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Take the most famous cyclops of Greek myth and legend, the barbaric and ogreish Polyphemus; combine him with the most famous “cyclops” from Marvel Comics…Cyclops, a mutant who can shoot energy-beams out of his eyeballs; and you’ll end up with a character approaching Balór na Súile Nimhe, or Balor of the Evil Eye.
A monster by many names, Balor (also: Balar, Bolur) is known variously throughout early and medieval Irish literature as Balor Birugderc (Balor of the Piercing Eye), Balor Béimnech/Béimeann/Bemen (Balor the Smiter, or Balor of the Blows), Balor Balcbéimnech/Bailcbheimneach (Balor the Strong Smiter, or Balor of the Strong Blows), Balor ua Néit (Balor, grandson of Nét), and Balor mac Doit meic Néid (Balor, son of Dot son of Nét). But of all these, it is the “evil eye” moniker for which he is best known—and for good reason, as you’ll soon discover.
According to historian Peter Berresford Ellis, Balor was “the most formidable of the Fomorii” and “had one eye whose gaze was so malevolent that it destroyed whoever gazed upon it,” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987).
As ruler of the Fomorians (also: Fomorii), Balor infamously led the members of his monstrous race into battle against the Tuatha Dé Danann—the “good” Irish gods. And while he ultimately suffered defeat at the hands of his own grandson, Lugh, as had been prophesied, Balor succeeded in slaying the Tuatha Dé Danann’s leader, Nuada of the Silver Hand.
Despite being an “unkingly king,” as author Fiona Macleod styles him, Balor is a crucial figure in Irish mythology, not only because of his physical presence and brutal nature, but also because of what he sets in motion (source: The Laughter of Peterkin: A retelling of old tales of the Celtic Wonderworld, 1897).
Without Balor, there is no Irish sun-god Lugh. And without Lugh, there is no Irish hero Cú Chulainn.
Indeed, generations of characters from Irish mythology can trace their lineages back to Balor. Without him there, stirring up trouble at the beginning, subsequent Irish myths would lose much of their meaning.
And while scholars agree that Balor of the Evil Eye was the mythological king of the Fomorians—or at least one of its two major chieftains, perhaps ruling alongside Indec, son of De Domnand (as noted in Charles Johnston’s 1902 book Ireland, Historic and Picturesque)—whether or not Balor qualifies as a god is another matter entirely.
But look at me, getting ahead of myself. Let us return to Balor’s roots…
In order to truly understand Balor, we first need to understand the race of beings to which he belongs—the Fomorians.
And in order to understand the Fomorians, we need to have at least a basic understanding of the earliest of the four cycles of Irish mythology—the redundantly named “Mythological” Cycle.
The overarching narrative of said cycle is the settlement of ancient Ireland. Or rather, the recurring invasions of Ireland.
As detailed in the 11th-century Lebor Gabála Érenn, or Book of Invasions (a.k.a. The Book of the Taking of Ireland), there were six invading groups in total: the Cessair, the Partholónians, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and, last of all, the supposed ancestors of Ireland’s modern human population, the Milesians.
Notably absent from that list?
Or as author Ella Young calls them: “The ugly, misshapen folk of the Fomor,” (source: The Coming of Lugh, 1909).
As mentioned in my earlier post on giants of Irish myth and legend, Fomorians are monstrous marauders who originated from beneath the sea. While they never settled in Ireland, the Fomorians, led by Balor of Evil Eye, raided the island and its inhabitants with great regularity.
To quote Young:
“The [Fomorians] had come into Ireland and spread themselves over the country like a pestilence. They had stolen the Cauldron of Plenty and carried it away to their own land, where Balor of the Evil Eye reigned. They had taken the Spear of Victory also…”source: The Coming of Lugh: A Celtic Wonder-Tale (1909)
Perhaps even more diabolically, the Fomorians extracted taxes from the local population, which were due on Samhain. And to be clear, these were no ordinary taxes.
For a glimpse at what Fomorian rule—and the Fomorian taxation system—looked like during the time of the Nemedians, let us turn to Scottish scholar and folklore researcher, J.A. MacCulloch:
“From Tory Island the Fomorians ruled Ireland, and forced the Nemedians to pay them annually on the eve of Samhain (Nov. 1st) two-thirds of their corn and milk and of the children born during the year. If the Fomorians are gods of darkness, or, preferably, aboriginal deities, the tribute must be explained as a dim memory of sacrifice offered at the beginning of winter when the powers of darkness and blight are in the ascendant.”source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911)
Clearly, these “gods of darkness”, who, as MacCulloch suggests, perhaps originated in the minds of the ancient Irish as manifestations of winter and blight, did not mess around.
