Seasonal Celebrations

Lughnasadh History and Modern Ways to Celebrate

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July 31 – August 1

The word Lughnasadh or Lúnasa is pronounced loo-nas-ah. Lughnasadh means “an assembly” or “commemoration of Lugh”. Representative of the harvest, skills, sacrifice and perseverance.


History:


Lughnasadh marks the beginning of fall and the harvest season. Farmers began reaping their crops and bringing the animals in from their distant pastoral wanderings. Given the long days and warm weather, people likely may have traveled great distances at this time to visit neighboring clans and relatives or otherwise go on trips and pilgrimages. The community was celebrated and brought together. It was the perfect time to sort out commerce and trading affairs. While Imbolc was representative of the feminine, surely Lughnasadh seems to have symbolized the masculine. The many highland games organized at this time of the year gives everyone a chance to test out or ripen their skills much in the way the crops were ripening and ready to be harvested. Trial marriages were conducted at this time that would last a year and a day. If at the end of the year it wasn’t working out, couples agreed to go their separate ways and at the following Lughnasadh would do this by standing back to back and then walking forward and away from one another. One favored activity at this time was to climb to the top of a hill or mountain and the festivals themselves were often said to have taken place on top of designated hills or mountains. The custom of climbing hills or mountains survived into modern times and the best known example of this is the “Reek Sunday” pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July. Saint Michael is said to have largely taken over the role of Lugh in Celtic societies after Christianization. Lammas is the Saxon, largely Christianized version of this harvest festival.

Alexander Carmichael describes the first day of reaping in the Hebrides:

“The day the people began to reap the corn was a day of commotion and ceremonial in the townland. The whole family repaired to the field dressed in their best attire to hail the God of the harvest. Laying his bonnet on the ground, the father of the family took up his sickle, and facing the sun, he cut a handful of corn. Putting the handful of corn three times sunrise round his head, the man raised the Iolach Buana, the relating salutation. The whole family took up the strain and praised the God of the harvest, who gave them corn and bread, food and flocks, wool and clothing, health and strength, and peace and plenty.” -Carmina Gadelica

The story of Lughnasadh begins with a goddess by the name of Tailtiu. According to the Irish Book of Invasions, Tailtiu was the daughter of the king of Spain and the wife of Eochaid mac Eric, last Fir Bolg High King of Ireland. When the Tuatha De Danann invaded Ireland, she managed to survive and became the foster mother of Lugh and someone he cared for deeply. Tailtiu is said to have died from exhaustion after clearing and readying the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Lugh established a harvest festival and funeral games, Aenach Tailteann, in her honor or what would become the festival of Lughnasadh. In these accounts, the festival was a time of playing games or exhibiting skills, dancing and religious ritual, trading, arranging trial marriages, telling old tales and having mock battles. Lugh himself was very skilled in many areas of craft and these competitive games or battles could have been representative of testing out skills in general as well as reenactments of the famous mythological battle in which Lugh puts out the eye of his grandfather Balor and kills him. This legend may have been where the idea of suffering from the “evil eye” originated. Up through the 18th century, Scottish people believed that if your eye was infected, it was due to a witch placing a spell on you and they had various rituals they would use to heal the evil eye. Most likely this was pink eye or another common eye infection. The Irish town Teltown named after Lugh’s mother is where Irish high kings officially celebrated Lughnasadh. It was renamed the Tailteann Games in more recent years. The last recorded celebration in old times was celebrated there by the High King, Rory O’Connor in 1169 CE. Around this time, Ireland suffered many Norman invasions and the celebration ceased to exist as the large gathering it once was, however, many unofficial celebrations were carried out well into the present time. This was likely the precursor to the modern Scottish and Irish highland games with many different names and titles.

