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The Victory of Lugh

a short study on the meaning of Lughnasadh
Copyright © by Blackbird Hollins 2005


Lughnasadh literally means assembly of Lugh[1]. The festival takes place at the start of the grain harvest, and is traditionally held on August eve. Of all the ancient - and modern - festivals, Lughnasadh is probably the most complex in terms of both its meaning and celebration. I think this weave of many different strands pleases Lugh immensely.

This article will concentrate on the mythical origins and meaning of Lughnasadh, and will then briefly look at its religious and secular significance in ancient and modern times. We shall also look at how modern pagans, who are often experiencing harvest in a more abstract way, can relate to and celebrate Lughnasadh.

The most famous of the Lughnasadh celebrations is that of Telltown in Co. Meath. It was celebrated there from times of unknown antiquity until 1168, under the auspices of the High King. Informal festivals continued there into the 18th century and then fizzled out, only to enjoy a brief revival in the 1920's as the 'Tailtiu Games'. Tailtiu was a Fir Bolg queen who was foster mother to Lugh, the games were said to have been inaugurated by Lugh himself in her honour.

Given that Lughnasadh is a time of joyous celebration, it is surprising to learn that Lughnasadh was originally funerary games for Tailtiu, who died clearing forested land for cultivation. This information is given in the Metrical Dindshenchas:[2]

"Long was the sorrow, long the weariness of Tailtiu, in sickness after heavy toil; the men of the island of Erin to whom she was in bondage came to receive her last behest. She told them in her sickness (feeble she was but not speechless) that they should hold funeral games to lament her - zealous the deed"[3]

The story is also told in one of the other most important sources for Irish lore, the Lebor Gabala Erren (LGE):[4]

"So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu [modern Telltown], and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lug [Lugh]."

For us to understand the meaning of this, we must go back and look at the stories told of Lugh himself. Firstly, we must wade through the misconceptions of the Victorians, who labelled Lugh a Sun God. This error tells a great deal about the Victorians and their ideas about 'primitive' cultures. That this error is still perpetuated among modern pagan writers tells us something about how modern paganisms have developed from works such as The Golden Bough and The White Goddess. However, none of this tells us anything useful about Lugh, so we should move on.

A common epithet for Lugh is 'Samildánach', which translates as 'Many Skilled' or 'Many Gifted'. It is for his wit, his cleverness, his well crafted trickery, that Lugh is admired and honoured. He likes both games of skill, such as chess, and physical challenges such as the horse racing which is a traditional feature of Lughnasadh celebrations.[5] In modern times, he has been known to take an interest in computing and the internet. Because of the episode related below, among others, he is honoured for his skill in crossing boundaries and gates, and for his communicative gifts. It is not hard to see why the Romans associated him with their God Mercury.

Lugh's character and skills are made plain in this tale in which he is attempting to gain entry to King Nuada's court.[6] None may enter the court without having some useful skill. Faced with an impassive gatekeeper, Lugh reels off a great long list of his talents: "Question me: I am a builder. Question me: I am a smith. Question me: I am a champion. Question me: I am a harper" etc. To each boast, the gatekeeper simply replies that King Nuada already has such a man and needs no other. Lugh then says: "Ask the king whether he has one man who possesses all these arts." This finally stumps the gatekeeper, who after consultation with Nuada, admits Lugh to the court, where he wins challenges set him by the other Gods and eventually accepts leadership of the Tuatha de Danaan.

Going back earlier to the tales of Lugh's parentage and birth, we see that Lugh is not entirely of the Tuatha de Danaan by blood. This fact provides another essential clue to his nature, and to the festival of Lughnasadh.

Earlier in the Cath Magh Tuiredh, we learn that Lugh's father was Cian, son of Dian Cecht. However, his mother was Fomorian. Her name was Eithne, daughter of Balor, King of the Fomoire. And to understand why this is important, we need to know a little about the relationship between the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fomorians.

Who the Fomorians are and where they came from is never made clear. Sometimes they are portrayed as monstrous, typically with one eye, one leg and so forth. At other times, they are indistinguishable from the Tuatha de Danaan in both beauty and culture. The most likely theory is that they are Gods of the land, or possibly of the Underworld. Whatever their true nature, their relationship with the Tuatha De Danaan is not always good. Initially, the Tuatha De Danaan make an alliance with the Fomorians. They arrive upon Ireland from within a magical mist and proceed to make war upon the Fir Bolg, the inhabitants of Ireland at that time.

