Fomorians – the shadow gods

Before the Olymians there were the Titans.  Before the Asir there were the Jotunn. And before the Tuatha de Danann there were the Fomorians.

These peoples war and marry each other. The Asir made love to Jotunfolk, the Tuatha married Fomorians wives. Even Thor, the great giant-slayer, loved and impregnated Jotun women. The different godly tribes became entwined, but no-one, not even the gods themselves, have forgotten these old genealogies, these ancient feuds. At least, so the written stories tell.

Our relationship with these other godly beings is often problematic. One need only think of the heathen controversies concerning the honouring or worship of Loki. Yet it seems that the Jotun, modernly called Rokkr, shadow gods, are more and more sought out by heathen and northern pagan practitioners. And Loki – even if his worship remains a big no-no among many Asatruar groups, which should be no big surprise since they call themselves that just that, loyal to the Asir – seems to have a great many devotees, perhaps more than some of the ruling Asir.

I find the concept of shadow-gods most intriguing.

Theologically, the presence of a groups of shadow gods seems to be of paramount importance. Their mere existence serves to show that no mythological system can ever be complete or perfect. There will always be an outsider, an outcast, someone who fits none of the traditionally accepted roles. As we have seen earlier this week, we Pagans are tempted by notions of clear-cut boundaries, of religions that are complete in themselves. I do not now think of Asatruar who wish to exclude Loki or his worshippers. I think of Sam Webster and his longing for religious purity. And I think of myself as a young teenager, trying to create the perfect little system with a god for each function and each festival, and certainly not too many of them. There is is value in creating order, but we should never confuse order with purity or perfection.

Loki is an interesting example of how an outsider who appears to work against order, still finds a place within the mythological framework. Jerold C. F. Frakes (1987) writes in Loki’s Mythological Function in the Tripartite System:

“He is a thief, a trickster, a foul-mouthed party-guest, and the ultimate nemesis of the gods. In each instance of these various levels of antagonistic behaviour, Loki manifests his essential mythological function as anti-function. And as such his role is necessary to complete the semiotic structure of the mythological system. For it is only by means of an anti-function that the functions, and by means of the margin and that which is marginalized that the centre, are ultimately delimited and defined.

In fact, it seems that Loki’s position is more controversial than that of his Jotunkin. For the other Jotun, even when they intermarry among the Asir, remain or appear to remain largely  independent of the Asir order. Loki crosses this boundary, and his loyalties are divided, and it is this more than anything else that makes people distrustful or even hateful towards him.

For some Christians Judas plays a similar role. To many, he was an evil man trying to undo God’s work, but for others, Judas is necessary to the unfolding of the sacred story. Yes, I did just make a comparison between a (largely) Pagan story and a Christian one, I wonder what Sam Webster makes of that.

By now you are probably wondering, why did Soliwo call this article Fomorians if all she is going to do is talk of Loki. A just question! The Formorians, similar to the Jotun, serve as the shadow gods to the Tuatha Dé. Yet I find very few references that point to current worship of Fomorian gods. And I wonder why this is so.

The Fomorii – by Andrew L. Paciorek

There are of course two gods of mixed, Fomorian and Danann, ancestry: Lugh and Bres. Lugh, the master of all crafts, is the quintessential hero. Though he transends the three classic functions, he is in no way the anti-god Loki is. His dual ancestry makes him the figure best equipped to resolve the conflict between the two tribes or, depending on your view point, to end the status quo. Yet is Bres, ‘dutiful son’, who is made king after Nuada looses his are, interestingly at the insistence of the Tuatha women. And through the misdeeds of Bres, on whom all female hopes (and eyes, as he was most handsome) are pinned, the land is ruined.

“Both Lugh and Bres are half Fomoire, but whereas the former has a Fomorian mother and a Tuatha father, the latter has a Fomorian father and a Tuatha mother. Each in the event supports his father’s side against his mother’s. Whereas Lugh’s inferior connections are with crafts, those with Bres are of agriculture (…). But his niggardly behaviour is as discordant with the generosity of the third function as it is with the magnanimity of the king. In him, the negative, Formorian side is dormant.

(Alwyn & Brinly Rees, 1998, Celtic Heritage, p.144)

So it seems Lugh is combining the best of both worlds, while Bres is the corrupted one. Together they may combine Loki’s role as the player in the margins. But can Lugh, by himself, fulfil this role? As he becomes king, he no longer is the true outsider. He becomes the symbol of the Tuatha Dé? So if we throw out Bres or the Fomorii altogether do we not miss something important?

In this post I have focussed on the literary mythical system. We cannot know if Bres was ever venerated as a god, or whether he is merely a literary figure, but then, we cannot be sure that Loki was worshipped by our ancestors either.

These are the questions that linger in my mind. Do the Fomorians need another representative besides Lugh? Do they deserve further honouring in their own right? Of have they been absorbed into the Tuatha? Theologically, do we still need a supplement of shadow gods?


