A Tale of Lughnasadh

 

He came to me as an infant. Washed like driftwood in the sea’s tide, from which his own grandfather, King Balor, had thrown him. O, it was a vile act! An attempt to drown the poor boy! The old king had his reasons. Years before, a Druid had prophesied: “Any grandson of Balor will cause the death of him.”

Such a warning was not to be taken lightly. Druids were the seers, the soothsayers of all things known and unknown. Yet Balor’s solution was foolish! The most foolish thing I had ever heard in my life. Imagine preventing a pregnancy by holding your daughter hostage in a tower, thus keeping her from all male contact. Even one with the brains of  a sheep should know such a plan would never work!

But I get ahead of myself.

My name is Tailtiu. I served the land, the grain and the harvest. It was I who made all of Erin’s Isle green. bringing rain and wind, making the fields fertile.

It was I who ripened the wheat, sprouted the potatoes, made the apples fall and the berries go plump. I had ample work — enough tasks of my own, just to keep the land in good order so people would not starve. The last thing I needed was a baby at my breast to complicate my life.

And yet it was.

King Balor was a giant, a mighty sorcerer who was able to cast many spells and kill with his evil third eye.

Few things frightened him, but when he heard the Druid’s prophecy he was taken aback. The Druids were never wrong. And for this reason, Balor decided; it must be arranged that his grandson would simply never be born.

Balor had but one daughter, a beautiful lass by the name of Ethlin. So lovely was she that every lad for miles around offered his fortune for her hand in marriage. Yet Balor refused them all.

“Given the slightest opportunity, that girl shall get herself with child and birth an evil whelp,” he said. “One that would as soon take a dagger to me as blink an eye. O no! I shall prevent it at all costs! The fair Ethlin will be locked in a tower, where none of the male persuasion will ever get to her. There she shall live, forever barren. In doing this, I shall retain my own power and wealth.”

And so it was.

The girl Ethlin was locked in the Mor Tor, a crystal structure that one could neither climb nor descend into. Its walls were thick as a citadel, made of pure diamond, the hardest glass, which could not be broken with pick nor hammer. It had but one key for entrance which Balor  kept only to himself, hidden in the darkest depths of his castle dungeon, its location known to him alone.

There, in the tower, Ethlin lived out her days in solitude, attended only by the twelve midwives who served her. Balor had commanded that there be no talk of men, and his daughter should forget they ever existed.

She had no sunlight, no fresh air, no diversions, no pleasure. Only the steady work of needlepoint, such to make her eyes bleary and her fingers numb.  ‘Tis a wonder the lass did not go mad with boredom!  A life such as that was no life at all.

“When am I to be free?” she would ask, to which her midwives would be silent, for they feared the wrath of Balor.

Far out in the glen, in the land of dusk and faerie, where time and space cross and all things are possible, there is an Otherworld. In that Otherworld dwell the The Tuatha Dé Danann  – the Tribe of the goddess Danu.  And in that tribe there was a lad.  Brave and handsome he was, and young and strong, with a will of his own and much admiring of Ethlin. His name was Cian.

“How difficult could it be,” Cian asked me, “to climb that tower, to enter into it, to rescue the lass from her condemnation?”

“Not difficult at all,” I answered.

It was a mere sleight of the body. Balor, in his anger and scheming, had deeply underestimated the likes of me, the likes of Cian, the likes of the entire Tuatha Dé Danann. We are, you see, present in one place, and then we simply are not. This is the nature of our Otherworld.  I gave Cian a potion of magic herbs with a drop of dragon’s tears; as he drank it I uttered these words:

“Eye of thistle, heart of drake

Through this charm a lover make

A path to his desired space

Full of lust and full of grace

With this potion may you prove

Dedication and true love!”

In an instant Cian had taken to the sky; in another instant he had entered  through the walls of the crystal tower.

The very sight of him set Ethlin’s heart a-flutter, for the girl was young and ripe. She had never known the touch of a man. And such a man Cian was! Strapping and stunning, with chiseled cheekbones, dazzling eyes and locks of hair that put Samson to shame.  His manners were impeccable, and chivalry graced every bone in his body. The Mor Tor quickly became their love nest. Within weeks Ethlin was with child.

Balor, for his part, had no concern for his daughter. Foolish man! He never visited, left all dealings to her midwives. But now! The surprise that awaited him would be one most displeasing.

Nine months later the child was born. We named him ‘Lugh’ for Light. No other name could suit such a child, for he was radiant as the sun itself. As the offspring of the two most gorgeous beings in Eire, he was bound to be beautiful – but the baby Lugh far exceeded mere beauty.

