© Anna Franklin

 Lughnasa, make known its dues,

In each distant year:

Tasting every famous fruit,

Food of herbs at Lammas Day. [1]

Most Pagans know Lughnasa as one of the eight annual festivals but, historically, British witches were unique in celebrating Lughnasa. [2]  [Gerald Gardner introduced the eightfold pattern, based on the quarter and cross-quarter days of English law.] The average person outside of the Pagan community has probably never heard of the festival- even in Ireland where its name survives in modern Gaelic as Lúnasa, the month of August. The ancient festival seems to have included tribal assemblies and activities extending over two to four weeks. It was celebrated only in Britain, Ireland, France and possibly Northern Spain. Relatively few of its customs survive either in folklore or historical record. Surviving Lughnasa customs tend to be confined to specific localities and cultures although there are several clearly defined themes that underlie the traditional Lughnasa celebrations and rites and early August remains the traditional time for summer holidays and fairs.

Lughnasa  is a harvest festival, marking the end of the period of summer growth and the beginning of the autumn harvest. It is also called Lammas, from the Anglo-Saxon hlaef-mass meaning 'loaf-mass'. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 921 CE mentions it as 'the feast of first fruits'. It was a popular Christian ritual during the Middle Ages but died out after the Reformation, though the custom is being revived in places. This first bread from the harvest was offered up as part of the Eucharist ritual. Since Lammas was celebrated only in Britain- no other Germanic or Nordic peoples observed Lammas or held any other feasts on the 1st August- it seems likely that it was merely a renaming of the Celtic Lughnasa.

One of the main reasons for the obscurity of Lammas/Lughnasa is the confusion caused by its variety of names and the differing dates on which it is celebrated. When the Gregorian system was adopted in Britain in 1752 and Ireland in 1782 eleven days had to be dropped to make the calendar astronomically correct. This led to the festival being celebrated on either the 1st or the 12th August, called respectively New Style and Old Style Lughnasa. To further complicate matters, many Lammas/Lughnasa festivities became appropriated to Christian saints' days or the nearest Sunday. Folklore survivals of Lughnasa are celebrated under a wide variety of names, such as Bilberry Sunday, Garland Sunday and Domhnach Crom Dubh ('Crom Dubh Sunday'), depending on the locality, at various dates between mid-July and mid-August.


Assemblies on hilltops are a traditional part of the proceedings. In Ireland and the Isle of Man many of these hilltop gatherings have survived to the present day. Some have become associated with Christian saints. A pilgrimage, often barefoot, would often be followed by drinking, dancing, fighting, and very unruly behaviour. On the Isle of Man the inhabitants would climb to the top of Snaefell on Lhuany's Day. There is a local story that the custom died out when a clergyman started to take a collection on the summit. In Lothian until the 1790s young herdsmen would gather together in bands of up to one thousand strong and build 'Lammas towers' of turves seven to eight feet high, topped with flagstaffs and ribbons. They would sally forth from their towers and fight rival groups with cudgels, or those with no local rivals would march to the village at noon and hold footraces. [3]

The massive man-made Silbury Hill, 130 feet high, was in Neolithic times nearly 4,600 years ago. For years archaeologists thought it must be a burial mound, but investigations have disproved this. Turves were used to construct the inner part of the hill in the Stone Age and remain within, with the grass and insects preserved. They were cut at the beginning of the harvest, about the time of Lughnasa. Then over a period of about 50 years blocks of chalk covered the turf. [4] According to folklore, King Sil sleeps within Silbury Hill, clad in golden armour, waiting to one-day ride forth once more. There is some speculation that it is a harvest mound, representing the pile of earth raised up over a seed to make it grow. The same idea is echoed in burial mounds and even the great pyramids of Egypt- the mounds will bring the dead within to rebirth; Sil may be the sacrificed corn god. Possibly this is the idea reflected in the turf towers built in Britain and Ireland and the mountain pilgrimages at Lughnasa. Festivities were held on Silbury Hill into the eighteenth century with horse races, and bull baiting, after which the bull was killed, roasted and eaten. Paul Devereux noted that a double sunrise effect might be observed at Beltane and Lughnasa from the hill.[5]


Lughnasa was a day for visiting wells and those on the Isle of Man were said to be at the peak of their healing powers. St Maugold Well near Ramsey is reputed to cure sterility if the sufferer throws a pin in the well or dips their heel into it. Assemblies at wells would often be celebrated on the feastday of the local saint, but many of these gatherings were moved from the saint’s day to late July and early August; probably evidence of an earlier Pagan custom reasserting itself. In many English villages, wells are dressed with elaborate floral tributes on various dates, but notably on the Feast of the Assumption, or Marymass, on the 15th August, four days after Old Lammas Eve. Many sacred Pagan wells were renamed after Mary, this festival and its customs are very clearly yet another example of the Christianization of earlier traditions and beliefs. In northern Scotland, where the harvest was later, Marymass replaced Lammas as the festival of the first harvest. Mary took on the characteristics of harvest goddesses depicted in robes decorated with ears of corn.


Late July and month of August are traditionally times for fairs; the weather would usually be mild and the ground suitable for travelling. Many traditional Lammas/Lughnasa fairs are still celebrated today. The Puck Fair, in Killorglin, County Kerry (Ireland) is one of the best-known traditional fairs when a male goat is crowned as king for three days and is known as ' King Puck’ from the Gaelic puc, meaning a he-goat. There were once several other Irish fairs during which male animals were enthroned. At Lammas and Lughnasa fairs throughout Britain and Ireland various other symbols were displayed, such as a white glove, or the rods and wands of office belonging to the local sheriffs and bailiffs. At the St James’s Fair in Limerick, which lasted for a fortnight, a white glove was hung out at the prison, and during this time no one could be arrested for debt.

Many traditional summer fairs are called 'wake fairs'. A wake is a vigil kept in the presence of the body of a dead person in the period between the death and the burial. Traditionally games, feasting and drinking play a large part in the proceedings. It was also the custom to hold a wake, with a vigil and prayers, on the eve of the feastday of the local saint and follow it with a fair on the next day. Over a period of time this custom died out and all that usually remained was a purely secular occasion with much feasting and merrymaking. It seems likely that the original deity honoured with a summer wake would have been the corn god who dies with the cutting of the corn.


Lugh is said to have founded annual games to commemorate Tailtu, his foster mother, and sports are a common feature of Lughnasa survivals. The various Highland games are probably a descendant of the Lughnasa games. Some are still held around the traditional time of Lughnasa, but nowadays they may be held at any time during the summer or autumn, allowing champion sportsmen to compete at several different venues.


Even today the Irish still associate equine activities with this time of the year. It can surely be no coincidence that such famous and long-established events as the Dublin Horse Show, the Connemara Pony Show, and the Galway Races take place in late July and early August. Horse swimming is recorded as having taken place throughout Ireland. Horses were made to swim through lakes and streams at Lughnasa or on the nearest Sunday. It was thought that no animal would survive the year unless they were so drenched.

