This week marks the feast of Lugh, the sun god of ancient Irish tradition.
Known as Lughnasadh or Lúnasa (in this case, it’s ironically the Irish spelling that appears closest to what most English-speakers would regard as the phonetic pronunciation — luu-na-sa). It is a harvest celebration, a ritual to give thanks for the bounty of the land, and to ask the gods’ blessings that the weather will hold long enough to gather it all in. (The traditional date is the night of July 31-August 1, but modern convenience has moved the date to whichever Sunday is nearest.)
Origins of Lúnasa
Lúnasa is a curious festival, and there are different traditions regarding its origin in different parts of Ireland. All traditional festivals are based on older beliefs and practices, constantly over-written with new interpretations — All Saint’s Day is the Christian gloss on Samhain, now commercialized as Halloween; Easter was built on the foundation of Bealtaine, and, Candlemas one of the Christian attempts to overwrite Imbolc — but, much of what we know of Lúnasa appears to bear conscious witness to an earlier attempt to replace one set of beliefs with another. Some sources describe Lúnasa as the story of the sun god Lugh defeating the dark god Crom Dubh and making the world safe for humanity once again. (For a fascinating account of the surviving traditions honoring Crom Dubh, see Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s excellent piece on Crom Dubh Sunday on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry.)
In agricultural terms, the weather has been good enough for months that the crops have ripened (i.e. they’ve had enough sun — something you can rarely get enough of in Ireland) and famine (the old or dark god, the eternal enemy of hunter-gatherers or agrarian people) is defeated for the time being. In this case, it seems that Crom Dubh was once a major god, if not the major god, of Ireland before one of the waves of invasion came and replaced the power structure and began to teach that their gods were superior. Other origin myths tell of Lugh’s sorrow for the death of his foster-mother Tailtu, who expired after clearing the forests of Ireland to make way for farmland (suggesting that the tribes who imported the belief in Lugh and his brethern the Tuatha dé Dannan (gods of craftsmanship) were the first farmers, who replaced earlier nomadic tribes whose gods would possibly have been rather more barbaric and elemental in nature.
Lugh instituted a two-week tribal assembly of games, trading, and peaceful gathering in memory of Tailtu — who was buried on the Hill of Tailtu in Co. Meath, near where I grew up; hence that is the origin-myth that I learned as a child. A special peace was sanctioned by the Druids/Brehons for these assemblies, and any feuds and conflicts were to be set aside for the festival. Great sporting events took place in each tribe’s center of power, as champions tested themselves against each other in feats of strength, speed and skill. In Co. Meath, the Tailteann Games — said to be the continuation of the actual festival instituted by Lugh — were held as a kind of Irish olympics for centuries until the disruption of the Norman invasion. In other places, such as the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry, there is a tradition of horse racing on the strand.
The tradition of horse racing on the beach appears to be the modern descendant of what was originally the traditional event of “horse-swimming,” where man and horses completed a course that involved swimming across a lake or body of water, and which was apparently very dangerous and took the lives of men and horses every year. (Lough Owel in Co. Westmeath appears to have been the scene of a particularly notorious event for many years.)
The óenach (a traditional name for this kind of tribal gathering, and also possibly the name for the horse races themselves — “a contention of horses”) lasted for two weeks, culminating in the festival of the Lúnasa bonfires, and for these two weeks the peace held. New laws were set down and announced, bards presented new poems and performed new songs for the first time. There was also a custom of temporary or trial marriages being sanctioned at Lúnasa, but the Catholic church never adopted this practice for some reason. Echos of this custom can be seen in events like the Puck Fair in Kilorglin, Co. Kerry in early August, and in the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in Co. Clare at the end of the month.
The emphasis on horse racing coupled with the tradition of trial marriages and emphasis on fertility may reveal earlier spiritual roots of Lúnasa. One of the continental proto-Celtic goddess is thought to be Epona, the horse goddess, a mother or fertility goddess whose attributes includes cornucopias, ears of wheat, and foals. Perhaps the óenaige are echoes of earlier festivals dedicated to Epona, or the rites enacted during these tribal gatherings reflect the early importance of horses and the horse goddess?
Note: There may have been as many as 80 sites for Óenach around the country, which reflects the multiple tribes and difficulties of traveling long distances at the time. My focus on the Tailteann Games and a few other locations reflects the limits of my knowledge. There are probably many different myths and traditions around Lúnasa as there were óenaige.
The Lúnasa festival is traditionally marked by a bonfire (as are most ancient Irish festivals), a feast, the ceremonial cutting of the first corn, picking of wild berries, and dancing. However, for Lúnasa, these usually take place on the top of a mountain, as the climb is symbolic of the sun god Lugh’s ascent to battle the dark god, and presumably honored the sun god by getting as close to him as possible. The mountain ascent has been absorbed into Christian practice as the custom of pilgrimage up holy mountains like Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo. Anyone who has seen Brian Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa” will be aware of the Catholic Church’s dismissive attitude towards pre-Christian practices and beliefs, and also of their enduring power across the centuries.
Lúnasa was the occasion for the central festival of Irish culture for centuries, and its like (in terms of spiritual and administrative community) has never been seen since. However, the modern Irish summer is chockfull of festivals from Imbolc to Samhain; music festivals, arts festivals, book festivals, fleadh cheoil, matchmaking festivals, multi-day race meetings… they’re endless. So in that respect, the pre-Christian óenaige tradition is alive and well, and undergoing another metamorphosis of meaning.