In Irish mythology, Balor or Balar was a leader of the Fomorians, a group of malevolent supernatural beings. He is often described as a giant with a large eye that wreaks destruction when opened. Balor takes part in the Battle of Mag Tuired, and is primarily known from the tale in which he is killed by his grandson Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He has been interpreted as a personification of the scorching sun, and has also been likened to figures from other mythologies, such as the Welsh Ysbaddaden and Greek Cyclops.
In the early literature he is also referred to as Balor Béimnech (Balor the smiter), Balor Balcbéimnech (Balor the strong smiter), Balor Birugderc (Balor of the piercing-eye), Balor mac Doit meic Néid (Balor, son of Dot son of Nét) or Balor ua Néit (Balor, grandson of Nét).
Balor first appears in the medieval texts that make up the Mythological Cycle.
Balor was the son of Dot son of Néit according to the Cath Maige Tuired (CMT), but called Balor son of Buarainech in the list of renowned rath- and castle-builders of the world, preserved in the Book of Leinster.[a][b] Cethlenn was Balor's wife according to O'Flaherty's Ogygia (1685). Cethlenn is mentioned by name in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (LGE), but not as a wife of Balor.
The Mythological Cycle tells of a struggle between the divine Tuatha Dé Danann and the demonic Fomorians. At the behest of Bres, the Fomorians go to war against the Tuath Dé. Balor appears as champion of the Fomorians and king of the Isles (the Hebrides), while Indech mac De was the Fomorian king; the two of them leading the Fomorian army. Balor built for Bres the fort of Rath Breisi in Connacht, according to the rath-builder list.
In the ensuing battle, the second Battle of Mag Tuired, Balor kills the Tuath Dé king Nuada Airgetlám, but Balor is himself killed by his own grandson Lugh before he had a chance to use his destructive eye. Balor's eye wreaked destruction when opened, unleashing some "power of poison",[c] but it took the strength of four warriors to lift the eyelid, by grabbing the ring (handle) attached to it. Lugh shot a sling-stone (Old Irish: cloch as a tábaill, "stone from the sling")[d] at the eye, which came out the other side and harmed the Fomorian army. Balor's body then crushed 27 Fomorian soldiers, and his head touched the king,[vague] Indech.
Though not stated outright, the supposition is that Balor here is a "one-eyed giant". In one account of the battle, Lugh also killed a Fomorian leader named Goll (meaning "one-eyed"), who may be a duplication of Balor. The CMT says that Balor's eye gained its baleful power from exposure to the fumes from the magic potion his father's druids were brewing. O'Curry tantalizingly stated he was in possession of a manuscript with an alternate explanation on how Balor got his power, but does not elaborate due to lack of space.
Another description of Balor's death, dating from at least the 12th century, says he survived the loss of his eye and was chased by Lugh to Mizen Head. Lugh beheads Balor and sets the head on a large rock, which then shatters. This is said to be the origin of the headland's Irish name, Carn Uí Néit ("cairn of Nét's grandson").
In folklore collected during the 19th century, Balor is a tyrant who is generally said to live on Tory Island. Balor hears a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson. To avoid his fate, he locks his only daughter, Eithne (also called Ethnea or Ethlinn), in a tower on Tory Island to keep her from becoming pregnant. One day, Balor steals the magical cow of abundance, the Glas Gaibhnenn. The hero Cian mac Cáinte (also called Kian or MacKineely) sets out to retrieve the cow, and learns he can only get the cow back when Balor is dead. With the help of his female familiar spirit (leanan sídhe) named Biróg, Cian enters the tower, finds Eithne and impregnates her. When she gives birth to three boys, Balor sends them out to be drowned, but one survives without Balor's knowledge. The grandson is fostered by either the smith who is his uncle, or Manannán mac Lir the sea-god. The child grows up to become Lugh. Balor eventually encounters his grandson by chance and is killed by him.