But were the Fomorians really gods? And by extension, was Balor of the Evil Eye an Irish god?
After all, wasn’t it the Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann, who vanquished the Fomorians, wiping them clear off the map?
Let’s dive in.
Balor the God?
While Ellis clearly defines Balor of the Evil Eye as a “god of death” and refers to the Fomorians more generally as “lords of darkness and death” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987)., Balor’s divinity—at least in my humble opinion—is still up for debate.
Because here’s the thing: Irish mythology already has a god of death. In fact, it has at least three, including one, the Morrígan, who actively fought against the Fomorians during the Cath Tánaiste Maige Tuired, or Second Battle of Magh Tuired (also: Magh Tuireadh, Moytura).
Yes, Balor of the Evil Eye is—as his name suggests—evil. What’s more, it’s obvious that he benefits from a supernatural, ocular ability. Specifically, the ability to kill with merely a glance.
Here’s how Irish dramatist and folklorist Lady Gregory explains the origin of Balor’s “superpower”:
“[T]here was a power of death in one of his eyes, so that no person could look at it and live. It is the way it got that power, he was passing one time by a house where his father’s Druids were making spells of death, and the window being open he looked in, and the smoke of the poisonous spells was rising up, and it went into his eye. And from that time he had to keep it closed unless he wanted to be the death of some enemy.”source: Gods and Fighting Men (1902)
Notably, Lady Gregory never refers to Balor as a god, preferring instead to style him as “the chief king of the Fomor.”
Writing under the pseudonym A. E., Irish poet George William Russell described Balor in a similar vein, noting that Balor was “the prince of the dark powers,” and that “[h]is eye turned every living thing it rested on into stone,” (source: The Divine Vision and Other Poems, 1904).
But “dark powers” alone do not a deity make.
Just ask Medusa, one of the gorgons of Greek mythology. While decidedly not a goddess, Medusa was a supernatural being who could turn people—and giant sea-monsters like the Kraken from Clash of the Titans—into stone.
Interestingly, Russell interprets Balor as having the same power: a glance that doesn’t simply kill its victims, but transforms them into statues, of a sort. Tomb-statues. Granted, this is not a typical feature of the character. Murderous eye stuff? Yes. Turning-people-to-stone? Not so much.
The parallels between Balor and characters from Greek mythology do not end with the gorgon Medusa (re: looks that kill), nor with the aforementioned cyclops Polyphemus (re: giant with one big eye). In the broadest sense, Balor and his Fomorians are perhaps most similar to the Greek Titans: towering proto-gods (or arguably, gods in their own right) who, in addition to giving rise to all manner of mythological monster, including Cerberus, the Chimera, and the Hydra, birthed the first Olympians: Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon, and Zeus.
The Fomorians and the Titans have both been referred to as the “old gods” of their respective mythologies. They were the first iterations of what powerful, supernaturally gifted beings could be.
They were giants. Monsters. (Are “vestigial gods” a thing?) And both were soon replaced by more human, more beautiful, more technology-driven pantheons: the Tuatha Dé Danann in Irish mythology, who count the spear- and sling-wielding Lugh amongst their ranks, and the Olympians in Greek mythology, who count the trident-wielding Poseidon amongst their ranks.
In both mythologies, these “new gods” take on ideal forms. You may already be familiar with representations of the Olympians, with their (literally and metaphorically) chiseled bodies. The Tuatha Dé Danann are similarly fit. To quote Ellis:
“They are tall, beautiful and fair. They are superior to humans in their physical strength, power and handsomeness. They are somewhat reminiscent of the description of the ancient Celts which survive in the writings of Greeks and Romans…They appear basically as the ancestors of the people rather than their creators.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)
Balor of the Evil Eye…does not look like that.
However—and this is a big however, one that could potentially tip the scales of Balor’s divinity—there is speculation that Balor was based at least in part on the Gaulish-Celtic god Belenus, cognate with the later god of death Bilé (a.k.a. Bel or Baal) from Irish mythology. Hence the somewhat similar-sounding names.
According to Irish folklorist and professor Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, it’s possible “Balor” is derived from the Common Celtic word Boleros, meaning the “the flashing one,” (source: Myth, Legend & Romance: An encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition, 1991). And wouldn’t you know it, the name Belenus (also: Belenos, Belinos) is most commonly interpreted as meaning “the shining one” or “the bright one.” So it’s certainly possible there’s some connective tissue there. Not, like, disgusting evil-eye connective tissue, but the metaphorical, etymological kind.
