Claíomh Solais

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Definitive 6-pence stamp of Sword of Light, Ireland, 1922-3. Arched caption reads "An Claiḋeaṁ Soluis"

Claíomh Solais (reformed spelling), Claidheamh Soluis (pre-reform and Scottish Gaelic)[1] (Irish pronunciation: [klˠiːvˠ ˈsˠɔl̪ˠəʃ]; an cloidheamh solais (variant spelling[2]), rendered "Sword of Light", or "Shining Sword", or "a white glaive of light",[3] is a trope object that appears in a number of Irish and Scottish Gaelic folktales.[4]

The sword has been regarded as a legacy to the god-slaying weapons of Irish mythology by certain scholars, such as T. F. O'Rahilly: the analogue in the Irish Mythological Cycle being Lugh's sling that felled Balor, and their counterparts in heroic cycles are many, including the popular hero Cúchulainn's supernatural spear Gae bulga and his shining sword Cruaidín Catutchenn.[5][6]

A group of Sword of Light tales bear close resemblance in plot structure and detail to the Arthurian tale of Arthur and Gorlagon.[7][8]


The folk tales featuring the claidheamh soluis typically compels the hero to perform (three) sets of tasks, aided by helpers, who may be a servant woman, "helpful animal companions", or some other supernatural being. The majority of are also bridal quests (or involve the winning of husbands in e.g., Maol a Chliobain[9]).

The sword's keeper is usually a giant (gruagach, fermór) or hag (cailleach),[10] who oftentimes cannot be defeated except by some secret means. Thus the hero or helper may resort to the sword of light as the only effective weapon against this enemy.[11] But often the sword is not enough, and the supernatural enemy has to be attacked on a single vulnerable spot on his body. The weak spot, moreover, may be an external soul (motif index E710) concealed somewhere in the world at large (inside animals, etc.), and in the case of "The Young King Of Easaidh Ruadh", this soul is encased within a nested series of animals.[12][13]

The crucial secret to the hero's success is typically revealed by a woman, i.e., his would-be bride or the damsel in distress (the woman servant held captive by giants), etc. And even when the secret's revealant is an animal, she may in fact be a human transformed into beast (e.g. the great grey cat in "The Widow and her Daughters"[14]).

The secret about women is a theme borne in the title "The Shining Sword and the Knowledge of the Cause of the One Story about Women",[15] considered an essential part of the original Irish story (I) according to G. L. Kittredge's stemma of texts,[a] even though "the woman" part is lacking (i.e. lost) in some variants, such as Kennedy's Fios Fath an aon Sceil ("perfect narrative of the unique story")[16][b][c] The "news of the death of Anshgayliacht", which occurs as a quest in another version[18] is also a corruption of this.[19] This reconstruction was made by G. L. Kittredge, who examines a groups of Sword of Light folktales cognate to Arthur and Gorlagon which he edited.[20] A more familiar Arthurian tale which embeds the quest of "What is it that women most desire?" is The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.[21]


Kittredge analyzes his group of Irish folktales (I)[22] to consist of layers of elements: namely a frame story which binds the quest for the "cause of the one story about women" with The Werewolf's Tale type; to this is attached The Quest for the Sword of Light and a large interpolation he calls the Defence of the Child type tale.[23]

The Defence of the Child tale portion is in itself a composite according to Kittredge, consisting of a Faithful Dog tale and what he calls a The Hand and the Child type tale. The latter tale has the motif of a grasping hand that seizes the victim, which gets cut off in some cases, akin to Grendel's arm in Beowulf. The Irish and Gaelic tales of this type exhibit the tale or motif of Skilful Companions, which was studied by Theodor Benfey and is known to be widespread all over the world.[24]

The tale "The Young King Of Easaidh Ruadh" was also given as a typical example of "External soul" motif (E 710[25]) by folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs.[13] It has been pointed out that the Easaidh Ruadh refers to a place name in Ireland, probably the Assaroe Falls in Ballyshannon, County Donegal.[26] A similar Irish tale involving the "external soul" is the Donegal tale "Hung up Naked Man" (Irish: An Crochaire Tarrnochtuighthe); Irish title: "Éamonn Ua Ciórrthais(?)" ed. Quiggin), studied by Roger Sherman Loomis.[27][28] While Loomis does not explicitly state a connection to the sword of light, he remarks that there is parallel to the Irish giant Cú roí whom he describes a "solar host" or "solar divinity",[29] and notes that Cú roí was "slain with his own sword",[30] (as according to the narrative Aided Chon Roí in which Cú roí's wife Blaíthíne reveals the weakness).

