In Irish mythology, Balor (modern spelling: Balar) was the tyrant leader of the Fomorians, a group of supernatural beings. He is often described as a giant with a large eye that wreaks destruction when opened. Balor is primarily known from the tale in which he is killed by his grandson Lugh. He has been interpreted as a personification of drought, blight, and the scorching sun.
The name Balor may come from Common Celtic *Baleros, meaning “the deadly one”, cognate with Old Irish at-baill (to die) and Welsh ball (death, plague). Alternatively, it may come from the Common Celtic *Boleros, meaning “the flashing one”.
He is also referred to as Balor Béimnech (Balor the smiter), Balor Balcbéimnech (Balor the strong smiter), “‘Balór na Súile Nimhe'” (Balor of the Evil Eye) and Balor Birugderc (Balor the piercing-eyed). The latter has led to the English name Balor of the Evil Eye.
In Irish mythology
Balor is said to be the son of Buarainech, husband of Cethlenn, and grandson of Neit. He is a tyrant who oppresses Ireland from his fortress on Tory Island. Balor is described as a giant with an eye which wreaks destruction when opened. The Cath Maige Tuired calls it a destructive and poisonous eye that when opened, permits an entire army to be overwhelmed by a few warriors. It was said that four warriors had to lift the eyelid, which became poisonous after Balor looked into a potion being concocted by his father’s druids. Later folklore says that he has only one eye and describes it as follows: “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!”.
Balor hears a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson. To avoid his fate, he locks his only daughter, Ethniu, in a tower on Tory Island to keep her from becoming pregnant. One day, Balor steals a magical cow of abundance, the Glas Gaibhnenn, from Goibniu the smith, and takes it to his fortress on Tory Island. Cian, who was guarding the cow for Goibniu, sets out to get it back. With the help of the druidess Biróg, Cian enters the tower, finds Ethniu and has intercourse with her. Balor seizes Cian and has him put to death. When Ethniu gives birth to a son, Balor attempts to drown the child in the sea, or has the child set adrift on the sea to die. However, he is saved by the sea god Manannán, who raises the child as his foster-son. He grows up to become Lugh.
Lugh eventually becomes king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He leads the Tuath Dé in the Battle of Mag Tuired (Moytura) against the Fomorians, who are led by Balor. Lugh kills Balor by casting a spear crafted by Goibniu, or sometimes a sling stone, through his eye. Balor’s eye destroys the Fomorian army. Lugh then beheads Balor.
One legend tells that, when Balor was slain by Lugh, he fell face first into the ground and his deadly eye beam burned a hole into the earth. The hole filled with water and became a lake which is now known as Loch na Súl (“lake of the eye”) in County Sligo. Another tradition is that he was the grandson of Nét and that he met his death at Carn Uí Néit (“cairn of Nét’s grandson”), known in English as Mizen Head. On Tory Island there are features called Dún Bhalair (“Balor’s fortress”) and Túr Bhalair (“Balor’s tower”).
In nineteenth century folklore Balor was remembered as having a glass through which he would look to destroy a person with his eye. He used the glass to burn and wither all of the plants at Moytura, which prompted a hero to question how he accomplished the feat. Balor, being duped by the trick, removed the glass from his eye long enough for the hero to put it out. The blood running from Balor’s eye created a lake called Suil Balra.
Dáithí Ó hÓgáin interprets the tale as a harvest myth in which the god Lugh wins the harvest for mankind by overcoming Balor who represents blight, drought and the scorching summer sun. Both Ó hÓgáin and Máire MacNeill associate Lugh’s defeat of Balor with the festival of Lughnasa and the later tale of Saint Patrick overcoming Crom Dubh.
In his book The Myths of the Gods: Structures in Irish Mythology, Alan Ward interprets Balor as the god of drought and blight. He interprets the tale of Balor as follows: The Drought God (Balor) seizes the cow of fruitfulness (Glas Gaibhnenn) and shuts her in his prison. The Sun God (Cian) rescues the cow with help from the Sea God (Manannán) – water being the natural enemy of drought. The Sun God and a Water Goddess (Ethniu), attempt to produce a son—the Storm God (Lugh)—who will overcome the Drought God. They succeed in spiriting the future Storm God away to the domain of the Sea God, where the Drought God cannot reach him. The Storm God and Drought God at last meet in battle. The Smith God (Gobniu) forges the thunderbolt and the Storm God uses it to unleash the storm and kill drought, at least temporarily.
The folklorist Alexander Haggerty Krappe discusses the Balor legend in his book Balor With the Evil Eye: Studies in Celtic and French Literature (1927). Krappe believes Balor comes from a very ancient myth of a woman (representing the fertile earth) shut away by an old man (representing winter and the old year), impregnated by another man, whose child (the new year), then kills the old man. He suggests that the myth and others like it could be metaphors for yearly cycles of growth, death, and re-growth.
Krappe notes that elements of the tale are found in other mythologies, such as in the tale of Acrisius-Danae-Perseus in Greek mythology, and in the Osiris myth from Egyptian mythology. He also likens Balor to the Welsh Ysbaddaden, the Greek Cyclops Polyphemus and the Serbian monster Vy. Krappe lists six elements that are found in other myths: the prophesy of being slain by his own descendant; the precaution of locking the daughter in a tower; the seduction of the daughter by a stranger, who needs to use magic to gain access; the birth of a boy and the attempt to drown him; the fostering of the boy, and the fulfilment of the prophecy by the boy killing his grandparent.