Eithne, daughter of Balor and Cian, son of Dian Cecht, are married to seal the alliance between the Fomoire and the Tuatha de Danaan. Lugh is the product of this union. So to fully understand Lugh, we have to see that in his essential nature he is crossing boundaries, uniting two often irreconcilable things within his person. He can be seen as the most perfect flowering of these two peoples of Ireland.

Now, there is another child born of such a union, Bres Mac Elatha. His father is Fomorian, Elatha, another Fomorian king. His mother is of the Tuatha de Danaan, Ériu daughter of Delbaeth. Thus his parentage, is the opposite to that of Lugh. Like Lugh, he is beautiful to the eye (His name, Bres, literally means 'beautiful'). Like Lugh, his allegiance lies with the people of his father, and in many ways he is Lugh's equal and opposite.

After Nuada loses his hand while fighting the Fir Bolg, Bres is chosen by the Tuatha de Danaan to succeed him as King. The Tuatha de Danaan hope that his succession will encourage the continuation of the alliance between the Fomorians and themselves. Sadly, the rule of Bres is characterised by bad government and harsh treatment for the Tuatha de Danaan. It is a time of blight and famine. The Fomorians exact exorbitant tributes and reduce the powerful Gods Ogma and the Dagda to the level of servants. The Tuatha de Danaan eventually rebel, whereupon Bres sets out to crush them with military force.

It is at this time that Lugh presents himself at Nuada's court, and is chosen by the Tuatha de Danaan to lead them into battle. The battle culminates in the meeting of Lugh and Balor upon the field. Balor attempts to strike Lugh down by gazing upon him with his single deadly eye. But Lugh, agile and clever, casts a sling-stone into the eye, so that the poison from it falls upon the Fomorian fighters.

After the battle, the Tuatha de Danaan are of a mind to kill Bres. But he begs for his life, offering great gifts in return. Firstly, he offers to make the cattle of the Tuatha de Danaan be always in milk. But the lawyer Maeltne Morbrethach replies that Bres has no power to make this so. Bres then promises that should he be spared, the Tuatha de Danaan will reap a harvest every quarter. Maeltne Morbrethach replies that an annual harvest is preferable. At this point, Lugh suggests a solution to Bres:

"That does not rescue thee," said Lugh to Bres; "but less than that rescues thee."
"What?" said Bres.
"How shall the men of Ireland plough? How shall they sow? How shall they reap? After making known these three things thou wilt be spared."
"Tell them, said Bres, that their ploughing be on a Tuesday, their casting seed into the field be on a Tuesday, their reaping on a Tuesday."
So through that stratagem Bres was let go free."[7]

While Lughnasadh was inaugurated in honour of Lugh's foster mother, the true reason behind the celebration is the victory of Lugh, and the release of the harvest for use by the people. In the tale above, we see the contrast between the reigns of Lugh and Bres. While Bres brings hardship and famine to the people, the victory of Lugh brings forth a time of good harvests and abundance.

Let us go back to where we started, with the tale of Tailtiu. In recent years, writers such as Ronald Hutton[8] have suggested that Tailtiu is a medieval invention, and have questioned the idea proposed by Máire McNéill,[9] i.e. that there is evidence for widespread celebration of Lughnasadh throughout the British Isles. Hutton has argued that Lughnasadh was purely a local event connected with Telltown. This is both true and not true. For Tailtiu is but one of a number of Gods associated with Lughnasadh in various places. So it is true to say that the inauguration of Lughnasadh as the funerary games of Tailtiu is indeed local to Telltown (which is named after her). But we have the myths of other Gods associated with the same festival in other places. Tailtiu herself is unlikely to be a medieval invention, though she may have been a later addition to localised Lughnasadh celebrations. Her name is cognate with that of the Roman Goddess Tellus, who is herself the land, and it is suggested that the name 'Tailtiu' originates from the word 'Talantiu', meaning 'The Great One of the Earth'.[10] While this doesn't prove a connection with ancient Ireland, it does suggest that she was known as a Goddess, even if her connection with Lughnasadh only dates back to the Middle Ages.

