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Tailtiu: Harvest Goddess

by Tira Brandon-Evans

Tailtiu is an Irish Goddess of Sovereignty, an ancient Goddess whose annual funeral games, according to the myth, were instituted by her foster son Lugh. These games were held for more than a thousand years at a hill in Co. Meath that even today bears her name, Tailtiu or, in English, Telltown The name of the festival is Lughnasadh, one of the great fire festivals of ancient and modern Celtic peoples. Even though the Taltean games, sometimes called the Irish Olympics, endured longer than the Greek Olympics we know little of the Goddess for whom they were held. Although modern Pagans tend to associate this festival with the Irish God Lugh, it is in fact dedicated to his foster mother Taillte or Tailtiu. Horses and horse goddess cults were prevalent and extraordinarily important in the Celtic world.

Lughnasad/Tailtu artwork © Geraldine McCarthy
Lughnasad/Tailtu artwork © Geraldine McCarthy

To unravel the mystery of Tailtiu we need to begin with her festival. Lughnasadh is widely regarded as an ancient celebration of the first harvest. First harvest is when the early ripening corn (grain) is cut. It was common, until the 19th century, to hurry the harvesting process by ‘burning the straw’. This was done by reaping the corn and wetting it, after which the sheaves were set alight. In this way the straw and chaff is burned off and the corn quickly dried, and so is ready for grinding right away. The month of July was called ‘Hungry July’, so it is easy to see why the Irish farmers would want to reduce the length of time between reaping and grinding their corn. This practice was proscribed by an act of parliament passed in Dublin in 1634. Nevertheless, burning the straw continued well into the !8th century in some places. It may be that is one of the reasons why Lughnasadh is a fire festival.

Tailtiu/Telltown was the site of the great national celebration of the First Harvest in Ireland. The archaeological record shows that it was a pre-Iron Age ritual site.

Tailtiu’s first importance was as a cemetery: it was one of the chief cemeteries of Ireland according to the old tract, Senchas na Relec in Lebor na Huidhre, and it was one of the chief burial places of the Ulaidh, a tradition which must go back to very ancient times. Stories in the Tain seem to support the tradition.(1)

This would also support the tradition that Tailtiu/Telltown was associated with the Fir Bolg if we agree with the theory that the Fir Bolg were Bronze Age Celts and the Tuatha de Danaan were Iron Age Celts. In addition to its importance as a cemetery, Tailtiu was also a stronghold and a seat of government. The mounds of Tlachtgha, near Athboy (Meath), and the now almost vanished Tailltiu/Telltown in the same county, were not only palace sites, but were important sanctuaries, the resident king being regarded as a divine incarnation.

The extraordinary importance of the great ring fort of Tailtiu is illustrated by the following:

And Eriu was beaten back to Tailltin, and as many of her men as she could hold together; and when she came there she told the people how she had been worsted in the battle, and the best of her men had got their death.(2)

Eriu is the Great Goddess of Sovereignty in Ireland, one of the Tuatha de Danaan, and she chose to make her last stand against the Children of Mil at Tailtiu, the ancient Fir Bolg stronghold. Teltown is the modern name of this site, which is located between Kells and Navan in Co. Meath. The Hill of Tailte, said to be the burial mound of Tailtiu, lies about halfway between Drogheda in the east and Oldcastle in the west. This entire area is a huge ritual landscape. Starting in the east and travelling west along the Boyne River we find: Dowth, Newgrange, Knowth, the Hill of Slane, and Navan. Continuing northwest along the Blackwater we come to the Hill of Tailte, and father west-by-northwest lies the great megalithic cemetery of Sliabh na Caillighe or Hill of the Hag. Southeast of Navan, the Hill of Tara forms the southernmost point of an almost perfect equilateral triangle with Dowth and the Hill of Tailte being the north-eastern and north-western points, respectively.

Tailtiu is said to be the daughter of the King of Spain, but this must be taken in the context of the medieval sources and cannot be regarded as fact. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that an Irish Goddess of Sovereignty would be a native of Spain. In most sources this mythical king of Spain is called simply Mag Mor which means Great Plain. This clearly indicates that Tailtiu was the daughter of the fruitful plain.