10 thoughts on “Fomorians – the shadow gods

  1. Very interesting topic. I’ve read that some CR and ADF practitioners will propitiate, but not worship, the Fomorians? Do you know much about that, or have any thoughts on it?

    In China, there is evidence of worship of Chiyou, a war god who fought against the Yellow Emperor Huang Di, and praise for the god Xingtian, who continued his rebellion against the supreme god Shangdi even after his head was chopped off. But I’ve not heard of worship for Gonggong, a water god who almost destroyed the whole world through flood and collapsing one of the pillars of the sky.

    One theory is that mythologies where one deity or pantheon supplants another reflect conquest and/or assimilation of a local culture by a spreading one. However, the belief in malevolent spirits and entities that should be kept at bay also seems widespread throughout human cultures, so that’s bound to be a factor in these kind of stories as well.

    1. Heathenchinese, apart from my involvement in SDF I am at the moment not really part of ADF’s social circles. I am very keen to know more though about their approach to the Fomorians though. Are the Fomorians in any way comparable to the Jotunn, or are they too different?Do you think Loki is the exception to the rule? Or is this the difference between a full-out shadow god and one that has been adopted by the gods of daylight so to speak? Intuitively I suspect the latter must be true. I realise that I offer more questions than answers. It is something that has just piked my interest and I am keen to learn more. Thank you for helping to make sense of it all. I am sure I will come back to this topic.

      1. Should have quoted my sources. One was the Celtic Reconstructionist FAQ at

        When CRs refer to “Outsiders” it may refer to one, or both, of two things.

        It could mean Outsider spirits and Deities, which has become for many a way to describe those Beings we do not worship or offer to in our own spaces. This may include any Gods or spirits that we simply do not worship, as they are from other cultures. It may also include Aos Sí, Fomorian or Fir Bolg beings who may be hostile to humans, as opposed to other Aos Sí, Fomorians or Fir Bolg who might be more friendly to humans or to particular humans. In some cases, the beings may be nature spirits who have an (often well-deserved) dislike of humans due to their past experiences with disrespectful people, or psychotic ghosts who are not capable of being healed. Some CRs strive to make “treaty” with such beings, usually at the boundaries of their property or some distance from a ritual site. This is done to make an agreement that if the Spirits take the offering, They are promising to not disrupt the home or ritual.

      2. From the ADF website,

        By the way, I’m not involved in any European traditions, the “heathen” in my blog title is descriptive rather than identifying. So I’m just going to say “no comment” when it comes to the Lokean Controversy.

        Generally in Indo-European myths a war between Order and Chaos results in a victory for Order, but a victory that in no way destroys Chaos. Rather Order—the power of those gods who would make the world fit for mortal life—gains a rulership of a portion of the worlds, which can be built and ordered for the good of all beings. In the course of doing so they make places for the powers of Chaos, bringing them into the Order itself.

        Nor should we assume that the Fomorians were merely symbols of pestilence and wrongdoing. It is far more accurate to view them as related to the primal power of fertility and the pre-human land. They may not conform to human standards of behavior or virtue, but they are intrinsic to the cosmos, and needed for its proper structure.

        It is said that after the gods defeated the Fomors the latter were forced to reveal the secrets of sowing and reaping. They are described as having both beautiful and hideous individuals. They embody the raw power of non-human nature, which must be overcome, at least in small areas, for human tribes to live in comfort.

      3. Thank you for providing those links. I think ‘Outsiders’ is a very useful, inclusive term. They may refer to those older beings of chaos that are outside of the orderly world. Or perhaps even to those gods and spirits in general that receive no official worship. I may use this own word in my own rituals, so as to include those who cannot otherwise be easily included.

        Loki seems to be one of these older chaotic beings, that somehow, has find its way to be part of the ruling godly order. Lugh – in a far more unproblematic way – seems to play that role to. To sublimate those dangerous chaotic tendencies that can have no place in civilized life otherwise

  2. One of the interesting things about the Fomoire is that they change aspect even in the period of the written texts. The earlier texts (~9th century) describe them (barring Balor with his terrible eye) as very like the people of Danu–beautiful, skilled, and magical. It’s in the later texts that you generally see the idea of Fomoire as innately evil and ugly. I suppose I follow the ADF idea heathenchinese posted above: that Fomorians are beings of chaos, but that chaos is necessary for life. Perfect order is unchanging–and no change is death. Chaos feeds life, so long as it is bounded by order. I think we *would* be missing something important by throwing out the Fomoire, but at the same time, inviting chaos into your sanctuary isn’t something to be done lightly.

    1. Thank you for responding Grace. I am clearly not an expert in this field. I simply wanted to air these questions that I stumbled upon. What do you make of the transition of the Formoirians from beautiful and skilled to ugly? Can Chaos be skilled? (beautiful it most certainly can be) Did the Formoirians only became chaotic after the people of Danu arrived, so are they beings of chaos by nature?

