Lughnasadh is an Irish festival that celebrates the first harvest of the year and honours the Celtic sun god Lugh, as well as his foster mother Tailtiu, an earth goddess. The word ‘Lughnasadh’ is a combination of the name Lugh and the word ‘nasadh’ meaning ‘assembly’. Its older Gaelic name of ‘Bron Trogain’ means ‘sacrifice of the earth’. Today this festival is celebrated on 1st August and also goes by the name of Lammas which derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlaef mass’, meaning ‘loaf mass’.
Very much like the Roman god Mercury, Lugh was known as a god of skill and craftsmanship. He was known as the many skilled god because he had countless abilities including healing, warfare, prophecy, music and poetry. One story tells of a time when Lugh realised that he was being refused entry to Tara and in response began citing a great list of things that he was capable of doing, but to no avail. The guard at the gates continued to refuse him entry after each skill was mentioned by saying, “We’ve got someone here who can already do that”. Finally, an unwavering Lugh asks,” But do you have someone here that can do all of these things?”
According to Irish myth, Lugh was the grandson of a Fomorian called Balor of the Evil Eye. The Fomorians were a terrible race of people; enemies of the Tuatha de Danann. One day, Balor learnt of a prophecy that foretold of his own death by the hands of his future grandson. On hearing this he imprisoned his daughter Eithne inside a cave on Tory Island so that she could never have children.
However, Cian, a young man from the Tuatha de Danann who wanted Balor dead, managed to track down Eithne and seduced her. When Cian was found out he was murdered and later when Eithne gave birth to three boys they were all thrown into the sea. Lugh was the only child to survive having been saved by a blacksmith who brought him up as his own son.
Many years later Lugh turned up at the court of Nuadhu, the king of the Tuatha de Danann. The king was so impressed with Lugh’s many skills that he abdicated, offering up his throne to Lugh, who then went into the battle of Moytura with his men and indeed killed Balor. This victory secured the country of Ireland ensuring its peace and prosperity.
The Book of Invasions, which chronicles the early history of Ireland, tells us that Lugh became associated with the harvest after he had held a funeral feast and athletic games in honour of his foster mother Tailtiu.
Tailtiu, whose name probably comes from Talantiu meaning “the great one of the earth”, once lived on the magical hill of Tara and was the daughter of a man called Firbolg, who was the king of the Great Plain. Tailtiu was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the forest of Breg so that her people could grow food and avoid starvation. It took a whole month for her to create the plain of Oenach Taillten.
The funeral games in her honour were called the Oenach Tailten and took place at Tailtin in what is now County Meath, Ireland. It is said that Tailtiu asked Lugh to hold these games every harvest so that each home would forever have corn and milk. These Olympic style games lasted several days and would have consisted of trading, marriage arrangements and contract signing. Trial marriages were also conducted here whereby young couples would join hands through a hole in a wooden door. These Teltown marriages that enacted the marriage of Lugh to the goddess Eire, after whom Ireland is named, would have lasted a year and a day. After this time they could go on to marry or else go their separate ways with no consequences. These customs stopped in the 12th century after the Norman conquest.
The Celts being more than just one people had many gods and goddesses and most of them were attached to local landmarks. However, Lugh is one of the exceptions as he was honoured over a much wider area of Europe. There have been innumerable inscriptions and statues dedicated to Lugh found even as far away as Spain and Julius Caesar remarked how important this god was to the Celts. There was also a Lugus god cult in Lyon France (Lugundum) and the Welsh god Llew Llaw Gyffes is thought to be connected to Lugh, as well as there being a link to the Arthurian knight Sir Lancelot. There are other towns linked to Lugh also; Carlisle (Lugabalium) on the Scottish border and Leiden in the Netherlands.
In British folklore there exists a man called John Barleycorn, a figure that symbolises the harvest of the barley as well as the whiskey and beer that is made from it. In Robert Burns traditional folk song, John Barleycorn is described as having to suffer many kinds of indignities which correspond with the agricultural cycle of planting, growing and harvesting.
There were many customs throughout Europe around the harvesting of crops. The first sheaf of wheat would be ceremoniously cut at dawn, winnowed, ground into flour and baked into the harvest bread which was then gratefully shared throughout the community. The last sheaf was also ceremoniously cut and often made into a corn dolly dressed in ribbons and cloth and was carried into the village as the focal point of the harvest supper. If the harvest had been a success then the corn dolly was made into the image of a maiden, but if the harvest had been bad then the corn dolly resembled a cailleach.
In some parts of Europe it was tradition to weave the last sheaf into a large corn mother with a corn baby inside her that represented the next harvest.
Sometimes the last sheaf would be placed above the hearth of the home, placed in a tree trunk or mixed with the grain for the following year’s planting. In some way it found itself returned to the earth so that the fertile spirit of the harvest god could live on.
Once the harvest had been stored away safely then the festivities could begin. A bull was sacrificed, circle dancing was performed and a feast was enjoyed. Much of this took place on top of hills. Tributes were also brought to the king such as venison, fish and fruit.
Lastly, a tradition of Lughnasadh that still survives today across Britain and Ireland is the wake fair, although it has sadly lost its original meaning of mourning the death of the sun. The most well known is the Puck Fair which is held every year in early august in Killorglin, County Kerry. The fair has been traced back to the 16th century, but it is believed to have origins that go further back still. At the beginning of this three day festival a goat is brought into the town and is crowned the “king”, while a local girl is crowned the “queen”. The festival includes traditional music and dancing, a parade, arts and crafts workshops, a horse and cattle fair and a market. Young men and women from Irish traveller families also get a chance to come together.