“My name is Tlachtga, daughter of Mog Ruith. This hill is my place, my heart’s home. Only a few bones remain of what once stood here, for mankind has wrought his destruction upon it, as he did also upon my flesh. In those days, I rode the skies with my father in the great wheel of light, a rare magic known only to few, and folk would watch and fall to their knees in fearful prayer, claiming we commanded the sun. For long years after my suffering, great fires were lit in my honour. But time eroded understanding, and the people forgot why. The priests of the new religion came and wrote me out of history, for they were not fond of powerful women, and my name drifted like a lost whisper on the breeze. I have been grievously wronged, but should you come to me, I will receive you gladly. You will not feel my pain. You will see what I saw when I walked this earth, Eire’s green and fertile beauty. You will feel my power throb beneath your feet, for it is my heart still beating. And you will feel my peace, despite what happened here, for I am at rest now in my hollow hill piled with stones.”
When I go somewhere I know violence has taken place in the dim and distant past, I always expect to get some sense of darkness, or brooding, as if the memory of such awfulness remains etched into the very fabric of place, the stones, the earth, the grass, the trees, all these are witnesses of what once occurred.
At Tlachtga, I felt a great sense of peace. I know you will say it’s because it all happened so long ago, in fact, probably never happened at all, because these are just ancient stories. But I think forgiveness washes a place clean, floods it with peacefulness and makes it wholesome again.
It didn’t even feel like a hill, but as I walked out onto the summit, I was amazed at the wide open 360* panorama which unfolded around me. From here, other famous ancient sites can be seen, if you know where to look, such as Tara (19kms), Loughcrew, Slane (23kms) and Teltown (12kms).
In terms of archaeology, the site consists of the remains of a quadrivallate ring fort, which means it has four banks with a diameter of roughly 140m, and ditches between them. This is highly unusual, signifying a site of great importance. Sadly, there is severe damage, for which much of the blame is levelled at Oliver Cromwell, who camped his army there for a while in 1649. I suspect farming has had a large part to play too; on the day I visited, fields in the area were being ploughed.
Recent archaeological work is discovering a large complex of other monuments in the area, almost erased from the landscape, but still visible using technology such as LIDAR (“remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analysing the reflected light” according to Wikipedia). It was clearly a busy and thriving area in ancient times.
The fort was quite overgrown on the day I visited. It was difficult to get any meaningful pictures. The banks did not appear as high in the images as they did when I stood beneath them, nor the ditches as deep as when I stood in them. Interestingly, the fort looks most impressive from the air. So I grabbed a screenshot from Google Earth to show you.
I found myself walking the ditches as if drawn along them, almost as if they were processional walkways, rather than defensive structures. The experience left me feeling dizzy and head-achy. It was much like walking through a maze. In the ditches, the banks are still high enough that the view is completely obliterated. There was nothing to do save look at one’s feet and think. Or meditate. Or contemplate. Until one gravitated to the top of the central mound and was smacked in the chops with that view over the land.
So who was Tlachtga, and what is her association with the hill? Her name derives from the old Irish tlacht, meaning ‘earth’ and gae, meaning ‘spear’. This could imply a mother earth type deity, but it has also been surmised that the spear could represent lightning being hurled at the earth. She could possibly have been an ancient fertility Goddess local to the hill. Some think she may have been one of the Tuatha de Danann, others that she was a solar deity on account of her connection with Mogh Ruith. She is mentioned in two poems in different Irish texts, the Banshenchas, or ‘Lore of Women’ (must get my hands on a copy of that one!), and the Dinsenchas, the ‘Lore of Places’.
Her father was Mogh Ruith, a powerful blind Druid and possible sun god, whose name means ‘devotee of the wheel’. There is some debate over timescales here; some stories associate him with Cormac the Wise, High King of Ireland, and Fionn mac Cumhall, c. C3rd AD. The Lebor Gabála Érenn, an ancient Irish text, claims he died in the reign of Conmael, nearly two thousand years before Cormac.
However, both he and his daughter were also said to have travelled together to Italy, where they studied with Simon Magus, a sorcerer and heretic who lived during the time of Jesus. Simon Magus was said to have the ability to levitate and fly. It was he who helped them build their flying machine known as the Roth Rámach, which means the ‘rowing wheel’. And it was his three sons who raped Tlachtga.
