What's it all about?
It is one of those festivals that seems to be viewed as merely a harvest celebration with the focus being upon feasting and competitive games. You can scour the internet and books at large and still not feel comfortable understanding what this celebration is all about. You might be lucky and find some random person that knows what they are talking about, but sadly that doesn't seem to be common. For me it was an in depth look at the lore that made understanding the themes and archetypes become very clear. There is so much more at play here than a simple day to feast and honor the ancestors, but where to begin?
Lets start with the name itself, Lúghnasadh (Loo-nas-ah) From the go we can easily see a connection to the God Lúgh and then we are faced with; Who was he & and what does the lore say about him? So back to the name itself. Násad found in Cormac's Glossary references it as meaning 'game or assembly' from - (cluiche nó aonach). This is understandable if we know the story of Lúgh's foster mother Tailtiu who died a violent death after having cleared great plains for agriculture that become called, Oenach Tailtenn. It is often a common theme that where ever an important woman dies that location becomes sacred space often used as an assembly area. So in essence these funeral games are played at the location where Tailtiu dies and are done so in her honor. In earlier times this agricultural festival could have been poetically called Brón Trógain, meaning 'the sorrow of Trógán. This could be from the Old Celtic (trougâ) meaning sorrow, but in Irish we find that troghan can also mean 'earth'. Could this be about the Goddess of the land, the harvest and other themes, we shall see. Which ever you wish to call your festival the theme is honestly the same. Even though there is a great joyous celebration, feasting, and games no doubt there is a serious side to this festival, one I feel most people leave out.
The summer only lasted through July before there was a shift. (No not the Irish slang word 'shift', ha!) This festival in August seemed to be a successful relationship between the Tribe and the Land. August translated from the Gaelic - Foghmhar meaning Autumn, and the earlier name of Fo-gemur (under or at the edge of winter) This has become tied to a calendar as August 1st-2nd because of the later Christian festival called Lammas. Similar to how Imbolc is a time when Winter was pregnant with Spring. The original celebration was not such a fixed time, the subtle and detailed relationship the Tribe had with nature directed when it was time to gather the 1st fruits, wild berries & harvest at the farms. The relationship between the Tribe and the Land, the wild and the cultivated.
July in Ireland was in those times often a hard month. The expression Iúil an Ghorta - 'July of the Famine', and Iúil an Chabáiste - 'July of the Cabbage' tell us about what was available to them when the summer sun turned its powers from nourishing life sustaining forces to possible drought. August and its first wild fruit harvest and its abundance at the farm meant life, and survival. Blueberry Sunday - 'Domhnach na bhFraochóga' when people gathered and prepared such delicious treats for Lúghnasadh or Brón Trógain clearly shows the joy communities must have had while out in the wilds gathering natures bounty.
Imagine the food stores you have managed to hang onto are running low, you're working hard at the homestead, its a hot July the sun is doing more harm than good and fresh foods are simply unavailable. Perhaps you are working the fields looking at your corn, 'knee high by July' and wondering if your crop will be ready soon for the seasonal communal celebration. You hear word from someone in the tribe that they spied the 1st fresh blueberries miles away in another part of the country. There is hope, joy, and anticipation of the harvest.
Looking back at names for the festival, at the time of Lúghnasadh in August according to the Coligny Calendar, it would be called Edrinios. Sometimes Edrinios was spelled Ædrinios which might allude to the meaning of, 'fire-intese heat' and might come to mean, 'the end of the heat'. Such other names like Ogronios which mean 'the end of cold' seem to support this idea that Lúghnasadh was a time when July heat had past and the rain and storms might also be giving some well needed relief.
