Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh was on Tuesday this week, a festival I realise I tend to be slightly ambivalent about compared to the other fire festivals of the year. A fairly important family anniversary the day after Lughnasadh may have something to do with that, as well as the fact it normally features the grain harvest as its central message (thanks to its connection and confusion with Lammas, the Christian Loaf Mass) and I am allergic to wheat! However, this year Lughnasadh marked some major unexpected events for me that make me really look forward to the next year (more of which to follow) – so I was feeling puzzled as to why seeds are being madly sown in my life while the rest of the world is apparently at harvest, and wanted to explore some of the meanings of the festival a little deeper.

Lughnasadh, also spelt Lughnasa, Lughnasad, Lunasa etc, is an old Irish festival, named for the Celtic sun-God Lugh, and Nasadh meaning an assembly. It didn’t actually celebrate the harvest, which is frequently a little later in August; however, Lughnasadh was started as a result of the start of growing and harvesting crops. Besides, if the assembly was held at harvest time most able-bodied people would have been too busy to compete in any games!

When the Tuatha de Danaan invaded Ireland, the High King of the Fir Bolg, Eochaidh mac Eirc was killed in battle. His wife, Tailtiu, was then given a high-born son of the Danaan to raise as her own, as a mark of trust. Fostering children was a common way of creating peace between kingdoms, in the same way as marriage was used. The son she was entrusted with was Lugh.

Clearly as a way of inspiring loyalty, this was an inspired choice. Lugh flourished and developed incredible skills and talents, winning the titles Lamfhada, ‘of the long arm’ for his prowess with spear casting, and Samildanach, ‘master of all arts’. He went on to become High King, and was a Druid and a Warrior.

He remained very close to his foster mother, despite leaving to seek his fortune, and was devastated when Tailtiu died of exhaustion on 1st August after clearing a great forest on the plains of Brega in readiness for farming. (The Bronze Age had arrived in Ireland.) When the men gathered at her death-bed, she told them to hold funeral games and celebrations in her honour. As long as they were held, she prophesied Ireland would not be without song. This is of course what Lugh did.

The first games were held at the town now known as Teltown in County Meath, where they continued to be held until the Norman invasion – and informally in rural areas until the eighteenth century. They were known to include sporting contests in hurling, spear throwing, sword fighting, handball, running, wrestling, boxing, horse and chariot racing, staged battles and displays of Irish martial arts, as well as music, poetry, story-telling, singing and dancing, and competitions amongst craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, jewellers, spinners, weavers, and the forging of weaponry and armour. It was also the time that laws were made and announced to the people by bards, and contracts, politics and alliances were agreed between families. Even weddings or handfastings took place by linking hands through a hole in a stone, which could be dissolved the next year by walking away from each other if it didn’t work out. August remains one of the most popular times of year for weddings. Violence was not tolerated for the period of the festival, all those who came had to agree to a truce.

So it was Tailtiu who made the sacrifice so that man could plant corn, offering herself as the divine feminine. She was not afraid to work hard, and was an excellent mother in all senses of the word. Her festival reminds us to look at all our talents, use them, and as well as reaping our harvest, see what we can give back to others, and to the Earth. In that sense I now understand where my new seeds have come from, and what responsibility I have to nurture them and help them grow.

Lughnasadh Quilt

Continuing my series of quilted display cloths I have been making, here is my finished quilt for the beginning of August and the colours of the grain harvest.

Lughnasadh Quilt


The design is still based on squares, as I did for Litha, but this time I did not have so many suitable fabrics available to me so decided to make some of the shapes bigger. This made it quite entertaining to sew together, since I could never follow any regular pattern!

I have deliberately used some of the same fabrics as for Litha, and would like to make that a passing theme through the year: that each quilt has a relationship to the ones either side through sharing some colours, as well as having some that are unique to only that quilt. In this case I am unlikely to use the brightest yellows for anything other than Lughnasadh, but I used the gold prints for the Litha quilt, and will use the darkest red / orange fabric for Mabon and also for Samhain if I get stuck with a lack of other suitable fabrics.

It is now forming part of my display as we prepare for the coming festival, and has been adorned with candles, flowers, and some corn dollies we made last year. For the first time we have some wheat in the garden, sown by M at school as part of her ‘Spring Garden’ and transplanted here in April. We will be able to ceremonially cut it on the day and place it centre stage.

Early Fruit Harvests

The standard pagan calendar of eight sabbats sets out two of them for harvest – the grain at Lammas / Lughnasa at the beginning of August, and the tree fruit at the Autumn Equinox. I have particularly noticed this year how by August most of my soft fruit picking will be finished, that which started in June shortly before the summer solstice.

Right now I am spending a good hour of every day picking fruit – strawberries, alpine strawberries, loganberries, raspberries, black, red and white currants, gooseberries, morello cherries… Not all get done every day, and luckily the blackcurrants finish before the gooseberries start, but I am still picking around four or five types of berries a day for several weeks, on top of any vegetables. I then spend more time in the evening ensuring that those we don’t eat or cook immediately get stored in the freezer whole or as purée to be turned into ice-cream, or as jam or jelly.

Apart from strawberries, few of these fruits get a mention in any book of festivals, pagan or otherwise such as the many Steiner-Waldorf books for celebrating with children. So why is this amazing bounty almost completely overlooked in the yearly cycle?

Two reasons I suspect currants in particular have failed to gain much popularity is that first they don’t really grow wild, and second you wouldn’t want to eat many raw berries. They are much better cooked! They are also small and insubstantial individually; it takes a lot of berries to make even a sauce or condiment for a meal. This is quite unlike pome and larger stone fruit where one fruit is satisfying by itself, picked and eaten raw off the bush. Neither do currants travel well; a handful of berries is never going to be as sustaining as a pocket full of apples over a few days of walking. So they have never entered our folklore. However I do not see these as reasons to ignore them. Their flavour and colour is so much more intense than most other fruit that a little goes a long way. They crop better than imported ‘superfoods’, contain at least an equal amount of antioxidants, and blackcurrants contain a very high amount of vitamin C; during the 1940s blackcurrant syrup was distributed free to young children when oranges became unavailable. Even today 95% of blackcurrants in England get turned into Ribena apparently.

So this weekend I am celebrating the fruits of the harvest by coming up with as many new ways to use the berries as possible. Whitecurrant jelly goes well with pork, as redcurrant jelly or fresh sauce (redcurrants, balsamic vinegar, honey, heat gently 10 mins) does with lamb. Blackcurrants need something robust, but work well with red cabbage. Blackcurrant ice cream seems to be a favourite here, almost replacing the previous favourite of whitecurrant and Drambuie ice cream that we invented a few years ago. (Whitecurrant purée, sugar to taste, double cream, Drambuie. Churn until frozen.) Redcurrants are traditionally used in Linzertorte and summer pudding, but I am seeing what other cakes or tarts I can come up with. And blackcurrant cheesecake always works well. I might be in danger of turning into a kitchen witch at this rate…