The Earth Goddess Tailtiu

By Suzanne Corbie

In the week of Lughnasadh, or Lammas, the ancient cross quarter fire festival of the first harvest, when the ripening grain is cut, I write of the Irish Goddess of Sovereignty, a mother earth goddess, called Tailtiu.

Tailltiu was miume, or foster mother, to the sovereign Irish god Lugh and whilst we know little of her life, we do know about her death, as the Taltean games were said to have been initiated by Lugh, in her honour. Her myth tells of how she cleared a great forest in order for the Irish to plant the first fields. It was a superhuman task that even though she was a goddess, it exhausted her and on completion, she lay down at her castle and died. She was said to have prophesised before her death that as long as Lughnasadh was celebrated, there would always be music in Ireland.

The Tailltiu games known as the Irish Olympics, lasted longer than the Greek Olympics – a thousand years – at a hill in co. Meath that bears her name, Tailltiu or the English version of Teltown.  Archaeological records indicate it was a pre-Iron Age ritual site and certainly it has been the site of the great national celebration of the First Harvest in Ireland for many years.

It was common practice to speed up the harvesting process by ‘burning the straw’. This involved reaping the corn, wetting and setting the sheaves alight so that the straw and chaff were burned off and the corn dried, ready for grinding. The month of July, leading up to this harvest was commonly known as ‘Hungry July’ so the time between reaping and grinding was swift and was passed as an act of parliament in Dublin in 1634 and continued into the 18th century.

Tailltiu was the last queen of the Fir Bolg, a Queen of Tara, said to be the daughter of Mag Mor, the King of Spain and one of the fourth group of people to settle in Ireland and more ancient than the Tuatha de  Danaan – Tailltiu is often seen as the link between the two peoples. Her myth tells us that she slept with Eochu Garb, the son of Dui Dall of the Tuatha De Danann and gave her his son Lugh to foster. The miume or foster mother, was an ancient role that was taken seriously and gave the child all the rights and status of a blood child and as Lugh, could not marry his foster mother, in celebrating the sacrifice of the harvest, which was mythically, her death, he honoured the connection.

From the Lebor Gabala Erenn, a famous history of Ireland;

Tailltiu died in Tailltiu and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lugh. With gessa and feats of arms were they performed, a fortnight before Lugnasad and a fortnight after.’  

Tailltiu is a great earth mother goddess. Through her labour, the fields were cleared and thus the first harvests were ‘born’.  So whilst she is celebrated, she is also mourned, quite appropriate for an earth goddess, (Demeter mourned her daughter Kore who descends to the Underworld each autumn and returns each spring) and Lugh is said to have sung her death song every year.

Lugh is, as Osiris and Dumuzi before him, the dying and reborn god, the grain in the fields that is cut down for the harvest. Lughnasadh itself, as well as the harvest, celebrates Lugh’s triumph to gain the secrets of the harvest from his opposite, Balor, who when defeated offers a harvest every quarter but Lugh barters for the secrets of an abundant harvest and gains them for the people.

There are various goddesses connected with the Lughnasadh meeting places rather than the celebrations themselves suggesting several earth goddesses whose sacred landscape was protected and ensured a bountiful harvest for all. Whilst Tailltiu dies to ensure the bounty of the land, Lugh often kills another to secure the harvest and thus the myth of the sacrificed god as well as goddess,  runs true for this time in Ireland.

The sacrifice is not without pain. In Irish folklore, the month of August is known as Bron Trogain, the month of sorrow, perhaps the defeat of the Underworld spirits or that the grain crop must be cut down, together with the spirits that nourished them.

The lesson of the harvest invites honest reflection; considering what we are grateful for, including what we take for granted, acknowledging the harvests in our lives that came to flower but were not meant to fruit, releasing bitter or empty harvests and perhaps offering a song to the harvests to come, that they may, through our sustained efforts and hard work,  bring about a good harvest, that benefits us all.

I am taking this time as an opportunity to petition Tailltiu for the sacrilege of the vandalism and destruction of the land and in particular, the  sacred sites in Ireland – feel free to join me:

I call upon Tailltiu, daughter of Mag Mar and Queen of the Fir Bolg people and Tara; miume of the great god Lugh Lamhfhada, the Long Arm.

I give thanks to her for the land she has sustained, for the knowledge that was gained and the memory that is not lost.

I ask for her protection for the sacred land against those that would profane and for support of those who are working hard to care and guard against its destruction.

And I offer my own words and deeds to support this petition in any way I am able, that we may all know and remember the history of our lands, the stories of our ancient peoples and the myths of ancient times, with which our own human experience, is all the greater for.

Blessings of the harvest to Tailltiu and her foster son, Lugh of the Long Arm!