Lughnasadh or Lughnasa is a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Originally it was held on 1 August, or about halfway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. However, over time the celebrations shifted to the Sundays nearest this date. Lughnasadh is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals; along with Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane. It corresponds to other European harvest festivals such as the Welsh Gwyl Awst and the English Lammas.
Lughnasadh is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and is believed to have pagan origins. The festival itself is named after the god Lugh. It involved great gatherings that included religious ceremonies, ritual athletic contests, feasting, matchmaking and trading. There were also visits to holy wells. According to folklorist Máire MacNeill, evidence shows that the religious rites included an offering of the first of the corn, a feast of the new food and of bilberries, the sacrifice of a bull and a ritual dance-play. Much of this would have taken place on top of hills and mountains.
Lughnasadh customs persisted widely until the 20th century, with the event being variously named ‘Garland Sunday’, ‘Bilberry Sunday’, ‘Mountain Sunday’ and ‘Crom Dubh Sunday’. The custom of climbing hills and mountains at Lughnasadh has survived in some areas, although it has been re-cast as a Christian pilgrimage. The best known is the ‘Reek Sunday’ pilgrimage to the top ofCroagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July. A number of fairs are also believed to be survivals of Lughnasadh, for example the Puck Fair. Since the later 20th century, Celtic neopagans have observed Lughnasadh, or something based on it, as a religious holiday. In some places, elements of the festival have been revived as a cultural event.
In Irish mythology, the Lughnasadh festival is said to have been begun by the god Lugh as a funeral feast and athletic competition in commemoration of his mother Tailtiu. She was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Tailtiu may have been an earth goddess who represented the dying vegetation that fed mankind. The funeral games in her honour were called the Óenach Tailten or Áenach Tailten and were held at Tailtin in what is now County Meath. TheÓenach Tailten was similar to the Ancient Olympic Games and included ritual athletic and sporting contests. The event also involved trading, the drawing-up of contracts, and matchmaking. At Tailtin, trial marriages were conducted, whereby young couples joined hands through a hole in a wooden door. The trial marriage lasted a year and a day, at which time the marriage could be made permanent or broken without consequences. A similar Lughnasadh festival, the Óenach Carmain, was held in what is now County Kildare. Carman is also believed to have been a goddess, perhaps one with a similar tale as Tailtiu. After the 9th century the Óenach Tailten was celebrated irregularly and it gradually died out. It was revived for a period in the 20th century as the Tailteann Games.
In 1962 The Festival of Lughnasa, a study of Lughnasadh by folklorist Máire MacNeill, was published. MacNeill drew on the historic accounts and on earlier medieval writings. She concluded that the evidence testified to the existence of an ancient festival on 1 August that involved the following:
[A] solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries of which everyone must partake; a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh, with some ceremony involving its hide, and its replacement by a young bull; a ritual dance-play perhaps telling of a struggle for a goddess and a ritual fight; an installation of a head on top of the hill and a triumphing over it by an actor impersonating Lugh; another play representing the confinement by Lugh of the monster blight or famine; a three-day celebration presided over by the brilliant young god [Lugh] or his human representative. Finally, a ceremony indicating that the interregnum was over, and the chief god in his right place again.
Many of Ireland’s prominent mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh into the modern era. Over time, this custom was Christianized and some of the treks were re-cast as Christian pilgrimages. The most well-known is Reek Sunday—the yearly pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July. As with the other Gaelic seasonal festivals, feasting was part of the celebrations. Bilberries were gathered on the hills and mountains and were eaten on the spot or saved to make pies and wine. In the Scottish Highlands, people made a special cake called the lunastain, which was also called luinean when given to a man and luineag when given to a woman. This may have originated as an offering to the gods.
Another custom that Lughnasadh shared with Imbolc and Beltane was visiting holy wells. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking sunwise around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties . Although bonfires were lit at some of the open-air gatherings in Ireland, they were rare and incidental to the celebrations.
In Ireland, some of the mountain pilgrimages have survived. By far the most popular is the Reek Sunday pilgrimage at Croagh Patrick, which attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each year. The Catholic Church in Ireland established the custom of blessing fields at Lughnasadh.
The Puck Fair is held each year in early August in the town of Killorglin, County Kerry. It has been traced as far back as the 16th century but is believed to be a survival of a Lughnasadh festival. At the beginning of the three-day festival, a wild goat is brought into the town and crowned ‘king’, while a local girl is crowned ‘queen’. The festival includes traditional music and dancing, a parade, arts and crafts workshops, a horse and cattle fair, and a market. It draws a great number of tourists each year.
