Tailtiu – Great One of the Earth…


imageTailtiu is an Irish Goddess of Sovereignty, an ancient Goddess whose annual funeral games, according to the myth, were instituted by her foster son Lugh. These games were held for more than a thousand years at a hill in County Meath that even today bears her name, Tailtiu or, in English, Teltown. The name of the festival is Lughnasadh, one of the great fire festivals of ancient and modern Celtic peoples. Even though the Taltean games, sometimes called the Irish Olympics, endured longer than the Greek Olympics we know little of the Goddess for whom they were held. Although modern Pagans tend to associate this festival with the Irish God Lugh, it is in fact dedicated to his foster mother Taillte or Tailtiu. Tailtiu’s name is said to mean “Great One of the Earth” and she is renowned for clearing the plains in Ireland for agricultural use. Most notably the Plain of Brega between the Boyne and the Liffey, which includes the sites of Tara, Brug na Bóinne, and Knowth. From this we can deduce that she comes armed with abundance, she is the harvest, the feeder of a nation, child of the Earth.

imagesCA54VXE1Tailtiu was both the daughter of the Great Plain and the wife of the Horse Lords.

According to the Book of Invasions, Tailtiu was the daughter of the king of Spain and the wife of Eochaid mac Eirc, last Fir Bolg High King of Ireland. (The Fir Bolg ruled Ireland before the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan.) It is, however, highly  unlikely that an Irish Goddess of Sovereignty would be a native of Spain. In most sources this mythical king of Spain is called simply Mag Mor which means Great Plain. This indicates that Tailtiu was the daughter of the fruitful plain. Either way she was highly regarded by her husband, Eochaid mac Eirc, who named his capital after Tailtiu, (Telltown, between Navan and Kells).

Tailtiu, wife of the last Fir Bolg High King of Ireland, survived the invasion of the Tuatha Dé Danann and became the foster mother of Lugh. This supports the tradition that Tailtiu/Telltown was associated with the Fir Bolg, (possibly Bronze Age Celts) and the Tuatha de Danaan who were Iron Age Celts. In addition to its importance as a cemetery, Tailtiu (Telltown) was also a stronghold and a seat of government. The mounds of Tlachtgha, near Athboy (Meath), and the now almost vanished Tailltiu/Telltown in the same county, were not only palace sites, but were important sanctuaries, the resident king being regarded as a divine incarnation.

The extraordinary importance of the great ring fort of Tailtiu is illustrated by the following:

"And Eriu was beaten back to Tailltin, and as many of her men as she could hold together; and when she came there she told the people how she had been worsted in the battle, and the best of her men had got their death."

imagesCA3I4PU7Eriu, was one of the Great Goddesses of Sovereignty in Ireland and one of the Tuatha de Danaan. She chose to make her last stand against the Children of Mil at Tailtiu, the ancient Fir Bolg stronghold. Tailtiu (Telltown) lies about halfway between Drogheda in the east and Oldcastle in the west. This entire area is a huge ritual landscape. Starting in the east and travelling west along the Boyne River we find: Dowth, Newgrange, Knowth, the Hill of Slane, and Navan. Continuing northwest along the Blackwater we come to the Hill of Tailte, and father west-by-northwest lies the great megalithic cemetery of Sliabh na Caillighe or Hill of the Hag. Southeast of Navan, the Hill of Tara forms the southernmost point of an almost perfect equilateral triangle with Dowth and the Hill of Tailte being the north-eastern and north-western points, respectively.

We do not know very much about Tailtiu, the attributes of an ancient queen or goddess are often lost to us, but we may find them reflected in what we are told of her husband, Eochu mac Eirc.

Eochu mac Eirc was the first king to establish a system of justice in Ireland. No rain fell during his reign, only dew, and the land was fruitful, yielding harvests in every year. He ruled for ten years, until the Fir Bolg were defeated by the Tuatha de Danann in the first Battle of Magh Tuiredh. During the fighting Eochaid was overcome by thirst, but the druids of the Tuatha de Danaan hid all sources of water from him with their magic. As he searched for water, he was found and killed by The Morrigan.morrigan Tailtu arrives in the aftermath of this battle and creates another plain “and the wood was cut down by her, so it was a plain under clover-flower before the end of a year.”  She breathes life into destruction and hope after battle. It is an act of renewal and regeneration. The Fir Bolg then retreat to the west to the Aran Islands of Inis Maan, Inis Oirr, and Inis Mór and build great forts there, the remains of which can still be seen today. It is conceivable to believe that Tailtiu’s dowry funded the construction of these great forts. We know that Eochaid did name his palace after Tailtiu; such was the esteem in which she was held.

After the Battle of Mag Tuired, Tailtiu was married for a second time. It is said that Lugh gave her in marriage to Eochu Garb son of Dui Dall.

