On the Celtic Wheel of the Year the cross-quarter festival of Lughnasa falls on August 1, mid-way between Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox. The mythology of Lughnasa is particularly rich and significant. Amidst this Covid pandemic it has become clear that we are enduring a crisis of leadership, so the myth of Lugh, the Celtic god-hero-king, holds even more interest than usual. Given the political unrest at this time, the story of Lughnasa seems especially relevant and inspiring. Let’s try to re-imagine the situation in light of the legend of Lugh.
Seasonal celebrations provide an opportunity for us to reaffirm our relationship with the Sun and Earth, and to orient ourselves to the here-place and the now-time in which we live. The ancient myths that underpin and surround the old celebrations add deeper meaning to our contemporary ceremonies. Celtic Lughnasa honors the beginning of the harvest season, and Christian Lammas, also August 1, provides imagery that beautifully deepens the opportunity to ritually express our gratitude for the bounty with which we are blessed, while we also acknowledge the lack that so many people are experiencing at this time. Ceremonies, in order to be congruent, must evolve to meet the healing needs of the community. This Lughnasa I’m finding the myth of Lugh to be especially moving and pertinent. Perhaps it can inform a needed vision of healing.
When you look up a word you are given examples of its use in sentences. I don’t usually read these. So, when I looked up “harvest” in a standard thesaurus I was surprised to read this: “What belief should be sown to blossom forth in a harvest of strength and peace?” Synchronistically, that’s the story in a nutshell!1
First I’ll tell the Lughnasa legend in depth and explore its colorful characters. Lugh is a model masculine figure, and his relationships with the feminine figures of his foster mother Tailtiu and his wife Bui provide us with an image of leadership that is both timely and germane. Then I’ll recount the delightful ceremony of Lughnasa/Lammas that our community has created over the years. Finally, I’ll describe a small “virtual” ceremony in these Covid-blighted times.
Briefly, the Irish festival of Lughnasa celebrates the hero Lugh, one of the chief gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the people of the Goddess Danu), who brought the skills of agriculture to the people. Lugh’s foster mother Tailtiu died, exhausted by the strain of clearing a great forest to prepare the land for cultivation. In a poem in the early Irish Lore of Places we are told that on her deathbed Tailtiu asked the people to hold annual funeral games in her remembrance. As long as they were held, she prophesied, Ireland would never be without song.2 On Lughnasa, the Festival of Lugh, the great assembly called Áenach Tailteann, the “Tailtiu Gathering” was begun in her honor.
Lugh, a Model of Leadership
Lugh balances the qualities of both light and dark because he is both. The Tuatha Dé Danann were the bright gods and goddesses of the Otherworld who brought creative energy and wisdom into this world. The Fomorians were the forces of chaos and blight. Lugh’s father was Tuatha Dé Danann; his grandfather was their healer, Dian Cecht. Lugh’s mother, Eithne, whose name means “Kernal” was Fomorian; his grandfather was Balor, a giant with one terrible evil eye that set everything on fire, burning and withering the earth with scorching drought.
As a young man Lugh travels to Tara seeking to serve in the court of King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The doorkeeper will not admit him unless he has some skill that will be useful to the king. As Lugh names each of his many talents, as smith, swordsman, harpist, poet, historian, sorcerer, craftsman, he is rejected, because there is already someone in the court who has that skill. When Lugh asks if there is any one person who has all those skills, the doorkeeper realizes his value and welcomes him. He is called Lugh Samildanach “skilled in all the arts.” The king appoints him Chief Ollam of Ireland. An ollam is an accomplished poet or bard, a master of history and literature.3 Can we imagine a future in which our leaders have learned well the lessons of history and the wisdom of our poets?
During that time the Tuatha Dé Danann are being oppressed by the Fomorians, forced to pay tribute to them and work as their slaves. We are told that Lugh is amazed how meekly they accept their oppression. King Nuada gives Lugh command over the Tuatha Dé Danann, in hopes he can lead them to freedom.4 Can we imagine a future in which our leaders free all people from oppression?
We are told that prior to the battle Lugh asks each man and woman in his army what art he or she will bring to the fray. He then addresses his army in such a way that each warrior’s spirit is elevated to the level of a king.5 In the fight King Nuada is killed. With his slingshot Lugh puts out the eye of Balor, and he vanquishes the Fomorians with his spear. Lugh is declared the new king of a now-united Ireland. Can we imagine a future in which our leaders value the gifts in each one of us, raise us all up, and unite instead of dividing us from one another?
