Túatha Dé Danann – Nuadu Airgetlam (Part 1)

Howbeit the Tuatha De Danann suffered great loss in that battle, and they left their king on that field, with his arm cut off from the shoulder down. Leeches were seven years working his cure, (and an arm of silver was put upon him).¹


How might the Irish mythological figure of Nuadu be linked to The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1949), the most influential fantasy fiction books of the 20th century? As will be discussed shortly, the stepping stones that inspired the powerful ‘ring’ in the epic books penned by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), later becoming a successful movie franchise, can be traced back to the pagan deity.

The first mention of Nuadu, first king of the TDD, in the chronological order of the LGE texts, as edited and translated by R.A.S. MacAlister (1870-1950) is given as follows;

FIR BOLG: R1 (281) The Fir Bolg gave them (the Tuatha De Danann) battle upon Mag Tuired; they were a long time fighting that battle. Yet the Tuatha De Danann suffered great loss in the battle, and they left the king on the field, with his arm cut from him; the leeches were seven years healing him.
FIR BOLG: R3 (296) Nuadu Argetlam son of Echtach s. Etarlam was king among the Tuatha De Danann at that time.
TUATHA DE DANANN: R2 (328) As for Nuadu Airgetlam, it is he who was king over the Tuatha De Danann for seven years before they came into Ireland, till his arm was cut from him in the first battle of Mag Tuired.

The scribes tell us that for a period of seven years, Nuadu reigned as king of the TDD prior to their landing in Ireland. The hapless fate of the TDD leader in that first great battle where many were slain, resulted in injury, where his arm was cut from him and leeches (men of medicine) were for another seven years healing him.

In Nuadu we find an equivalent deity in ancient Britain; Nodens, whose chief sanctuary is found in a temple used during the Roman occupation of Britain, at Lydney Park in Glouchester.² In Welsh mythology the equivalent is found in Nudd / Ludd Law Eraint, Nudd / Ludd³ of the ‘silver hand’ synonymous with the Irish Nuadu Argetlam / Nuadu of the ‘silver hand’.

Lydney Park Plaque
Sketch of DEUS NODONS, mosaic on temple floor, Lydney Park, Gloucestshire, UK.

The god bearing the Romanized name ‘DEUS NODONS’ at Lydney Park, if represented in the imagery found in the mosaic pavements, depicts at its centre two sea-serpents as well as figures of fish. Bronze plaques found at the same location depict on the first (1), a crowned and draped divinity, holding a sceptre, on a chariot drawn by four sea-horses. The deity is flanked by winged figures, said to represent the Winds, and hippomorphic figures at either end cupped by reclining Tritons, one holding an anchor, the other two paddles. On a second (2) plate of bronze a figure holds a shell-trumpet to his mouth, alongside a figure with a caught fish. These images suggest that the deity had some association with water or the abyss and was possibly recognised as a river or sea-god, a Roman equivalent of Neptune.

A votive tablet found at Lydney Park, indicating the power of the deity there worshipped, bears the inscription;

To the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring; he had made offering half its value to Nodens. Amongst all who bear the name Senecianus, refuse thou to grant health to exist, until he brings back the ring to the Temple of Nodens.
Curse Tablet Lydney Park
Curse Tablet, Lydney Park

Other artefacts found at Lydney included a number of tablets inscribed to a Mars Nodons and letters cut from a thin plate of bronze. The letters formed the Latin words ‘Nodenti Sacrum’ which were supposed to have been affixed to the temples alms-box where offerings would be deposited. The ‘Sacred Nodens’ plate might have been the originating meaning of the name for Nodons, now lost to us. Nodons by association with Mars would seem to point to a deity capable of war-like temperament, a protector of those who worshiped him, vengeful on those who incited him to be.

Similar tablets found in other Roman temples such as in Bath, are sometimes called Curse Tablets⁴. A wealthy patron and worshipper (in the Lydney case, Silvianus), wishing ill on another (Senecianus) would incite similar inscriptions for the deity to carry out on their behalf (ill health, possibly death), with the promise of a monetary reward (half the value of the ring), if returned.

Silvanus's Ring Lydney Park
Gold ring, Silchester

In fact, a ring found in the 19th century is thought to have been the missing ring of Silvianus. In 2013 an exhibition in the Vyne National Trust property in Basingstoke, Hampshire, had on display a gold ring assumed to be of Roman origin. The ring was found in a nearby site of Roman Calleva in Silchester sometime in 1786, coming into the possession of the Chute family who owned the property.⁵

Tolkien was already aware of the bronze plaque found at Lydney. We know this because of a paper he wrote on the name ‘Nodens’ at the request of R.E.M. Wheeler, a friend of his work colleague at Pembroke College, Oxford, R. G. Collingwood. Tolkien was also credited by Collingwood for his assistance on similar matters related to Roman Britain and Celtic philology.

While there is no evidence that Tolkien came in contact with the ring at Vyne, it is likely that he had heard of its existence and while no curse was put on the ring in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo retains the ring, once in the possession of Gollum who uses fowl play in the hope of its retrieval. Tolkien’s knowledge of the Lydney site, its god Nodens, access to academic colleagues within the field of archaeology and his own personal interest in folklore, could only but inspire the subject on which the books were written.

Inspiration of the fanciful was also close to the minds of the scribes of the LGE, according to MacAlister. He puts forth the theory that the “silver arm” interpreted literally as a hand / arm of silver made to replace the physical one lost by Nuadu in battle, is instead a poetical way of describing a “narrow strait of water between two islands”.⁶ His theory has some weight given the associations of water with the deity. Another argument for his theory lies in the lack of evidence to show that Nuadu was a known or worshipped deity on the continent. The accounts of Nuadu are as yet only to be found in the folklore and Romano-British artefacts within Ireland and the UK. Could it be possible that Nuadu was given his moniker due to his recognised divinity on both islands whose closest point of contact is a shared body of water known as the Irish Sea?

In the next post I will explore the consequences of Nuadu’s injury and what it tells us of the obligations of the king to ensure favour with the gods and with his people. I will also reveal the physical characteristics of Nuadu which gives us an insight of how beauty was perceived in the time the stories were written.

¹ MACALISTER, R.A.S. (1940) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, PART IV, Section VI: FIR BOLG, Irish Texts Society Dublin.
² MASSEY, Gerald (1881) A Book of the Beginnings re: DEUS NODENS, London.
³ WIKIPEDIA, (2017) Nodens, wikipedia.org.
⁴ UNESCO heritage (2017) Roman curse tablets, UNESCO.
⁵ FOREST-HILL, Lynn (2013) Tolkien, Lydney and the Vyne: patterns of loss and discovery, Academia Ed., UK.
⁶ MACALISTER, R.A.S. Ed., (1941) Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Irish Texts Society Dublin, p.97.
Túatha Dé Danann (TOOHA day DAN-ann)
Nuadu (NEW-ad-DO)
Fir Bolg (fir BOLG)
Mag Tuired (MAWG tir-id)
Echtach (ECK-tock)
Etarlam (ET-er-LAMB)
Argetlam / Airgetlam (ar-get-LAMB)
People of the Gods of Danand
Fir Bolg
Plain of Towers