Fisher King and Wounded Healer: Nuada Argetlám

The king is not whole, and the land is made waste.

He is capable and strong, still. He bears the Sword of Finias that he will always bear, the unerring blade of the sacred treasure that never misses its mark. His silver hand is a shining reminder of what he has sacrificed for his people, for the sake of justice, truth, the protection of the land and its creatures.

But it also reminds him of his failures, and does not move like his hand of flesh. And so, the king is not whole. The land rejects the hand of man, and the Gods themselves grow hungry for offerings that no longer come. Truth and justice are no longer enough to heal wounds.

Whenever we face East – the direction of the sunrise, the freshness of the day and the spring, the province of the wind – we face Nuada Argetlám, the god of the Silver Hand. In Keltrian rites, we designate the boundaries of sacred space by calling upon the past present and future, and then facing the cardinal directions. And mirroring the journey of sun, moon and stars across the heavens, we begin with the East, standing in the light of Finias, remembering Nuada’s famous blade.

Sword and god are bound together in the lore, so much so that the two merge together: the silver sword, the metal-handed deity. While this chieftain of the gods falls in the second battle of Mag Tuired in some versions of the story – understanding, of course, that for the Gods death is never permanent – it is perhaps telling that his famous blade disappears from the lore, never to be borne by another. In other versions of the tale, Nuada – magically restored by Miach – takes the throne of his people again after the war (Rua 17).

But Nuada is more than the killing blade, the tool that gets the job done or even the chieftain. He is also associated closely with healing waters, the mist rising from the river, the well of wisdom. More than just the wounded king, he is the wounded healer – a term made famous by psychologist Carl Jung. To know how the blade cuts, one must be cut by it. To know how to heal, one must first be broken.

Chieftain and law-giver

While the meaning of Nuada’s name is far from clear, some have surmised that it is related to the words for “cloud” or “mist,” (Rua 17), while others have linked it to words for “acquire” or even “go fish.” Whatever its meaning, it appears clearly linked to the Welsh Lludd Llaw Ereint (Lludd of the Silver Hand) and the ancient Celtic deity Nodens or Nodons, associated with healing shrines (Rolleston 146, Chadwick 73). He may also be the same god as Nechtan or Elcmar, the freshwater god who is the cuckolded husband of Boann of the river (McKillop 137).

His sword comes from Finias – also spelled Findias or Finnias, meaning “bright white fort” (Kondratiev 82). Celticist James MacKillop describes the sword as allowing “no victim to escape,” which appears to be its major magical quality (136). Unlike Keltrians, Alexei Kondratiev places the sword – and perhaps Finias – in the north, connecting it with such functions as “battle-valor and championship.” However, finn may denote the bright and blessed light of the rising sun, giving the city and its treasure the essence of prosperity rather than war – and turning the warrior’s blade into the mythical sword of light (MacLeod 93).

nuada

The Temple of Nodens at Lydney Park. Photo by Jeff Collins, public domain.

And indeed, Nuada himself appears to have a deep connection with prosperity – whether its lack in the time of war, or its restoration when the king, made whole, takes his throne again.

Drawing back the curtain of time, Nuada’s most ancient ancestor may have been the Proto-Indo-European Xáryomen, according to the reconstructed pantheon of Ceisiwr Serith. Xáryomen’s name survives in Irish lore as Éremón, the first Milesian king of Ireland – and perhaps, in a larger mythological sense, the first human king. Éremón and Nuada are kingship, whether its manifestation in a human figure or in a divine concept. In a similar sense, the name Xáryomen denotes community identity itself, connected to the tribe-name arya, which survived in Irish as aire, the word for free people, and a suffix similar in meaning to the English –ness (Serith 52). He is not, it must be emphasized, the God of racism or Nazism, however corrupted the concept of “Aryan” may have become in modern times. Rather, Xáryomen – “the quality of being free people” – is a manifestation of the laws of society: in effect, justice and the right order of things.

