Emerald Isle

The Fomorians

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle

Antediluvian half-demons of the netherworld

No tale of ancient Ireland could be complete without mentioning the Fomorians, dreaded foes of the Tuatha Dé Danann and all who came to conquer Ireland. The meaning of their name is debated even today, although most agree that the first part, fó, means “from below” or “nether” and the latter part means “the sea”, “demons” or “giants”.

And when you read of their deeds and doings, you could be forgiven for thinking all three were accurate.

Descriptions of the Fomors and their behaviour are strange and conflicting in the old legends – some tales tell that they were phenomenally ugly, and celebrated this ugliness, even driving out children who were normal in appearance, taking deformities as a mark of favour from their dark gods. One Fomor might have a large arm and a small arm, while another might have two heads, and another three eyes!

Other tales claim they were born whole enough but became strange in mind and appearance after exposure to the occult ur-light, degenerative radiances and blasphemous smokes of their eldritch rituals.

Some believed that they had the heads of goats, although it may be more likely that they wore goat masks, and others that they were related to the drowned titans of Enoch, the Nephilim. In the Book of Invasions it is said they had but one leg, one eye and one arm! Of course this is a misunderstanding of the crane-stance, a posture they struck when they were casting spells and working magical mischief against their enemies.

And theirs was the old magic, the power of the wyrm they held as a great mystery, that antediluvian sorcery from before the great floods which destroyed the ancient world in its corruption and wickedness. Legends tell that they could control the weather, the mists and the waves of the ocean, bring blight upon the crops, sickness upon the cattle, and plague from their festering pits upon the people. The icy blasts of winter were theirs to command, and deadly spirits from chthonic halls could they summon to question about the past or future, or events far distant.

Balor of the evil eye was one of their great kings, and for this power was he named! So vast was his form and terrifying eye that it took four men to lift the lid, since he kept it closed while amongst his own folk.

It was always covered with seven cloaks to keep it cool. When it was needed, he took the cloaks off one by one. At the first, ferns began to wither. At the second, grass began to redden. At the third, wood and trees began to heat up. At the fourth, smoke came out of wood and trees. At the fifth, everything got red hot. At the sixth and seventh, the whole land caught fire. With his eye he is said to have blasted the islands west of Scotland, which remain bleak and haunted to this day.

Even, it was said, his gaze could turn men to charred stone!

They were the first in Ireland, arriving with two hundred men and six hundred women, surviving on wild birds and fish, and may have been responsible for the building of many of the earliest megalithic monuments, those aligned to the equinoxes rather than the solstices, the moon rather than the sun.

Their king Cichol Gricenchos made war upon the people of Partholón who arrived after the ice and floodwaters receded, eventually defeating the Partholónians with a vile and pestilent plague brewed in the cauldrons of his ruin-workers.

After that, the mighty Lord Nemed arrived with his people, and red-handed sword-songs once again rang through the forests and mountains of Ireland. Nemed was victorious, slaying the two kings of the Fomors whose names were Gann and Sengann, driving back the Fomors, but when he died they returned to claim their vengeance!

The new kings were called Conand son of Faebar and Morc son of Dela, who had their fastness in a strong place to the far north, on Tory island. These two warlords enslaved the Nemedians and demanded a heavy tax – two thirds of their cattle, grain and children, to be delivered each Samhain at the plain known as Mag Cetne!

Fergus Lethderg, the son of Nemed, wasn't going to put up with that for long and soon he raised an army of more than thirty thousand to make war upon the Fomors, destroying the tower of Conand, called Torinis Cetne, but Morc mustered a vast fleet and blackened the sky with poison arrows. The slaughter was terrible, aided not a little by another dark plague.

Only sixty of the tribe of Nemed survived that war, fleeing to different parts of the world in a single ship, and the Fomors fared little better. Of those Nemedians who escaped, half went to Greece and Athens where they again lived under heavy tribute until they returned to Ireland, and the other half became a wandering tribe of warriors call the Tuatha Dé Danann, who learned the sorceries of the east and north and honed their warlike skills as they travelled in exile.

The Fir Bolg were the first to return to Ireland, tiring of the treatment they received from the Greek masters who gave them harsh rocks upon which to live, forcing them to cover their islands in soil by hand. They didn't have much trouble with the Fomors, staying out of the northern reaches of Ireland, but then the Dé Danann returned and with them came the raven-feast and the war-wail!

They fought the Fir Bolg for domination of Ireland and defeated them in the first battle of Moy Tura, but their conquest brought the malevolent gaze of the Fomors to bear. Still weak after the battle and with their great king Nuada dethroned due to losing an arm, the Dé Danann held council and decided it would be best to make peace with the Fomors, for fear of annihiliation.

In these tales we learn that not all of the Fomors were hideous in appearance or vicious of temperment. One of their kings, Elatha, was called ”the beautiful Miltonic prince of darkness with golden hair,” and songs praise his wisdom, kindness and mercy, associating him with light and the sun. He travelled across the sea in a silver ship and wore clothes of gold and five gold torcs.

There are legends which say he was the father of Bres, who came to replace Nuada as king of the Dé Danann, by Ériu of the Tuatha Dé Danann, as well as Delbaeth, Ogma, Elloth who was grandfather of Manannán mac Lir, and the Dagda by an unnamed mother, but many of these claims are confused and uncertain.

