Main Page   Proto Indo-European (PIE) Religion   Wicca   Mithraism   Ritual    Tuadem  
  Back to the Beginnings  Nuit    Dedicant's Program     Prayers   Suggested Reading   Suggested Links 
The Pagan Family   Paganism   And The Rest  Publications   My Blog   About Me   My Calendar  Contact Me 


The High Days


There have been good things and bad things about ADF’s early decision to follow the standard Neo-Pagan calendar, with its eight High Days. The original idea was that it would line us up with other Neo-Pagans. Not only would this acknowledge that we were part of the Neo-Pagan "movement," but it would also help with relations and recruiting – many people would be looking for a Samhain ritual, and come across ours; how many would be looking for something to do for Parentalia? (The early, somewhat patronizing, idea that ADF would be developing a priesthood that would serve the Neo-Pagan community as a whole, never took off. While we continue to be dedicated to the idea of serving the community, the thought that we would be considered as priests by its members wasn’t particularly appealing to them.)

There was also the importance of an ADF identity. If every grove celebrated just the High Days of its particular culture, there would be a number of cycles going throughout the organization, and it would be impossible to speak of an ADF yearly schedule.

Finally, there were the biases of the founders. They came out of Wicca (many continuing to remain in it), and thinking in terms of the Wiccan year was natural, even if it might be sometimes unrealized. The Celtic identity of “druid” also biased them to celebrate at least the four Irish Holy Days; the four solar ones would have been an obvious addition not only for the reasons I’ve already given, but because the second largest ethnic tradition in ADF has always been Norse, and the solar days are important to the Germanic tradition. (Note: this paragraph is my untrained speculation, and should in no way be taken as objective history.)

Nevertheless, there were, and continue to be, problems. There has always been the refrain, “But the [fill in your ethnic tradition] didn’t celebrate that day.” This is a perfectly reasonable objection – why should a Roman celebrate Samhain when the Roman festivals of the Dead are in the months before the spring equinox? The flip side of this is, “But why can’t we celebrate the festivals of our tradition?” There has also been the justified feeling on the part of non-Celts that they were in some way second-class citizens. This has no doubt limited ADF’s appeal to non-Celts, and created a feedback loop – fewer non-Celts are interested in an organization they see as Celtic, so a higher percentage of those joining are Celtic, so ADF becomes more Celtic, so a higher percentage of non-members see it as Celtic, and so on.

The official side of this last objection has been ameliorated somewhat by the recent decision to change the section of the by-laws that requires groves to celebrate the eight Holy Days so that the Irish names aren’t written in, only the rough dates. This is a nice recognition of the non-Celts among us, although there is still the hidden implications of the dates. However, celebrated the solar festivals is a reasonable thing to require, and since the Irish ones fall roughly halfway between them, if we are going to have eight Holy Days it makes sense to celebrate the other four around the Irish times.

The “but my tradition doesn’t celebrate those ones/my tradition celebrates other ones” objections are harder to answer. There is certainly no official objection to celebrating holidays on dates that aren’t on the official list. If a grove still has to celebrate the official ones, though, extra days can be a burden. (Trust me; I’m the one who has to schlep all the stuff we use to our ritual sites.) There is also no problem from an official point of view, anyway, with celebrating festivals of any tradition that fall close to any of the official dates. Changing the official names of the dates was a big help with making this clear, and removing the unease non-Celts felt about having to celebrate festivals with names like “Samhain.” When Jenni Hunt was in Nemos Ognios, for instance, we celebrated Parilia (late April) rather than Beltane. This substitution was an easy one, though, since the way the ancient Romans celebrate Parilia was very close to an Irish Beltane. Our grove now celebrates Independence Day rather than Midsummers, allowing us to observe a Holy Day which is close to the official date, but still meaningful to the ethnic traditions of our members.

