One-Eyed Cat: Heathenry / Slavic Paganism
Exploring the wider Eurasian influences on central and northern European religion, including Norse, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, Siberian, Mediterranean and ancient Indo-European beliefs and applying them to contemporary practice.
Lughnasadh: How I came to love Tailtiu, Earth Goddess of Ireland (Part 1 of 2)
There is no clean land in all of Ireland, no fields not blood-soaked nor polluted by tears and death, for the Great War had raged across the land for ages. The war and its reasons, the dead and their Kings, their celebrated champions no longer matter. One royal husband slain and the victor wed, and Tailtiu, still Queen of Ireland, never took part in the fighting.
What matters to her is that the children of Ireland and their surviving parents, both tribes now living as one, will have no food come winter. Their fields have been trampled by war.
None of the exhausted warriors, who lie nursing grievous wounds or struggle to bury their comrades (fathers, brothers, friends and nephews, uncles and sons), thought of that.
Tailtiu, great Queen of the Fir Bolg once and now of the Children of Danu, knows what must be done. With all her dignity and strength and Godly magnitude of will, she hefts an axe and walks to the virgin forest covering the last clean, flat land in all of Ireland…
* * *
The smell of thyme fills the air as I gently lay a grass doll down in the lush green shade of elms, with all due reverence, as if I'm handling a small, fragile mother. I am. On an early August afternoon, I sit down in a park to finish what I'd started on my patio. Tailtiu's body, made of tall grass let gone to seed, came from my back yard. The brushy curl of Scottish broom, however, along with bunches of purple-blossomed wild herbs and broad seed heads that will finish off her effigy, were plucked from the Senior Druid's lawn.
Clouds linger on the horizon of a summer-blue sky. The air and the ground are still moist from last night's storms; you learn to taste these subtle changes in humidity in the desert. I welcome the coolness.
It's Lughnasadh, and my ADF Druid Grove is gathered here to celebrate the heroic death of great Foster-Mother Tailtiu, she who raised Lugh, and bury her with games, mirth and rejoicing— as she asked the Children of Danu, long ago. It's Lugh's day, too, because her beloved son called the Assembly this day is named for, leading both the games and the funeral rites.
Like the Norse Goddess Gefion, Tailtiu plowed a mythic field, a Giant's endeavor, clearing both trees and stones away so the land could be worked.
Unlike Gefion, she had no team of mammoth oxen-sons to help her plough it, and dies each year of exhaustion.
Tailtiu's quiet valor is no less than her warrior son and husbands'. She dies protecting everyone, regardless of which side they battled on in the war, fighting that life may not only continue, but renew.
A Funeral For a Goddess
Keep me in the shade until you bury me, Tailtiu whispers in my mind, the same way she showed us what needed to be done for her funeral rites. Serene and gentle, I feel her calm, motherly presence flow from her through my hands and into the earth as I fill out Tailtiu's skirt with the thyme, tucking it in around her legs on all sides with dignity, and give her two bushy braids of grain heads flowing over her chest. She insisted that I tie off her two legs properly at the knee, and make her two good braids, not just the loop of seedy grass I'd twisted into place to represent her head and hair. I'd bent her long straw arms in peaceful repose across her chest, and now I tuck a fat grain stalk between her hands.
My doll finished, I carry Tailtiu through the leafy shadows and carefully set her down on the strip of white cloth folded in front of the altar, where she can rest, at last, from her labors. Another woman kneels with me. We stretch out the long muslin bier, according to Tailtiu's wishes, that another friend had helped me purify earlier with incense smoke. Reverently, I set down two yellow-orange California poppies flanking her like torches, then lay a full, rusty sunflower at her head, and golden desert wildflowers at her feet.
In the summer heat, the Senior Druid and I mix honey with the flour I was called to bring, kneading both in a silver bowl. I clean my hands in the well water, letting the honey dissolve into it as an offering. The Senior Druid figures out how to bless the assembly with the paste, smearing a bit of the sweet-smelling, sticky mixture on each of our hands as he goes around the gathered circle. He dusts both of my hands liberally with it, surprising me, and walks back to the altar.