      1. I think the ugliness was likely an attribute given by Christian monks who felt a greater distance from the indigenous traditions of Ireland. My intuition about the Fomoire is that they are the raw power of the world in all its myriad beingness, while the people of Danu are the order-bringers, the culture gods, those Elder Kin who bridge the space between the raw power of the World and us. One of the things I’ve always found neat is that Danu’s people are descended from the Fomoire, just as the Olympians of Greece are descended from Titans, or the Aesir are descended from Jotuns. The raw power of the world has children who are those we can relate to more easily (in most cases — I know there are people who are very devoted to Fomoire and Jotuns and Titans).

        Of course, the question I always run into for myself is how much of the system of this (chaos–>order–>mortal people) is systematizing by mythologers, and how much is True.

  3. Well, as a devotee of Brigid, of course I honor Bres and their son, Ruadan (who, I feel shared a similar fate to Vali and Narfi of the Norse pantheon). I also honor Bres’ father, the Fomorian associated with the moon and sea: Elatha, who by the way, actually advised Bres against trying to take back the throne from Nuada (note: Nuada is similar to Tyr in some ways, I find), but also advised him to seek help from Balor, who ended up helping Bres in a war against the Tuatha De. (I also find it interesting that while Loki sired Jormungandr, the Norse Midgard Serpent, a sea serpent, that Bres’ father was associated with the sea and moon).
    There is also evidence that at least some people believed that Bres was just as honorable as his father Elatha, and just as beautiful internally as he was without:
    A poem from “dindsenchas” praises Bres’ character as “kindly” and “noble,” and calls him the “flower” of the Tuatha Dé Danann (for being Brigid’s beautiful husband). It also tells of his death at the hands of Lugh. Lugh made 300 wooden cows (Trojan horse, anybody?) and filled them with a bitter, poisonous red liquid which was then “milked” into pails and offered to Bres to drink. Bres, who was under an obligation to not refuse hospitality, drank it down without flinching, and it killed him.
    The Lebor Gabála identifies the liquid as sewage.
    To me, the manner in which Bres died reminds me of the trickery that went into Loki’s punishment after the Lokasenna. Not only does Bres suffer because he loses his child, but due to his honor code, he can not run away from the danger of the situation, and he also is unable to trick his way out of the situation this time, having had his own trickery turned around on him.
    In a way, Bres is treated as Brigid’s burden by the Tuatha De, much the way that Loki is identified as Sigyn’s burden by the Aesir. But I feel strongly that, just as Sigyn showed her love to Loki during his punishment, and her own suffering at the loss death of her children, that Brigid truly did love Bres (after all, Bres was apparently irresistible to women of the Tuatha De), as she tried to prevent death and war by pleading with the Tuatha De, and she invented the funerary practice of keening at the death of their son, Ruadan. I imagine that the wailing of Brigid at the loss of Ruadan and Bres probably rivaled the queen of the Bean-shidhe.

    I also find it very interesting and frustrating that the “shadow gods” of the Irish pantheon have gone practically ignored, especially considering Brigid’s popularity among neo-Pagans. One would think they would want to honor her husband and her family, no?
    Perhaps shadow-god honoring or worship is not as commonly talked about in Irish pagan circles for whatever reason, or perhaps the problem (as, unfortunately, I think is more likely the case), is that the Irish pantheon is sort of eclectically picked from by Wiccans and other neo-Pagan eclectics, more than there are people who are Celtic Polytheists who honor the Irish pantheon and actually learn their stories.

    Celtic-leaning pagans don’t have an official religion like Asatru for their pantheon. There are Celtic Reconstructionists, but I’ve noticed that there are people who call themselves that and don’t even worship the Irish gods. Most of the time I find there are more people interested in the Welsh deities, or the King Arthur stories, than the Irish stories, or the Celtic Reconstructionists are actually still worshiping Gaulish and Brythonic / Roman gods, such as the Horned God (making them not so different from Wiccans, in my view, despite what they may claim).
    Those of us interested in the Irish pantheon don’t have as expansive social network of Tuatha De devotees. Most people who work with the Celtic lore pick up on the Sidhe and the Fae, and maybe cherry pick a few deities, like Lugh, and the Cailleach, and Brigid, maybe sometimes the Dagda or Ogma, without really getting into honoring the pantheon as much.

    Or, as I fear may also be part of the problem, is that there is still an issue of racism against the Irish by Anglo-Saxon derived cultures. Stories like King Arthur, Beowolf, the Norse myths, even Roman and Greek myths, heck, even Egyptian myths, often get more attention than the Irish myths, because well, basically the UK, the US, and the rest of the world, still don’t care about the Irish. Only the Irish and the Irish descended seem to care about the Irish. So why would anybody else pay attention to their stories, when Irish people are still second-class to Celtic people of Great Britain?

    Maybe controversial, but hey, in honor of my tricksters Bres and Loki, maybe people need to get over their obsession with the Frith and ignoring their own faults and negative attitudes about others, and admit that there is a problem. So, I guess that was my flyting, my “Lokasenna” about the attitudes towards a) the trickster figures in our myths, and the Jotuns / Formors in general, and b) the way the Irish myths get both ignored and exploited at people’s leisure.

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