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Home Druid, My Articles Lughnasdh; Wrong Deity Right Holiday?


Lughnasdh; Wrong Deity Right Holiday?

(Originally published in “The Druid’s Arch”, the Official Newsletter of the Ord Draíochta Na Uisnech in the Mean Samraidh/Lughnasdh 2003 issue, Volume 1, Issue 2.)

On this Lughnasdh, many of us consider honoring Lugh (Lug), remembering of his grand defeat of Balor in the Second Battle of Moytura, or that he was the Il Dana, master of all trades. We think of the harvest, the first fruits of the fields and our labors.

It’s good to think of all of those things. Please consider celebrating the original deity of this holiday, instrumental in shaping Lugh, his ideas, thoughts and beliefs. If she had not been so influential, if she had not shaped Lugh as she did, the Tuatha de’ Dannan might not have been victorious in the Second Battle of Moytura.

Tailtu, by Jim Fitzpatrick http://www.jimfitzpatrick.ie/
(C) 1977, Used with Permission

I’m talking about Tailltu. Lugh’s foster mother.

Any study of this lady will immediately bring up her association to Lughnasdh, By royal fiat, Lugh ordered the original celebration to honor his foster mother at her death. While many may feel that this is the extent of her involvement, that is far from the truth.

To back track, the Nemedians can be considered as the original inhabitants of Eire since everyone prior to that time died or got killed off. The Nemedians were then invaded by the Fomorians who literally came out of the sea. The surviving Nemedians were enslaved by the Fomorians. Being over burdened to provided taxes, children, grains and cattle to their overlords the Nemedians asked for relief form their overlords they were essentially laughed out of the castle.

Being proto-Irish they (somehow) got word to their Greek kin who sailed to their rescue. With a party to celebrate the arrival of the Greek cousins and a female spy who totally turned the evil king of the Formors head, they handily destroyed the invaders.

With much rejoicing on the winner’s part, loot was divided and the Greeks went home. No sooner had the Greeks left than the reinforcements the now dead Formors had sent for arrived. The defending Nemedians piled into ships and sailed out to meet the 90 ships of the re-invading Fomorians. At this point a HUGE tidal wave (unnoticed in all the excitement about round 3 of the war) wipe out everyone but 9 Nemedians and 1 ship of Fomorians.

The Nemedians decided that they had best disappear after dividing Ireland into 3 parts. This means that there were 3 people in each part… 3 threes, hmm, any significance there? Could be.

One group of three went to Greece, one to Britain and one to the “islands in the north”, possibly the Shetlands or Orkneys since they couldn’t defend Eire against a ship full of evil Fomorians.

Mind you, the Fomorians were so depressed about being left with all of Eire, they left too and went to the Isle of Man where they brooded and plotted their vengeance on the now non existent inhabitants of Eire.

The Nemedians who made to Greece were immediately enslaved by the Thracians and stayed that way for the next 200 years. Their masters started calling them bag men since they were forced to carry the valley soil up to the mountain, rather the reverse of the mountain and Mohammed. Bag men seems to translate to Firbolg. Finally we’re getting somewhere! So life goes on, valleys get deeper, mountains get wider and the Nemedians increase in number. Finally they get fed up enough to decide they aren’t taking it anymore and they want to go to a home they have never seen before. (Because it has to be better than carry bags of dirt all your life? Who knows?) They construct enough coracles to carry everyone out of skins, ropes, and the bag they used to carry dirt. There is no mention that the Thracians were upset, unhappy at loosing their slaves or tried to stop them. In only 7 days, they managed to get from Greece to Eire and then drove out the Fomorians who must have re-invaded and settled sometime during the last 200 years. The Land, Sea and Sky responded to the call of the Firbolg when they drove the Fomorians into scattered tribes all over the isle. Having slogged through all of this, some of them leave for Britain after the battle. How they knew their cousins were there I have no idea.

The Nemedians who went north returned to invade disguised as the Tuatha De Dannan, the fifth wave of invaders. In an extremely ironic twist, the Firbolg were driven into exile by their cousins and went to live with the Fomorians, their erstwhile enemies. The First Battle of Moytura has happened and now, it is time to have the second one and fight the Fomorians in the second battle of Moytura. There are 3 groups in Eire at this point and 2 out of 3 hate the Tuatha De, 2 out of 3 hate the Fomorians and 2 out of 3 hate the Firbolg. This is important to remember and there will be a test.

