A Celtic God, also known as Lugos, Lleu, Lug, Lugh, Lugus: The Shining One or The Shadowy One

Lugus (Lugos, Lleu, Lug, Lugh, Lugus, Lúg, Lúgh) is a pan-Celtic god known predominantly from place names spread across the Celtic world and from the Medieval Irish and Welsh texts. He is a truly pan-Celtic deity, portrayed as an artisan and a master of all crafts. Indeed, Lugus is the catch-all deity, the god of all crafts, variously associated with light, trade, craftsmanship, divine rule and trickery.

Lugus is an oddity in terms of Celtic deities in that there is a paucity of epigraphic evidence concerning him, yet toponymic evidence (place-name studies) strongly indicates that the cult of Lugus was spread across the entire Celtic-speaking world. In the forms of Irish Lúgh and Cymric Lleu this deity is recorded in Mediaeval tales. Beyond this, the name of Lugus is definitely present in the place names Lugdunum (fort of Lugus), modern Lyon, France (which was also capital of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis as well as Lugdunum Clavatum (modern Laon, France), Luguvallium (Carlisle, England), Lugudunum (Leidun, France). The same form occurs in Dinas Dinlleu in Gwynedd. The name is also recorded in the Irish county of Louth (which in Mediaeval Irish was Lughbhaidh or Lughmhadh) and even today the county motto is Lugh sáimh-ioldánach (Lugh the all-skilled)[*]. Other places which may well be named after Lugus include Lusignan and MontluÇon, France; Lugano, Locarno and Lugarus in Switzerland; Loudon in Scotland; Luga in Russia; Lugansk in the Ukraine, Lugoj in Romania; Lugo (both Italy and Galicia, Spain) as well as the ancient Roman province of Lusitania (covering parts of modern Portugal and Spain) and Lusatia (a region that covers parts of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic). To this list we can also probably add the Lothian region of Scotland. In Middle Cymric this was known as Lleuddiniawn (Region of the fortress of Lleu) which was later truncated to Lothian. Icongoraphically Lugus is attested only from a terra cotta medallion from Orange depicting the genius of the city of Lyon, accompanied by a raven and an Aureus of Albinus (198CE) again showing the genius of Lyon as a youth with a raven at his feet.

Inscriptional evidence for Lugus includes a Latin inscriptio from Osma (Uxma) in Spain which reads LUGOVIBUS SACRUM LL VRICO COLLEGE SVTORVM D[ono] D[edit] (LL Urco donated this, sacred to the Lugoves, to the guild of shoemakers), Lugoves being the plural form of Lugus. Another inscription from Alès, Gard, France simply reads LVGOVES (to the Luguses), which along with the Osma inscription strongly suggest the plurality of the deity (ie he was a multiplicity unto himself). The Spanish site of Peñalba de Villastar provides us with an ancient inscription (dating from the first century BCE) mentioning the festival of Lughnasadh as well as the name Luguei repeated twice. Indeed, this site may well represent the most important Celtic sanctuary consecrated to Lugus. Originating from the same place comes an outstanding anthropomorphic image: Lug appears, in fact, as bicephalous, or two-headed (see image above left) where the god (like Roman Janus looks in two directions at once). Other inscriptions inscription mentioning Lugus include one to the Lugoues from Avenches in Switzerland and dedications to Lugubus Arquienobus from Orense, Spain.

After the Romanization of Gaul, Lugus seems to have become subsumed into the Roman cult of Mercury. Indeed, Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico identified six gods worshipped in Gaul, giving them the names of what he presumed were their nearest Roman equivalents. According to his narrative “Mercury” was the god most reverenced in Gaul, and this Gaulish ‘Mercury’ is described as as patron of trade and commerce, protector of travellers, and the inventor of all the arts. Indeed, one of the epithets of the Irish god Lug was samildánach (skilled in arts) and we see a cognate in the Cymric god Lleu’s epithet Llaw Gyffes (skillful hand), which has led to the identification of Caesar’s Gaulish ‘Mercury’ as the god Lugus.

One of the features of the La Tène artistic depictions is the central imagery of a deity shown together with birds; horses; the Oriental Tree of Life motif; dogs or wolves; and twin serpents. But the imagery most intimately connected to him is the mistletoe leaf or berry. Most often the mistletoe leaves are shown at either side of his head, like horns or ears; but sometimes the symbolism is reversed, and the god’s head appears as the berry of a mistletoe plant. Later depictions show mistletoe-leaf motif combined with that of the twin serpents, most often portrayed as facing Ss forming the so-called ‘palmette’ The fact that representations of the god and of his symbols appear most frequently on objects related to formal aristocratic banquets (such as the famous wine flagons from the Basse-Yutz burial in the Rhineland) strongly suggests that he was in some way associated with sacral kingship. As the Iron Age celts did not use writing in religious contexts the name of this central deity remains unknown. However, the frequency of use of Lug’s name in Toponymy strongly suggests his pre-eminent position and the assignment of Lug as Caesar’s ‘Mercury’ re-enforces this hypothesis.

