As Tira’s previous article has shown, Tailtu was widely celebrated in Ireland in ancient texts and muths, and as the patroness of the Great Games of Telltown that took place at the beginning of August, the Celtic Lughnasa festival. In fact Lughnasa should perhaps be more accurately named ‘Tailtunasa’, as it was held by Lugh in honour of his foster-mother! Because she was the wife of, firstly, Eochaidh mac Erc, the last of the mythical Fir Bolg people, and subsequently Eochaidh Garbh of the victorious Tuatha de Danaan, this makes her a Goddess of sovereignty, or well-being of the Land.
Her story contains within it a memory of a very ancient Goddess of creation, who gave the gift of agriculture to the people. She came to the plains of Meath and cleared the great forest of Coill Chuan, creating a great fertile plain that was covered with clover. She died as a result of her labours, but before her death asked that the cleared plain be named after her and that she should be buried there. The men of Ireland gathered at her death-bed and she asked them to hold funeral-games to lament her. She died on the Calends of August (‘Luain Loga Lughnasa’, the word Lughnasa meaning the month of August in Gaelic) and was buried at the place where the Games were then held. She may therefore have been the original Goddess of the harvest, with her spirit remaining in the last sheaf of corn that was cut down annually at the Harvest Festival.
As we know, the place where this myth was originally enacted was named after her – Tailte/Teltown in Leinster in Ireland, and it became the origin of the whole Lughnasa ritual. The Great Games of Ireland took place here into medieval times (‘Oenach Tailten’), in memory of this Earth Goddess from the mists of Ireland’s past.
Other festivals were held at different places as well: in Ulster it was celebrated at Emhain Macha, and also at the Hill of Tara in Leinster. At Lyon in France the Romans adapted the Festival and established the imperial cult of Augustus at Lugdunum on 1st Aug 12 BCE.
Long after the Games of Lughnasa had ceased in Ireland, Tailtu’s festival was remembered in tradition, and the significance of the date, at the end of July and beginning of August, remained. There are records of fairs being held at this time, when offerings of the first sheaves of corn that had been cut were made to the ‘fairies’, who may be a latter-day version of Tailtu herself. The offering of these tithes were made, not near the corn-plots, but were carried to the tops of hills. In return, the people were able to pick bilberries that grew wild on the hillside. This custom of going to a local hilltop to pick bilberries or blaeberries at this time is one of the most widespread in Ireland. In her book The Festival of Lughnasa, (Oxford University Press, 1962) Maire MacNeill gives dozens of examples. For example, at Cullen in the Kerry hills, near the Paps of Anu there was a great fair on July 25th, the Latiaran fair, named after the local Goddess-Saint celebrated there. Gooseberries and blackcurrants were gathered (in place of bilberries which did not grow plentifully there) and there were decks for dancing, with many dances taking place throughout the day and into the evening. The next day marked the beginning of the harvest.
This gathering of the bilberries and its association with harvest throughout Ireland is clearly linked to the fruitfulness of the Earth Mother, a bounty of the Goddess. There are many reports of flower customs, flowers gathered on hills, woven into garlands, wreathed in young girls’ hair, worn on clothes, and strewn on the summit of hills.
Lughnasa was thus a time of great joy and celebration in the season’s round, when the fullness of the harvest began to be gathered in and the people went to hill tops to gather fruit and celebrate. The Earth Mother, the great Goddess Tailtu stands over it all, even when Her name had been forgotten.
In my native country of Cornwall, there are the fragmentary remains of a Lughnasa Fair at Morvah in West Penwith, only a few miles from where I live. Both of them record the celebration of Morvah Fair, which took place in the village, during which many of the youngsters would go out to gather ‘hurts’ (whortleberries) on the nearby hill of Carn Gulva. William Bottrell recounts the legend of the arrival of a giant called Jack the Tinkard with an impenetrable black bull-hide and a hammer. He challenges the incumbent hero Tom, but they make friends, though Jack kills another giant who lives at Morvah and becomes the possessor of his domain. Finally, Jack marries Tom’s daughter, and it is their wedding that is celebrated every year at the Morvah Fair. The folklorist Robert Hunt adds that the giant on 1st August would “walk up to Bosprennis Croft, and there perform some magical rites, which were either never known, or they have been forgotten”. He then adds: “At length the giant died, but the gathering on the 1st August has never been given up, or rather the day shifts and is made to agree with Morvah Feast, which is held on the first Sunday in August”. William Bottrell tells a similar story, but places the celebration on ‘the first day of the harvest moon’.
So what do we have here? A Feast that took place on 1st August that was the festival of Lughnasa. The date may have originally have been fixed by the new moon, and some researchers have suggested that all the Celtic quarter-days were originally lunar ones. The arrival of Jack the Tinkard with his magic bull-hide and his hammer, and his ousting of the Morvah giant, make him a figure that has a lot in common with the Irish God Lugh.
The performing by Jack the Tinkard of ancient magic rites took place at Bosporthennis Croft, under which hill our Goddess-celebrating Group have undertaken our Lammas/Tailtu ritual now for some 20 annual years! In fact, we chose this spot before I even knew about the association of the hill with the Morvah Fair, perhaps an unconscious piece of channeling by the Goddess herself! Without being consciously aware of the ancient links, we brought the Goddess back to Morvah and once again celebrated Her at the place of a Lughnasa gathering.
