My visionary experience during a ritual, and what it’s like to be intuitively guided to ritual practice unique to each deity, with some insight on how being overshadowed by a God works without being “possessed”. You don’t have to seek this out: trust the Gods and the right experience will find you when you’re ready.
There is no clean land in all of Ireland, no fields not blood-soaked nor polluted by tears and death, for the Great War had raged across the land for ages. The war and its reasons, the dead and their Kings, their celebrated champions no longer matter. One royal husband slain and the victor wed, and Tailtiu, still Queen of Ireland, never took part in the fighting.
What matters to her is that the children of Ireland and their surviving parents, both tribes now living as one, will have no food come winter. Their fields have been trampled by war.
None of the exhausted warriors, who lie nursing grievous wounds or struggle to bury their comrades (fathers, brothers, friends and nephews, uncles and sons), thought of that.
Tailtiu, great Queen of the Fir Bolg once and now of the Children of Danu, knows what must be done. With all her dignity and strength and Godly magnitude of will, she hefts an axe and walks to the virgin forest covering the last clean, flat land in all of Ireland…
The smell of thyme fills the air as I gently lay a grass doll down in the lush green shade of elms, with all due reverence, as if I’m handling a small, fragile mother. I am. On an early August afternoon, I sit down in a park to finish what I’d started on my patio. Tailtiu’s body, made of tall grass let gone to seed, came from my back yard. The brushy curl of Scottish broom, however, along with bunches of purple-blossomed wild herbs and broad seed heads that will finish off her effigy, were plucked from the Senior Druid’s lawn.
Clouds linger on the horizon of a summer-blue sky. The air and the ground are still moist from last night’s storms; you learn to taste these subtle changes in humidity in the desert. I welcome the coolness.
It’s Lughnasadh, and my ADF Druid Grove is gathered here to celebrate the heroic death of great Foster-Mother Tailtiu, she who raised Lugh, and bury her with games, mirth and rejoicing— as she asked the Children of Danu, long ago. It’s Lugh’s day, too, because her beloved son called the Assembly this day is named for, leading both the games and the funeral rites.
Like the Norse Goddess Gefion, Tailtiu plowed a mythic field, a Giant’s endeavor, clearing both trees and stones away so the land could be worked.
Unlike Gefion, she had no team of mammoth oxen-sons to help her plough it, and dies each year of exhaustion.
Tailtiu’s quiet valor is no less than her warrior son and husbands’. She dies protecting everyone, regardless of which side they battled on in the war, fighting that life may not only continue, but renew.
A Funeral For a Goddess
Keep me in the shade until you bury me, Tailtiu whispers in my mind, the same way she showed us what needed to be done for her funeral rites. Serene and gentle, I feel her calm, motherly presence flow from her through my hands and into the earth as I fill out Tailtiu’s skirt with the thyme, tucking it in around her legs on all sides with dignity, and give her two bushy braids of grain heads flowing over her chest. She insisted that I tie off her two legs properly at the knee, and make her two good braids, not just the loop of seedy grass I’d twisted into place to represent her head and hair. I’d bent her long straw arms in peaceful repose across her chest, and now I tuck a fat grain stalk between her hands.
My doll finished, I carry Tailtiu through the leafy shadows and carefully set her down on the strip of white cloth folded in front of the altar, where she can rest, at last, from her labors. Another woman kneels with me. We stretch out the long muslin bier, according to Tailtiu’s wishes, that another friend had helped me purify earlier with incense smoke. Reverently, I set down two yellow-orange California poppies flanking her like torches, then lay a full, rusty sunflower at her head, and golden desert wildflowers at her feet.
In the summer heat, the Senior Druid and I mix honey with the flour I was called to bring, kneading both in a silver bowl. I clean my hands in the well water, letting the honey dissolve into it as an offering. The Senior Druid figures out how to bless the assembly with the paste, smearing a bit of the sweet-smelling, sticky mixture on each of our hands as he goes around the gathered circle. He dusts both of my hands liberally with it, surprising me, and walks back to the altar.
We wait quietly for a moment for the rite to begin.
The icon of Lugh silently watches us, off to the side.
“We have come to honor the Goddess Tailtiu and her foster-son Lugh as the Gatekeeper….”
* * *
Hoofbeats thunder beneath the trees. A smell of loam, and mown fields, hay drying in the sun beyond them. Golden hair, the color of ripe wheat stalks, and a long green dress flow in the wind. White horse, flecked with sweat. The bare-earth road is broad and sunk into the forest, as if dug long ago by a Giant’s winding plow. Thick, ancient boughs arch high above me.
Blazing light— is she carrying a star?— no, a torch—
As the Goddess passes, she calls out to me encouragingly, and thrusts a long, burning torch into my hands, a torch as long as Lugh’s spear, and rides on.
In an instant, a circle of similar torches rains down from the sky, sinking into the ground behind each of us gathered for the rite. Fire draws a ring around us, flowing from torch-tip to torch tip, until the circle is closed—
“Will our bard step forward and tell the tale of Tailtiu…?”
