The smoke billowed from the fire dish as my fingers tore the Lughnasadh bread.
As usual for the high days, I made it myself — with the help of my breadmaking machine, of course. Wheat bread, with some honey, a sprinkling of herbs and onion powder for kick. The offering dish was filled with herbs from my garden — comfrey, sage, borage, savory, oregano, catnip, thyme, basil, lavender — along with the blooms of roses and marigolds and a few garden tomatoes. I even salvaged two — the only two — green beans from my critter-ransacked garden.
This round, I chose Lugh and Tailtiu as the deities to honor. To come back to the bread, Lugh is the skill that measures the ingredients and programs the machine. He is the many-skilled god, protector of the tribe. Tailtiu is linked to the wheat it’s made of, and the hands — not mine — that gathered it. A woman of the Fir Bolg — “the people of the bag,” the land’s original inhabitants — she was Lugh’s foster mother; games were conducted in her honor at Lughnasadh. Why? She singlehandedly cleared the forests and turned them into fields for agriculture, then dropped dead from sheer exhaustion immediately afterward.
There’s an unease when it comes to dealing with Tailtiu and the myth of the land-clearing. Forests, in our modern eyes, seem pure and pristine; to strip the land of them seems wrong, destructive. But they cannot feed a village and its mouths in the manner of the field. To modern people, the land-clearing may seem, at best, a necessary evil. We’ve forgotten that food doesn’t magically appear in the produce aisle; it’s not shrink-wrapped and sanitary. It comes from the land, with its dirt and insects — the land that was once forest or prairie, harnessed like the aurochs and tamed by our hands. It is plucked from the ground or slaughtered not by the hands of the rich owners, but the hands of the poor — the poor we, as pale conquerors, consider the interlopers, but who dwelt on this land before us. When it was forest, when it was prairie or desert. Or, in historical times, when it was part of Mexico.
I see Tailtiu in the sweat of one’s brow, physical labor and hard work. The work that attracts little notice, but without which we cannot live: farming, from plowing to picking; digging trenches for infrastructure projects; building roads. She is the face of the immigrant worker, despised or ignored. Perhaps it’s no surprise she worked herself to death for the benefit of others.
In Irish myth, the war between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fir Bolg remind me of the one between the Aesir and Vanir among the Norse. I see the Fir Bolg essentially in the same way as the Vanir: the land gods, the spirits of the place itself, who remain unchanged despite changes in culture wrought by conquest. We don’t know many of their names, as they’re not often spoken of in myth. But what are names to the spirits of the land? What is a name to a rock, or tree?
We know Tailtiu’s name, though, which is believed to mean “great one of the earth.”
Her story is an uncomfortable one, but it’s good to be pricked a bit. Those who sweat and labor are beloved of the great one of the earth, and are mighty themselves.