A horse, as evidenced by the ceremony used to invest an Irish king, often represented the Sovereign Goddess. The ritual is obviously a very ancient one, but survived into the twelfth century CE and the Christian period. Giraldus Cambrensis recorded that the rite began with the king crawling naked to a white mare. [6] He would mate with her (perhaps symbolically), and then she would be killed, cut up and boiled in a cauldron. When the brew had cooled the king would get into it, drink some of the broth and eat some of the meat- the body and blood of the goddess. He would then stand on a stone, holding a white wand, and turn three times sunwise and three times anti-sunwise in honor of 'the Trinity' or rather the Triple Goddess. In Sanskrit and Norse sources the association of the sacrifice of a horse with the investiture of a king is also found. The land is symbolized by the powerful female animal.[7]   The Goddess was sometimes visualized as the land itself and called the Sovereign Goddess because everything that happened upon it had to have her approval or it was doomed to failure. In many cultures the earthly king was deemed to rule only through with her authority. His investiture included a symbolic marriage to the Sovereign Goddess or a real marriage to the queen who represented her. In Irish myth Niall and his brothers were out riding and came to a well with a very ugly hag guarding it. They asked her for a drink, but she demanded a kiss from each in return. All the brothers refused but Niall said that not only would he kiss her, but that he would lay with her as well. He embraced her earnestly and found that instead of an old crone a lovely woman was in his arms. She told him that she was Sovereignty, and he was confirmed as king of Tara. The goddess of the land often has the dual form of maiden and hag (summer and winter).

Macha, one of the triad that constitutes the Morrigan, was the horse and sovereign goddess of the Ulaidh. Her cult site was the sacred mound of Eamhain Macha (near Armagh) where assemblies were held, perhaps since the Neolithic era. Macha means 'enclosure' and Eamhain 'tumulus'. An enclosure of oak posts was built around the hill. At some point it was filled with limestone blocks and the walls burned, probably by the invading Celts. There was a central timber post, probably representing a fertilizing phallus. The entrance to the enclosure was at the west, the direction of the setting sun and perhaps symbolizing death and sacrifice. According to her legend she offered her sexual favors to three different kings, but as each approached she set on them and tied them up, forcing them to construct the sacred enclosure for her.

Her festival is Lughnasa, August 1st, and assemblies were held at her ‘enclosure’. She was described as having golden hair, and this is clearly a reference to the corn harvested at her festival. Horses skulls were often buried beneath the threshing floor to appease the horse goddess of the land who brought forth the corn.

Survivals of the ancient associations between the Goddess of Sovereignty, the horse, and Lughnasa may be detected in the horse swimming and racing that were part of the Lughnasa celebrations. Horse races are still held around Lughnasa in Ireland.

 ‘Riding’ is the term given to the practice of asserting territorial rights to an area of land by riding over it on horseback. The practice was particularly common in the counties of southern Scotland and northern England where the borders were in dispute. The custom was also used to maintain the rights to graze animals and forage for wood etc. on areas of common land known as 'Lammas lands'. Until the Enclosures Acts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which put common lands into private ownership, these lands were let to farmers from spring until the end of July. The haymaking had to be completed by Lammas as the lands reverted back to common grazing land from Lammas until the following spring. Lammas was one of the quarter days on which criminal and civil courts were convened, contracts were signed, legal and marital agreements entered into, and rent payments became due.


Telltown, Teltown, or Tailtean Marriages were temporary unions entered into at Lughnasa. One of the largest Lammas fairs was held at Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. The fair lasted eleven days and taking a sexual partner for its duration was a common practice. Such couples were known as ‘Lammas brothers and sisters’. For couples thinking of a slightly longer term commitment this was a traditional time for handfasting. Couples would join hands through a holed stone, such as the ancient Stone of Odin at Stenness, and plight their troth for a year and a day. Many such temporary unions became permanent arrangements.  


Faction-fighting was a customary feature of many Lughnasa assemblies. Groups of young men from rival villages would gather and fight. Faction-fights could be fierce and lead to injuries and very occasionally death, but it was the observance of the custom that was considered important, rather than winning at all costs. There is a strongly held belief in Irish folklore that the success or failure of the harvest was dependent on the fairies, and was decided by a battle between two troops from neighbouring areas. This idea that success in battle bought fruitfulness to the crops of the winning side is probably the origin of faction-fighting. Máire MacNeill suggests that these fights were symbolic re-enactments of these fairy battles.[8]

The Battle of the Flowers takes place on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in mid-August. The ‘battle’ is between groups of islanders who compete to see who can make the most original picture from flowers. Since the nineteenth century these have been paraded on flat trucks like a carnival float, but the local tradition of making floral patterns and pictures is much earlier. Exhibits can be up to forty-five feet long and contain a hundred thousand or more fresh flowers; hundreds of volunteers spend all night cutting heads off flower stems and sticking them to the framework. It also features an illuminated moonlight parade. The parade consists of massive floats with marching bands, and dancers. The "Battle of Flowers Festival" attracts an audience in the region of forty thousand people.  


The Burryman makes his appearance in Queensferry around Lammas. He has a very surreal appearance like an alien from a sci-fi movie, a man with his whole head and body covered in burrs. He is paraded around the local area, wearing a garlanded headdress and carrying two staffs covered with flowers, to collect alms on the second Friday in August. The origins of this custom are obscure. He may be a representative of the harvest-spirit or alternatively a scapegoat, paraded through the town to remove the sins of the populace after which he would be thrown in the sea or otherwise abused. Other accounts associate him with the local fisheries, suggesting that his function was to propitiate a sea-god.

to mind the deaths of both the Irish Lugh and the Welsh Llew. Llew was killed when on the bank of a river with one foot on the back of a he-goat and the other on the rim of a bath; his hair tied to a tree. He was stabbed with a special spear. Lugh was killed by a spear thrust through his foot and then drowned; the myth recorder seems to have left out the third method, which would have involved strangling. Over two thousand bodies executed in a similar manner have been discovered in the peat bogs of Northern Europe- stabbed, strangled or haltered, and drowned. It seems from examination that such sacrificial victims may have been given a ritual meal or drink. Some have been found to have had a meal of barley, and at least one bog man's stomach has been found to contain ergot, a rye fungus with similar effects to LSD. [9] He had been clubbed and his throat cut, before being thrown into the bog to complete the drowning part of his triple death. (For the Celts in particular doing things in triplicate re-inforced the magic.) The strangling rope or halter may have signified the dedication of the sacrifice to the Goddess. It has been suggested that the Goddess worshippers of Northern Europe wore halters or neck collars to denote their subservience to her.[10]

In such cases the king became the scapegoat, bearing the ills to avert them from the community. The term ‘scapegoat’ originates in the Hebrew custom where a goat, chosen by lot, was ritually heaped with all the sins of the children of Israel, and had to carry them away into the wilderness. [11] In various cultures animals were chosen to take away evil and sickness, or sometimes wooden boats were symbolically loaded with the ills and floated away. In other cases a human scapegoat would be sacrificed or expelled from the district to propitiate the gods on behalf of a community. The most famous example of a scapegoat is Jesus Christ who is said to have died to save the world from its sins.  A folklore survival of the scapegoat is perhaps to be found in the Burry Man, who makes his appearance at Queensferry in Scotland around Lammas. A man with is covered from head to foot in sharp burrs and paraded around the town. It seems likely that at one time he would have been expelled from the town, taking with him the ills of the society and deflecting blight from the harvest.

In ancient Greece the expulsion of the pharmakeiai (scapegoats) was meant to dispel the forces of evil, ensure fertility and prevent sterility. The scapegoats might be driven from the city (if they were lucky) or sacrificed, either at an annual festival or during times of famine and pestilence. They were cast from high rocks into the sea, thrown into the river, or burned on wild wood and the ashes cast into the sea. Occasionally they were cast into a crevasse.

