We’re taking a break from the A to Z blogging challenge today in honor of the Celtic festival of Lughnasa (August 1). It’s the last of the four major Celtic feasts that I’ve yet to cover (see Samhain, Imbolc, and Beltane for the others). Lughnasa also figures into my first book, so I’ve chosen to give you the facts, rather than try to present a fictionalized account, for fear of accidentally revealing my plot.
Lughnasa (later called Lammas) celebrates the birth of the god Lugh (or Llew), who was popular throughout the Celtic world, but especially so in Ireland, Wales, Britain and among the Votadini tribe of what is now Scotland (you’ll meet them in a future blog post). Lugh’s mythology is complicated and recounting it is beyond my expertise, so I’ll leave that to others. A bull was usually sacrificed in his honor on Lughnasa, and some connect this with the bull-dream ritual the Irish used to elect their kings. (Some also say humans were sacrificed on this day, but that’s up for debate.) It is also the beginning autumn and the beginning of the harvest.
Lughnasa was an important feast for Celtic tribes, a time when they came together to celebrate their identity as a people. (Whether or not this was done among people of the same tribe or among different tribes varies depending on the time, place and source you’re consulting.) Phillip Coppens says that among all of the Celtic peoples, Lughnasa was only celebrated in Britain, Ireland, France and Northern Spain. Other sources aren’t so specific. What everyone agrees on is that these assemblies were very important for securing loyalty and for general socializing, especially in a time when travel was difficult, slow, expensive, and likely dangerous. Sources note that the Lughnasa feast could last anywhere from two to four weeks.
Most historians believe that Lughnasa festivals took place on hilltops. They all involved massive sporting contests (much like the modern Olympics) in honor of the annual games Lugh himself is said to have instituted to commemorate his foster mother, Tailtu. Common sports of the time included horse racing, hurling and weight throwing. It was also common for two opposing tribes or villages to build forts of grasses and roots and battle one another. Whether or not these battles involved real injury or were mock is a matter of speculation. (Judging from the general behavior of the war-like Celts, I doubt if the participants came away unscathed.) Some say these fights were in commemoration and/or imitation of faerie battles. Drinking, dancing, fighting and other unruly behavior also characterized the feast.
Lughnasa was also a popular day for handfastings, trial marriages that – according to some – lasted a year and a day, and could be dissolved the following year with no repercussions. Marriage or no, this feast was second only to Beltane in its sexual promiscuity.
The first stalk of wheat, symbolic of the first harvest, was cut with great solemnity and baked into cakes for the whole assembly, who also partook of the first fruits of the local harvest, both wild and domesticated. In some versions of the mythology behind the feast, the cutting of the first stalk also represented the wounding of the god, who will die at Samhain (this is especially popular among neopagans, but how much emphasis it was given in the past is uncertain.) A woman was chosen from the tribe to represent the harvest goddess or an effigy was created, with offerings laid at her feet.
Unlike Beltane and Samhain, which are fire festivals, Lughnasa is a water festival. Just as cattle were purified by driving them between bonfires on Beltane, so horses were ridden through water (forcing them to swim) to bless them. Other customs included dressing sacred wells with flowers and the burial of flowers to signify the end of summer. Billberries, blueberries and blackberries were included in the ritual feasting.
Lughnasa lives on in the neopagan world today, its chaotic nature captured in the film Wicker Man and the play Dancing at Lughnasa (both historically inaccurate).
The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev
The Land of the Gods by Philip Coppens
The Golden Bough by James Frazer