Lughnasa - rite of harvest and a call to adventure

It’s the time of Lughnasa, the festival of the harvest in the Celtic calendar and the final cross-quarter day in the cycle. Each of the eight festivals in the Celtic Wheel brings with it new energies rooted in the natural world. Each festival is a threshold that marks the change. This is the gift and the challenge of working with the cycle. At each festival, we are invited to let go of the old season and move into the new.

Lughnasa heralds the end of summer, something many of us are reluctant to welcome so soon. The sun is still strong and high in the sky, the land is still lush with growth, we’re still in holiday mode. But when you become more attuned to the subtleties of natural cycles you notice the small changes that are quietly announcing the end of summer. 

Therein lies the beauty of this wisdom. As my great teacher, Dolores Whelan says, “the invitation of the Celtic wheel is learning to inhabit all eight seasons”. It reminds me of the beautiful but sobering Buddhist teaching on impermanence.

Everything changes. That is a natural law.

We can fight that, or we can learn to live skillfully with it. As we work with the Celtic Wheel we start to see our preferences in the cycle, our aversion to particular seasons and those we cling to. We might notice our dread of Winter when Summer is drawing to a close.

As we learn to welcome the richness and wisdom of each season we grow our repertoire of humanness – we learn to find the beauty in times of darkness as well as in times of delight, we learn to lean into our sorrow as well as deepening our joy.

And so in these early days of August we sense inevitable turn of the wheel towards the dark half of the year. But before that, and indeed because of that, we gather to harvest and celebrate. Maire McNeill in her wonderful 1962 book The Festival of Lughnasa tells us that it was a time of “great festivity and merrymaking”.

The mythology around Lughnasa

Although it is seldom mentioned in the myths, the name Lughnasas which means Lugh’s Assembly points us to the presiding deity of this festival – Lugh. According to McNeill he was “the most brilliant figure of the Tuatha De Danann, the Divine people of Irish mythology”. He was known as Samildánach, the many gifted one and is described by the great Celtic scholar and linguist Alexi Kondratiev as the “saviour hero, the bringer of happy endings”.

The festivities of Lughnasa were initiated by Lugh to celebrate his foster mother Tailtiu who died while clearing the midlands of Ireland for cultivation. Lughnasa assemblies were held at the grave of a mythical woman, often near water or lakes and on high ground.

The festivities centered around reaping the benefit of the land and the work of the tribe since the cycle began at Samhain. People would assemble on a high place where games, feats of strength and mock battles were played out. Horses were raced in a ritual through water to purify them and the first fruits of the harvest were savoured.

Echoes of the original Lughnasa festivities are seen in the more recent folk traditions. Until the twentieth century, it was customary throughout Ireland for people to gather on a high point on Domhnach na bhFraocháin or Bilberry Sunday to meet with neighbours, gather fruit or flowers, make garlands and celebrate the gifts of the harvest. Boys and girls would engage in games with each other, in a nod to wildness, eros and fertility. The story of Lugh would be acted out in pageant and flowers were buried to signify the end of Summer.

Although it remained pure to its pagan roots for centuries, Lughnasa was ultimately absorbed into the Christian calendar. Climbing the reek, Croagh Patrick, on the last Sunday in July and the many saint’s pattern days in local parishes have echoes of the Lughnasa gatherings.

Working with the energies of Lughnasa

Our relationship to joy, gratitude, and appreciation is something to contemplate at Lughnasa. Harvesting our unique gifts and the fruits of the work we have done since Samhain are also ways of working with Lughnasa energy.  

Embodying joy and offering our unique gifts to the world are radical acts of activism at this time.  This is soul work. It takes pausing and reflection to unearth and own our unique gift, the particular medicine we carry for the world. It takes courage and disruption to choose joy over negativity. But I see it happening more and more.

The planet and humanity need your uniqueness and your joy. It needs you. This Lughnasa I’ll leave you with the mighty call to adventure from the late Alexi Kondratiev

Now more than ever do we need the devil-may-care valour of the Celtic warrior. Now more than ever do we need the druidic clarity of vision, the bardic ability to draw resources from the unlimited potential of the Otherworld. We must, as they did, have the imagination to give flesh to life-giving myth, and the will to work its pattern into our existence. Time is indeed short. Everyone of us who has felt the beauty of the Celtic world-vision must act, each in our individual ways, now, before it is too late. Gwnewch rywbeth!! Do something!!”

Lughnasa refection & practices

Reflect on these questions:

  • What bring me joy?

  • What comes between me and joy?

  • What are the fruits of my recent work, that are ripe for picking and if they not harvested soon they will die on the vine?

  • What are my unique gifts?

  • What are three things that I appreciate about myself?

  • What am I most grateful for this Lughnasa?

Take the questions out into nature. Or sit with them quietly without needing to answer them immediately. Let them work you rather than try to answer them with your rational mind. Celtic consciousness works with the Otherworld, the non-rational, the unconscious. Write in stream of consciousness for 10 minutes or write with your less dominant hand. 

Over the next two weeks take yourself and some friends up on a high ground, or beside a well or lake. Gather some friends and do a simple ritual. Share blueberries while you ask each other the questions above. Bring the sacred connection of nature back into life.

And most importantly …….enJOY!