Lugh was the son of Cian (son of Danu), a member of the Irish Tuatha De Danann while his mother was Ethniu the daughter of Balor, member of their enemy the Fomorians. He is associated with skills, crafts, arts and war. His name might mean “many skilled” or “the shining or flashing one” and was thought to be a sun or oath god of sorts although this is pure speculation. He is the Roman equivalent of Mercury, Welsh Lleu of the Skillful Hand, Gaulish Lugus, German Wotan, English Woden and Norse Odin. His name singularly appears on a rock inscription on the hilltop of Penalba de Villastar in what would have been ancient Celtiberia near Spain. There are approximately ten inscriptions addressing a multiple set of gods called Lugoves in Celtiberia as well as Avenches, Switzerland but they are arguably female. There are also many place names associated with him such as Lugudunon, “Fortress of Lug”.

As a young man, Lugh traveled to Tara to join the court of Nuada, high king of the Tuatha De Danann who at the time were oppressed and at war with the Fomorians, rulers of the underworld (the ground and the sea). The doorkeeper would not let him in unless he had a skill with which to serve the king. He offered him many services but each time was rejected because the king already had someone skilled in those areas. Lugh then asked if they had anyone with not one, but all of those skills and the doorkeeper finally let him in. He proved himself time and time again to Nuada and was eventually appointed Chief Ollam of Ireland as well as given command over the Tuatha De Danann’s army. Around this time, Lugh’s father Cian was killed by the sons of Tuireann, Briaan, Luchar and Lucharba. Cian was their father’s enemy at the time. They tried to cover up their crime by dismembering and burying Cian but were discovered. While King Nuada gave Lugh permission to kill them, instead Lugh set them on a series of seemingly impossible quests for items that could help the Danann army in the upcoming battle with the Fomorians as recompense. They achieve all of them but are fatally wounded in completing the last one. Despite their father Tuireann’s pleas, Lugh denies them use of one of the last items they retrieved, a magic pigskin which heals all wounds and they all die. The Tuatha De Danann being led by Lugh would go on to fight the great second “Battle of Maigh Tuireadh” where as mentioned earlier, Lugh slew his grandfather Balor and declared victory over the Fomorians. Nuada died in the battle and Lugh was declared King. This battle is thought to have represented the agricultural and natural powers of light and growth overcoming the powers of blight and destruction. Therefore, the celebration and rituals surrounding Lughnasadh at this time hopefully lended to a successful harvest. Lugh allowed the Fomorian King, Bres (Brigid’s husband) to survive harkening to the belief that negative forces, although not enjoyed, are necessary. As a sun god, Lugh went on to marry the land goddess, called “Bainis Ri” on Samhain and their child would be born nine months later, on Lughnasadh (the harvest).

Lugh had a famous fiery spear named areadbhar or “the slaughterer” that had to be immersed in a pot of water or it would become engulfed in flames. It never missed its target and would return to him after being thrown. He also had a sword called fragarach or “the answerer” as well as a self-sailing boat named Scuabtuinne or “wave sweeper” and a horse named Enbarr that fared over both, the land and sea. In the famous Second Battle of Mag Tuired, Nuada, Lugh’s great king was beheaded by Balor, but Lugh takes his revenge by killing him (his grandfather) with a sling shot to his terrible evil eye. Lugh, The Dagda and Ogma rescue the Dagda’s famous harp called Uaitne and the Fomorians retreat into the underworld. Lugh becomes high king of Ireland and rules for many years. He had many wives and was said to have been Cu Chulainn’s father or rather became incarnate through him somehow. Cermait, a son of the Dagda seduces and slept with one of Lugh’s wives. Lugh kills him in revenge however his sons avenge their father’s death by drowning and killing Lugh in a local loch. He was buried in a cairn near the shore and the loch became known as Loch Lugborta named after him.

