Clinging to Summer with Lughnasadh
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Today is the midway point between the summer solstice and the fall equinox and perhaps, like me, you feel a sudden desire to stop time and hold onto the summer. That means we are in the Celtic holiday of Lughnasadh (Loo-na-sa), which according to the calendar began on August 1st, but according to the passage of light, occurs some time today (and was likely a multi-day festival anyway). I don’t think of myself as a pagan, but I think there is a great usefulness to the solar holidays, particularly in New England, where the days get so short and I find myself missing the light. Paying attention to these way stones might help us remember where we are and where we are headed.
In truth, this week I see my friends celebrating Lughnasadh without knowing it, if I understand its essence. People are fleeing to the beaches and the lakes. It was a beautiful, hot, sunny day yesterday, but not so hot we couldn’t leave our windows open. The night was chilly and the smell of wood fire was in the air. I know we have more miserable, humid days ahead, but the sun is beginning to dial back to its manageable autumn setting, the loveliest season in New England.
Lughnasa is named for Lugh (pronounced today simply as Lu) a Celtic, or Irish god. The story about Lugh I enjoy most stresses his many talents, rather than the passage of summer to autumn you might expect. In a story that poses him more as a wanderer seeking a patron king than a god, Lugh approaches a castle gate and wishes to join Nuada, king of the Tuatha de Danann’s pantheon. But Nuada’s gatekeeper won’t let Lugh in unless he has a marketable trade, and each trade Lugh professes to practice, Nuada’s gatekeeper tells Lugh that they already have someone who does that. It’s a funny dialogue that puts in my mind the Monty Python cheese shop sketch with option after option listed and shot down: smith, wright, harpist, sorcerer, poet, craftsman, and many more. Leave it to the Irish to have so much more humor in their myths than the other European mythologies! When all of his trades are rejected, Lugh asks, "but does the king have one man who can do all of these trades?" and with this cleverness, he is let in.
How Lugh became associated with an early harvest festival is up for debate, but it seems that he fits into the cycle of fertility and growth, that he played some role in releasing the harvest from the earth, which puts him in the position of sky gods who conquer rain-stealing enemies that are often serpent-like monsters. Zeus and Apollo vanquish such monsters, and also Thor and Indra. Instead of a dragon, Lugh defeats the one-eyed giant Balor, whose eye was capable of a destructive ray and is thought to have represented the power of the sun, perhaps parching the landscape. As a sky god with power over rain, Lugh would stand in opposition to Balor, but Lugh is a god of many shades. Perhaps Julius Caesar described him as a Celtic Mercury because Lugh was clever and enterprising. He is thought of as the father of crafts and trades, and also the inventor of many games, which perhaps were played and enjoyed during this festival, when the crops were just starting to come in.
If my explanations seem to equivocate, I apologize, as I’m a relative newcomer to Irish mythos. And if the Celtic myths aren’t harder to follow than their Norse and Greek counterparts, I’d like someone to explain them to me better than I understand them. I wish it were simpler, but stopping to observe Lughnasadh is a part of learning.
What matters today is that summer is a-flying and we have to celebrate it before it slips away. I will make an effort during these next weeks to try to take a moment each day to notice the fall of the sun into the early evening and dusk. It is time to try to do more outside when the weather cooperates. Lugh is ushering in the harvest, which means autumn and the end of the solar year are around the corner. Happy Lughnasadh!