But what about those that are extremely different? What about a Roman who doesn’t want to celebrate a festival for the dead at the end of October? But if there were a Roman grove (dream on, Jenni), how many non-members would be looking for an Ancestor ritual at Parentalia? We can’t really expect non-Celts to celebrate rather unimportant festivals and ignore the big ones just because the former are close to the eight ADF ones, and the latter aren’t.

This problem is lessened somewhat in groves with members from different traditions, and that don’t operate in only one of them. Nemos Ognios is a good example. Jenna and Paula work as Celts, Jenna and I are exploring the American tradition, and I’m interested in the Proto-Indo-Europeans (although Jenna seems intrigued by them as well). We therefore celebrate the four Irish festivals as Celtic, the two equinoxes as Proto-Indo-European, and Midsummers/Independence Day as American. (We haven’t gotten a grasp on how to do Yule yet, although our current plan is to do it as a party, bracketed by stripped down beginning and end rituals.)

One solution that I haven’t seen pushed is that those groves which work in traditions that don’t care about some of the eight Holy Days simply celebrate the ones that don’t fit into their tradition in a generic way, with the basic ADF liturgy, with no specific seasonal changes. That’s sort of what Nemos Ognios will be doing this year at Yule. Such a grove would still be fulfilling the eight Holy Day requirement, but won’t have to squish their tradition into a foreign mode, or vice versa.

All of this said, let’s get to the Holy Days. Because of the artificial manner of the system, it will be clear that they can’t be put into a single pattern like the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. There is even a considerable shifting of dates in the ancient traditions; not only do Celts and Romans celebrate different Holy Days, but the Norse celebrations of the Holy Days are a lot like the Celtic ones, but shifted to the next solar festival. Of course, this makes sense, because seasonal festivals are by definition connected with seasons, which will change from place to place, and are also connected with what those seasons mean in terms of the local economy – what crops are sown or ripen at a particular date, for instance – so their dates, relative importance, and modes of celebration will vary. Because of the Celtic and Norse origins of the ADF calendar, I’ll concentrate on those traditions, although I’ll bring in other ones when they seem relevant.


Samhain
Yule
Brighid's Day
Spring Equinox
Beltane
Midsummers
Lughnasad
Fall Equinox


SAMHAIN

Samhain is usually said to be the most important Holy Day of the Celtic year, but that’s not completely accurate. Its celebration is primarily found in Ireland. There is a possibility that it was also celebrated in Gaul, because there is a month in the Coligny calendar with the name Samonios, on the 15th of which was a festival with the name Trinouxtion Samoni “the three nights (or possibly “third night”) of Samonios.” This reminds us of the multi-day festival of Samhain. However, the three nights of this festival are in the middle of the month, not at the end. Worse, this calendar isn’t very well understood, to the point where it’s even unknown what month lines up with what part of the year, so we can’t say whether this festival is in the fall. Since the sam part comes from PIE *sem- “summer, sow, seed” (it’s the source of “semen”), Samnios might well be a spring or summer festival. I’m not sure if Samhain is mentioned in the Welsh Medieval sources at all, so it’s more correct to call it an Irish festival than a Celtic one.

Samhain was the Irish new year’s day (or night). We know this because in the
Annals of the Four Masters, we find, “At the end of this year he died, at the worshipping of Crom Cruach, which was the chief idol of adoration in Ireland. This happened on the night of Samhain precisely.” There are also a lot of stories about monsters coming out of mounds or lakes at Samhain, who have to be slain by heroes who sound a lot like your basic Indo-European dragon-slayer. Since the dragon-slaying was a creative act (dragon = chaos, so killing it equals creation), it makes sense for stories about it to be found at the new year.

One more thing that tells us that we’re dealing with the new year here is something that’s puzzled lots of modern writers, trick-or-treating. I’ve seen all sorts of explanations for this, from people impersonating the dead (masks are a frequent representation of the dead), to the ever-popular “the druids knocked at people’s doors, looking for a virgin to sacrifice, so you had to bribe them to go away.” It’s pretty common, though, for new year’s rituals to include topsy-turviness. Slaves act as masters, children act as adults, etc. Wearing masks is part of this charade – people become who they’re not. Further, the acting out of sacred dramas is common at this time, so people impersonate characters from them. It’s pretty common throughout the world for these kind of dramas to be played by amateur actors who go from house to house, and then reasonably expect to be paid for their efforts, which are seen as not just entertainment, but a blessing. Maybe the idea of paying off Outsiders, who might be expected to “trick” someone is in play here as well.

