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|Also called||Lúnasa (Modern Irish)
Lùnastal (Scottish Gaelic)
Luanistyn (Manx Gaelic)
|Observed by||Historically: Gaels
Today: Irish people, Scottish people, Manx people, Celtic neopagans
Pagan (Celtic polytheism, Celtic Neopaganism)
|Significance||Beginning of the harvest season|
|Date||Sunset on 31 July – Sunset on 1 August (Northern Hemisphere)|
|Celebrations||Offering of First Fruits, feasting, handfasting, fairs, athletic contests|
|Related to||Calan Awst, Lammas|
Lughnasadh or Lughnasa (pronounced LOO-nə-sə; Irish: Lúnasa; Scottish Gaelic: Lùnastal; Manx: Luanistyn) is a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season that was historically observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Originally it was held on 31 July–1 August, or approximately halfway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. However, over time the celebrations shifted to the Sundays nearest this date. Lughnasadh is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals; along with Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane. It corresponds to other European harvest festivals, such as the Welsh Calan Awst and the English Lammas.
Lughnasadh is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and is believed to have pagan origins. The festival itself is named after the god Lugh. It involved great gatherings that included religious ceremonies, ritual athletic contests (most notably the Tailteann Games), feasting, matchmaking and trading. There were also visits to holy wells. According to folklorist Máire MacNeill, evidence shows that the religious rites included an offering of the first of the corn, a feast of the new food and of bilberries, the sacrifice of a bull and a ritual dance-play. Much of this would have taken place on top of hills and mountains.
Lughnasadh customs persisted widely until the 20th century, with the event being variously named ‘Garland Sunday’, ‘Bilberry Sunday’, ‘Mountain Sunday’ and ‘Crom Dubh Sunday’. The custom of climbing hills and mountains at Lughnasadh has survived in some areas, although it has been re-cast as a Christian pilgrimage. The best known is the ‘Reek Sunday‘ pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July. A number of fairs are also believed to be survivals of Lughnasadh, for example the Puck Fair. Since the latter 20th century, Celtic neopagans have observed Lughnasadh, or something based on it, as a religious holiday. In some places, elements of the festival have been revived as a cultural event.
In Old Irish (or Old Gaelic), the name was Lugnasad (pronounced [luɣnəsəð]). This is a combination of Lug (the god Lugh) and násad (an assembly), which is unstressed when used as a suffix. Later spellings include Luġnasaḋ, Lughnasadh and Lughnasa.
In Modern Irish (Gaeilge), the spelling is Lúnasa, which is also the name for the month of August. The genitive case is also Lúnasa as in Mí Lúnasa (Month of August) and Lá Lúnasa (Day of Lúnasa). In Modern Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig), the festival and the month are both called Lùnastal. In Manx (Gaelg), the festival and the month are both called Luanistyn. The day itself may be called either Laa Luanistyn or Laa Luanys.
Historic Lughnasadh customs
In Irish mythology, the Lughnasadh festival is said to have been begun by the god Lugh (modern spelling: Lú) as a funeral feast and athletic competition (see funeral games) in commemoration of his mother (or foster-mother) Tailtiu. She was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Tailtiu may have been an earth goddess who represented the dying vegetation that fed mankind. The funeral games in her honor were called the Óenach Tailten or Áenach Tailten (modern spelling: Aonach Tailteann) and were held at Tailtin in what is now County Meath. The Óenach Tailten was similar to the Ancient Olympic Games and included ritual athletic and sporting contests. The event also involved trading, the drawing-up of contracts, and matchmaking. At Tailtin, trial marriages were conducted, whereby young couples joined hands through a hole in a wooden door. The trial marriage lasted a year and a day, at which time the marriage could be made permanent or broken without consequences. A similar Lughnasadh festival, the Óenach Carmain, was held in what is now County Kildare. Carman is also believed to have been a goddess, perhaps one with a similar tale as Tailtiu. After the 9th century the Óenach Tailten was celebrated irregularly and it gradually died out. It was revived for a period in the 20th century as the Tailteann Games.
