For What Do We Strive? Lugnasad Thoughts

For those who set the dates of the festivals by stones and stars, tomorrow is Lugnasad. Although I’ve been writing about Lug this year, his stories aren’t the only one associated with the festival. There are the stories of Carmen, Áine, and Crom Dubh—the harper in the cave, the bull sacrificed and restored, and the Cailleach’s reaping contest.

The Cath Maige Tuired doesn’t end with Balor’s defeat, but goes on to the ransom of Bres—and Bres’s ransom is closer in spirit to many of these other tales, in that it speaks to the harvest and feeding the people, as many of the other stories do. (I don’t think it’s an error that the subtitle of the CMT is “The Battle of Mag Tuired and the Birth of Bres Son of Elatha and his Reign”. The point of the story is to speak of Bres, who resembles many other Lugnasad figures, tied to the harvest, who would prefer to keep it for themselves rather than share it among the people, perhaps because they are greedy—and perhaps because they represent the rights and needs of the land rather than the people. Balor gets all the press, but Bres’s knowledge is the real prize of the battle.

So what is the heart of Lugnasad? I propose that it is this: there is no harvest without striving, no striving without change, and no change without loss. Lugnasad should remind us of what we have let go in striving for what we want, and to honor both the losses and the striving as much as the harvest that is won. Lugnasad’s oldest name is Brón Trogain, which is generally taken to mean something like the sorrow of the earth, with connotations of the sorrows of birth. As the earth gives birth to the harvest—and may thus, like Bres resist giving it away—how do we pay for the harvest? How do we, like Lug, remember the suffering of our foster mother? What do we give up in our striving? And for what do we strive?

There are more stories–of weddings and prophecies and possible deaths–to come!




The Second Fostering

No weeping was heard from the Fir Bolg queen as Cian rode away with his little son behind him, but singing. She sang in the dialect of her people and the boy sand the song back to her, a wild, heart-trembling tune that caught in the ear and made the tongue long to join in. Both voices, high and fine, sounded across the wide plain and even through the woods they passed into, until the travelers stopped for the evening.

At Goibhniu’s forge, the lad was eager and never made complaint for having to learn to raise the fire before shaping metal. He sang to the wood and the flames and made a steady, strong fire as good as Goibhniu himself, and whether making the fire or forging a blade, the sparks never burned him.

When Goibhniu taught him the charms for the hammer and for the metal’s shaping, he set them to tunes, singing them in soft drones like bees as he worked, beating the shapes to the rhythm of the singing, rather than singing to the hammer’s calling.

He did the same with the charms Luchta taught him to see the shapes within the wood, to know where knots would lie and how to work them into the strength of a shape instead of its weakness. Credne’s brazing was also set to song, as he taught the way of shaping the soft metals into coils and curves, how to set the pins that held spear head to haft, how to read the strength of the softer metals and how to blend them for their purpose.

And so it was when Airmed and Miach, his aunt and uncle, came to teach him healing. Airmed would teach him the lists of plants and their ailments, and the lad would recite them back to her in his sweet voice giving them tone and rhythm not in the words. He sang the charms for setting bones and restful sleep for the ill and for drowning out pain as his hands moved gently over the ill bodies of animals and men.

It was his aunt, Etan, who rejoiced in him, for he would learn any lay she gave him on the first hearing, rhythm for rhythm and point for point, and when she questioned him on the meaning, thinking he simply leaned the sound and not the sense, his exposition startled her, for he had heard not only the surface of the story but often the words set sidewise and the judgment of the rhythm on the story’s meaning. He seemed to devour every story she could give him and taught her a few of the Fir Bolg tales. She called him a well of stories, for they seemed to sink into him and fall his depths. It was Etan who was most sorry when Manannán sent for him, for she feared his harper’s fingers would break in the learning of the sword.

The lad went to Emhain Ablach with the mastery of his kinsmens’ arts: smithing. brazing, carpentry, poetry, and healing. From Tailtiu he had learned harping and sorcery. Manannán would add to his store of spells and teach him the arts of war and water.

The Naming of Lug and the Winning of the Cow

Tailtiu stroked the boy’s wheat-gold hair that had never come from his De Danann father, for Cian was dark as his own father. Her Lughaid was a mix of his parents, as all children are, and he would carry something of her with him when he left in the spring.
“Bírog has always been clever, but this was one of her best games. When I went to her to ask how to help you thrive, she knew it was the lack of a name that kept you from growing as you should. And she had been pondering how Cian might win back the cow he had lost for his uncle. The two ideas came together in one bright plan, though I will tell you I was not best pleased with her at the idea of sending you off with your father to Torey Island…”

Cian came to Balor’s court in the guise of a gardener and said he had heard that Balor was fond of apples. This was true—Balor hungered after apples as many hunger after meat, but the winds of Torey Island were hard on any tree, harder still on a tree to bear fruit, and his poor, small, twisted trees grew very little and their fruit was hard and sour. Cian said that he knew a charm that would make the trees grow and the fruit red and sweet, if Balor would meet his price.
Balor was eager for the fruit, so asked the price.