If there is any truth at all in the theories that the Great Goddesses of the land were replaced by Gods, then in Tailtiu we may have an example of this. Little is known of this Goddess but what we do know is tantalizing. The bits and pieces tease us into wondering who she was. The fact that her cult, in the form of her funeral games, survived for so long seems to indicate that Tailtiu was an extraordinarily important Goddess.

imageWhile [Lugh] was king, his foster-mother Taillte, daughter of Magh Mor, the Great Plain died. She is said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Before her death she bade her husband Duach the Dark, that he build the Fort of the Hostages in Teamhair, (Tara) to clear away the wood of Cuan, the way there could be a gathering of the people around her grave. So he called to the men of Ireland to cut down the wood with their wide-bladed knives and bill-hooks and hatchets, and within a month the whole wood was cut down. And Lugh buried her in the plain of Midhe, and raised a mound over her, that is to be seen to this day. And he ordered fires to be kindled, and keening to be made, and games and sports to be held in the summer of every year out of respect to her. And the place they were held got its name from her, that is Taillten (Telltown).

This great cleared plain is the fair land of Meath, perfect for raising cattle and horses. Coill Cuan, the place Tailtiu cleared, means Forest Bend and there is a great bend in the Boyne south of the Hill of Tailte. It was here, on this great pasture of clover, that the annual Taltean Games were held during Lughnasadh. These games featured feats of strength, contests involving skill and accuracy with weapons, and bardic competitions. Horseracing was, however, the major feature of these games.

The Mound of the Hostages at the Hill of Tara, Co. MeathThe Hill of Tailte was the centre of the cult of this ancient goddess. Even though the festival is called Lughnasadh, it is clear that the games are in her honour and formed a part of the ritual veneration of Tailtiu. It is of interest that her influence seems to predate the arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan, indicating that her cult may have been established very early, perhaps before the cults of Eriu and Dana. In the genealogy lists, the progenitor of all Fir Bolg kings is Eochaid the Horseman of the Heavens. He is generally supposed to be the male manifestation of Bolg, the Belgae Goddess of Lightning. This association of Tailtiu’s husband Eochu mac Eirc with an indisputable Great Mare Mother is evidence that Tailtiu was also a Great Mare Mother. Tailtiu/Telltown was the site of the great national celebration of the First Harvest in Ireland. The archaeological record shows that it was a pre-Iron Age ritual site.

It was 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 raping, without challenge of property, doughtytournament 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.

Lugh had her buried in County Meath where she still rests; “And Lugh buried her in the plain of Midhe, and raised a mound over her, that is to be seen to this day. And he ordered fires to be kindled, and keening to be made, and games and sports to be held in the summer of every year out of respect to her. And the place they were held got its name from her, which is Taillten (Telltown)."  It is most likely astronomically aligned. These games continued over thousands of years and were adopted by the De Danann and Christians alike. They have the unique distinction of being older than the Olympics. "Great that deed that was done with the axe’s help by Taltiu” and she prophesised “that so long as every prince should accept her, Erin should not be without perfect song.”

Tailtiu was the last queen of Her kind, a feminine energy that felt the longing of humanity. When the time is right, She gives birth, delivers the sheaves of wheat, then She dies, a need fulfilled….but soon She will rise again. Over the centuries, with the advent of patriarchy, Divinity began to rise towards the heavens, and Lughnasadh, the feast that was once a funerary fair in honor of Tailtiu, has now became a celebration of the Sun God, Lugh.

clip_image004The Teltown Mound, Rathdhú

For many generations, perhaps beginning in sixth century CE, Teltown was known for the goddess-inspired celebration of a harvest festival, a time when feats of strength and mock battles would mark the start of the season of plenty. Teltown (Tailteann) encompasses a large area at a bend of the River Blackwater in Co. Meath. As long ago as 539 CE, the beginning of August would see the area crowded with raucous celebrations, athletic games, and the gritty commerce of the traditional harvest-time (Lughnasa) fair. But all this is no longer to be seen. What remains to remind the visitor of this oenach (festival) is but one large mound, known as Rathdhú (Rath Dubh, the Black Fort), a circular earthwork some 85 m (280 ft) in diameter at the top of its level platform, which rises up nearly 4 m (13 ft) above the plain. Another mound, obscured in its overgrown foliage, is Rath Airthir (the Eastern Fort), with its three ramparts around 30 m (98 ft) in diameter. Recently a natural rock outcrop at Teltown was discovered to have rock art from the second millennium BCE, suggesting that ritual activity at the site began some 2000 years before Tailteann began its role as a center of the Celtic harvest celebration.

At one time the mound of Rathdhú was surrounded by a “low earthen rampart, on which, the country-people say, the spectators sat while games were celebrated on the circular green sward before their feet. But this is mostly gone now, obliterated by the plough many years ago.


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