“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.”Metrical Dindshenchas
Cover art by Thien Bao
Tailtiu is an Irish Goddess associated with agriculture and the harvest and thus abundance. Her name is said to mean “well formed, beautiful.” She was certainly an exceptional woman. We know that she is associated with tillage, grain, corn and clover and with peace and alliances and marriage. What we know of her shows us that she had grit and stamina and was industrious and hardworking. She was an exceptional wife and partner and a loving, influential mother. We also know her to be self-sacrificing, paying the ultimate price, the giving of her life in the pursuit of her labours.
Our first encounter with Tailtiu comes from the Book of Invasions; (Leabhar Gabhála) which gives us an account of the settlers/invaders of Ireland. The narrative traces the history of Ireland back to Noah’s granddaughter Cessair, the first woman into Ireland who arrived forty days before the Flood. It elucidates on the arrival of subsequent settlers: Parthalon, Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann and lastly the Milesians. It became the standard history of Ireland (seanchas) as recorded by medieval scholars.
Tailtiu was a lady of high status as daughter of, and wife to a king, and foster mother to the deity Lugh. It is clear from the accounts we have of her, that she was very highly regarded; her husband named their capital after her and her foster son Lugh honoured her by establishing both a harvest festival and funeral games dedicated to her. These games known as the Tailten Games are said to have inspired the Greeks to create the Olympics.
Her father, the gentle Magmor, was a King of Spain and consequently Tailtiu came into her marriage with a significant independent income, not only that she also had at her disposal an arsenal of magical tools and an axe in particular; “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.” Magmor translates as ‘Great Plain’ making her a daughter of the earth itself. We know that she was industrious, hardworking and self-sacrificing, levelling the plains of Ireland, reclaiming meadows from overgrown forests and making them ripe for tillage and rich with clover. In fact the symbol we most associate with St Patrick, that of the shamrock, was first associated with Tailtiu.
She was married to Eochaid mac Eirc who was the last king of the Fomorian people. As a race of supernatural beings, the Fomorians whose name translates as ‘from beneath the sea’ are described as having dominion over the forces of nature, notably the more destructive ones, including winter, crop-blight, and plague. They were said to have the elemental powers of Land, Sea and Sky. Some of that race were considered ugly, others, exceptionally gorgeous. They had the capacity to change in appearance also and to morph into animals etc. Tailtiu’s husband was considered a fair and just king, “No rain fell during his kingship, but only the dew; there was no year without harvest. Falsehood was banished from Ireland during his time, and he it was who first established the rule of justice there.” One assumes Tailtiu was influential in this, dedicated as she proved herself to be to the harmony and survival of her people.
Teltown in Co Meath, (as gaeilge Tailten) close to Tara was their capital, named thus to honour his wife. During their ten year reign, Ireland was invaded by another supernatural race the Tuatha Dé Danann, Eric resisted the invaders in the first Battle of Magh Tuiredh, but alas perished, becoming the first king to be killed with a weapon. Tailtiu survived. In the aftermath of that mighty battle, Tailtiu visited the battlefield and created a plain, which within a year was covered with clover. She brought life where destruction reigned, and hope after the despair of war.
In ancient Ireland sovereignty and the land were closely associated. The ability of the land to bear crops and fruit was directly linked to the survival of the people. The goddess of the land bestows kinship with the ritual of kinship seeing the monarch ceremoniously wedding the goddess. Furthermore, alliances of kinship between peoples were borne witness to by the goddess. She is most associated with the Plain of Brega which lies between the Boyne and the Liffey rivers. This area is strewn with sacred ritual sites like Tara, Brug na Bóinne (Newgrange), and Knowth. Teltown remained a seat of power during the reign of the Tuatha De Danann. “When the fair wood was cut down by her, roots and all, out of the ground, before the year’s end it became Bregmag, a plain blossoming with clover.”
She married a second time an Eochu Garb of the Tuatha De Danann, also called Duach the Dark and she was given Lugh, as a mark of trust, one of their own, a high-born son, to foster. The four festivals that mark the beginning of each season in Ireland are Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. The period of Lughnasa begins on the first of August, marking the beginning of the harvest which includes the months of August, September and October, ending at the festival of Samhain/Halloween, on the first of November. Harvest time signals the death of the growing season and the seeds of rebirth. All of this sovereignty is born in Tailtiu and the festival of Lughnasa was held at Teltown. It was a time for contests of strength and skill, and a favoured time for contracting marriages and a peace and a truce were declared at the festival, all feuds and conflicts had to be set aside.