In O'Donovan's version of the folktale above, Balor has one eye in the middle of the forehead, and a deadly eye on the back of his head. It is described as both venomous, and issuing some sort of petrifying beam with powers like unto a basilisk. O'Curry deplored the dissemination of such a "peasantry" version, assisted by O'Donovan printing it. This second eye in the back does not preclude the comparison with the one-eyed Cyclops of Greek myth. Balor is three-eyed in a version published by William Hamilton Maxwell.[e]
Another version of the folktale (from Co. Mayo) says that Balor was one-eyed: "He had a single eye in his forehead, a venomous fiery eye. There were always seven coverings over this eye. One by one Balar removed the coverings. With the first covering the bracken began to wither, with the second the grass became copper-coloured, with the third the woods and timber began to heat, with the fourth smoke came from the trees, with the fifth everything grew red, with the sixth it sparked. With the seventh, they were all set on fire, and the whole countryside was ablaze!".
According to folklore from Co. Sligo, Balor was said to have a glass through which he would look to destroy a person with his eye. He used the glass to burn and wither all of the plants at Moytura, which prompted a hero to ask how he did this. Balor, being duped by the trick, removed the glass from his eye long enough for the hero to put it out. The blood running from Balor's eye created a lake called Suil Balra or Lochan na Súil (Lough Nasool, "lake of the eye"), near Ballindoon Abbey.
Localization of the legend
The placing of Balor's stronghold on Tory Island derives from the medieval literature, which places the Fomorians' stronghold there. On Tory Island there are geological features called Dún Bhalair ("Balor's fortress") and Túr Bhalair ("Balor's tower"), and a tall rock formation called Tór Mór ("great tower").
Although the Tory Island version of the folktale printed by O'Donovan was influential, this may have misled the public with the impression that "Tory has almost a monopoly of Balor traditions", so argues Henry Morris. O'Donovan said that Balor was remembered "throughout Ireland". The Balor tales involving the magic cow were also being told plentifully elsewhere, particularly "South of Ulster". Morris stated he had collected "remnants" in Farney, Monaghan c. 1900, and that these versions connected Balor and the cow Glasgaivlen with places as far afield as "south Monaghan to Rockabill Island off the coast of Dublin".[g]
Folklorist Alexander Haggerty Krappe believes Balor comes from a very ancient myth of a woman (representing the fertile earth) shut away by an old man (representing winter and the old year), impregnated by another man, whose child (the new year), then kills the old man. He suggests that the myth and others like it could be metaphors for yearly cycles of growth, death, and re-growth.
Dáithí Ó hÓgáin believes that Balor personifies the harmful aspects of the sun, such as the scorching sun that would bring crop failure and drought. He speculates that the imagery of Balor is a conflation of a Bronze Age Celtic sun god with the Greek Cyclops. Both Ó hÓgáin and Máire MacNeill believe that Lugh's slaying of Balor was originally a harvest myth associated with the festival of Lughnasa and the later tale of Saint Patrick overcoming Crom Dubh. Ó hÓgáin also believes that the hero Fionn's conflict with figures named Goll (meaning "one-eyed"), Áed (meaning "fire") and Aillen (the burner) stems from Lugh's conflict with Balor.
The parallel between Balor and Ysbaddaden from Welsh mythology has been noted by several commentators, but for different reasons. Each is a giant whose eyelid takes several men to lift (using a ring handle vs. lifting with forks); each has a spear cast at him and loses an eye; and each is unwilling to give away his daughter to the bridal-quester.
Since the mid-19th century, Balor has been likened to figures from Greek mythology, especially the Cyclops. James O'Laverty noted the parallel with Acrisius, the King of Argos who was fated to be killed by his grandson, the hero Perseus. This parallel has been pursued at length by others.
O'Laverty also ventured that the name "Balor" may be linked to the name of the Greek hero Bellerophon. Arbois de Jubainville argued that the name "Bellerophon" means "slayer of Belleros" and that this is another name for the Chimera. He asserts that both the Chimera and Balor are monsters that spew flame or thunderbolts.
However, de Jubainville (and others) also seized on another comparison: between Balor and Argos the many-eyed watchman of the white cow Io. Since the destroyer of the former is Lugh, and of the latter is Hermes, this neatly fits into the framework of identifying the Celtic Hermes with Lugh.
Krappe lists six elements that are found in other myths: the prophesy of being slain by his own descendant; the precaution of locking the daughter in a tower; the seduction of the daughter by a stranger, who needs to use magic to gain access; the birth of a boy and the attempt to drown him; the fostering of the boy, and the fulfilment of the prophesy by the boy killing his grandparent. Krappe drew parallel with the viy (vy), the heavy eye-lidded creature that appears in Gogol's story Viy, which W. R. S. Ralston believed was the identity of the witch's husband in the skazka "Ivan the Bull's Son", but the existence of such a being in East Slavic folklore has been met with skepticism.