It can be suggested that the festivals of Samhain & Bealtaine on the wheel of the year deal with the Land more so than any influence or relation to the Tribe, where Imbolc and Lúghnasadh are the initiation and outcome of the Tribes intimate relationship with the Land and its agricultural cycles. At Imbolc we honor Brigit as an aspect of the Land Goddess in her relation to the Tribe, whereas at Lúghnasadh we focus our attention to the aspects of Lúgh in connection to the Tribe. It is here one has to familiarize themselves with the lore to understand fully the symbolic nature of this deity - The God of the Tribe who like no one before him becomes gifted to have power over the Land; albeit only temporally for the harvest. Much of this is because of who he was, who his parents were and what deeds he accomplished. The importance of this deity gave his name to various places in the Celtic world such as, Lugudunnon, 'the fort of Lugus (Lúgh). The city of Lyons a Gallo-Roman place was called Lugdunum which also happened to be the Capital region of Gaul says something about how important Lúgh was. Lugus comes to translate from the Old Celtic stem of 'lightning-illumination' from which we come to see in the stories of Lúgh being a 'shinning one' as well as any meteorological associations with him during the time of harvest. He is often associated with 'mind over matter', and 'brains over brawn'. He was the perfect craftsman who was a master of many arts portrayed in the story when Lúgh came to Tara, ultimately giving him the name ildánach, 'many gifted'.
Lúgh was born at a time of great uncertainty and tension between the peoples that inhabited Ireland. There was an invincible Formorian champion whose eye could burn anyone into ciders with a glance named Balor. Sometimes he was known as Balor of the baneful/evil eye, and he happened to be Lúgh's Grandfather. In the story it suggests that one of the Fomorian Druids prophesized that Balor would one day be killed by his Grandson, and since he had none he was not worried. Balor though had a daughter, but she was locked away from the world far away from men, surrounded by women on island that were forbidden to let her near the sight of mankind.
Lúgh's father Cian, son of Dian Cécht of the race of people called the Tuatha Dé Danann, went with great secrecy to conceive Lúgh with Eithne daughter of the Fomorian Balor of the evil eye. So here we have Lúgh a being of two races, his father one of the Tuatha Dé Danann and his mother a Fomorian. His mothers name Eithne which means - Kernal is an important theme. The Formorian nature being tied to the Land and how the Tribe must control the land for sake of the crops plays a special role in the dynamic of Lúgh's story. It could be suggested that his mother and her name Kernal can be linked to how the Tribe and Land meet, where there could be turmoil and hopeful resolve. Because Lúgh is of two races this puts him in the situation to be the only one able to resolve the conflict of his Grandfathers unruly & unjust grip upon the rest of those inhabitants of Ireland. You could say he was born to do it.
Bress Mac Elathan was a Fomorian King who like Lúgh was both Tuatha Dé Danann & Fomorian, but Bress's father was a Fomorian where Lúgh's was a Tuatha Dé Danann which shows that each sons allegiance was to his father and his people. Bress's rule was considered a blight and a famine upon the land and it was up to Lúgh to restore and bring in control of the harvest/the land for the benefit of the Tribe.
Because of Lúgh's existence he is at once in harms way, and at great danger from his evil Grandfather- Balor. This is why he is fostered during his youth. In many Indo-European stories a child of light is hidden away until the proper time to shine. Again due to his parents, his birth, his allegiance, he becomes destine to fulfill a role. Having an ability to transcend the barriers between Samhain and Bealtaine his function as a deity is with a doubt Champion of the Tribe.
Lúgh was fostered to Manannán Mac Lir, the God of the sea and otherworld Eamhain Abhlach, 'the land of apples'. It is from him that Lúgh learns the arts of poetry and the skills used in mind over matter. Lúgh after much time was then fostered by a Queen of the Fir Bolg called Tailtiu. She was the one responsible for clearing the great central plains of Ireland and was killed, thus Lúgh setting up feasting and games in her honor. It can not be certain how Tailtu dies but looking at a story Oenach Carmain (The Lúghnasadh assembly of Leinster) one can hope to make some sense from it. It says that Carman invades Ireland with her three sons, Dian ('Fierce'), Dubh ('Black') and Dochar ('Harm') to destroy all of the crops. They are pushed back into retreat by the Tuatha Dé Danann with help of Lúgh. Carman is kept alive and forced to bow to Gods of the Tribe and comes to her death in an Oak Grove that ultimately becomes a sacred site and an assembly place associated with the Land and the Fomorian forces. It can be seen from this story that Carmen has to be somehow acknowledged and made neutral before the destructive side of her nature can be made new and allowed to manifest as a positive Harvest/Land Fomorian 'energy like that of Eithne, Lúgh's mother.
