Lughnasadh is the final of the four primary festivals in the ancient Celtic calendar. The Celtic year began with Samhain in October, preparing for winter and the end of the harvest. Next was Imbolc in February to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of lambing season. Bealtaine, the most important festival in May, was all about summer. Celtic philosophy revolved around the concepts of light and dark, and the year was divided into a dark half (beginning with Samhain) and a light half (beginning with Bealtaine). Each half was also quartered, with each quarter marked with a festival. So naturally, Bealtaine was the happiest celebration. Finally, Lughnasadh in August rounded off the year by welcoming Autumn, the beginning of the harvest, and the end of summer.
What was Lughnasadh About?
These festivals were widely observed across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, held at the midway point between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. It lasted for a month, with the 1st of August as its midpoint. Wales and England also had similar festivals at a similar time known as Gwyl Awst and Lammas. As well as celebrating the beginning of harvest time and saying farewell to the summer season, Lughnasadh had a number of other associations; these included ritual ceremonies dedicated to the god Lugh (hence the festival’s name), athletic competitions, matchmaking, trading, and as with all Celtic festivals, feasting! The festival was a time for the whole community to come together and celebrate, so all of the festivities took place outdoors. In Irish mythology, it is suggested that Lughnasadh began as a funeral feast for the god Lugh, with an athletic competition also taking place to commemorate his mother Tailtiu, aptly named the Tailteann Games (She was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing Ireland’s plains so the people could farm). These were the two most important components for the feast for the Celts. They would feast on the first of the harvest’s corn and the other grains reaped from the field, as well as bilberries (a similar fruit to blueberries), and a sacrificial bull. People collected bilberries from the surrounding bushes, and if the crop was plentiful, then the harvest was said to be plentiful too. The best warriors and athletes would gather for the games, which included competitions like long jump, high jump, running, hurling, spear throwing, archery, wrestling, boxing, swimming, and chariot and horse racing. In Teltown, county Meath, the site of the ancient games, there is even evidence of artificial lakes dating from the time.
Although the customs of some other festivals have died out along the way, many of the customs that took place at Lughnasadh are still present in today’s celebrations, albeit in an altered and more modern format. The Tailteann games honoured the best athletes of Celtic society, but also held a number of non-sporting competitions alongside it such as singing, dancing, poetry and storytelling, among others. Trial marriages were conducted at the festival, where couples joined hands through a hole in a slab of wood. The trial marriage would last a year and a day, after which it could be made permanent or broken without question. Since Lughnasadgh was all about Lugh, offerings were made to him in various ceremonies. He was given the first of the corn harvested before anyone else was allowed to eat along with a meal of other new foods. Once the aforementioned bull had been sacrificed and eaten, there was another ceremony involving gifting its hide to someone and replacing the sacrificed bull with another young bull. After that, various plays with were performed involving dances, recounting stories of fighting over goddesses and other episodes from Lugh’s life. As a finale, a head was installed on top of the hill where the performances took place, with an actor playing Lugh triumphing over it. Like the other Celtic festivals, Lughnasadh was an opportune time to make deals, in the political, social and economic sense. As well as the competitions, feasting and revelry, it was also an important trading occasion for neighbouring communities, as it was one of the few times of the year when they were all together and not fighting each other! Chieftains would hold important meetings with one another, farmers would make trade agreements about crops or cattle for the coming season, and rival communities would come together for negotiations since festivals meant downing weapons by default. Finally, a last common tradition of Celtic festivals made an appearance at Lughnasadh too; visits to holy wells. People would bring small offerings to the wells, usually coins or strips of cloth called ‘clooties’, and leave them at the well after walking around it in a ‘sunwise’ (i.e following the same path as the sun) direction in an effort to gain health and wealth from the gods. The alternative name ‘Garland Sunday’ comes from this tradition of decorating the wells with flowers. Unlike the other festivals of Samhain, Bealtaine and Imbolc, fire does not appear to have been a major part of Lughnasadh festivities.