- Buar-ainech means "cow-faced" according to Arbois de Jubainville, who encourages comparison with the Celtic deity Cernunnos.
- A later version of this list, in verse and prose, was made by Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh, anno 1650.
- nem, neim
- Scowcroft (1995), p. 143 summarized as thus: "Balor himself may have one, two or three eyes, one of which is poisonous, incendiary, or otherwise malignant; he may have two eyes in front, one each in front and back, an extra eye in the middle of his forehead. Lug always puts the evil eye out.."
- In the Irish text which closely follows this version, Lugh Fadlámhach's spear pierces seven coverings (Irish:bpilleadh>filleadh; German:Hülle) out of the nine coverings protecting Balor's eye.
- The same could be said of the adjoining areas of Breifne, as an island (Enniskillen) in the area was named after Balor's wife, Morris further contending that the village Glengevlin had been named after Balor's cow.
- Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí (1991). Myth, Legend & Romance: An encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition. Prentice Hall. pp. 43–45. ISBN 9780132759595.
- Macalister (1941) ed. tr. LGE ¶312, 118–121; ¶331–332, pp. 148–151; ¶364, pp. 180–181
- Gray (1982) tr., The Second Battle of Moytura §133, ed. CMT §133; Stokes (1891), pp. 100–101, glossary p. 113
- Gray (1982) tr., The Second Battle of Moytura §128, ed. CMT §128; Stokes (1891), pp. 96–97
- Gray (1982) tr., The Second Battle of Moytura §50, ed. CMT §50; Stokes (1891), pp. 74–75
- O'Donovan (1856), p. 18.
- O'Flaherty, Roderic (1793). "Part III, Chapter XII". Ogygia, or, A chronological account of Irish events. 2. tr. by Rev. James Hely. pp. 21–22.: "Kethlenda, the wife of Balar, gave Dagda.. a desperate wound from some missile weapon"; p. 23: "Lugad.. Mac Kethlenn, from is great grand-aunt, the wife of Balar".
- O'Curry, Eugene (1873). "Lecture XIX The Rath builder and the Caiseal builder". On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. 3. Williams and Norgate. pp. 14–15.. Taken from Book of Leinster fol. 27v.
- Arbois de Jubainville, Marie Henri d' (1908), "Gaelic Folk-Tales and Mediæval Romances:Les dieux cornus gallo-romains dans la mythologie irlandaise", Revue Archéologique, Quatrième Série, 11: 6–7, JSTOR 41019629
- Arbois de Jubainville (1903), p. 218.
- Macalister (1941) ed. tr. LGE ¶314, 124–125 (Cetlenn); ¶366, pp. 184–185; Poem LV, str. 32 on p. 237
- eDIL s.v. "neim".
- eDIL s.v. "drolam"; "omlithe cona drolum omlithi `with a polished (?) handle'. The meaning is speculative, cf. Stoke's note on omlithi, p. 122.
- eDIL s.v. "táball".
- Sheeran & Witoszek (1990), p. 243.
- Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí. Fionn Mac Cumhaill: Images of the Gaelic Hero. Gill & MacMillan, 1988. pp.10-11
- eDIL s.v. "fulacht (1)".
- See Scowcroft (1995), p. 141 and Sheeran & Witoszek (1990), p. 243 for paraphrases of this passage. Scowcroft writes the eye was "envenomed by vapours from druid concoctions".
- O'Curry (1863), pp. 233–234.
- O'Donovan (1856), pp. 18–21.
- Ogle, Marbury B. (1928), "Reviewed Work(s): Balor with the Evil Eye by Alexander Haggerty Krappe", The American Journal of Philology, 49 (3): 297, JSTOR 290097
- Bruford, Alan (1966), "Gaelic Folk-Tales and Mediæval Romances: A Study of the Early Modern Irish 'Romantic Tales' and Their Oral Derivatives", Béaloideas, 34: 162, JSTOR 20521320
- Larminie (1893), pp. 1–9.
