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LUGHNASA

By Anna Franklin & Paul Mason


Lughnasa is one of the eight festivals of the Pagan year and, according to the Celts, the first day of autumn. The heat of the sun puts a stop to summer growth and begins to dry out the crops during the Dog Days, supposedly the hottest days of the year. The harvest begins - an occasion of the utmost importance when the work of the whole cycle starts to pay off, and when the First Fruits were offered to the Gods.


This book began as a rewrite of Lammas, previously published by Llewellyn, but became a completely new work which explores the complex mythic themes and history of Lughnasa, along with ways of celebrating the festival with rituals, food and magic.


In modern Pagan literature, Lughnasa is usually described as the festival that marks the start of the harvest. While it is clear that Lughnasa coincides with the first cutting of the corn, the legends of the god Lugh seem to have no immediately obvious harvest connections apart from the fact he is said to have instituted funeral games in honour of his foster mother Tailtiu, who died clearing a great plain.


The cult of Lugh was a latecomer into Ireland, introduced by Gaulish or British refugees fleeing from the advancing Roman armies. The name Tailtiu is not Irish in origin but from the Welsh telediw, which means 'well-formed'. Lugh is often described as a pan-Celtic deity and identified with the continental Lugus, Lud in England and Llew in Wales. His name is probably related to the Proto-Celtic *lug- meaning 'oath’, and all the indications are that he was neither a god of agriculture nor the sun, as is often claimed.


The central part of Lugh’s story is the rivalry between him and his grandfather Balor and the battle for supremacy and kingship between the Tuatha de Danaan and the Formorians.  The pattern of Lugh’s tale is a common mythic theme and begins with a prophecy that the grandson (or son) of the king will overthrow him. The king takes the precaution of locking his daughter up in a tower, but she manages to meet a lover and gives birth to a son. The king then sets his daughter and grandson adrift in a basket or chest in a river or on the sea, expecting both to die. However, the two are saved and after some time in exile the young prince returns to overthrow the old king. There could be various explanations as to what the story means: the old grandfather may be the setting sun, or the dying sun of winter or autumn, while the young man represents the dawn sun or spring-summer sun; the old king may be the old year and the young prince the new; they may represent seasonal gods - when one season grows old a new season succeeds it; the old god may represent the forces of blight and winter that have to be overcome by the spring, or a fresh force may have to supplant a corrupt regime.  


In the chronicles, there is no overt mythical connection with the harvest and Lughnasa is seldom mentioned in mythological tales, unlike Beltane and Samhain. Lughnasa only appears in the accounts in connection with the tribal assemblies held for the weeks each side of August 1st. It is always stressed that the events were presided over by kings, with the Oenach Tailten near Tara headed by the high king of Ireland, and the others by local kings.  They seem to have been demonstrations of sovereignty, to the point where rival claimants to the throne sometimes battled for ascendency at the assemblies.  


Each assembly was held at the grave of a mythical woman who died clearing land for pasture. The tenth-eleventh century collection of Irish heroic tales known as the Ulster Cycle gives the four festivals of the old Irish year as Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Bron Trogain, rather than Lughnasa. The name means ‘the earth sorrows under its fruits’ and suggests the labour of the earth goddess in giving birth to the harvest. It is possible that it was the older name for the festival and relates to the mythical woman buried under the earth who dies so the earth might bear fruit.


Continues in book…


FIRST FRUITS


Despite the fact that August is often the hottest month, according to the Irish Lughnasa is the last day of summer and the start of autumn. In Scots Gaelic, the two weeks before the first of August (Liúnasdal) and the two weeks after were called Iuchar (sometimes translated as ‘Dog Days’) and which were said to be two weeks of summer and two weeks of autumn. The heat of the Dog Days puts a stop to the period of growth and begins to dry out the crops.


In any agricultural society, the beginning of the harvest is an occasion of the utmost importance when the work of the whole year starts to pay off, putting an end to the time of scarcity which immediately precedes it. The harvest was an extremely busy period, which may explain why the festivities of Lughnasa seem more obscure and subdued than those of Beltane and Samhain, as the real celebration would have had to wait until September, when all of the harvest was safely gathered in.


The start of the harvest did have its own customs, however. In every part of the world the first of the harvest was offered to the gods.  There seems to have been a general reluctance to eat the First Fruits until some ceremony had been performed because they belonged to - or even contained - a god. It was a time of ritual purification and renewal, when things to do with the past year was destroyed (in some Native American tribes the whole village was demolished and rebuilt), and often the hearth fire was put out and ritually renewed as the annual cycle was rekindled  with the gods’ gift of the harvest.


Continues in book…

 


DOG DAYS


In the ancient world, the constellations of Orion and Canis Major (especially the Dog Star, Sirius) were calendar markers for planting and reaping. Forty days after the summer solstice Sirius rises, signalling the start of the harvest. Sirius, the Dog Star, sets in the west in Spring and is absent from the sky for seventy days, then its heliacal (just before dawn) rising in the east marked the beginning of the Dog Days when the sun was said to burn at its most fierce and rainfall to be at its lowest level. They are a period of desiccating heat, when summer growth and moistness ends, and the sun dries the corn ready for harvesting, ushering in the Autumn and the gathering of the First Fruits.


Continues in book…


THEMES OF LUGHNASA



Lughnasar by Anna Franklin & Paul Mason, history, lore and celebration

Lughnasa

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Lughnasa

JOHN BARLEYCORN


The year did spin and spring come round

While our dear Lord lay in the ground

Till rain fell thick upon his bed

And slowly then he raised his head

And grew apace till Midsummer's Day

When with his flowering bride he lay

But the year does spin and he must die

And as a seed must once more lie

We hunt him down with sharpened sickle

To pierce his heart and see blood trickle

To flay his skin from off his bones

And grind him up between two stones

Our dying Lord has lost his head

But with his death we have our bread.


Previous Llewellyn edition