From the 18th century to the mid 20th century, many accounts of Lughnasadh customs were recorded by folklorists and other writers. In 1962 The Festival of Lughnasa, a study of Lughnasadh by folklorist Máire MacNeill, was published. MacNeill drew on the historic accounts and on earlier medieval writings. She concluded that the evidence testified to the existence of an ancient 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.
Many of Ireland’s prominent mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh into the modern era. Over time, this custom was Christianized and some of the treks were re-cast as Christian pilgrimages. The most well-known is Reek Sunday—the yearly pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July. As with the other Gaelic seasonal festivals, feasting was part of the celebrations. Bilberries were gathered on the hills and mountains and were eaten on the spot or saved to make pies and wine. 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. This may have originated as an offering to the gods.
Another custom that Lughnasadh shared with Imbolc and Bealtaine was visiting holy wells. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking sunwise around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (see clootie well). Although bonfires were lit at some of the open-air gatherings in Ireland, they were rare and incidental to the celebrations.
Modern Lughnasadh customs
In Ireland, some of the mountain pilgrimages have survived. By far the most popular is the Reek Sunday pilgrimage at Croagh Patrick, which attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each year. The Catholic Church in Ireland established the custom of blessing fields at Lughnasadh.
The Puck Fair is held each year in early August in the town of Killorglin, County Kerry. It has been traced as far back as the 16th century but is believed to be a survival of a Lughnasadh festival. At the beginning of the three-day festival, a wild goat is brought into the town and crowned ‘king’, while a local girl is crowned ‘queen’. The festival includes traditional music and dancing, a parade, arts and crafts workshops, a horse and cattle fair, and a market. It draws a great number of tourists each year.
In recent years, other towns in Ireland have begun holding yearly Lughnasa Festivals and Lughnasa Fairs. Like the Puck Fair, these often include traditional music and dancing, arts and crafts workshops, traditional storytelling, and markets. Such festivals have been held in Gweedore, Sligo, Brandon, Rathangan and a number of other places. Craggaunowen, an open-air museum in County Clare, hosts a yearly Lughnasa Festival at which historical reenactors demonstrate elements of daily life in Gaelic Ireland. It includes displays of replica clothing, artifacts, weapons and jewelry. A similar event has been held each year at Carrickfergus Castle in County Antrim. In 2011, RTÉ aired a live television program from Craggaunowen at Lughnasa, called Lughnasa Live.
In the Irish diaspora, survivals of the Lughnasadh festivities are often seen by some families still choosing August as the traditional time for family reunions and parties, though due to modern work schedules these events have sometimes been moved to adjacent secular holidays, such as the Fourth of July in the United States.
Lughnasadh and Lughnasadh-based festivals are held by some Neopagans, especially Celtic Neopagans. However, their Lughnasadh celebrations can be very different despite the shared name. Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible, while others base their celebrations on many sources, the Gaelic festival being only one of them.
Neopagans usually celebrate Lughnasadh on 31 July–1 August in the Northern Hemisphere and 31 January–1 February in the Southern Hemisphere, beginning and ending at sunset. Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the summer solstice and autumn equinox (or the full moon nearest this point). In 2013, this is on 7 August in the Northern Hemisphere.
Carmichael, Alexander (1992). Carmina Gadelica. Lindisfarne Press. ISBN 0-940262-50-9.
- Danaher, Kevin (1962). The Year in Ireland. Irish Books & Media. ISBN 0-937702-13-7.
- MacKillop, James (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280120-1.
- McNeill, F. Marian (1959). The Silver Bough, Vol. 1–4. William MacLellan, Glasgow.
- MacNeill, Máire, ”The Festival of Lughnasa (Oxford University Press) 1962. Republished 2008. ISBN 0-906426-10-3.
- Melia, Daniel F., “The Grande Troménie at Locronan: A Major Breton Lughnasa Celebration” The Journal of American Folklore 91 No. 359 (January 1978), pp. 528–542.