It is nearly Lughnasadh. This is my favorite time of year. Some may love midwinter twinkle; others may love the summer sun. But I live for the autumn blaze. The cooling weather, the increasing darkness, the slowing pace and renewed time for reading and introspection. The color and pageantry of fall. The scents of leaf mould and spice and roasting winter squash. Oh my yes, the food!
Most of all, I love fair season. I am a fair junkie from a long line of incurable and unrepentant addicts. All the wonderful creativity of people directly engaged with life! These sometimes goofy, sometimes earnest contests and games and crafts are the best of our humanity. Nothing makes me happier than standing before the largest pumpkin in central New England on a cool autumn evening while munching on maple-chipotle popcorn.
Fair season is an old tradition. We’ve probably always gathered together in the harvest season to engage in light-hearted competitions, to market our surplus wares, to exchange ideas and gossip, to find laborers and lovers. The Irish have such a deep love of these clan gatherings, they created a god of fairs. Or, more accurately, they created a god that created fairs. Lugh Samildánach is the many-skilled god of the Tribe. When his foster-mother died in clearing the fields for Irish farmers (an alarmingly common theme in Irish myth, by the way), Lugh instituted the wake-games of Tailtiu in her honor, the original Teltown Fair. All the clans of Ireland were enjoined to gather on the plains for the Assembly — which amounted to sport and festivities and a good deal of literal horse trading.
The Lughnasadh, the games of Lugh, is rather like an Olympics combined with an enormous agricultural fair combined with a whole festival season of theatre, art, music and dance — all crammed into a couple weeks. Of course there’s also a good deal of alcohol and raucous noise and fatty foods and brazen flirtation and possibly a bit of spilled blood here and there. (Big boo-boos not death — to my knowledge there is no malicious violence associated with the games, but Irish do like their scrapping.) There were exhibitions and competitions of all sorts. Young folk (apparently women as well as men from the scandalized accounts left behind by prim Mediterranean tourists) challenged each other to feats of strength, endurance and skill in sport and sword-play. Craft-workers contended for prizes, royal favor, and market share. Bards trotted out their best poetry and satire, and woe betide anyone who fell afoul of the latter. It was said that the best bards could break boulders, could unseat kings, could even kill with a well-crafted barbed triad.
Livestock of all sorts — but especially horses — were judged for form, breeding, and utility. Sheep were compared for fleece; pigs for their fat; cattle for their strength and milk-production. Horses were shown off and traded. But they also featured in the highlight of the games — the races. These were both chariot races and mounted races. Some races happened on the beach, some over the moors, some up and down the mountains. Some actually swam their mounts, across rivers and lakes and through the pounding surf. And, being Irish, it seems that winners not only had to cross the finish line first, but they had to be turned out in fabulous style also. Rider and horse were dressed and decorated with gold, silver, and all manner of sparkle. They wore “speckled” (plaid) wool in vibrant colors, usually as a matched set. They arranged hair into complicated knots and braids. And they painted skin and pelt with woad and other plant dyes. The races were a true spectacle!
The Puck Fair in Killorglin in County Kerry might be a remnant of the old Lughnasadh traditions. It has been held at the beginning of August since at least the 16th century. This festival boasts all the traditional elements of Lughnasadh: music and dancing, a parade, arts and crafts, a horse and cattle fair, a huge and vibrant market — and a goat. At the beginning of the three-day festival, a wild goat — the Puck — is caught and brought into the town to be crowned ‘king’. The king is usually kept on a decorated platform in the middle of the market for the duration of the festivities. He gets everything a goat could want, but probably far more attention than he’d like. I’m sure, his ancestors were eaten at some point in the festival. These days the Puck is released back to the wild in the Kerry mountains.
