Lughnasadh—The Festival

Part 2 of 2

Warrior, King, Craftsman, God—Lugh is so big that explaining his festival, Lughnasadh (pronounced Loo-NAS-ah), which occurs on August 1, needs two parts. Last month, we delved into the god’s background in “Lugh is Huge”; this month, the rituals and customs associated with his celebration.

© A Post Office Picture Card Series PHQ 49 Folklore (Lammastide) Reproduced from a stamp designed by Fritz Wegner MSIAD
and issued by the Post Office on February 6, 1981.
Printed at The House of Questa, London, England

History, Traditions, Rituals

Although not as recognizable as Beltaine or Samhein, Lughnasadh (pronounced Loo-NAS-ah), is nonetheless one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic year. The fourth is Imbolc (February 1). Also referred to cross-quarter days, each fire festival inaugurates a new season.

Lughnasadh, August 1, occurs about halfway between the summer solstice (Litha) and the fall equinox (Mabon). Thus, it marks the end of summer (the growth season) and the onset of autumn (the harvest season).

Lúnasa is the Irish name for the month of August. Both the festival and the month are named for Lugh, the Celtic fire god, and honor his foster mother, Tailtiu. After clearing the plains of Ireland so the people could grow crops, she died of exhaustion at the beginning of Lúnasa. In her honor, Lugh ordered that the day be celebrated with funeral games and a harvest fair in Tailteann (now Teltown), near Tara, in County Meath.

Tailtiu’s fair eventually became the festival of “first fruits,” which featured a feast of newly harvested food, the sacrifice of a bull, and a ritual dance-play honoring Lugh. If properly honored, he would guarantee a good harvest; if not, his wrath would manifest as blight and harvest-destroying storms.

The festival is also called Lammas, or Loaf Mass Day. The name comes from the Old English hlaf (loaf) and maesse (mass or feast). In Christian tradition, it is an occasion to bless the first fruits of harvest. No surprise, Lammas is celebrated with rituals, traditions, symbols, and specialty foods—especially breads.

A holdover of the original Lughnasadh, the Puck Fair in Killorglin, County Kerry, claims to be Ireland’s oldest festival. Held in mid-August, it is named for the male goat (a puck), a pagan symbol of fertility, like Pan.

‍Lughnasadh/Lammas goes by other names, which are also marked with rituals and traditions:

  • Garland Sunday. This is traditionally a day of veneration by placing garlands and wreaths at the sites of holy wells.
  • Bilberry (Blueberry) Sunday. A plentiful bilberry crop would bode well for the rest of the harvest. Bilberries are similar to blueberries, but smaller. They grow in thick heather bushes, so collecting them took all day. With young men and women spending long hours together hunting for the berries, Bilberry Sunday was known as a time for courting.
  • Domhnach na Cruaiche (Mountain Sunday). The best-known mountain trek for Lughnasadh is the Reek Sunday pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick, on the last Sunday in July.
  • Domhnach Crom Dubh (Crom Dubh Sunday). Depending on which legend you believe, Crom Dubh may be a demon, a god, a pagan chieftain, a pirate, a servant of St. Patrick, or his nemesis. The festival celebrates his conversion to Christianity with bacon, cabbage, and potatoes.

Since the Celtic day began and ended at sunset, eves were especially significant. Lughnasadh Eve (July 31) may strike a chord with Shakespearean fans. It was the day of Juliet’s birth.

In Act 1 Scene 3, the Bard tells on, “On Lammas-Eve at night shall she be fourteen. Juliet is the only Shakespearean character to have a precise birthday.

Public domain image by an unknown artist.
Listen to “Corn Rigs on a Lammas Night

Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote “Corn Rigs” (also known as “The Rigs O’Barley”) in 1783 to commemorate a tryst in the barley fields on Lammas night with Annie Rankine, who later married John Merry, the innkeeper at New Cumnock, where Burns stayed in August 1786. “Rigs” refers to the field’s drainage system.

This video features Corinne Lucy & Rob Bray of the Straw Horses, who performed the song for the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man.

It was upon a Lammas night, 
When corn rigs are bonie, 
Beneath the moon's unclouded light, 
I held awa to Annie:
The time flew by, wi' tentless heed, 
Till 'tween the late and early; 
Wi' sma' persuasion she agreed, 
To see me thro' the barley. 

Corn rigs, an' barley rigs, 
An' corn rigs are bonie: 
I'll ne'er forget that happy night, 
Amang the rigs wi' Annie. 

The sky was blue, the wind was still, 
The moon was shining clearly; 
I set her down, wi' right good will, 
Amang the rigs o' barley: 
I ken't her heart was a' my ain; 
I lov'd her most sincerely; 
I kiss'd her owre and owre again, 
Amang the rigs o' barley. 

I lock'd her in my fond embrace; 
Her heart was beating rarely: 
My blessings on that happy place, 
Amang the rigs o' barley! 
But by the moon and stars so bright, 
That shone that hour so clearly! 
She ay shall bless that happy night 
Amang the rigs o' barley. 

I hae been blythe wi' Comrades dear; 
I hae been merry drinking; 
I hae been joyfu' gath'rin gear; 
I hae been happy thinking: 
But a' the pleasures e'er I saw, 
Tho' three times doubl'd fairly, 
That happy night was worth them a', 
Amang the rigs o' barley. 

Corn rigs, an' barley rigs, 
An' corn rigs are bonie: 
I'll ne'er forget that happy night, 
Amang the rigs wi' Annie.

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