Lughnasa: Celtic Celebration of the Harvest
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
Goodbye Summer! Hello Fall! Even though temperatures may be warm and autumn doesn’t
officially begin this year until September 23rd, from a cultural perspective, Summer’s in the rearview mirror. Students are returning to school and, in the U.S., Labor Day is next Monday. In American culture, those two things herald the end of summer (no more wearing white, if you’re old school!). In Celtic culture, the end of summer is marked by the festival of Lughnasa. Generally, Lughnasa is celebrated on August 1st or 2nd. Contemporary Ireland, though, has designated all of August as Lunasa (that’s the phonetic spelling).
So what is Lughnasa? It’s a Cross-Quarter feast on the Celtic calendar, a day which marks the beginning of a season. Lughnasa begins autumn and celebrates the harvest. The name of the feast is taken from the sun god of Celtic mythology, Lugh. However, it honors his foster mother, Tailitu, as well. In fact, according to Irish mythology, Lugh himself started the annual festival to commemorate her death. Now, a death may not seem like cause for celebration, but it can be. Christian scriptures quote Jesus of Nazareth as teaching, "Unless a wheat grain falls
into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest" (John 12:24, New American Bible online). Tailtiu enabled the Irish to reap a rich harvest.
She cleared all the land in Ireland so that the Celts could farm. This exhausted her (unsurprisingly). Then…she died. But she had given a great gift to the Celtic community. Her foster son who, by that time, was High King of Ireland, declared that fires be lit, that keening (mourning through wailing—think banshee) be done, and that fairs should be held in her honor throughout Ireland every year. The celebration has continued to this day, not only in Ireland, but Scotland and The Isle of Man as well.
ELEMENTS of the FESTIVAL
So how is the feast celebrated?
--It’s a social event. Traditionally, the fairs were an opportunity for the whole community to come together peacefully. Men were not to fight. Women were not to be raped. Feuds were to be set aside for the day (or better yet, resolved)..
--It’s a time for fun and games. Lugh was a great warrior but he had many other skills as well,
including being adept at poetry and music. He ordered the fairs include the Tailteann games (named for his mother). Many of these games were athletic. Horse racing and hurling are two
competitions associated with Lughnasa fairs. Other skills were tested as well. There were contests for bards, musicians, dancers, and others. There were produce and livestock competitions too.
--Sacrifice is offered. A bull was ritually sacrificed as an offering to Lugh. Other chief offerings included corn, grains, and other first fruits of the harvest.
--Lugh’s triumphs are celebrated. Lugh was a renowned warrior and often plays about one of his great battles were enacted.
--Holy wells are decorated. As part of the Lughnasa celebration, people visit holy wells and decorate them with ribbons and garlands. Sometimes offerings of coins are made as well.
--Trial marriages are started. Traditionally, Lughnasa is a time to try out a marriage.
Hand-fastings were performed and the couple promised to stay together for a year and a day. After that, they either could go their separate ways or make the union permanent.
LUNASA LIFE REFLECTIONS
The great thing about Celtic feasts and seasons is that they offer the opportunity to use ancient symbolism as a springboard for reflecting on one’s life and putting the fruit of that reflection into action. Here are some questions I came up with in reflecting on Lughnasa and its symbolic associations. Please feel free to share other reflections in the comments.
1) Tailtiu’s Death and the Sacrificial Offerings: Is there a small, symbolic death or sacrifice you can offer for the good of others? A donation of time, skills, money? A kind word? A virtual hug?
2) Harvest: Reflect on what you are reaping? Is it what you meant to sow? Are you thankful for the harvest? How will you express that and what will you do with the harvest?
3) Harvest (again): For at least a day, be mindful of what you eat. Think about the animal or plant who is helping to nourish you. Think about the many people involved in getting that food to you. Think about non-food ways in which you need to be nourished. Think about those who literally or metaphorically are undernourished—and how you can help them.
4) Skills: What are your best and / or favorite skills? How did you acquire them? Who taught them to you? How are you using them?
5) Light Into Darkness: The Celts divided the year into a light half and a dark half. Lughnasa occurs towards the end of the light half. Life is now moving towards the dark. Warmth will give way to cold. Abundance becomes scarcity (this is still true for animals even if humans are losing a sense of it). A rich harvest helped the Celts survive the long, grey winter. How are you preparing for winter?
Thanks as always for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please like and share. Thanks!
Next week: Herbs in Folklore, Medicine, and Magic.
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