Lughnasadh can start in the middle of July and end around the beginning of August, or it may begin with August and last until Assumption Day, 15 August. It is not a date; it is a season and as such is flexible. What Lughnasadh is not is a grain harvest season — though not for lack of trying to force the association. However, wheat, barley, oats and rye have all been harvested by this time of year. By August, grain fields were opened to gleaning and pasturage. There may even have been field prep work for the fall grain sowing. Also I suspect, though there isn’t much talk of it, that there was a good deal of grain harvest processing in the weeks around Lughnasadh. Getting the grain to the barn is only the first step in the labor of harvest. Threshing, sorting out the straw, grinding, storing it all, probably even using the fresh straw for thatch repairs — all had to happen rather quickly in the weeks following the actual cutting of the corn else the plant materials would begin to rot. It may also be that the first grain flours were flowing out of the mills by early August. Perhaps bread baking filled the early autumn air with mouthwatering aroma. However — significantly — there don’t seem to be any special seasonal breads associated with Lughnasadh like there are for the winter grain harvest.
Nevertheless, somehow August 1st or 2nd became a bread festival — Lammas, the loaf-mass of English custom. Lammas was mostly celebrated within the English Church as a festival of the first fruits. There were competitions between parishes for the most lavish displays of produce, cheeses, late-season flowers, small beer and cider, and mounds of bread piled all over the altar. Churches collected these first fruits and then usually redistributed the bounty, but there are also records showing that the piles would not infrequently disappear into the larders of unscrupulous clergymen — or the local nobility. In Victorian times, the celebration of Lammas was supplanted by autumn equinox Harvest Home festivities. Lammas might have disappeared entirely but for Gerald Gardner’s idea that there should be four fire festivals (roughly tied to “Celtic” holidays) evenly spaced throughout the year. Lughnasadh didn’t suit him, being a fluctuating period of sport and commerce, not a fixed day of sober symbolism. So he latched on to Lammas and then dubbed it a grain festival, giving it all sorts of ritual drama — sacrificial grain gods, corn dollies, land spirits that required careful handling, and huge bouquets of wheat. Even though the wheat harvest was long over by August 1. (Reality should never impinge on good theatre, I guess.)
Now, there is one grain harvest that is happening in August: maize, American corn, is harvested at this time. (Some places may harvest rice at this time also, but I don’t know enough about either the crop or the cultures to talk about that comfortably.) There are many Indigenous corn dances in late July and early August, inaugurating the corn harvest season — though this is a very different process than European grain harvesting and processing. Corn was grown in relatively small garden plots that were and are usually mixed with many other food and fiber crops. This is where the idea of the Three Sisters garden comes from — a mutually beneficial mix of corn, beans and squash all grown together on mounded plots. Furthermore, most Native American foods were and still are dried. In fact, corn is often simply left in the fields until it is brown and hard enough to store without rotting. In any case, there is a much less adversarial relationship with “nature” in the maize harvest, less tension and rush. Less need to get the harvest in before the nature ruins it one way or another.
Interestingly to me, the corn dances (as well as most other Native gatherings) are far more like Lughnasadh than Lammas. At these dances, there are many ceremonies throughout a period that can last several days or even weeks. It is a festival season, not one day. There are competitions, games, sports. The dances themselves are usually somewhat competitive, even between dancers and musicians. There is feasting and merriment and gathering together of the far-flung Tribe. Crafts are exhibited and sold — from intricate silver-work to fine rugs to gorgeous, big-bellied fired-clay pottery. There is, of course, trade because that’s what people do when they come together. Trade on things and trade on ideas. And even horse trading is common, if not as an official part of the festivities, then definitely as a significant side attraction. Plus, in the Southwest, the dances often have an associated rodeo, a sport that is fairly close in nature to the old Irish horse races — closer than Derby racing is, anyway — right down to the flamboyant costumery. Lugh would definitely approve.
So it’s time to show off your skills, strut your stuff, win a few races. Time to bring home a little bounty. Time to savor craft and produce. Time to feast and dance and sing and flirt. Time to be proud, maybe even boastful. Time to enjoy life. Time for Lughnasadh!
But mind you don’t cross those killer bards…
©Elizabeth Anker 2021