lughnasadh, a celebration of fertility?
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
a celebration of life
Today, the Irish are well known for their love of partying and enjoying the craic; whilst this may seem like stereotyping, it’s no exaggeration. Nor is it a new phenomenon… I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was one day discovered to be a trait handed down through the centuries in Irish DNA. 😀
Historically and mythologically, Lughnasadh was pretty much the biggest party of them all. One of the four ancient Irish pre-Christian festivals (the others being Imbolc, Bealtaine and Samhain), Lughnasadh was celebrated midway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, around August 1st.
As Christianity spread across Ireland, the event was adapted as a festival of thanksgiving for the harvest, and moved to the nearest Sunday.
In a way, this feels very appropriate to me, for Lughnasadh originated way back in the era of the Tuatha de Danann, not so much in thanks for the harvest, but in thanks for a life… the life of a very special woman, or Goddess, named Tailtiu.
Life, whether in the form of crops which sustain us physically, or our loved ones who sustain us emotionally, is something worth celebrating. The fact that this particular festival grew out of a love so strong and so enduring makes it feel special to me, and yet nowadays, its significance pales in contrast with the more popular Samhain and Bealtaine.
a celebration of love
In Old Irish, Lugnasadh comes from Lugh, after the God Lugh Lámfhada, and Násad, meaning ‘assembly’. But although the festival is named after Lugh, it was created by him in honour of his beloved foster mother, Tailtiu.
She was said to be the daughter of Mag Mor, the King of Spain, although some call her Teffi Tea, and identify her with the Egyptian Queen Neffertiti.
In any case, when the Tuatha de Danann invaded Ireland, her husband, the High King Eochaidh mac Eirc went to fight against them, but was killed. Tailtiu survived, and as a mark of trust, the Danann gave her one of their own, a high-born son, to foster. Fostering children enabled the forging of alliances and goodwill between clans and nations.
Rath Airthir, Teltown, said to be Tailtiu’s burial mound.
Tailtiu settled in Tailten, now known as Teltown, and dedicated her life to clearing the land for farming, and raising her foster-son, Lugh. Under her care and guidance, he flourished, and developed incredible skills and talents, winning the titles Lámfhada, meaning ‘of the long arm’ for his prowess with spear casting, and Samildanach, ‘master of all arts’, because he was multi-talented. He then went on to become High King.
According to the Book of Invasions (Lebor Gebála Érenn in Irish), Tailtiu died from exhaustion due to her ceaseless labours to clear the land for farming.
Lugh was absolutely devastated by his loss. He founded the Festival of Lughnasadh at Teltown as an ever-living memorial to the woman he had loved as a mother.
celebrating the feminine
According to Patricia Monaghan (The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, p. 437), Tailtiu ‘may have represented the dying vegetation that fed humanity’, in other words, the crops which were cut and gathered died to nurture mankind.
In a way, it’s a sacrifice given as a gift from the earth itself, which is often seen as a feminine entity in that it brings forth life and nourishment.
It could be said, however, that Tailtiu was actually destroying nature to create the new and artificial process of planting and farming, which was an innovation of the Bronze Age.
Tailtiu spent her life clearing the land for farming.
Most Goddesses are seen as symbols of fertility, but here, Tailtiu seems almost to represent the opposite. Yet she excelled as a foster-mother, her nurturing skills producing the multi-talented and unbeatable Lugh, reinforced by the strength of the bond between them.
For me, she is the epitome of womanhood; not afraid of hard work, and an excellent mother. This festival represents the love of a man for his mother, and celebrates the power of the feminine, be it raising corn or raising children, working in the domestic arena or out in the field with the men, carrying out royal Queenly duties or the lowliest tasks of weeding and reaping.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if Tailtiu’s importance was gradually eroded over time in favour of a less complex harvest celebration by those who disapproved of female power.
the god of light
Lugh (pronounced Loo) is arguably one of the most well known and best loved of the Irish mythological characters. He was a Druid, a High King, and a warrior.