The sheaf of the Harvest GoddessThe attributes of an ancient queen or goddess are often lost to us but we may find them reflected in what we are told of her consort, Eochu mac Erc. In this chapter of the Lebor Gabala Erenn we learn that during Eochu mac Erc’s reign the land was fruitful, yielding harvests in every year. Furthermore, Eochu mac Erc was a just king, and he introduced the rule of law into Ireland. After the Battle of Mag Tuired, Tailtiu was married for a second time. In some sources we are told that Lugh gave her in marriage to Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall. Eochu Garb means Eochu the Rough. His father is also called Duach the Dark.

The name Eochaid and its variants – Eochu, Eoachaid, Eocaidh, Eocha, Eoan – is a common royal name. So many kings of Ireland, Scotland and Dal Riada are named Eochaid that one is tempted into wondering if this name was a title. Indeed, Eochaid Ollatair is one of the names of the Dagda. Eochaid derives from the Gaeilge each, and is Irish for horse. There are two undisputed examples of Great Mare Mothers in Insular Celtica: Rhiannon and Macha. Both of these Goddesses are associated with kingship.

Tailtiu was the daughter of the Great Plain and the wife of the Horse Lords. She either cleared a great plain herself, caused her husband to clear it, or was the cause of Lugh’s clearing it. The person doing the clearing of the great plain varies from source to source but in all instances Tailtiu is the reason it is cleared.

If there is any truth at all in the theories that the Great Goddesses of the land were replaced by Gods, then in Tailtiu we may have an example of this. Little is known of this Goddess but what we do know is tantalizing. The bits and pieces tease us into wondering who she was. The fact that her cult, in the form of her funeral games, survived for so long seems to indicate that Tailtiu was an extraordinarily important Goddess.

Her story was told in the ancient Irish annals, Lebor Gabala, etc, and is translated here by Lady Gregory:

While [Lugh] was king, his foster-mother Taillte, daughter of Magh Mor, the Great Plain died. And before her death she bade her husband Duach the Dark, he that built the Fort of the Hostages in Teamhair, to clear away the wood of Cuan, the way there could be a gathering of the people around her grave. So he called to the men of Ireland to cut down the wood with their wide-bladed knives and bill-hooks and hatchets, and within a month the whole wood was cut down. And Lugh buried her in the plain of Midhe, and raised a mound over her, that is to be seen to this day. And he ordered fires to be kindled, and keening to be made, and games and sports to be held in the summer of every year out of respect to her. And the place they were held got its name from her, that is Taillten (Telltown).

This great cleared plain is the fair land of Meath, perfect for raising cattle and horses. Coill Cuan, the place Tailtiu cleared, means Forest Bend and there is a great bend in the Boyne south of the Hill of Tailte. It was here, on this great pasture of clover, that the annual Taltean Games were held during Lughnasadh. These games featured feats of strength, contests involving skill and accuracy with weapons, and bardic competitions. Horseracing was, however, the major feature of these games.

The Hill of Tailte was the centre of the cult of this ancient goddess. Even though the festival is called Lughnasadh, it is clear that the games are in her honour and formed a part of the ritual veneration of Tailtiu. It is of interest that her influence seems to predate the arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan, indicating that her cult may have been established very early, perhaps before the cults of Eriu and Dana. In the genealogy lists, the progenitor of all Fir Bolg kings is Eochaid the Horseman of the Heavens. He is generally supposed to be the male manifestation of Bolg, the Belgae Goddess of Lightning. This association of Tailtiu’s husband Eochu mac Erc with an indisputable Great Mare Mother is evidence that Tailtiu was also a Great Mare Mother.

1. MacNeill, Maire; The Festival of Lughnasa [Oxford, 1962] p320

2. ‘The Battle of Tailltin’ from Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory.

Tira Brandon-Evans is the Founder and Moderator of the Society of Celtic Shamans, editor of Earthsongs: Journal of the Society of Celtic Shamans, and is herself a Faery Shaman. She has written many books, published by Elder Grove Press, and her articles may be found on the website www.faeryshaman.org.