Dancing at Lughnasa

dancing at lughnasaLughnasa ( or Lughnasadh) was a summer festival marking the beginning of the last quarter of the Celtic or more specifically the Irish year. The Irish year was divided into quarters, each marked by a festival, so we have the great feasts of Samhain ,  on November 1st , Imbolc on February 1st , Beltane on May 1st   and Lughnasa which  was celebrated around the 1st of August but the party could last for two weeks either side if it really got going !  In this system , rather than marking the solstices and equinoxes  the festival dates fell in the interspaces between thus in the centre of each quarter ( Puhvel 1987).  Lughnasa  is the last of the four feasts outlined in the Tochmarc Emire  one  of the Ulster Cycle  of early medieval  Irish literature ( Hutton 1996),  where it is listed as Bron Trogain  or earth’s sorrowing in Autumn ; Autumn began on the 1st of August in medieval Britain. Hutton points out that other contemporary sources referred to this feast as Lughnasadh, Lugnasa or Lughnasa , the festival of the god Lugh , one of the most important of pre-Christian Irish deities.

lughAccording to legend Lugh instigated a series of funeral games in honour of his foster- mother Tailtiu , an agricultural goddess who had collapsed and died after clearing the forests of Bregg, presumably for agriculture. These games were held regularly along the lines of the early Greek Olympic games and would include  horse racing, chariot racing and other games alongside trading and feasting. Lugh was credited with many powers , he was both a formidable warrior and a master magician, much like Odin, he also helped the craft gods to forge their fantastic weapons  and had the power to heal. Under his sponsorship Lughnasa developed into great tribal assemblies complete with fairs, markets, music, story telling as well as the races and it became a traditional time at which to visit people and to arrange marriages. In the Irish sagas Lugh was the father of their greatest hero  Cúchulainn whose tale is the centerpiece of the Tain Bo Cuailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley . This epic legend was recited orally during the 4th and 5th centuries AD and was written down during the 8th or 9th centuries by scribes known as filidh , Irish poet-scholars who specialized in story telling.

cu cuchulainThe Tain is a wonderful  story that gives us  a glimpse into pre-Christian Celtic society where the ruling class were the aristocratic warriors and diplomacy held no place at all ;  respect and power  were gained  by individual fighting prowess and inter-tribal warfare was the order of the day.   Cúchulainn’s father appears to him during one of his great battles as he is laying sick and exhausted, the Tain (  in Zaczek 1996) tells the encounter thus:-

there is a lone man coming towards us …….he is fair and tall and shining. He wears a green mantle ……his tunic is of royal silk and he carries a black shield and a spear with five prongs …..

‘I am Lugh your father from the sidhe and I have come to heal your wounds……’

While Cúchulainn slept Lugh placed the herbs of curing and the charms of healing on his wounds. In this way he recovered his strength without knowing it.

Cattle raids by one tribe on another seem to have been central to Irish society of the time and it seems fitting therefore that much of the Lughnasa festivities that have survived, centre around cattle fairs and trading as a reminder of how important stock-raising was to the Celtic people. Not just to the Celts however as the Anglo-Saxons also had a summer festival on August 1st known as Lammas.

Lammas was an early  harvest feast,  not a thanksgiving for the harvest as a whole but a celebration of the first fruits . The custom was at hlaef-mass or loaf mass to reap the first of the ripe corn and to bake this into a loaf, this would then be consecrated in church that day. Ron Hutton(1996) tells us how in a book of Anglo-Saxon charms it was advised that this loaf be divided into four pieces and then crumbled into the four corners of the barn into which the harvest grain would later come to be stored, thus making it a safe repository free from the evils that might beset grain in storage. Lammas survives as a legal and farming date across much of Germany, France and the UK. As well as an excuse for a celebration it served as a marker for farming activities, sheep were not to be shorn before Lammas and in the weeks before Lammas the weakling lambs were put out to fatten for an early sale. Summer grazing for sheep and cattle would often finish at Lammas and  it  therefore served as a welcome home party for the herders who would return to their families from the summer pastures,  having been away for several weeks with the flocks. Now all hands would be reunited in order to bring in the harvest together and the flocks could be turned out into the fields to eat the stubble before burning.

