Lughnasa: Dancing Towards Darkness
Tomorrow is Lughnasa. For most people that sentence will hold little meaning. For those who’ve heard of Dancing at Lughnasa but have never seen the play or movie, the title might spark interest. To American ears, the play’s title, specifically the pronoun at, indicates that Lughnasa is a place. It is not. It is a date (August 1st), a Celtic fire festival, and a month. In the Irish language, the word for August is Lúnasa. So the ancient pagan feast day apparently still resonates with the Irish, but does it have anything to offer non-pagans born outside of Ireland? Brian Friel’s tony awarding winning play shows that it does. While Dancing at Lughnasa isn’t directly about the festival, its themes are in sync with the lessons of this Celtic feast day. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this post, “Tomorrow is Lughnasa” will mean something to you.
While the English teacher in me is tempted to launch into a literary analysis of the themes of the play and a discussion of their connections to the fire festival, that is not the purpose of this post nor is the drama its main subject. So I will discuss Lughnasa itself and leave you to learn more about the play if you so choose (there are plenty of resources online).
Lughnasa, as mentioned above, is a Celtic fire festival but what does that mean? There are four major feast days on the Celtic calendar: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasa. Part of the celebration of these is the lighting of communal bonfires so they have become known as fire festivals. Each fire festival begins a new season of the year. Lughnasa marks the beginning of autumn and is a celebration of the harvest.
While Ireland has been the most steadfast in holding onto the celebration of Lughnasa, the ancient Celtic festival has left its mark on other Celtic nations too. In Scotland, the annual August harvest festival is known as Lunestal. On the Isle of Mann, both August 1st and the month of August are called Luanistan. The Welsh festival of Gwl Awst is celebrated on August 1st. Scholars consider all four to be celebrations of the same thing: Lughnasa.
The Festival of Lugh and Tailtiu
The fire festival’s name is derived from the Celtic sun god, Lugh. He is a young, multi-talented hero-god. Celtic mythology says Lugh excelled at all sports and athletic activities, but his abilities didn’t stop there. Lugh was a gifted poet and musician as well as a brave, skilled warrior. What else would you expect from a sun god? He was a shining star.
But the festival actually honors his mother. Lugh, according to mythology, is the one who established it. He did so as an annual remembrance of her after she died. Her name was Tailtiu. The Irish have good reason to be grateful to her. According to the myth, she cleared all the fields on the island so the Irish could farm. Then she died. She gave her life so they could live. Dedicating one day a year to her seems a reasonable response.
Lugh wanted the Taileann Games to be held annually in her honor. The games, which continue today in Ireland, are athletic contests. Competitions in singing, dancing, poetry and storytelling take place as well. These activities seem to honor Lugh rather than his mother, but the main focus of fire festival does directly relate to Tailtiu’s story. Lughnasa primarily is a thanksgiving for and celebration of the harvest.
The Sacred Holy Day
While athletic and other competitions are fun activities associated with the celebration, Lughnasa, like the other three fire festivals, in its roots is a holy day. August 1st is the official date for Lughnasa, but the feast traditionally starts on the evening of July 31st. Celtic days begin at sunset and end at the following sunset. The ancient Celts would gather as a community after sundown and light a bonfire. Prayers of thanksgiving for the good harvest would be offered along with sacrificial food. The main foods offered were the first fruits of the harvest, particularly grain, but also vegetables and fruit, especially bilberries (similar to blueberries). In addition, a bull was sacrificed. Of course, feasting followed!
The next day, people made visits to holy wells, decorated them with flowers, and made offerings of coin or colored ribbons, In return, they hoped to receive good health and luck in the coming year.
Other Lughnasa Customs
Fairs were held on Lughnasa in Ireland well into the twentieth century. Family members came back home to celebrate. Clans gathered. There was a communal celebration. In other words, this fire festival was a huge social event. Weapons were supposed to be laid aside for the day. Anyone who violated that code was severely punished.
Because of the large gathering, the festival provided an excellent time for business deals and trading. It also presented an opportunity for more personal mergers. Temporary marriages, sanctified through hand-fasting, were performed. In both Ireland and Scotland, these temporary marriages were 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. This custom continued in Scotland for centuries after the establishment of Christianity. After hand-fasting on Lunestal, the couple could choose to make their union permanent at the beginning of August the following year by having a church wedding. That practice, however, ended in the early 17th century when the Scottish parliament, under pressure from the Church of Scotland, banned hand-fasting.
In both Scotland and Ireland, Lughnasa was a time for the blessing and protecting of animals. Horses were immersed into water, echoing the human visitation to holy wells. Cattle were brought in from the fields or (in the Scottish highlands) 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. So charms were said over udders and, in Scotland, hair balls were placed in the pails for the first milking on Lunestal. The logic of this last custom eludes me.
Themes of Lughnasa
The feast of Lughnasa is rich in symbolism and is associated with a number of themes. Primarily, it is a joyful celebration. The harvest is the fruition of the seeds planted in spring and summer, and the reward for the hard labor spent to bring about the autumnal bounty. The harvest also is a time of thanksgiving. The sower does not deserve sole credit for the resulting crops. Sun, rain, and good soil have played a role too. To the Celtic mind, a good harvest is a gift from the Divine.
But along with the joy is anxiety. Autumn has started. Winter will follow. Until very recent human history, winter meant hunkering down indoors and hoping to still be alive in the spring. The autumn harvest needed to provide enough food to sustain the family through the long, dark winter. After the Lughnasa celebration, food was stored away for the coming season of cold and snow. Would it be enough?
The start of autumn also signaled shorter days and longer nights. The Celtic year was divided into a light half and a dark half. Lughnasa was the final season of light. Samhain, on November 1st, would mark the beginning of winter and the start of the dark half of the year. The joy of Lughnasa was tinged with the sure knowledge that the sun was retreating.
Celtic folklore taught that the sun god actually went underground at Samhain. While the people hoped he would return by Imbolc (Feb. 1st) or, at least, by the Spring Equinox (March 21/ 22), there was no guarantee. Let’s face it, going towards the darkness is scary.
Another theme associated with Lughnasa is death. This might seem odd. After all, the harvest is a time of joyful abundance, of life nurturing food, and of hopes planted and fulfilled, right? Yes, but there’s more to it. On the Celtic calendar, autumn is the final season of the year. It leads to cold darkness and the apparent cessation of life that is the landscape of winter.
Still, there is more to the story. Celtic spirituality contains a strong belief in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Yes, Lughnasa heralds the fading of light and warmth. Its season will end at Samhain, the beginning of the dark half of the year. But in the Celtic view of time, Samhain is also the start of the new year. Just like the Celtic day which begins at sunset and moves towards the dawn, the Celtic year starts in the darkness of winter and journeys towards the light and warmth of spring.
So, at its core, Lughnasa is preparing for death while hoping it will be followed by new life.
Tomorrow is Lughnasa. What will that mean to you?
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Happy Lughnasa! Slan go foil!
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