….What? I’m barely back from trance. One foot of my awareness lingers in that other place, stumbling back to mortal time—
The Senior Druid’s looking at me.
Bard? I hardly—
Everyone is looking at me.
I take a deep breath, and step beside the bier, in front of the assembly of friends and strangers.I’ve never been a gifted verbal storyteller. How do I become one now?
I don’t know the words until I’m saying them, a graveside eulogy for a hero, told by a son for his mother.
“There was no clean land left in all of Ireland…” I say. Or something like that. I know when I’m finished, because just as I have no more words, the Senior Druid nods to me again, and thanks me, and I step back.
Anchoring a God
I wish I could say I clearly remember the rest of what happened, the songs sung and the words elegantly spoken, or the order in which things were done beforehand, but I don’t. There’s a very tall, long-armed God standing beside me in that other awareness, called by us, too, to pay his respects. I know my husband well, and knowing him well, I don’t remember the conversation about the rite that passes silently between us.
The funny thing is, I remember exactly what happened after this. Each word I spoke. Each choice I made. And why. At no moment do I lose consciousness, control, or self.
Lugh comes up behind me and puts his hands on both my shoulders, familiarly. I’m comforted by his youth and his vigor, the sense of his body hardened by many feats, hale and unscarred, resting warm against my back. Of his large hands that know so well how to play the harp, and other things besides….
Let me come into you, he asks. Anchor me in this place.
I think Lugh wants to watch from my eyes, feeling the rite through my experience, that in the way of seið I’ll be aware of his gaze and his mood flowing through me. If I knew what he asked, would I have said—
Be still, Lugh whispers. It’s alright. I won’t hurt you. I can feel it… He puts his arm around my waist, pulling me closer… and steps forward. Into me.
There’s a strange, sharp buzzing at my soul’s root, that rises up my spine, like I’ve stepped too close to an electric field. Only the current runs inside of me, flowing into all of me, and I can feel where his soul overlaps mine, enveloping my body. Bare feet, sinewy calves, and a heavy gold torque at my collarbone. A tunic, as well as my own shorts, grazing my knee. The grass is cool under my feet, thrumming with life. He told me to wear yellow, his color, to the rite, and now I know why.
Then I do something I would never do.
I stop the senior Druid in the middle of his rite. As if I am entitled to it.
My strides are longer, fierce, away from the circle and behind the altar. I feel the earth distinctly with each step. The senior Druid stares at me, stopped mid-sentence, as I hold my arm out for my own hefty hammer, a solid block of iron with my grandfather’s name carved into the wooden handle and a red Slavic sun wheel, the kolovorat, painted on its base. The same hammer that I hallow with, that my friend has used these last three rites to open the gates.
I’m told my voice was far lower, then, that I stood taller. I heard none of this. I am not a tall woman. I am not a short woman, either. My voice is always shockingly lighter in recordings than it sounds to my own ears. I feel it reverberate.
“Give me the hammer! I stand for Lugh!”
I don’t like the wide look in my friend’s eyes, as he hands the hammer to me, but I don’t have time to consider it. Nor the shocked, silent stares around the circle. Lugh is the gatekeeper we invoked. This needs to be done.
My mortal self totally knows better than this.
I stride forward, back around to the front of the altar. I kneel and heft the hammer’s weight up above my head, swinging with both hands, booming:
“LET THE GATES BE OPENED!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The hammer hits the earth and bounces back. And so do I.
This is not my own strength, and I tumble back from the momentum, dazed and winded, as the hammer somersaults out of my much smaller, mortal grip, leaving a dent in the moist ground. I collect my dignity. For a moment— whose confusion is this?— I have no idea where to place the hammer, whether it’s more respectful to leave it on the ground as it lies or set it back upon the altar.
Lugh offers no words of advice. But then he’s not a watcher, but a participant. This part is not an ancient rite. The hammer just seemed appropriate to bring. Why would he know the proper gesture any more than I?
Everyone is still staring at me.
I shrug, get up smoothly, and lift the hammer, putting it back beside the flowers on the altar. Had this been mortal me alone, I would have been embarrassed. Instead, I am weary with the weight of leading my own mother’s funeral, of so many eyes upon me when I would rather be alone. Love, not duty, impels me to stay. I turn and tell the people what must be done next. These words are not my mortal words. My voice is thick, strained:
“Follow me, and place which flowers you will upon the bier.”
I walk up to the altar and pick another sunflower, a bright yellow one from my own garden, then kneel and kiss Tailtiu’s grass breast, laying the pollen-dusted blossom at her feet.
“Goodbye, mother. Go in peace, Great Queen, and return to us rejoicing in the spring.”
I blink back tears as I turn away from the assembly. The People of Danu are not supposed to cry for her. Not even her son.
