Lugnasad has as many origin stories as a Marvel comics superheros. Okay, maybe not that many, but more than people generally talk about.
The story that seems the most widely known focuses on the death of Tailtiu, Lugh’s foster mother, daughter of Mag Mór. The general plot has Tailtiu clearing a plain to the detriment of her health and, on her deathbed, begging that she and her work be commemorated in a festival or oenach. Lugh promises her this, she dies, and Lugnasad is instituted in her memory. This story may be referenced in the bansenchas:
The wife of Eochu (loud was his shout) was Tailtiu who cut down the wood, [From her is named green-sloped Tailtiu of the prosperous united assemblies] in Caille Cuan. She cut over a hundred axes: a road for armies.
Note there’s nothing here about Tailtiu dying, only that she cleared the wood.
The Edinburgh Dinsenchas on Mag Tailten is closer to the model:
Tailltiu, daughter of Maghmor, King of Spain, wife of Eochaid the Rough, son of Dua the Dark-grey. She was Lugh mac Ethlenn’s foster-mother, and ’tis she that used to dig the plain. Or ’tis there that she died. On the first day of autumn her tomb was built, and her lamentation was made and her funeral game was held by Lugh [whence we say Lughnasadh, ‘Lammastide’. Five hundred years and a thousand before Christ’s birth was that, and that assembly was held by every king who took Ireland until Patrick came, and there were five hundred assemblies in Tailtiu from Patrick down to the Black Assembly of Donnchad, son of Flann, son of Maelsechlainn]. And these are the three tabus of Tailtiu: crossing it without alighting; looking at it over one’s left shoulder when coming from it; idly casting at it after sunset. Whence Magh Tailten, ‘Taltiu’s Plain.’
Taltiu, slow Magmor’s daughter,
’Tis she that cut down the forest.
Lugh’s foster-mother, men declare,
The place of this assembly (is) round Tailtiu.
This says she used to dig that plain or it is there that she died, not that she died of digging the plain or cutting the wood. It’s not exclusive of that interpretation, but it also doesn’t require it.
The Metrical Dinsenchas has the longest story and the closest to the model:
Taltiu, daughter of gentle Magmor, wife of Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall, came hither leading the Fir Bolg host to Caill Chuan, after high battle.
Caill Chuan, it was a thicket of trees from Escir to Ath Drommann, from the Great Bog, a long journey, from the Sele to Ard Assuide.
Great that deed that was done with the axe’s help by Taltiu, the reclaiming of meadowland from the even wood by Taltiu daughter of Magmor.
When the fair wood was cut down by her, roots and all, out of the ground, before the year’s end it became Bregmag, it became a plain blossoming with clover.
Her heart burst in her body from the strain beneath her royal vest; not wholesome, truly, is a face like the coal, for the sake of woods or pride of timber.
Long was the sorrow, long the weariness of Tailtiu, in sickness after heavy toil; the men of the island of Erin to whom she was in bondage came to receive her last behest.
She told them in her sickness (feeble she was but not speechless) that they should hold funeral games to lament her—zealous the deed.
About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lugnasad of Lug; round her grave from that Monday forth is held the chief Fair of noble Erin.
White-sided Tailtiu uttered in her land a true prophecy, that so long as every prince should accept her, Erin should not be without perfect song.
A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariots, with adornment of body and of soul by means of knowledge and eloquence.
A fair without wounding or robbing of any man, without trouble, without dispute, without reaving, without challenge of property, without suing, without law-sessions, without evasion, without arrest.
A fair without sin, without fraud, without reproach, without insult, without contention, without seizure, without theft, without redemption:
No man going into the seats of the women, nor woman into the seats of the men, shining fair, but each in due order by rank in his place in the high Fair.
Unbroken truce of the fair the while through Erin and Alba alike, while men went in and came out without any rude hostility.
Corn and milk in every stead, peace and fair weather for its sake, were granted to the heathen tribes of the Greeks for maintaining of justice.
From the lamentation for Tailtiu of the Sele to the reign of Loegaire mac Neill was held by the fairy host a fair every single year,
By the Fir Bolg, who were there, and by the Tuatha De Danann, by the Children of Mil thereafter down to Patrick after the first coming of the Faith.
What I find interesting about this version is that 1) she is said to have died on “the Lugnasad of Lug” as if that were something already established, perhaps for another cause, and 2) there is no other mention of Lug in this story, no implication that Lug made the oenach for her.
The Rennes Dinsenchas on Nás has a somewhat different take on things:
Eochaid the Rough son of Dua king of Ireland, ’tis he that made a proclamation to the men of Erin to come and cut down the Wood of Cuan, with laigin (broadbladed lances) and bill-hooks and hatchets, in honour of his wife Tailtiu daughter of Magmor. So in a month they cut down the wood, and that plain is (now) Oenach Tailten. He asked whether any of the men of Erin had shirked the work. Bri Brú-glas, Tailtiu’s messenger, answered: ‘There are Ireland’s three rath-builders, Nás and Ronc and Ailestar, three sons of Dorncla.’ ‘Let them be killed for this’, quoth Tailtiu. ‘Not so’, says Eochaid, ‘’tis better they should live than die. But let them keep on building raths.’ ‘So be it’, replied Tailtiu: ‘let them build three raths for me.’
This characterization of Tailtiu seems wildly different from the usual view of the dying queen, sacrificing her life for her people. Instead, she must be convinced that it is more beneficial to have work from those who failed to honor her rather than killing them. There is no explanation here for Lugnasad, but later in the same entry we find:
Or otherwise: Nas and Bói two daughters of Ruadri son of Caite (?) king of Britain, were the two wives of Lugh son of the Scál Balb ‘the Dumb Champion’. Now Nás was the mother of Ibec son of Lugh. There Nás died, and in Nás she was buried, hence it is called Nás. Her sister Bói died straightway of grief for her, and was buried on Cnogba, whence that name (Cnogba = Cnocbua). Lugh gathered the hosts of the Gaels from Tailtiu to Fiad in Broga ‘the land of the Brugh’, to bewail those women on the first day of August in each year: so thence was the nasad ‘assembly’ of Lugh, whence Lugh-nasad ‘lammasday’, that is Lugh’s commemoration, or remembering, or recollection, or deathfeast.
Lugnasad here is still the funeral feast of a woman or women, but instead of his foster mother, the recipients of the commemoration are his wives. This is one of the few mentions of his wives, but there are enough other mentions that I think we can comfortably accept they weren’t just replacing Tailtiu for a poet who forgot her name and relationship to Lugh.
And then there is, in a fragment from the Lebor na hUidre, Lugnasad as wedding feast:
It is here that Lug Scimaig proceeded to make the great feast for Lug mac Ethlenn for his entertainment after the battle of Mag Tured ; for this was his wedding of the kingship, since the Tuatha Dé Danann made the aforesaid Lug king after the death of Nuada. As to the place where the refuse was thrown, a great knoll was made of it: this was [thenceforth] its name, the Knoll of the Great Feast, or the Refuse of the Great Banquet, that is to say, Taillne, at the present day.
Tailtiu’s funeral is the most-repeated story, and I honor her at the beginning and end of the Lugnasad season, but I find I am enamored of the idea of the wedding feast. It seems to suit the season–late summer and harvest and richness of food–and fit with much of the evidence of the actual festival with its marriages, horse-races, and king’s oenachs (MacNeill 1962). Maybe it’s just that I’ve been researching Lugh’s wives, and so his marriages are much on my mind, but more on that later. In the ending, each story–as well as the stories of the other oenachs–gives us another view, another way of seeing, another piece in a puzzle likely never to be solved only by looking backwards.