Lughnasadh and the Goddess Tailtiu

And so we come to Lughnasadh and a full blue moon.

Lughnasadh, the beginning of the harvest season, often recognized as the first harvest; a festival that celebrates the first fruits, the sun god Lugh and games of skill.

In reality, this sabbat was originally about Lugh’s foster mother, Tailtiu, rather than Lugh himself.

Tailtiu was the last queen of the Fir Bolg. She is described in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, a famous history of Ireland:

§59. Tailltiu daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg, came after the slaughter was inflicted upon the Fir Bolg in that first battle of Mag Tuired to Coill Cuan: and the wood was cut down by her, so it was a plain under clover-flower before the end of a year. This is that Tailtiu who was wife of Eochu son of Erc king of Ireland till the Tuatha De Danann slew him, ut praediximus: it is he who took her from her father, from Spain; and it is she who slept with Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall of the Tuatha De Danann; and Cian son of Dian Cecht, whose other name was Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, namely Lugh, whose mother was Eithne daughter of Balar. So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu, and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. 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: under dicitur Lughnasadh, that is, the celebration (?) or the festival of Lugh. 
Unde Oengus post multum tempus dicebat, “the nasad of Lug, or the nasad of Beoan [son] of Mellan.” 

Tailtiu cleared a great forest in order for the Irish to plant the first fields. This feat exhausted her and when she was finished, she laid down at her castle and died. The Lughnasadh games were actually the funeral games held by Lugh in her honor.

Tailtiu is the great mother goddess. It is through her pains that the fields were cleared and the harvest was able to be born. She is also seen to be a goddess of childbirth and labor. Tailtiu’s death was a necessary part of bringing forth life for the people. So while people celebrated her life through her funeral games, they also mourned her death and Lugh himself is said to have sung her death song every year. Because of this, Tailtiu is said to have prophesied on her death bed that as long as Lughnasadh is celebrated, there will always be music in Ireland.

Tailtiu’s death was a part of the sacred king rites of Ireland. Tailtiu was a Queen at Tara, the seat of the High King’s of Ireland. She was also married to the last Fir Bolg ruler. While Nuada was the first of the Tuatha rulers, Lugh was his successor.The High King’s of Ireland married the goddess who was sovereign over the land itself. Without holding this sovereignty, no one could rule. Lugh could not marry his foster mother, but by celebrating the sacrifice that ensured the prosperity of the land, Lugh was certainly honoring that connection. Tailtiu is often seen as the dynastic link between the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danaan.

Lugh is the dying and reborn god, the sun and the grain in the fields. While Tailtiu cleared the land through her labor, it was Lugh who embodied the grain that grew in that land and was cut down for the harvest. Tailtiu didn’t birth Lugh physically, but she was certainly his mother in this sacred sense. Lugh is the young God that we cut down and sacrifice and who returns to the underworld and who is later reborn after the Goddess and the Old God marry. But he can only do this because of the original sacrifice of the Goddess.

So this Lughnasadh, while you dance and sing and make merry, also remember Tailtiu, the Great Mother whose death allowed the fields to grow so that the people could eat.

Advertisements

Wailing, Weeping Women

My great grandmother Bertha DeVoe (who I'm amused to note, my father looks exactly like).

My great grandmother Bertha DeVoe, as seen in an old photograph at my parent’s house.

There’s a story in my family about my great grandmother. She died at home in southern Ohio, very near the Ohio River. She was surrounded by family in her bed. As was the usual custom of the time, my great aunts, who were standing at the foot of the bed, let out the death wail.

The death wail is a very traditional keening cry done at a family member’s death. Its not something you see very often anymore, but when you hear it, you’ll never mistake it for anything else. It’s an eery noise that will haunt you for a long time. (The British Library has a recording of one that you can hear here: death wail on wax cylinder).

So my great grandmother dies. The doctor who was also there, pronounced her death and my great aunts let the death wail loose.

My great grandmother sits right back up, looks at my great aunts and asks, “Can I go now?” At the family’s shocked silence, she laid back down, closed her eyes and was gone again.

Needless to say, they did not give the death wail again and as far as I know, my great grandmother still peacefully sleeps in the family cemetery. (At least we all hope she does).

The family grave site.

The family grave site.

Death wails and laments were traditionally done at funerals as well and in Celtic mythology were tied to the tradition of the Banshee.

My family is very Irish and the mythology around the death wail is fairly potent.

In Irish and Celtic mythology, the Banshee (or Bansidhe) is a figure that appears to families to worn about an imminent death. There are many myths surrounding the Banshee, who is said to wail when someone is about to die. In other Celtic myths, the Banshee will be seen washing the bloody clothes or armor of those who are about to die. In Ireland, the more powerful families were said to have their own Banshees and many people refuse to marry into family’s with Banshees, since they are seen to be so unlucky.

Banshees are traditionally fairy women (who funnily enough are also known for herding fairy cattle), but they can also be the ghost of a murdered woman or just a ghost associated with the family they are forewarning.

Banshee sightings have continued to occur even over here in America, especially in the Appalachian regions that were settled by so many Celtic immigrants. Very famously, in 1874 on the Ohio River, Mary Marr met a veiled woman on her path by the river who, when greeted by Mary Marr said, “I am here to tell you, Mary Marr that Thomas Marr has just died. Say your prayers, Lady. I bid you well” and then mysteriously disappeared. Thomas Marr was Mary’s husband, and sure enough, Thomas Marr’s body was found on the riverbank later that day.

And this is not the only story of the Banshee along the Ohio River. In 1935 near Parkersburg, West Viriginia, a little girl and her grandmother supposedly met the Banshee on horseback while they walked to the outhouse before going to bed one night. This occurred during a flu epidemic. The Banshee pointed at them and said, “One of yours is to die this very night!” before disappearing before their very eyes. Sure enough, the little girl’s uncle died of the flu within the hour.

The tradition of the wailing woman is not just tied to the Banshee. The White Lady ghost tradition is found throughout Europe and Asia. And this particular ghost is famous for appearing along abandoned stretches of roads, always foreshadowing the death of a loved one. In America, the White Lady story is usually tied to the death of young women who are tragically killed in car accidents. Usually a motorist will see a woman in white walking along the road where the accident happens. If the motorist stops and picks her up to give her a ride, she will give a shriek after riding for a while and then suddenly disappear, of course scaring the m.

In the South West, you’ll find La Llorona, the ghost of a woman who murdered her children after her husband leaves her for

another woman. La Llorona is a more malevolent spirit who supposedly kills children that she meets in order to appease her own murdered children. She wanders the hills and desserts, weeping for her lost children. A famous song comes from this story:

My family has a somewhat happier ending when it comes to the death wail. My great grandfather was dying in the same bed that my great grandmother died in, and supposedly suddenly smiled. When the family asked him why he was smiling, he said that he could see my great grandmother standing in a beautiful garden. He reported that she said to him, “It’s beautiful here, you’ll like it, don’t be afraid. When you see me again, we’ll be together forever.” He died with a smile on his face a while later, proving that the foreshadowing doesn’t always need a wail, but sometimes just a quiet word.

Letting a death wail loose lets an intense amount of energy go. Grief is never an emotion to think lightly of. It’s no wonder that so much folklore and mythology surrounds women who make those types of noises. I don’t know that I agree that these ghostly figures are unlucky, but I also would prefer not to meet one unexpectedly on the road. Unlike many other fairy figures, there is no way to protect yourself against the Banshee who appears. She comes, she gives you the omen of death, and leaves. Just like the tragedies of life, the wailing woman cannot be stopped, she simply must be survived and surpassed.