Irish folktales[edit]

See under #Primary sources for bibliography of the compilations. Kittredge's sigla are given in boldface:

  • "The Story of the Sculloge's son from Muskerry (Sceal Vhic Scoloige)" (Kennedy (1866), pp. 255-) K
  • "Fios Fath an aon Sceil" (perfect narrative of the unique story) (Kennedy (1866), pp. 266-)
  • "Eachtra air an sgolóig agus air an ngruagach ruadh (Adventure of the Sgolog and the Red Gruagach)" (Ó Briain (1889), Gaelic Journal 4, pp. 7–9; 26–28; 35–37[d] J
  • "The Weaver's Son and the Giant of the White Hill", (Curtin (1890), pp. 64–77). Here the "sword of sharpness".[32]
  • "The Thirteenth Son of the King of Erin", (Curtin (1890), pp. 157–174)
  • "Morraha; Brian More, son of the high-king of Erin, from the Well of Enchantments of Binn Edin" (Larminie (1893), pp. 10–30) L
  • "Simon and Margaret" (Larminie (1893), pp. 130–138)
  • "Beauty of the World" (Larminie (1893), pp. 155–167)
  • "The King who had Twelve Sons" (Larminie (1893), pp. 196–210)
  • "Cud, Cad, and Micad", (Curtin (1894), pp. 198–222).[33]
  • "Coldfeet and Queen of Lonesome Island", (Curtin (1894), pp. 242–261)
  • "Art and Balor Beimnech", (Curtin (1894), pp. 312–334). C1
  • "Smallhead and the King's Sons" (Jacobs (1894), pp. 80–96 (No.XXXIX); Curtin, contrib. "Hero Tales of Ireland" (New York Sun))
  • "The Shining Sword and the Knowledge of the Cause of the One Story about Women" (O'Foharta (1897), pp. 477–92 (ZCP 1))
  • "The Snow, Crow, and the Blood" (MacManus (1900), pp. 151–174). This tale closely parallels another collected by Hyde entitled "Mac Riġ Eireann (The King of Ireland's Son)",[34] but in Hyde's version the hero's party obtains "the sword of the three edges" (cloiḋeaṁ na tri faoḃar).
  • an untitled tale of Finn's three sons by the Queen of Italy collected at Glenties in Donegal, (Andrews (1919), pp. 91-)
  • "An Claidheamh Soluis" (Ó Ceocháin (1927) (Béaloideas I, i (1927), pp. 277–282))

Scottish Gaelic folktales[edit]

The publication of tales from the Highlands (Campbell (1860), Popular Tales of the West Highlands) predate the Irish tales becoming available in print. The magic sword sometimes appearing under variant names such as the "White Glave of Light" (Scottish Gaelic: an claidheamh geal soluis).

Mythological interpretations[edit]

As a mythological sword[edit]

The assertion has been made that Claidheamh Soluis is "a symbol of Ireland attributed in oral tradition to Cúchulainn" (Mackillop[36]), although none of the tales listed above name Cuchulainn as protagonist. T. F. O'Rahilly only went as far as to suggests that the "sword of light" in folk tales was a vestige of divine weapons and heroic weapons, such as Cúchulainn's Cruaidín Catutchenn.[37] This sword (aka "Socht's sword") is said to have "shone at night like a candle" according to a version of Echtrae Cormaic ("Adventures of Cormac mac Airt").[38]