Oh, that reminds me…
What Does Balor of the Evil Eye Look Like?
In the popular imagination, Balor has become a gargantuan, barrel-chested demon, often depicted with bulging muscles.
Marvel Comics, for its part, opted for an overtly devilish look for its interpretation of Balor, furnishing the Fomorian king’s bald head with horns, while also giving him cloven feet, a goatee, and a reddish/pinkish skin tone.
And if you must know, DC Comics went the other route, giving its version of Balor bluish skin, long white hair, and a more symmetrical, humanoid (but still extremely buff) body—characteristics commonly seen in depictions of deities across cultures.
Funnily enough, both of the aforementioned depictions of Balor are missing a key element of Balor’s appearance, the defining element of his appearance, some might say.
Of course, I am talking about the big giant eye in the middle of the dude’s face.
The evil eye.
An eye so big, according to Lady Gregory, Balor needed a team of people to help him open it so he could unleash his (literal) death-stare on the battlefield. And I quote:
“[T]he men that were with him would lift the eyelid with a ring of ivory,” (source: Gods and Fighting Men, 1902).
Another source, available via the Corpus of Electronic Texts (CELT), specifies that “four men [were] used to lift up the lid of the eye with a (polished) handle which passed through its lid.”
Yes, even grosser.
Granted, in other early texts featuring the character, Balor’s evil eye was covered with a series of protective metal shields, or, in some cases, fabric cloths, which he could then strip away to unleash his death-gaze. As Dáithí Ó hÓgáin explains:
“He had a single eye in his forehead, a venomous fiery eye. There were always seven coverings over this eye. One by one Balar removed the coverings. 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!”source: Myth, Legend & Romance: An encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition (1991).
It’s worth noting that in this incarnation of Balor—or “Balar,” as Ó hÓgáin spells it—the evil eye in Balor’s forehead is his only eye. Balor is presented as a one-eyed monster, who is presumably blind most of the time. However, in other iterations of the character, Balor has his two normal eyes in addition to the evil eye in his forehead. Renderings of this version of Balor make him look as though he has a mystic “third eye.”
Putting aside Balor’s eye, the rest of his appearance is largely debatable. Given his Fomorian background, we can assume that he too is “ugly” and “misshapen”—so it’s safe to say a chiseled, symmetrical Balor is out of the question. I’d also argue that as one of the “old gods,” Balor should be depicted not as smooth and shiny (like the DC version of Balor), but as wrinkled and battle-worn.
One final caveat before you finalize that mental image you have forming in your mind’s eye:
Balor could shapeshift.
Or, at minimum, he was able to do it once.
Did he turn into a wolf? No. A dragon? Nope. A giant? Actually, according to Ellis, all of the Fomorians “appeared in the guise of giants” during the second battle of Magh Tuired. But that’s not the time I’m thinking of.
According to the Mythological Cycle, Balor transformed himself into a little kid with red hair so he could steal a magical cow named Glas Gaibhnenn from the Tuatha Dé Danann. Prized cows and cattle raids: If you’re just now dipping your toe into the world of Irish mythology, prepare yourself for more stories of gods and demi-gods fighting over cows. But I digress.
Here’s how author T. W. Rolleston describes Balor’s cow-napping escapade in his 1911 book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race:
“Balor now appeared on the scene, taking on himself the form of a little red-headed boy, and told Sawan that he had overheard the brothers inside the forge concocting a plan for using all the fine steel for their own swords, leaving but common metal for that of Sawan. The latter, in a great rage, gave the cow’s halter to the boy and rushed into the forge to put a stop to this nefarious scheme. Balor immediately carried off the cow, and dragged her across the sea to Tory Island. “
If the name “Sawan” sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a phonetic spelling of Samhain, same as the Celtic holiday. As a character, the god Samhain appears as the brother of the gods Cian and Goibhniu—if he appears at all. In many versions of the story, Samhain is absent entirely. There are also versions where Balor does not steal the cow himself, but instead sends some of his cronies to do it for him.
Regardless of the precise cast of characters present at the beginning of the story, the end result is always the same:
Cian journeys to Tory Island to recover his cow. In the process, he ends up getting intimate with Balor’s daughter, Ethlinn (also: Ethniu), whom Balor had locked away in a crystal tower.