One notable custom of the early harvest season in many regions is the ritual cutting of sheaves of grain. In some areas the first sheaf was called the Harvest Maiden and the task of cutting this sheaf would be given to a young maiden of the village she would be assisted by a young man who would hold the sheaf as she cut it. The Harvest Maiden was then often formed into a female figure that was dressed and decorated and later honoured at the harvest supper. Other customs tell of the Corn Mother which was made from the harvest at Lughnasa  but laid to rest at for the winter at Samhain only to be taken up again at Imbolc to become the Maiden. In this tradition straws were plucked from the figure and refurnished into the Imbolc corn dolly or maiden aspect of the triple mother goddess, in Gaelic this is called Brideog or the Biddy.

We still have a tradition of corn dollies today, some are just crude representations of a human form but many are extremely intricate knots and woven design that are reminiscent of the ancient Celtic art forms seen on broaches and in the illustrated bibles.

corn maidenThese corn dolly designs are often specific to a particular region such as the Suffolk horseshoe or the Yorkshire spiral but each has talismanic powers and is a little bit of hope for bounty, good luck and future prosperity.

Happy Lughnasa everyone



Hutton R 1996 The Stations of the Sun

Puhvel J 1989  Comparative Mythology.

Zaczek I 1996 Chronicles of the Celts






Saint Swithun and the pilgrims

St Swithun’s day on the 15th July is a day when we have to seriously keep our fingers crossed for fine weather otherwise the summer will be ruined.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain,

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days twill rain nae mare .

How did this legend arise and what do we know of the man behind the myth ?

Swithun was born around the year 800, the child of noble Anglo-Saxon parents, he soon gained renown for his piety, prudence and learning. Egbert king of the west-Saxons made him his personal priest and committed to his care the education of his son   the young prince Ethelwolf , future king and father of Alfred the great. Ethelwolf set great store by Swithun’s advice when he became king calling him his master and teacher and proposing  him in his elevation to the Bishopric of Winchester in 852. Although noble and well-connected Swithun , according to Butlers Lives of the Saints, was a man of quiet humility and charity, preferring to walk rather than ride and to eat his meagre repasts with the poor and needy rather than to feast with the elite of the land.

One story of his saintly life ( Legg 2011) illustrates his humility and kindliness, apparently seeing that the poor of Winchester had to paddle through a ford in the River Itchen on foot, as best they could each day, to  sell their wares in the city, he decided to build them a bridge. Thus a substantial stone bridge was constructed near the east gate of the city the site of which features a bridge crossing the river to this day. However the story goes on , as he was crossing this bridge one day he encountered an old peasant woman bemoaning the fact that her eggs had been broken on the way to market due to the rough jostling of some monks. They were the old lady’s only source of income and she was quite overcome by her loss. Swithun went to her and collected up the eggs as best he could ……..miraculously as he handed them to her they were each  fully restored to their smooth  and wholesome glory. This miracle is commemorated on the Thomas Carpenter- Turner shrine  set up by the friends of Winchester Cathedral, which has broken eggshells on each of its four candlesticks.

the-site-of-st-swithuns-tomb-in-winchester-cathedral-uk-ah0parSo Swithun definitely was a saintly figure but what of his connection to the weather?  When he died in 862  he was buried in accordance with his dying wishes outside the north wall of the Old Minster in Winchester where he could be among the people and they could access his burial site with ease and the gentle rain could fall upon it.  He rested  at ease here for a hundred years and reportedly many miracles took place as his fame grew and Winchester became a place of popular pilgrimage. But on the 15th July 871  his body was moved from its resting place to a more fitting  shrine inside the Minster.  Lo and behold  the heavens opened and it poured down with rain for forty days bringing the removal of the body to a halt. Back it went into its grave until Edgar the Peaceful , grandson of Alfred the Great, succeeded in the re-enshrinement inside the Minster and this became the point of worship for pilgrims. It is said that over 200 miracles took place within the 10 days after his relocation and that the resident monks became seriously grumpy due to the fact that they had to conduct a thanks giving every time a miracle took place. Legend has it that their grumpiness offended the spirit of Swithun who appeared to them from beyond the grave and gave them a severe telling off ( Boase 1976) !!