In O'Rahilly's schema, roughly speaking, the primeval divine weapon was a fiery and bright lightning weapon, most often conceived of as a throwing spear; in later traditions, the wielder would change from god to hero, and spear tended to be replaced by sword. From the heroic cycles, some prominent examples are Fergus Mac Roigh's sword Caladbolg and Mac Cecht's spear. But Caladbolg does not manifest as a blazing sword, and the latter which does emit fiery sparks is a spear, thus failing to fit the profile of a sword which shines. One example which does fit, is Cúchulainn's sword Cruaidín which was aforementioned.[39] And the legacy of these mythological and heroic weapons survive in the "sword of light" in folklore.[40]

Connection to other swords[edit]

Some writers have compared the Claíomh Solais to the sword Excalibur of the Matter of Britain. Thomas Malory writes that Excalibur also shines with a blinding light when first drawn, during the battle where King Arthur's sovereignty is tested:[41]

thenne he drewe his swerd Excalibur, but it was so breyght in his enemyes eyen that it gaf light lyke thirty torchys.[41]

Other commentators have equated the Sword of Light to the Grail sword.[42] Loomis also suggested that the sword obtained by Cei (Sir Kay) in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen (i.e., the sword of Gwrnach the giant) must be "related to the sword of light which is the object of the Irish and Scottish folk-tales".[43]

See also[edit]


Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ The "secret about women" being found also in the Latin G text (Arthur and Gorlagon) his assumption is it was also found in their common ancestor y.
  2. ^ Kennedy's title is identical to a phrase within O'Foharta's title, but Kennedy's translation is inaccurate according to Kittredge.[17]
  3. ^ Cf. "Fios-fáh-an-oyn-scéil (the knowledge of the motive of the unique(?) tale)" given in Ó Ceocháin (1928), An Claiḋeaṁ Soluis: agus Fios-fáṫa-'n-aoin-scéil, summary in English, p. 281.
  4. ^ In Irish; this is another version of Curtin's " Sculloge's son from Muskerry"[31]