“My choice of your milk cows and all her equipment,” Cian said, as Bírog had taught him.

Balor’s eyes narrowed, for he had lost the wondrous cow once and knew she had only returned to him because he had not lost the halter. He saw what this stranger was after, but he wanted the apples and determined he would find a way to trick the gardener out of the cow, if his charm worked. So Balor agreed.

Cian worked every day with the small, stunted trees, singing the charm Bírog had taught him, which she had learned from Manannán’s mother. And as the summer crept close, the trees burst into bloom, covering the yard with a snow of blossoms so sweet that no one who passed through could help but smile. As the summer warmed, the trees grew green with strong leaves and new branches, all covered with small green apples that seemed to grow larger by the day. And every day, Cian carried on his back the small boy who made no sound, grew no larger, but followed everything with is colorless bright eyes.

Finally, the height of summer was upon them and the apples were red with sweetness, the branches so heavy Cian had propped them up with forked sticks to keep them from breaking. Balor and his court came to see the first apples harvested, for they had never seen such apples, or seen their little trees so hale. For once, Cian took the boy from his back and set him on the ground, putting in his place the basket for apples, and he climbed up, into the first tree. They watched as he plucked the apples carefully, taking only those that were riped and flawless, for he would not have Balor say the apples he had grown were imperfect.

When he had filled the basket, Cian climbed down the tree, but as he was about to step down from the last fork, a sudden wind blew up, shaking the tree and he lost his footing, dropping basket and apples together. The watchers gasped, several of them running forward to catch the apples—but were astonished into stillness as the small, weak-looking boy gathered them all up, his little hands moving so quickly that not a single fruit was bruised.

Balor, moving from anticipation to anger to joy, laughed loud enough to shake fruit from the branches. “Look at that little long-armed one! He must love apples as much as I do!”

And this was how the boy was named, for Balor was his grandfather, and a child must have a name from their mother’s family if they are to thrive. He became the little (Lug) long-armed (lamhada) from that day forward, and though he never grew large, he grew strong and quick, his limbs long and his eyes grew even brighter, catching the color of the sky and its seasons.

“So that is how you won your name, Lughaid,” Tailtiu said.

He frowned. “I do not remember riding on my father’s back, or visiting my grandfather’s court. I would remember a terrible monster with a single eye, wouldn’t I?”

Tailtiu shook her head. “Balor is no monster, and he has two eyes, but one is kept covered because of an accident he had as a youth. He was curious about what the druids did in their secret place and spied on them when they were brewing a powerful potion. The potion’s steam went in his eye and made his gaze a poison so that anything he looks upon is burned to dust. No one wants to burn away everything they look upon, so he covers the eye—unless he looks upon an enemy, and then he uncovers it. Otherwise, he looks like any of the Fomoire, and they look as we do, for we are all cousins.”

The boy frowned, nodded, and looked at Tailtiu. “But what of the cow? Did my father bring it home this time?”

“Yes, he did, though Balor did his best to stop him. Here is how it happened…

Balor tasted the apples and could not deny they were the best he had ever eaten, so he told Cian he would bring all his milk cows out in the morning so that he could choose the best. He had his herdsmen brush the cows and shine their horns and make them all as beautiful as possible—except for the wondrous cow, who’s coat he smeared with ash to make it dull, and who’s eyes he made water with dust. Then the cows were brought before Cian.

Now Bírog had expected Balor would try some trick to keep the cow, so she had reminded Cian to look only for the cow with the mark of a cauldron on her right hip, and to choose that cow no matter what others he was shown. So Cian made a show of looking over the cows and praising them all to Balor, but in the ending he chose the ashy, water-eyed cow with the cauldron on its hip.

Balor tried to dissuade him, of course, saying this was the worst of the cows, not the best, and Cian deserved better for his good work with the apples. Cian said it was only a charm he had learned from his old aunt, and this cow was the one he wanted. Balor finally gave in and said he might take the cow and wished him well on his journey.

But Cian remembered the importance of the halter—he had seen the cow race across the waves to the island with his own eyes—and asked for it. Balor offered him many halters, each one set with gold and gems and braided of fine leather. But Cian refused them all, saying they were too grand for the cow he had chosen, he simply wanted the halter that belonged with the cow. Bírog, of course, had told him how to know it: it was braided of three colors of leather, pale, dark, and blood red; and buckled with plain bronze with the mark of Credne Cerd’s work.