Together with the head of the pantheon, the Sky Father or Dyéus Ptér, “he enforces justice and oaths are sworn by him. He enforces contracts. Through him, the wealth of society is circulated among us,” Serith explains (52). He also governs both marriage, a form of social contract that binds not only lovers but their tribes, and healing – the restoration of physical being. In short, Xáryomen represents the right order of things – for the individual, the human society of which they are part, and the cosmos itself.

Interestingly, in Serith’s reconstruction, Xáryomen doesn’t operate alone; he is paired with Dyéus Ptér – just as Eremon is paired with his brother and rival king Éber Finn, the Welsh king Lludd with his wise brother Llefelys, and Nuada with his successor, Lugh.

Beyond the Celtic world, Indo-European scholar Jaan Puhvel finds echoes of Nuada in the Roman Mars and the Germanic Tyr, Tiw, Tiwaz or Saxnote, both deities that warded and protected the land, ensuring prosperity, peace and justice within. With his silver hand, Nuada bears more than a passing resemblance to the sword-god Tyr/Saxnote, who sacrificed an arm as a safeguard for an oath that bound the wolf Fenris. The patron god of the Thing, or law assembly, Tyr witnessed oaths – although, ironically, he broke his own to bind the wolf. It’s this oathbreaking that likely renders Tyr unfit for the kingship, at least of the later Germanic pantheon – an echo of the mutilation and disqualification of Nuada.

Nuada’s children include the mountain goddess Echtga, associated with Slieve Aughty in County Galway, son Tadg Mór of the Hill of Allen, ancestor of Fionn mac Cumhaill (MacLeod 55), and – through another set of sons – the Irish people of themselves, as well as several lines of kings (McLeod 125). In a larger mythological sense, this first king is the ancestor of the tribe – another indication of his identity as Xáryomen.

While the interaction of many of these divine, kingly pairs – Nuada and Lugh, Odin and Tyr, and ultimately Xáryomen and Dyéus Ptér – ensure the harmonious function of right order in society, this is not always the case for their human equivalents. Éber Finn ultimately challenges and is slain by his brother Éremón, just as another mythic king of Ireland – Mug Nuadat, whose name means “servant of Nuada” – is defeated and slain by his brother Conn, or “head,” (Rees and Rees 101). Interestingly, Mug Nuadat is the ancestor of the kings of southern Munster, associated with music and prosperity, in comparison to the warlike realm of northern Conn. Nuada is, yet again, associated with prosperity – and failure at war.

The Fisher King

Like Tyr, Nuada lost his right hand (or sometimes arm) to an enemy – in his case, battling the Fir Bolg champion Sreng,who apparently survived the encounter and retired with his remaining people to the Western province of Connacht. The smith-god Goibhniu crafted Nuada’s famous silver hand, replacing the one he lost in battle. Despite this, his mutilation made him unfit for kingship. His people chose Bres the Beautiful, a half-divine, half-Fomhoire God, to lead them – resulting in penury for both the land and its people.

In later myths, Nuada is made truly whole by the healing-god Miach, who found the severed right hand, connected it to the stump and chanted spells for three days, ultimately resulting in the chieftain’s complete physical restoration (Kondratiev 186). However, this act spurred the jealousy of Dian Cécht, Miach’s healer-god father, who ultimately killed him – and scattered the herbs that grew from his body so that no one could cure all ills. In some senses, that miraculous healing appeared to violate natural laws – mirroring the death of the Greek demigod Asklepios, who was struck down by Zeus for bringing the dead back to life.

Although restored, Nuada steps down in favor of the polymath champion Lugh as the people revolt against the Fomhoire during the second battle of Mag Tuired. In Rolleston’s version of the tale, the valiant Nuada is slain by the magical eye of the Fomhoire king Balor, slain in turn by Lugh, who then achieves the kingship of the Tuatha de Danann (117).

Portions of Nuada’s story echo the Welsh tale of Lludd and Llefelys, in which the land – under the rulership of Lludd – is beset by three plagues: a devastation wrought by magical all-hearing beings called the Coraniaid, which resemble the Fomhoire; a terrifying scream uttered by warring dragons each May Eve that left the land and its creatures barren; and a giant who stole all the food in the king’s court (Rees and Rees 46). Just as Lugh’s leadership rids the land of the Fomhoire and allows Nuada to retake the throne, so Llefelys’ advice helps restore the land, permitting his brother to rule: The wise brother poisons the eavesdropping Coraniad, entombs the dragons and arrests the giant, who then makes restitution and becomes an ally of the king (Puhvel 179).

