Tailtiu taught me this ritual way of honoring her several years ago, as I prepared for a Lughnasadh celebration with a druid grove. Do your own research, and you will discover several analogous rituals to earth and harvest deities on varying dates throughout Europe.
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.
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 Fomorians 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 wild thyme fills the air as I gently lay a grass doll down in the lush green shade of Siberian 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 that will finish of her effigy, however, along with bunches of purple-blossomed wild herbs and broad seed heads, were plucked from a friend’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 Lughnasad, and the local druid grove is gathered here to celebrate the heroic death of great Foster-Mother Tailtiu, she who raised the God 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 Norse 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.
(You’re going to be burying or breaking apart this doll at the end, not keeping her, so use bio-degradable materials.)
- ·One generous hunk of wheat, grass or native plants, preferably gone to seed. Corn husks will also work – especially from dinner! Fresh plants are easiest; if you use dried craft wheat, soak it.
- ·Nicely scented fresh herbs (if you have them)
- ·White cloth, cut neatly into a long strip, wide enough to place a grass doll on. Don’t use something you plan to keep: you’ll be sacrificing this later.
- ·Garden or other flowers
- ·Green garden twine, plain white cotton string or long green strands of grass to tie the doll with
- ·Garden spade (optional)
- ·Incense or holy water for cleansing/asperging
Offerings to Tailtiu:
- ·Honey and water, mixed
- ·Raw or cooked grain, such as barley, kasha or oats. Don’t use raw quinoa; it’s poisonous.
- ·Bird seed (optional)
- ·Fruits of your garden
- ·Baked goods or other vegetarian food you have made
- ·A candle (for Lugh
If you have wild materials and plants from your garden, please use them! Using what is yours, whatever is available, carries far more weight than something store purchased to look perfect. But if you don’t have a yard, fresh corn husks from dinner, or making something from a store will do. It’s also best to make the doll the night before, and keep it in a safe place, like your altar. Bless the bier the night before as well by smudging it or using a cleansing, natural incense smoke, like dragons blood, sandalwood, or a frankincense spray or incense.
Directions: Making the Tailtiu Doll
- Look for a good hunk of grass at the edge of your yard that has started to go to seed. Follow your instincts: it doesn’t have to be flashy, just a good base that you can make into a little ‘mother’ with a bushy skirt.
- Alternatively, soak your dry wheat or corn husks for 30 minutes. Fresh green corn husks and cornsilk saved from dinner work well.
- Make the doll by folding a loop at the top for the head. Grab enough material to use for hair later. Tie it at the neck.
- Divide the grass or leaves at the bottom of the loop into 3 tufts – a large central clump (at least 2-3 times as thick as the others) with two smaller tufts for arms at each side.
- Take the small tufts and make a little loop at the end for hands. Tie it off at the wrist and elbow. Be sure to make the arms long enough bend later.
- You should now have a bushy clump under the head. Take a few leaves from both sides and cross them in front, underneath the head, to make Tailtiu’s torso. Tie them around the front again, about 1/3 of the way down to define her waist. Tie it off in back.
- Divide the remaining clump into thirds, like for the arms, leaving the main clump in front.
- Tie off little loops for the feet. Tie the legs again at the knees.
- Fan out the remaining leaves at the bottom over Tailtiu’s legs to make the skirt.
- Pull some of the grass with seed heads loose from the head loop and braid it, to make Tailtiu’s hair. (You can also add a grass braid for this, just make sure it’s attached and make it neat. You are burying a Goddess and queen.)
- Fold the arms over Tailtiu’s chest in calm repose. Tuck a flower there if you wish.
- Fill out the doll with fresh herbs and flowers as appropriate.
Save the rest for the funeral rite.
The Tailtiu Ritual
Keep me in the shade until you bury me, Tailtiu whispers in my mind, the same way she showed me what needed to be done for her funeral rites. Serene and gentle, I feel a 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 two good braids, not just the loop of grass, bushy with seed heads, I’d twisted into place for 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 a long muslin bier, according to Tailtiu’s wishes, that another friend had helped me purify earlier with incense smoke. Reverently, I set 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.