See, Balor’s wife, the Fomorian prophetess Cethlenn of the Crooked Teeth, had shared with her husband the prophecy that their future grandchild would kill him one day and bring about the end of the Fomorian race. So, to prevent that grandchild from ever being born, Balor locked their only daughter in a tower. He hadn’t counted on Cian sneaking in with the help of a druidess, Birog, who dressed Cian up as a woman.
Long story short: The mating of Cian and Balor’s daughter Ethlinn started a familial line that would include the likes of Lugh, Irish sun-god and god of many talents, and Cú Chulainn, arguably Ireland’s greatest champion.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes: the prophecy does eventually come true.
Choose your legendary Irish weapon:
A) the Gae Assail, an enchanted spear that never misses its mark and always returns to its thrower, much like Thor’s hammer Mjölnir in Norse mythology, or
B) the Tathlum, a concrete ball made from sea-sand mixed with the blood of toads, bears, and vipers, which you could hurl with a sling.
In some accounts of the second battle of Magh Tuired, Lugh slays his grandfather Balor with weapon A; in other accounts, he uses weapon B. In all cases, Lugh is depicted as sending his projectile, be it spear or ball, directly into Balor’s evil eye. Indeed, it was likely Lugh’s proficiency with projectiles that earned him his nickname, Lugh Lamhfada (“of the long arm,” or “of the long hand,” or perhaps “of the long throw”).
Here’s an account of Balor’s death that sees Lugh delivering the fatal blow with a spear, courtesy of Lady Gregory:
“Then Lugh and Balor met in the battle, and Lugh called out reproaches to him; and there was anger on Balor, and he said to the men that were with him: “Lift up my eyelid till I see this chatterer that is talking to me.” Then they raised Balor’s eyelid, but Lugh made a cast of his red spear at him, that brought the eye out through the back of his head, so that it was towards his own army it fell, and three times nine of the Fomor died when they looked at it. And if Lugh had not put out that eye when he did, the whole of Ireland would have been burned in one flash. And after this, Lugh struck his head off.”source: Gods and Fighting Men (1902)
And here’s an account of that same showdown from Ellis, in which Lugh uses a sling and ball to slay Balor:
“At the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, when Balor had slain Nuada and Macha, Lugh took a tathlum, a magic stone ball, and waited until Balor’s eye was drooping. Then he sent the stone into the Fomorii’s eye, knocking it out and destroying twenty-eight Fomorii warriors who were unlucky enough to be within sight of it. Balor was slain and the Fomorii defeated.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)
While the weapon changes, the action and the aftermath remains the same: Lugh targets Balor’s evil eye at an opportune time, and, after the fatal blow is delivered, the eye takes out several Fomorians before Balor perishes.
What happens to Balor’s corpse?
Well, as Lady Gregory mentioned, oh-so-casually: “Lugh struck his head off.”
So please allow me to reframe the question:
What happens to Balor’s decapitated head?
In the Duanaire Finn (or The book of the Lays of Fionn), Balor’s head is placed in an oak tree and the venom from his pierced evil eye soaks into the bark so naturally the hero of a later cycle of Irish mythology, Fionn mac Cumhaill, star of the Fenian Cycle, uses a shield that is made from the tree’s Balor-tainted timber.
In another version of events, Balor’s head gets set on a rock and all of the goop dripping out of it forms a lake—possibly Gweedore Loch in County Donegal (source: Jeremiah Curtain’s Hero-Tales of Ireland, 1911). In yet another iteration, a different lake is formed from Balor’s eye-drippings, this time in County Sligo: Lochan na Súil, or Lough Nasool, which means “lake of the eye,” (source: William Copeland Borlase’s The Dolmens of Ireland, 1897).
The ultimate fate of his severed head aside, the defeat of Balor and his Fomorians marked a significant inflection point in mythological Ireland. To quote Irish poet, dramatist, and author Seumas MacManus, the Tuatha Dé Danann “overthrew the Fomorian tyranny in the island forever” when they were victorious at the second battle of Magh Tuired, (source: The Story of the Irish Race, 1921).
What’s more, “the island” itself still remembers the battle. Or rather, the battle left its mark on the landscape. As MacManus explains:
“This famous life and death struggle of two races is commemorated by a multitude of cairns and pillars which strew the great battle plain in Sligo—a plain which bears the name (in Irish) of “the Plain of the Towers of the Fomorians.”source: The Story of the Irish Race (1921)
Want to meet more monsters from Irish mythology? Check out…
Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)
In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…
Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy
“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…
Want to learn the full story of Samhain? Check out…
Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)
Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…
More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.