The Irish god Lugh, we’re told, is one version of a pan-Celtic deity, called Llew in Wales and Lugos/Lugus in Gaul. Given that Lugh was such an important deity, and that Lugos could be the Celtic Mercury that Julius Caesar describes, you would expect Lugos to also be an important and well-attested god.
So it’s a bit of a shock to look up the Gaulish god Lugos/Lugos on the Epigraphik Datenbank and find no inscriptions matching his name. Why is Lugos so often assumed to be the Gaulish Mercury when there’s very little evidence for his worship in France?
We know that scholars didn’t invent a cult of Lugos for fun, so what led them to suppose that the cult of Lugh and Llew extended to continental Europe? (And no, there are no inscriptions for Lugh in England or Scotland either.) A lot of it is based on inference, since the lack of inscriptions has led scholars to use indirect evidence to support their theory. It’s a good reminder of how little evidence we have to work with, and how much rests on interpretation.
Given the lack of archaeolgical evidence, the argument for a Lugos-cult rests on three pillars:
- Julius Caesar’s description of the “Gaulish Mercury”.
- Place-names: Lugdunum et al.
- August 1st festival at Lyons.
Julius Caesar famously said that Mercury was the most important of the Gaulish gods, although in arrogant Roman fashion he neglected to give local names for the deities he was describing. His description of this god is intriguing, both for what it mentions and what it leaves out:
They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions.
(Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico VI.17.1)
You’ll notice he doesn’t mention Mercury’s role as psychopomp, but he does emphasize Mercury’s role as patron of travelers and merchants. The Roman Mercury, however, was not the founder of the arts, although one story tells how he invented the lyre to appease his older brother Apollo’s wrath.
There are many inscriptions to Deo Mercurio throughout France, and Mercury often appears alongside the goddess Rosmerta in inscriptions and art. (They share attributes, too. She sometimes holds his purse or caduceus – his snake-entwined staff.) He also appears alongside the horned god Cernunnos. It is hard to know how many of these are hiding a local deity.
We do know that there are a number of Gaulish gods who were associated with Mercury. In northern Gaul (Belgica) there were Visucius, Gebrinus and Cissonius, who seem to have had cults of their own, since occasionally they appear as deo Visucius/Cissonius on inscriptions. Many local gods many be hiding under the practice of invoking the Mercury of [place name], such as Mercurio Arvenorix, Dumias, and Vosegus. (And then there’s the question of Esus and Teutates, also candidates for Mercury.)
There seems little here to connect Lugh to the Gaulish Mercury, except for the claim to be “inventor of all the arts”. Lugh’s calling card was his mastery of all arts and trades, which earned him a place in the councils of the Tuatha de Danann. But there seems no reason to connect Lugh with a Gaulish god when there are a number of Mercuries nearby. This is where point no. 2 comes in.
The strongholds of Lugh
The French city of Lyons was called Lugdunum in Roman times, which could be read as “the fortress of Lugh”. Other place-names with the Lug– element include Laon, Leiden, Loudon, Liegnitz, Léon, Dinlleu, and Carlisle (Luguvalium). (MacKillop: 310) This would seem to impressive evidence for a widespread cult of Lugh.
However, there had to be a push-back.The Celtic scholar Bernard Maier, who inspired this post, questioned the connection between Lugh and Lyons. For a start, he points out that the etymology of the name “lug” is still not certain, so we don’t know if these towns were named for the god, or possibly something like the “warrior fortress” (lug = lynx = warrior) like the towns of Cinegotrix and possibly Cunorix. (John Koch casts doubt on this, too, but the name Lugh could also be traced back to words meaning light, vow, or raven, giving several possible meanings.)
Scholars who support the Lyons as stronghold of Lugh theory point to the names Camulodunum and Carrodunum, which could point to the gods Camulos and some other god, although Carrodunum can also be translated as “chariot-fortress, and Camulos could be someone’s name as well as a god’s. Despite its promising name, Carlisle was named for a person, probably an Iron Age noble, named Luguvalos.
Maier raises one important point, though. In the towns supposedly named for Lugh and Camulos, there is not one altar, not one item inscribed with the names of their patron deities. By contrast, the town of Aquileia, whose patron was the healing god Belenus, had 20+ dedications to its patron god. (Maier: 129) (The Epigraphik Datenbank makes it 39.)
Lughnasa in France?
Point no. 3 is that Lugh’s festival was August 1st, the great Irish harvest festival called Lughnasa, honouring the god and his foster-mother Tailtiu. Augustus Caesar, or Octavian, declared a yearly festival in Lyons/Lugdunum on August 1st, which some scholars assume recognized a local Lughnasa-like festival already in existence.