After the battle Lugh finds Bres, a half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who fought for the Fomorians, and Bres begs for mercy. Lugh spares his life when he agrees to teach the Tuatha Dé Danann when and how to plough, sow, and reap.6 Can we imagine a future in which our leaders face the shadow, the dark forces that are present in all of us, and redeem from them the life enhancing creative energy that has been suppressed?
Lugh’s name was originally thought to come from the root word leuk “to shine,” so he was often portrayed as a sun god. Now, the name is generally believed to come from leug “to swear an oath.” Old Irish luige means “to make a vow,” suggesting Lugh was originally a god on whom oaths were made and contracts sworn, so he is associated with law, truth, and rightful kingship.7 He is called Lugh Lámfada “of the long arm,” for his skill with a spear and for his ability as a ruler to reach around and protect his people. Can we envision a future in which our leaders speak truth and uphold the rule of law, laws that protect all the people?
Speaking of Lugh’s spear, in one version of the tale we are told that this spear could take the form of lightning when thrown in battle. In another telling, it is said that its tip had to be kept immersed in a pot of water to keep it from igniting.8 In the countryside thunderstorms were referred to as battles between Lugh and Balor. Perhaps that’s why he is sometimes interpreted as a storm god and called “the Shining One.” Lugh’s lightning bolt brings the rains that dispel the crop-destroying summer heat and drought of Balor. Can we envision a future in which our leaders understand that the Earth and all her creatures need us to stop causing global warming?
Tailtiu, the Land as the Body of the Goddess
The Gaelic Celts sent their children to foster parents to be raised, taught skills, and carefully guided in their development. Foster parents were held in greater esteem than parents.
Tailtiu’s name originally was Talantiu, from Irish talam “earth.” She was the last queen of the Fir Bolg. In the Lore of Places we are told that she was the daughter of Magmor whose name means “Great Field.” Tailtiu’s name, therefore, might be translated as “The Great One of the Earth,” which suggests that she was, like so many other Irish goddesses, a personification of the land itself. Thus, we are told that Lugh was fostered by the Earth herself. Can we imagine a future in which our leaders honor the Earth as Mother?
Tailtiu was buried at Tailten (now Teltown). The site is imbued with legend such that it might be dismissed as, well, legendary, but archeology remains in the form of mounds revealing a complex of ancient earthworks dating back to the Iron Age (in Ireland 500BC to 400AD). Modern folklore claims that the Tailteann Games started around 1600 BC. This might be dismissed as fanciful, but recently rock art from the second millennium BC was discovered on a natural rock outcrop at Teltown. This suggests that ritual activity at Tailten began some 2000 years before it became the center of the Celtic harvest celebration.9 Historically, the Áenach Tailteann was a time for religious enactments, feats of strength and skill, and mock battles.
An Áenach10 was an ancient Irish national public assembly which had several functions: 1) honoring the ancestors, the revered dead 2) proclaiming laws. The Áenach was a great assembly during which peace was declared, nobles met under truce, and laws were reviewed and confirmed to the people by the Chief Ollam, through the assistant bards and druids. 3) staging games and contests of strength, entertaining with music and poetry, and displaying wares of skilled craftsmanship. Peace, truces, factions engaged in mock battles — can we imagine a future in which a great truce is proclaimed, and the factions pour their energy into contests of poetry to see who prevails by the strength of their love?
Bui, the Sacred Marriage
Although Lugh is depicted primarily as the Chief Ollam to the High King, for forty years he himself was High King. Lugh was married to Bui. Bui is an aspect of the original chthonic earth goddess, the Cailleach, so she personifies Sovereignty (the Land) of Ireland. Traditionally, each king, in order to be a true ruler, had to marry the local earth goddess, so the fertility of the land would be insured. Here was a marriage of Otherworld deities, Lugh and Bui, the prototypical Sacred Marriage. Given the current U.S. administration’s relentless undermining of environmental protections and the extinction crisis we are facing, the Sacred Marriage, in which the leader must ensure the prosperity of the people by ensuring the health of the land, is the most important myth of our time. Can we imagine a future in which the primary criteria of our leaders are that they first and foremost vow to love and protect the body of the land, and that they vow to protect the whole Earth and all her creatures?
