Boleros of the Burning Eye

In the Irish myths we find a giant named Balor whose name derives from the common Celtic *Boleros ‘the Flashing One’. He is best known for the destructive power of his eye, which burns or poisons.

In ‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuired’ Balor fights on the side of the Formorians ‘underworld giants’, who come from beneath the earth or sea, to fight against the culture gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Balor has ‘a destructive eye’ which is ‘never opened except on the battlefield’ by four men pulling a ring on the lid. We are told that any host which looked into his eye, even if there were thousands, ‘would offer no resistance to warriors’. Its ‘poisonous power’ originates from an accident. When Balor’s father’s druids ‘were brewing magic’ the fumes ‘affected the eye’ and ‘the venomous power of the brew settled in it.’

Balor kills the king and battle leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuadu Silverhand. Yet the moment the lid on his eye is raised Lug Lormanslech (who is elsewhere known as Lug Lámfada ‘of the Long Hand’) kills him by firing a slingstone from his slingshot into his eye and causing him to fall backwards and kill twenty-seven men. Lug later takes the place of Nuada as king of the Tuatha Dé Danann

In ‘Balor on Tory Island’ he has a burning eye which is covered by nine leather shields or seven coverings which he removed one by one: ‘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!’ Balor is killed by Lug, with a a red spear crafted by Gavidin Gow, which pierces through all the coverings.

In this Formorian giant it is possible to find some parallels with the British giants and forces of Annwn ‘the Deep’, the Otherworld or Underworld. Llasar, described as ‘a huge, monstrous man’ with ‘yellow-red hair’ and ‘an evil, ugly look about him’ emerges from ‘the Lake of the Cauldron’. The scream of a dragon causes men to lose their strength and makes the land and its inhabitants barren.

There are also similarities between Battles of Mag Tuired and ‘The Battle of the Trees’. Like the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Children of Don, Lleu (cognate with Lug) ‘radiant his name, strong his hand’, the magician-god, Gwydion, and the plough-god, Amaethon, battle against the forces of the King of Annwn and these include giants such as Bran the Blessed and Annuvian monsters.

However, neither Nodens/Nudd (cognate with Nuada) or Boleros (who would be cognate with Balor) are mentioned. This leaves me wondering whether we had a similar story in which Nodens was killed or injured by Boleros and Lugus/Lleu triumphed over the giant and his destroying eye.

A similar story about how Boleros gained the destructive powers of his eye would certainly fit with narratives in which the cauldron which brews the awen and revives the dead also produces poison.

The tale of Boleros of the Burning Eye is one of the stories I am striving to re-imagine in my new book.

10 thoughts on “Boleros of the Burning Eye

  1. Greg Hill says:

    Finding the missing pieces in the jigsaw of the mythscape ….

    Boleros/ Balor are interesting cognates. The conflict between Balar and Lugh has a parallell in the conflict between Fionn and Goll mac Morna of the one eye and the story of Fionn and the fire-breathing monster (dragon?) Aillen , so with possible connections to Gwyn?

    • lornasmithers says:

      Thanks for these references to the Fionn stories. I hadn’t read either so they’re both very interesting. I see Goll was a member of Fionn’s warband but simply by being a member was probably otherworldly. Aillen is interesting, also being a harper and sending the people of Tara to sleep. A bit like the magician in Lludd and Llefelys. I note Fionn inhales poison from a spear to stay awake but I’m sure whose spear this is – his or Aillen’s?

      Do you know of any good compilations of Fionn’s stories? I’ve never been able to find one.

  2. Tiege McCian says:

    Hi Lorna! Fantastic post and excellent topic for discussion! Sorry I haven’t been able to keep up and comment on your good work for the past few months, I’ve been so busy I can’t even work on my own blog. I do miss this blog tho and just want to pop in to join in on this post! Don’t know if youll get anything out of my humble amateur offering. 🙂

    First about Nuadu/Balor/Lugh and the possible original myth that would have circulated in Britain; the laudable Gerard Murphy makes a persuasive linguistic link Between Nuadu and the elusive character of Noine/Noende, briefly mentioned in Irish MS as the boy prophesied to slay his maternal grandfather. Murphy makes the connection to the very similar Balor and Lugh story found in the Mag Tuired text, making Nuadu probably a double of either Lugh himself or his father Cian. I agree with his assessment, though he then goes on to connect those stories with Finn son of Umall, which I don’t agree with, in my amateur opinion.
    (Reader page 85)

    Every part of the Mag Tuired text is obviously all based on Celtic myth, but I agree with professors Murphy and John Carey that it’s an innovative work, composited from various genuinely mythic traditions into a basically seamless whole that reflected the hopes and fears of the Irish during the period when it was composed, between the 9th to 11th centuries.

