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FOMHOIRE . The Fomhoire are a hostile supernatural race who warred for control of Ireland against both gods and men. Descriptions of the Fomhoire vary widely in different texts and apparently reflect several distinct traditions. The Fomhoire are sometimes depicted as misshapen or half-animal in form, disproportionately female in numbers, or having only one leg, one arm, and one eye. In other sources, the Fomhoire resemble and intermarry with the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann (The Tribes or Peoples of the Goddess Danu). Later Irish and Scottish Gaelic folklore know the fomhóir (Scottish Gaelic, famhair ) as raiders from the sea or marauding giants, and throughout Irish literature the Fomhoire manifest both sea connections and supernatural origins. For example, "the cattle of Tethra"an early poetic kenning about the Fomhorian king Tethrarefers to the waves, and in an eighth-century tale the people of Tethra dwell in a timeless realm of peace and abundance across the sea. The name Fomhoire is of uncertain derivation, meaning perhaps "undersea people" or "sinister supernatural beings." Suggested etymologies include taking the word as comprising fo (under) and an element meaning sea. Alternatively, the second element may be related to the mare of the English word nightmare.

Origins of the Fomhoire

References to the Fomhoire appear in Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (The book of the taking of Ireland), a pseudohistorical compendium of medieval prose and poetry linking pre-Christian Ireland to the chronology of the Hebrew Bible and presenting gods and mythical ancestors of the early Irish as mortals descended from Noah. In this system, the Fomhoire are identified as descendants of Cain or of Noah's unfilial son Ham. Other sources include mythic and epic tales, glossaries, and place-name lore. In Leabhar Gabhála the Fomhoire (sometimes in the form of misshapen demons) repeatedly attack Ireland's colonists. After defeating two groups of settlers, they reduce a third, the people of Nemhedh, to one boatload of refugees, who survive to become ancestors of two later groups, the Fir Bholg and the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The Fir Bholg rule Ireland successfully without Fomhorian interference but are eventually dispossessed by the Tuatha Dé Danann. According to Cath Maige Tuired : The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, which includes language as early as the ninth century, once established in Ireland, the Tuatha Dé contract a marriage alliance with the Fomhoire and offer kingship to the half-Fomhorian Bres, son of Elatha. However, Bres's reign proves disastrous: He is greedy, self-centered, and oppressive, enforcing demands for tribute from his Fomhorian relatives. When the Tuatha Dé restrain his behavior, he flees to his powerful Fomhorian kin to gather an army. Demands for tribute by Fomhorian kings outside of Ireland (including Tethra, Elatha, and Indech, son of Dé Domnann, who ruled islands off Ireland and Scotland) are reminiscent of Viking control of these peripheral areas and may reflect legends surrounding Viking claims to overlordship.

Lugh, who ultimately leads the Tuatha Dé to victory in the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh, is the half-Fomhorian product of the marriage alliance between the two peoples. The unsuccessful king Bres (Fomhorian on his father's side) is the product of an acknowledged but less formal union. The theme of Fomhorian kinship amidst hostilities recurs in epic, recalling widespread traditions in other cultures of ambivalent relations between distinct but intermarrying groups. Lugh's son, the epic hero Cú Chulainn, can only marry the daughter of Forgoll Monach (a nephew of the Fomhorian Tethra) by abducting her against her family's armed opposition.

Mythical Struggles

Theomachythe mythic struggle between gods and their supernatural opponentsis another theme shaping the relationship between the Fomhoire and the Tuatha Dé Danann. In comparative Indo-European terms, as enemies of the gods, the Fomhoire resemble the Asuras (in relation to the Indic Devas)often monstrous in form but nonetheless blood relations. The ultimate victory of the Tuatha Dé Danann follows Lugh's single combat with his maternal grandfather, the Fomhorian Balar, who has a baleful eye of monstrous size and power. The contest is famous in the popular folklore of Mayo and Donegal.

Another mythic theme that may influence the role of the Fomhoire in the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredhespecially the conflict between Bres and his Tuatha Dé kinis the struggle between divine representatives of functional aspects of social order. These functions are identified as: (1) the sacred and sovereign, associated with kingship, priesthood, and magical power; (2) physical, especially martial, force; and (3) fertility and abundance. Each of the three is linked to a social class or stratum (i.e., the priestly class, including the king; the aristocratic warrior class, from which kings may be drawn; and the class of ordinary free landowners or farmers) represented within both human and divine societies. The mythic struggle between representatives of the first two functions and those of the third leads to a resolution in which the powers of all three functions are available to society as a whole, although the nature of that resolution varies. For example, Bres's powers evoke fertility and abundance, his name ("The Beautiful") becomes a byword for beauty, and he is the husband of the Tuatha Dé goddess Brígh (patroness of domestic animals). When suggesting possible ransoms for his life to Lugh after the Tuatha Dé Danann victory, Bres includes the well-being and growth of crops and herds. Lugh's acceptance of Bres's final offer integrates the power of fertility, bringing the Tuatha Dé perpetual success in plowing, sowing, and reaping.

See Also

Celtic Religion, overview article.


Gray, Elizabeth A. Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Irish Texts Society, Vol. 52. Leinster, Ireland, 1982. Provides text and translation, contains extensive indices of references to the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomhoire in early and later medieval Irish literature.

Mac Cana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. New York, 1970; reprint, 1973. Succinct, authoritative and comprehensive survey, extensively illustrated with photographs of significant items of Celtic material culture, includes chapters on the Tuatha Dé Danann and on the Irish heroic tradition.

Mac Neill, Máire. The Festival of Lughnasa. 2 vols. 2d ed. Dublin, 1982. Provides an extensive discussion of literary sources and folk customs related to Lugh and Balar.

Rees, Alwyn, and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London, 1961. Far reaching and ahead of its time, Celtic Heritage explores the range of Celtic mythic tradition in the Indo-European context, including reference to the work of Georges Dumézil, with exhaustive notes that provide access to both specialist studies and more general works.

Elizabeth A. Gray (2005)