Tailtiu Begins

Tailtiu watched the boy as he ran over the green grass, hair blowing behind him, bright eyes sparkling in the sunlight, laughter trailing him like a banner of joy. The boy was hers, though she had not born him, a gift from the son of Dian Cécht who said only that the boy’s mother could not raise him. Not really a gift—he was an offering of peace to the queen of a defeated people, fostered to her for raising, to win her people’s loyalty back to their northern cousins. But however he had come, he was hers.

Those bright eyes saw her standing in the shade of the apples and he ran to her, clasping his strong little arms around her legs. She stroked his hair, warm with the early summer sun, and smiled. He might be a child of the Tuath Déa’s bright fire, but he was her boy.
“What did you find in the woods, Mama?” he asked, tugging at the cloth covering her basket. He always wanted to know everything.

“I found what I looked for, of course,” she replied, as she always did, and he laughed as she sat on the green turf and lifted the cloth, he tucking himself against her side to see what she would reveal. “What do you see?”

“Three grey stones, a bunch of green feather-leaves, and four twigs—from oaks!” he cried, triumphant at identifying the tree.

“Three grey stones from the strand and you see the holes in them? If you listen to them, you will hear the voices of the spirits of earth and sky.” She held one up to her ear and he quickly mimicked her, his eyes widening as he heard the spirits singing in the apple above them. He didn’t really need the stone, but it helped to focus a busy headed child. She would wait until he was older to take him to the high peak to hear the spirits there. He was not ready, yet, for harsher voices, not her golden child. But he would be, one day.

“The feather-leaves are yarrow, clearsight. An ointment of yarrow on the eyes can help mortals to see the spirits the stones let them hear—and a bouquet of yarrow at a wedding will set the couple in love for seven years at least.”

“Did you have yarrow at your wedding?”

Tailtiu’s eyes turned to the horizon. There had been yarrow at her first wedding, both in her hands and in a bag she had embroidered and hung over their sleeping place. But that husband was gone, killed in the war with the Tuath Déa. There had always been land enough to share, he had not needed to die, but…

Thin arms wrapped around her, startling her out of memory.

“Don’t be sad, Mama. I’ll protect you. I’ll bring you yarrow as often as you like—just show me where it grows!”

She stroked his hair with one hand, pinching a piece of yarrow between her fingers and rubbing it to make the scent come. “Yes, you will always bring me yarrow and blackberries, won’t you? You will make a great festival for me, my Lughaid, when I am gone. You will not forget me, when my sorrow lays me down to rest.”

“I would never forget you,” he whispered, holding her as tightly as he could. “But you will never be gone.”

Tailtiu looked down at the golden head under her arm and smiled. “Not for good, not forever, but even I must rest sometimes, little warrior. I have cleared five plains and wed two husbands, but you will marry someday and I will rest then, knowing you will not forget me.”

He cuddled against her side, still holding her tight. “Tell me the story of how I came here. Tell me where I come from.”

She paused. He had asked and asked. Dian Cécht’s son had not told her the story, but she spoke to the spirits of land and water and sky, she knew who the boy was, and where he came from. She knew whose child she was raising, and even without the yarrow, she knew the destiny that weighed on him. Was it time for him to know?

“Well, we will make a beginning of it, anyway. It is not a simple thing, telling where you came from, my heart.”

He looked up, eyes bright but a little wary. “You will tell me? You know?”

Tailtiu nodded. “I have heard the story from the wind—you must remember, the wind will always tell you the truth, if you ask politely—and had it confirmed by the one who brought you to me first.”

“Who?”

“The story begins, I suppose, with Bírog, the druid woman…”

Lugnasad Season

If you want to know many, many things about Lugnasad in Ireland, I cannot recommend a better book than Máire MacNeill’s Festival of Lugnasad. She collects folklore from numerous Lugnasad sites and compares them to reconstruct a core Lugnasad story. Whether or not you like her reconstruction, the data she provides to other seekers is outstanding.

I celebrate Lugnasad as a season of 31 days. This comes from the description of the oenachs or fairs held at this time at places like Tailten and Carmen—the length of the festival was a fortnight before and after Lugnasad, and a fortnight, in Ireland at the time this information was written down, was fifteen days. So fifteen days before, Lugnasad itself, and fifteen days after, makes a 31 day festival. The oenachs were not, so far as we can tell from existing sources, a strictly religious festival, but a time for people to meet across a region, to trade, to find partners, to race horses, and to celebrate the season. Calling the oenach could also be a test of a ruler’s sovereignty—if a ruler called and no one came, they had no support and their rulership was undermined.