The festival of Lughnasa was instigated by Lugh to honour his foster mother Tailtiu. Lugh was Chief Ollam of Ireland, the chief bard of literature and history over all of the bards of Ireland and it had the same status as that of the High King. He was also an ‘Il Dana’ or master of all trades and from this we can deduce that Tailtiu’s influence over his education and development had been vast and comprehensive. He defeated Balor in the second Battle of Magh Tuiredh and thus ensuring the survival of the Tuatha De people. It is said that she was instrumental in the shaping of Lugh, his thoughts, ideals and skills level.
Tailtiu is said to have died of exhaustion, on the first of August, “About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lugnasad of Lug”; She died literally, after clearing forests to create the plains of Ireland for agriculture; “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.” Lugh established a harvest festival and funeral games, Áenach Tailteann, honouring her last wishes. “She told them in her sickness (feeble she was but not speechless) that they should hold funeral games to lament her – zealous the deed.” They were the forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.
Such was the regard that Lugh had for this woman, who suffered greatly in her endeavours to make Ireland a fertile and productive land; “Long was the sorrow, long the weariness of Tailtiu.” This was no ordinary woman and the men of Ireland flocked to her deathbed to hear of her last request “…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 that “so long as every prince should accept her, Erin should not be without perfect song.” She had prepared the way for the Tuatha De Dannan, sacrificing her life to the fertility of the land. She dies to give her people life.
These celebrations reputedly took place on a mound of Uisneach beneath which Tailtiu was interred. Uisneach is the spot in Ireland from which you can overlook all of the provinces and thus she ensures the fertility of the entire island. In her fosterage of Lugh she also oversaw the fertility of the next generation of Kings of Ireland.
Lughnasa is a time to ensure fertility of the land and of the people and is essentially about honouring the death of Tailtiu’s strength and her sacrifice to renew the land’s strength. It was forbidden, to ride through her fort without alighting; and “forbidden, when leaving it for a meal, to look at it over the left shoulder.” Lughnasa is a harvest festival that gives thanks for the bounty of the land and the wherewithal to gather it in.
One feature of the Taillten games is a ‘Tailltian marriage’. In this rite, only performed at Lughnasdh, couples could embark on a marriage that lasted for a year and a day only. It ensured the fertility of the couple and if unconsummated the marriage was dissolved the following year and the couple parted without acrimony. Such ceremonies were often solemnized by the Bard.
The games lasted for two weeks and continued down to modern times. New laws were enacted and the bards presented their bardic offerings. There was a ceremonial cutting of the first sheafs of corn, berries and nuts were gathered in and there was feasting, dancing and merriment and bonfires. Echoes of these traditions continue at the Puck Fair in Kilorglin and the Matchmaking Festival in Lisdoonvarna, both of which happen in August. We know that the Greeks came here to witness the festival and it is thought they inspired the Olympic Games. Legend tells us that St. Patrick visited Teltown during the festival and he received a warm welcome and performed his first public baptism there, recognised by royal edict, and hence in the ancient Irish Calendars, the fifth of April is assigned ‘the beginning of the Baptism of Erin’.
Tailtiu’s descendants are responsible for the great Fomorian fort constructions on the Aran Islands, the Isle of Man, Inismurray and Tory Island. We must see her essence in the hills, mountains, plains and forests of Ireland. Tailtiu is of the earth and to the earth she returns. She implores us to enjoy the fruits of the earth but also to protect the earth for future generations.
Gwynn, E., trans., “Poem 33: Tailtiu,” The Metrical Dindshenchas, http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T106500D/index.html Binchy, D.A.,
‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara,’ Ériu 18 (1958) 113-138. Lebor Gabal Erenn.
The Book of Invasions Translated from the Book of Leinster. Edited by R.A.S. Macalister for The Irish Texts Society.
MacKillop, James (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280120-1 pp.309-10, 395-6, 76, 20
Pagan Portals – Gods and Goddesses of Ireland: A Guide to Irish Deities – Kindel Edition
© Máire de Bhál August 4th 2019