In recent years, other towns in Ireland have begun holding yearly Lughnasa Festivals and Lughnasa Fairs. Like the Puck Fair, these often include traditional music and dancing, arts and crafts workshops, traditional storytelling, and markets. Such festivals have been held in Gweedore, Sligo, Brandon, Rathangan, and a number of other places. Craggaunowen, an open-air museum in County Clare, hosts a yearly Lughnasa Festival at which historical re-enactors demonstrate elements of daily life in Gaelic Ireland. It includes displays of replica clothing, artefacts, weapons and jewellery. A similar event has been held each year at Carrickfergus Castle in County Antrim. In 2011, RTÉ aired a live television program from Craggaunowen at Lughnasa, called Lughnasa Live.
In the Irish diaspora, survivals of the Lughnasadh festivities are often seen by some families still choosing August as the traditional time for family reunions and parties, though due to modern work schedules these events have sometimes been moved to adjacent secular holidays, such as the Fourth of July in the United States.
Neopaganism and Lughnasadh
Lughnasadh and Lughnasadh-based festivals are held by some Neopagans, especially Celtic Neopagans. However, their Lughnasadh celebrations can be very different despite the shared name. Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible, while others base their celebrations on many sources, the Gaelic festival being only one of them.
Neopagans usually celebrate Lughnasadh on 31 July – 1 August in the Northern Hemisphere and 31 January – 1 February in the Southern Hemisphere, beginning and ending at sunset. Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the summer solstice and autumn equinox (or the full moon nearest this point). In 2013, this is on 7 August in the Northern Hemisphere.
Celtic Reconstructionists strive to reconstruct the pre-Christian religions of the Celts. Their religious practices are based on research and historical accounts, but may be modified slightly to suit modern life. They avoid syncretism (i.e. combining practises from different cultures).
Celtic Reconstructionists who follow Gaelic traditions tend to celebrate Lughnasadh at the time of “first fruits”, or on the full moon nearest this time. In the Northeastern United States, this is often the time of the blueberry harvest, while in the Pacific Northwest the blackberries are often the festival fruit. In Celtic Reconstructionism, Lughnasadh is seen as a time to give thanks to the spirits and deities for the beginning of the harvest season, and to propitiate them with offerings and prayers not to harm the still-ripening crops. The god Lugh is honoured by many at this time, and gentle rain on the day of the festival is seen as his presence and his bestowing of blessings. Many Celtic Reconstructionists also honour the goddess Tailtiu at Lughnasadh, and may seek to keep the Cailleachan from damaging the crops, much in the way appeals are made to Lugh.
Wicca and Lughnasadh
Wiccans use the names “Lughnasadh” or “Lammas” for the first of their autumn harvest festivals. It is one of the eight yearly “Sabbats” of their Wheel of the Year, following Midsummer and preceding Mabon. It is seen as one of the two most auspicious times for handfasting, the other being at Beltane. Some Wiccans mark the holiday by baking a figure of the “corn god” in bread, and then symbolically sacrificing and eating it.
Animal: Cattle (Bull, Calf), Chicken (Rooster)
Celebrations: Lughnasadh, Lammas, Freyfaxi (Ásatrú)
Colors: Brown (reddish), Gold, Orange, Purple, Yellow
Days: August 1
Goddesses: Aine, Ceres, Demeter, Ereshkigal, Freya, Frigg, Inanna, Ishtar, Kore, Persephone
Gods: Dumuzi, Lugh, Odin
Minerals: Citrine, Diamond (yellow), Peridot
Plants: Aloe, Blackerry/Bramble, Ginseng, Gorse, Grain
Trees: Apple, Myrtle, Oak, Rowan
Issues, Intentions, & Powers: Accomplishment, Agriculture, Challenges, Darkness, Death, Endings, Harvest, Payment of Debts, Release, Transformation, Weather
Activities to celebrate Lughnasadh:
– Bake bread or pretzels
– Have an outdoor picnic
– Bless marriages, babies, and homes
– Make a wreath out of grain
– Make corn dollies
– Harvest grains and vegetables
– Make offering stones
– Make fruit cobblers and desserts
– Volunteer at your local soup kitchen
– Go star gazing
– Make a drum and have a drum circle