When Balor got word of the birth he was furious.

In the dead of night, Balor slunk into the tower, whittling his dull key to the door and ascending the crystal staircase. He kidnapped the baby and whisked him away to the edge of the sea.

Balor stood on a monstrous cliff, overlooking the waves that crashed below like a liquid glacier. Without so much as a thought, he tossed the child in, hoping the ocean would crush him to a watery grave.

It was Manannan mac Lir, the god of the sea, who found the baby.  The infant was near death, bobbing and thrashing in the cresting waves, his lungs waterlogged and breath scarce. Manannan mac Lir knew immediately this was a very special child. He cradled the baby in his sturdy sea arms, wrapped him in a cloth of clean cambric, then brought him to me.

“You, Tailtiu, are a goddess of the earth. If anyone can suckle this child and give him renewed life, it shall be you.”

He was right of course. And even though Ethlin was his natural mother, it was not safe that she keep him, for Balor would surely track her down and attempt to kill the child again. I bid Ethlin and Cian flee the isle. They were young and could produce many more for their family. Lugh would be mine.

And so I raised him. He became my foster son, the Celtic god of the Sun, a radiant and celestial being. Prince Lugh was much loved and much revered, known for his kindness and benevolence.

He was, in fact, so loved that the Tuatha Dé Danann eventually chose him as their king. As such he was obliged to fight great battles.  It was in the Battle of Mag Tuired that the Druid’s prophecy once again came into question.

Lugh was required to fight Balor.

The two met on a battlefield of mud and weaponry, a wasteland of gouged bodies, severed limbs and rotting blood.  Balor had managed to kill many a soldier with his tricks and spells and evil eye, but now his grandson confronted him.

Lugh hurled a great spear, all the while shouting, “Forgive me, Grandfather, for what must be done!”

The spear then hit Balor, smack in his third eye. Balor fell to the ground, flailing like a fish on a hook. Yet the spells of Balor were still viable, and he managed to kill more of the Tuatha Dé Danann with his magic.

Having no choice, Lugh then pulled his sword and in one swift stroke, beheaded his own grandfather. The Druid’s prophecy was complete.

It was victory for the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through this, Lugh was given sacred powers. He become the god of skill and craft, of honor, truth and law. He was granted eternal radiance and eternal youth.

As for myself, by this time I was growing old, my twilight years upon me. My endless duties had left me strained. I had cared for the boy.  I had cared for the earth. As the years passed, the land became wild and ornery. Sometimes it would not even produce a potato for me, thus leaving the people in famine. Yet I did my best. Finally, in my feebleness, I could no longer serve the greenery, the plants and grain I loved so well.

My health fell ill and I began to wither back into the land from which all living things come. I, like a crone of autumn, faded into that golden haze that marks the end of the long summer. Upon the first day of August I breathed my last.

To mark my death, my foster son called for a great celebration. He saw this fitting, as he wanted to pay homage to me and all I had meant to him.  There would be no funeral dirges, no veils of mourning, no maudlin processions.  Instead, there was sumptuous feasting, a bounty from the harvest, dancing and song, all forms of revelry and games.

From far away in the spirit world I watched. And I was most pleased. So pleased, in fact, that I wished this feasting and revelry could occur every year, on the first day of August, as a holy day, not only for myself but for the land, the harvest, and the people.

My wish was granted.

Because the festivities had been orchestrated by Lugh, it was only proper that this holy day ever after be called “Lughnasadh.”

 

 

 

 

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All About Leprechauns!

 

St. Patrick’s Day would not be complete without leprechauns! If you attend a parade or celebration today, you may see a few of them — those funny looking guys with tall green top hats and scraggly orange beards.

The image of the leprechaun has been used to advertise everything from lottery tickets to Lucky Charms. They are the mascot of the Boston Celtics and the face of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish.

They have been portrayed as dishonest, aggressive and annoying little creatures. Yet I can’t help but think leprechauns have been unfairly stereotyped (much like their human Irish counterparts) as brawlers, drunkards and all-around trouble makers.

Real leprechauns have a much more sophisticated history.

In Irish mythology, leprechauns are part of a race called the Aos Sidhe (pronounced aes-shee). These are supernatural tribes of faeries that include (but are not limited to) Banshees, Changelings, Gancanagh, Pucas, Selkies, Mermaids and Sluagh. These entities live in various places — some underground in fairy mounds, some in oceans, and some in an invisible world, or parallel universe, that coexists with the world of humans.