Sometimes an inanimate object was the scapegoat. At Delphi an effigy was made of a plague demon, struck on the face with a shoe, carried off to a ravine and buried with a rope around her neck. Note the halter again. This reinforces the idea that the haltered bog bodies were sacrificed to deflect the forces of blight. It has been suggested that the scarecrow or mawkin was originally an inanimate scapegoat. [12] (The corn dolly was a different matter, and contained the sprit of life, not bane.)


Lughnasa is known as ‘Bilberry Sunday” in many districts of Ireland, and it is traditional to climb the mountain sides to collect these fruits for the first time on this day.  The association between bilberry picking and Lughnasa is very widespread and has given rise to a variety of names for the festival- Blaeberry Sunday, Domhnach na bhFraochóg, Heatherberry Sunday, Whort Sunday etc. The size and quantity of berries at Lughnasa was taken as a sign of whether the harvest would be good or not. A typical example of these fruit-gathering traditions used to take place at Croc na Béaltaine in County Donegal. On the first Sunday in August the young people would set off after lunch to pick bilberries and not return until nightfall. Often the bilberry collecting was an excuse for the young men and women to pair off. When the fruits had been collected the boys would thread the berries into bracelets for the girls, competing to make the prettiest for their partners. There would then be singing and dancing. Before returning home it was traditional for the girls to remove their bracelets and leave them on the hillside. After climbing back down the hill the young men indulged in sporting contests such as horse racing, hurling and weight-throwing.

In parts of Ireland the nearest Sunday to Lughnasa was known as Cally Sunday. It was the traditional day to lift the first new potatoes. [13] The man of the house would go out to dig the first stalk while the woman of the house would don a new white apron and prepare to cook them, covering the kitchen floor with green rushes in their honour. The family would give thanks that the ‘Hungry Month’ of July was over, as the harvest had begun. It seems likely that the custom of first fruits would once have applied to grain. In later days, when grain crops were the province of large landowners, the custom was transferred to the introduced potatoes, grown by everyone with a patch of ground as a subsistence crop.

Marymass, sometimes known as Murmass, is the Scottish name for the feast of the Assumption on 15th August. It replaced the earlier festival of Lughnasain these northern regions where the harvest was later. The Lammas bannock (a traditional Scottish loaf) made from the new corn would be dedicated to Mary Mother of God. There were sundry customs surrounding these celebrations, many of which survived well into the nineteenth century owing to the isolation of the islands and highlands of Scotland.[14]


The Sunday nearest to the 1st August is known as Domhnach Crom Dubh (‘Crom Dubh Sunday’) in many parts of Ireland. Crom was an Pagan deity of whom little is known, though in Christian myth he is portrayed as an archetypal Pagan overcome by a Christian saint. In many accounts he is said to have been a Pagan chieftain who was converted to Christianity by St Patrick.

A central motif in many of these tales is that of a fearsome bull. The bull was important to Celtic culture as a symbol of aggression, strength and virility. In the story St. Patrick asks for food and Crom Dubh sends his bull in the hope that it will kill the saint, but instead it submits meekly to Patrick, allowing itself to be slaughtered and eaten. Crom Dubh is enraged by the failure of his plan and asks Patrick to return his bull, knowing the impossibility of his request. To his surprise the saint has the animal’s bones and hide put together and brings the beast back to life.

There are two different endings to the story- in some accounts Crom is so impressed by Patrick's powers that he willingly converts to Christianity, in others the resuscitated bull kills the Pagan chief. This myth is probably a folk-memory of custom of sacrificing an animal at Lughnasa. At Loch Maree, Scotland, and Cois Fhairrge, Ireland, bulls were sacrificed at Lughnasa as late as the eighteenth century.

Crom Dubh’s legends survive to this day in Irish stories about the rivalry between St. Patrick and Crom, who takes on the role of an archetypal Pagan who owns a magical bull. A bull was certainly concerned with the Lughnasa festival. At Loch Maree, Scotland, and Cois Fhairrge, Ireland, bulls were sacrificed in honor of Crom Dubh as late as the eighteenth century. The hide of the bull would be preserved after the sacrifice, and sleeping in it was a rite of divination. Bull imagery occurs in English Lughnasa stories of Jack the Tinkard who wore an impenetrable bull-hide, carried a hammer and was the master of many crafts and skills, and Tom Hackathrift who met a man in an impenetrable bull’s hide coat. If we look further afield the running of the bulls at Pamplona in Spain takes place in July, when young men prove their bravery by running through the streets among loose bulls.

In the Northern Hemisphere the constellation of Taurus disappears from the midnight sky from March to August (Old Lammas). The constellation is usually depicted as a white bull. Bulls are also associated with agriculture since oxen pull the plow, and so are often identified with earth gods, vegetation gods, moon gods, and gods who were said to have introduced agriculture. With the development of agriculture the cult of the bull became increasingly influencial. He impregnated the milk producing cows,  and pulled the plow which tilled and seeded the earth. [15]

This July/August period is the festival of Dumuzi, the Wild Bull who is sacrificed and dies for his people, and of Osiris the sacred Apis bull, represented by a real bull which was killed when it reached the age of twenty five and replaced by a new bull- i.e. the Apis bull was ressusitated. Dionysus, the Greek vine god, rode on a white bull (Taurus), his totem animal. The women of Elis summoned him to the rites 'with his bull foot'. On the island of Tenedos a sacred cow was kept for Dionysus, and when it was pregnant it was treated like a woman. If the resulting calf was a bull it was sacrificed with the moon axe, the labrys. The Cretan Dionysus was said to have been killed on Zeus's orders, boiled in a cauldron and eaten by the Titans, though he did not die but lived eternally. The Cretans celebrated an annual feast of Dionysus, eating a bull as his surrogate.

Druids saw the sky god as father bull and the earth goddess as cow mother; god and goddesses are often visualized as bull and cow. Baal took the form of a bull to mate with his sister in the form of a cow, Zeus took the form of a bull to mate with Io in the form of a cow, while the Pasiphaë mated with the bull of Poseidon to produce the Minotaur.  The Hindu goddess Aditi took the form of a divine cow, while Indra, the king of the gods, is often addressed as the Bull. The idea of the god as a bull who fertilizes the earth mother is very ancient. He is the bull of the moon, who dies and is ressurected. The original myths of the mother goddess and the sacred bull, like the institution of the sacred king,  were connected with the early development of agriculture in the Near East, and were to retain their form and influence for millenia.

The thunder of the bull’s hooves associate it with storm/sky gods such as the Greek Zeus and the Russian Perun, to whom a human sacrifice was made in July each year at the festival of first fruits. In ancient Sumeria, the bull god Enlil was the god of storm and fertility. He was believed to ensure that waters flowed, and that crops grew. He was addressed as 'Father’, ‘Exalted Overpowering Ox’, ‘Lord of the World of Life’, and ‘Powerful Chief of the Gods’. The human king was identified with the god and shared his title 'Wild Bull', wearing a bull's head head-dress or bull's horns as a symbol of his power, virility, and divine right to rule. There was a reciprocal identification of the god with the king demonstrated by attaching long, curled beards to images of the bull god; beards were symbols of strength and masculinity.

