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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lughnasa – Festival of the Harvest

    Lughnasa is also called Lughnasadh, Lunasa, Brón Trogain, Lunsadal, Laa Luanys, Calan Awst, and Gouel an Eost, and Alexei Kondratiev conjectures that the Celts of Gaul may have called this celebration Aedrinia (Kondratiev, 1998). The many names of the holiday show it's pan-Celtic character, and demonstrate that it could be found across the Celtic world. Several of the names for the holiday are references to the beginning of autumn or of the harvest.
    The most well known Irish name of the festival, Lughnasadh or Lughnasa, can be broken down into Lugh Nasadh and translated into either Middle or Old Irish as the assembly of Lugh or the funeral assembly of Lugh. The connection to a funeral assembly undoubtedly references the belief that the celebration was originally created by the god Lugh as a memorial for his foster mother, Tailtiu, after her death, and the assembly of Lugh is thought to refer to the many athletic games and competitions associated with the harvest fairs that occurred at this time.
    The other Irish name, Brón Trogain, is usually understood to mean "Earth's sorrow", with the implication of the weight of the harvest, and is seen as a metaphor for birth (MacNeill, 1962). Brón means sorrow, grief, burden, or lamentation. Trogain not only means earth and autumn but also female raven, so it could be translated as "Sorrow of the (female) raven". Additionally Trogan is associated with childbirth through this expression "used as an imprecation [curse] troigh mhna troghuin foruibh `pangs of a woman in childbirth" (eDIL, n.d.). This name for the holiday is mentioned in the Wooing of Emer: "55. To Brón Trogaill, i.e. Lammas-day, viz., the beginning of autumn; for it is then the earth is afflicted, viz., the earth under fruit. Trogam is a name for 'earth.'" (Wooing of Emer, n.d.). MacNeill suggests, based on passages from the Acallamh na Senórach, that Brón Trogain was the older name for the holiday which only later came to be known as Lughnasa.
    Of the four fire festivals of the pagan Irish Lughnasa has some of the least mythical associations. It appears only once in the Lebor Gabala Erenn, as the date that the Fir Bolg invaded Ireland (MacNeill, 1962). It's celebration is mentioned in at least two other places: the Wooing of Emer and the Birth of Aedh Slaine. The Wooing of Emer passage has already been quoted above and refers to the holiday as the beginning of autumn and a time of fruit. The second reference says: "For these were the two principal gatherings that they had: Tara's Feast at every samhain (that being the heathens' Easter); and at each lughnasa, or' Lammas-tide,' the Convention of Taillte." (Jones, n.d.). This places Lughnasa on a level of equal importance with Samhain and describes it as a time of community gathering.
    In modern practice Lughnasa is celebrated on August 1st, however there is evidence that the date of Lughnasa would actually have represented the starting date of a series of festivals and fairs, rather than a single one day celebration with harvest fairs associated with Lughnasadh, called Oenacha which themselves may last for several days, appearing as late as August 12th (MacNeill, 1962). In modern Irish the word Lunasa means both the first of August and is the name for the entire month of August. There are some hints that the dates may be hard to pin down because they were originally based on a lunar reckoning that is now lost (MacNeill, 1962). It is generally agreed though that no harvesting should be done before the correct date, represented by Lughnasa, and that to harvest before Lughnasa is both bad luck and the sign of a bad farmer or poor housewife (Danaher, 1972). This folk belief persisted even into the 20th century and indicates the strong connection between Lughnasa and the harvest.
    There are several themes surrounding this celebration that include the mundane, the spiritual, and the blending of both. Lughnasa celebrates, at its core, the beginning of the harvest and the new abundance of food being gathered; because of this it is strongly associated with the cooking of specific foods that represented the harvest, especially porridge and bread, often with fresh seasonal fruit being incorporated (Danaher, 1972). There is also mention of cows being milked in the morning and the milk used in the feast, as well as a special type of bread being made from harvested grain and cooked with rowan or another sacred wood before being handed out by the head of the household to the family who eats it and then walks sun-wise around the cooking fire, chanting a blessing prayer (McNeill, 1959). It was understood that the period just prior to the beginning of the harvest was the leanest of the year, making the celebration of fresh fruit, vegetables, and grains all the more special to the people (MacNeill, 1962). This may also be symbolically related to another legend of Lughnasa, the battle between the god Lugh and the mysterious mythic figure of Crom Dubh. Crom Dubh means the “black bent one” and he had a special day on the last Sunday of July called Domhnach Crom Dubh and a dangerous bull bent on destruction that had to be stopped to preserve the harvest (Kondratiev, 1998). Many of the myths relating to Lugh and Crom Dubh, who is sometimes called Crom Cruach, involve Lugh battling and outwitting Crom and thus insuring the safety and bounty of the harvest; in some cases this theme is given the additional layer of the defeat, sacrifice, consumption, and then resurrection of Crom’s bull which may argue for an older element of bull sacrifice on this day (MacNeill, 1962). The Carmina Gadelica records several specific actions and charms to be done during the first harvest which expand on the importance of this turning point of the year.