My season of Lugnasad starts today, 15 days before Lugnasad, as counted by the stones and stars, rather than by the calendar. Lugnasad comes halfway between Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox–and there are passage graves and stone circles in Ireland aligned to the sunrise on this day (and Imbolc, it’s twin in the sun’s arc). These stones don’t have the fame of Newgrange, but still do their work of marking the time of seasons, but like Newgrange were built by people in Ireland likely before the stories of the Tuath Déa were ever told.

I don’t have a great festival to attend (the oenachs having gone out of fashion during the medieval period), so for me it’s a season of celebration and meditation, a bit like Lent for Catholics but with less focus on giving up things and more on creating. This year, I’m hoping to celebrate the season by telling stories of Lug and his relations and sharing them here, with whoever should happen to wander by.

These stories are based in the medieval Irish literature and collected folklore from Ireland that hint at what they might have been, before Christianity softened the edges and reworked the cosmos to have one god before which all others must be only shadows. Much of what we have written from the medieval period is actually part of a great project of the monasteries to write Ireland into the holy history of the Christian empires—to connect the foundational myths of the Irish people with those of the Hebrews, collected in the Christian Bible, so there are likely any number of strange turns worked in to make things line up with the standard histories of the day. (One of my favorite examples of this occurs in the Cath Maige Tuired, where the story says that Lug played fidchell against Nuada when Lug first arrived at Teamhair, but the scribe says in an aside this cannot be true, for fidchell was invented during the Trojan War, which was happening at the same time as this, so could not have reached Ireland yet.)

But my versions are my own, made up of gathered pieces from what remains and what bubbles up in my own heart. I hope they are true, in the sense that stories should be, but I have no illusion they are the only true version. Many stories can be true without agreeing on every detail.

In all, this is a work of devotion for Lug, Samhildánach, Lámfada, Mac Ethlenn, Lonnbéimnech, Macnia, Lethsuanach, Conmac, Balor’s Bane, Dancer on the Western Hills. This is my understanding of his stories. May those who read them find joy in them—and may those with different stories tell them and be blessed in the telling!

Prayer to the Third Queen

O Etan who sings the heart of Ogma,
who carried the first Cairpre under her heart,
O poet-daughter of the swift-cutting healer,
Bless us with your sweet tongue,
Bless us with your clear vision,
Bless us with the gift of your presence.
May we, like the poets of old, recall what was once forgotten,
Praise what is beautiful and true,
Speak truth to both evil and good.
A blessing of blessings upon you,
O lady of the red yew,
A blessing of blessings.

Prayer to the Second Queen

O Mardöll, a blessing on our journeys
May our feet find their way as light on the waves
O Gefn, a blessing on our dreams
May they show us the gifts we are given
O Gulveig, a blessing on our struggles
May we return from them stronger than before
O bright lady, golden flame,
May we remember your names.

Prayer to the First Queen

Anu Buanan, queen of riches,
Bless us with wealth of heart and body
Anu Morrigna, queen of magic,
Teach us to work our truest will
Anu Banfili, queen of prophesy,
Show us the right road and warn us of dangers
A blessing of blessings upon you
O mother of Cermait, mother of Meche,
A blessing of blessings, this day and all days.

Lineage of Lugh

I am the son of many mothers
Ethliu bore me
Bírog carried me
Taltiu raised me
Fand saw me armed

I am the son of many fathers
Cían begot me
Eochu raised me
Goibhniu trained me
Oirbsen armed me

I am the husband of many wives
Buí brought me land
Nás brought me people
Echtach brought me plenty
Englic brought me skill

When much has been given, much can be given,
And I am rich with gifts.
Come to me with your needs
And if you are willing to do your work
I will gladly do mine.

The Women Lugh Wed

I’d been interested in the Irish gods for a long time before I ever knew Lugh had married. His wives are rarely mentioned and even more rarely do we hear anything about them beyond their names listed encyclopedia-like.

From a poem by Flann Mainstrech (d. 1056) found in the Yellow Book of Lecan, according to Hily 2007:

Echtach, daughter of the Dagda with white smoke, Englic, Nás, Buí without treachery/cheating, these are the wives of Lug of many troops

Echtach ingen Deagda déid-ghil – Englic, Nas, Búi cen brath, is iad sin mná Logha línmair.

And from the notes of Metrical Dinsenchas III, translated by Gwynn:

Echtach, daughter of white-toothed Daig, Englec, Nás, guileless Buí
these are the wives of Lug, lord of hosts, who were the flower of gracious queens.

