Lammas: Tales of Tailtiu and Lugh the Shining One

August is the time of the first grain harvest, when the golden corn now packed with the nourishing energy of sunlight is ripe and ready for winnowing, and round lush berries start to sweeten on the stem. In Anglo Saxon tradition this festival was known as the ‘feast of the first fruits,’ or ‘loaf mass’ from whence comes the word Lammas. Bread was baked and shared to celebrate the harvest that would ensure survival throughout the winter, and a huge cartwheel was lit and rolled down a hillside to symbolise the beginning of the descent down into the underworld of autumn. [1] The holly king who had defeated the oak king at Summer Solstice now takes on the guise of the sacrificial corn king and effigies of John Barleycorn are burnt on the Lammas fires to symbolise the winnowing, and therefore sacrifice, of the wheat and barley crops. As the wheel of the year turns, birth, life, death and rebirth cycles were experienced as man and nature intimately intertwined.

In Celtic tradition, the festival was named Lughnasa after one of the most well known gods in the Irish pantheon – Lugh the Bright and Shining one. His story and origins are complex and he appears at first glance to have much in common with the other patriarchal gods of the Iron Age such as Zeus, Yahweh and Apollo, all of whom were frequently worshipped on high places and have been associated with the sun and its light giving, logical and guiding qualities. Yet Lugh was never a sun god per se. His most prominent epithet is ‘Samildanach’ which means ‘many skills,’ emphasising the importance placed on the mastery of arts and crafts in the Celtic world, and he was also the owner of magical objects, including the spear that never missed its goal. The stories of his origins tell of a mixing and mingling of lineages and traditions both historical and mythical: he was the son of the Formorian princess Ethne, daughter of the feared giant Balor, and a man named Kian of the Tuatha De Danaan, the rival tribe. Lugh himself decided to fight for the Tuatha De Danaan, who were being unfairly governed by king Balor, his maternal grandfather.

One day appears one day at the palace of king Nuada while the company are feasting and asks to be admitted. The gatekeeper challenges him to name a craft over which he has mastery before he can enter. He says he is a carpenter, then a smith, a warrior, poet, harpist, scientist, physician, sorcerer, sculptor, all in turn, but is met with the answer that his services are not needed as there was already somebody at court who could name each of these skills as their own. However, Lugh’s unique selling point is that nobody but him has mastery over all of them, and it is on this basis he is allowed entry into court.  In due course he became the king of the Tuatha when Nuada lost his hand in battle then died, and the father or patron of many houses in Celtic legend. In the second and final Battle of Mag Tuired, he fulfilled an old prophecy and killed his grandfather by piercing him through his evil eye with a sling shot before cutting off his head. He himself would eventually meet his end at the hill of Uisneach, the naval of Ireland, at the hands of a triad of gods.

Lugh is was said to have instigated the festival of Lughnasa in honour of his foster mother Tialtiu, and it is in her that we meet the personage of the ancient goddess of the land, Sovereignity. Lugh has royal pedigree through his parents, but he is also associated with the mythical realms through his foster parents, Tailtiu, the Earth goddess, and Manannan mac Lir, the Sea god, both said to be older than the Tuatha de Danaan. According to the Book of Invasions, Tailtiu was daughter or Mag Mor, the king of Spain, and she was married to Eochaid mac Eiric of the Fir Bolg.  After their defeat at the hands of the Tuatha de Danaan, she was put into bondage and presumably this is when she became Lugh’s foster mother. However, as a result of the invasion, the crops failed and famine brought misery and death. Tailtiu took action to save the people and taking up an axe, she set about clearing the forest, in some accounts the wood of Cuan, which enabled cultivation and grain planting to take place.[2] She succeeded in bringing the life giving force back to the land, but the burden was too much and she died of exhaustion as a result. In honour of his foster mother and her sacrifice, Lugh instigated the Tailtiu games, similar in scale and importance to the Olympic games of Greece. This was a time when a truce was declared and the people came together in peace and harmony to pass laws, celebrate handfastings and show off their sporting prowess. The festival would last around two weeks and there would be feasting, bull sacrifice, and much dancing.

However, according to more ancient accounts it was Tailtiu alone, whose name means ‘The Great One of the Earth’, who mediated and embodied the authority of the land. After clearing the forest, and once again on her death-bed, she pre-selected her burial spot, today associated with Teltown in County Meath, and decreed herself that funeral games should be held annually here in her honour. There is also evidence that the harvest festival was originally been called Bron Trogain meaning ‘the pains of childbirth,’ as it is through the birthing powers of the land that the harvest is enabled, and to this end the month of August was known known as the month of sorrows.[3] This speaks of a deeply seated sense of grief felt by the clans, and the Earth itself as there was no separation, for the act of cutting down the crops that had been so carefully nurtured and tended in order that they themselves might be nourished. This is of course reflected in the story of Tailtiu, in whom resides the ancient power of the land, or Sovereignity, who sacrifices herself so that her people might be fed. It is only in later versions of the story that the festival of Earth’s sorrow becomes linked to Lugh the Shining One through Lughnasa, when dominance and mastery over the land becomes a much more prominent theme.


[1] See ‘Lammas’ available at http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk

[2] See ‘Goddess Tailtiu’ available at http://www.journeyingtothegoddess.com

[3] See ‘Tailtiu, Primal Earth Goddess for this season by Deanne Quarrie,’ available at http://www.feminismandreligion.com

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