We have already seen that Tailtiu is associated with the Telltown festival, and she is by far the best known of these 'Lughnasadh Gods'. However, there are also two other Goddesses with stories that link them to Telltown. These are Búi and Nás, who are named as two of Lugh's four wives in the Metrical Dindshenchas.[11] Here, the lore gets confused, as the Dindshenchas then tell us that the Telltown assembly was inaugurated to honour the deaths of both Búi and Nás. Interestingly, Nás is the eponymous Goddess of Co. Nass, where she is associated with another assembly site.[12]

The Metrical Dindshenchas tell us that Carmun is connected with the assembly site in County Wexford. Her tale is somewhat darker than that of Tailtiu. She invades Ireland with her three sons, Dian (Fierce), Dubh (Dark) and Dochar (Harm),[13] epithets that bring to mind the worst of the Fomorian attributes. Lugh sees off her sons and holds Carmun hostage until her death. Lugh is taking control of the local land-Goddess and in effect, the harvest. After the death of Carmun, Lugh inaugurates the Co. Wexford festival in her honour. Perhaps this festival reinforces his mastery of her, and also placates the spirit of Carmun, ensuring that good harvests continue.

Another interesting, though speculative link, is with the Goddess Macha.[14] She is famous for being forced by her husband to race against horses while heavily pregnant. She won the race, but died as a result, cursing the men of Ulster as she did so. Horse racing is an emphatic feature of Lughnasadh games. However, the tale of Macha (told as one of the precursor tales to the Tain Bo Cualigne) simply states that the race took place at 'a fair',[15] without specifying dates. It is said that Emain Macha was named for the twins she bore before her death. At the very least, we have another local Goddess who is associated with death, fairs and the naming of places.

It seems that the various Goddesses mentioned in association with Lughnasadh are connected with the assembly sites, rather than with the celebrations and assemblies themselves. Rather like the concessions made by Bres, the death of the Goddesses serve to ensure a bountiful harvest for the people. Abundance and plenty. This somewhat turns on its head the popular neo-pagan ideas about Lughnasadh, at which Lugh himself is often confused with John Barleycorn.

However, the idea of a sacrificial God at Lughnasadh is not too wide of the mark. For in the various bits of local lore, both female and male entities are subdued or killed by Lugh in order to secure the harvest. We have already had one example, in the person of Bres. Elsewhere in Ireland, we see this role is taken variously by both Crom Dubh and Donn. Of the Gods associated with Lughnasadh, Crom Dubh is the most well known, to the extent that the last Sunday before Lughnasadh is known as Domhnach Croim Dhuibh - 'Crom Dubh's Sunday'.[16] It is suggested by some that Lugh and Crom do battle each year, with Crom retreating to the Underworld after his defeat. Another tale tells of a bull set loose by Crom which must be overcome. However, I wonder if Crom and Lugh are not opposing Gods, but perhaps Gods who do a similar task on behalf of humanity at harvest time. We know that Crom is often known as Cromm Cruiach, Crom of the Hill (or Mound). Lugh is also associated with hilltops, as is the festival of Lughnasadh itself. Tantalising though this is, a discussion on the relationship between these two Gods will have to wait for another time.

The important thing in all these tales is the triumph of Lugh over whichever land spirit or God presides in any given place, whether that being be male or female. Indeed, these various beings could be described as wearing the mantle of 'sovereignty'. Lugh's intervention releases the harvest from the spirits of the land and makes it available for the use of human beings.

This sacrifice is not without pain. Without knowing of the mythical significance of this time of harvest, it would seem strange that Irish lore (e.g. 'The Wooing of Emer') refers to the month of August as Bron Trogain - the month of sorrow. We can associate this sorrow with the death or subduing of the land-spirits,[17] such as the defeat of the Fomorians or the death of Carmun. We can also understand this sorrow as being of the land-spirits themselves, their sadness that the plants they have birthed and nourished must be cut down. The grain crop should not be understood as being part of these land-spirits per se. Yet both the land-spirits and the grain stalks must die for the harvest to be won for humanity.

In the case of Tailtiu, this is a gift freely given. She clears the land for the crops and gifts them to her foster son. Elsewhere, the sacrifice is unwilling, as in the case of Carmun. In various places, we see the relationship between Lugh, the land and its Gods as being subtly different, as the different personalities of the local Gods are expressed.