First and foremost, Tailltu was a Firbolg. Yep, she was one of the original inhabitants of Eire and one of the enemies of the Tuatha de’. It could be argued that the Firbolg were the beings of Ireland in whom the elemental powers of Land, Sea and Sky were invested as they were descended from the Nemedians, who were driven out of Ireland by the Fomorians. Every incident of a Firbolg appearing has them using magickal powers that can be related to one of the Three Realms. The Fomorians are shown as having the same powers.

We can only guess where the Firbolg learned this, perhaps during their exile in Greece? A more ancient source perhaps? But as descendants of the Nemedians, they were, arguably, the rightful original inhabitants of Ireland of course so were the Tuatha de. On their return invasion of Eire, they had magickal artifacts to help them along.

If this is the case, what powers did Tailltu have? She was invested with the powers of the Earth. Her father was Magmor, King of Spain [1]. When she married Eochaid Mac Eric she brought an immense dowry with her, and she became the queen of the Firbolg since Eochaid was the king of the Firbolg at the time of the First Battle of Moytura. Money and possessions being associated with the Land and prosperity, the connections should be obvious.

One of the most obvious reasons for Tailltu being a Goddess of the Land is the story of her death.

“…. Great that deed that was done with the axe’s help by Tailtiu, the reclaiming of meadowland from the even wood by Tailtiu daughter of Magmor.

“When the fair wood was cut down by her, roots and all, out of the ground, before the year’s end it became Bregmag, it became a plain blossoming with clover. Her heart burst in her body from the strain beneath her royal vest; not wholesome, truly, is a face like the coal, for the sake of woods or pride of timber.

“Long was the sorrow, long the weariness of Tailtiu, in sickness after heavy toil; the men of the island of Erin to whom she was in bondage came to receive her last behest. She told them in her sickness (feeble she was but not speechless) that they should hold funeral games to lament her – zealous the deed.

“About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lugnasad of Lug; round her grave from that Monday forth is held the chief Fair of noble Erin. White-sided Tailtiu uttered in her land a true prophecy, that so long as every prince should accept her, Erin should not be without perfect song. ” [2]

From this we can learn a few things:

  1. Her clearing of the forest of Bregmag, allowed it to be fertile for the people coming into the area, the Tuatha de’ Dannan. This was the act of a goddess of the Land. No other could have cleared all the trees, roots and stones from the area the Forest had inhabited. She apparently knew that the Firbolg would be defeated by the Tuatha de’ Dannan and prepares the way.
  2. She sacrificed her life to the Land, in classic style of the Gods and Kings. In many myths, the god and/or king was tied to the land and at some point (such as the myths of Bran, Arthur, Christ and John BarleyCorn and more directly in the myth of Bres, and his health affecting the health of the Land) the person so bound may be called upon to die to ensure the fertility of the land. This could be the beginning of the Irish cycle of these myths.
  3. Thanks to those who came afterwards, like Patrick and other Christian Missionaries, the rulers of Ireland apparently forgot her. This is amply demonstrated by the “Troubles” that have been plaguing Northern Ireland for the last 200 years.
  4. When the Tuatha de’ Dannan defeated the Firbolg in the First Battle of Moytura, one can conceive that she is a hostage for her people’s good behavior since she is their queen and has given her word of honor to obey their rule.

According to some references [3] this forest was close to the center of Ireland, Uisnech. If that is the case, then there is a certain symmetry in the celebrations of Lughnasdh. Looking at one reference [4] one sees that in other times there was a tenancy for the celebration to be held on a mound. Legend has it that this was because not only did the mound of Uisnech overlook most of the Land, but supposedly Tailltu was buried beneath it in the area called Tailltenn.

From there she could overlook the entire land of Ireland. Thus she could oversee the entire fertility of Land.

In this role of Goddess of Fertility, one could say that in fostering Lugh as she did, that she also oversaw the fertility of the next generation. With her fosterage of Lugh, as in Manannan Mac Lyr’s fosterage of him, Lugh probably learned the secrets of the Land. It could be argued that Lugh was ritually tied to the land by Tailltu at this point. If this is the case, then like many kings to come after him, the Il Dana was truly blessed in the same manner as future kings, being one with multiple realms.