According to myth, by her own directions, Tailtiu’s funeral was celebrated with games instead of mourning. Continue the tradition by doing the next steps joyously.
- If there are women present, let them stretch out the white cloth and lay it before the altar before the ritual is conducted. Lay Tailtiu down on the bier.
- ·Put flowers and grain for the funeral offerings on the altar.
- ·Gather everyone in a line, facing the altar and bier. Call for quiet.
- ·Clear them with incense or by asperging.
- ·Pour out honey and water behind everyone, honoring the earth and nature spirits. Scatter some bird seed or grain for them, too. Thank them for their presence and the earth’s protection during this rite. Don’t skip this step. It’s important for safety.
- Give something to the ancestors. Honor and thank them for watching over you.
- ·Invite the Gods appropriate to the occasion– especially Lugh and Tailtiu. Set out an offering for Lugh and light the candle.
- ·Let those present come forward, choose their offerings and pay homage to Tailtiu, one by one.
- When everyone has paid their respects, wrap Tailtiu up along with her flowers and offerings, in the white fabric as her funeral shroud.
- ·Thank the Gods, ancestors, and land spirits – and everyone present who respected the rite.
- ·Close the ritual.
- ·Feast and enjoy yourselves.
Remember to take Tailtiu home, and with joy and thanks, bury her. If you can’t do this, unwrap her respectfully and break apart the dolly somewhere fertility and protection is especially needed.
Hail Tailtiu! Hail the Great Giver, the Earth in all her valor, by whatever local names 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 Dindschenshas. It’s a remarkable commonality that the idea of Earth as the ultimate Giver occurs across cultures in Europe, from Greek Demeter to Slavic Mokosh, to Norse Gefiun and Irish Tailtiu. Even the root-name for deities of earth shares a common sound, ge, found in the Egyptian male earth God Geb, to the more familiar Grecian Ge and Gaiaand Danish Gefiun (widely thought to be Freyja as the Earth, according to Snorri Sturleson), all names meaning some variant of ‘Giver’. Like Tailtiu, the dead 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 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 aided or 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.
Pouring water (mixed with honey) on the ground is a common offering to the earth, from ancient Hellenic sources to modern Slavic ritual.
In Norse myth, Frey, the youthful son of the wet Earth, also has an absent “biological” mother and a stepmother. There are no myths directly known about his presumed mother Nerthus/Hertha, who does not show up alongside her twin children in the Norse pantheon. She is known to us only through historical sources, folklore, and linguistics. We are left, instead, with their wise and gentle father, Njordh, the ocean– and it is implied, Nerthus’ brother or masculine form. By proxy, Frey is the adult step-son of Skadhi, his father’s second wife (or ex-wife), depending on the myth version. Like Lugh, who is half Fomorian and half de Danaan, Frey has mixed heritage as a member of the Vanir tribe held “hostage” among the Aesir, and counted as one of them, according to Snorri. Similarly, the Welsh Llew (directly cognate with Irish Lugh Llamfada, considered by most scholars to be the same God, divided by a short stretch of ocean) is also the son of a brother and sister, something considered shameful by the time late Viking literature was recorded— as Snorri and other poets state on several occasions to explain Frey’s mother’s absence.
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.
Please note that for a Heathen ritual, I would not adapt this to Nerthus, who is not the same being as our Earth the Giver, and not as kindly of temperament. (That would be Gefiun or the very loving Sif. Most rituals to Nerthus really are approaching Gefiun or Sif.) Nerthus is far more primal of nature itself, like Ephesian Artemis. The kindly adoptive mother here is Skadhi– and even she is not a gentle Goddess.
- A History of Pagan Europe, Nigel Pennick
- Comparative Mythology, Jan Puhvel
- Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, Hilda Ellis Davidson
- Skirnismal (The Poetic Edda)
- Russian Myths, Elizabeth Warner
- The Dancing Goddesses, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
- A Celtic Miscellany, Kenneth H. Jackson
- The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella
- Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies et al, ed. by Janet Parker and Julie Stanton
- Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Charlene Spretnak
Websites for more information:
Image credits: Icon by me; corn husk doll courtesy of Wikipedia.