A Samhain Story | Lugh, Master of All Arts
Updated: May 12, 2020
Lugh was said to have joined the Danann in battle against the Fomori on the eve of Samhain. This is my retelling of how it happened.
Lugh hammered loudly on the palace gates, his men gathered about him. They had been travelling many days, and darkness would soon be falling. They had no intention of spending yet another night sleeping on the hard ground with just their cloaks to warm them.
“Be off with you!” someone shouted down to them from the shadows atop of the palisade wall. “The gates to the King’s palace are closed for the night. We are accepting no visitors this Samhain Eve.”
Lugh’s companions muttered angrily amongst themselves, and shifted restlessly. The wind blew cold, and the lowering sky held the threat of rain. They did not wish to be caught in it. Lugh shook back his red-gold hair, and motioned for them to stay calm.
“We are warriors come from afar to join Nuada’s army. We wish to join him in battle against the Fomori. What kind of hospitality is this?” he called.
“Go away,” the voice shouted. “The King is at table with his council. My orders are to let none in. Come again tomorrow.”
“This is an outrage,” yelled one of the companions, kicking at the gate. “Do you know who you are talking to?”
Lugh pulled him away from the gate. “Hush, my friend. I would win my place on merit, not by my name.” Despite his calm words, his blood was rising in anger. To the gatekeeper, he said, “We will not leave. We have travelled many days to lend Nuada our skills and arms. Is this the way you would treat us? Does the army of Nuada have no need of men brave and true?”
There was a short pause, then came the reply, “We already have many soldiers, and many men of skill. What special talent do you have that would make your presence so desirable to King Nuada?”
Lugh’s men were all for battering down the gate, and it was all he could do to restrain them. They shot murderous glances at him; he certainly didn’t fancy the guard’s chances when they finally gained entry. He determined that no jobsworth was going to get the better of him.
“I am a mighty warrior, and more than that, a proven champion in single combat,” he announced with some measure of pride. His followers cheered, sounding their approval.
“As I said, we have warriors a-plenty, and our champion is Ogma.”
“Well, then, I am trained as a smith, and have skills in working all manner of metals, be it iron for the sword, or silver for the brooch, or gold for the torc.” Lugh’s friends smiled at this, and thumped him on the back, sure they would now be ushered through, for was not the skill of forging a sword more prized than any other, save the wielding of it?
The gatekeeper was sounding increasingly irritated. “Goibhniu is our smith, and Credne is our brazier; they have many talented underlings toiling in their forge, so you see, we do not lack for metalworkers.”
“Hold hard there, doorkeeper, for there is more! I have mastered the arts of building, and carpentry. Who do you have to match me?” Lugh grinned; he was enjoying the game immensely, which was more than could be said for his opponent. Or his friends.
“Just tell him who you are, and be done with it,” they begged, but Lugh shook his head, and they grumbled at his mulishness.
“Luchtaine is our carpenter and also our wheelwright. He oversees the building of our halls, and of our chariots. What say you to that?”
“I say he must be very skilled indeed, but what of his powers of sorcery?”
The reply was weary. “I cannot comment on Luchtaine’s mastery of magic, but Nuada has many magicians, and chief among them is Mathgen. Druantia is Queen of the Druids, so as you see, his magical and spiritual needs are already well met.”
“Gatekeeper, I am not through with you yet. Have I told you of my ability for healing the sick and injured?”
“No, you have not. But we have Dian Cecht, and his equally talented sons and daughter, who are all healers. Have you not heard?”
“Then answer me this, my friend. I sing more sweetly than the birds in the trees, and play the harp as if I played on the very heartstrings of my listeners. As a poet, my words would bring tears to your eyes, and as a historian my knowledge would humble even the Druids. Do you have any to rival me?”
“Naturally, we do,” came the haughty retort. “Many of our ladies sing just as well, and Cas Corach, our Master Harper is famous for his playing of The Three Noble Strains of Ireland. As to the cleverness of words, Ogma, the King’s champion, is much admired for his poetry, and he it was that created the Ogham alphabet.”
Lugh finally bowed his head, as if beaten. Only his friends could see the glint in his eyes. “It would seem that the Denann are not wanting in skilled men and women. But I am not known as Samildanach for nothing. I am the Master of all Arts. Now tell me, who do you have at court who is not just a warrior, but a proven champion, a smith of all metals, a builder, a carpenter, a sorcerer, a healer, a singer, a harper, a poet and a historian? Who is there, one single person, who can do all of these things?”
Lugh’s men erupted at these words, cheering and clashing their spears against their shields, as if heading for war. There was a long pause, before a somewhat more subdued voice said, “I must admit, I know of not one person who can perform all those functions which you say you can.”
“So, will you let us in?” Lugh’s companions demanded, their patience sorely tried.
“How do I know you are telling the truth?” The gatekeeper’s voice was tainted with suspicion.
“Let us in, and I will demonstrate each and every skill to King Nuada and all his court, if he so wishes.”
Lugh and his men heard heavy bolts being withdrawn, and then the gates swung slowly open. Quick as a flash, Lugh’s men were through, and the unfortunate gatekeeper found himself surrounded, a forest of gleaming blades pressed at his throat. Lugh shouldered them all aside, laughing.
“I wouldn’t do your job for all the gold in Tara,” he said. “Be wary, Gamal Gatekeeper, be looking often over your shoulder. See my men are cold, hungry, thirsty and tired, and you have kept them too long from the King’s hospitality, which makes them very angry. Now, take us to Nuada.”