A parallel of this could be seen in the myth of Pwyll who was tied to both Anwyn (the Sky) and his own realm of Gwynned (the Land). One can also see this same cycle appearing in the Arthurian myths later, in which the health of the King affected the health of the land and vice versa.

There are also some other connections that crop up when this myth is studied. It is possible that Tailltu gave her hatred of the Fomorians to Lugh as she was raising Lugh. She would not be the first parent to do so. It is also interesting that Lugh is the child of all the previous racial groups of Ireland. By this I mean, that he had a Tuatha de’ Dannan father (Cian, son of Diancecht), a Fomorian for a mother, (Ethene, daughter of Balor One-eye). He was raised by a child of Llyr in Manannan Mac Llyr and a Firbolg, Tailltu. He was literally the child of all three cultures, having the genetics of one strain of Nemedian, and raised by another strain, and fathered by the conquerors of the Nemedians. From this it can be argued that Lugh was destined to conquer all of Ireland in his lifetime, as he did.

Two fosterages were completely normal in Celtic society. It was the custom of the nobility of Ireland to foster out their children to others to fill out their education, and to allow a parent figure (the foster parent) to discipline a child without familial ties coming into it. This also created stronger ties between clans, families and countries. Lugh’s first fosterage was to Manannan Mac Llyr when he was young. If you read the myth literally, he was fostered to Manannan from the time he was born until he was about to enter Puberty. During that time he learned the skills that would make him the Il Dana. His second fosterage was with Tailltu from the time he was 14 until he could carry arms and present himself to the court at Tara. [5]

The majority of the myths revolving around Tailltu and Lugh have their origins in the series of myths in the Book of Invasions. However, Robert Graves has another theory to present. [6]

“The Irish tradition that they were held in memory of one Tailte, Lugh’s dead foster-mother, is late and misleading. The games, which in early mediaeval times were so well-frequented that the chariots occupied six miles of road, were marked by Tailtean (or Teltown) marriages in honor of Lugh and his capricious bride. These were trial marriages and lasted ‘for a year and a day’, that is, for 365 days, and could be dissolved only by an act of divorce performed in the place where they had been celebrated.”

Apparently Graves considers the games to be of more modern origin. He cites no references to support this, but it’s plain that he feels these games date to the 1300-1400’s.

And once again, we see that Lughnasdh is a time to ensure fertility of the Land and the People.

Edain McCoy says in his article about Lammas that the name Lughnasdh translates to “Lugh’s Wedding”, and there are multiple sources that agree with this translation. It’s debatable whether or not these translations came after Edain’s publication of this, or before [7].

Regardless, one feature of the Tailltian games is a “Tailltean marriage”. In this rite, only performed at Lughnasdh, a couple who wishes to marry, but wants the option of being able to dissolve it with no strings attached, would be married. This marriage only lasted for a year and a day, and it was done to ensure the fertility of the couple, to make sure that both of them were capable of having a child. If not, then the marriage was dissolved the next Lughnasdh and the went their separate ways. [8]

This was apparently so common that they did not bother to call the Priest, and they were still being practiced in the 1500’s. “Indeed, such ceremonies were usually solemnized by a poet, bard, or shanachie” according to Mike Nichols in his article [9].

There are many sites out there with excellent information on not only the rites of Lughnasdh and Lammas, but also corroborating history and interesting ideas on some traditional things to do. [10]

Just a few more pieces of information to add to the body of knowledge on this oft-forgotten goddess. Just remember, Lughnasdh is not about Lugh’s death, although his strength does wax from this point onward, but about the death of Tailltu’s strength, and her sacrifice to renew the land’s strength.

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[1] Tailtiu

[2] From The fair of Tailtiu

[3] Now, about those Human Sacrifices (paragraph starting “In Celtic religion the center…”)

[4] Clann Coille na Gealaiche Rituals Festival – Lughnasadh

[5] Entry in the Encyclopedia Mythica Tailtiu

[6] “The White Goddess”, Robert Graves. Noonday Press 1995 reprint p 302

[7] Festivals and Sabbats

[8] Lughnasadh, aka Lammas and Lammas – Lughnasadh

[9] ibid

[10] Two such resources are at Lughnasadh – Lammas and Lammas; Activities, Ideas, Recipes and Correspondences

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