Drawing on these myths and the possible meaning of Nuada’s name as “fisherman,” Puhvel identifies Nuada as the template for the Fisher King of Arthurian legend – whose maiming, like that of Nuada, brought barrenness to the land and calamity to its people (180). He is also perhaps emblematic of the aging king, who can no longer lead the war band and must give way to the next generation.

If Nuada is indeed the same as Nechtan/Elcmar, Boann’s spouse, he bears other associations as well. He guards the well of wisdom – the Grail? – but is hoodwinked by his own wife, who lays with the Dagda. The Dagda in turn sends Nechtan on an errand, and then holds the sun still for nine months until Aonghus Og is born, so that it seems only a day has passed. There is a curious echo in the Arthurian tale of the Fisher King, who is wounded in the genitals – his very manhood – for sexual transgressions, according to some versions of the tale.

There is no indication that Nechtan ever discovered the adultery, although he had a vengeance of sorts: When Boann went to the Well of Segais to purify herself, its waters rose up and destroyed her body, creating the river. Nechtan is thus connected to fresh water, courtesy of his link to the Well of Wisdom and the river goddess. So was another God, with what appears to be a related name: Nodens, known in both Britain and Gaul, and who had a famous riverside temple along the Severn.

The Wounded Healer

Built around the year 364, Nodens’ temple included a healing center “where invalids were visited by the god or one of his sacred dogs of healing in their sleep,” according to scholar Nora Chadwick (171). Imagery within connected the deity to the sun, water and dogs (MacLeod 42), reflective of both the temple’s location and its healing practices. (Perhaps coincidentally, Nechtan’s wife Boann has a mythic association with dogs – or at least her lapdog, Dabilla.) In function, the temple on the Severn resembled shrines to the Greek healer-god Asklepios, whose own myth is echoed in that of miraculous healer Miach.

If Nodens and Nuada are one and the same – which seems likely – why is this god associated with healing shrines, rather than Miach or even Dian Cécht?

Several explanations spring to mind. In the ancient world, a common method of magical healing may have involved offering a replica of the afflicted body part to a healing well. Silver hand, anyone? As the guardian of the Well of Wisdom, he is also the guardian of the world’s knowledge – a useful quality in a physician, who must draw on both observation and information in making a diagnosis. And in a world in which the health of the king reflects on the health of the land and its people, who better to ask for healing than the king himself? As the defender of sacred truth and the right order of things, the divine king also ensures that the physical body reflects that right order. He witnesses our oaths, and keeps his oath to us as healer and defender: a gift for a gift.

But the most compelling reason is a modern one, sprung from the wisdom of Carl Jung. Many of those who seek to heal have themselves experienced debility, weakness, injury. Nuada knows the qualities of a good leader because of his failures at leadership; similarly, he becomes a healer through his own wounding. He knows when to step down from a position of authority and ask for help – a form of wisdom hard-won, and familiar to anyone who has suffered a severe injury or illness, whether in mind, body and spirit.

And to come full circle, to the blade of the shining sword of Finias, whirling in the East: It is more than the sharp edge that brings injury and death. It is the surgeon’s knife and the sword of light that fends off disruptions of sacred order. The Fisher King and the wasteland, it must remembered, could only be healed by Percival’s questions, which brought the truth to light. In another story, Manannan’s cup – a version of the Grail – is broken by lies and healed by truth. What, then, is the sword that no victim can escape? “Not hard,” says the poet. “It is truth.”

Works Cited

Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2003.

MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

MacLeod, Sharon Paice. Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.

Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.

Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.

Rua, Aedh. Celtic Flame: An Insider’s Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008.

Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2007.

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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One Response to Fisher King and Wounded Healer: Nuada Argetlám

  1. Pingback: Breaking the rules, part 1: Modifying Keltrian practice | Keltria's Well of Wisdom

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