it is being likened to.
Whatever the outcome, we know from the sources that Odin can fall into magical trances or speak spells, as well as seeking out prophecy through völvas and other mediums such as Mimir’s head.
The oracle at Delphi was one of Apollo’s oldest sanctuaries, and he had other oracles, both famous and humble. We know from Lugh’s parley with the doorkeeper of the Tuath that he numbered sorcery amongst his skills.
Ravens and War
Odin’s other furor, of course, is allied to the berserker and battle-rage. Odin shows two faces here, that of the cool strategist who teaches formations to his human proteges, and the raging warrior who shows superhuman strength. (Time and again in the myths and sagas we hear of him intervening personally in a battle.)
Lugh, among his many skills, is a warrior. He leads the Tuatha de Danaan against the Fomorians and wins. His battle-fury causes him to shape-shift, which makes him temporarily one-eyed, so both Lugh and Odin affect their eyes as part of their magic. The Metrical Dinshenachas calls him “warrior Lugh“.
Apollo is rarely depicted as a warrior, except in the Iliad, where he does intervene personally on the Trojan side. He fights mainly as an archer, although he intervenes more physically against Patroclus:
Three times did he climb upon it, and three times did Apollo push him back, laying his hand upon the boss of his shield. And when Patroclus climbed for the fourth time, then Apollo cried to him in a dreadful voice: “Go back, Patroclus; it is not for you to take the great city of Troy, no, nor even for Achilles, who is a far better man than you.”
To the Greeks, archers were a bit sneaky, unlike the regular soldiers who had to face their foes. (Graf: 13) This definitely ties up with Odin, who was also accused of being unfair in battle, and rarely closes with a foe, preferring to throw his spear, as he did at the beginning of the Aesir-Vanir war. Irish Lugh’s weapon was also the spear, and his epithet Lámfhada “of the long arm” suggests action at a distance. (MacKillop: 306)
The three gods have ravens in common, while Apollo and Odin share wolves and serpents. Lugh gets a warning of the Fomorian’s approach from two ravens, and ravens tended his son Cu Cuchlainn when he was ill. The word lugos means “raven”, and there are ravens on coins from Lugdunum (named for Gaulish Lugos).
Hugin and Munin fly out each day and report back to Odin about what they have seen, while Apollo gets the bad news about his lover from a raven. (He turns it from white to black in his rage.)
As well as two ravens, Odin has two wolves for his pets, while Apollo had the titles Lycegenes, Born of a Wolf, and Lycoctonus, Wolf-Killer. Odin also turned himself into a snake to get the mead of poetry from Gunnlod, while Apollo’s relations with snakes were less happy. He killed the Python at Delphi, and instituted his own oracle in its place. (His son, Asklepios, had sacred snakes in his shrines.)
Two suffered exile and punishment: Apollo had to serve Priam’s father Laomedon for a year as punishment, building the Trojan wall, after which Laodemon drove him away without paying him. Odin was banished from Asgard for raping Rind. (Saxo grammaticus) Lugh starts out as an outsider, but once he proves his versatility to the doorkeeper of the Tuatha, he is accepted as one of them.
Healing and Ruthlessness
Apollo was a healer-god, a plague-god who could also cure the disease, and seems to have merged with another healer-god, Paion, whose cult dates back to the most ancient Greek records. Apollo took over the name and passed it to his son, Asklepios.
Lugh included healing among his many skills, but the main healer-god of the Irish was Diancécht and his son, Miach. (Some tradtitions make Diancécht Lugh’s grandfather.) Odin, like Lugh, could heal as part of his magic, as the Havamal tells us:
“I know a second one which the sons of men need, those who want to live as physicians.” (Havamal 147)
The later Second Meresburg Charm refers to Odin healing Baldr’s lame horse, as well. Odin heals the prince Sivard (Saxo), in exchange for Sivard giving him all the slain. Lugh heals his son, Cúchulainn. (Lugh and Apollo have sons who are in sense their doubles – they possess some of their father’s powers, intensified. Odin, famously, has lost his son Baldr, and it is hard to see what quality of Odin’s Baldr embodies.)
Finally, all three gods share an implacable ruthlessness. Odin will cut down his favourites, or see them die, to swell his army at ragnarok. To be fair, he sacrifices his eye, nearly dies, and gives up his dignity and status in pursuit of knowledge, so he is equally ruthless with himself.
As for Lugh, he makes the Sons of Tuireann get various magical items as penance for killing his father, but won’t let them use one, a pigskin that heals all wounds, to cure theirs. They die, and their father is left mourning them. Apollo’s unforgiving, remorseless nature is well-known. Ask Marsyas or Niobe. Or, as Clymene said in the play Phaethon:
O fair-beamed Sun, how you have destroyed me and him here. You are rightly called Apollon (‘Destroyer’) among mortals, (by) whoever knows the divine powers’ unspoken names. (West: 129)
Two of these gods have been fitted into the Indo-European schema by Georges Dumézil, who saw Lugh and Odin as the dark, avenging, magical side of the priestly/judicial 1st function. (Greek myth gives but poor pickings for the I-E comparativist, but usually the first function is given to Zeus and Ouranos, or else Zeus in two aspects: the god of justice and the thunderer.)
While Lugh can be seen as a prototypically Irish deity, both Odin and Apollo have a sort of otherness about them. Many have theorized that Apollo comes from the Near East, while the Saami magicians the Germanic peoples encountered or heard tales about may well have influenced their war-god Odin. (Snorri has Odin come from Troy, ironically. That would link Apollo and Odin directly if there was any chance of its being true.)
The temptation is to say that the three make up an Indo-European pattern. We would need some sort of linguistic parallel to link them, which we don’t have. All we can say for sure is that these three European civilizations felt the need for a magical, warlike, implacable god with ravens, snakes, and wolves for his symbols.
Graf, Frtiz, 2008: Apollo (Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World), Routledge. (Kindle)
Green, Miranda 1997: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Routledge. MacKillop, James 2004: Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP. Puhvel, Jaan 1987: Comparative Mythology, John Hopkins University Press.
Rutherford, Ward 2015: Celtic Mythology: The Nature and Influence of Celtic Myth from Druidism to Arthurian Legend, Weiser Books, (Google eBook)
Simek, Rudolf 2007: Dictionary of Northern Mythology (trans. Angela Hall), D. S. Brewer (reprint).
West, M. L. 2007: Indo-European Poetry and Myth, OUP.
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