Gamal led the small band of warriors into the great hall, where they were presented to Nuada. Huge fires were lit at each end of the room, and many tables and benches laid out between them, where men and women sat feasting and drinking. The air was dense with the scent of wood smoke and cooking food, filled with the din of voices raised in speech or laughter.
The King himself occupied a table beside one of the fires, with his wife Macha at his side, and his sons and closest friends and advisers all gathered about him. Entertainers wandered amongst the crowd, telling stories and jokes, performing tricks or feats of agility and strength. The strains of music drifted from one corner, where a group of musicians played. Servants scurried back and forth, fetching more meat or drink. Children played freely, the King’s dogs joining in their rough and tumble. Skins and rugs covered the earth floor, and colourful, finely worked wall hangings decorated the wooden walls, holding in the warmth. Weapons hung on the wall behind each guest, removed through friendship but close to hand if needed. Hundreds of candles lit up all the action, a full-time job for some poor servant just to run around replacing them all as they burned low.
The king lounged in his intricately carved throne, and stared at Lugh expectantly. He saw a tall, well-muscled young man of cunning and intellect standing proud and erect before him. His hair, somewhere between red and blonde, curled about his head and shoulders like a golden halo in the firelight. The rough hands and old burns on his forearms spoke of years of toil at the forge and the workshop, yet the scars he bore indicated a man of the sword. A sensitivity around the mouth and eyes belied a tendency towards the artistic, and the pouch of herbs at his belt was the give-away sign of a healer. This was clearly no ordinary young man. The King felt himself drawn to this stranger, but what he liked most about him was the way the boy’s clear eyes met his own without fear or malice.
There is softness in him, but also a hard edge in equal measures, thought Nuada. If I am any judge of the character of a man, then this one is meant for greatness.
“I hear men call you the Samildanach,” he remarked.
“It is true. I am skilled in all the arts,” replied Lugh, but without the manner of one who brags.
“I do not doubt it. But I think my people would enjoy the spectacle of a demonstration, if you would be willing.”
“As you wish, my Lord. What is it you would have me do?”
At that moment, a large bear of a man stepped out of the shadows, from where he had been watching this exchange. “I think it only fair, Nuada, that as your current champion, I choose a task for the Samildanach.”
“Ogma,” Nuada acknowledged him. “So be it.”
Ogma grinned wolfishly, looking the slight young man up and down. “Outside this hall lies a boulder. Its size and weight is such that it takes a team of eighty oxen to move it. I will cast it out from the Hill of Tara. If you can match my strength and skill by tossing it back, I will abdicate my place as king’s champion to you.”
Lugh nodded his agreement. Looking certain of victory, Ogma led the way out of the hall to the site of the stone. There was a hurried scraping back of seats, and the buzz of excited voices as the revellers followed. Beyond the hall, word of the contest had quickly spread, and a crowd had already gathered to watch the feat. Using his great brute strength, Ogma wrapped his arms around the rock, bent his knees, and began to lift. Calling upon his magic, he raised the stone and threw it mightily over the palisade to the far side of the outer ditch, where it landed with such a thud, the ground shook, and the vibrations could be felt for miles around.
The people of the Danann cheered for their champion, but undaunted, Lugh calmly and quietly went after the stone, and easily threw it back. Folk ran screaming to get out of the way as the huge missile made for its target and embedded itself deeply in the earth from which it had been torn.
Lugh walked up to Ogma, who was bitterly trying to control his anger and disappointment.
“I have fulfilled your challenge. Now give me your champion’s badge.” So Ogma relinquished his position as King’s champion to the Samildanach, as agreed.
The King said, “It is well done. but now I have a fancy for some music. Samildanach, play me your harp.”
Without a word, Lugh took out his small hand harp from its wrappings, and drew from it such keen and beautiful melodies, that all were moved by the mood of it. He played the ‘Goltrai’, and all who heard it could not hold back their tears.Then he played the ‘Geantrai’, which was so full of joy, none could restrain their laughter, but he did not play the ‘Suantrai’, for he saw no benefit in sending his audience to sleep. Afterwards, Cas Corach himself declared he could not have played more sweetly, and Nuada, who knew the secrets of the harp also, knew this to be true.
“I am impressed by all that I have seen, young man, but entertain me once more, I beg you, and join me in a game of Fidcheall,” said the King. Fidcheall was a board game involving an equal number of playing pieces, one set against the other, on a wooden board divided into squares, seven by seven across. Three hours later, Nuada found himself unexpectedly defeated. He looked at Lugh secretly through narrowed eyes, and wondered if he could be the man to lead his army to victory against the Fomori.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I was fostered at the court of Queen Tailltiu, formerly of the Fir Bolg,” said Lugh. “My foster mother insisted I be trained in all the arts, the better to prepare me for my future life. She saw great things ahead of me, and loved me like her own son. When I came of age she told me my father is Cian, son of Dian Cecht, your physician, and my birth mother is Eithne, daughter of Balor. Then I learned of the encroachment of the Fomori, and how you prepare for battle against them. So I came here to take up my birth right, and offer you my services.”
There was much rejoicing among the Danann at this, for one of their own was now returned to them. Cian came forward to embrace his son, as did Dian Cecht, his grandfather. The King observed this and thought, he is of noble birth, and qualified more than most to be my battle champion.
The next day he called a council with the Dagda and Ogma. All day they argued the matter forwards and backwards, and upside down and inside out. Then they called Dian Cecht and Goibhniu into the argument, and went at it again all through the night, until finally they were in agreement.
Lugh was welcomed into the Tuatha de Danann and consequently made Ollamh Eirean, Chief Bard of Literature and History, thus taking on a position which carried equal status with the High King himself.
Grateful thanks to Carri Angel Photography for the kind use of their stunning image