She fled back to Ireland, where in time she gave birth to three sons on the Hill of Tlachtga. It was a long and difficult delivery during which all her energy ebbed. She was buried where she died, and the area took her name. Her sons were Doirb, Cuma and Muach, and one of the older versions of the story says they went on to rule the provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connacht, and that while their names were remembered, no harm would ever come to Eire.
It is interesting to note that a burial mound is indeed located at Tlachtga, but it is unknown who was lies within it. It is also interesting that the complete skeleton of a baby aged between seven and ten months and found to be 3000 years old was discovered there. It is not thought by archaeologists to be the victim of ritual death or sacrifice.
Like so many of Ireland’s women of mythology, Tlachtga was a tragic heroine, who suffered and endured, and died for her suffering. Some say her rape and death were later Christian inventions, an example of the kind of punishment women could expect if they did not keep to their proper station in life. But I prefer to remember her as an icon of female success, a mother, and a woman of strength, power and magic so revered, that her name has endured in the very shape of the landscape, thousands of years beyond her death.
Tlachtga OI: "earth spear"--tlacht "earth"; gae "spear".
While on the one hand, the figure of Tlachtga is one of the many tragic heroines of Irish myth (such as Deirdu or Grainne), she is also an onomastic device--that is, she is a figure used to explain the name of a geographic location. This location is the Hill of Ward, near Tara.
There are two references to Tlachtga in Irish literature; the first is the banshenchas "the Lore of Women" which sought to act as a sort of condensed guide to the various women of Irish myth. The second source is the dindsenchas "the Lore of Places" which sought to explain the names of various locations in Ireland. In each poem, we are told that Tlachtga is the daughter of Mog Roith, a powerful druid of Munster, and is associated with the son or sons of Simon Magus, often tragically.
Tlachtga means "earth spear" from tlacht "earth" and gae "spear." The hill is the site of a great oenach--gathering--where the druids would light the bruane Samhna--new year bonfires on Samhain (this was not at Tara). Now called Ward Hill (or Hill of Ward), it lies 12 miles northwest of Tara. Tlachtga was then the point where the druids felt that this world and the otherworld were closest at the new year; this tradition was later blended with that of Tara, which would then be associated with the holy center of Ireland. The hill had consisted of a raised enclosure surrounded by four banks and ditches--a series of rings; these were disturbed in 1641.
The odd thing about the banshenchas version is that Tlachtga's story is rather incongruously combined with that of Etain and Midir. Fuamnach is the spurned wife of Midir. Briefly, Midir has fallen for Etain, and when Fuamnach hears of this, she turns Etain into a butterfly, which then starts the story of the Wooing of Etain. It isn't clear what this has to do with Tlachtga's story. Moreover, the unnamed martyr that Tlachtga is said to have slain may be a confusion with the legend of her father, given below.
Now, Tlachtga is a sun goddess--one of several in Irish mythology (another being Grainne wife of Finn mac Cumhail). However, it is a monkish invention to identify the father of her rapists with the biblical/gnostic Simon Magus. This is derived from an odd medieval Irish tale about the beheading of John the Baptist. In this tale, the executioner is Mog Roith, who then takes up with Simon Magus, and after Simon is discredited, goes off to Ireland with his daughter. However, in the tale "The Siege of Knocklong" (ICK), Mog Roith is a powerful druid of Munster, able to defeat the forces of Cormac mac Airt. This is likely the original tradition. But as we have seen, a third tradition in the banshenchas credits Tlachtga with the killing of a martyr--again, this is likely a confusion with Mog Roith.
The name Mog Roith apparently means "devote of the wheel," and it is assumed that the wheel in question--as well as the wheel that Tlachtga makes--is the sun. This could then mean that the Samhain fires held on her hill were a way of recapturing the sun's light in the new year--a way of ensuring light against the growing darkness of winter. The "pillar" is thought to represent lightning--and this would then explain the name "earth spear", for lightning was a spear thrown at the earth. She is then also not only goddess of the sun, but of lightning and storms.
The theme of a goddess who dies in childbirth, giving her name to the land, is also seen in the story of Macha in the Ulster Cycle. In dying and entering the earth, her power then resides in the land.