I’m so looking forward to celebrating Lúnasa, and will be celebrating on the traditional date of August 1st . . . and likely on “true” Lúnasa too, the precise midpoint between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, which this year falls on August 7th at 12:36 UTC (per archaeoastronomy.com).
Did you know that Lúnasa is the word for “August” in modern Irish? But its old Irish roots meant “the assembly of Lugh” or “games of Lugh”. It also was known by many more names, such as Lughnasadh, Lammas, and even Gooseberry Fair, inspired by the fruits picked Lúnasa.
Lugh and his mother Tailtíu (TAL-chi-uh) of the Tuatha Dé Danann were both associated with the harvest celebrations. In some traditions, Tailtíu is Lugh’s step-mother or foster mother (and queen of the Fir Bolg, who ruled Ireland before the Tuatha Dé Danann) and his birth mother is Ethniu (daughter of Balor of the Fomorian invaders, who created an alliance with the Tuatha Dé Danann). Tailtíu’s name in Old Irish means “great one of Earth” and legend has it that she cleared the land so that it could be planted and harvested.
Irish lore has it that rather than the Ttuath (Irish for people, tribe) creating a festival to celebrate Lugh (and the harvest), Lugh himself created the festival to honour the women in his life, in particular his mother Tailtíu. It began as a funeral feast, a grand wake, and an athletic competition called the Tailteann Games in honour of his mother, and were held at what is now modern Teltown in County Meath. An early Irish “Olympics” of sorts! The festival honoured Tailtíu‘s contribution to the people of Ireland. It was said that Tailtíu died from the fatigue of clearing the land so that people could farm and eat. In an alternate theory, Lugh created the games to honour the death of his wives Nás and Bui.
We’ll never really know what came first, the celebration of Lugh, Tailtíu, or the celebration of harvest. But if we accept that an earlier name was Brón Tragain (Sorrows of the Earth), it is likely that the roots were always celebrating the abundance of harvest.
This celebration began the autumn season in that northern European locale, defined not by the Autumn Equinox as we tend to do now, but by the harvest itself which came in stages over several months:
- the grains typically maturing in late July or early August (Northern Hemisphere) / late January or early February (Southern Hemisphere) such as wheat, oats, and barley, along with the ripening soft berries such as gooseberries or wild bilberries
- the ripening green-to-purple berries were known as fraughan, and included bilberry, whortleberry, blaeberry (a type of blueberry), heatherberry, whorts & hurtberries.
- the rooted vegetables such as potatoes, squash and turnip, and the tree fruits and berries later in the season such as apple, pear, plum, etc., throughout August and September
Animal husbandry practices followed suit: lambs were weaned from the ewes so that they could mate and birth new lambs for the following Imbolg, first Spring. Some animals moved to even higher pastures to ensure health of the fields, and slaughtering began when the animals returned to the farms.
Why was this harvest so very important?
The communal gatherings of Lúnasa effectively ended what my Irish ancestors referred to as Iúl an Ghorta (“Hungry July” ) or Iúl an Chabàiste (“Cabbage July”). Stores of corn for bread and porridge had likely run out, although some meat and dairy would have been available.
If we look to the middle ages and into the industrial era (1750 to the 1840s), most agricultural labourers had no land of their own, other than a small potato patch let to them by the landowners for whom they worked (hence the devastating famine, the “Great Hunger”, in Ireland when the potato crop failed). During the times of hunger, they relied on whatever was left from the previous year’s harvest, such as old potatoes (known as lumpers, which rotted from April or May onwards). Sometimes it was called Yellow Month, from eating too much of the only grains available such as wild mustard, known as prassagh or Praiseach bhuí in Ireland and charlock (Sinapis arvensis) in England. Sadly these were toxic when eaten in large quantities.
Harvest Lore and Customs
Readiness for harvest activities was often considered an indication of one’s qualities as a landworker or farmer. If food had run out by July, that might be an example of “extravagant housewifery”, not knowing how to ration out the supplies from the previous year. And if meats had run low, that was an example of “bad husbandry”.
The celebration usually included a festival meal, the first food consumed from the new harvest: potatoes, corn, fish, fowl, fresh beef or mutton. In older traditions, new corn was reaped in the morning and made into a fresh bread or porridge by evening. This was followed by a special treat of fresh fruit such as currants, wild strawberries, wild raspberries, gooseberries, fraocháín (modern fraochán, aka fraughan, meaning whortleberries, bilberry) eaten as an after course or dessert, mashed with fresh cream and sugar.
These activities also gave way to yet other names for First Harvest celebrations such as Fraughan Sunday, Gooseberry Fair, Bilberry Fair and Heatherberry Sunday. It was said that a courtship began on Heatherberry Sunday continued until “Runaway Sunday” (the Sunday before Lent) or “Galloping Monday” or “Galloping Tuesday” (the days before Lent). And all were popular wedding days.