It seems that the pigeon-holing of Gaulish deities in terms of the official Roman religion struck a chord with the Gauls when it came to Mercury as dedications and representations of “Mercury” began to proliferate in the Romanized Celtic world and retained their preeminence right to the period of Christianization. Well over 400 dedications to ‘Mercury’ or one of his common native titles have been found: his importance in Gaul and Britain far exceeded anything that the role of Mercury in Roman religion could have warranted. Clearly “Mercury” was the new, “modern” disguise of Lugus, and because the two names were seen to be precisely equivalent the native one was virtually never used in the Latin of official inscriptions. This hypothesis being bourne-out by the iconography of the Gaulish ‘Mercury’ where many depictions of this deity diverge significantly from the classical cannon (the winged cap (reminiscent of the earlier mistletoe crown), the caduceus (echoing the ubiquitous Iron Age twin serpents), the bag of money, the cockerel, the ram, the tortoise shell). A good example being the Lezoux statuette which depicts Mercury as a bearded old man wrapped in a Celtic shawl. Many representations of Celtic “Mercury” seem intended to suggest that he is several-in-one: usually this takes the form of tricephaly, although not all three-headed figures in Celtic iconography are necessarily this god. One “Mercury” statue from Tongres in Belgium has not three heads but three phalluses: one on the crown of the head and one on the nose in addition to the normal one. The multiplicity of the deity ssme well attested. Indeed, a bronze statue from Bordeaux has not three but four faces, two beardless and two bearded. This fits-in with the bi-cephalic from found at Peñalba de Villastar and the famous three-headed image from Bovay, France (shown above). The multiplicity of Lugus/Mercury is also attested in the insular traditon, with Iriish Lúgh having born as one of three, each called Lúgh though his brothers did not survive childbirth. The Cymric version, Lleu Llaw Gyffes was also part of a divine twin pair, along with his brother Dylan and he could be cconsidered as forming a further divine pairing with his uncle/father Gwydion.

It is also interesting to note how often the native Gaulish form of Mercury is linked with the high places of each of the tribal territories in which he was worshipped, such as Montmartre in Paris, the Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne, the Mont de Sè which were all originally Mercury mounts. Shrines crowned these heights, and one conventional depiction of “Mercury” was to have him sitting on a mountain. Which would seem to link Gaulish ‘Mercury’ and thus Lugus with high places and in later, Christian, times he seems to have been assimilated to the archangel Michael, and many of the former Mercurii Montes became “St Michael’s Mounts”

Another comon ‘non-classical’ depiction of Gaulish Mercury (and most expecially associated with the realms of the Belgic tribes) is that of a man armed with a spear who is usually accompanied by his consort, Rosmerta, a purely native goddess whose name means “The Great Provider” (in this respect it should be noted that one of Mercury’s local names, fount at Poitiers in France is Adsmerius which means ‘The Provident One’ and seems to be an echo of Rosmerta’s name). As the keeper of the drink of sovreignty (often held in a cup or vessel in her hand) Rosmerta conveyed kingship whilst the spear-wielding “Mercury” was the archetype of all rulers, Otherworldly protector of the earthly king, for whom he served as a surrogate.

Lugus/Lúgh is associated with the festival of the first of August. This festival was called Lughnasadh (Literally ‘The Marriage of Lugh’) in Ireland and when the Emperor Augustus inaugurated Lugdunum as the capital of the Roman Gaul in 18 BC, he did so with a ceremony on 1 August. And at least two of the ancient Lughnasadh locations, Carmun and Tailtiu, were supposed to enclose the graves of goddesses linked with terrestrial fertility, which might symbolically represent the marriage of the king with the land.

Lugdunum is also associated with a rather famous case of false etymology, but which might have at least some bearing on the figure of Lugus. In the text known as the De Fluviis, apocryphally attributed to Plutarch, it is related that during the time of the founding of Lugdunum certain ravens flew down from the sky, and were interpreted as a good omen. These were not ordinary ravens, but had some white feathers in their plumage; and they became the focus of a prophetic shrine where, after a querent had made an offering of food on an elevated platform, a priest would divine the answer to his query from the behaviour of the ravens as they went after the food. Pseudo-Plutarch in fact suggested that the city of Lugdunum was named after the ravens, stating that ‘lougon ton koraka kalousi’ (“they [the Gauls] call the raven ‘lougos'”). No extant Celtic word with such a meaning exists in any of the Celtic languages and it seems unquestionable that this is not the origin of Lugus’ own name. It may be that the name is related to the proto Indo-European *plugo- which gives the middle Cymric pluf (feather) and the Celtic love of puns linked plugos with lugos (especially as the ‘p’ may have been unvoiced in Gaulish. The association between Lugos and birds remains though, and in both Insular traditions he is linked with birds. Most notably the Cymric tale of Math mab Mathonwy asssociates Lleu Llaw Gyffes both with a wren and an eagle. But there is no evidence of corvid association in the Insular tradition (for more on this see the entry on Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