Lúgh at Tara (Temhair)
Lúgh comes to Tara to take his place with his father people the Tuatha Dé Danann. Upon reaching the gates of the place he is met by a guard and questioned. No one without the expertise of an art, craft, or great skill may enter Tara. Here is the dialogue from the story.
We can clearly see a very ritualized way of dialoging!
So Lúgh is allowed to enter Tara because he is now seen as Samildánach, 'totally gifted' His role to the Tribe as master of all crafts would put him in the chair to be King where Nuada sits.
It is in the story Cath Maigh Tuireadh or 'The Battle of Moytura' where Lúgh faces off with his Grandfather, Balor of the baneful/evil eye and kills him sling-stone. The power of King Bress Mac Elathan is defeted. Thus the reign of Fomorian power shifts to the Tuatha Dé Danann, the land is now in the hands of the Tribe while the fruits are gathered; and for us that celebrate Lúghnasadh or Brón Trógain our harvest can be sewn. Though this power over the land can only be temporary so we'll see.
If we read the Metrical Dinnshenchas (Lore of places) we can see a side to Lúgh that is not seen in other stories. Lúgh had a partner called Nás, and she was unfaithful to him with Cearmhaid Milbhéal ('honey mouth') who was one of the sons of The Dagad of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Lúgh with his spear kills Cearmhaid but given that his father is The Dagda, he brings him back to life with his magic. It is much later that Cearmhaid's sons seek revenge and one of them, 'Mac Cuill' (Son of the Hazel) kills Lúgh.
What we might be looking at here is a certain way of interpreting the Lúghnasadh rituals. We have the God of the Tribe and the God who in sometimes in alternating forms is the consort of the Goddess who lives within the Land that do share similarities, and can be mirror-images of one another that happen to be rivals of the Land-Goddesses favor. Meaning in order to make sure there was a successful Harvest, the Land-Goddess has to temporarily give her allegiance to the God of the Tribe instead of that to the Maponos figure who was her normal consort during this time. The Maponos figure will then steal her back after the harvest. This these seems to transcend cultures in an almost universal fashion. There being a Goddess of the Land, she is courted by two suiters, eventually meets with one while the other steals her away underground hidden away.
In many of the tales concerning Lúgh we learn one of his adversaries is 'ruler of the land' and in one such case is called Crom Dubh ('the black bent one'). The last Sunday in July was poetically called Domhnach Chroim Dhuibh. Crom Dubh could be a reference to Crom Crúaich an earlier deity that many disagree on, if they were one in the same it is unclear and disputed. Crom Dubh is often symbolized by a large destructive bull who must be slain by the 'harvest champion', this could easily be seen as re-enactment of the story of Lúgh and the destructive forces of Balor. If we consider Balors eye and its ability to scorch and burn things to cinders it is the symbolic destructive powers of the sun, that time of hardship and sweltering dog days of July's oppressive heat. This once welcomed heat of the sun to banish away the cold during Imbolc has now grown out of control. The hope for relief in the form of thunderstorms during August is what brings Lúghs shinning-illuminating face to the tribe.
During Imbolc and even Bealtaine the focus on fire is rather important, though Lúghnasadh deals more with the forces of water. This idea of fire and water being mated forces is very common throughout the Celtic lore. During Bealtaine the cattle were driven between two bonfires to bless and protect them as they returned to summer pastures in May; but on Lúghnasadh it was the horses of the Tribe that were purified by driven through bodies of water. This was often done through a ritual style race where the riders would mount them naked and make the horses swim through a lake or river. Cattle were always seen as powers of the Land with Bulls often being the destructive force, horses on the other hand represented the Tribe and its sovereignty. Normally the water of rivers and lakes was associated with cattle as types of Goddesses. Often stories show cattle coming from pools of water to be healed by fire, while here on Lúghnasadh we have 'solar' horses being brought into contact with water. Could these sort of ritualized races of solar horses representing the Tribe being raced through the waters, swimming almost fully submerged be related to Lúgh in his dual nature being of two different races of beings? From the lore we do learn that it was only Lúgh that like a janus head could be one thing but yet somehow also be of two different worlds. Because of his parents, Lúgh was able to cross social-political boundaries existing in two realms at the same time.
