lughnasadh, a celebration of fertility?

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.

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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.

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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.

Beautiful, romantic woman in fairytale, wood nymph among tall grass and rays of sun. Outdoor

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.

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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.

Lighting on desert tree

Lugh ‘Lightning Flash’ returns at summer’s end heralding the replenishing rainy season

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.

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the oenach

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.

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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.

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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.

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lughnasadh today

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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52 Comments on “lughnasadh, a celebration of fertility?

  1. Yes you are quiet right and I must admit I have often shown lack of responsibility and sometimes found it is too late to put things right.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘ Destroying nature to create the new artificial process of planting crops’ interesting destroying nature for our own advantage is part of existence . To live we must destroy but we are not alone nature lives by its own creation and destruction, we are just better at it than the rest of living creatures except perhaps the rat and seagulls. The modern concept that we are preservers of nature is largely a modern religious outlook.

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    • That is true… I just wanted to show a different view of things. Nature is amazing at healing itself and reclaiming it’s land. I’ve seen that since I moved out into the country. But sometimes the human desire to control everything, even Nature, drives me mad. I like nature best when it’s wild and free… that’s how it looks best to me. It provides what we need. But with our growing population that’s just not enough, I guess.

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      • Brexit is worrying for farmers who in total receive about three billion pounds a year. Mr Gove wants them to earn that subsidy with a new green approach to farming ; for example allowing wild flowers and nettles to flourish in hedge rows. At the moment the subsidy is paid according to the amount of land they own. Incidentally nature has no end in view amazing is a human concept nature cannot think it just reacts. Some neuroscientists believe we do not control our own actions a deterministic view of us. I do not believe this since I believe we have free will and responsibility.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree with you, we certainly have free will but not all of us accept our responsibility. I think the green approach to farming can only be a good thing.

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  3. Hi Ali, I reckon you’ll have an ‘energy feeling’ if you went to this website of one of the most historical places in Ireland http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/rathcroghan/
    When I clicked on the image in that website, my mouse went out of control, the picture kept spinning around and the feeling I got was dizziness 🙂
    Could you try it and let me know. Maybe it will make you to feel like spend a month travelling around ancient sites in Ireland, instead of going to Greece!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will certainly try it when I am on my laptop Colin… it’s not the same on a phone. I love ‘Voices from the Dawn’… it is a fab website. You are really drawn to the places associated with Queen Medb, aren’t You?

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  4. Hi Ali, I reckon even you willl have an ‘energy feeling’ if you went to this website of one of the most historical sites in Ireland http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/rathcroghan/
    When I clicked on the image, my mouse went out of control and I felt dizzy – probably when it was hovering over the Cave of the Cats 🙂
    Could you try it and let me know. Maybe it will get you to feel like spend a month travelling around ancient sites in Ireland, instead of going to Greece!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Rachele. I think it’s how people committed themselves to each other in marriage before it was brought into the church. You can still do it over here, but you still need to go through the official and legal channels too. Non Christians like it, also couples of mixed faith, and there is quite a large and growing pagan community here and throughout Europe too who would celebrate marriage in this way. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful post, Ali. Native Americans say the Earth is female, for her energy is such. Women create (give birth) and, throughout history, men have destroyed (waged war). This is changing as the New Age dawns, and equilibrium will be restored. As you can see, your post has given me much food for thought 🙂 ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s lovely, Tina. I often think there are similarities between Native American beliefs and ancient Irish myths. At least, the little I know. Perhaps ancient wisdom all comes from the same place. I like the notion of a new age dawning and the equilibrium restored… it’s hard to imagine after the events of recent years where we seem to be going backwards into a dark place, but perhaps that is the catalyst we need. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Precisely, Ali. The patriarchy is dying and rearing its head for a final stand. In its desperation to survive, it is wielding its weapons of mass destruction, blindly hoping to annihilate all that opposes it. Thus it seems we are regressing, but we are not. The challenge is not to sink into despair and be fooled by the veneer of vicious inhumanity. This is a hollow weapon, an illusion, and it will not succeed. Cosmic forces are moving us into an age of enlightenment, and mere humans are no match for the prodigious power of the universe ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – Wednesday August 2nd – Balroop Singh, Marcia Meara, Ali Isaac and Christy Birmingham | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  7. Good to see you back in the world of blogging, and I love the fresh new site, Ali. Looks as if you’ve been busy moving things around a little. As for festivals, I’m up for as many as possible. I always enjoy your storytelling, especially on a subject I knew nothing about until I discovered your blog.
    Hugs from me.

