Luguwalos: Carlisle’s ancient roots

Regular readers with be getting major deja-vu here! I’m afraid this post had been mashed in WordPress’s cogs for a while and hence invisible.  But it’s back…

It’s always struck me as odd that the only people who know about our native British gods are either specialist academic historians or wearing a pentacle (or indeed, both). Even those of us in Cumbria who live and work alongside the evidence – as we’ve already seen with Eveling/Afallach of Ravenglass – don’t know about them.

Carlisle Castle copyright Neil Boothman

Carlisle Castle copyright Neil Boothman

Well, here’s another one. Carlisle’s oldest-known names are Luguwalos (‘strength of Lugus’) and Luguvalium (‘walled town of Lugus’). Without boring you with the minutiae of how languages evolve and pronunciations change, we go through Caer Liwelyd1  (‘Fort of Lugus’), Caer Ligualid2 (‘Fort of Lugus’), and Caer Luel3 (‘Fort of Lugus’), to end up with ‘Carlisle’. Lugus is mentioned in a number of inscriptions in old Celtic Europe4, and Lyons (formerly Lugdunum), Laon (Lugdunum Clavatum), Loudon and Dinlleu are just a small selection of place names also dedicated to him.We don’t have a lot of definite detail on Lugus, because the first people to write much about non-classical deities were the Romans. Their convention was to describe ‘barbarian’ gods by the name of their Roman equivalent. In Lugus’s case, it’s thought that they believed him to be another version of their very own Mercury5, and it’s by looking at the version of Mercury described in Celtic nations that we find out a bit more about Lugus.

We get another insight into Lugus with inscriptions that describe him in the plural: ‘lugoues’. There is a Celtic tradition of three-fold things: gods, deaths and trials; we’ve already seen this with Merlin/Lailoken’s triple death and the actual evidence seen in bog bodies. Lugus may be a triple god, comprised of three separate identities, Esus, Toutatis (sometimes spelt ‘Teutates’) and Taranis6. Esus was worshipped in Celtic Gaul, and required sacrifice by hanging from a tree. There are records of personal names in Britain which show that he was popular here, too. Taranis, the thunder god, is represented by a wheel, reflecting the idea that sky gods rotate around the earth. The Celtic wheel symbol, with either four or eight spokes, is believed to represent him and is seen across Bronze Age Europe. Toutatis, the ‘protector of the tribe’, demanded that sacrifices were drowned. An inscription dedicated to Toutatis was found right here, at Cumberland Quarries.

Celtic wheel god, Tullie House Museum

Celtic wheel god, Tullie House Museum

The real detail on Lugus comes from studying the Irish and Welsh folklore that derives from the god. The Irish Lugh was one of triplets (three-fold things, again) and he is a legendary ‘high king’ of the Tuatha De Danann, Ireland’s ancient people. His epithet is ‘of the long arm’, which is used in a similar context to our modern ‘long arm of the law’; it refers to his extensive geographical influence. Lugh, like Lugus, was skilled in crafts and had a magical spear, which proved handy when he needed to kill his one-eyed Fomori grandfather, Balor. The Irish Gaelic word for August is named after Lugh, as is Lughnasadh, the harvest Festival held on August 1st which is popular with modern pagans. The festival of Lughnasadh is said to have been started by Lugh himself in memory of his adoptive mother, who died of exhaustion after clearing Ireland to enable agriculture. The festivals traditionally featured games, bonfires, dancing and engagements.The Welsh Lugus was Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who features in the story of Math Fab Mathonwy in the Mabinogion. The story of Lleu’s birth has a lot in common with the Irish Lugh; he was rejected by his mother and brought up by a foster parent. Lleu ended up raising trees to fight against Arawn, the Lord of the Underworld7, and married Blodeuedd, the girl made from flowers who was turned into an owl for her unfaithfulness8. He turned into an eagle, but was returned to the shape of a man by the interventions of his beloved uncle.

How could Cumbrians have forgotten about the owls and ravens, the sacrifices, thundering wheeled-chariots and magical spears? Perhaps it’s time that Carlisle re-adopted its ancient British heritage. All hail Carlisle!

©Diane McIlmoyle 15.04.11

  1. Taliesin.
  2. Nennius.
  3. The earliest English reference, c. 1050CE.
  4. As seen in Lugo, Galicia, in Spain and Nimes in France, amongst others.
  5. Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico.
  6. Described by Lucan in his Bellum Civile.
  7. See The Battle of the Trees in the Book of Taliesin.
  8. Blodeuedd’s story is wound into the excellent children’s book, The Owl Service by Alan Garner.

Look at this series of posts on Clas Merdin entitled Lud’s Church for more related history and legend.

18 thoughts on “Luguwalos: Carlisle’s ancient roots

  1. Diane, it’s always a treat to follow your ruminations and the associations that they trigger!. It seems as though Lugh celebrates light (lughnasa). It hadn’t occurred to me about the connection through the Welsh Lleu (LLewelyn, etc.). Also that the Romans equated it to Mercury through the aspect of birds (as messengers of the divine?) Lots to ponder here… Thank you.

    • Hi Steve! I’m no etymologist but I have read in several places that whilst it used to be thought that Lugus derived from ‘light’ or ‘shining’, experts now suggest other alternatives varying from ‘black’ to something about swearing oaths. These analyses seemed to disparate that I side-stepped that one.

    • Hello Nicola! Thanks for dropping by. Lugus all right by me if he was god of commerce in shoes! I guess that would account for the bags of money and the mercurian link to protection of travellers, too.

      • I’m trying to build a cosmology/mythology for early 7th C northern Britain. (Finished my novel and realised the Brittonic god stuff was a mess. Sigh.) Lugus has just moved up a notch. Thank you!

  2. I was thinking the same thing about our lack of knowledge of native Gods when I read your previous posts! I want to know more about the girl made from flowers! Great post!

    • Hello, Kate! Blodduedd was made for Lleu because his mother cursed him: he would never marry a mortal woman. So a wife was conjured from flowers. She was unfaithful to Lleu, and was turned into an owl as punishment. Lleu became an eagle at the same moment, but his uncle and foster-parent eventually managed to turn him back. Here’s Wikipedia’s version.

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