Lughnasa: Festival of the Harvest (A Druid's Perspective)
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Posted: July 17th. 2011
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Lughnasa is also called Lughnasadh, Lunasa, Bron 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 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. Several of the other names for the holiday are references to the beginning of autumn or of the harvest.
Of the four fire festivals of the Irish Celts, Lughnasa has some of the least mythical associations, appearing only in the Lebor Gabala Erenn as the date that the Fir Bolg invaded Ireland (MacNeill, 1962) . 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.
It is also the practice on the Isle of Man to celebrate Lughnasa, or Laa Luanys as it is called there, on August 12th every year, likely due to the discrepancy created when the calendar shifted from the Julian to the Gregorian, and there are also 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 corn 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 holy 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 Lunasa, 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 Harvest Home or Samhain (Danaher, 1972) .
It is clear from this that for a modern practitioner there is an abundance of material to work with in finding ways to celebrate Lughnasa. I’m going to offer several suggestions for practice that could be used for anyone with a Celtic leaning, or who would like to celebrate this holyday in a Celtic manner, but I leave the actual ritual up to the individual or group to design. My own approach is Irish Reconstructionist in nature and that doubtless colors my view, but I would like to offer this to anyone of any faith who celebrates Lughnasa.
One aspect that should be celebrated the same whether a person is solitary or in a group is food. Ideally if you grow your own fruit or corn, or have a milk cow, you could use the product of your own harvest, otherwise you should try to find high quality, local foods to use. Most Irish cookbooks should offer recipes for Barm Brac and you can substitute fresh fruits like raspberries and blackberries for the raisins and dried peel the recipe calls for. Although corn is a later addition to Ireland’s crops, that did not exist during the pagan periods of celebration it did come to be strongly connected to Lughnasa during the Christian period and is often mention when the celebration is discussed, although corn was replaced in time by potatoes as the main produce crop. It would be safe to use corn, especially if gluten sensitivity is an issue, or alternately to use wheat or oats to cook with.
In the same way that there are many Barm Brac recipes to choose from there are innumerable porridge recipes to which fruit can be added, and fresh milk would also be appropriate. Since corn is repeatedly mentioned in several sources I believe that making corn bread, or a cornmeal mash would also be acceptable as a food for this celebration, with the understanding that it is a more modern crop. I would suggest leaving a portion of whatever is prepared out as an offering after the celebration, either to the daoine sidhe or the gods you decide to honor, or to both.
If you are practicing with a group the group should choose a suitable place outdoors to meet, preferably either on a high place like a hilltop or mountain, or by the seashore or a river, or other place considered sacred by the group. Everyone should bring a small token dish to represent his or her contribution to the harvest, and if possible a fire should be kindled. The group should feel relaxed and social while setting up and getting comfortable stories should be told relating to Lughnasa; if possible music should be played or people can be encouraged to sing.
It would also be all right to decorate a local stone, tree, or spring with flowers or other appropriate biodegradable decorations. At this point the group can celebrate the religious rite in whatever way they prefer, with the entire festivities dedicated to the god or gods of the rite. The food should be reheated using the fire and then shared and eaten by all, with some left as an offering as previously mentioned; this can be done during the group’s religious ritual or afterwards depending on the group. More stories can be told and music played while people socialize, and then the group should have whatever athletic games they are best able to hold.
This could involve foot races, contests of strength, solving puzzles, or games of skill, like tossing a beanbag through a ring with the winner receiving a special token or prize. After the athletic games if the fire has died down a bit it would also be traditional for people to jump the fire. The celebration should be planned to last for the entire day and the tone should be fun and light hearted.
In contrast a solitary practitioner may have to work a bit harder to include athletic aspects, or choose not to include them at all. I would suggest if you are alone that you choose a location to celebrate that will be physically challenging to get to, and include getting to and leaving the site as part of the athletic challenges of the day. You could hike to a high place or other sacred site and then, if it’s safe build a fire do so. Sitting alone you can recite stories, poetry, or sing while preparing the area; decorating a tree or other sacred object can be done alone. You can celebrate your solitary rite as you choose, dedicating your efforts to the deity or deities you are honoring. In the same way when you bring out and eat the food you have brought be sure to leave some as an offering. You may choose to sit for a while in silence contemplating the beauty of your location or the meaning of the holy day, or you may find ways to challenge yourself (safely) to physical activities where you are. You can even jump the fire by yourself when it is low enough. Spend as much time as you would like at your ritual site, enjoying it, and then clean up and head home.
There are many traditions associated with Lughnasa that emphasize both community and connecting to the divine. Some of these traditions pass beyond recorded history and into supposition and guesswork, but many are firmly based in folk practices that continued well into the last century. By learning about and understanding the old traditions of Lughnasa we can find new ways to incorporate them into modern pagan practices, and doing so will deepen our own spirituality.
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) . the 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.
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