In ancient times the king sat on a throne which had bull’s feet. The sacred king and his queen performed a ritual mating on a couch with bull’s feet prior to the harvest, possibly just before the killing of the king. It seems that the rituals of love and death were closely linked for the unfortunate monarch, and this may explain the origin of the folk customs of mating at the start of the harvest, such as the trial marriages and handfastings in our Lughnasa survivals. Note that they are for one year only- the original period of the sacred king’s rule.

Bulls were considered to be highly suitable sacrifices, with white bulls being dedicated to benign or sky gods, and black bulls sacrificed to the powers of the underworld. Because bulls were considered such mighty animals, bulls’ blood was thought to be a powerful fertilizer.  Diluted it was used to enrich the fruit orchards of Greece and Crete.  However, neat blood was so potent it was said to be deadly poisonous to any living being except a sibyl (prophetess) or priest of the earth goddess. It was considered an aid to prophecy.


Though the festival of Lughnasa or Lammas was celebrated only in Ireland, Britain, Gaul and perhaps northern Spain, this time of year marked important festivals in other parts of the world.

The heliacal rising of the Dog Star, Sirius, on 27th July, marked the beginning of the Dog Days, when the sun burns at its most fierce. [16] The Dog Star follows Orion the Hunter about the sky. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought that it was a distant sun that at this time of year rose with our sun to add its own heat, making the weather unbearable. Its influence was considered baneful and malign. Hesiod described it as 'a desiccating sun', burning up plants, making the seeds in the earth sterile by depriving them of food. Animals die of thirst, vines are burned and humans are prostrated with fevers and illness, especially siriasis (a type of meningitis which attacks young children). According to these ancients, the Dog Days are a time of cruel heat when men's skins are burned and their throats parched with thirst. In fact, the Greeks imagined the constellation of Canis Major in the form of a rabid dog with its tongue lolling and its eyes bulging.

It was during this time that the Adonia Festival was celebrated,[17] as Theophrastus said 'when the sun is at its most powerful'. During the festival women would plant small gardens- called Gardens of Adonis- in clay pots or wicker baskets. During this time of year the great heat gives an impetus to plant growth, but this can become leggy and spindly, outgrowing its strength, while young shoots wither in dryness. At the culmination of the festival the gardens were then taken from the roofs and cast in to the sea or into springs.

The ancient Romans astronomer Manilius said of Sirius that its heat brought out the worst in people, with anger, hatred and fear, impetuosity, frayed tempers and arguments, all fanned by alcohol. At such times, he said, people would go out hunting, to take things out on 'all legitimate prey' without any caution or fear, since the rage engendered by Sirius drove them to it. The Romans also called Sirius Janitor Lethasus the 'Keeper of Hell', a type of Cerberus figure guarding the lower heavens, the abode of demons. Also held in Rome this month was the Heracleia, held to honor the hero-god Hercules, sometimes compared to Lugh. Like Lughnasa this festival was celebrated with games and contests.

The ancient Asyrians called the Dog Star  'Dog of the Sun' or 'Star Dog of the Sun'. The Assyrian month of Abu meant 'fiery hot' because the sun was in Leo and therefore raging and hot like a lion. It coincided with July-August and our Lughnasa period.

Tammuz is the Akkadian or Assyro-Babylonian equivalent to the Sumerian Dumuzi and the Syrian Adonis, a vegetation god of death and resurrection. He was the lover of the goddess Ishtar and died every year during the hot month of Tammuz (July-August), gored by a boar. His soul was taken to the underworld and the goddess Ishtar led the lamentation, as the world mourned his death with the keening of women. The women mourned Tammuz every year during July-August (coinciding with our Lughnasa period), making little gardens like those of Adonis. After the gardens had been thrown into the sea they rejoiced, for the god had been reborn.

The Babylonian equivalent of Tammuz is Dumuzi, the consort of the goddess Inanna and a prominent fertility god of the death and resurrection type. Dumuzi was lamented when the dry heat of summer caused the pastureland to brown and wither, and lambing, calving and milking to come to an end. [18] He was called the Wild Bull who was sacrificed, who lay down and lived no more. As he is called the God of the Abyss (Dumuzzi-Absu) it may be assumed that the sacrificed god became king of the underworld, like the Egyptian Osiris.

The Dog Star Sirius is called Lokabrenna ('the Burning of Loki' or ‘Loki’s Brand’). Sif  ('Relative') was the wife of Thor, the god of thunder. She had beautiful golden hair until Loki cut it all off for a prank. Thor was so angry that he wanted to kill the trickster, but Loki was able to persuade the dwarfs to make some magical hair for Sif, which once it touched her head, would grow like her own hair. It is clear that Sif's hair is the golden corn, which is cut and regrows with the next year, making her a corn or harvest goddess. Her husband is the thunder god who brings the fertilizing rain to the earth in the summer, to make it grow. Loki, usually described as a god of wildfire and heat is associated here with Sirius and the heat of the Dog Days, which causes the ripening and subsequent cutting of the grain. Perhaps his role in the change of the seasons is commemorated in the story of how he tricks blind Hoder (who represents darkness) into killing his brother Baldur (the sun god) with a small dart made from mistletoe. As the name of Lugh if often said to be, Loki's name is related to the Latin lux meaning 'light', also the Old English leoht ('light') and liechan 'to enlighten'.

In late July the first heliacal (i.e. just before sunrise) rising of the Dog Star occurs in Egypt. Unlike other parts of the world the effects of Sirius were considered beneficial, and its appearance was thought to cause the yearly rising of the flood waters in the Nile Delta. Egyptians called the star Septit -or Sothis in the Greek form of the name- and identified it with the goddess Isis. [19] She appeared in the Pyramid texts as the chief mourner for her husband, the vegetation god Osiris, whom she brought back to life with magic.  Osiris chose to remain in Amenti ('West') the Land of the Dead to act as the judge of souls. The Osiris cult merged with the sacred bull Apis early on. A real bull was honored as his living image. The bull is an ancient symbol of strength, kingship and virility.

The Canaanit god Baal was the son of the supreme god El and a death and resurrection god of the Adonis/Dumuzi/Tammuz type. His cult animal was a bull. His chief enemy was Mot, the god of sterility and death, and the representative of the desiccating summer. The two fought and Baal was killed, but before he died he became a bull and mated with a cow so that he could ensure the continuing of the world.

Throughout Eastern Europe there are a multitude of traditions associated with harvest-time. In ancient days, on the 20th July a sacrifice was offered to the thunder god Perun; this was necessary to placate the deity and prevent him from sending late summer storms to destroy the crops. The human victim was chosen by ballot. A bull would also be sacrificed and eaten during a communal feast.


While some writers state, without hesitation, that Lugh was a sun god [20] others, with equal force, argue that he was neither a god of the sun nor harvest. [21] Lugh's adventures are related in the Irish Mythological Cycle, written down by monks in the eighth and ninth centuries when elements from biblical sources and Greek and Roman myth frequently crept in. Writing about the Gauls circa 52 BCE, the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar said: 'The god they reverence most is Mercury. They have very many images of him and regard him as the inventor of all arts, the god who directs men upon their journeys, and their most powerful helper in trade and getting money.' [22]  Though Caesar equated this paragon with the Roman deity Mercury the evidence suggests that Lugh was the object of their veneration.

