The Tailteann Games, Part 1
The Ancient Games
A thousand years before the Greek Olympic Games were founded, Ireland was believed to be inhabited by a magical race of god-like heroes called the Tuatha Dé Danaan (learn more here!) To gain their foothold on Irish soil, the Tuatha had to first defeat the current residents--the Fir Bolg—and what better way to establish a new rule than handing over your child to be fostered? When the Fir Bolg were rousted, members of the Tuatha (Cian and Ethniu) turned their only son over to be raised by the mighty Fir Bolg queen, Tailtiu, as a gesture of good faith. That boy grew into one of the most famed members of the Tuatha, the god-hero-poet-craftsman (learn more about some of his many his exploits here and here) Lugh.
You might be thinking that this sounds more like mythology than history, but, like many cultures, Irish traditions tend to muddle the differences. While not much is known about Tailtiu, we do know a few things: she was beloved of Lugh, is said to have died in service to the Irish people after clearing the whole of Ireland for agricultural purposes, and the area of Teltown in Co. Meath is named after her, as it’s said to be the site of her final resting place. In honor of Tailtiu’s memory and the good she had done for both the country and her family, her foster-son Lugh threw a grand, celebratory funeral games in Tailtiu’s honor, possibly as early as 1829 B.C. But not only that—Lugh declared that these games would reoccur at least every three years (the trinity being an important symbol in Irish mythology) forever.
There’s been many names for the games throughout history—Tailtin Fair, Áenach Tailteann, Aonach Tailteann, Assembly of Talti, Fair of Taltiu, or Festival of Taltii—but people generally refer to this thousand-year tradition as the Tailteann Games. Held the last fortnight in July (with Lughnasa, August 1st, as the last day of celebrations,) the Tailteann Games were as multifaceted as any event could be. First off: the honoring of the dead. While Tailtiu was the first honoree, each time the games were held (which we don’t have a solid record of, but was thought to have been as often as every year for certain stretches,) the first three days were devoted to paying tribute to the honored dead, mourning and celebrating the deceased. A large funeral pyre would be lit, and mourners practiced the wailing known as caoi (we’d call it keening,) the guba, mourning chants, and cepógs, sung funeral lamentations and eulogies.
After the fires of the funeral pyre had died down, the fourth day was devoted to the law. As the Tailteann Games were a gathering together of all the varying people of Ireland with their many disputes, a formal truce was called. Then, the High King of Ireland would go about disseminating the new laws to his people. One of the stranger laws (to modern minds) in ancient Ireland was that of the tradition of what we now call Teltown Marriages. A mass marriage ceremony was performed near the end of every Tailteann Games, but the rules surrounding these marriages was a little different than a standard marriage license today. These pairings were often arranged marriages, and the couples were given more leeway than most in history: they need only stay married a year and a day, after which the couple could divorce by simply walking away from each other with no harm to either’s reputation. This law was reportedly in place until the 13th century!
And then: time to play! The rest of the two weeks of the festival were devoted to competition. While athletic competitions—including running, boxing, the long jump, the high jump, spear-throwing (aka the javelin,) archery, sword fighting, horse races, swimming…the list goes on and on—made up the bulk of the games, there were contests for those with other skills. Since Lugh is not only a warrior-god, but a craftsman-god whose realm of influence extended to the arts, the contests included music and poetry, competitions of strategy and story-telling, and many, many artisan-driven ones like goldsmithing and blacksmithing, with jewelers, weavers, and armorers competing as well. And yes, SRL dancers--there were dance competitions! While the Tailteann Games were not necessarily the first dance competitions in Ireland, they were some of the most illustrious and helped spread new and traditional dance throughout the country. Essentially, the Tailteann Games were like one huge feis!
The tradition of the Tailteann Games lasted until 1169 when the Norman Invasion and following British rule decimated the ancient Irish way of life for centuries. The last of the original games was held under Rory O’Connor, the last High King of Ireland, though there was a small resurgence during medieval times (and, of course, it’s believed that the original Tailteann Games influenced the creation of both the ancient and modern versions of the Olympics!) You might have noticed the use of the word “original” there. Don’t worry, the Tailteann Games didn’t fully die out! But you’ll have to return to the blog next week to learn about how the games have been revived in modern times.
This post is part of a series. Read our last history post, all about the holiday Lughnasa, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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