Celtic Festival: Lúnasa
Every Celtic festival is rooted in the land. But the most deeply embedded has to be that taking place at the start of August. The harvest festival. The one time of year when all your toil seems worth it and the living is suddenly easy, if only for a little while. A time of flowing bounty, a time to rejoice and thank, a milestone on the celestial calendar governing your daily.
For the Ancients of Ireland and Scotland, the Gaels, the name for this Celtic festival of plenty was Lughnasadh (shortened to Lúnasa in modern Irish) and it served as one of the four major annual feasts, falling midway between Bealtaine (30April/1 May) and Samhain (31 October/1 November). The festival has its equivalent in England in the form of Lammas, and is Gŵyl Awst in Wales, and is still today celebrated by many – ‘regular’ folk and neopagans alike.
Celtic festival of the fields
If your weary bones made it through another season of agrarian drudgery this Celtic festival met you around about the 1st of August, halfway through the light part of the year (which ends in the Samhain ritual – now Halloween). An important marker on the celestial calendar, it is a rambunctious festival that celebrates the first harvest. You eat the spoils of toil, you dance, you drink that hallowed Irish alcohol, poteen, enact rituals, and party deep into the night, all in celebration of having reached that point equidistant between summer solstice and autumn equinox.
On modern calendars, this Celtic festival has a head start on other such harvest feasts in Europe. Because crops tend to come early in Ireland’s mild climate. As whilst tumultuous wind and heavy rainfalls may irk the human inhabitants, Erin’s Isle remains a most hospitable environment for their fauna and flora companions. And with relatively little snow or frost to cope with, come August countryside and cattle are usually bulging at the seams.
The Celtic calendar thus divided the year by quarterly festivals – with another minor occasion midway through each. And aligning this with the Gregorian calendar we use today puts August as an autumn month. Which isn’t all that inaccurate, while the rest of the continent is going into sweat-your-extremities-off overdrive, Ireland is already cooling down at that time – after the balmy (75 Fahrenheit) heights of July. Even with global warming wrecking the place, visit Dublin when other Europeans are still sweltering their drawers off and you’d be well advised to bring a jacket.
The god from which this Celtic fest derives its name is the big time kingpin of Irish mythology, the head honcho. Put simply, Lugh was the smooth talking, all-star athlete of his age, with wealth and grace dripping from every pore, pulling any female he set his gaze upon. That guy. The one the Gaels would’ve have sent to the Conference of Mega Gods; so he could sit around refuting corruption charges and deciding what’s what. He was Lugh the Protector, the brightest god in the sky. The original Irish saint, long before Patrick’s ancestors were a twinkle in a Welsh eye.
But, despite what the natives would have you believe, Lugh was no local.
With the revolutionary use of ancient DNA continuing to (re)inform our understanding of ancient history, the human race is finding out not just that they are one, but just how connected we truly are. How intertwined are the paths by which we traveled. But you already knew that. If you speak an Indo-European tongue, which as a human alive today you are more likely to than not, you probably stem from somewhere in the grasslands of Eastern Europe.
The Celts surely did, emerging from a larger culture that already by the fourth millennium BCE was making big moves, on the back of their flair for metallurgy. Distinguishing themselves from other groups, these were the ‘Aryan’ people, and this is the origin of the term.
Indeed, it is an epithet which remains at the heart of the only Celtic nation state on the planet today, called Éireann in the local language (pronounced ‘A-ran’). But in this denomination it is not alone. Although separated by land, sea, and millennia, there is another state that still bears the name of the original people – called ایران in the local language (pronounced ‘I-ran’).
Because for the sprawling Indo-European family, it seems to have been a case of you go east and I go west. One part spreading a Celtic Empire across Europe before settling as far removed from the action as you could get, on some godforsaken rock in the Atlantic and, on the other extreme, setting up shop along the lushy banks of the Ganges. As well as everywhere in between.
Irish terms for a universal god
Whilst the Celtic festival of Lughnasadh may not be celebrated in Persia or Pakistan, the folk myths that appear from the West shores of Ireland to the Eastern edge of India share much heritage. With Lugh featuring prominently, if not always identified in Irish terms.
This all-conquering god is among many figures who play the same role in both Irish mythology and the hallowed Vedas, foundational books for several Indian religions and at the core of Hindu scripture, where he appears as the sky-god Dyaus. Farther down the Indo-European path, he would be referred to as deus in Latin, devos in Slavonic, and by the Irish term dia.
It is in honor of this same being that the Lúnasa Celtic fest is held each August. This guide of justice and protector of the earnest. He who is literally the ‘bright one’ and whom, whether in religions pagan or otherwise, presumably came from the original sun deity. The modern Hindu tradition has him as Dyaus-Pitir, Father Dyaus. He is Greece’s Zeus and the Roman Father Jove. The benevolent patriarch sitting high in the sky, lording it above all. For that Irish delegate at the Mega God Conference, the full name on the desk would display he Irish term Lugh Lámhfada, Lugh of the Long Hand.