The continental Celts knew him as Lugus and his cult rose to prominence and became widespread throughout the Celtic world from the middle of the Iron Age onwards. There are some inscriptions to Lugoves, a plural of Lugus, which may mean that the god may have occasionally appeared as a Trinity.[23] Many place-names throughout the central and western parts of Europe provide evidence of his importance to the Celts. Lyons in France was once the capital of Gaul and was called Lugdunum, ' the Fort of Lugus’, while Carlisle in Britain was Caer Lugubalion. It is possible that London, the capital city of England, was named after Lud, meaning 'the Fortress of Lud'. Other examples include Leiden, Laon, Loudon, Leiden, Laon, Lauzun, and Liegnitz- all meaning 'Fortress of Lud'. [24] In the Celtic world a fort may indeed be a fortified place, but can also refer to an earthwork, mound or hill associated with otherworldly characters. There is a Ludgate Hill near Saint Paul's Cathedral in London where, according to one tale, the god is buried. [25]

The cult of Lugh was a latecomer into Ireland, introduced around the time of Christ by Gaulish or British refugees fleeing from the advancing Roman armies; there was a great migration of British Celts into Ireland at that time. [26] Lugh and his festival soon supplanted the earlier harvest lore, becoming one of the four focal points of the year in the early Irish calendar.

Lugh's name has presented a translation problem for scholars. Robert Graves believed that it was connected with the Latin lux meaning 'light' or with lucus meaning 'grove'. [27] Dr. Daithi O HOgain argues that the name is more likely to be derived from a Celtic word lugio meaning 'oath', making him the patron of sworn contracts. [28] There is some evidence that the cult of Lugh originated much further east. Lugh's name may be connected with ancient Mesopotamia where the title of the sacred king was lugal. There is a Sumerian god called Ninurta, titled Lugalbanda, whose exploits are detailed in the Lugal-e. He was lord of the plough and master of the fields, also the young warrior and champion of the gods, as well as being an ancient thunder god who brought the storms that gave life to the land. The Farmer's Almanac (1700 BCE), an instructive manual on how to grow barley, praises him as 'the life giving semen.[29]

Lugh has several titles, including Lámhfhada ('long-armed') referring to his magical spear, which flashed or roared aloud when it was used in battles. This seems to be clear reference to lightening and thunder. According to one Irish saying during thunderstorms

'Lugh Long-arm's wind is flying in the air tonight

Yes, and the sparks of his father Balor Béimann.'

The Welsh Llew was equally called Llaw Gyffes or 'accurate arm'. It is possible that Lugh had aspects as a thunder god. Lugh is also titled Samhioldánach ('equally skilled in all the arts'), a supreme craftsman. The Welsh Llew is called  'the one with the skilful hand'.

The pattern of their relationship followed the seasons- they married in spring and their love caused the earth to flower and blossom. With the autumn her lover, the spirit of summer vegetation, died and descended to the underworld realm of the dead. She followed him there and released him again when spring came, and the cycle began anew. This story is reflected in the tales of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Dumuzi, Baal, Jesus and many more.  The old folksong John Barleycorn tells the story of the spirit of the grain, in this case barley. John Barleycorn, the spirit of the corn, is cut down and buried in the earth, seeming to be dead, but when the spring rains come he is resurrected and grows with the summer sun. With the late summer he begins to wither and weaken, and his head droops. He ages as autumn comes and his enemies cut him down. They tie him up on a cart (the sheaves of corn are gathered, tied and carted away), they beat him up (flail the grain), wash him, toss him about (winnow the grain), roast the marrow from his bones (scorch the grain) and grind him between two stones (mill the grain), then drink his blood (the alcohol brewed from the barley).

This echoes the story of the Egyptian Osiris imprisoned in a coffin (buried), dismembered and scattered (the corn is winnowed and the seeds scattered) and resurrected (the seedcorn grows in the spring). Adonis, Tammuz and Dumuzi are also torn apart, forced to go into the underworld and resurrected in the spring. The Cannanite Mot was killed, winnowed, parched with fire, ground and scattered.

When vegetation gods ‘die’ they are said to go into the underworld (the seed is planted). Here they often become kings of the underworld and the dead- Crom Dubh was underworld ruler of the mounds, Osiris was Lord of the Dead, Dumuzi was Lord of the Abyss, Adonis was the lover of the Queen of the Underworld and so on.


Though the king had to be physically perfect and the scapegoat was ugly and deformed, there is often a link between the legendary sacred king and the scapegoat. When the king was disfigured or became metaphorically crooked in the eyes of the gods, he was killed or expelled.

Another explanation is that the lameness was metaphorical, and referred to crookedness of actions or illegitimacy of descent which brought divine retribution on the kingdom. [30] Such a theory might be borne out by a story recorded by Xenophon. [31] An oracle warned Sparta to beware of a ‘lame kingship’ when there was a competition for the throne between the lame Agesilaus and Leotychidas, who was rumored not to be the true son of the last king but the offspring of an adulterous relationship of his mother’s. Lysander convinced the people that the oracle did not speak of a man with a bad leg, but that the kingship would be lame (i.e. crooked) when the true descendant of Herakles was not on the throne.

Yet gain, the king may have been ritually lamed on becoming king or lamed prior to death. Robert Graves has a contrived- and frankly implausible- explanation of Llew's bath and goat balancing act as method of laming the sacred king. Possibly the laming had to do with marring the perfection of the king so that he could be killed, or possibly he was hobbled in some way leading up to the ritual of sacrifice.

It may seem strange to refer to a god as ‘crooked’, but gods of the underworld were generally considered crooked in some way. Priestesses wore one sandal when invoking them. Apollo, the bright and handsome sun god of Greece both brought plagues (with hot and feverish weather) and cured them (as god of healing). He was visualized both as shooting plague arrows into cities, and shooting creatures that brought plague. In this role he presided over the sacrifice or expulsion of scapegoats and was titled ‘crooked’. Apollo was the patron of all those cast out from the community, including those who went off to found colonies.

The Irish Crom Dubh is ‘Black Crooked One’ or ‘Black Bowed One’, also called Crom Cruach or Cenn Cruaich ('the Bowed One of the Mound') and was a sacrificial god associated with the beginning of August. His importance may be discerned from the fact there are far more stories of Crom Dubh connected with Lughnasa than there are of Lugh. Though many Irish people have never heard of the festival of Lughnasa they have certainly heard its alternate name Crom Dubh's Day (or Sunday).

Crom Dubh’s Day is the occasion for a pilgrimage up a high hill or mountain such as Croagh Patrick. This was a holy hill in Pagan times, taken over by Saint Patrick, possibly considered a natural harvest mound or Goddess womb in the manner of Silbury Hill.  

The 11th century Book of Leinster states 'In a rank stand twelve idols of stone; bitterly to enchant the people the figure of Crom was of gold.'  This is thought to refer to a circle of standing stones at Magh Sléacht near Killycluggin (the plain of Tullyhaw in County Cavan) in the sacred number of thirteen- the sacred king and his twelve companions. [32]   It may be that in ancient times a human sacrifice was made here, perhaps selected in the games. It seems likely that the sacrifice would have been haltered and lamed, actually or symbolically. Crom Dubh, the god who presided over the sacrifice was also ‘crooked’. He is thought to belong to the religion of the ancient Irish, before the time of the Celtic invaders. The earliest written account of him refers to an idol at Magh Sléacht worshipped by King Tignermas and his followers, at which human sacrifices were made. This statue is said to have sunk into the ground after St Patrick demolished it, and indeed, the stone circle stands in ruins. In most of the folklore he is called Crom Dubh, characterized as the ‘dark croucher’ or the ‘old bent one’ and was identified with the devil.