Early medieval Winchester was therefore a site of popular pilgrimage, as the  fame of Swithun and his miracles spread far and wide and brought spiritual visitors from many destinations to the city. They would enter the city mainly through the King’s Gate which is still standing today to the south of Winchester Cathedral, the ancient gateway has a small chapel at its centre known as St. Swithun upon Kingsgate which is accessible through a small gate to be found on St. Swithun street, of course. In medieval times it was a common route  for pilgrims to follow the Pilgrim Trail  having  first made worship  to St. Swithun’s shrine in Winchester Cathedral  and thence to Mont St. Michel in Normandy to worship at the shrine of St. Michael . Later however, the fame of Canterbury grew and pilgrims walked instead along the Pilgrim Way which took them from Winchester along a very ancient route , possibly Neolithic,  to the tomb of Thomas a Becket. It is amazing to think that  ancient peoples may have traversed this very route but in the opposite direction from the channel and up to the ancient sacred sites of Avebury and Stonehenge. As the fame of Canterbury grew , Winchester as a pilgrim centre slowly declined and St Swithun sank into obscurity remembered by only a faithful few and when we have a particularly rainy summer!

It is interesting to dwell upon the reasons for a shrine or place of pilgrimage to become enormously popular. Usually is has to do with the association with a holy person and the resulting miracles that have reportedly occurred at their instigation. Pilgrims have in many cases suffered mental or physical ailments that they think the relics of the  holy person will help to ease. This is not peculiar to Christian saints but occurs in many faiths where sacred mystics have alleged healing powers and the faithful want to touch part of the holy person so that the healing power might transfer. Pilgrims do not always journey for self-healing, sometimes they want to express gratitude to God for an act of kindness or for saving them or a member of their family from harm. At other times a pilgrim might travel to a shrine in a state of remorse to say sorry or to do a penance for a terrible wrong they have committed in this case they are asking the holy person to intercede on their behalf with God so that they might be forgiven. Henry II did this in remorse over the murder of Thomas a Becket travelling barefoot to Canterbury in fear for his immortal soul.

Pigrimage doesn’t have to be for a specific purpose, sometimes it is the journey itself that is important. The word pilgrim is derived from the Latin peregrinus , per meaning through and ager meaning field or land, so pilgrimage infers a journey a movement through the land. In fact there doesn’t even have to be a specific destination as the ancient Irish peregrini , early Celtic Christian monks , would climb into their little round boats and set off into the unknown without oars , trusting to the will of God to take them wherever the wind would blow them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit  ( Bucknall 2014). Travelers today follow the road to Compostela in Spain or   the Via Francigena to Rome for many reasons , but in many cases it is the journey itself that is important and not the destination. A chance to reflect apon ones priorities, to find ones own strengths and to just be at one with nature and with the other travelers along the way. For to be a pilgrim is very much about experiencing communitas or fellowship,  to become part of a community and to put earthly pleasures away in the company of others who seek spirituality and guidance. As Chaucer said :-

When April’s fruitful rains descend

and bring the droughts of March to end

Why then folks go on pilgrimages 

and pilgrims yearn for foreign strands

and distant shrines in foreign lands.

Pilgrims to St. James at Compostella wear a scallop shell and those to Rome wear keys for St. Peter who holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven, what then for St. Swithun?.  His symbols are either a bridge or broken eggshells but not often to be seen adorning a pilgrim’s robes.St-SwithunSo there we have it St. Swithun and the pilgrims and it looks like the weather is going to be good tomorrow on St. Swithun’s day so that will mean a very good summer for us all. I am a great believer in that behind every Old Wives Tale, myth or legend lies a small glimmer of truth so I decided to look at weather facts to discern if this particular story has any factual background. There is indeed the tiniest glimmer of sense to the old rhyme. According to the Royal Meteorological Society , the middle of July tends to be around the time that the jet stream settles into a relatively consistent pattern. If the jet stream lies north of the UK throughout the summer  continued high pressure is able to move in bringing warmth and sunshine. If it sinks down to further south of the UK then Arctic air and the Atlantic weather systems are likely to predominate bringing the colder wetter weather.That makes sense……

May you journey with reflection and joy in the warmth of a St. Swithun summer.






Boase W.1976 The Folklore of Hampshire and the I.O.W.

Legg P. 2011. Winchester you can see

Bucknall H 2014 . Like a Tramp like a Pilgrim

Butler A 1845 Lives of the Saints