  1. ^ Mackillop (1998)
  2. ^ O'Rahilly (1946), EIHM, p.68; Kennedy
  3. ^ Puhvel (1972), p. 214, note27
  4. ^ Campbell (1860), I, 24, "The sword of light is common in Gaelic stories;.." etc.
  5. ^ "the Divine Hero overcomes his father the Otherworld-god with that god's own weapon, the thunderbolt, known variously in story-telling by names such as the Gaí Bulga (Cú Chulainn's weapon), the Caladbolg (Arthur's Escalibur), or the Claidheamh Soluis of our halfpenny postage-stamps." G.M., review of O'Rahilly (1946)(EIHM), in: Studies, an Irish Quarterly Review; Vol. 35, No. 139 (Sep. 1946), pp. 420-422 JSTOR p.421
  6. ^ Puhvel (1972), pp. 210, 214–215.
  7. ^ Ó hÓgáin (1991), p. 206.
  8. ^ Kittredge (1903): Kittredge refers to Morraha, ed. Larminie as I or the Irish folktale version of "the werewolf story" (Arthur and Gorlagon).
  9. ^ Campbell (1860), vol. I, p. 251 (#17)
  10. ^ Puhvel (1972), p. 214 : "These are the 'swords of light' or 'glaives of light', usually in the possession of some giant or supernatural 'hag'".
  11. ^ Macalister, R.A.S. (2014) [1935], Ancient Ireland: A Study in the Lessons of Archaeology and History, Routledge, p. 75 (original printing: London, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1935 :"The 'sword of light'.. which made the giants of the fairytales invincible.. is always defeated in the end; the hero, the little man, always succeeds in stealing.. and cutting of its lawful owner's head".
  12. ^ Campbell (1860), vol. 1, pp.1-, (No.1)
  13. ^ a b "Separable soul, or external soul", Briggs (1976), pp. 356–357
  14. ^ Campbell (1860), vol. II, p. 265 (NO.41)
  15. ^ O'Foharta (1897), pp. 477–92.
  16. ^ Summary of I in: Kittredge (1903), pp. 217–8
  17. ^ Kittredge (1903), p. 218, note 2
  18. ^ Larminie (1893), pp. 10–30.
  19. ^ Kittredge (1903), p. 163.
  20. ^ Kittredge (1903), pp. 163–7 and passim.
  21. ^ Day, Mildred Leake (2005), Latin Arthurian Literature, Brewer, p. 42
  22. ^ Kittredge (1903), p. 166.
  23. ^ Kittredge (1903), pp. 166, 168, 214.
  24. ^ Kittredge (1903), pp. 222–230 and seq.
  25. ^ Briggs (1976), p. 469.
  26. ^ "New Book: The Fians", The Highland Monthly, 3: 510, 1892, observation attributed to Gaelic scholar Hector Maclean.
  27. ^ Loomis (1997), pp. 18-
  28. ^ The Irish text is Edmund Crosby Quiggin, Dialect of Donegal (1906), 201 wikisource
  29. ^ Loomis (1997), pp. 49, 73
  30. ^ Loomis (1997), p. 14.
  31. ^ Duncan, Leland L. (1894) "Review of The Gaelic Journal Vol. IV \", Folklore 5 (2), pp. 155–157
  32. ^ Also see notice in A.C.L. Brown, "Bleeding Lance", PMLA 25, p. 20
  33. ^ An Irish text "Cod, Cead agus Mícead was given in An Seaḃac (1932), "Ḋá Scéal ó Ḋuiḃneaċaiḃ", Béaloideas Iml. 3, pp. 381–400. Where it is noted that the storyteller of Curtin's version was found and its Irish version transcribed by Seán Mac Giollarnáth.
  34. ^ in Hyde, Douglas (1890), Beside the Fire (Internet Archive), London: David Nutt, pp.18-47. Taken down from Seáġan O Cuineagáin (John Cunningham), village of Baile-an-phuill (Ballinphil), Co. Roscommon, half mile from Mayo. This tale is also closely summarized and analyzed for folk motives by Mackillop (1998), under "King of Ireland's Son"
  35. ^ Campbell (1860), vol. I, pp. 12-19
  36. ^ Mackillop (1998), Dict. Celtic Mythol.
  37. ^ O'Rahilly (1946), EIHM, p. 68, "Cúchulainn possessed not only the spear of Bulga, but also a sword, known as in Cruaidín Catutchenn, which shone at night like a torch. In folk tales the lightning-sword has survived as "the sword of light" (an cloidheamh solais), possessed by a giant and won from him by a hero."
  38. ^ p. 218, in: Stokes, Whitley, ed. tr., Scél na Fír Flatha, Echtra Chormaic i Tír Tairngiri ocus Cert Claidib Chormaic ("the Irish Ordeals, Cormac's Adventure in the Land of Promise, and the Decision as to Cormac's Sword"), in Irische Texte III, 1 (Leipzig 1891) pp. 183–229.
  39. ^ O'Rahilly (1946)(EIHM)
  40. ^ Puhvel (1972), p. 214.
  41. ^ a b Book I, p. 19, from The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed. Vinaver, Eugène, 3rd ed. Field, Rev. P. J. C. (1990). 3 vol. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-812344-2, ISBN 0-19-812345-0, ISBN 0-19-812346-9. (This is taken from the Winchester Manuscript).
  42. ^ Nitze, Wm. A. (1909), "The Fisher King in the Grail Romances", PMLA, 24 (3): 406, JSTOR 456840
  43. ^ Loomis, Roger Sherman (1961), Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History, Chicago: Clarendon Press, p. 574


  • Mackillop, James (1998), Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-280120-1
  • Takerube, Nobuaki; Kaiheitai (1990), Koku no kamigami, Truth In Fantasy, 6, Shin kigensha, ISBN 4-915146-24-3 (Japanese: 健部伸明と怪兵隊『虚空の神々』新紀元社)
Gaelic texts, some with translations
Translations or tales collected in English
Critical studies
Popularized versions

External links[edit]