Deaths of Gods

As I’m working through these retellings, I realized there are a lot of deaths—particularly of beings we recognize as gods, and it’s bothering me that these are the stories we have.
Some years ago on a discussion list, a person newly exploring Gaelic mythology asked how anyone could worship Lug when he was dead—it said so, right in the Lebor Gabala. I responded by saying that first, the Labor Gabala and pretty much everything else we have in the written literature was recorded by medieval Christians, many of whom were working very hard to record but also euhemerize the stories to disguise they were about non-human beings. Second, if we accepted the death tales of the Tuath Déa as written, they are all dead—the Dagda died of a poisoned wound given him by Cethlenn, wife of Balor (though it took him 120 years to die of it!), Nuadu and Macha died at Maige Tuired, as (probably) did Ogma. There are death tales for almost anyone well-known enough to have a story. And third, I’ve experienced Lug as alive and well, so I simply assume the tales of his death are exaggerated…

But these are the stories we have—stories where gods are made into mortals, portrayed as powerful sorcerers maybe, but not divine, with only whispers of what the stories might have been before later cultures wore away the shape and the meaning. We don’t know which parts of the story are old and which are late poetic accretions added by Christians who may not have known or cared that the Tuath Déa were not merely heroic humans but gods. Many of the monks seem to have been more interested in proving that Ireland had just as much history as Israel and Greece combined to worry about muddling stories or making up pieces to fit themselves into the known world.

So how do we find the stories underneath the stories? Different scholars have tried comparing across different Celtic cultures (like Gruffyd’s study of Math vab Mathonwy) to try to determine the ur-story. Some have tried to dig into the names of the personages—a technique favored by the Story Archaeologists. Others have compared medieval literature to recorded folktales to try to determine what is “real” and what is added—but that brings in all the baggage of determining the reality and age of oral traditions and the various pressures they have to deal with over time, particularly in a culture that has adopted a philosophy generally hostile to the subjects of the stories. All of these techniques can be useful, but none are flawless or trouble free; and none can offer a certain answer, only possibilities.

Which leaves us with inspiration. As we develop relationships with these gods, inspired by somewhat distorted stories, we may have insights into what is true rather than historical. How does the Children of Turenn even make sense if Cian is an eternal god? Or did the Gaels never see their gods as eternal? Yet centuries after Lug was supposed to have died, he is said by poets to have visited people—attended Cú Chulain in his hour of weakness, shown a king the future of his dynasty, appeared over embattled people to rally their strength in the fight. Are we then to suppose that the gods were mortal, but then left mortality behind to live in the Otherworld? Is that what it meant when they retreated to the Sidhe mounds, that they gave up a mortal or physical existence?

I don’t have answers, yet, but I’m seeking, and I’ll be glad to hear any thoughts folks might have. How do you work with the stories of gods’ deaths? In this season supposedly driven by Lug’s remembrance of goddesses’ deaths (Tailtiu, Buí, Nás, Carman), this seems like an important problem to think on.

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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!

Transplants

“Do you see this hill? It is named ‘The Lady’s Seat’ because
this is the place she sat to rest after raising
the warriors to fight in the battle
of this plain, here, where we are standing.”
So spoke my guide as we wandered
the land that had known his grandmothers’
grandmothers, and theirs before them.
Every rise had a name and a story, a piece
of history that touched him and his kin.
What is it like to see your history scribbled on every
hill and river you have ever known? To know
you belong to this land, that your feet
trace the same path pioneered by your people?
To live where you bear the name of every hill,
not the other way round.

Transplants on stolen soil, can our roots ever
find that depth or certainty? Or must we always
echo the lands of our grandmothers’
grandmothers? How long before this is home?
And what stories are we writing over?

Stories in Our Hearts

Oirbsen’s mother fed me pie,
apple from her orchards, ever-renewing,
her son’s shoulders too broad for her low-roofed cottage
“We are real,” she said, “though no tale
names us, and no tale
tells the truth, though they are all true.
Tales, like apples, grow from the ground they know.
Transplanted, they grow crooked, their fruit
less sweet, their true beauty
lost in translation. You see?”
I nodded, the sweet syrup melting on my tongue.
“We see what we see. But what we know
depends on the soil holding our roots.
My perfect fruit is an apple,
not a pomegranate. It makes a difference.”
She nodded and Oirbsen smiled.
“The heart of an apple understands – we
have stories in our hearts, fruit, leaf, and bud.”

Stories

Stories are the deep tap root of my life.

I read fairy tales as soon as I could read, inspired by a beautifully illustrated volume my grandmother gave me for Christmas along with an illustrated book of Bible stories. I quickly discovered there were more stories at the library and worked my way through Grimm, Anderson, Perrault, and the many-colored Lang volumes. When I asked for more, the librarians pointed me toward the mythology section, and I fell in love with Artemis and Athena. (Hercules was a right bore and the cover of the Norse myths volume had a picture of Odhinn that gave me nightmares. Besides, I wanted stories with girls, like me, not more tedious boys.)

I didn’t just read these stories, I lived them, I believed them. I expected every doorway might lead to somewhere other than where it seemed, that the right wardrobe might be a gateway to adventure, that every stranger was probably a fairy or god in disguise, waiting for the right traveler to pass their test and start the story on its way. I believed there were dryads in the trees and nymphs in the rivers and that if one were very quiet and very wakeful, they could be seen dancing in the moonlight after all the noisy adults went to bed, finally. I believed that courage in the face of adversity, kindness to those who seemed in need of it, and respect to those you met were the center of a good life.

I suppose I never stopped looking for that magic door until I realized that no magic door was needed. This world is both more wonderful and more terrible than m child self imagined, and the stories are real. I found my fairy prince, even if some days we both still suffer from the aftereffects of disenchantment. I have learned to fly with crows and to step through the doors in trees and to dance with a god of storms whose books were never on the shelves of our small county library.

Or maybe it is that I had not realized it, but I stepped through that magic door years ago,  the moment I dared to hope the stories were real, the moment I opened my heart to a world where courage and kindness and respect were the center of a good life.

What are we, after all, but the sum of the stories we tell?