Lughnasa ( 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.
According 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.
The 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.
These 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