    That said, let me argue my novice interpretation of the text…

  3. Tiege McCian says:

    You make a great point by noting the similarity of the trees enchanted to fight in the Mag Tuired text (m) with the battle of the trees in Welsh tradition. I would also say that the magic well that brings the dead back to life, which is subsequently destroyed in a suicidal charge by the invaders, resembles the magic cauldron of the Second Branch (b), and imagine that the basic plots of both tales are derived from a shared pagan heritage. To further your connection between Balor and Brân, although not present in (m,) in later texts about the second battle of Mag Tuired Balor is not killed by Lugh’s initial attack, and instructs him to cut off his head where it is placed upon a magic tree, which at least somewhat echoes the Welsh. But to turn away from Balor and Brân for a minute if you’d permit me, I’d like to focus more on motifs found in battles where they “meet their end,” so to speak. Both battles are impossible in scope, in (m) the number of casualties are basically infinite, and in (b) at least all but 4 (right?) of all the Irish are killed. This might be coincidental hyperbole meant to thrill the reader, but I don’t think so. In fact, in my humble estimation, I think both texts actually rather downplay the size of the battle as it may have been in an potential original myth. In one of the rosc dialogues, which is at least as old as the 9th century and probably a little older, the poem is put in the mouth of the mythic Morrigan as she surveys the mustering hosts and says: I see everyone born… in the battle.

    Everyone born is in the battle?! Coupled with the infinite casualties described later I would suggest an original myth was about a world war in which all nations of the world took part. Later similar tales like the 15th century Battle of Ventry, as well as several Scottish folk tales, more plainly say that the battles they are concerned with are global in scope.

  4. Tiege McCian says:

    I’m having so much fun finally chatting with you about this stuff, by the way, I hope to hear from you about this as your as well read and enthusiastic about the subject as I am.

    Anyway, I also think the battle is about the ultimate harmonizing of opposing Devine forces and the discovery of agriculture as well, based on what appears to be a tradition of forces making peace and bringing fecundity to the land in several different texts. But I guess I’ll leave it there for now cuz I don’t want to pester you with my idle speculation. Thanks again I hope to speak again sometime!

    • lornasmithers says:

      Hello Tiege, thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the links – particularly the one to Story Archaeology where I see there is some valuable material. A battle between everyone born is an interesting interpretation! It is certainly a battle difficult to locate in terms of time and people involved… it seems it may have been a battle on which each teller pinned their favourite opponents thus you get all the cool Irish characters in one telling and all the Welsh ones who don’t usually fit together at once (Gwydion, Lleu, Amaethon, Arawn, Taliesin, Arthur, marching trees, monsters). Like maybe they were trying to stage the greatest battle scene ever. Or maybe it has some end of world/apocalyptic significance? I guess we’ll never truly know…

      • Tiege McCian says:

        No problem for the links, we’re all here to share resources and discuss what we think! A lot of fun 🙂

        I really do think the “global conflict” motif is a genuinely ancient Celtic one, it’s so ubiquitous throughout Ireland and Scotland, with at least traces of it in Wales. Indeed, I haven’t heard mention that direct details in the Second Branch are corroborated in other ancient Indo-European sources, such as the kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata, a battle of many nations that number the combatants in the millions which ends with the winning side having only seven survivors and the losing side with five, the final death that ends the cataclysm being a blow to the thigh of the enemy warrior. Maybe Plato’s version of Atlantis as well. Oh well, you’re absolutely right that we will never know.

        By the way, concerning Balor and the Celtic Cyclops, I’d like to make a post on its incarnations in Celtic countries – if I can ever even get around to it. I wouldn’t be stepping on your toes, yes?

        Thanks for the reply!

      • lornasmithers says:

        Oh that’s interesting. I didn’t know about the kurukshetra war.

        I’d be very interested to read your article on Balor and ‘the Celtic cyclops’. As far as I know he’s the only one-eyed giant but then you get Lugh and Cu Chulainn doing the closing one eye and standing on one leg thing. Maybe they’re connected?…

        No of course not stepping on my toes – no-one should have the monopoly on one-eyed giant stories…

      • Tiege McCian says:

        Cool, thanks!

        I would say that it’s very perceptive of you to connect the Lugh and Cu Chulainn incidents, lol because I thought so too! 🙂 Further I think a third Irish tale might explain the meaning behind those incidents, contentious though it may be. But sleep now, write later, hah!

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