This weekend brought Lughnasadh, one of Scotland, Ireland and Man’s four seasonal festivals. Lughnasadh is a harvest festival celebrated either on the first of August or the Sunday closest to it, connected to the pre-Christian figure Lugh, known as The Lord of Light. The name of the festival translates as the gathering of Lugh and, according to the lore surrounding it, began as funeral games he held for his foster mother Tailtiu. Tailtiu’s death was from exhaustion, having prepared all the land of Ireland for farming, putting her into the category of Gods and divine beings who die to bring fertility to the land. What’s interesting about Tailtiu is that this role, of divine self-sacrifice on behalf of mortals, is one usually held by male figures. This is especially true when that figure’s death symbolically fertilises something, which Tailtiu as representative of the dying plants that re-fertilise the land is argued to be – the sacrifices usually made by female figures in this kind of role involve their bodies (in a non fatal fashion, usually connected to childbirth), their children or their lovers.
Lughnasadh, like other major festivals, was a time for community gathering; for trade, marriages and to build connections with other families. Its believed that handfasting trial marriages were carried out during the celebrations and that in Ireland yearly games were held at Teltown in the iron age earthworks. Other speculation about the pre-Christian celebrations involved the sacrifice and feasting on a sacred bull and the establishing of a new one, climbing hills and mountains, mythological plays and ritual harvest of the first grain. These speculations are based on ongoing folk traditions that lasted until and in some cases into the twentieth century and medieval writings, all of which of course post date conversion.
Like Beltane, Lughnasadh continued being celebrated well past the advent of the Christian era in modified forms, and like Beltane seems to have died out around the twentieth century when changes to society and agriculture meant it no longer served the same community needs. Parts of Lughnasadh had become actively Christianised in Ireland, with the Sunday often being used for pilgrimages in Ireland, and those parts survived, separated fully from the festivals origins – though it must be noted that the majority of those pilgrimages involve hill or mountain climbing.
Various groups have revived Lughnasadh celebrations from mid-twentieth century onwards; Celtic Reconstructionists, Wiccans and Gaelic cultural revivalists as well as various pagan groups. The Beltane fire society hosts a three day camping retreat, but unlike their Samhain and Beltane festivals this one is for members and friends only. As I have a deep hatred for camping (I know, I know, I’m a terrible hippy) I decided to stay at home and make a cake instead.
In the Scottish Highlands there were special cakes made on Lughnasadh, and while I don’t have a recipe for those I do have a honey cake recipe which, as honey and bees were very important to the Gaelic speaking Celts seemed an appropriate choice. This cake is actually best made in a bundt cake pan rather than a loaf pan. Although the first time I made it it cooked perfectly this time I had to scoop the inside out and rebake it separately.
I may have eaten a slice before remembering to photograph it. Recipe here.