We now come to the various functions of Mercury–Lugus. We’ve already encountered the first of these — the anointing of sacral kingship. The Uxama inscription, dedicated to the shoemaker’s guild also hints at another function, one that is supported by the evidence from Cymric sources. In the Mabinogi of Math mab Mathonwy Math disguises himself and Lleu as coblers in an attempt at gaining Lleu a name. Also, tirad 67 of the Trioedd Ynys Prydain names Lleu as one of the ‘three golden shoemakers of the Island of Britain’. Though only the shoemaker tarditions have survived it may be that Lugus was the patron of all artesans of this type; which would fit-in with Marcury’s ‘classical’ role as a patron of merchants. Another aspect of Lugus which has already been encountered, if only in passing, relates to the Chalmiers inscription. This is fairly obviously an oath, one seeking strength in conflict and Juliette Wood as well as Anne Ross, amongst others, have linked Lugos’ name to the Old Celtic *lugios (oath) which would support his role as a god of contracts. Then there is the warrior aspect, as attested by Mercury–Lugos’ spear and the surviving insular descriptions of this deity. Indeed, in both Cymric and Irish legends Lugos is associated with a magical or a sacred spear. The folk traditions of Ireland also portray Lúgh as both hero and trickster. Though this trickster element is down-played in the modern traditions, it is present as a shadow in the Cymric tales, for Lleu’s uncle/father and his tutor is Gwydion who is both a Mage and a Trickster figure. There is also the function of Mercury as a psychopomp; though insular sources do not directly assign the role of psychopomp to Lugh/Lleu he certainly dispatches numerous opponents to the realms of the dead.

The final aspect of Lugh to be examined is the nature of his name. Previously, many scholars have interpreted the name Lugus as a derivation of the Indo-European root *leuk- “light”, which also gave rise to Latin lux. Helped-along by the Victorian scholars’ obsession with “solar myths” Lugus has been viewed as a solar deity. This seemed to be re-enforced by the Cymric light associated words goleu (light) and lleuad (moon) making him a deity of light. This, however, is probably an example of false etymology. The same is true of the unsubstantiated claims that the Irish word lugh means ‘shining light’ and may have arisen from confusion with the related Irish word lugha, meaning ‘less’. The problem with all these etymologies are that they rely on the evolution of *lug- from the proto Indo-European *leuk-, but the hard ‘c’ sound is highly conserved in Celtic languages and in no instance would it soften to a ‘g’. We therefore have to look elsewhere for an origin for the name. The Cymric word for moon (lleuad) gives us one clue, as this is probably derived from the reconstructed proto-Celtic word *lug-rā. This word is, itself, related to the proto Indo-European root *leug- (blackness, dimness, darkness) thus the moon is ‘dim light’ and Cymric ‘goleu’ means ‘banisher of darkness’. Also Lugus may be related to the proto-Celtic root *lug- (oath) which is linked both to pledging and deception, or the proto-Celtic root *lug- (to decieve). The Irish Lúgh and the Cymric Lleu also bear connotations of smallness and he is in some senses a ‘figure of small stature’ who is in reality a king. Taken together we are left with a picture of Lugh as a Janus figure, a traveller between realms. Living in neither the dark nor the ligh half of existence. He is a deity of communication and oaths and a dweller in the shadows. He is therefore not a god of light but a god of the in-betweeen realms which would also fit-in with a role as a psychopomp and with his multi-headed nature as one who sees everything in all directions. The name might be interpreted as ‘he of the shadows’, or possibly ‘The Shadowy One’ or maybe even ‘the deceiver’. However, the Middle Cymric word llug actually does mean ‘bright’ so there might have been been a proto-Celtic root with the component *lug- which actually did mean ‘light’, after all proto-Celtic is not a complete lexicon. It might be that Lugus’ name does mean something like ‘The shining one’. This apparent dichotomy in the meaning of Lugus’ name need not be a problem as it may well fit in with his nature as a trickster and a deity of the ‘in-betweeens’. Just as a shadow is the in-between separating light and dark.

Lugus is the catch-all deity, the god of all crafts, variously associated with light, trade, craftsmanship, divine rule and trickery.