We wait quietly for a moment for the rite to begin.
The icon of Lugh silently watches us, off to the side.
"We have come to honor the Goddess Tailtiu and her foster-son Lugh as the Gatekeeper…."
* * *
Hoofbeats thunder beneath the trees. A smell of loam, and mown fields, hay drying in the sun beyond them. Golden hair, the color of ripe wheat stalks, and a long green dress flow in the wind. White horse, flecked with sweat. The bare-earth road is broad and sunk into the forest, as if dug long ago by a Giant's winding plow. Thick, ancient boughs arch high above me.
Blazing light— is she carrying a star?— no, a torch—
As the Goddess passes, she calls out to me encouragingly, and thrusts a long, burning torch into my hands, a torch as long as Lugh's spear, and rides on.
In an instant, a circle of similar torches rains down from the sky, sinking into the ground behind each of us gathered for the rite. Fire draws a ring around us, flowing from torch-tip to torch tip, until the circle is closed—
"Will our bard step forward and tell the tale of Tailtiu…?"
….What? I'm barely back from trance. One foot of my awareness lingers in that other place, stumbling back to mortal time—
The Senior Druid's looking at me.
Bard? I hardly—
Everyone is looking at me.
I take a deep breath, and step beside the bier, in front of the assembly of friends and strangers.I've never been a gifted verbal storyteller. How do I become one now?
I don't know the words until I'm saying them, a graveside eulogy for a hero, told by a son for his mother.
"There was no clean land left in all of Ireland…" I say. Or something like that. I know when I'm finished, because just as I have no more words, the Senior Druidl nods to me again, and thanks me, and I step back.
Aside from scattered poetic reference, and verbal tradition peculiar to individual Irish families or localities, Tailtiu's story is told in two sources: The Book of Conquests and the Metrical Dindshenchas. It's a remarkable commonality that the idea of Earth as the ultimate Giver occurs across cultures, from Pandora to Mokosh, to Gefiun and Tailtiu. Even the root-name for several deities of earth shares a common sound, ge, found in the Egyptian male earth God Geb, to the more familiar Grecian Ge or Gaiaand Danish Gefiun (widely thought to be Freyja, according to Snorri Sturleson), all names meaning some variant of 'Giver' or 'Gift'. Like Tailtiu, the Egyptian God Wesir (Osiris) was also buried with elaborate funeral rites— in the form of grain.
Women ploughing the earth by themselves, at night and in secret, was an important Slavic ritual to end disaster and plague, by releasing the power of the mighty earth to purify the surrounding land and community. Men who witnessed this rite or interfered with it were often harshly punished: women's primal power was not to be trifled with. The Celts ranged widely in Europe, including in lands, like Poland, now considered Slavic. This may shed some light on why Tailtiu alone ploughed the field that became her funeral plain.
Tailtiu's late summer commemorative funeral games, historically held at Telltown, have been dubbed 'The Irish Olympics'. This tradition is shared in other localities, named for the local Goddess buried there, a person often somehow related to Lugh. Over the centuries, the feats of skill in agriculture, homesteading and the arts evolved into the more familiar county fairs.
Quite curiously, Lugh the torch-bearing God also bears many similarities with Odin (including owning a spear that never misses, being a God of bards and father of heroes, and coming from the same ancient proto-Indo-European root-god, Nodens) outside the scope of this article.
A History of Pagan Europe, Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
Comparative Mythology, Jaan Puhvel
Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, Hilda Ellis Davidson
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturleson, translated by Jesse Byock
Russian Myths, Elizabeth Warner
The Dancing Goddesses, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
A Celtic Miscellany, translated by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson
The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella
Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies, Janet Parker and Julie Stanton,et al
Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Charlene Spretnak
Some similar thoughts can be found in these blog posts:
The icon of Nerthus, another northern European earth Goddess, at the top of this page was painted by me.
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