I don’t have the original language of the second, unfortunately, but the difference in Echtach’s parentage is curious.

Nás and Buí, daughters of Rúadrí Ruad, King of Britain, are relatively well-known from the dinsenchas stories on Cnogba and Nás (the hill), but all that’s told of them is that Nás died at Nás, and Buí died on hearing the news, and Lugh made a feast to commemorate them on 1 August. Nás is the mother of Lugh’s son Ibec of the horses (Metrical Dinsenchas of Nás), and Buí (also known as Boí, Bua, or Buach) is also (as Buach, probably a genitive form) called daughter of Dáire Donn. At least one researcher has suggested Buí may be cognate with the Cailleach Bhearre, based on the theory that Buí is the personal name of that goddess (Ó Crualaoich 1988). Nás, according to eDil means, poetically, “death” or “death-commemoration,” though it’s related to násad which is listed on that page as “putting to death” although the longer entry suggests a meaning of “a gathering or assembly of a festive or commemorative nature.” Buí is listed without a meaning, though Wagner (1981) suggests it is related to Indo-European *bovina “cow-like-one,” and suggests a connection to the Boyne River.

Buí and Englic share the dubious honor of possibly having had an affair with Cearmait Milbel, son of the Dagda. Lugh is said to have killed Cearmait in jealousy, and it seems to be uncertain both which of the women was supposed to have been Cearmait’s lover and whether the affair even happened, as once source seems to say that the druid told Lugh a lie about his wife (Bergin 1927). (And if you were worried, Cearmait gets better–the Dagda wanders the world with his corpse until he finds a staff that can restore him to life). In the Bansenchas, oddly, an Englic is listed as “mother of the Dagda’s swift son,” a description often given Cearmait. Perhaps a scribe became confused about their relationship?

Englic is the daughter of Elcmar of the Brugh, who just seems unable to get a break: he’s sent on a year long journey by the Dagda so Boann will be free to become the Dagda’s lover and the mother of his son, Óengus; Elcmar loses his home, Brugh na Boinne, to Óengus; and then there’s Englic. Englic is loved by Óengus (which seems to imply she isn’t Boann’s daughter?). Who she loves depends on the dinsenchas you read–either Óengus or Midir, his older half-brother. In the version where she loves Óengus, she’s carried of by the three sons of Derc son of Ethaman; in the version where she loves Midir, he carries her off. Either way, Óengus is heartbroken and makes a lamentation at Cnogba (Knowth).

But that’s the last we hear of her, except for the mentions of her as Lugh’s wife, so somehow after being carried off, she gets married to someone who, apparently, had nothing to do with carrying her off. Maybe Englic just had a tendency to be carried away–in the Acallam na n’eces, a story is told that Ogma invents ogham writing to warn Lugh that his wife is in danger, carving three beith marks to indicate that, unless this woman is protected by the birch, she will be carried off to a/the síd seven times. Sterckx suggested Englic could be derived from én “bird” + gleic “hostility”, and argued she was cognate with Welsh Blodeuwed, based on the folk belief that other birds were hostile to owls. Hily (2007) argues against this, saying the long e in én makes this derivation unlikely, suggesting instead glicc “acute, shrewd, ingenious, skilled” and the intensifying prefix en- and thus meaning “very skilled, very shrewd.” The latter meaning seems to suggest something more than a young woman prone to being carried off. Isolde Carmody, suggests several other possible meanings: “Stone Track” or “Slab Territory” or “Water Wrestling.”

And that leaves us with Echtach. Oddly enough, this name seems to wander across genders, as Echtach is often the name of Nuada’s father (First Battle of Magh Tured, for example). I have yet to find any information on Daig, though the name appears to mean “flame, conflagration, blaze” and is metaphorically applied to heroes, kings, and saints (eDIL). The only information on Echtach I’ve been able to locate so far comes from Monaghan’s Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, where she is described as a goddess, sister and rival of Echtge, the cannibal daughter of Nuada. The author mentions folktales from Co. Clare pictured Echtach as a spectral owl, which could be an interesting link to Blodeuwed, wife of Lleu. The eDIL gives us échtach (note the long e) as “some kind of night bird, perhaps an owl” or “prowessful, death-dealing, destructive.”

I find these hints and half-complete stories tantalizing. I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed, but suspect that we are unlikely to clear up most of the mysteries solely from research. I envy the people of the culture the dinsenchas came from, so steeped in an oral culture so rich with stories that a name or a sideways mention called up whole plots webs of meaning.  If any of my handful of readers have any cites or stories I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments!