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.