Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles.

Notes on the Festival of Lughnasagh

The subject of Lughnasagh is worthy of  a whole podcsst  episode on its own, as are any of the traditional Irish festivals.  We may well examine these these in more detail sometime in the future.

In essence, however, Lughnasagh is a festival that marks an important phase in the agrarian year.  It is the close of the summer, the hay is saved, and produce, crops and stock, close to harvest.  Like all of the major festivals, it marks a nexus point in the year and such times have always been marked by rural communities in particular.

Typical of Lughnasagh, have been the holding of fairs, games, feasts, social ceremonies and settling of contracts such as marriage, and a particular focus on visits to hills and high places.  Customs have, of course,  changed and developed over the centuries but recognisable Lughnasagh customs survive,  in a variety of forms, to this day

The notes below represent a few collected mixed notes  on Lughnasagh customs, both in the distant and more recent past,  which may provide a few starting points for further inquiry. links to external sites are given where relevant.

Lughnasagh origins

In Irish mythology, the Lughnasadh festival is said to have been begun by Lugh as a funeral feast and games commemorating  his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. The first location of the Áenach Tailteann gathering was at Tailtin, between Navan and Kells. Historically, the Áenach Tailteann was a time for contests of strength and skill and a favoured time for contracting marriages and winter lodgings. A peace was declared at the festival, and religious celebrations were held. The festival survived as the Taillten Fair, and was revived for a period in the 20th century as the Telltown Games

A similar Lughtnasadh festival was held at Carmun.

A Useful Resource

lammas

In 1962, “The Festival of Lughnasa”, a study of Lughnasadh by folklorist Máire MacNeill, was published. MacNeill drew on medieval writings and on surveys and studies from throughout Ireland and Britain. Her conclusion was that the evidence testified to an ancient Celtic 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 or his human representative. Finally, a ceremony indicating that the interregnum was over, and the chief god in his right place again.

Comment from Chris: I am not sure about the “solemn aspect”  but Lughnasagh has always been a popular festival. See the article  “Lunacy at Lughnasagh” for our light-hearted take on the festival.

Climbing Croagh Patrick on “Reek Sunday” and other recent customs

Lughnasadh celebrations were commonly held on hilltops. Traditionally, people would climb hills on Lughnasadh to gather bilberries, which were eaten on the spot or saved to make pies and wine. It is thought that Reek Sunday — the yearly pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July — was originally a Lughnasadh activity. 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.

AnotherLughnasad custom  was the lighting of bonfires and visiting of holy wells. The ashes from Lughnasadh bonfires would be used to bless fields, cattle and people.

Handfasting

Lughnasadh was also a favourite time for handfastings.  Handfasting was legally binding: as soon as the couple made their vows to each other they were validly married. It was not a temporary arrangement. During handfasting the man and woman in turn would take the other by the right hand and declare aloud that they there and then accepted each other as man and wife. The words might vary but traditionally consisted of a simple formula such as “I (Name) take thee (Name) to my wedded husband/wife, till death us depart, and thereto I plight thee my troth”.Because of this, handfasting was also known in England as “troth-plight” Gifts were often exchanged, especially rings: a gold coin broken in half between the couple was also common. Other tokens recorded include gloves, a crimson ribbon tied in a knot, and even a silver toothpick. Handfasting might take place anywhere, indoors or out. It was frequently in the home of the bride, but according to records handfastings also took place in taverns, in an orchard and even on horseback . The presence of a credible witness or witnesses was usual.

Comment from Chris: This topic also deserves far more than just a mention. The history and development of handfasting and its legal status is a fascinating one.

Seonaidh – An unusual Lughnasagh custom from the Outer Hebrides

Seonaidh (anglicised “Shony” or “Shoney”) was, according to Martin Martin, the name of a water spirit in Lewis. Dwelly defines seonadh (without the “i”, a related form in Scottish Gaelic) as “1. augury, sorcery. 2. Druidism” and quotes Martin further.

Martin says that the inhabitants of Lewis used to propitiate Seonaidh by a cup of ale in the following manner. “They came to the church of St. Mulway (Mael rubha), each man carrying his own provisions. Every family gave a pock (bag) of malt, and the whole was brewed into ale. One of their number was chosen to wade into the sea up to his waist, carrying in his hand the cup full of ale. When he reached a proper depth, he stood and cried aloud:

“Seonaidh, I give thee this cup of ale, hoping that thou wilt be so good as to send us plenty of seaware for enriching our ground during the coming year.”

He then threw the ale into the sea. This ceremony was performed in the night-time. On his coming to land, they all repaired to church, where there was a candle burning on the altar. There they stood still for a time, when, on a signal given, the candle was put out, and straight-away, they adjourned to the fields where the night was spent mirthfully over the ale. Next morning, they returned to their respective homes, in the belief that they had insured a plentiful crop for the next season.