In Victorian times, antiquarians considered Lugh to be a sun deity, a God of Light and the harvest. However, recent scholars think it is more likely his name means something like ‘Lightning Flash’. For some reason, this interpretation resonates with me; I can just see him as the herald of the storm, bringing the rain to wet the parched ground and prepare it for another year’s planting.
Born to Cian (son of Dian Cecht) of the Tuatha de Denann, an ancient supernatural race which ruled Ireland over four thousand years ago, and Eithne, daughter of Balor, Giant-King of the evil Fomori race, he became known as Lugh Lámhfhada (pronounced La-wa-tha), which meant ‘of the long arm’, due to his prowess with the throwing spear and sling.
He also went on the earn the title Samildanach (pronounced sow-ill-danah), which meant ‘equally skilled in all arts’, as he could turn his hand to anything and make a success of it.
As a young man, Lugh chose to leave the court of his foster-mother and seek his fortune with his own people, the Tuatha de Danann. He joined them in the Second Battle of Moytura against his grandfather’s people, the Fomori, in which his grandfather, Balor, slew the High King Nuada. Distraught, Lugh turned on Balor, killing him with a spear through the eye. Some versions of the story claim the weapon was a sling, not a spear. He went on to become High King, and ruled Ireland for forty years.
Lugh’s golden reign as High King came to a sad end when his wife had an affair with Cermait, son of the Dagda. The two men fought, and Cermait was killed. Seeking revenge for their father’s death, Cermait’s three sons came after Lugh, and killed him at Lough Lugh, on the summit of the HIll of Uisneach.
The Oenach Tailteann, or ‘Assembly of Teltown’, was held not only to commemorate Tailtiu, but to proclaim laws and entertain the people. It was presided over by the High King, and the whole affair lasted two weeks.
There were sporting contests in hurling, spear throwing, sword fighting, handball, running, wrestling, boxing; horse and chariot racing; staged battles, displays of Irish martial arts, and possibly even swimming competitions in the artificial loughs.
But Lughnasadh wasn’t just about the strength and agility of warriors; it also sponsored music, poetry and story-telling, singing and dancing, and competition amongst artisans and craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, jewelers, spinners, weavers, and the forging of weaponry and armour.
Laws were made and announced to the people by bards. Contracts, politics and alliances were agreed between families, no doubt including fosterings, marriages, and hostage keeping. There was likely a great deal of feasting, flirting and carousing going on too. Violence was not tolerated, however; for the period of the festival, all those in attendance had to agree to a truce and forgo their usual feuding.
The festival came to an end after the Norman invasion of the twelfth century, but elements of ancient folk traditions were recorded as having survived as late as the eighteenth century in some rural areas.
the teltown marriages
A curious feature of the festival was the event known as the Teltown Marriages. Young people could be married for a year and a day by joining hands through a hole in a large stone, or wall. This joining of two people was known as ‘handfasting’.
If the relationship didn’t work out, the marriage could be dissolved at the following year’s festival by standing back to back on top of Rathdhú and walking away from each other.
symbol of nationalism
In 1921, Éamon de Valera announced the revival of the Lughnasadh festival as a gathering of the Irish race, and the first event, called ‘The Tailten Games’, took place in 1924 in celebration of Irish independence. Although there was a cultural element to the event, it mainly consisted of a competition of sport and athletics.
Celebrants marking the festival in the way of our ancestors… with a bonfire.
Today, the old pagan ceremonies, including Lughnasadh, are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, not just within pagan communities, but in the heritage and tourism industries. Whether this can be seen as a positive move and a nod of respect to our Irish heritage, or simply capitalising on a commercial venture depends on one’s own cynicism.
But a character lives on whilst their name is remembered, and that has to be a good thing. Blessings of Lughnasadh to you all!
thank you to carri angel photography for the use of their beautiful image image (c) Carri Angel Photography
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