Balor of the Evil Eye
From ‘Star Wars,’ to ‘Lord of the Rings,’ to ‘Thor,’ and going at least as far back as ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ this image is strewn throughout our culture. Funny how an old half-forgotten Irish story keeps cropping up.
Túatha dé Danann
The supernatural race of Ireland — long-lived, gifted with great skill in sorcery and war, superhuman in many of their attributes — were the Túatha dé Danann. They claimed to have come to Ireland from four magical cities lying on an island or islands to the north: Falias, Gorias, Murias and Fin(d)ias. As there are multiple references to Greece in the history of this talented race, the islands where their technical and artistic skills were mastered were apparently northern islands of Greece (David Cravens agrees: Poïesis). Civilization, the arts and sciences — they were at their height in Greece at this point in history. The northernmost isles of Greece lay just off the southernmost border of the Celtic world.
The First Battle on the Plain of Pillars
The Túatha dé Danann landed on the Connemara coast under clouds of darkness which covered the sun for three days. These dark clouds have since been presumed to be the smoke of their 300 ships, deliberately burned to deny themselves the option of retreat. They battled the Fir Bolg (almost certainly identical to the ancient Belgae encountered by Caesar) at the southern end of Magh Tuired (anglicized as “Moytura”), the Plain of Pillars. To the winner would go the spoils: Ireland herself. The Danann people were victorious, and the Fir Bolg had no choice but to settle for a single quarter of the island: Connacht.
The Last Battle on the Plain of Pillars
The next battle for Ireland took place at the northern end of Magh Tuired. Nuada, former leader of the Dananns, was forced to step down after the conflict with the Fir Bolg tribe, having lost his right arm in the fighting. No maimed or incomplete man could be deemed fit to rule, and so Eochaidh Bres, half-Fomorian and half-Danann, was given kingship of the land. The Fomorians were an ancient and mysterious people, likely deriving from North Africa. They were also interrelated with the Túatha dé Danann, whom they regarded as a rival clan. The choice of Bres was an attempt at a reconciliation between the two often-hostile groups. Bres, however, chose to rule as a tyrannical despot. So when the great healer Dian Cécht fashioned a silver prosthesis for Nuada, Bres was promptly deposed and Nuada returned to power. Bres responded by appealing to his Fomorian kin, and the second battle was launched. The Fomorians were led by a being of gigantic size and strength, Balor of the Evil Eye.
A Day Long Foretold
While Elatha, father of Bres, regarded the Fomorian aggression as folly, grandfather Balor felt no reluctance. Setting forth from his base on Tory Island, Balor marched south at the head of a host of warriors. (More recent scholarship asserts the Fomorians ruled their territory from Dernish Island instead.) Long ago, Balor’s father Buarainech, a master of poisons, had assigned a batch to his druids and Balor had spied on the preparations. The fumes of the poisons had entered Balor’s head, deforming him so that one eye looked out the back of his head while the other looked forward. It was discovered that if he squeezed the eye in the back of his head shut, the eye in his forehead would expand to gigantic size and become inflamed with a deadly force that could be projected like a beam of evil fire, slaying at will.
Balor would also later suffer from a dire prophecy: One day, his own grandson would be his death. To forestall this, he had his daughter Ethniu (or Eithne, or Ethlinn) sequestered in a crystal tower standing on the highest point of his island so that she might never know the company of men. Dian Cécht’s son Cían, aided by the druidess Biróg, nevertheless gained entry to Caer Wydyr, the Tower of Glass. Ethniu was eventually seduced by the Danann, giving birth to triplets. Balor’s servant was instructed to drown all three in a deadly whirlpool, but dropped one in the harbor. Biróg rescued the infant, giving him away to be fostered by Tailtiu, the widow of the former king of the Fir Bolg. Manannán mac Lir then later had a role in the child’s upbringing.
“Lugh of the Long Arm”
The Túatha dé Danann marched north. Ogma, their experienced champion of old, was the first to meet the giant leader in combat, but only succeeded in disarming him. Nuada, more outraged than any other by the audacious and dishonorable behavior of their Fomorian cousins, was next to engage Balor. And fell. While the battle raged in the wake of Nuada’s morale-destroying demise, four stout fighters labored to lift Balor’s massive eyelid. A new young Danann was on the scene in this battle, however. His name was Lugh Lámhfhada, “Lugh of the Long Arm,” so named for his skill with spear and sling, and was the foster-child of Tailtu, later trained by Manannán mac Lir. When the eyelid was finally raised, Lugh cast a tathlum — a specially prepared missile for a sling — or a spear fashioned by the smith Goibniu (versions of the tale vary). Still another version has Lugh using the vorpal blade Fragarach, gifted to him by Manannán, to decapitate Balor. He struck with such skill and force that he not only struck the eye, but knocked it back out through the other side of his grandfather’s head, where it wrought great destruction among the Fomorians. The Túatha dé Danann then swept across the battlefield like an irresistible storm.
The Evil Eye was no more.
A Solar Myth for All Times
Balor may have represented the drought, famine and oppressive heat inflicted by the blazing sun at the apex of its power, when on the Summer Solstice this power is inevitably overthrown as the days henceforth shorten and daylight wanes. To avert this foretold demise, the burning orb locks away the daughter fated to give birth to his successor (Eithne means “little fire”) and murders any offspring she may have. Much as Kronos swallows his children to prevent the rise of the one who will overthrow and succeed him: Zeus. Reinforcing the solar imagery, even after having been slain, Balor’s eye continues to operate, burning a great hole in the battle plain. The hole would later fill with water once the eye finally burned out, becoming the eerie body of water now known as Lochán na Súil (“Lake of the Eye”).
Lugh is fostered in quiet obscurity by relatives, receives special training from a wily old wizard (Manannán or Goibniu) who bequeathes him a great weapon (Fragarach, fabled blade known as “The Answerer,” or Goibniu’s burning spear), is nominated the champion of the Túatha dé Danann, seeks a final confrontation with a male ancestor who is a terrifying monster in control of an all-destroying eye (Balor). If the story sounds familiar, that might be because Luke Skywalker can be substituted for Lugh, Aunt Beru for Tailtiu, Obi-wan Kenobi for Manannán mac Lir, a certain lightsaber for Fragarach, the Jedi for the Túatha dé Danann, Darth Vader for Balor, and the Death Star for the Evil Eye.
True, the X-Men’s Cyclops and Gort offer less ominous examples of a being wielding the power of the annihilating eye. But when Balor of the Evil Eye is re-imagined in our culture, these manifestations are usually just as fearsome and abhorred as the original: Asgard’s automaton, the Destroyer; Sauron; the Death Star.
[Credit for this angle on the Last Battle of Magh Tuired goes to: A Cast of Characters from the Second Battle of Moytura]