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    • Thanks Hugh. I have been working on this new theme all week… I’m worn out! Lol! Just a couple more tweaks, and I’m done. Then I can concentrate on creating some new content… hooray!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I imagine that the annual Ballabuide Festival, down there in Dunmanway must have some connection with Lughnasadh. The written records go back to 1615 anyway. A wild few days I hear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Roy. I’m not familiar with that festival, but I dare say you’re right. My husband was driving through Durrow the other day and got caught up in a Scarecrow festival that had a giant wicker man… although looks like he was made out of hay, but pretty impressive anyway. Lughnasadh by any other name, huh? Pagan festival given a Christian makeover in ancient times so the locals could still celebrate it no doubt. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Is there another Chalice Well? 😉 It was amazing… So full of magic either from the place itself, the day, the energy of the people there. Perhaps a mix of all? And a gorgeous view of Glastonbury Tor.

        Thank you! ❤

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh wow! You were in England! I’ve been to Chalice Well too… it’s a wonderful place, linked to Arthurian myth, and definitely full of magic!

          Liked by 1 person

          • I was in England. A few times. I miss it and long to return! 😀 Yes, linked to those myths for sure. I could barely stand the energy (in a good way, if that makes sense – it was just so strong) from a few of the places there. Especially the Tor.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Well I’m not very good at picking up energy vibes. People always say to me ‘Can you feel the energy?’ when we are in certain places, and I may feel peaceful or headachey but I never seem able to pick up what others Can, for some reason. If you ever do go back, make a detour to Ireland and I’ll take you to lots of places where you will feel TONS of energy! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

            • YES, PLEASE! ❤ First stop, Kildare. I need to see Brigid's Well before I die. Then, I'll go where you lead. (Squee! Energy places!!!) 😀 I always pictured you as an energy-feeling gal but 'peaceful' is good too.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Yaaay! Lets make it happen! Looking forward to it! 😊 I wish I was an energy feeling person… I want to be, don’t know why I’m not.

              Liked by 1 person

  9. Love the God of light and those teltown marriages sound most peculiar! I wonder what the stats would be for their success in comparison to Tv’s Love Island? Lol. 🙂 x

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  10. I’ve always loved Lugh’s relationship with his foster mother. It’s so touching, and more even than the romantic stories, it seems to show how these so called primitive peoples were as capable of love and affection as we are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, Jane. She was quite a remarkable woman. And she did a great job of raising Lugh. He achieved his potential in no small part because of her. No wonder he loved her. In a male dominated society, it’s great to see so much love and respect directed at a mother, and a woman who must have been entering her crone years, at that. Kind of makes you wonder if this is a tiny clue pointing towards the remnants of an ancient matriarchal society…

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      • It’s possible. Even it wasn’t matriarchal, it must have been a society where family was valued as an emotional unit as well as a social one. Where women are valued and loved, you get equality.

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  11. You always share such cool information on this history and culture. And, I so agree with you on the DNA connection to celebration that is part of being Irish. There was a large ethnic festival that I attended each year in Michigan, where 20 or more countries were represented. By far, the Irish contingent was always having the most fun. ( My mom was Irish and German…a popular combo in early Philadelphia).Thanks, Ali.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like an incredible festival, Vanbytheriver! Bet the food on offer was amazing, and I can only imagine the music and dancing and colour. I’m sure the Irish were at the top of the list when it came to having fun. 😊 Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for the feedback. Have a lovely day and Blessings of Lughnasadh to you. 😍

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Fantastic post, Ali, I really enjoyed it. I was familiar with some of the stories, but didn’t really know anything about this festival.
    Personally, I choose to think that revival of any culture is a good thing. Even when it is because of tourism and money, it brings back elements that may otherwise fade away. And when people comes in concatc with these cultural elements… well, anything good may happen 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you, Sarah. It’s a good thing to keep these old traditions alive. I think more people are interested in learning about them, too. Without judgement, and that has to be good, too. My only reservation is that we can’t know the authenticity of them, as those who enacted the rituals left no record, so it’s all supposition and hearsay. For example, people take what the Romans wrote as fact, when they were an invading conquering nation… their agenda was not faithfully and diligently recording truth about their enemies. In fact, quite the reverse.

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