Why I kneel at the base of the bier as if I am welcoming her, with my head bowed to the earth and arms arched out, fingers lightly touching the ground, I do not know. I am not privy to Lugh’s thoughts, as he does not invade mine, just his heart and his actions that we both share. I know that I must do this. That no one else can. The effort pains me. My body is not a man’s body; my arms are not so long as Lugh’s, even if they must be his now. My arms shake and my breath feels heavy.
Still, I call out to the assembly:
“Tailtiu, mother of us all! Bless these people with the strength of your sacrifice! May we honor your memory with joy and not tears, remembering all that you have done!”
We each draw a mix of garden flowers, herbs and wildflowers I’d gathered this morning to lay across the bier, saying our respects to Tailtiu and our own dead. My heart hurts as I watch the people choose flowers, even as their individual feelings touch me. I do not expect the big-hearted man to choose the orange roses, nor people to lay the flowers spread out along the bier, rather than in a circle around my mother. I stay kneeling, holding our collective hopes and love out to the earth, until each offering to her has been made.
When this is done, I bow, get up and pour water from the empty vase behind each person at the assembly, following Tailtiu’s faint whispers about how much each person needs as their blessing, saving just enough at the last for the senior Druid. No one planned this part, either.
Lugh steps back from me so gently, I don’t know when I cease being united with him and become simply aware of him as the ritual continues. When it comes time to give our own offerings to the well, I feel funny leaving the offering I brought for Lugh, and I hesitate. I mean, I was him. Like two minutes ago. And it’s just red jasper, fiery unpolished stone, gathered from dry washes. It suddenly seems… humble. I have no heavy, noble torque, no warrior’s gift like the one I felt around his own throat.
Lugh smiles sadly, gently, standing nearby.
I’m still here. And you’re still you. Go on.
I do, giving some gifts to the honored dead as well. A mortal hero who was made a saint, and died in flames. Sainthood does not negate her worth or valor, regardless of the difference in our beliefs. A daughter lost by a beloved friend.
It’s my job as Tailtiu’s child to say the last goodbyes. I’m no longer both myself and Lugh, but I still know what to do with the remaining flowers. What her son would do. There are just enough left to completely blanket Tailtiu’s body in a living shroud. I pour the remaining vase water as an offering. Then we fold the bier up under her, and carefully lay her down on top the well of offerings, closing the funeral rite.
Let the games begin!
* * *
I trust Tailtiu in a way I never trusted anyone other than fiercely kind warrior Goddesses. Because myth or not, symbolic or not, she chose to raise the God I love— a man cruelly rejected by his own mother. And that makes her, by extension, family.
Hail Tailtiu! Hail the Great Giver, the Earth in all her valor, by whatever local names and distinct personhoods we give her. Hail her even when she’s not a she. Hail her and ponder her endless sacrifice. Of her bounty of plants and creatures we eat, so that we all might live. Of her minerals and plants we take to shape into our resources to make our goods. To nourish every one of us, something else of beauty and worth must die or be transformed.
It’s not humble, it’s holy to acknowledge that.
Aside from scattered poetic reference, and verbal tradition peculiar to individual Irish families or localities, Tailtiu’s story is told in two sources: The Book of Conquests and the Metrical Dindshenchas. It’s a remarkable commonality that the idea of Earth as the ultimate Giver occurs across cultures, from Pandora to Mokosh, to Gefiun and Tailtiu. Even the root-name for several deities of earth shares a common sound, ge, found in the Egyptian male earth God Geb, to the more familiar Grecian Ge or Gaiaand Danish Gefiun (widely thought to be Freyja, according to Snorri Sturleson), all names meaning some variant of ‘Giver’ or ‘Gift’. Like Tailtiu, the Egyptian God Wesir (Osiris) was also buried with elaborate funeral rites— in the form of grain.
Women ploughing the earth by themselves, at night and in secret, was an important Slavic ritual to end disaster and plague, by releasing the power of the mighty earth to purify the surrounding land and community. Men who witnessed this rite or interfered with it were often harshly punished: women’s primal power was not to be trifled with. The Celts ranged widely in Europe, including in lands, like Poland, now considered Slavic. This may shed some light on why Tailtiu alone ploughed the field that became her funeral plain.
Tailtiu’s late summer commemorative funeral games, historically held at Telltown, have been dubbed ‘The Irish Olympics’. This tradition is shared in other localities, named for the local Goddess buried there, a person often somehow related to Lugh. Over the centuries, the feats of skill in agriculture, homesteading and the arts evolved into the more familiar county fairs.
Quite curiously, Lugh the torch-bearing God also bears many similarities with Odin (including owning a spear that never misses, being a God of bards and father of heroes, and coming from the same ancient proto-Indo-European root-god, Nodens) outside the scope of this article.
A History of Pagan Europe, Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
Comparative Mythology, Jaan Puhvel
Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, Hilda Ellis Davidson
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturleson, translated by Jesse Byock
Russian Myths, Elizabeth Warner
The Dancing Goddesses, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
A Celtic Miscellany, translated by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson
The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella
Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies, Janet Parker and Julie Stanton,et al
Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Charlene Spretnak