Lugh has an affinity with storms and with lightning in particular. For it to be stormy at Lughnasadh is taken as a good omen, which seems somewhat counter intuitive at harvest time. Nevertheless, it can be seen that it is Lugh who breaks the hold of summer over the land, ending the period of ripening and inaugurating the time of harvest. The sun can be likened to the single eye of Balor, and Lugh must demonstrate his power over this season at which the sun is at its hottest. In Co. Mayo, that these storms are the battling between Lugh and Balor is made explicit: "The wind of Lúgh Long-arm is flying in the air tonight. Yes, and the sparks of his father. Balor Béimeann is the father."[18]

Sites traditionally associated with Lughnasadh and with Lugh himself are often high, hilltop places. In ancient times, this was the time for the settling of legal disputes, arranging of marriages,[19] and the hiring of hands for the coming harvest. It was also a time when musicians and craftsmen would show off their latest creations, perhaps hoping to gain patronage in a wealthy household over the winter. Horse racing features in most descriptions of Lughnasadh celebrations. It seems to have had several purposes. First and probably foremost, it was a good way of displaying the prowess of the horse you had to sell or offer for breeding. Secondly, it was a way for the riders to gain prestige. In the tales of the Fianna, we hear that at Lughnasadh, the warriors would be looking for a place in which to spend the winter, offering protection in return for hospitality. Winning a horse race, or excelling at one of the other games of physical prowess would be a good way of demonstrating your worth.

So how to celebrate Lughnasadh in modern times? Holding the festival upon a hill would be very appropriate. Most of the sites associated with Lugh are hills, often with a natural water source. The rite should include an offering to Lugh and to the local Gods and spirits of your locality, perhaps of summer fruits, the first sheaf of the crop, or of food or drink made from these things.

Above all, a great deal of fun should be had. Games are easy to organise, these could be physical or mental challenges. Chess is appropriate, or you could try your hand at ancient board games such as fidchell. A bardic contest would be a good way to enjoy the skills of singers, poets and storytellers. Horse racing is impractical for most people, but hobby horse racing is a wonderful alternative. You could also organise other fun races such as three legged, egg and spoon or sack racing. And as befits a harvest festival, include a feast of seasonal produce. Bread baked from the first of the wheat crop, summer berries, fruit juices, wines and mead. Those looking for more ideas would do well to consult Alexei Kondratiev's book 'Celtic Rituals', or Kym ní Dhoireann's article 'Lughnasadh'.

I hope that this article has served as an introduction to the festival of Lughnasadh, and also to Lugh himself. Understanding a little of Lugh's character and deeds is essential to appreciating the meaning of Lughnasadh, his celebration of victory and gift of the harvest. Special thanks is due to Brian Walsh for his information and inspiration. This article would not have been half so interesting to write - and hopefully to read - without his input.

Bibliography and suggested further reading

Cross, TP and Slover, CH (trans, ed.) 'The Second Battle of Mag Tured' from Ancient Irish Tales, Henry Holt & Co 1936.

Gwynn, Edward (trans).The Metrical Dindshenchas, Hodges & Figgis 1925 (1991 reprint)

Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Blackwell 1993

Kinsella, Thomas (trans). The Tain, OUP 1988

Kondratiev, Alexei. Celtic Rituals, Collins 1988

Kondratiev, Alexei. 'Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord', Originally published in An Tríbhís Mhór, Lúnasa 1997.

Macalister, RAS (trans, ed.) Lebor Gabála Érenn: Book of the Taking of Ireland Part 1-5, Irish Texts Society 1941.

ní Dhoireann, Kym. 'Irish Fire Festivals: Lughnasadh' , first published in THiNK! Vol. 2, issue 3 Summer/Lughnasadh 1997

Walsh, Brian. Lughnasadh Goddesses, publication unknown.

NOTES

[1] Sanas Cormaic, 9th century Irish text

[2] An anthology of poetic place lore which has survived in various medieval manuscripts

[3] Gwynn, vol 4

[4] The LGE is famous for telling of the various 'invasions' of Ireland, leading up to its settlement by the Sons of Mil. This version trans. RAS Macalister.

[5] LGE verse 64

[6] Related in the 'Cath Magh Tuiredh' -- the 'Battle of Moytura'.

[7] Cross and Slover

[8] Hutton p.178

[9] The Festival of Lughnasa, Máire McNéill 1962

[10] A Kondratiev, 'Lugus the Many Gifted Lord'

[11] Gwynn, vol three

[12] Walsh

[13] A Kondratiev, Celtic Rituals p.181

[14] ní Dhoireann

[15] Kinsella p.6

[16] A Kondratiev, 'Lugus the Many Gifted Lord'

[17] The word 'Gods' could be substituted here. I chose to use 'land-spirit' as it seemed more specific and appropriate in this paragraph.

[18] Trans. A Kondratiev

[19] For discussion on this, see ní Dhoireann

Copyright © by Blackbird Hollins 2005