It could be suggested that a ritual of cutting the first sheaf was highly important to those celebrating these festivals. In Scotland we know this was done by the head of the kin group, who faced the sun, used his reaping tool and held it above his head to the sky before all and then turning three times on his heel while chanting, iolach buana ('reaping paean') The 1st cut crop was quickly made into cakes and brought to the ritual site (usually a high or elevated place- often with a well atop) and were it was consumed by the entire community.
The main theme here seems to be successful reaping of the Land by the Tribe and enjoyment of the 1st fruits both wild and cultivated. Many times flower garlands were made and worn and then brought to the ritual place and buried signifying that summer was over, promoting fertility of the land for a later time. Lúghnasadh was a day of victory for the tribe and was celebrated by the reaffirmation of solidarity between the Tribe and all of its members. This was done through an assembly and its games. It was like a giant market-fair, where the people brought their best to sell, and trade. It was also like a large family reunion, for it drew together scattered members of distant households within the tribe you might only see once or twice a year. Here poets and musicians would be performing their latest compositions and dancing was quite important. In many ways it was where people showed off the fruits of their personal harvest. The assembly gave people a sense of belonging, catching up on stories, contracts made, marriages done, it reunited the people as a unit. They raced their horses, wrestled, played hurley, fidchell, ran foot races, threw spears, fought, and all sorts of other feats of strength. It was also a time for men and women to gather in fertility out in the fields; for much joy of feasting, drinking and merriment was in the air. With the very hard work of the 1st major harvest past them it was time to come together and celebrate.
Here are a few Lúghnasadh themed songs to enjoy.
John Barleycorn by Kilbrannan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tw3Gz0fYU2Y
Lughnasadh by Damh the Bard- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnGuDgOjips
Lughnasadh Dance by Damh the Bard - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aP6vrF5r6Lk
Lughnasadh by Omnia - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGvwVWz_yjw
Here is the Bread Recipe my family uses for Lúghnasadh: (I'm eating some right now) We often us it for ritual with Mead to go around.
OAT BREAD (soda bread)
What you need:
2 1/2 cups ground oatmeal fine (buy old fashioned oats and just grind them in a food processor or ninja/blender)
2 cups fresh buttermilk
2 1/2 cups flour - (I often use spelt or whole wheat. Gram flour mixed with whole purpose by a 1/2 by 1/2 ratio works nicely)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
You can add cinnamon & nutmeg or even real maple syrup or local honey. I always add honey myself.
Steep the oatmeal in the buttermilk overnight in the fridge. The next day combine your flour, baking soda and salt together and mix well. Stir into the oatmeal mixture. You can add more milk if needed. * This is where I add honey* I also throw in a handful of the regular oats not ground to this mix for a nice texture. The dough should not be too wet, but sticky is fine. Place into a heavily greased loaf pan. Turn it once over so that all sides are coated. Place into preheated oven at 350 degrees for 1- 1 1/2 hours. You can serve this load hot/warm with butter and jam.
~ Note: doubling this recipe can be difficult. I recommend if wanting more than one loaf to make one at a time separately.
The Apple Branch. Alexei Kondratiev pg.177-188
Bless the earth that grows the grain,
Bless the water that gives us rain,
Bless the wind that helps seed spread,
Bless the fire that bakes our bread.
Bless the water that gives us rain,
Bless the wind that helps seed spread,
Bless the fire that bakes our bread.
– Words by Diane Baker, music by Anne Hill, Serpentine Music
~ Disclaimer. The art shown was pulled from google images and if you happen by this page and its your work please by all means let me know its yours so I can give you the proper credit you deserve!