Handcrafted Silver Brigid's CrossTraditionally woven from rushes beginning of Spring, Imbolc
Celtic God Lugh
So who was the mythological Lugh that Lughnasadh festivities honoured every year? He was a hero and god for the Celts, and seemingly held the title of High King of Ireland at one point. He is also known as Lamhfhada, meaning ‘long hand’, because of his exemplary skill with a spear. Lugh appears in Welsh mythology also under the name Lleu Llaw Gyffes, meaning ‘the bright one with the strong hand’. But what made him worthy of such an important festival?
Lugh was the son of Cian, member of the Tuatha De Danann (the first, superhuman, inhabitants of Ireland according to mythology) and Ethniu, whose father was Balor, king of the Fomorians (another race of superhuman Irish inhabitants). He was raised by Tailtiu, queen of the Fir Bolg – yet another ancient race! To make things even more confusing, the legend goes that Lugh was one of triplets born to Ethniu after a fairy seduced her, since her father had her locked in a tower to prevent her ever meeting any men because a druid told him that her son would try to kill him. Although the circumstances of his birth and upbringing were more than a little complicated, Lugh travelled to Tara regardless to join the Tuatha De Dannan. To gain entry to the tribe, Lugh was asked to present a special skill to show his worth. They rejected his skills as a smith, swordsman, harpist, poet, historian, sorcerer and craftsman, but when he asked if they had any member with all of those skills simultaneously, they couldn’t find a reasonable excuse to refuse him. Once in the tribe, he quickly impressed them and convinced them to overthrow their oppressors the Fomorians, with him leading them into the battle. It wasn’t too long before they chose him as their overall leader on top of that. Naturally, Lugh and his army won the battle against the Fomorians, but their new leader spared the Fomorian leader’s life after he promised to teach everyone how and when to plant and reap crops. He started the Tailteann games to commemorate his now dead foster mother, and organised the first Lughnasadh fairs to celebrate the first successful harvesting of the tribe’s crops. It was also to mark another triumph he was responsible for, this time over the Otherworld, who wanted to keep the harvest for themselves. After forty years of rule, Lugh met an untimely end; one of his many wives had an affair with Cermalt, son of the Dagda. In revenge, Lugh killed him but Cermalt’s sons came to avenge their father’s death, drowning him in a lake. Luckily, his feast was already a widespread and popular tradition, and lived on for several thousands of years to commemorate his life.
The tradition of eating and sharing the first grains of the season that started with Lughnasadh eventually spread to other areas as similar festivals. In England, it transformed into the medieval festival known as Lammas day. In keeping with the Lughnasadh tradition, the first grains were offered to the gods, in this case the local church in the form of a baked loaf of bread. The loaf was blessed and then broken into four pieces, with one piece placed in each corner of the home for good fortune and to protect the stored, harvested grain. Because of the similar timing and tradition, Lammas is often confused with Lughnasadh, but its origins are very different.
Lughnasadh still remains as a recognised part of Ireland's culture in at least one sense – the month of August in which the festival traditionally took place is known as Lunasa in Irish. It has also made its way into Irish culture in the form of books, plays and films. The most well known of these is Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, about the events that take place in a family from the small town of Ballybeg, Donegal, in 1936. Over the years, Lughnasadh has taken a few different forms and names, including ‘Garland Sunday’, ‘Bilberry Sunday’, ‘Mountain Sunday’, and the still surviving ‘Reek Sunday’. The latter is particularly known for the surviving Lughnasadh tradition of climbing hills and mountains – it is a popular day for pilgrims to climb Croagh Patrick. The custom of trading is also still alive in several big fairs that take place around Ireland at the beginning of August, the most famous of which is the Puck Fair. Held in Killorglin, county Kerry since at least the 16th century, this three day festival involves parades, dancing, arts and crafts, and most importantly, a horse and cattle fair and market. At the beginning of the festival, a wild goat is crowned king in the town and a local girl is crowned queen. In recent years, a number of other revival Lughnasadh festivals have sprung up in various towns around Ireland, so this ancient Celtic celebration isn’t going away just yet.
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