Lughnasa: Celebrating Summer's End and the Harvest
Welcome to autumn! I realize that it may still feel like summer (here in Florida, August is one of the hottest months) but, according to the Celtic calendar, autumn started this past Monday. August 1st is Lughnasa, the ancient Celtic fire festival which celebrates the harvest. Also, like all fire festivals, it marks the beginning of a new season, in this case, fall. Today’s post looks at the origin of Lughnasa, the folk traditions associated with it, and some reflection on the themes associated with the season.
A Celebration of Sun and Agriculture
Lughnasa’s name is derived from the Celtic sun god, Lugh (pronounced Lew). He was a golden boy, handsome, athletic, and so much more. Lugh was an exceptional warrior, poet, musician, craftsman, and artist. Essentially, he shone at everything. What else would you expect from a sun god? In addition, he was a loving son. His mother was the goddess, Tailtiu. According to mythology, she cleared all of Ireland so the Irish could farm. Then, exhausted, she died. Lugh declared an annual festival should evermore be held in her honor. In response, the Irish held harvest fairs each year to commemorate her.
Even though the festival was supposed to honor Tailitu, its traditional activities focus a lot on celebrating Lugh’s attributes. At the fairs, contests were held. There were athletic competitions and horse races. Plays about his renowned battle victories were performed. There were singing, poetry, and storytelling contests as well as livestock and produce competitions.
These fairs gave the community a chance to gather and have fun. Getting everyone together in one place also provided an opportunity to do business—trading, negotiating, making alliances, and so forth—to be enacted. To make things run smoothly, there were rules governing the day. Feuds were set aside for the day. Men were not to fight, and women were not to be raped. After all, Lughnasa is not just a holiday; it’s a holy day.
Lughnasa primarily is a holy day, a time of thanksgiving and petition. Celtic days begin at sundown, so Lughnasa actually starts on the evening of July 31st. Traditionally, the community would gather after dark around a bonfire to offer prayers and sacrifice. The gods were thanked for the good harvest. Prayers of petition, too, were sent up, asking for safety and for another abundant harvest at Samhain, one that would supply enough food to get the Celts through the coming winter season.
Typically, the sacrificial offerings included the first fruits of the harvest, particularly grains, but also fruits and vegetables. Additionally, a bull was sacrificed. After the offering to the gods was made, the community enjoyed a feast!
The next day, people visited holy wells, decorated them with flowers, and made offerings of coins or colored ribbons. In return, they hoped to receive good health and luck in the coming year. They also attended the aforementioned fairs.
Lughnasa was celebrated in Scotland and Wales as well as in Ireland and the Isle of Man. A folk tradition practiced in both Scotland and Ireland was to bless horses by immersing them in water on Lughnasa. This echoes the human visits to the holy wells. Purification and blessing of all livestock took place on this holy day. Cattle were brought in from the fields or down from the hills. To protect them, their owners put tar on the cows’ tails and ears or wove red or blue thread into their tails.
Dairy had to be protected as well. Charms were said over the udders. In Scotland, hairballs were placed in the pails for the first milking on Lunestal (the Scottish name for the festival). Don’t ask me the logic of this particular custom. I haven’t a clue.
Another custom associated with Lughnasa is temporary marriages. These unions were sanctified through a handfasting ritual, and the marriage was binding for a year and a day. The following August, the couple could make the marriage permanent or go their separate ways. Either spouse could choose to end the marriage without stating a reason and without penalty.
Handfasting was practiced in both Scotland and Ireland. But it ended in Scotland in the 17th century when the Scottish Church banned it. Lughnasa fairs continued to be held in Ireland well into the twentieth century. And Lughnasa continues to stay with the Irish. In the Irish language, the entire month of August is still called Lúnasa.
Themes and Reflection
Lughnasa is rich in symbolism and is associated with several themes.
Joy and Thanksgiving: Lughnasa is a harvest celebration. It is a time to rejoice in the fruition of the seeds you’ve planted in spring and summer. You reap the rewards of your hard labor. But you didn’t accomplish it on your own. With a literal harvest, the sun, rain, and soil have played a role in producing good crops. Even if your harvest is metaphorical, you’ve had help along the way. Others have assisted you, whether you realized it at the time or not. Even adversity can be fruitful. The ancient Celts thanked the Divine. Whether you believe in a Higher Power or not, Lughnasa is a good time to reflect on all you have to be thankful for.
Preparing for What Lies Ahead: On the Celtic calendar, autumn was the final season. So, Lughnasa marked the beginning of the end. The new year began at Samhain (November 1st). But the fire festival of Samhain also marked the start of winter and the beginning of the dark half of the year. Lughnasa was a signpost on the way to the cold, dark season, a time when all would seem lifeless. The harvest season was a time to prepare for the isolation and paucity of winter, a time to stock up, store away supplies, and hope that you had enough to get you through. During August, take some time to reflect on what you need to help you through times of darkness and cold isolation. Are you prepared? If not, how can you get ready? Winters come. None of us can avoid them.
Death and Rebirth: While this is more of a Samhain theme, it can’t be entirely separated from Lughnasa. As I said above, winter will come. The end will come. Lughnasa is a time to prepare for metaphorical or even literal death. It’s not a fun topic, but it is a reality. Most people face many deaths during their lives. Endings, loss, surrender. Physical death is not the only dying we humans suffer. But there is hope. Lughnasa is about the harvest. The grain is cut down. The crops are reaped. Leaves wither and drop from trees. But, in spring, life will spring forth again. The Celts believed in the never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Also, they believed that, just as the sun sets at night but rises in the morning, light follows darkness. Although, at Lughnasa, we prepare to go into the darkness, keep in mind that, at the end of the darkness, is light. Remember too that, while Lughnasa is the beginning of the end, Samhain, which follows it, is the start of the new year.
So, Lughnasa is an opportunity to prepare for the darkness that will surely come, but it is also a time to rejoice, be thankful, and hope.
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Slan go foil!
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