Balor is a chieftain of the Fomorians, a competing tribe of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the lead antagonist in the second battle of Mag Tuired for final dominion over Ireland. His fortress stronghold was Tor Mór, a rocky isthmus on Tory Island, Ireland.
Like most mythical figures, he has many names – most referring to his lineage or his deadly eye. As a word, Balor may come from the Celtic word Boleros, meaning “Flashing One.” He is also called Balor Béimnech – Balor the Smiter – and Balor Birugderc – Balor of the Piercing Eye. He is the son of Dot, and grandson of Nét, both former Fomorian chieftains. His son, Bres, was wed to Brigid, and became king of the Tuatha for a short time.
Balor may have had a wife named Cethlenn (in true Celtic folklore fashion, there are mentions of her elsewhere where she is not his wife – and also mentions of his wife by another name). She was a powerful seeress, and foretold Balor’s doom at the second battle of Mag Tuired: he would die by the hand of his own grandson. To prevent this from happening, Balor locked his only daughter, Ethniu away in a guarded tower.
His plan fails when he raids a farmstead on the mainland and steals the magical Cow of Abundance, owned by Cian mac Cáinte. Cian sets off to recover his stolen property, and in the process he learns that his wonderous cow is destined to return only after Balor is dead. Combined with the prophecy of Balor’s defeat, the situation looks grim for Cian – but he hatches a plan that sets the scene for the decline of the Fomorians.
Stealing away to Ethniu’s tower, Cian seduces the Fomorian princess and she bears three sons. Balor, furious over the whole ordeal, orders them all drowned – but one survives and grows up to become Lugh, a hero king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
After Balor’s son, Bres is ousted from the seat of Kingship for being an inhospitable, miserly, and generally cruel ruler, he incites the Fomorians to war against the Tuatha. The battle is famous and well documented throughout the lore, and many important events define key points throughout the ordeal, including the death of King Nuada by Balor, the injury of the Dagda by Cethlenn, and the sparing of Bres by Lugh in exchange for teaching the Tuatha how to plough, sow, and reap.
As the tide is turning in favour of the Tuatha, Balor reveals his secret weapon – a magical eye that destroys everything in its wake. It is difficult to tell if Balor has a single eye, a third eye, or if one of his two eyes is magical, as different accounts imagine his “poisonous” eye in different ways. One even posits that he has a single normal eye in the front, and a destructive eye in the back of his head. Regardless, the eye is normally covered, otherwise it would wreak havoc everywhere Balor looked.
Marching across the battlefield, Balor’s assistants begin to lift the coverings over the dreaded eye. Before the final covering can be lifted, Lugh takes aim, launches his attack, and pierces the eye. The methods vary – in some accounts its a sling, and in others a spear or red-hot rod. The results also vary – Balor is killed with the loss of his eye, Balor is toppled backwards and his eye destroys the Fomorian army behind him, and Balor’s eye is destroyed but Balor himself lives, crippled. Despite these differing tales, the Fomorians lose the battle and the Tuatha Dé Danann take possession of Ireland and are never challenged by the Formorians.
Thoughts on Balor
You would think that such an imposing and powerful figure as Balor would have more time in Celtic lore, but there isn’t really that much, considering the usual length and breadth of material on so many of the Celtic deities. The second battle of Mag Tuired seems to be the main event for him, and all other tidbits of myth and legend are circumstantial.
Many academics and modern pagans liken Balor and the Fomorians to Winter, the winding down of the year, and harvest. Balor specifically gets likened to the harmful aspects of the sun – scorching, burning, and famine. The struggle with Lugh and the Tuatha Dé Danann represents the cycle of growth and death, growing and harvest, fertility and barrenness. Lugh and Balor specifically may be a conflict between two solar deities – a younger ousting the older, much like the Winter and Summer kings in many pagan traditions.
Comparisons can be made that support these theories, especially in neighboring lore. The Welsh story of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, where the Chief of Giants tries to defeat the hero’s attempts to wed his beautiful daughter. The Norse story of Freyr’s courting of Gerð is another similar story. In both, it appears that the frigid older powers make it difficult for the virile younger interlopers to gain access to the fertile fields – though eventually an accord is struck, or a battle won, and the sowing of crops can begin, leading to a bountiful harvest … and eventually a repeat of the yearly cycle.
