[This is the first in a short series of essays about my Lughnasadh celebration this year. You can read my unedited ritual outline here.]
Following in the grand tradition of me celebrating the High Days nearly a week after the actual date in question, this past Tuesday I finally sat down and observed the August Feast. In Gaelic circles this is known as Lughnasadh; those who have passing knowledge of Wiccan-related paths may also recognize this date as Lammas (Loaf-mass). Wikipedia has some things to say about the holiday, as does ADF, the Druidry group with whom I’m completing my Dedicant Path. And, if you’d like a whole slew of Lugh articles I’ve been collecting over the past few weeks, you can trot on down to my wiki and click to your heart’s content.
What really got to me, though, was the reason Lugh established this holiday to begin with. Lughnasadh, a celebration of first fruits, the grain harvest, and a time of athletic competitions (hi, Olympics!), was founded to be a festival in honor of Tailtiu, Lugh’s foster mother. Fostering is a very important concept in Celtic mythology; oftentimes, the foster parents are more important in the child’s upbringing than the biological ones. Lugh’s foster father is perhaps the most famous foster parent of all: Manannán mac Lir. Tailtiu, on the other hand, has mostly been lost to the mists of time – or to the mists of my shoddy research skills; I could only dig up so much information on Her. She is Lugh’s foster mother; She is married to the last Fir Bolg king; She is a goddess of the land, fertility, and agriculture; She transformed the soil of Ireland so that humans could farm it and live off the land. This transformation took so much out of Herself that upon completion, She died from exhaustion, having given Her life to the Irish peoples. In honor of this sacrifice Her foster son proclaimed a feast day of competitions, boastings, and harvest celebrations at the time when the first wheats and fruits in the field were ready for consumption.
Tailtiu is a lady of the land, a goddess Who, if I had to wager an educated guess, was much like countless other Celtic earth or water goddesses linked with particular hills, springs, wells, or forests. Some of these, like Danu and Áine, have become popular goddesses to call on as the Earth Mother during ADF rites. (Side note: While ADF theology doesn’t have one singular Mother Goddess who connects us with the earth, it is still important for us to honor an Earth Mother before the beginning of any ritual.) Other goddesses remain a mystery, leaving us often with only a name, a place, and, if we’re lucky, an association or two. In Tailtiu’s case, we have an entire myth – albeit quite short as Irish myths tend to go – we can work with. And this myth is one of sacrifice.
I’m still not sure why Tailtiu’s myth resounds with me so strongly, though I think I just have a thing for sacrificial deities. Which I first found Paganism through Ásatrú over six years ago, I found myself fascinated with the Norse Baldur, who dies for reals and doesn’t show up again until the twilight of the gods. When my focus shifted south and east, I all but fell in love with Dionysus. The first I read of Him was in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in the 8th grade and I still remember how Ms. Hamilton described him as the most human of the gods because every year he died with the destruction of dead grape vines at the end of the harvest season. And of course, I would be terribly amiss if I didn’t mention my quiet, joyous love of Persephone, Whom I only speak to officially twice a year (if that), but still reminds me of the strength and dignity one needs when returning, once again, to the depths of the Underworld.
But Persephone is Kore, the Holy Girl; Dionysus and Baldur, though I believe fathers Themselves, come across as gods full of youth, vitality, and life. Their deaths have the added undertone of grief that comes from a life taken too soon. There is power in their sacrifice because of that life that cannot be spent normally, among Their kin. For Persephone and Dionysus at least, this sacrifice is cyclical, and even for Baldur there is hope for return after Ragnarok, when His rent world is made anew. They are the sacrificial gods Who then return, the gods Who in Their deaths promise us some continuation of life in ours.
But where is Tailtiu, the goddess who is Mother and Wife and Divine Queen, but no longer near maidenhood? Where is Tailtiu, whose myth seems utterly rooted in time – at the point when trees were felled to make room for pastures and farmland – with a beginning and a tragic end? Where is Tailtiu, whose foster son Lugh and His son Cúchulainn have become two of the most famed warriors and patrons in all Irish legend?
Is She dead? I ask this frankly and sincerely. Can gods truly die? Is there some way for Their life force to be so fully altered that it no longer resembles that of a Divine Person? Tailtiu worked the forests and fields of Ireland with such vigor and ceaseless devotion, it broke Her heart and She died. She is not Herself the fields, or the flowers, or the fruit, or the wheat. She is not the blooming of the earth, the ripening of the fields, the harvest, the land lying fallow in the winter. There is no cycle for Her, no hope of return. Lughnasadh celebrates Her death, not Her resurrection. She died so that others may live. Those others? They weren’t Lugh. They weren’t even other Divine Personages. They were us. Mortals, who have need of the land so we can thrive, so we can settle down and build cities and get down to all the things that need doing that aren’t hunting and gathering and running from saber-toothed cave bears. In a way, now that I’ve had time to muse over it, Tailtiu’s sacrifice really marks the mythical beginning of Irish civilization.
During my Lughnasadh ritual I recited a hymn of praise fo Tailtiu, which I phrased completely in the past tense. You knew, You gave, You loved, You had. And after this hymn, as I offered up cornmeal in sacrifice, I began to pray aloud and found myself almost at tears. I always wonder if the gods hear me and, if they answer, if I’m able to hear Them in return. I’ve never thought They might not hear me because They’re legitimately no longer there.
Tailtiu, foster mother of Lugh
Your grace and your love knew no bounds
You gave life to us as you gave to your son
You gave bread to us as you gave to your son
You gave land to us as you gave to your son
It is through your sacrifice the fields might be fertile
The flowers might bud and blossom and bloom
The sun and the earth might unite in life.
Tonight, I honor your sacrifice.
I honor the commitment to your son.
I honor the love you had for generations,
Lovers, fighters, warriors, priestesses,
Children you would never meet.
And yet your compassion did not waver
Your loyalty ran deep and true
Your convictions steadfast and mighty.
Tonight, Tailtiu, I honor you.
Hail to Tailtiu, the Lady of Sacrifice. Hail to Tailtiu, the Foster Mother of Us All.