Smith-gods: Goibniu, Gofannon and Cobannos

Humans have been working with metal for a long time: from the Copper Age (approx. 3500 – 1700 BCE) when the soft, malleable metal was the first to be smelted and used. So it’s not surprising that many cultures have smith-gods, and that in the Celtic world the smith-god and his name occur in Gaul, Wales, England and Ireland, making him one of the few pan-Celtic deities.1

And a very literal one – Goibniu, Gofannon and Cobannos all mean “Smith”.

Goibniu

The Irish smith-god seems to have incoprorated the history of metalworking in his own family line: his father was Esarg or Tuirbe, the thrower of axes:

But Tuirbe, father of Goibniu the Smith, used to throw better again, for he would make a cast of his axe from Tulach na Bela, the Hill of the Axe, in the face of the flood tide, and he would put his order on the sea, and it would not come over the axe.
(from Gods and Fighting Men, by Lady Gregory)

Axes, after all, were weapon/tool of the Stone Age, before smelting was developed, although the battle axe continued to be used through the Bronze and Iron Ages, into medieval times.2

Goibniu kept his father’s magic touch with weapons, however. In the tale of the Second Battle of Magh Tuiread:

Then the chiefs of the Tuath Dé Danann were gathered round Lugh. And he asked his smith, even Goibniu, what power he wielded for them?

‘Not hard to say’, quoth he. ‘Though the men of Erin bide in the battle to the end of seven years, for every spear that parts from its shaft, or sword that shall break therein, I will provide a new weapon in its place. No spearpoint which my hand shall forge’, saith he, ‘shall make a missing cast. No skin which it pierces shall taste life afterwards. That has not been done by Dolb the smith of the Fomorians. I am now
[gap: meaning of text unclear/extent: one word]
for the battle of Magh Tuired’.

But Goibniu did not work alone, as another passage shows. His two brothers were artisans as well:

Their [Fomorian] weapons, their spears and their swords, to wit, were blunted and broken and such of their men as were slain used not to come on the morrow. But it was not so with the Tuatha Dé. For though their weapons were blunted and broken to-day, they were renewed on the morrow, because Goibniu the Smith was in the forge making swords and spears and javelins. For he would make those weapons by three turns. Then Luchtaine the Wright would make the spearshafts by three chippings, and the third chipping was a finish and would set them in the ring of the spear. When the spearheads were stuck in the side of the forge he would throw the rings with the shafts, and it was needless to set them again. Then Credne the Brazier would make the rivets by three turns, and would cast the rings of the spears to them, and it was needless to [gap: meaning of text unclear/extent: one word] before them; and thus they used to cleave together.

Eventually the Fomorians realized that as long as the brothers were arming the Tuatha de Danann, they hadn’t a chance. However, one of the Tuatha, the goddess Brigit, had married a Fomorian in an attempt at peace. They had a son, Ruadan, who went to Goibniu and tried to kill him. The smith was wounded by the attack, but killed the young warrior by plucking out the spear that injured him and piercing Ruadan with it.

Goibniu recovered from his injuries after he went to the well that the healer Diancecht had enchanted, which revived all who were put into it.3

Sparks Wallpaper

Goibniu wasn’t limited to unbeatable weapons, either. He made a silver arm for Nuada, the king of the Tuatha, when he lost right arm in combat.

While it might be stretching a point to call that healing, Goibniu’s powers do overlap with Brigit’s. Apart from the smithcraft, he had magical cow, the Glas Gaibhnenn, which gave enormous quantities of milk. (The name can be interpreted as “Goibniu’s Brindled Cow”, or the the more descriptive “White with Gray/Green Spots”.) Lady Gregory stitched together two folk tales to make a story about the cow, which was stolen by Balor of the Evil Eye, and must be stolen back by Goibniu’s brother.)