The Irish folklorist Maire MacNeill made an extensive study of the Lughnasa folklore, customs, and traditions. She confirmed that the festival included berry picking, singing, dancing, and sporting contests on hilltop sites. She found evidence that the religious rituals included an offering of the “first fruits” of the harvest: a solemn cutting of the first grains of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it. It included a special feast of the harvest grains and berries and a ritual dance-play in which Lugh fights the monster of blight, seizes the harvest for humankind, and defeats the powers of drought and famine. There followed a three-day assembly that reaffirmed the order of the tribe, presided over by a human representative of Lugh. Can we imagine a future in which we tell the story of how leaders arose who discerned that the social blights of pandemic, racism, sexism, colonialism, and the unequal distribution of resources intersect with the ecological blights of climate change and the separation of people from the rest of Earth’s creatures? Our story will recall that the old god of greed was subdued and a great offering was made to honor the deity of love and compassion in the hearts of all.
A Contemporary Lughnasa/Lammas Ceremony
For our celebration we give thanks for the first fruits of the harvest, the cultivated grain (corn), and the wild berries (blueberries) of our fields. We share in a sweet communion that symbolizes the light, Lugh, entering the grain, which dies and is resurrected in us, in our passions and in our goal to be of service to Life. We honor these sacred intentions and heartfelt desires that are coming to fruition. Lughnasa is also a time of games and dancing. We play a wonderfully fun and meaningful group game, and of course we dance!
Here is an altar with the sun shining in, participating in the decorations! We honor a native species of sunflower, commonly called “smooth oxeye,” that always begins blooming at Lughnasa. Picking the flowers, we watch a tiger swallowtail nectaring and a bee busy pollinating.
When we open the ceremony, inviting the powers of the sacred directions by dancing Thunder Beings, we think of Lugh in his aspect as a flash of lightning:
We call to the power of the Thunder Beings; We call to the power of the Earth. We call to the power of the East and West; We call to the power of the North and South. Behold, the time has come; The time has come to unite as one; Behold, the time has come to encircle the Earth with our love.
Telling the Stories
Storytelling was a lively aspect of the Lughnasa gatherings. Imagining way back, we tell the story of Lugh and of those ancient times when the harvest was seen as the fruition of the partnership of the Sun and the Earth in the form of Lugh, “Shining One,” “Flashing Light,” and his foster mother, Tailtiu, the “Great One of the Earth,” the Earth Mother herself. As the bright, divine prototype of human kingship, the god of harvest, Lugh embodies the successful marriage of King and Goddess of the Land.
Imagining not so long ago, we tell the story of first harvest — how the Spirit of the grain was seen to retreat into the sheaf, which was ceremonially reaped, threshed, milled, shaped, and baked in a fire of sacred rowan wood. (The rowan tree symbolized protection from evil). In Scotland the head of the household would face the rising sun, cut the sheaf of grain, hold it up, turning three times sunwise, while chanting the Iolach Buana “reaping blessing.” The whole family would join in the singing, giving thanks to the god of the harvest.11 The grain was made into cakes and shared by the community. At Lughnasa in the Scottish Highlands, people made a special cake called the lunastain, which may have originated as an offering to the gods.12 In the Christian era, the festival on August 1st became Lammas, from “loaf-mass,” the Old English name for the feast, when a loaf made from the first ripe grain was taken to church to be consecrated upon the altar.
The Christian mystery, Lammas, echoes the archetypal pagan mystery of the grain god. The god dies so people can live. The grain god is killed and dismembered and is resurrected. The world over, grain has always been associated with gods who are killed and dismembered and then resurrected into new life. The grain dies so people can live. This is the mystery of the god who dies and is resurrected in new life. The grain dies to rise again in us.
Lughnasa is about singing and dancing, so we dance. There is a folk prayer from Wales: Good luck to the hoof and horn/Good luck to the flock and fleece/Good luck to the growers of corn/with blessings of plenty and peace.13 This may be the origin of the dance Hoof and Horn:
Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn.
Corn and grain, corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again.
To this we add,
We all come from the Goddess, and to her we shall return.
We purify ourselves in preparation for communion by passing a bowl of rainwater charged with the light and sound of Lugh’s lightning and thunder during one of our recent summer rainstorms. We dip a Brigid’s cross into the water with which to bless ourselves, because Brigid’s Imbolc and Lugh’s Lughnasa are opposite and complementary cross-quarter celebrations on the Wheel of the Year. The first stirrings of the germinating seed at Imbolc have come to fruition in the harvest at Lughnasa.
