Summer’s here! According to the calendar, it started this past Sunday, June 20th. Judging by air temperature, it’s been summer where I live (South Florida) since about March. On the Celtic calendar, though, summer started on May 1st, and was celebrated with the fire festival of Beltane. But it didn’t just come about because of the calendar date. Celtic mythology says that divine forces were involved. Sometime around Beltane, the fire goddess, Brigid, defeated Beara the Cailleach, goddess of winter. Also the Oak King, ruler of the light half of the year, overcame the Holly King, ruler of the dark.
Soon, summer will be over, in less than a month actually. In the Celtic year, autumn begins on August 1st. This seasonal shift is marked by Lughnasa, a fire festival named for the sun god, Lugh. In this week’s post, I will discuss all of these deities of Celtic mythology as well as some folklore associated with them. I want to start with Taranis, not because he’s my favorite, but because he’s associated with one of my favorite things: thunderstorms.
Not much is known about Taranis, the Celtic god of thunderstorms because very little was written down about him. Scholars have determined, however, that he was a significant deity. They base this belief on the large amount of artifacts discovered which reference him. These artifacts have been found not only in the areas now known as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but in Celtic areas (such as Gaul and Brittany) in France, Italy, and Spain. Statues of Taranis usually depict him as a bearded, older man holding a thunderbolt in one hand and carrying a wheel in the other. The symbol most associated with him—a wheel with six or eight spokes—was put on coins which have been found at excavated altars and in rivers and holy wells. This wheel design shows up on Celtic amulets and other ornaments as well.
Surviving myths about Taranis say he traveled across the world at great speed, like a flash of lightning. He was a quick-tempered warrior, using thunderbolts as weapons (much like the Roman god, Jupiter).
According to Celtic folklore, mistletoe, the plant Druids most revered, was placed on trees by Taranis (via a lightning strike). They considered any tree with mistletoe on it sacred. This was especially true of oaks. The Celts also believed that mistletoe contained Taranis’ essence, making it a magically powerful healing herb. Beware, though, many varieties of mistletoe are poisonous, so don’t consume it or even apply it topically, unless you know what you’re doing.
The name, Taranis, has its roots (unsurprisingly) in the Celtic family of languages. For example, in Old Irish, the word, torann, means "thunder” or “noise.” In contemporary Irish, the word for thunder is toirneach. Taranus, a river in a Gallic area of northern Italy, is believed to have been named for the god as the word, again, means “thunder.”
The god may also have been known by a different name or his name may have been corrupted over time. In the middle ages, Irish monks preserving their culture’s legends and myths, referred to him as Tuireann. They connected him to the sun god, Lugh. According to their stories, three of Tuireann’s sons murdered Lugh’s father. The sun god retaliated by killing all three men. As a result, Tuireann died of grief. Some legends also connect Tuireann to Brigid, the Celtic goddess of summer and fire.
While most people associate the name Brigid with Ireland, this goddess of Celtic mythology was popular and worshipped across all Celtic lands, particularly in Scotland and Brittany. The goddess of summer and fire (among other things, many other things), she is generally depicted as young and beautiful in contrast to the Cailleach, goddess of winter, who is an old hag. Each year, according to Celtic lore, Brigid battles and ultimately defeats the Cailleach (known as Beara in Scotland). Brigid then brings about the return of the sun and warmth.
She is honored on February 1st (in Ireland, this is also the saint’s feast day). In addition, February 1st is the fire festival of Imbolc, the start of spring. But Brigid is celebrated again at Beltane (May 1st), which marks, in the Celtic year, the first day of summer.
There are a number of folk traditions associated with Brigid at Beltane. Chief among them is the custom of visiting holy wells and adorning them with flowers and greenery. A bit of water is then taken from the well for future use. The water is believed to have healing properties. In the past, Celts would leave an offering to the goddess as well. Another Beltane custom is to tie colored rags or ribbons to the sacred tree next to the well. Usually the tree is a hawthorn, a tree associated with Brigid as well as with faeries. Each ribbon represents a wish or a prayer. The color of the cloth or ribbon is symbolic (e.g. green for hope or blue for peace). For more folklore traditions associated with Brigid and Beltane, see my posts “A Celtic Spring: Brigid and Imbolc” and “Beltane: Season of Light and Possibilities.”
The Oak King
Just as Brigid, according to mythology, helps bring about the summer, Celtic folklore says the Oak King plays a role as well. The Celtic year is divided into two halves: the light and the dark. Biannually, the lore says, the Oak King battles the Holly King. Once a year, the Oak King wins, ushering in the light half of the year. Around Samhain (November 1st), however, the Holly King will return and overcome the Oak, sending the world into the darkness until Beltane.
It is almost impossible to talk about a Celtic summer without mentioning Lugh, the sun god. After all, what would summer be without the sun? Lugh is young, handsome, athletic, and multi-skilled. So, in essence, he is a shining star.
Lughnasa, the Celtic fire festival which bears his name, is August 1st. The festival, confusingly, doesn’t celebrate the sun god. According to folklore, Lugh, himself, established Lughnasa in honor of his mother, who had just died. Tailtiu, his mother, cleared all the land in Ireland so the people could farm. After which, she died. So her son ordered that a festival be held each year in remembrance of her. Lughnasa continues to be celebrated to this day, especially in Ireland (where the entire month of August is called, in Irish, Lúnasa). In honor of Lugh’s many skills and talents, athletic competitions are held along with contests in music and other arts. However, the main focus is on agriculture, especially on the harvest. As a sun god, Lugh definitely belongs in a discussion of summer but, ironically, the festival bearing his name marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall. To learn more about Lughnasa, check out my post “Lughnasa: Dancing Towards the Darkness.”
As you can see, summer will be over as quick as a lightning flash. Enjoy it while it’s here!
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Slan go foil!
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