Finally, Balor told Cian he could not give him the halter of the ashy cow because it was not his to give—it belonged to his daughter Ethliu, and they would have to ask her if she would part with it. Cian agreed it was only fair to ask her, if it were hers—but his heart leapt at the thought of seeing again the maiden who had won and kept his love.

Balor went to his daughter and told her she must throw the halter to the one she loved the best—and he was sure she loved him better than she could a gardener she had never met. So he and Cian stood below her window as the sun rose the next morning and Ethliu looked down on them. Of course, she knew who she loved the best, and it was no longer her father who had kept her locked away so many years and taken away her little son to drown. She saw the gardener and knew him, for she had seen him in her dreams for two years. She took the halter in her hands and threw it—and Cian caught it, almost as sure as their son.

Balor cried out and stumbled, for the loss of the cow was nothing compared to the loss of his daughter’s love. He would have turned on Cian then, but he knew the duty of a host and would not harm a guest, but sent him away that very morning, warning him never to come within his sight if he would live.

“And it was then that Balor began arguing to increase the tithes on the Tuath Déa, and then the hand of the Fomoire became hard on us all, and then that Bres turned his face away from his mother’s people and turned their gifts to bitter burdens,” Tailtiu said.
“Balor keeps his daughter in the tower still?” he asked.

“Yes.” Tailtiu sighed. “She and her women are still captive there, and will be until Balor is gone. He will not forgive her for giving her heart, though he forgave her for the son he tried to drown.”

The boy held the charm he had made and traced the veins of the oak leaf. “It is a yew I will need, not an oak, a yew red as blood and swift as lightning. That will be the long arm I will show to Balor. Gobhniu will show me how to make it.”

Tailtiu felt the cold of winter touch her heart. “It is already made, my Lughaid, and came from the islands of the north with your father’s people. They have held it, waiting for the hand that can hold it, and there are already those who speak of you.”

The boy nodded. “I will be a smith, still, for who can wield well a weapon they do not understand? And I will be a champion, and a warrior, so that I may free us all from Balor’s angry heart.”

Lug’s Mothers

“Who is Bírog?” the boy asked.

“I have told you before I am not your first mother.”

“Yes, but you are the only mother I know or need.”

Tailtiu smiled, stroking his hair. “Yes, you tell me so. Bírog is your second mother, and she is the one who introduced your father to your first mother, the one who bore you.”

“But who is she?”

“Bírog is a druid woman, who lives in the northern mountains…

Bírog lived among the northern mountains, listening to the trees and stones and the wind. So she heard Balor roar, even from Torey Island, when he learned his daughter had born a son, the son he had forbidden her because of a prophecy. She heard him bellow to his man to take the babe—and the babes of the women who were his daughter’s companions—out to the sea to be drowned. Bírog knew that a prophecy could be delayed—and Balor had tried, locking his daughter away from men in a doorless tower of glass—but they could not be denied, and she felt the stirring of action in her heart even while she heard the babies cry as they were bundled into a rough blanket, pinned tight with a thorn.

So it was Bírog was flying over the sea when Balor’s man rowed out into the bay with a coracle full of babies, and so it was that her whisper pulled the thorn from the thick wool, and so it was that the babies, only a few days old but every one a child of Cian, son of Dian Cécht, crawled straight over the side and into the water. Bírog flew down and snatched up the smallest and last of them as he just touched the waves’ foam, and her cloak brushed the others, turning them to seals. But the last babe, the tiny son of Ethliu, she carried in her arms to the plains of Eire. And it was these arms of mine that she put him in, the salt scent of the sea mixing with the warm scent of a new babe.

“So you see, my Lughaid, you were born first from your mother, Ethliu, and second from the sea itself, and third by the arms of Bírog who carried you on the winds with her magic.”

The boy looked at her, the brightness in his eyes darkened with thought. “I am glad I came here, to you, but why did the others give me away?”

“Well, Bírog gave you to me because she knew I needed a boy to raise and because she knew you needed a mother to raise you. Ethliu… she has had few choices, and keeping you was not one she could make.”

Ethliu, daughter to Balor, war-chief of the Fomoire, was born under a prophecy her mother gave. It rested on Ethliu like a heavy cloak, making everything in her life more difficult: she would bear a son, and that son would have a destiny, and that destiny would destroy her father. Balor loved his child, but he had no wish to be destroyed, so he built a beautiful glass tower and put Ethliu into it before she was old enough to know men or bear children. He sent women to keep her company, and Bírog to train her in knowledge and wisdom. The glass tower let her look out on the world, but she could not be part of what she saw, for fear of the prophecy on her.

