Lughnasadh and the Games of Summer

There are those who absolutely live for Summer.  They thrive in the long sunny days, shedding as much of their clothing as modesty (or the law) will allow, to bask more fully in the solar radiance that dominates this time of year.

I am NOT one of them.

I do not like the heat and I never have.  I am a creature born for cooler climates.  This particular turning of the yearly solar cycle weighs upon me like a penance, a nearly endless stretch of long sweaty days, standing resolute between me and the cooling relief of Autumn.

Perhaps this is why I have always had difficulty putting as much enthusiasm into my celebrations of Lughnasadh as I do the other holy days of the Celtic ritual calendar.

Lughnasadh (pronounced loo-NAH-sa and meaning Feast of Lugh) is the Celtic celebration of the ripening of the first fruits of the harvest season.  Traditionally, the celebration begins at sundown on the evening of July 31st with a bonfire and sacrificial feast after which would come days spent berry-picking on hilltops, visiting holy wells and general merrymaking.

All of which sounds wonderful in a temperate climate like the one that Ireland enjoys.  Here in Texas the high temperature today is expected to be around 106° F.  Sorry, but berry picking and bonfires are the last things on my mind just now.

Happily, there is one tradition associated with Lughnasadh that does have me excited this year.  The Summer Olympics have returned to us after four long years!  And how, you may ask, can I possibly find an association between the Olympic Games and a little known Irish harvest festival?

To answer that I must briefly recount the origins of the Feast of Lugh.

Áenach Tailteann

In the ancient days before mortal men came to Ireland there were two great races of beings which vied for control of that land.  These were the Firbolg who had settled Ireland in an earlier age and the Tuatha De Danann who arrived in a shadowy mist and made war upon the FirBolg.  Eventually, all but a few of the Firbolg were driven away to the rocky shores and islands of the western sea.

Of those who remained, Tailtiu was among the most beloved.  She had been a great queen among her people and still held sway over the wild forests and valleys of Ireland.  It is said that she was asked by the Ever-Living Ones to clear away the forests so that the fields could be used as farmland to support the people.  Through her effort the wilds were cleared away and made ready for the plow but doing so broke her heart and brought her to her deathbed.

In this way, it is said that Tailtiu, a goddess of the untamed nature and wilderness of Ireland, became the foster mother of mighty Lugh, a hero and king among the Tuatha De Danann and a god of agriculture.  As she lay dying, Tailtiu bid her foster son to hold ceremonial games on the newly cleared ground so that her immortal sacrifice might be remembered for all time.

And so it was that Lugh declared that, on the anniversary of the first harvest, people of every tribe and nation would be welcome to gather at the place of her power in what is now County Meath, for the Áenach Tailteann (Taillten Fair).  For the span of the celebration neither war nor bloodshed would be tolerated.  Instead, friendly competition in feats of strength, martial arts and Horse Racing would accompany the religious rites which honor the turning of the wheel from the growing season to harvest.

When mortal men displaced the Tuatha De Danann as masters of Ireland the Taillten Fair continued and the day of the first harvest was made holy to Lugh who’s memorial to Tailtiu is remembered even to this day.

Now it shouldn’t be very difficult to see the many parallels between the games of the Taillten Fair and the Olympics of ancient Greece.

Both games were celebrated at the bidding of the gods.  It was the Greek demigod Heracles who is said to have decreed that on every fourth year a contest of strength and skill should be held among men as a tribute to his father Zeus looking down from high Olympus.  While many of the polytheistic associations in the modern Olympic Games have been scrubbed away in deference to the squeamish monotheist sensibilities of Christian and Muslim participants, the pagan origins of the Games are hard to ignore.

Now THIS is what I call a ritual flame!

Historically, we know that the Taillten Fairs continued from at least the 6th century BCE until the 12th century of the common era when the Norman invasion put a stop to them.  The Olympics of Greece are believed to have had their start in 776 BCE and continued until 393 CE when they were discontinued under Christian influence.  Both the Olympics and the Taillten Fair have seen many modern attempts to recapture their former glory, but the modern Olympic Movement (beginning with the 1896 games in Athens, Greece) has seen the most profound success.

Both games featured a mandatory truce of war in favor of friendly athletic competition between tribes/states that may otherwise have been blood rivals.  Participants in the games of the Taillten Fair were judged as much on their sportsmanship as they were their physical skill and accomplishment.  That ethic of good sportsmanship is continued in the Modern Olympics although it is sad to say that some always seem to fall short of the ideals express in the Olympic Oath.

The Taillten Fair as it was, is lost to us, possibly forever.  But I feel that the spirit of those games and the promise made by Lugh continues today.  The ideals of the Olympic Games, so similar in spirit and purpose to the Áenach Tailteann, live on in the hearts of those who love them.

And I count myself among their number.

I have watched the games since I was a child and have always felt a deep enthusiasm upon their return.

I am always curious to see what the host nation will do during the opening ceremonies.    Although I have a special affection for the Athens Games with their attention to the Olympian pantheon, I must say that London did not disappoint in spectacle.  During the Parade of Nations I was particularly moved to see the flags of the many participating nations planted in a replica of Glastonbury Tor (which the Celts of Britain once called the Isle of Glass).

National Flags on the Glastonbury Tor

On Tuesday as the Sun sets, Lughnasadh begins.  I will clean and redress my altar and make proper sacrifice to the gods.  I will eat a light meal (the heat always makes me peckish at this time of year) and light a candle in their honor.

Look for me on Wednesday and you will find me glued to the television watching as much Olympics coverage as I can handle.  In the days to come I will root for Team U.S.A. and the small team from Ireland as well as underdogs from countries where sponsors and training facilities are few.  They are all Olympians who carry on an ancient and sacred tradition.  They each deserve their chance to bask in the glory of victory and to thrive in the Sun.

In that spirit I wish a safe and joyous Lughnasadh to you all.


Filed under Modern Life, Mythology, Religion, Sports, The Gods, Traditions

2 responses to “Lughnasadh and the Games of Summer

  1. The Black Rose

    Thank you for that little journey into sacred space. Cycles repeat, whether we notice or not. Summer is not my cuppa either, though I am doing my best to appreciate the gifts each season has to give us.

  2. Pingback: Embers | Stone of Destiny

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