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Article ID: 15145
Age Group: Adult
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Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
Posted: July 29th. 2012
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The last of the Celtic fire festivals is upon us and while the heat of summer is still strong, it’s time to think of harvesting what we’ve sown before the evil Eye of Balor scorches it, leaving it useless dust. Lughnasadh was the time of the grain festival, but it was more than that, it was a time to welcome friends back home, see how the roving herds got along, take stock before winter and it was a time to play games.
Contrary to popular belief, Lughnasadh is not named for Lugh because he somehow sacrifices himself with the grain (that only becomes true in those traditions which conflate him with John Barleycorn) ; it’s named for him because He started the festival Himself. He invented it. The connections between Lughnasadh and the grain harvest are probably a later addition (though an understandable addition due to the time frame during which the festival occurred) .
So, what was the Lughnasadh that Lugh envisioned? Basically, it was the Irish Olympics. He intended there to be great sporting events held to honor, not himself, but his foster-mother Tailtiu. The Celts had a long tradition of sending their children into fosterage, and it was said that the bonds forged by fosterage were stronger than those born of blood relation. This seems to have been true, at least in Lugh’s case, as he killed his maternal grandfather, Balor; but honored his foster-mother upon her death by founding Lughnasadh.
Not much is left for us to get to know Tailtiu, but most state that she is of Fir Bolg descent (they were the race to invade Ireland prior to the invasion of the Tuatha de Danann and ensuing First Battle of Moytura) and many connect her with the Earth. If that is the case, she may be cognate with either Rhea or Gaia and studying myths that include them might give us more insight into how the Celts (being as much from the Indo-European as are the Greeks) saw Tailtiu.
It does make sense that an Earth Goddess should be revered when we are reaping the bounty of the Earth. Grain was probably the most important crop in early agriculture. Bread was (and still is) a very important staple (if only because it fills you up so you feel you’ve eaten more than you have) . Grain was also easily preserved through the winter, a boon that most other grown vegetation just doesn’t have.
And then there is beer. Beer was popular with the Celtic people at some of their earliest stages, about 5, 000 years ago. The grain harvest not only meant food, but also alcohol. Both of those, combined with the games made for one big party. The importance of beer continued well into the Middle Ages, during which there were strict rules as to the proper brewing process and licenses and taste tests had to be administered to make sure the rules were being followed to the letter. It was also one of the few industries that could be run by a woman.
So, what about me? I don’t like beer. I don’t have my own grain to harvest and I don’t bake bread without a bread machine (which I don’t have) . I’m also not sports-inclined. I don’t care much for watching them and I don’t really have the hand-eye coordination to play them (or to play video games…seriously…I suck) . So what is there for me to do at Lughnasadh?
Being unable to actively participate in exactly the same way my ancestors did does not mean that I cannot participate at all. One of the modern things I can bring to Lughnasadh applied more to my school and college days: the back to school sales. Think about it, parents get new clothes and supplies for their kids every year. They’re reaping their children’s physical growth; they might pass down larger clothes to the younger or give/donate them to those who need them. They are reaping the previous year’s mental growth because (in most cases) children are moving up a grade. Other than “the holiday season”, I think “Back to School” is where parents spend the most of their children during the year and the scramble I witness is very similar to grain harvesters trying to get the wheat in before the sun burns it. However, again, this is something I merely witness during this time of year. I have no children of my own, I’m not part of this form of harvest right now; but I was as a child and I can bring that knowledge with me into my adult years.
Another festival occurs at the same time as Lughnasadh, and that is Lammas. In modern Paganism, we tend to use the terms interchangeably (I don’t use Lammas, but I also don’t use Candlemas for Imbolc – anything with the “mas” suffix indicates the mass, suggesting that it has at least become a Christian adaptation of an older festival) , but Lammas seems to have more of a spotlight on the grain harvest than does Lughnasadh and I think combining them makes them all the more meaningful. The sacrificed god of the fields is a key element to this holiday and offerings of sheaves of freshly cut grain, bread and beer are all appropriate.
In Wicca, tradition varies as to whether their God dies at now, at Mabon or at Samhain (with some suggesting he is wounded both on Lammas/Lughnasadh, and Mabon and then leads the dead back to the Otherworld at Samhain with his own death) . Being the hard-polytheist that I am, I’m more inclined to think that different gods make the journey at different times (for example: John Barleycorn at Lammas, Dionysus at Mabon, maybe Herne at Samhain) . My patron is Cernunnos; I don’t think he stays in the Otherworld even from Samhain through Yule (this is because the mating habits of the local whitetail deer starts in late October and I don’t think he’d want to miss out on that) so I don’t count him among the sacrificed field gods.
The sacrifice made this time of year is very important to the sacred king cycle and some traditions create rituals of self-sacrifice or create a “scape-goat”. While not necessarily tied to this time of year, Odin’s sacrifices make a wonderful backdrop for such rituals. He sacrificed an eye to drink from the Well of Mimir (wisdom) and he hanged himself on Yggdrasil for nine days to learn the mystery of the runes. This might well be a good time to think what might be worth sacrificing to move further on your path.
So, seven down, one to go. Have a great Lughnasadh everyone!
Irish Mythological Cycle, the Second Battle of Moytura
Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch by Lora O’Brien
Dancing with the Sun by Yasmine Galenorn
A Grimoire for Modern Cunningfolk by Peter Paddon
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
Wikipedia article on beer
BBC Medieval Lives
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