In Irish mythology, Balor (modern spelling: Balar) was king of the Fomorians, a group of supernatural beings. He is often described as a giant with a large eye in his forehead that wreaks destruction when opened. He has been interpreted as a god or personification of drought and blight.
He is also referred to as Balor Béimnech (Balor the smiter), Balor Balcbéimnech (Balor the strong smiter) and Balor Birugderc (Balor of the piercing eye). The latter has led to the English name Balor of the Evil Eye.
Balor is said to be the son of Buarainech and husband of Cethlenn. Balor is described as a giant with an eye in the middle of his forehead. This eye wreaks destruction when opened. The Cath Maige Tuired calls it a "destructive" and "poisonous" eye that no army can withstand, and says that it takes four men to lift the eyelid. In later folklore it is described as follows: "It was always covered with seven cloaks to keep it cool. He took the cloaks off one by one. At the first, ferns began to wither. At the second, grass began to redden. At the third, wood and trees began to heat up. At the fourth, smoke came out of wood and trees. At the fifth, everything got red hot. At the sixth...... At the seventh, the whole land caught fire".
Balor hears a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson. To avoid his fate, he locks his only daughter, Ethniu, in a tower on Tory Island to keep her from becoming pregnant. One day, Balor steals a magical cow of abdundance, the Glas Gaibhnenn, from Goibniu the smith. He takes it to his fortress on Tory Island. Cian, who was guarding the cow for Goibniu, sets out to get it back. With the help of the druidess Biróg and the sea god Manannán, Cian enters the tower and finds Ethniu. They have sex, and she gives birth to three sons. Balor attempts to drown the boys in the sea, but one is saved and is raised as a foster-son by Manannán. He grows up to become Lugh.
Lugh eventually becomes king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He leads the Tuath Dé in the second Battle of Mag Tuired against the Fomorians, who are led by Balor. Ogma disarms Balor during this battle, but Balor kills Nuada with his eye. Lugh kills Balor by casting a sling, or a spear crafted by Gobniu, through his eye. Balor's eye destroys the Fomorian army. Lugh then beheads Balor.
One legend tells that, when Balor was slain by Lugh, Balor's eye was still open when he fell face first into the ground. Thus his deadly eye beam burned a hole into the earth. Long after, the hole filled with water and became a lake which is now known as Loch na Súil, or "Lake of the Eye", in County Sligo.
In his book The Myths of the Gods: Structures in Irish Mythology, Alan Ward interprets Balor as the god of drought and blight. He interprets the tale of Balor as follows: The Drought God (Balor) seizes the cow of fruitfulness (Glas Gaibhnenn) and shuts her in his prison. The Sun God (Cian) rescues the cow with help from the Sea God (Manannán) – water being the natural enemy of drought. The Sun God and a Water Goddess (Ethniu), attempt to produce a son—the Storm God (Lugh)—who will overcome the Drought God. They succeed in spiriting the future Storm God away to the domain of the Sea God, where the Drought God cannot reach him. The Storm God and Drought God at last meet in battle. The Smith God (Gobniu) forges the thunderbolt and the Storm God uses it to unleash the storm and kill drought, at least temporarily.
The folklorist Alexander Hagerty Krappe (1894–1947) discusses the Balor legend in his book Balor With the Evil Eye: Studies in Celtic and French Literature (1927). Krappe believes Balor comes from a very ancient myth—perhaps as old as agriculture—of a woman (the earth) shut away by an old man (the old year), impregnated by another man, whose child (the new year), then kills the old man. Other versions of this myth are said to be found in the tales of Gilgamesh, Osiris, Balder and Danaë. Moreover, according to Krappe, Balor is related to Janus, Kronos, the Serbian monster "Vy," the Welsh Ysbaddaden, and other versions of a two-headed god with an evil eye. Krappe also suggests that the woman may originally have been a cow goddess, such as Hathor, Io or Hera.
- Ward, Alan. The Myths of the Gods: Structures in Irish Mythology. CreateSpace, 2015
- Ward, pp.46-47
- Ward, p.54
- Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 61, No. 240 (Apr. - Jun., 1948), pp. 201-202
- J.A. MacCulloch, The Childhood of Fiction, London, 1905, p. 411
- W.R.S. Ralston, Russian Folk Tales, London, 1873, p. 72, cited by Krappe, p 4
- The Poetry of the Celtic Races, Ernest Renan. Translated by W. G. Hutchison, II