It may be that after the sacrifice the victim was identified with the god, becoming a ‘crooked one’ and believed to be dwelling in the mound with the god as king of the dead.

In later ages Crom Dubh’s human sacrifice may have been substituted with a bull.  On the north shore of Galway there is still a tradition that a beef animal must be roasted to ashes in honor of Crom Dubh on his festival day. It is possible that the bull was an avatar of the god, and that there was a yearly sacrifice of this bull with the substitution of a new bull, in the manner of the Egyptian Apis. In various versions of the story Patrick is said to have overcome or converted a Pagan called Crom Dubh, in some versions by resuscitating his dead bull.

According to another Lughnasa story Crom Dubh was buried up to his neck for three days and only released when the harvest fruits had been guaranteed. Crom is associated with the ancient mounds as an old agricultural god of the earth who caused the crops to ripen, as are the sidhe (‘people of the mounds’) or fairies of Celtic lore who are the descendants of such gods. They also have to be offered regular sacrifices in the form of milk. Crom is possibly an underworld god, like the Greek Hades (Roman Pluto) who captured Persephone (Proserpina). Hades/Pluto was both the guardian of underworld treasure (the minerals of the earth) and grain, which sprouts in the underworld.

In many parts of the world the festivals celebrated around our Lughnasa period relate to the effects of the Dog Days which make vegetation brown and wither, signaling the death of summer.

The Dog Star Sirius, called Alpha Canis Majoris by astronomers, is one of the brightest in the night sky and can even be seen in the daylight. Sirius is three times the mass of our Sun and ten times as bright. In mid-May Sirius sets in the west just after sunset, then is no longer visible for seventy days. It then appears rising in the east at sunrise and this is known as the heliacal rising of the star, occurring in late July and early August. The ancients believed that it added its own heat to that of the sun, causing very hot weather and exerting a baleful influence- dogs became mad, people became listless or ill, [33] streams and wells dried up, while plants withered and turned brown. It signaled the end of the period of growth, and therefore the end of summer. It seems that Lughnasa was celebrated at the end of this period (12th August) and marked the first day of autumn.

In the tale of Lugh we encounter his enemy and grandfather Balor, a tyrant who must be defeated. He is described as having a single baleful eye that poisons and withers all it looks upon. Dr. Ó HÓgáin reconstructs the original name of Balor as *Boleros, meaning  'the flashing one' from the ancient root *bhel meaning 'flash'. [34] The name of Sirius comes from a Greek word meaning 'sparkling' as it radiates a blue-white light, but when it is low on the horizon it can shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow. Balor is also titled Bailcbhéimneach ('strong smiting') and Balar Biirug-derc (‘piercing-eyed’). [35]

Ancient classical writers, including Ptolemy and Diodorus Siculus, associate him with a promontory called Bolerion in Cornwall, England. This was most probably Land's End, to the southwest of the country. Balor is said to have died at Carn Ui Neit (the ‘Cairn of Net's Grandson’), Mizen Head in County Cork, Ireland- again the furthest south west point of the country. This association with south-western promontories is generally taken to indicate that Balor is some kind of deity associated with the setting sun- which sets in the west- but the south-west is also the setting point of Sirius.

 Balor tried to trick Lugh into placing his head on top of Lugh’s own, and this may be a metaphor for the effect achieved when Sirius rises with the sun. Another one-eyed tyrant caused the death of King Conaire, who died with a raging thirst in his throat, perhaps a reference to the effects of the Dog Days.

Lughnasa is the time of year associated with the sacrifice of the sacred king or the death of the corn god, marked with wakes and funeral games. In many legends the dog is considered to be a psychopomp- a creature that conveys souls to the Otherworld. The Egyptian jackal/dog headed god Anubis, for example, is concerned with conveying the dead to the afterlife. In Greek myth the three headed dog Cerberus guarded the entrance to the Underworld. It can be no coincidence that the constellation of the Dog appears at the end of summer to convey the soul of the sacrificed sacred king/vegetation god to the Otherworld.


Sirius is in the constellation of Canis Major ('Big Dog'), which, along with Canis Minor (Little Dog), lies along side the constellation of Orion, the Hunter. The two canis constellations are said to be his two hunting dogs. In Arabic the constellation Canis Major is called Al Kalb al Jabbar or 'Dog of the Giant'. There are several stories of giants connected with Lughnasa, and this may or may not be related to the Sirius/Orion connection, but the correlation seems plausible.

We have already seen Lugh overcoming the giant Balor and in several similar seasonal stories a hero kills a giant or god who represents bane and sterility and steals his treasure, the golden corn of the harvest.

     A giant features in the fable behind an annual fair held on 1st August (or its nearest Sunday) at Morvah, near Land’s End in Cornwall. There is good reason to suppose that the fair and its legend may be an ancient Celtic survival since this was once a remote part of England and one of the last Cornish speaking areas.[36] It was said that on August 1st a giant would walk up to the Bosprenuis Croft to perform some magical rites. Tradition has it that on this day he was harmless and people would congregate to try to get a glimpse of him, continuing the custom even after his death. [37]

The giant is identified with the one destroyed by a giant-killer called Tom in a Cornish tale. Tom fought the giant, armed with an axle and wheel in place of buckler and shield. Afterwards Tom took over the Morvah giant’s treasure and castle, married and had children who were suckled by goats. After a while a new hero called Jack the Tinkard arrived. He wore an impenetrable bull-hide, carried a hammer and was the master of many crafts and skills. Eventually Jack proved himself by slaying another giant, dropping him down a tin-mine shaft. He married Tom’s daughter and gained possession of the Morvah giant’s treasure and castle. It was sometimes said that it was his wedding that was commemorated every year at the Morvah fair, where guisers performed a pantomime of the story. Writing in the 1870s William Bottrell remarked:

“The bridal took place on the first day of the harvest moon. Every year after, when Jack Tinkard’s wedding-day came round, all their relations came from far and near to keep up the remembrances of the happy time by holding high festival at Choon. A week or more was always passed in hunting Morvah hills and carns in the mornings, and in feasting, or the ancient games, during the rest of the hours of daylight.” [38]

Here we may identify Jack the Tinkard as the Cornish version of the many skilled Lugh. Note too the connection with the bull’s hide and the hammer of the thunder god, the killing of the giant and his burial in the earth.

            A similar tale was told in East Anglia (Eastern England) of Tom Hickathrift, a child born to a lone woman. The child was remarkable and grew apace; when only ten years old he was eight feet tall. He loved nothing better than fighting, but met his match in a mysterious tinker. The two fought but every time Tom hit the tinker, the latter’s coat merely squeaked. Each finding that he could not best his opponent the pair became fast friends. Then one St James Day (25th July or Old St James’s Day 5th August) Tom set off for Wisbech and encountered a great giant. While the giant was getting his club Tom seized the axle and wheel from a nearby cart to fight with. The two battled fiercely, but Tom was able to cut off the giant’s head. Going into the giant’s cave he found a huge store of gold and silver.

            Like the Welsh Llew Tom grew apace, like the Cornish Tom he met a man with an impenetrable coat, presumably of bull’s hide. He fought a giant, cut off his head and possessed himself of the treasure, as Lugh did with Balor. The date of his adventures tells us that we are dealing with a Lughnasa hero who defeats the forces of sterility and bane to win the harvest.