    Another common practice at Lughnasa was for people to gather together outdoors at a traditional place, often with the entire community getting together, and the site chosen would not only be someplace beautiful and wild but remote enough that travelling to it would represent something of a challenge (Danaher, 1972). Other practices of Lughnasa include decorating holy wells and pillar stones on this date, and also of travelling to hill or mountaintops; all of these varied by location and indicate that while the festival itself was widespread the nature of the celebration was dependent on the area and took on a unique local flavor (MacNeill, 1962). There are references to blessing cattle on the eve of Lughnasa and of making blessing charms for the cattle and milking equipment that the blessing would remain for the year to come (McNeill, 1959). Divination was practiced, with a particular focus on the weather during the harvest and this seems to have been based on observations of the weather so far during the year and on atmospheric conditions on Lughnasa, with color and appearance of certain landmarks indicating either fair or foul weather to come (Danaher, 1972). Lughnasa was also the time in Ireland, Scotland, and the Orkneys for handfastings and weddings, or the dissolution of unions formed in the previous year (McNeill, 1959). Trial marriages of this type were used to see if the new couple was compatible; should they choose to separate after a year there was no shame in it and any child that was produced from the union would be ranked with the father’s legal heirs (McNeill, 1959). Finally Lughnasa was also well known for harvest fairs and an assortment of athletic competitions and horse races; it is important to note that the ancient fairs, or oenacha, were not occasions of commerce but of social gathering and celebration (MacNeill, 1962). Many different types of games were held, as well as competitions of agility and strength, fire leaping, and swimming races of both men and horses (Danaher, 1972). A general party atmosphere prevailed with dancing and music, storytelling, feasting, and bonfires (Evert-Hopman, 2008) Overall it can be gathered from a wide understanding of the various Lughnasa customs that this celebration was one based on the gathering together of the community to celebrate the fresh abundance of a new harvest with joy and enjoyment. People gathered to reinforce and celebrate the bonds of community through marriages and social mixing, and to strengthen and honor the bonds between the people and the spirits of the land and the gods through decorating wells and standing stones, the re-telling or re-enactment of mythological tales, acts of blessing, and ritual.
    It is unknown now exactly what pagan religious ceremonies may have been held on Lughnasa but there are several deities that we do know are associated with this holy day. The most obvious deity associated with Lughnasa is of course Lugh, who battles with Crom Dubh and is also said to have instituted the games to commemorate his foster mother. Tailtiu herself could be another deity associated with Lughnasa, as could the goddess Aine who in some mythology is connected to both a three day period during Lughnasa and to the mythic figure of Crom Dubh as his consort during this time (MacNeill, 1962). Another goddess associated with Lughnasa is Macha, one of the Morrignae, who some believe raced the king’s horses on Lughnasa; whether or not this is so there is evidence of a long standing celebration of Lughnasa at Emain Macha and the surrounding areas in Ulster (MacNeill, 1962). The harvest itself may also be connected to the Cailleach, as it was a common custom to associate the last sheaf in the field with the Cailleach; however this may be more appropriate later in the harvest season at Samhain (Danaher, 1972).
  Lughnasa has a rich history. Although in modern paganism Lughnasa is often not given great significance in Irish paganism this holiday was very important indeed and was celebrated with weeks of fairs and festival games and with special foods. It was a time of community togetherness, marriages, and reciprocity with the Gods and spirits. Studying the folk practices can give us both a greater understanding of how this holiday has been celebrated throughout the years but also give us material to work with in reconstructing modern practices.

Danaher, K., (1972). The Year in Ireland; Irish calendar customs. Minneapolis: Mercier Press.
Evert-Hopman, E. (2008). a Druid's Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine. Rochester: Destiny Books
Kondratiev, A. (1998). Apple Branch: a path to Celtic Ritual. New york: Citadel Press.
MacNeill, M. (1962). the Festival of Lughnasa. Dublin: Oxford University Press.
McNeill, F. M. (1959). the Silver Bough, volume 2: a calendar of Scottish national festivals, Candlemas to Harvest Home. Glasgow: Maclellan.
The Wooing of Emer (n.d)
Jones, M., (n.d.) The Birth of Aedh Slaine. Retrieved from

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