This may be true, although I don’t think there’s any record of a festival before Octavian declared one. Octavian had his own reasons to remember August the first, since he won the Battle of Alexandria on that day, defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra. He had lost the first battle on July 31st, but regrouped and won a decisive victory.
Antony and Cleopatra then committed suicide, leaving Octavian as ruler of the Roman Empire, with a rich new province, Egypt. You can see how he might think this was a more important occasion to remember.
Switzerland and Spain – the Lugoves
The name Lugoves is, as you might guess from the form, plural. It’s not clear whether these deities were supposed to be a multiple form of a Lugh-like deity, or some other form of deity who shares the lug– element in his/her/their name. Maier points out that they could even be goddesses, which suggests some form of the matres (mother-goddesses) to me.
The Swiss dedication is both straightforward and enigmatic: it is simply the word Lvgoves carved into the top of a decorated pillar. It’s clearly not graffiti, but who put it there and why is unknown.
Several of the Spanish dedications cluster in the north-east of the country, at Sober, Panton and Otero del Rey (Lugo). The forms (Lucubo Arquienobo, Locoubu Arquienis) probably derive from the personal name Arquius. Another, from Osma (Uxama Argaela), on the other side of the country, was dedicated by the cobblers’ guild.
Interestingly, yet another inscription is undoubtedly to goddesses, a votive altar that reads:
Lugun[i]s / deabus / Aur(elius) · Cel(er) · / vot(um) · s(olvit) · l(ibens) · m(erito)
But there is a singular male form, from Peñalba de Villastar, although the inscription itself still resists a full reading. But it does seem to have the word Luguei, “to Lugus”, which would make it an inscription to the singular god. (For some interpretations of the inscription, see here.) The sole French inscription, from Nîmes, is to a deity named in the singular male: Lucubus. It reads:
Rufina Lucubus votum solvit libens merito. (CIL 12, 3080)
so she was fulfilling a vow to the god by commissioning it, but was Lucubus the same god as the Spanish Locoubu Arquienis?
It’s hard to know what to make of it all. It might seem that Lugus/Lugoves is another case like that of Veteres/Vitiris in northern England, whose name appears in both genders, plural and singular. Clearly the situation in Spain was far more fluid than we tidy-minded moderns would like it to be.
Cursing Tablets and Lugh
Among the proofs of Lugos’ existence in France you sometimes see listed a cursing tablet from Chamalières in France, which has the words luge dessummiíis repeated three times. The text is very hard to understand to begin with, and it’s not clear what luge dessummiíis actually means.
One interpretation was “I prepare them for Lugus” but others favour legal meanings, like “May you… to my right” (Lambert) or “I prepare them for committing” (Mees: Loc. 648) It’s hard to make definite statements about something that allows so many interpretations.
So it would seem that it is easier to find a cult of Lugh in Spain than France! This isn’t the result I was expecting when I began this article, but it’s inevitable. As I said above, a lot of the evidence for Lugos isn’t so much evidence as a way of reading certain data, which could just as easily be read in other ways.
After the discovery of a new British goddess ten years ago, I wouldn’t be too quick to write off Gaulish Lugos. The dedication from Nîmes tells us that a god named Lucubus had at least one worshipper, and time may reveal more. After all, I’ve written whole posts about deities who had only one or two inscriptions to prove they ever existed. But I still feel a bit let down that the major cult of Lugos, with inscriptions and other physical proof, might not exist.
Having said this, many intelligent and learned people find the argument for a cult of Lugos convincing, and a lot does depend on how you read the evidence. For my part, though, I can’t help but feel that people felt that there ought to be a cult of a Lug-like god to be the Gaulish Mercury, and cut their cloth to fit that pattern, while attested Mercury-gods like Cissonius seem to have been ignored.
References and Links
Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins 1996: Dictionary of Roman Religion, OUP.
Arenas-Esteban, J. Alberto and Raúl Lopez-Romero 2010: “Celtic Divine Names in the Iberian Pennisula: towards a territorial analysis,” Celtic Religion Across Space and Time, ed. J. Alberto Arenas-Esteban, Junta de Comunicadades de Castilla-La Mancha: 242-57. (academica.edu)
Green, Miranda 1997: Dictonary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
Maier, Bernhardt 1996: “Is Lug to be Identified with Mercury? (Bell. Gall. VI.17.1)? New Suggestions on an Old Problem,” Ériu XLVII: 127-35.
Ovist, Krista 2004: The Integration of Mercury and Lugus: Myth and History in Late Iron Age and Early Roman Gaul, University of Chicago, diss.
Pedreño, J. Olivares 2005: “Celtic Gods of the Iberian Pennisula,” e-Keltoi 6: 607-49. (academia.edu)
For the source of the image at the top, click here.