Goibniu, like Brigit, was also a hospitalier, who provided feasts for the Tuatha. In the tale of the Fosterage of the Two Pails, the sea -god Manannán calls a meeting to discuss how to deal with the advent of the humans, and Goibniu supplied the feasting:

Manannan assigned a special dwelling to each noble and made for the warriors the Feth Fiadha, the Feast of Goibniu and Manannan’s Swine: that is, the princes could not be seen through the Feth Fiadha, the monarchs escaped age and decay by the Feast of Goibniu and Manannan’s Swine could be killed by the warriors but come alive again.
(Altram Tige Dá Medar, trans Maighréad ni C. Dobs)

Drinking at Goibniu’s feast was credited with preventing old age and illness in a later text, where a Sidhe woman tells St. Patrick about it, a very Irish blending of pagan and Irish traditon.

Goibniu had his own home, or actually homes, as Irish lore gave two different locations for his forge: Mullaghmast Hill on the Kildare/Wicklow border, or else on the Beara pennisula in Cork.

Gofannon

The Welsh sources have less to say about Gofannon. He was one of the Plant Dôn, one of the two divine families: the goddess Dôn and her brother Math, his sons Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, and Gofannon and his daughter Arianrod.

We don’t know a lot about him, although he is mentioned in passing in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, in the story of his sister Arianrhod and her two sons. One, Dylan, became god of the sea:

…he was called Dylan Eil Ton – no wave ever broke beneath him. The blow which killed him was struck by Gofannon, his uncle. It was one of the Three Unfortunate Blows. (trans. Davies)

This has similarities to the story of Goibniu and his nephew Ruadan, son of Brigit, although since no souce elaborates on the story (it isn’t even mentioned in the Welsh Triads) it will have to remain a suggestive loose end.

The story of Culhwch and Olwen also mentions him, when the giant Ysbadden is listing the impossible conditions Culhwch must meet before he can marry his daughter, Olwen:

‘Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. Gofannon son of Don to come to the edge of the land, to set the plough. He will not undertake the work willingly save for a rightful king, nor can you cannot force him.’

‘It is easy for me to do that, though you may not think it is easy.’

The dialogue continues like this for some time, so to save suspense I will tell you that Culwch and his friends, who include King Arthur, kill the giant and so save our hero a burdensome dowry. However, we do learn that Gofannon has another brother, Amaethon, whom Ysbadden also wanted to act as his ploughman.

British Vulcan

The Welsh Gofannon may be related to the images of a smith, modelled on Vulcan, found on reliefs and pottery from Roman Britain. His appearance is consistent: an elderly man wearing a tunic, with one shoulder bare, bearded, and holding tongs or a hammer. (Webster: 15) These are very similar to the Roman depictions of Vulcan.

Vulcan. Bronze statuette, Roman work, 1st century AD? (Wikimedia)

The images come from Cambridgeshire, York, and Corbridge (near Hadrian’s Wall). While it is impossible to tell which of these images is of the Roman god and which of a British deity, I think we can assume at least some syncretism. The Celts were skilled metal workers, and it would be odd for the Britons not to have had a smith-god of their own.

Gobannos/Cobannos

As is often the case with Continental Celtic deities, we have to turn to archaeology instead of literature to learn about their cults. While the hammer-god Sucellos has been suggested as a possible smith-god, the god Cobannos or Gobannos (the two letters were interchangeable in the Gaulish of the Roman period) seems to have had his own followers.

We find his name on a zinc metal sheet from Berne in Switzerland, with

ΔΟΒΝΟΡΗΔΟ ΓΟΒΑΝΟ ΒΡΕΝΟΔΩΡ ΝΑΝΤΑΡΩΡ (Dobnoredo Gobano Brenodor Nantaror)

punched into the metal in little dots. The inscription has been translated as “to Gobannus, the world-traveller, dedicated by the people of Brennoduron in the Arura valley”.