One additional famous folktale that was passed down through the ages regarding Lugh was recorded and written by John O’Donovan told to him by Shane O’Dugan of Tory Island in 1835. He recounts the birth of a grandson of Balor who grows up to kill his grandfather. The grandson is unnamed, his father is called Mac Cinnfhaelaidh (Cian) and the manner of his killing of Balor is different but it has been taken as a version of the birth of Lugh, and was adapted as such by Lady Gregory, one of the more famous Irish folklorists. In this tale, Balor hears a druid’s prophecy that he will be killed by his own grandson. To prevent this he imprisons his only daughter in the Tor Mor (great tower) of Tory Island, cared for by twelve women, who are to prevent her ever meeting or even learning of the existence of men. On the mainland, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh owns a magic cow who gives such abundant milk that everyone, including Balor, wants to possess her. While the cow is in the care of Mac Cinnfhaelaidh’s brother Mac Samthainn, Balor appears in the form of a little red-haired boy and tricks him into giving him the cow. Looking for revenge, Mac Cinnfhaelaidh calls on a Druidess named Birog, who transports him by magic to the top of Balor’s tower, where he seduces Eithniu. In time she gives birth to triplets, which Balor gathers up in a sheet and sends to be drowned in a whirlpool. The messenger drowns two of the babies, but unwittingly drops one child into the harbor. He is then rescued by Birog and she takes him to his father who then gives him to his other brother, Gavida the blacksmith in fosterage.

The essence of Lughnasadh is perseverance and the continued hope and joy of life under the knowledge that darker times may lay ahead.



Ways to Celebrate:


Set up your altar accordingly: Decorate your home or space with seasonal symbols and colors of nature. Common decorations are symbols of the harvest, baked goods (grains), baskets, fruits and vegetables and the colors gold, brown and blue. Seek out and find unique items that have a strong meaning for you.

Go on a journey: The religious term for this would be a pilgrimage. Go on a journey or adventure of sorts whether it’s a weekend getaway or just something local that’s unique and challenging or something you’ve always wanted to do but hadn’t yet carved out the time. Maybe try a rock wall climb, a challenging hike or even skydiving? Traditionally, one would climb up a tall hill or mountain in bare feet. Some people will choose a place that has meaning for them and visit the same landform annually and traditionally the last weekend of July no matter where the exact date of Lughnasadh happens to fall.

Test your talent and skills: Lughnasadh is about the masculine, while Imbolc is about the feminine. Focus on your physical prowess, talents or skills at this time. Think about things that you are very good at and be proud of yourself! Take this as a time to practice your skills, whether it’s chess, running, woodworking, bowling… it could be anything! You could create a craft such as a wreath to hang on your door. Take pride in all that makes you unique! Everyone has something they are good at and could be great in with enough practice!

Create a craft: Make something representative of the season! Create candles, a wheat wreath, incense or a corn doll.

Connect with others: Prepare a Lughnasadh dinner. Listen to appropriate seasonal music. Light candles. Some common dishes are roasted chicken or fish, garlic corn, homemade bread and berry cobbler. Enjoy your family and friends. Cook something different you’ve never tried before or try a new wine! Go out to a restaurant you’ve never been too. Call up and meet friends or family you haven’t seen in a while to encourage meaningful and new conversation. Attend a pagan social event. Mark this season with something unique to make it feel like more of a special occasion.

Write in your journal: Lughnasadh is in some ways about perseverance and continuing to move forward even as the journey or pilgrimage gets tough. What are some things that inspire you to persevere and be a stronger and better person?

Make an offering: Give back to nature by donating to a charity or participating in a community, park or coastal clean up program. Put out bird seed or a basket of fruit, berries or nuts for local wildlife. Prepare a basket of seasonal items or a small seasonal gift to give to someone in need. Buy someone’s coffee or meal behind you at the drive in. Be creative in your offering and method of giving back.

Kindle a bonfire: Have a bonfire outside if possible, although indoors is fine as well if you have a fireplace. A drum circle would be a fun activity if possible with family or friends! Many people write a list of their goals or wishes for the coming season, then ceremoniously burn it in the fire sending those wishes into the otherworld.

Nature walk and meditation: Take a relaxing and meditative walk through nature enjoying the late summer energy. Many plants are still full and blooming while others are starting to die off. If so desired, collect natural objects to build crafts at home, add to a summer inspired altar or make a temporary nature mandala during your outing.


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“Three abundances in Ireland: an abundance of ears of corn, an abundance of flowers, and an abundance of fruit.” -Irish triad


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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.

 

 

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