July is called ‘the hungry month’ in Ireland, because the harvest cannot begin until the first day of August. It is unlucky to gather fruits or dig potatoes until Lughnasa. In ancient times they could not be picked until precautions were taken to protect the rest of the harvest still to come, and reparation made to the Earth.

A scapegoat would be chosen to lead the powers of blight away from the harvest. The withering Gardens of Adonis may have been scapegoat gardens cast into the sea (in the manner of other types of scapegoats) to protect the real harvest. The appearance of the Queensferry Burry Man at Lammas is the remnant of a very ancient tradition, the scapegoat who is sacrificed to save the harvest. It may be that the Lughnasa games were originally a method of choosing such a scapegoat, or the sacred king who ruled until he became ‘crooked’ and the harvests failed. The king would then become the scapegoat, immolated on the harvest mound that represented the womb of the earth goddess, his blood used to fertilize the earth. In later ages the king may have appointed a proxy, a temporary king who was honored for a short time before being killed. Alternatively the substitute may have been a bull, associated with kingship and the power of the god, and whose blood was deemed to be a marvelous fertilizer in consequence.

Lugh was admitted to Tara because of something called ‘Lugh’s enclosure’. The Christian recorder seems to have taken this to mean a chess move, but the enclosure was a sacred mound, like Macha’s Enclosure where a gathering took place on her festival, 1st August. Its entrance was in the west (the direction of the setting sun), which connects it with death and sacrifice. Crom Dubh’s stone circle was on a hill and formed another enclosure. Human sacrifices took place there, later commuted to a bull offering. Perhaps the many ‘forts of Lugh’ were in fact enclosures of this kind. In Celtic a fort can be a mound or earthwork, as well as a fortified encampment. Classical writers recorded that gatherings took place at Lyon (‘Fort of Lugh’) on 1st August. The various forts of Lugh may well be ‘mounds of the oath’ or ‘mounds of the king’.

The evidence is overwhelming that Lugh was connected with sacred kingship. The sacred king was sacrificed on 1st August, his festival day. Lugh may be cognate with lugal the Mesopotamian term for the sacred king. Willow withies or lugos were used to bind or scourge the scapegoat, the sacred king or statues of the gods in Greece. These may be linguistic coincidences, but Lud or Lug appears so often in connection with kingship that it goes beyond the bounds of chance. Ronald Hutton (Stations of the Sun) speculated the word occurred so frequently that it must have had some other meaning for the Celts and could not always have been connected with the god. The word also appears on inscriptions in plural- lugoves. This might refer to a triple aspect of the god or to a number of sacred kings. Macha offered her sexual favors to three different kings, but as each approached she set on them and tied them up, forcing them to construct the enclosure for her. In other words, three sacred kings were married to the Sovereign Goddess, each in turn was taken to her enclosure, bound and sacrificed. The enclosure is her womb, standing for the whole of the productive land, and the actions of the king were answerable for its fertility. Lugh met his death on top of a hill, as did Balor.

            One account says that Lugh’s battle with Balor took place at Samhain (31st October) but this must be a misreading or ‘improvement’ on the part of the myth recorder. This date has led to speculation that Lugh is the summer sun, opposing Balor the winter sun (the baleful eye). But Lugh wins the battle, so this is plainly nonsense. The forces of winter and blight triumph at Samhain. It is also said that Lugh is the dawn sun, while Balor is the setting sun. Lugh is often said to be a sun god, but this claim is based on very little evidence and some erroneous etymology. Lugh is not derived from the Latin lux but from lugos or ‘oath’, the oath of a king at his anointing. Cesar wrote that the Celts worshipped ‘Mercury’ who was the god of all arts, travel and commerce. He went on to say that next to him 'they reverence Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva, about whom they have the same ideas as other nations- that Apollo averts illness, and Minerva teaches the principles of industries and handicrafts; that Jupiter is king of the gods, and Mars the lord of war.' [39] He identifies the sun god as Apollo, separate from Lugh/Mercury who has no sun associations. The only thing in the legends of Lugh to associate him with the sun is the descriptions of him as having ‘a red color on him from sunset to sunrise’ and as wearing a shirt of red-gold.  The red color might be connected with the red clouds of sunset and sunrise, but Lugh is red at night, he does not shine during the day.

Red is associated with death in the Celtic world. Red food is described as the food of the dead, and is taboo for humans. At the Hostel of Dá Derga (‘the Red’) Conaire the doomed king saw three red haired riders, accoutered with red armor, riding on three red horses.[40] Red horsemen convey the dead to the house of Donn, the god of the dead. Red is the color of completion and harvest. In Rome red haired puppies were sacrificed to influence the ripening of the corn, while in Egypt red-haired men were buried alive as a sacrifice to the god of the corn and the dead, Osiris.[41] Lugh’s red color was the mark of the sacred king, doomed to die.

When Nuadha became disqualified from kingship (became ‘crooked’) because of his lost arm Bres took over. Then Bres became crooked in another way- he was a bad king who oppressed his people. Nuadha acquired a silver arm and became king once more, but when Lugh proved how skillful he was, stood down for thirteen days to allow Lugh to lead the battle against the Formorians or forces of blight. This is further evidence that Lugh was not a sun god. He took over from Nuadha who had no associations with the sun at all: he was high king.

Nuadha is cognate with the British god Nodens who had a temple by the River Severn at Lydney in Gloucestershire, and with the god Nectan (‘water’?), Christianized as the Cornish saint Nectan, coupled with a magnificent waterfall near Tintagel that drops through a holed stone. Nuadha is also connected with water as the husband of the River Boinn. Nodens is the same god as the Welsh Nudd or Llud, father of Gwyn ap Nudd, lord of the underworld, and Llud or Lud or Lug, as we have seen, is found all over the Celtic world. We come full circle. All are high kings. In Welsh myth we find Llud Llaw Ereint (‘Ludd of the Silver Hand), equivalent to the Irish Nuadha of the Silver Hand. It is Lugh and Nuadha that are the same god, not Lugh and Balor.

Another crooked king with a lug prefix is King Lugaid mac Con who ruled from Tara for seven years.  When he gave a false judgement the side of the house in which the decree had been given fell down the slope and became known as ‘the Crooked Mound of Tara’.  After that, Lugaid was king in Tara for a year and ‘no grass grew, no leaves, and there was no grain.’  After this he was dethroned by his people for he was ‘a false prince’.

The story of Lugh corresponds to the many tales of boys born ‘crooked’ (illegitimate) that are predestined to kill their grandfathers. The story survives in fairy tales as the boy who wants to marry the princess and is set a task by the old king which is designed to kill him. The boy is the new sacred king who wants to marry the Sovereign Goddess, and the old king knows that once he has been chosen his own death is the inevitable result. The crooked birth foreshadows the boy’s own end as lamed and crooked king. The king is not an individual but a King with a capital K, one incarnation of the divine ruler. When one quitted his mortal body in death, his soul passed into the next incumbent. The story of the king replaced by his grandson or son, who is really the king himself, is paralleled in the myths of the corn gods such as Osiris, whose son Horus is himself reborn as the next year’s harvest.

