Lughnasa - Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

Pronounced Loo-nah-sa. Also spelled Lughnasad. See also Lammas.

Lughnasa Day is an ancient Celtic harvest feast celebrated on August 1st and for the fortnight preceding and following that date. Four weeks are dedicated to honoring the Celtic solar deity, Lugh, Spirit of Craftsmanship, Light, Victory, and War: the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August, which roughly correspond to the dates when the sun is in the astrological sign of Leo, the sign that belongs to the sun and epitomizes its power. In modern Irish Gaelic, the month of August is known as Lunasa.

Lughnasa is an agricultural rather than a pastoral celebration. It was a late introduction, at least in its present form, to Irish festivals, brought perhaps by continental devotees of the deity Lugh, a relative late-comer to the Irish pantheon. There are various legends about how and why Lugh initiated the festival that bears his name. Those legends about Lugh may be correct; however, just as Christianity would eventually transform Lughnasa into its harvest feast Lammas, so Lughnasa is superimposed on an earlier holy day devoted to the Corn Mother and her dying son.

Although the modern Wiccan sabbat is almost always devoted solely to the eve of July 31st leading into Lughnasa Day on August 1st, ancient people may have had more leisure time and more time to devote to spirituality (and fun). August 1st was merely the culmination of a month of celebrations. The three days prior to Lughnasa Day were particularly sacred and devoted to purification. Those three days are dedicated to Ireland’s ancient solar goddess Ana; an earlier, more primordial deity than Lugh, the entire festival may once have belonged to her.

Although it’s still hot in August, the festival marks the waning of the sun. Days are noticeably shorter than they were at the last major festival, Midsummer’s Eve, which corresponds roughly with the Summer Solstice. The beginning of the end of summer is in sight.

Lughnasa is a celebration of the harvest but also a sacrifice of the Harvest King. John Barleycorn must die if the people are to live or, as that other proverb goes, you shall reap what was sown. The festival was intended to ensure a plentiful harvest. During Lughnasa, Lugh fights the Evil Lord of Blight for possession of the harvest. (See ANIMALS: Wolves and Werewolves: the Livonian werewolf; DICTIONARY: Benandanti.)

Lughnasa was a fire festival characterized by bonfires. Fire may be understood as pieces of the sun brought down to Earth. During the three days leading up to the Celtic festival, water was taboo. There was no bathing and no fishing prior to the Sacrifice of the Grain King (or the Grain Bear, Grain Horse, or Grain Wolf).

Lugh was an extremely important Celtic deity, not least because (along with Brigid) the widespread veneration of Lugh indicates the existence of pan-Celtic spiritual traditions (at one point, the Celts ruled a huge swathe of continental Europe before being forced to the very edges of the land mass). However we don’t really know all that much about Celtic cosmology and ancient religion. The Celts left very little if any writing, and what exists is filtered through the eyes of outsiders, like Romans or Celtic Christian converts.

Lugh’s name is spelled variously depending on location. Lugh is the Irish spelling; in Wales he is Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the “Bright One of the Skillful Hand.” He was known as Lugos, which means “raven,” in Europe and was an important figure in Gaul.

At least 14 European cities are named for Lugh including Laon, Leyden, Loudon and Lyon. Lyon’s old name was Lugdunum, the fortress of Lugh. The city is believed to have been his cult center. Coins associated with that ancient city bore the images of ravens, which may be a reference to Lugh (or Lugos as he was known there). Carlisle in England, the former Lugubalium, is also named in Lugh’s honor. (It’s been suggested that many European churches dedicated to St Michael the Archangel were built over sites once dedicated to Lugh.)