More than one who knows her has called Bírog a thorn in their side, and this is in part because she serves the powers. Balor sought to deny the prophecy, but she knew it could only be delayed, and when Cian came searching on Torey Island for a cow he had lost, she knew him for the man to move the prophecy forward.

Bírog greeted him on the strand, asked his intention in coming to the island, and his honest answer assured her he was the man she needed. She told him that the only way he would ever win the cow was to enter the doorless glass tower. She knew that, once in the tower, Cian would forget the cow and think only of Ethliu and that he would do all that was needed to move the prophecy forward.

Bírog carried Cian to the tower and set him before Ethliu and the women with her and he did all he was asked by them, so that three quarters of a year later, Balor heard the cries of babes from the tower he had built and called for them to be drowned. He opened the door to the tower, the door that did not exist, and carried the babes away, giving them to his man to drown in the bay.

The boy looked more serious still. “My grandfather wanted to kill me. And my first mother is imprisoned.” He looked up at Tailtiu, a little afraid perhaps but certain she would answer him truthfully. “What is the destiny that is laid on me? How will I destroy my grandfather—and why?”

Tailtiu sighed. “That story is long and longer and goes back to the time when your father’s people and my people were one, before we fled, north and south, from this island to travel on foreign shores.”

“But you will tell me why, won’t you?”

She nodded. “I will tell you the story, why there is unkindness between our peoples, but the short of it is this: your mother’s people—who are no distant relations to any of us—laid claim to this place after your father’s people won it from mine. They have a hold over the Tuath Déa, for your father’s people allied with them before asking us for a place here. They made promises, and the Fomoire hold them to those promises to the very letter, even if it crushes the spirit. The king, Eochu Bres, the flower of the Tuath Déa, does not speak against them, but instead enslaves even the highest of your kinsmen and withholds both food and comfort at the bequest of the Fomoire.”

“And your mother, your first mother, is Fomoire.” She looked at the solemn boy and spoke what she had not meant to. “And this is a secret that not even the king knows: his father is of the same people as your mother, sweet boy. But this is not a thing to speak of and you must keep it quiet in your heart.”

The boy nodded. “The king is like me then—he was raised by his mother, as you raise me. He must wonder about his father, since he has never known him.”

Tailtiu stroked the boy’s hair, hearing what he did not say. “It is hard for a boy not to know his father. I sometimes think Bres sees Balor as his, though it is not so. We had all hoped his marriage to Bríg would set his heart toward her father, but instead he treats him poorly and hardly will look on him. Perhaps someone told him the Dagda voted against his leadership.”

The boy twisted a stem of yarrow through the hole in one of the stones, then used the stem to tie an oak twig to it. She hadn’t shown him the way of that, hadn’t worked that charm for him, but he seemed to know the working anyway. Holey stone for hearing and yarrow for sight, the oak for strength to bear the message. He had always been a clever child, but as she watched him she realized he was less of a child than she imagined. He was and had always been small for his age, but he was almost old enough now to be fostered for training instead of raising. They would want to take him away to foster with a warrior’s house and make the weapon of him they thought he must be. His size had fooled her, lulled her into peace, but she saw by the lines of his face that he would not be with her much longer. She took one of the oak twigs and squeezed it in her hand.

“I will kill my grandfather and make my mother an orphan,” he said quietly. “Because he will not lift his hand from the people, because he will not share the bounty of the land. And you have told me, it must be shared or all are lost.”

“Yes, my heart, that is all true.”

“My father will come for me in the spring.”

“Yes,” she said and her heart was heavy because it was true, “but before then there are still things I must teach you. Like how you earned your name.”

“My name? Didn’t my mother name me?”

“No, it was your grandfather who gave you your name, and a better piece of cunning I never heard. It was Bírog who planned it…”

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.”


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

Origin of Lugnasad

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.


Put your hand on the soil-
you remember how I showed you?-
hear it’s voice. Do you feel its memory
of trees, the longing
for shade and dancing coins of sunlight
and deep roots singing their charms
of mutual hospitality?
I loved those trees, their shared strength
their afternoon whispers, their indrawn
breath in the hour before dawn.
But the high fields failed
and acorns are no food for cattle.

I cleared those trees, oaks
red and white and black, pulled
their stumps to make this fertile plain.
It was not the labor that was hard,
but saying goodbye.

My trees are gone, and though corn
and clover are on the plain,
milk is on the cows,
children are at the hearths,
I am weary and hunger for shade.