Leprechauns are believed to be among the first inhabitants of Ireland, arriving long before the Celtic tribes.  Their life-span can last several hundreds of years. Some folklorists consider leprechauns to be the true natives of Ireland, descended from Irish kings and queens. To this day, Leprechauns can only ever be found in Ireland. They are usually sighted in rural areas away from the general population, or burrowed deep in underground caves, or within the hollow trunk of a Fairy Tree.

They are great musicians, known for their love of traditional Irish music and dance. They often hold cèilidh (pronounced kelli — a party of music, dance and story-telling) that last for days on end. Their favorite instruments are the fiddle, the tin whistle, the Bodhran (Irish drum) and the harp.  A generous leprechaun might even bestow musical abilities upon an unsuspecting human.

fairy violin

What do leprechauns look like? Although in modern times they are depicted wearing green, tradition holds that leprechauns usually dress in red coats. According to author David Russell McAnally, who wrote Irish Wonders, a collection of stories first published in 1888:

“He is about three feet high, and is dressed in a little red jacket or roundabout, with red breeches buckled at the knee, gray or black stockings, and a hat, cocked in the style of a century ago, over a little, old, wrinkled face. Round his neck is an Elizabethan ruff, and frills of lace are at his wrists. On the wild west coast, where the Atlantic winds bring almost constant rains, he dispenses with ruff and frills and wears a frieze overcoat over his pretty red suit, so that, unless on the lookout for the cocked hat, ye might pass a Leprechaun on the road and never know it’s himself that’s in it at all!”

Leprechauns are industrious. They work as shoemakers — one of the few species of the Fae world that have their own designated occupation.  Irish author William Butler Yeats, who wrote extensively about faeries, and may have even had a few encounters with them, is quoted as saying, “Because of their love of dancing they (the Fae) will constantly need shoes.”

Leprechauns are rich. Because they are so hard-working, they also accumulate a lot of gold, which they keep (of course!) in a pot that might be hidden somewhere at the end of a rainbow.

Leprechauns generally avoid humans, and with good reason. If a human is able to capture a leprechaun, the leprechaun must then reveal the hiding place of his gold in order to earn his escape.  However, if you do manage to catch one of these little sprites, beware! They have been known to promise a lot but deliver nothing. They are fast talkers, full of confusion and trickery.  As a matter of fact, no human has ever gotten rich from capturing a leprechaun!

The following story, an oral tradition called The Leprechaun’s Gold, illustrates this point perfectly:

“’TWAS a fine sunny day at harvest time when young Seamus O’Donnell, walking along the road, heard a tapping sound.  Peering over the hedge, he saw a tiny man in a little leather apron, mending a little shoe.

“Well, well, well!” said Seamus to himself.  “I truly never expected to meet a leprechaun.  Now that I have, I must not let this chance slip away.  For everyone knows that leprechauns keep a pot of gold hidden nearby.  All I have to do is to find it, and I am set for the rest of my life.”

Greeting the leprechaun politely, Seamus asked about his health.  However, after a few minutes of idle conversation, Seamus became impatient.  He grabbed the leprechaun and demanded to know where the gold was hidden.

“All right!  All right!” cried the little man.  “It is near here.  I’ll show you.”

Together they set off across the fields as Seamus was careful never to take his eyes off the little man who was guiding him.  At last they came to a field of golden ragwort.

The leprechaun pointed to a large plant.

“The gold is under here,” he said.  “All you have to do is to dig down and find it.”

Now Seamus didn’t have anything with him to use for digging, but he was not entirely stupid. He pulled of his red neckerchief and tied it to the plant so that he would recognize it again.

“Promise me,” he said to the leprechaun, “that you will not untie that scarf.”
The little man promised faithfully.

Seamus dropped the leprechaun and ran home as fast as he could to fetch a shovel.  Within five minutes, he was back at the field.  But what a sight met his eyes!  Every single ragwort plant in the whole field — and there were hundreds of them — had a red neckerchief tied around it.

Slowly, young Seamus walked home with his shovel.  He didn’t have his gold.  He didn’t have the leprechaun.

And now, he didn’t even have his neckerchief.”

Moral of the story? Perhaps humans should not meddle in the affairs of leprechauns!

And finally, here is a fun little documentary about faeries and leprechauns in Ireland.  Running time is about 23 minutes. Hope you like it!

Have a safe and magical Saint Patrick’s Day!