That he was father of Bres the beautiful is in no doubt however, even though Bres became a king whose reign the Tuatha were to regret! For seven years, the half-Fomor, half-Dé Danann Bres led the people and brought them great sorrow, enslaving them and taxing them heavily as had been done to the Nemedians.

Ogma was forced to carry firewood, and the Dagda had to dig trenches around forts. He neglected his duties of hospitality, the Tuatha Dé complained that after visiting his house their knives were never greased and their breaths did not smell of ale. Cairbre, poet of the Tuatha Dé, composed a scathing poem against Bres, which was the first satire in Ireland, and everything went wrong for him after that.

Eventually they had enough and revolted, dethroning Bres and meeting the Fomors in the second battle of Moy Tura!

Nuada's arm had been restored by the forbidden necromancy of the healer Miach with the help of his sister Airmed, and he led the rebellion alongside Lugh, another half-Fomor, grandson of none other than Balor of the evil eye! The earth and sky groaned with the bloody deeds done that day, and Nuada fell to Balor's witchcraft, but it was Lugh's sling stone that destroyed the havoc-wreaking eye of Balor, slaying the dark king in an irradiant explosion, winning the battle and war.

Not alone did the hero and champion Nuada fall on that field of battle, for Cethleann of the ravenous teeth, the prophetess wife of Balor who had foretold his death, struck the Dagda with a poisoned dart in the midst of battle, although it took him a hundred and twenty years to die afterwards!

Such was the upheaval of nature and the intrusion of the unnatural at Moy Tura that when the battle was done, Orna, the sword of Elatha, which had been wielded savagely by the Fomorian champion Tethra, was taken by Ogma and told of everything it had done. It spoke of how Tethra had been forced into the realm of death, Moy Mell, where he now ruled beyond the sea to the west or southwest of Ireland.

In Echtra Connlae, a fairy woman appeared to Connla and said:

The living, the immortal call to you;
They summon you to the people of Tethra
Who behold you every day

Connla fell in love with the woman and followed her to an Otherworld island populated by women.

In Immacallam in Dá Thúarad, Nede, the precocious poet, was asked what he was undertaking. He answered:

Not hard (to say): (to go) into the plain of age,
into the mountain of youth,
into the hunting of age,
into following a king (death?),
into an abode of clay,
between candle and fire,
between battle and its horror;
among the mighty men of Tethra
among the stations of...
among the streams of knowledge.

Bres was found alone on the battlefield  and captured, to be brought before the wrathful Lugh to answer for his mischief. Some tales say he was pardoned so long as he taught them the ways of agriculture, while others recount a more grisly end for Bres the beautiful...

As written in the Dindsenchas, Lugh made three hundred wooden cows and filled them with sewage which was then “milked” into pails and offered to Bres to drink. Bres, who was under an obligation not to refuse hospitality, drank it down without flinching, and died choking on it.

After their defeat, the Fomors retreated to the shadows and darkness of the ocean, the coasts and the deep places, although they do show up from time to time in more recent myths and legends, such as the Training of Cú Chulainn:

“Then they parted from each other, and Cú Chulainn went and looked forth on the great sea. As he was there he beheld a great assembly on the strand nearest to him, to wit, a hundred men and a hundred women seated in the bosom of the haven and the shore, and among them a maiden shapely, dear and beautiful, the most distinguished damsel of the world's women, and they a-weeping and lamenting around the damsel.

Cú Chulainn came to the place and saluted them. 'What is this sorrow or the misery upon you?' says Cú Chulainn.

The damsel answered and this she said: ‘A royal tribute which the tribe of Fomorians carry out of this country every seventh year, namely, the first-born of the king's children. And at this time it has come to me to go as that tribute, for to the king I am the dearest of his children.’

‘What number comes to lift that tribute?’ asks Cú Chulainn. ‘Three sons of Alatrom of the Fomorians,’ she answers, ‘and Dub, Mell and Dubros are their names.’

Not long had they been at those talks when they saw the well-manned, full-great vessel approaching them over the furious waves of the sea. And when the damsel's people saw the ship coming, they all fled from her, and not a single person remained in her company save only Cú Chulainn.

And thus was that vessel: a single warrior, dark, gloomy, devilish, on the stern of that good ship, and he was laughing roughly, ill-fatedly, so that every one saw his entrails and his bowels through the body of his gullet.

‘What is that mirthfulness on the big man?’ asks Cú Chulainn.‘Because,’ says the damsel, ‘he deems it excellent that thou shouldst be an addition to his tribute in this year rather than in any other year.’

‘By my conscience,’ says Cú Chulainn, ‘it would not be right for him to brag thus regarding me if he knew what would come of it.’ Then the big man came ashore to them into the strand, and stretched forth his long, sinewy, hideous arm to seize Cú Chulainn in the very front of his royal tribute.

Straightway Cú Chulainn raised his right hand, and bared his sword, and gave a blow to the big man and struck off his head, so that he was the first that fell by Cú Chulainn after having completed his training. And thereafter the other two fell by him, and he left them thus, neck to neck.”

Not a man to suffer fools gladly was Cú Chulainn! Tory Island can be found on the map below.

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