“We met up after lunch in early August to make our flower crowns full of the early August montbretia and beautiful sunflowers and poppies. We then went off to find a field that had some unharvested corn, and asked the Goddess is She would mind if we cut a little from the edge of the field. She was perfectly happy for us to do that, so we hoped the farmer would be too! Then we set off for Morvah, and, parking outside the village set off to walk across the fields to the Celtic Beehive Hut at Bosporthennis. We had a lot to carry: ‘props’ for the ritual, musical instruments and a sumptuous sacred feast, so we were sweating a bit by the time we got there!
It was now mid-afternoon when we arrived, so the first thing we did was to mark a labyrinth out with flour and red thread in the grass. This was a classic seven-circuit Cretan labyrinth shape, and not as easy to do in rough grass as it sounds! However, eventually it all came together, and we stood back and admired our handiwork and hoped that the cows in a nearby field would not come in and trample it all down!
Then we closed the circle, and called Tailtu in with a chant: “Summer, summer, milk of the heiffers, we will bring the harvest in, Yellow summer, brilliant daisies, we are calling Tailtu in”.
Tailtu now came forward and spoke of having come from the hills above with the gift of grain for the women. She was wearing a golden skirt and a dark red top and carrying an earthy coloured bag. She made Her way to the centre of the labyrinth, while the women watched from outside. Once there, she displayed her abundance, as she took from the bag vegetables, grapes, tomatoes, wine, strawberries, peaches, melon and nuts. She removed her top, then squeezed the ripe strawberries into her mouth so that the juice ran down over her bare breasts. The women were transfixed! She then showed them the miracle of bread, by producing sheaves of wheat, stripping it into a basket, winnowing it to remove the husks, and then pulling out from under her skirt a newly baked granary loaf with sheaves of wheat coming out of it. It was the gift of the harvest and the teaching of the making of the food from the grain. At this, there was much rejoicing, singing and dancing by the women standing around.
Then Tailtu invited each woman in turn into the labyrinth, and each made her way round the circuits and back until she reached the centre and came face-to-face with Tailtu. While each woman was doing this, the others sang softly outside:
“Round and round the maze we go, Waking the Earth from Her dream below, Waking the maker, shaper of green, Open our eyes to the ancient dream, Born on the wheel of the season’s green”.
When each woman in turn reached the centre, she spoke to Tailtu of those things in her life which she wished to harvest from the summer, and those things that she now wished to leave behind in the centre of the labyrinth. Tailtu blessed her, offered her a piece of the bread to eat and some strawberry mead to drink. Meanwhile, one of the women who had been around and back out the labyrinth, and who was to carry the Goddess at the Autumn Equinox and Samhain, quietly left the field, taking the scythe with her.
The last woman left the labyrinth, but Tailtu remained inside, sipping strawberry mead and singing quietly and happily to herself about the fruitfulness of the earth and all she had grown. Attention was still on Tailtu, and many of us had no idea of what was to come next. Suddenly, a dark shadow appeared in the corner of the field, and a black hooded figure came swiftly across the grass, scything it down as She came. It was the first brief appearance of the Hag, the Crone, the Goddess of the winter to come. The Hag cut right across the labyrinth, and Tailtu, who was looking the other way, was suddenly surprised by Her appearance. She faltered for a moment, and then from deep within her memory, a look of recognition came into her eyes. She knew that this was her dark Sister, the Goddess of the Winter, making a brief appearance, like a sudden cloud over the sun on a hot summer’s day. And more than that, She knew that she had to offer herself, her grain, for sacrifice, so that the endless cycle of the wheel of the year could continue. She bowed Her head, and the Hag placed the sharp steel of the scythe on Her neck for a brief moment, before hurrying on and disappearing from the field.
There was an audible gasp from the women, as Tailtu sunk back into the Earth, but with the Hag’s leaving, the cloud passed and the sun came out again. Tailtu pulled Herself back up, still the Goddess of the Harvest, but with the knowledge that Her time with us was now only a brief one. She came out of the labyrinth, and we all gathered around Her, with our grains and grasses and corn and flowers and ribbons we had brought. She then helped us make a ‘Corn Dolly’, a Corn Mother whom we decorated. When she was finished Tailtu breathed life into Her, and then left her for us, a token of remembrance of Her and Her visit and Her gifts. Tailtu now said goodbye and left, and we carried the Corn Mother into the Beehive Hut, where there was a small recess in one of the walls, which may originally have been the shrine. We placed her in the recess and said blessings over Her, thanking the Goddess for all the bounty of the harvest and the richness in our lives. Then we left the Beehive Hut, and the woman who had carried Tailtu returned, and we all joined together in a sumptuous summer picnic, as the sun began to sink lower in the sky. We had been at the site for a time out of time, but now as we came back to everyday reality, we realised it had been nearly six hours since we had set off! We opened the circle, gathered our stuff together and left, full of the amazingly deep and powerful experience of our Lammas ceremony.”