- Crooke, W. (1908), "Some notes on Homeric Folk-lore", Folklore, 19 (2): 173, doi:10.1080/0015587X.1908.9719822
- Author of "Stories of Waterloo" (W. H. Maxwell) (1837), "The Legend of Ballar", Bentley's Miscellany, 2: 527–530
- Borlase (1897), pp. 806–808.
- Muirhead, Litellus Russell (1967). Ireland. 2. E. Benn. p. 68.
- Curtin, Jeremiah, ed. (1911). "Balor on Tory Island". Hero-tales of Ireland. Little, Brown. pp. 83–295.
- Laoide, Seosamh (1913) . "XIII Balor agus Mac Cionnfhaolaidh". Cruach Chonaill. Dublin: Chonnradh na Gaedhilge. pp. 63–65.. 1909 edition.e-text via Historical Irish Corpus (RIA)
- Müller-Lisowski (1923), p. 321.
- Morris (1927), p. 48.
- Morris (1927), p. 57.
- O'Donovan (1856), p. 23, note x.
- Krappe 1927, pp. 18-22.
- Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí (1999). The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 139–140. ISBN 9780851157474.
- MacNeill, Máire, The Festival of Lughnasa. p.416
- Krappe (1927), p. 4 and note 15, citing Windisch. E. (1912), Das keltische Britannien bis zu Kaiser Arthur, p. 159
- Scowcroft (1995), p. 144.
- Gruffydd (1928), p. 101n apud Scowcroft (1995), p. 144n
- O'Laverty, James (1859), "Remarkable Correspondence of Irish, Greek, and Oriental Legends", Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 7: 342–343, JSTOR 20563514
- Krappe (1927), pp. 10-16.
- Arbois de Jubainville (1903), pp. 115–116.
- Arbois de Jubainville (1903), pp. 113–114.
- Westropp, Thomas Johnson (1917), "The Earthworks, Traditions, and the Gods of South-Eastern Co. Limerick, Especially from Knocklong to Temair Erann", Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, 34: 141, 156, JSTOR 25504213
- Krappe (1927), p. 4 n15, p. 25.
- Ralston, W. R. S. (1873). "Ivan Popyalof". Russian Folk Tales. p. 72.:".. an Aged One, whose appearance is that of the mythical being whom the Servians call the Vy", cited by Krappe (1927), p. 4
- Maguire, Robert A. (1996). Exploring Gogol. Stanford University Press. pp. 360–361, n5.
- Arbois de Jubainville, Marie Henri d' (1903), The Irish Mythological Cycle and Celtic Mythology, Hodges, Figgis
- Borlase, William Copeland (1897). The Dolmens of Ireland. 3. Chapman and Hall. pp. 806–808, 883–891, 1077–1078.
- Gray, Elizabeth A., ed. (1982). Cath Maige Tuired: The Second battle of Mag Tuired. Drucker., full text via CELT; e-text via sacred-texts
- Gruffydd, William John (1928), Math vab Mathonwy: an inquiry into the origins and development of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi with the text and a translation, The University of Wales Press Board
- Krappe, A. H. (1927), Balor with the Evil Eye. Studies in Celtic and French Literature, New York, pp. 1–43
- Larminie, William (1893), West Irish Folk-tales and Romances, 1, London: Elliot Stock, pp. 1–9, archived from the original on 2007-05-09 (oral tale told by John McGinty, Achill Island)
- Macalister, R.A.S., ed. (1941), "Section VII: Invasion of the Tuatha De Danann", Lebor gabála Érenn, Part IV
- Morris, Henry (30 June 1927), "Where Was Tor Inis, the Island Fortress of the Fomorians?", The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, 17 (1): 47–58, JSTOR 25513429
- Müller-Lisowski, K. (1923). "4 Balor". Irische Volksmarchen. pp. 14–18, 321.
- O'Curry, Eugene, ed. (1863), "The Fate of the Children of Tuireann ([A]oidhe Chloinne Tuireann)", Atlantis, IV: 157–240
- O'Donovan, John (1856) . Annála Ríoghachta Éireann: Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. 1. Dublin: Hodges, Smith, and Co. pp. 18–21.
- Sheeran, Patrick; Witoszek, Nina (1990), "Myths of Irishness: The Fomorian Connection", Irish University Review, 20 (2): 239–250, JSTOR 25484361