You can call it Lughnasa, or Lughnasadh, or even Lúnasa (also Gaeilge for August, all pronounced (roughly) loo-nas-sa,) but the truth of it will have everyone excited for Halloween already hooked: it’s a harvest festival! Lughnasa, named after the god-hero of early Irish mythology, Lugh, is one of the four fire festivals of ancient Ireland (along with Imbolc, Beltane, and Samhain) and falls between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. This pagan holiday marked the beginning of the harvest season, and thus a time of plenty before winter, for the largely agrarian ancient Irelanders. Though this holiday was technically yesterday this year (the dates can shift, but it’s usually the closest Sunday to August 1st) we’re here to tell you about the ways people once celebrated!
Legend states that Lugh (check out another story on the blog about him here) founded the holiday on the occasion of his foster-mother’s death. Tailtiu (whose name shows up with many pronunciations, we’ll let you take your best shot) was an earth goddess said to have died after clearing the land of Ireland for agricultural purposes, and is associated with dying vegetation’s ability to create new life and then sustain it. Lugh’s idea of a proper funeral is a little different from ours today—he decided to honor his foster mother with, well, an Irish version of the Olympics? We’ll explore the now-called Tailteann Games in another post, but, fun fact: the custom of funerary games was actually a relatively common amongst ancient civilizations!
While feats of athleticism are at the root of the holiday, a festival and many celebratory traditions that don’t necessarily make you break sweat grew up around the games. To start: what would a harvest festival be without some celebration of said harvest? Records speak of a ceremonial cutting of the first corn and first fruits of the harvest season as one of the most pervasive customs across the country. While the first of the harvest was offered to the communal bonfire (remember—fire festival!) as a sacrifice to the gods, husks of corn, wheat, or barley were used to create corn dollies—though these weren’t really just dolls! The corn maidens were carefully crafted with least blemished sheaves so they would last the winter, supposedly protecting the household. Some stories even report that once the long winter has passed, the corn dolly would be returned to her place in the earth to bless the new agricultural year. As for fruit: bilberries (we’d call them blueberries) are such a popular Lughnasa treat that the holiday is sometimes referred to as “Bilberry Sunday!” It was believed that the more blueberries there were, the better the following harvest.
Blueberry pie shared the table with all sorts of treats, though in a special place of honor was usually a sacrificed bull (first meat given to the gods, of course) that would feed the whole community. The feasting was often paired with a ritual dance-play that tells the story of Lugh, who as a sun-god helps determine the quality of each year’s harvest, honoring his work for the betterment of mankind, fitting for a poet-warrior. Like other fire festivals, the pagan Irish viewed this time of year as a struggle between gods: Lugh, who wants to distribute the harvest to his people, and Crom Dubh (meaning “dark, crooked one,” the holiday is even sometimes called “Crom Dugh Sunday”) an ancient god figure who wants to hoard the goods for himself. Sometimes the harvest is represented by a female figure named Eithne (Lugh’s mother)—most likely the origin of the corn maidens! Don’t worry—Lugh always wins. These large gatherings also helped spread the prevalence of the tradition of matchmaking on Lughnasa, (remember our Fun Fact about Teltown Marriages? that’s where the first Lughnasa celebration was held, in Co. Meath) but, that was common for any Irish festival as it brought together farming communities whose large tracts of land often kept them secluded from the larger community.
But the traditions don’t end there: as the years went on and Christianity spread across the pagan communities, it became common for the Irish to celebrate with small pilgrimages. Till this day, people take to the hills and mountains for hikes in honor of the season, as well as gravitating toward holy wells to pray. In particular, penitents flock to Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, said to be the site of Saint Patrick’s 40 day fasting on the same mountain in 441 A.D.—a mass is even held there each year, with thousands of pilgrims in attendance. Holy wells dot the Irish countryside and are still a popular destination on any of the fire festival turned Christian tradition days. The wells are often decorated in garlands of late-summer greenery and pieces of the harvest (another use for corn husks!) These traditions have given Lughnasa yet more names: “Garland Sunday” or “Reek Sunday” (reek, by the way, means “high hill” in Ireland.)
However you feel like celebrating summer winding down—blueberry tarts, creepy dolls, a big meal, setting up your friend with that nice, single coworker of yours, hiking, prayer--Lughnasa Shona!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about the spring fire festival of Beltane, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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