“About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lughnasadh if Lugh; round her grave from that Monday forth is held the chief Fair of noble Erin.
White-sided Tailtiu uttered in her land a true prophesy, 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 soul by means of knowledge and eloquence.”
~“Tailtiu” lines 45-56. ~ The Metrical Dindshenchas~
Lughnasadh is translated as the ‘Assembly of Lugh’; celebrated on August first, this holiday coincides with the weaning of the lambs born at Imbolc and the shearing of the sheep. It is also the time of first harvest. This day celebrates the protective power of the god Lugh, who presided over this holiday and was honoured as guardian of the wild and cultivated crops. Lughnasadh was celebrated with market fairs and games, offerings to the god on hill tops, bonfires, and horse races through water. Just as Brighid tempers the winter elements at Imbolc, Lugh tempers the heat of summer at this, the hottest time of the year. Thunderstorms on this day are considered a good omen. And just as Imbolc has an exclusively female focus, the goddess Brighid herself, Lughnasadh, half a year later, has a predominantly masculine focus.
The upcoming New Tara lecture will explore Lugh and his stories and the themes of Lughnasadh from the perspective of this divinity, the most popular and widely worshipped god in the whole of the Celtic world, Lugh (Llew, Lugus, the Lugoves, etc).
There are, however, other divinities which can be loosely grouped through their association with Lugh and their importance to the holiday of Lughnasadh; these include goddesses such as Carman, Búi, Nás, and, the most famous, Tailtiu. It is these goddesses which will be our subject here.
Carman is associated with the great assembly in Co. Wexford, Leinster. Her story is recorded in the Dindshenchas (MD III 2). It describes her as a provident power able to give and withhold the abundance of the land. Her father-in-law is described as ‘right hospitable’ and his father as ‘rich in substance’. They come from the East, the direction of Prosperity. However, her husband is ‘fierce’, and her three sons, ‘violent’, ‘dark’, and ‘wicked’, show a more sinister side. They seem to embody the tribes of the earthy Fir Bolg and the chaotic/destructive Fomoire in a single lineage; and to give the direction of their origin more worldly pizzazz, they are said to come from Athens.
Lugh captures Carman and drives away her sons. She is kept in a grove, her abundance producing powers thus controlled by the god of the tribe and the tribe itself while her dangerous offspring are no longer a threat. When she dies, Lugh inaugurates a festival in her honour to maintain a good harvest. Whether this is to keep her subject to the tribes needs or to placate her spirit is uncertain, as it is described as merely commemorative. But even as commemoration, it is attributed with power.
Búi, Nás, and Tailtiu are all associated with the great assembly at Telltown in Co. Meath – the ritual center of Ireland. In Meath, just as Tara is most strongly associated with Samhain, and Uisnech with Bealtaine, Telltown is the site of Co Meath’s Lughnasadh gatherings. Cnoc Lugdach is another name for the hill there, and under this name it is the grave of Lugh; though he is also credited with several other tombs in various places (which is perhaps apropos for a god often referred to in the plural by Continental Celts). The more common name, Telltown is derived from Tailtiu, naming the place after her personage.
The Dindshenchas (MD III 483) says Lugh has four wives, Echtach, Englic, Búi and Nás. Another (D 20) says that the assembly at Telltown was instituted for two of these wives, Búi and Nás. The fist is also the personal name of the Cailleach Beare (which is of course a title, not a name), the second is the eponymous goddess of Co. Nass, where she also had an assembly site for Leinster Kings. The name, Nás, might be derived from the word ‘assembly’ itself’. Both have Sovereignty associations.
By far the most obvious goddess associated with the assembly at Telltown/Tailtiu, is Tailtiu herself. The Dindshenchas (MD IV 146, quoted above) say that the Telltown Lughnasadh assembly was instituted for the Fir Bolg queen, Tailtiu. The connection between the Fir Bolg and Lughnasadh is further strengthened by the fact that the Lebor Gabala, or Book of Invasions, says that the Fir Bolg first arrived in Ireland on Lughnasadh, unlike most of the tribes, which were said to have arrived at Bealtaine.
Tailtiu, a Fir Bolg queen, instituted agriculture and was the foster-mother of Lugh. She died clearing the land that would become Co. Meath, and so Lugh instituted funerary games to be held on Lughnasadh to honour both her and her accomplishments.
Brón Trogain, ‘the sorrowing’ is what Lughnasadh is called in Tochmarc Emire, the Wooing of Emer, and the Acallamh na Senorach refers to it as Lughnasadh but calls the month which it begins ‘Trogan’. This name, so contradictory to the festive and victorious nature of Lughnasadh celebrations, may refer to the death of Tailtiu and related goddesses. Equally it may be for the land’s loss – an obviously conciliatory act, as it is we ourselves who are the one’s about to do the taking.
Other places likely also had particular goddesses associated with their Lughnasadh assemblies, but it is difficult to conflate them as local variations on the same goddess. Tailtiu and the Fir Bolg generally seem to represent the generosity of the land; Carman, though still a fertile power, had to have her gifts wrested from her and her sons kept from wreaking chaos; and Nás seems to have more to do with politics and Sovereignty than concerns of the harvest. They express different themes as to how Lughnasadh can play out, and so there are stark differences in their relationship with the god Lugh – be it adversary, foster mother, or wife – but in each place or time, he makes them the matron power of his great assembly.