The Irish goddess Brigit and the god Lugh have a great deal in common. Both have a triple form, both are powerful at every level of society, and both have a major calendar holiday associated with them. In the myths of the war between the two groups of gods, they have family on both sides.
Cormac’s Glossary tells us there were three Brigits:
Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician [woman of leechcraft,] Brigit the female smith [woman of smithwork] ; from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit. Brigit, then, breo-aigit, breo-shaigit a fiery arrow’.
Lugh’s triple nature is more obscure, but in some versions of his story his mother conceived three boys, but the other two drowned at birth or turned into seals. (MacKillop: 305, Thomson: 240) The continental god Lugus sometimes took triple form as well.
The linguist Georges Dumézil believed that cultures with Indo-European roots tended to organize themselves into a triple-layered society, with kings and priests on top, warriors in the middle, and producers at the bottom. He also thought that myths reflected these social structures.
Brigit and Lugh both span all three of these layers. As the following table shows, they operated at all levels of society, and thus were universal patrons. (I got the idea for this from Tadhg MacCrossan (63), but I’ve changed one or two things.)
|2nd||healing and smithcraft*||war-lord|
|3rd||territorial goddess, motherhood||harvest festival and punishment of Bres|
Brigit was a territorial goddess in two senses: she was particularly associated with the eastern quarter of Ireland, Leinster, and when Bres became king, he married her, so she was a sovereignty goddess. Defining a poetess as a first-tier goddess may seem strange, but in those days poets had a semi-sacred status, and the ruling class were their patrons.
The settlement with Bres refers to the war between the Tuatha de Danann, including Lugh and Brigit, and another group of gods called the Fomorians, led by Bres. After the Danann king had to resign, the half-Fomorian Bres became king of Ireland, and during his reign was marked by heavy taxes and famine. Lugh punished him for his miserliness and went on to be king himself. Lugh led the Dananns in battle, and the myths often show him as the prototype of a young warrior.
In the war between the Fomorians and the Tuatha de Danann over who would rule Ireland, both Brigit and Lugh had ties to both sides. Brigit married the half-Fomorian king, Bres, as part of a settlement between the two groups. They had several sons before he lost the throne and a second battle ensued. (One of her sons was killed as a Danann spy, and Brigit invented keening in her grief.)
Lugh’s mother was a Fomorian, and her father was the monstrous Balor of the Evil Eye. Balor knew of a prophecy that his grandson would kill him, and did his best to prevent any man coming near his daughter. Fate had its way, however, and when war resumed, Lugh led the Tuatha into battle and killed his grandfather with a spear through his enormous, blasting, eye.
The festival of Oimelc, on Febuary 1st, was sacred to the goddess Brigit. Cormac’s Glossary tells us that it came from the words for “ewe’s milk”, but that may be folk etymology. Lugh had the festival of Lughnasa, which he began in honour of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, in Brega, modern Co. Meath.
Many Celtic gods were multi-skilled, so it makes sense two such prominent deities should have something to offer all three classes. Indeed, Brigit had many other skills that I have not listed here, and one of Lugh’s names was Samhildánach, “Possessing Many Arts”.
The two complement each other, although they have different approaches. Where Brigit sought to bring peace to the battling gods, Lugh took up arms and brought the battle to a conclusion. Perhaps it’s the difference between a territorial goddess and mother, and a young warrior with a full set of magical weapons, but after Brigit’s husband let her down, then war was inevitable.
* I couldn’t help adding here that some see specialist crafts like smithing as outside the three-tier system that Dumezil proposed, and have suggested a fourth function of artisans.
MacCrossan, Tadhg 1992: The Sacred Cauldron: Secrets of the Druids, Llewellyn.
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
Rees, Alwyn and Brinley Reed 1991: Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, Thames and Hudson (reprint).
Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise 2001: Celtic Gods and Heroes, Dover Books (reprint).
Thomson, David 2010: The People of the Sea, Canongate. (Kindle edition)
Allen, N. J. 1987: “The ideology of the Indo-Europeans: Dumezil’s theory and the Idea of a Fourth Function,” International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, 2/1: 23-39. (For a summary version, see here.)
Sam, Behzad Moeni, and Babak Aryanpour 2014: “The Origin of Social Classes, Profession and Colour in the Indo-European and Persian Societies,” Journal of Anthropology and Archaeology 2/1: 109-27.