Lughnasa means “the marriage of Lugh.” There is a tremendous romantic component to the celebration. Lugh the sun and the Earth Mother renew their wedding vows annually during the full moon in August and invite all to gather and revel with them. Lughnasa celebrates the consummation of their sacred relationship. It precedes the spring festival of Beltane, which symbolizes the birth of the bright half of the Celtic year, by exactly nine months. It’s not an affectation to say that this is the day the solar deity weds the Earth. Once upon a time, that was meant quite literally. This was the day when a High Priestess, channeling the goddess who embodied the land of Ireland, ritually wed the High King of Ireland. The consummation of their marriage enabled him to rule for yet another year.

Although the sacred marriage and the Corn Mother’s sacrifice of her son or young lover no doubt precedes Lugh’s associations with this date, there are also various versions of how Lugh became involved.

Image Lugh ordered a commemorative feast to honor his foster-mother, Tailtiu. On August 1st, a great festival was held at Teltown on the Boyne River in Ireland. The town allegedly takes its name from Lugh’s foster mother who is buried there. Lugh instituted games in her honor.

Image An ancient marital fair took place in Teltown, perhaps initiated by Lugh. It was a time to begin as well as formalize relationships. Men would stay on one side of the fair, women on the other, while gobetweens served as mediums to make arrangements. (Similar marital fairs still occur in rural Berber areas of North Africa.)

Image Lugh has two wives, granddaughters of the King of Britain. When they died, Lugh requests that these women’s lives and memories be commemorated every August 1st. His wives’ names are Nas and Búi. (Búi is another name for Cailleach Bhéara—see HAG: Cailleach Bhéara.)

Lughnasa is an occasion for blessing and harvesting botanicals for the coming year. In Northern climates, plants and their volatile oils are at the height of their power just before decomposition begins.

In Britain, Lughnasa and similar festivals weren’t banished but were integrated into Christianity. St Columba, for instance, allowed his monks to maintain their Lughnasa celebrations although he renamed it the “Feast of the Ploughman.” Lughnasa evolved into the festival of Lammas.

A deity who identifies himself as a sorcerer is attractive to those who practice witchcraft. Lugh or Lugos seems to have been a very important deity in Europe; post-Christianity, devotion to him seems to have gone underground, at least for a while, based upon reports of witches’ sabbats held at the Puy de Dome, the 5000 foot peak in the Auvergne region of France, full of caves and grottoes, where Lugh maintained a sanctuary. (See PLACES: Puy de Dome.)

The August Herbs

In Northern Europe, August Eve, the night preceding Lughnasa, is the opportunity to create the botanical amulet known as the August Herbs. If proper ritual is followed, it’s believed that these nine sacred herbs will bestow various blessings during the upcoming year including protection from malevolent magic and volatile weather. They attract love, stimulate romance, enhance sexuality, and ease labor pains as well as the passage into death.

1. For maximum power, pick the August herbs before sunrise while maintaining complete silence.

2. The original instructions suggest that the harvest must be accomplished while naked but if this is unrealistic then at least be barefoot and bareheaded.

3. Gather a bundle of arnica, calendula, dill, lovage, mugwort, sage, tansy, valerian, and yarrow. No iron can be used in the harvest, so no modern knives. Gather the herbs with your hands or with a ritual stone or crystal knife. If they’re hard to pick, you can bite through the stems. Don’t petition for blessings but keep a still, serene, blank mind.

4. Ornament the bundles with blue cornflowers and red corn cockles. Add a border of low growing herbs like chamomile or mother-of-thyme.

5. Place a stalk of millet, rye or other grain in the very center of the bundle, tie with a red ribbon and hang it within your home.

Lughnasa or Lammas is one of the more obscure witches’ holidays. Pagan aspects of the festival were suppressed long ago and the Christian feast of Lammas was never entirely reinstated in Britain after the Reformation. Lammas is considered amongst the eight major sabbats of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, however the roots of this holiday are so agricultural and rural that it often stymies modern Neo-Pagans, frequently no less urban than anyone else in the twenty-first century. Modern Lammas festivals often focus on the romantic aspects of the feast. It’s a wonderful night for love magic as well as for enjoying the first fruits of the harvest, including grain and wine.