It is curious that they would refer to their god as the world-traveller, but perhaps it was a reference to how widespread their market was. We know that the sheet comes form a metal furnace, since zinc, or pseudoarguros (“mock silver”) as Strabo called it, was a by-product of smelting. Presumably metalworkers used the zinc scraped from the furnace walls to make the plaque.

Statuette of Mars Cobannos, from Eastern Gaul. Getty Museum.

Another find comes from France, and is now in the Getty Museum. Among the treasures were several images of Mars Cobannus, including the one pictured above. He may look like he’s dancing, but originally he held a spear in one hand, and rested the other on a shield, which looked more martial. The statuette has an inscription on the base:

“Aug(usto) sacr(um) deo Cobanno / L(ucius) Maccius Aeternus / IIvir ex voto” “To the venerable, holy god Gobannos, Lucius Maccius Aeternus the duoviri has fulfilled his vow.” (AE 1994, 01915, etc.)

A duovir was one of the two magistrates of a Roman province, so Lucius Maccius was an important person. The statuette was found in Roman Lugudunensis, and probably sat in a local temple along with two portrait busts of Cobannus and an offering box that were found in the same place.

It may seem strange to assimilate a smith-god to Mars, but victory dedications to Mars and Vulcan (the Roman smith-god) weren’t uncommon in Gaul, and Vulcan is honoured on the Boatmen’s Pillar alongside native deities like Cernunnos and Esus, suggesting that smith-gods were more important to the Gauls than the Romans.

The Epigraphik Datenbank lists four more inscriptions in similar style, all from Lugudunensis. (It doesn’t record searches for you to refer to, but if you enter “Cobanno” in the “search text” box you’ll get the result.) All of them have a question mark for the place because the Cobannos Hoard left France in rather dodgy circumstances, before they were offered to the Getty.

Apart from these, Mary Jones lists two more, a cauldron inscribed “Deus Cobannos” and a ring found at Canterbury, at Archbishop Cranmer’s palace, inscribed: “…GOBAN… …OGVLP… …ANTIS… …VS…”. (Yes, that Archbishop Cranmer, Wolf Hall fans. The ring is now in the British Museum.)

People were named after Gobannos as well, including the rebel leader Vercingetorix‘s uncle Gobannitio. Clearly, the Gauls held their smith-god in higher regard than the Romans, a regard shared by their insular cousins in Britain, Wales and Ireland.

PS – On reading this over, I realized that I never mentioned Ucuetis, another smith-god, from Alesia in Burgundy. He and his consort Bergusia have simiiarities to Sucellos and Nantosuelta, and I will be discussing them in their own post.

1. Brigantia and Lugus are two others.
2. The Iron Age didn’t make bronze obsolete – it was just that iron is more common than the materials that made bronze (copper and tin). In fact, one of Goibniu’s two brothers was Creidne, a metalworker who mainly worked with gold, but also bronze and brass.
3. Perhaps Freyja used something similar during the Aesir – Vanir war. At any rate, it does make me think of the scene on the Gundestrup Cauldron, where the giant figure is dipping a small man into a barrel.


References and Links:
Grigg, Juliana 2002: “The Irish Smith-God Goibniu, and the mythological attributes of the blacksmith,” Australian Celtic Journal 8: 4-15. (academica.edu)
Pollini, John 2002: Gallo-Roman Bronzes and the Process of Romanization: the Cobannos Hoard, Getty Museum Press. (I haven’t read this, but anyone interested in Gobannos might want to look it up. The table of contents gives a good idea of the book.)
Ross, Anne 1992: Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, Constable and Sons.
Webster, Graham 1989: “Deities and religious scenes on Romano-British pottery,” 2: 1-28. (pdf here)

Mary Jones has good entries on Gobannos and Gofannon
The Blacksmith in Irish Mythology
Wikipedia on blacksmiths
Smith-gods and Sucellos
For more on hospitaliers in medieval Ireland, see here and here (scroll down to “briugud” in the notes)

For the image at the top, click here.

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