Balor is also strongly related to the Jötunn Surtr, a fire giant who lays waste to the earth at Ragnarök with a flaming sword – which is rather like Balor’s destructive eye and seems to get similar results. Scholars have often linked Balor to the Greek Cyclopes of Greek myth, though these craftsmen of the gods don’t seem to have much in common with him other than their single eyes. However, as a Fomorian and an elder god, Balor may fit the mold for Cronos, the Greek elder Titan who ate his own children to prevent them from supplanting him. Spoiler alert … his son Zeus overthrows him.
This is the majority consensus on Balor, and the following is my own personal construct – so stop here unless you love to fly off the rails now and then! Hang on tight.
What if the story isn’t a symbolic yearly harvest cycle, though – or not originally such? In many ways, the Battle of Mag Tuired and its central focus on Balor’s destructive wrath mirrors other apocalypse-style myths – like Ragnarök, the biblical Revelations, and similar flood-and-fire stories from every ancient culture across the globe.
Balor had a “fiery” eye which was always covered in folklore by seven thick pieces of leather. The number of eyes sometimes changes, and one late scholar recorded nine coverings, but the idea is pretty consistently the same.
Here’s a snippet from County Mayo folklore as an example:
“Balor was single-eyed, yet it was usually covered.
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.”
If Balor is the sun, descriptions like this seem wildly out of place in Ireland. If you’ve ever experienced the weather anywhere in this region of the world, the sun is hardly the type of dangerous enemy that would lay waste to the land. At most, your crops might wither without water in the Summer sun, or you might get a bad sunburn in an era without sunscreen, but there is certainly no record of Ireland being ravaged by sun-sparked wild fires or desertification.
Nor is the change in seasons likely to be described as the sun laying waste to the fields – rather than the gradual pulling away of heat and light that results in Autumn and Winter. If Balor were indeed an important Winter deity, there would definitely be more about him in the lore – as there is ample material on other seasonal deities.
The Battle of Mag Tuired pits Balor against Nuada Silverhand, a god of the sea and wielder of the Sword of Light, a stand-in for the sun. By killing Nuada, Balor effectively extinguishes the sun and then proceeds to reveal his destructive magical eyeball. He doesn’t get far before Lugh, master of all knowledge, kills him in return and becomes king, leading the people to prosperity again. His fiery spear and mantle of kingship denote the transfer of the sun from Nuada to Lugh – he is the return of the sun.
There is a small, quiet theory that has been sneaking its way up the ranks for some time now. There is evidence amassing that a small comet hit Earth roughly 10,000 years ago, and that it sparked the mass creation of myths and legends revolving around floods and fires that we have today. If so, the patterns of many epic battles in our lore fit this scenario pretty neatly.
If Balor is a symbolic comet, and the comet split into seven fragments (as recorded in his leather eye-coverings, in Revelations as seven seals, trumpets, and heads, and so on) then the description of his powers make more sense. The sky would grow red – it would even rain acidic red-colored rain, a common feature of many Norse folktales foretelling ill luck. The land would be scorched where pieces crashed into the earth, and stories would spread of the devastation.
The earthfall would extinguish the sun behind debris clouds for a few years, making it notably miserable for life, but eventually the sun would come out again and life would return to normal. Nuada is killed, but Lugh triumphs.
Ragnarök seems to be a parallel telling of this story, though mostly Christianized by Snorri’s version of the tale, which gives it a finality that I don’t think was an original feature. The Tuatha Dé Danann eventually informed and became the Druids, whom the Romans famously noted believed that the world was inherently indestructible and would persist. Caesar wrote that they did not believe the world would ever end, however they did teach that the world would go through periodic cleansing by both fire and water. It makes sense that the story is either cyclical or has a victorious ending. The total destruction of Ragnarök is due to the pessimism of later Christianity, though even Snorri couldn’t bring himself to eliminate the rebirth of the World Tree at the very end.
Say what you will about the modern Irish – their ancestors were the ultimate optimists.
Suggested Signs and Symbols
The evil eye and representations of burning or red eyes. Baleful suns, scorching rays, and comets. End of harvest themes, barren ground, and frost-covered fields. Tyrants, warmongers, and generally oppressive leaders.
Balar, Balor Béimnech, Balor Balcbéimnech, Balor Birugderc, Balor mac Doit meic Néid or Balor ua Néit, Balor Béimeann, Balar Bemen, and Balór na Súile Nimhe.