For just as is written of Dyaus in the Rig Veda, he stretches out a long hand, protecting the weak below. In Celtic Ireland, where a man set himself apart through his ability to 1) make war and 2) make art, the Sun god Lugh Lámhfada became a mighty warrior whose talent on the battlefield was only matched by his deep love of art. God of all knowledge and patron of arts and crafts, he was the invincible warrior, the honest king of his people, constantly shielding the citizenry and striking down enemies with his magical spear.
Evil leprechaun from British colony still haunting Celtic festival
Alas, the Celtic fest of Lúnasa has in recent eras failed to enjoy the same pull with the populace. For as the centuries wore on and the Irish were stripped of their folk ways, becoming ever more dehumanized inhabitants of a weary British colony, even Lugh found himself hit with demotion. Downgraded to Lugh-chromain, a hunched fairy craftsman.
And as the seasons continued to turn and the Irish language effectively vanished, so too did even this diminutive role.
The once formidable Lugh now became classed as but a mischievous elf, a little sprite who like the Irish citizens themselves would surely not think twice about resorting to petty tricks to get ahead. With the tongue of the colonizer now embedded on Erin’s Isle, Lugh-chromain got distorted into (the tricky, evil) Leprechaun.
A bad blow, admittedly. But he is down, he is not out.
In fact, with the revitalization of pagan festivals at home, for people of Irish heritage farther afield, and among miscellaneous weirdos who like the sound of fire, tattoos and axes, the Lúnasa Celtic fest is once again growing in popularity.
And Remember: Halloween in Ireland once meant Gnashing on a Whittled Turnip and scoffing some simple Irish tea cake in a sopping bog someplace. So who know what’s next for our hallowed evil leprechaun.
Irish dishes galore
As you might expect, the original rituals of this Celtic festival have become sullied in the bogwaters of time and continue to remain as nebulous as ferns in the fog. The first ever Lughnasadh festival is said to have been held by Lugh in honor of his deceased mother Tailitiu, also a god and, in true black Irish tradition, the daughter of the King of Spain. (On the whole, a prestigious family, that one). A powerful goddess in the vein of Macha, earth-loving Tailitiu is charged with watching over the crops, met her end clearing land for their cultivation, and ought best to be appeased lest blight strike the soil.
That’s the main thrust of Lúnasa, really, everyone heads up the side of a hill, the first cut of grain is offered up to the god and a ritual bull is sacrificed. Then everyone aims their bellies towards a host of Irish dishes whipped up from the fruits of their labor and the fruit of their bilberry bushes (berries not dissimilar to blueberries). Seasonal dishes heavy on the grain, staples like Irish soup and celebratory Lúnasa bannocks prepared over the fire would’ve been among the Irish dishes on show.
Celtic festival agenda: Irish dinner, dancing, grievous bodily harm
After an Irish dinner for the ages, the devout then get down to all the best Celtic culture has to offer – storytelling, perhaps some dancing around the bonfire (although, unlike Bealtaine before it and Samhain after it, Lunasa isn’t strictly speaking a fire festival), the odd spot of spouse trading and livestock matchmaking on the margins. And – stereotypically, for what would a Celtic fest be without a bit of argy-bargy? – watching the younger ones go at it in Olympics Games-style events, leaping and swimming about the place, racing horses, chucking stuff, battering lumps out of each other, and slurping on Irish liquor sports drinks between rounds of shin–kicking.
If the original recipe for moonshine hadn’t been pioneered on Erin’s Isle, we may have learnt to face down the world in another way. But with it not being so, if the sinister forces of this universe (blight, decay, traditional food blogs, etc.) were to be overcome, battle would first need to be done.
Which makes sense, for there to be light, surely darkness needs to be thwarted, otherwise Star Wars would’ve flopped at the box office. And when it’s on, who is the most fearsome of them all, the most relentless proponent of honorable combat? Who can simply just bring it the most?
You guessed it.
As this lush Celtic festival unfolds, Lugh the sunny one, that veritable lightsaber of integrity, draws on his martial prowess and seizes the grain from those gods who would guard it too tight for the peasants’ liking.
Irish food traditions live on
Thus is mother earth thanked, honest toil honored, and sustenance secured, with the enactment of good versus evil returning yet another victory for the home side. And not counting a few best forgotten yet indelible fumbles, Lugh usually delivers and Ireland is kept blissfully bountiful and blight-free.
So next time you see him in furry teddy bear version or on the fighting Irish crest, spare a thought for Lightsaber Lugh and his enduring festival with its wonderful Irish food traditions and rituals. And, if you’ve got the time, spare another to think on how, unable to handle truth and prowess, the cowardly will sidestep honorable battle, then flip things around and deny it ever were otherwise.
Wanna get your bake on ancient Celt style? Keep an eye on our Irish Baking section for each quarterly bannock. First up in the cycle is the venerable and most tasty bannock recipe for Lúnasa. This is followed by those hallowed bannocks cooked up for ‘Halloween’ or, if you happen to be neopagan (or a commendably long-living ancient Celt), Samhain.