It seems likely that Seonaidh was originally some kind of god, whose worship had been lightly christianised by the addition of various church features. However, it is also possible that “Seonaidh”, which is the Scottish Gaelic form of the English Johnny, may also be a reference to one of the Saints John, and some kind of invocation to him.”

Comment from Chris: I have heard of  a similar celebration connected with the name “Brian”, and have wondered about a connection with Bran, the Welsh giant who strode the sea, too large for any boat. (Fionn, as a giant, was so large he had to build a bridge from Ireland to Scotland)

Lugh as Cornish “Giant Killer” ~  Lughnasagh Stories

In Cornwall, the town of Morvah used to host Morvah Fair  on August 1 every year, which has been described as the biggest Lughnasagh celebrations outside Ireland.  The fair was also associated with the legend of “Jack the Tinkard”. In the late 19th century the then priest of Morvah lead a successful campaign to ban the celebrations due to the excess of drunken and promiscuous behaviour. In a proclamation he stated:

“The Church-Town of Morvah has for many years past been much resorted to on the First Sunday in August by disorderly persons of every description, much to the annoyance of the parishioners, he hereby cautions all such persons from assembling on that day for idle and profane amusement, so revolting to that great command of the Law of God – “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” Strict orders have been given to the Constable and Officers of the Parish to take into custody any person who shall be found desecrating the Lord’s Day.”

However, Lugh is still remembered in stories of Tom the Tinkard or indeed, the better known “Jack the giant killer”. If you would like to read some of the Cornish “Tom the Tinkard” stories, go to Steve Colgan’s site at http://www.stevecolgan.com/Cornish%20Folklore%20Site/giant_stories3.htm

Chris Thompson

December ’12

5 Comments

  1. can you tell me where in the festival of lughnasa Maire Mac Neill breaks from Dumezils 3 sovereigns and mentions Frazers king sacrifice? Ive completely missed that.

  2. To avoid ranting Ive sat here and read and re read. ive gotten up and walked away for cups of tea… but I still have to say: Literature and folk tradition are open to interpretation and their application is at our discretion but this article legitimises contemporary modern neopaganism using lit and folk trad while misrepresenting Irish trads in the process. Thats epidemic in celtic neopaganism Ive never seen that from you guys before. What has changed?

    Handfasting instead of formal brehon law marriages, celebrating festivals at night instead of at the dawn, corn kings instead of the cultic cailleach immanent in the crops? Seriously. We are all entitled to our neopaganism but culture should IMO be a higher concern.

    • Dear James,
      First of all, many apologies for not replying sooner! We’ve been a bit pre-occupied, between Chris’ life-changing trip to Jordan and Me (Isolde) struggling with Lug’s poetry…
      The Lunacy Games are, first and foremost, for fun! They’ve been going over 20 years, and have welcomed and included a mind-boggling range of people down those years. It’s a completely modern, made-up tradition, and is intended as fond irreverance and anachronism. They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are old friends who we might not see for a year or more, and they show up for the annual Lunacy…
      Just be thankful we didn’t publish the words (or, even worse, a recording!) of the “13 Days of Lughnasadh” song!

    • Re Lunacy at Lughnasagh
      Legitimising contemporary modern neo-paganism? Now that something that I haven’t been accused of for while.

      But seriously, I agree with you. No, I really agree with you, except for one thing, I am first and foremost a story teller, as well as a mythogapher, and I have a sense of humour. Our Lughnasagh games are for fun.

      I agree, it is essential to be precise concerning the nature and origins of the stories. It is also important to clarify when one is speculating or offering a personal interpretation. Our talk, in Dublin, made that exact point.

      The Lughnasagh games are not in any shape or form a re-interpretation of the story. We tell, or act out the full story at the start of the games. But this story. like all good stories can be an inspiration, in this case it inspires an afternoon of light-hearted fun and fellowship.

      Yet who knows, some participants, by no means all neo-pagans, may even be further inspired to check out the old Irish stories for themselves.

      Re notes on the Festival of Lughnasagh
      This piece clearly labelled “notes”, was just a brief dip into a selection of recent Lughnasagh folk customs. There is so much out there to explore both in books and on the internet ht I just provided a few starting points. It did not seem the place for a history and analysis of the custom of hand-fasting, but, as you say, it might be worth looking at in more detail, in the future.

  3. Reblogged this on Abhainn – the blog and commented:
    I wanted to share with you some of the notes shared on Story Archaeology’s blog about useful resourses around Lughnasadh the origins of this Irish festival from origins and a link to some of the games played at the “Lunacy Games” linked to in the article.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Facebook Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com