Nuadha is called Nuadhu Find, (Nuadha the White) or Nuadhu Find Fail, associating him with the stone of kingship, Fál, which the Tuatha brought with them into Ireland, a phallic stone to mate with the Goddess.  They also brought the Sword of Nuadha, and a wound from this sword would never heal. It seems likely that wound of Nuadhu’s arm was from his own sword: he was a sacrificial king, none other than the wounded Fisher King identified in Arthurian legends. At the temple of the cognate Nodens there was a representation of a man hooking a fish, and Nuadha owned the magical well in the Otherworld where the Salmon of Wisdom swam.

There is plenty of evidence that the Divine King was associated with dogs. At the temple of Nodens several representations of dogs were discovered. Nudd is father of Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Wild Hunt who rides out with a pack of dogs. Lugh is the father or grandfather of Cuchulain, ‘Hound of Chulain’. The dog is associated with the underworld realm of the dead, and often guides the soul to the Land of the Dead. In late July and early August the Dog Star rose with the sun to threaten the crops with its baleful, withering eye, but at the end of that period the same cosmic dog accompanied the soul of the sacrificed king to the realm of the gods.

The date of Lugh’s festival irrefutably connects him to the harvest. It is celebrated on hills and mounds, and ancient enclosures. He is appointed for king for thirteen days only, a substitute for the maimed king, to protect the harvest for the period of the Dog Days. [42] At Old Lammas, 12th August, the Dog Days end and he wins the secrets of the harvest from Bres- the harvest begins. Then he is lamed and meets a triple death, haltered and stabbed on top of the hill and drowned in the nearby river or well. His blood fertilizes the earth.

After his death Lugh rules in the Otherworld within the mounds as King of the Dead, with the Goddess of Sovereignty as his wife. He is then known as lugh-chromain ‘little stooping Lugh’ and this is the origin of the leprechaun. Like Crom Dubh he is a crooked one of the mounds.  

Another popular misconception is that Lughnasa was a fire festival. It was not. It was associated with water and earth. Fire played no part unless you count incidental fires to cook the feast. The practice of calling the four Celtic cross-quarter festivals ‘the fire festivals’ is a modern one. Fire is just as closely associated with the solstices and equinoxes, for obvious reasons.

Pagans today honour the sacrifice of the God at Lammas. As the vegetation spirit he dies so that we might live and eat. At the Autumn Equinox he will enter into the womb of the Goddess, as the seed enters the earth. At Samhain he rules as King of the Dead and at Yule he is reborn with the sun and the cycle of growth begins once more.

The ripening crops have to be protected from the forces of blight that come in with the autumn, and from the floods and winds associated with Lughnasa. In Irish mythology this is symbolized by the battle between Lugh, the sun god, and Balor, a fearful one-eyed giant and leader of the Formorians, gods of blight. There are other stories of Lughnasa heroes fighting giants and winning their treasure (the harvest) at Lughnasa, including Tom Hackathrift in England's East Anglia and Tom the Giant Killer. The Phouka [‘goat-head’] represents another god of blight and spoils the berries. Traces of this conflict are seen in the various battle customs associated with this time, such as the Battle of the Flowers in the Channel Isles, faction fighting, and the competitive games of Lughnasa.

It is possible that the Lughnasa assemblies and fairs were wakes, mourning for the death of summer, or the death of the corn god, similar to the mourning for Tammuz/ Adonis in the Mediterranean and Near East. The seasonal Lammas fairs in England were called wakes.

The tradition of games at a funeral is a very ancient one. It was the custom to mark the burial or cremation of a king or hero with competitions. The original Olympic Games were funeral games held every fourth year at Olympia in Elis in July.

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Further Reading:


Previously published as

[1] K. Meyer, Hibernica Minora, 1894

[2] Montague Summers (1880-1948), The History of Witchcraft & Demonology, n/d

[3] William Hone, The Every Day Book and Table Book,  1832

[4]  David Clarke, A Guide to Britain's Pagan Heritage, Hale, 1995

[5] Paul Devereux, Symbolic Landscapes, Gothic Image, 1992

[6] Giraldus Cambrensis, The Historical Works, Ed. Thomas Wright, Bohn, 1863

[7] In other places the king would have to drink milk from a sacred cow who represented the Goddess. The Egyptian pharoah was depicted suckling from Isis who appeared as Hathor, the cow.

[8] Máire MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, Oxford University Press, Amen House, London, 1962

[9] Secrets of the Dead, Channel 4 (UK), broadcast 7th August 2000- though the programme came to the conclusion that he had been killed because his fellow tribemen thought he was possessed.

[10] Gwyn, Light From The Shadows, Capall Bann, Chieveley, 1999

[11] Leviticus, Chap. 16.

[12] Gwyn, Light From The Shadows, Capall Bann, Chieveley, 1999

[13]  Older varieties matured later than modern ones when new potatoes are lifted in June.

[14] Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1928

[15] Joseph Campbell, Oriental Mythology, Penguin, 1962

[16] According to Marcel Detienne (Gardens of Adonis  p 100) The Athenian astronomer Meton dated the heliacal rising of Sirius to July 20th, but his contemporaries dated it to July 23rd or 27th, depending on whether the real or apparent rise was referred to.

[17] Marcel Detienne, The Gardens of Adonis, Princeton University Press, 1977

[18] Thorkild Jacobson, The Treasures of Darkness, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1976

[19] A Greek form of her Egyptian name Aset or Eset, meaning 'throne'.

[20] Peter Beresford Ellis, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Constable, London, 1992

[21] Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996

[22] Julius Caesar, (trans. S.A. Handford ), The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics, 1951

[23] Peter Beresford Ellis, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Constable, London, 1992

[24] Ronald Hutton (Stations of the Sun) argues that it is possible that the word lud had another significance to the Celts, and that these cities were not named after the god at all. He contends that the worship of the god was probably not so widespread and it was a variety of local gods that were associated with Mercury.

[25] David Clarke, A Guide to Britain's Pagan Heritage, Hale, 1995

[26] Dáithí Ó HÓgáin, The Sacred Isle, The Collins Press, Cork, 1999. According to Dr. Ó HÓgáin at the same time the god Nuada (or more cotreectly Nuadhu) was also introduced from Britain, where he was known as Nodens, his principle shrine being at Lydney on the River Severn in Gloucestershire, where he is depicted as a sea god in the guise of the Roman Neptune, complete with trident. Nodens took over the role of Elcmhar as husband of Boinn and became the father of her son Aonghus who was titled in Macán Ócc ('the young son'), prralelling the British Maponus.

[27] Robert Graves, The White Goddess,  Faber, London, 1961

[28] Dr. Daithi O HOgain, Myth, Legend & Romance, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1991


[30] ibid

[31] Xenophon, Hellenica

[32] Janet and Stewart Farrar, Eight sabbats for Witches,  Hale, 1981

[33] Most cases of tarentella are reported at this time of year.

[34] Dáithí Ó HÓgáin, The Sacred Isle, The Collins Press, Cork, 1999

[35] Daithi O HOgain, Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition  Prentice Hall Presss 1991

[36] A Brythonic (British) Celtic language.

[37] Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England (1881) Chatto and Windus, 1923

[38] W. Bottrell, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Penzance, 1870-80

[39] Julius Caesar, (trans. S.A. Handford ), The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics, 1951

[40] Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, Sphere Books, 1974

[41] Eric Maple, Red, Man Myth and Magic

[42] Lugalbanda means ‘junior king’ and suggests he served the same purpose.