Baking a figure of the god in bread, then symbolically sacrificing and eating it is a Wiccan tradition. Our ritual of communion, breaking cornbread Lugh, represents the archetypal story of the death of the harvest god and his resurrection in our new life — the first harvest of the grain, our harvest of delicious corn. Lughnasa is traditionally a time for berry picking, so we also honor the thirteen species of wild blueberries native to our state, North Carolina. In sharing communion, we honor the divine sun and the sacred grain, which is sacrificed to die and be reborn in our lives. This is the mystery of the oneness of matter and spirit. It’s true. The sun’s energy is converted to biological energy within the vegetation of the Earth. The Sun gives itself to the Earth, and we consume the sun’s energy. When we eat the grain we consume the sun, and its warmth then emanates from our bodies and our hearts. We tear him apart and feed each other pieces of Lugh bread with the blessing, May you eat of the bread of life and always be nourished, in body and soul.
Toasting our Accomplishments
At Lughnasa we also give gratitude for and celebrate the fruition of our own creative flowerings. At Imbolc Brigid provides powerful inspiration for sowing the seeds of our creative impulses, while at Lughnasa, Lugh, the master of all the arts, represents the work of finely crafting them. With juice from the harvest of apples we toast our projects that are maturing, are about to be harvested, or will be harvested by Samhain, supporting each other to complete them. With vigor we chant a prayer to raise the energy we each need in order to reap the harvest of our plans that are now ripening:
In the earth is the seed
In the seed is the grain
In the grain is the harvest
In the harvest is the bread
In the bread is the power!
And Goddess said,
“My sisters and brothers,
All shall eat of the earth
All shall eat of the seed
All shall eat of the grain
All shall eat of the harvest
All shall eat of the bread
All shall eat of the power!
And all shall be full-filled!”14
At Lughnasa in ancient times, communal games were played, creative skills were shared, and there were poetry, singing and dancing competitions. We have developed a tradition of playing a favorite game in which groups of participants collectively write incantations. Each group creates a poem, raises it to a chant, then dramatizes it for the community. In this game, even though each person can only see the previous line written before adding a word or phrase of their own, there are often amazing results. The spell cast by a mesmerizing improvisation on flute and drums helps weave the magical chants. The groups add movements and act out or dance their chants to music. Here is one group’s incantation:
In gladness we sing and dance
In honor of all that is.
Abundant blessings ever flowing
Happiness running in a circular motion
Circles joining, only one circle.
Closing the Ceremony
We bless each other with the Sacred Elements in the Celtic Blessing dance:
May the road rise with you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rain fall soft upon your fields. Until we meet again, may Goddess hold you in the hollow of Her hand.
To close the circle, we cast offerings of seeds to the Seven Directions, with gratitude to the spirits of the land and our loving ancestors. We leave a “spirit plate” of bread and berries for the animals, so to make a gift back to the divinity of the sacred Earth. We fill up the empty birdfeeders so the people who arrive the next day can watch the morning feast!
A Covid-19 Lughnasa Ceremony
This year our berry picking takes the form of harvesting the dark clusters of elderberries that grace our native elder shrubs. The Elder is one of the sacred Irish trees. We ritually make spiced medicinal elderberry “rob” to fortify us in staving off colds and flu. We celebrate the grain and berries by making a delicious elderberry pie. We feast on a stir-fry of the “first fruits” of our garden — peppers, squash, beans and onions, and fried green tomatoes. For our communion we gratefully eat the sacrificial god of grain and berry pie.
At this point in time we are charged with the task of envisioning the future we want to create. This is our chant:
May leaders emerge who love and respect the Earth; May she flourish.
May leaders arise who protect our animal kin; May they roam free.
May leaders arrive who hold all people equal; May none be oppressed.
May leaders stand against poverty; May all share equally in the bounty of the land.
We are the future, we are the leaders, we are the people, we are the land.
We are the future, we are the leaders, we are the people, we are the land.
Text (C) 2020 Betty Lou Chaika
Image: “Tailtiu Fostering Lugh” – The Druid’s Egg: Lughnasadh-Mabon 2011 druidsegg.reformed-druids.org
2. Gwynn, Edward (ed.), “The Metrical Dindshenchas”, Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series, Hodges, Figgis, & Co., Dublin
4. Gray, Elizabeth A., tr. Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Moytura, 1982 Drucker.
5. Gray, 1982. The Second Battle of Moytura,
6. Gray, 1982. The Second Battle of Moytura,
8. O’Curry, Eugene, ed “The Fate of the Children of Tuireann,”1863, Atlantis.
11. Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, 1900, Invocations 89, 90, www.sacred-texts.com
12. Monaghan, Patricia, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, 2004, Infobase Publishing. p. 299.
13. Freeman, Mara, Kindling the Celtic Spirit, 2001, Harper Collins, p.104
14. Adapted from Carter Heyward’s Lughnasadh Sunday service presented to the Concord Unitarian Universalist Church, Aug 1, 2004