Samhain was therefore seen by the Irish as the new year, the time when dangerous creatures came out and had to be slain, and a feast of the dead. These are all the same thing; they are the border between this space/time and the next, seen as a dangerous one that has to be traversed with the proper rituals.

Among modern Pagans, the emphasis is on the Ancestors, particularly on inviting them to feast with us. There isn’t enough emphasis on sending them on their way after the feast for my liking, though. Most American Neo-Pagans also take part in the usual Halloween traditions, such as making jack-o-lanterns, going trick or treating, and having costume parties. This makes a lot of sense, since not only are these appropriate for the Pagan meaning of the day, they also allow Neo-Pagans to take part in local customs. Since we have such a high regard for the folk customs of other societies, I like our taking part in those of our own.

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Minneapolis, MN: Mercier Press, 1972.

Rees, Alwyn and Rees, Brinley. Celtic Heritage. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1961.

The discussion of the Coligny calendar is based on e-mails on the Yahoo Continental Celtic list, 4/11/2004 – 4/18/2004.


YULE

Yule, Midwinters, is one of the solar festivals that made its way into Wicca, and thus generic Neo-Paganism, and thus ADF, mixing with the four Celtic ones in the process. The mixture isn’t necessarily a happy one, since there are elements of Yule that are similar to those of the Celtic Samhain. For instance, the Wild Hunt, in which Woden rides through the sky gathering the souls of the dead, takes place at Yule, and Yule also appears to have been the Norse New Year.

Winter solstice celebrations are found in other Indo-European traditions. The best known is the Roman Saturnalia, officially from 17-23 December. This most famously involved partying which included swapping social roles between slaves and masters, with the latter serving the former at a meal. People also wore the soft caps (“liberty caps”), which were worn by freed slaves. The theme of the festival (which could last up to seven days) was freedom from all bondage, including social restraints. This is pretty typical of New Year’s festivals, even though the traditional Roman New Year was at the spring equinox. However, since February was dedicated to rituals of purification, and the deity of January, Janus, is the god of beginnings, I think that originally it was only the end of the year that took place at midwinters, with the two months between it and the spring equinox being outside of time.

There were other Roman festivals around midwinters. The 19th was Opalia, at which boys became men, and the 23rd was a feast of the dead. The 21st, which would not necessarily have been the solstice before the introduction of the Julian calendar, was the Divilia Angeronae, a feast in honor of the goddess Angerona, who there’s a good chance was the one in charge of the secret name of Rome. This implies a day of danger, since knowing that name would give control of the city.

Neo-Pagans generally celebrate Yule with festivals involving light, especially fire (candles for those without fireplaces). The reason for celebration is expressed nicely in the Alexandrian ritual, when it says, “Darkness and tears are set aside when the sun comes up early” (Farrar, p. 106). This is sometimes observed by covens or groves having all-night vigils, so they can see in the morning the sun coming up early. Because the Wiccan God is identified with the sun, most Wiccans celebrate this day as his birth.

Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghan, 1971.

Gundarsson, Kvedulf. Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs and Practices of the Northern Tradition. St. Paul MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1993. (Yes, Llewellyn; this is one of their good ones.)

Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.


BRIGHID'S DAY

Brighid’s Day, also called Imbolc and Oimelc, is observed from sunset on Feb. 1 to sunset on Feb. 2. It’s also called Imbolc and Oimelc , which may just have been variations of the same word. They’re usually translated as “in the belly” (womb?) and “sheep’s milk,” respectively. These seem to be indefensible linguistically, though, as Ronald Hutton notes (p. 134). He also mentions a suggestion by Eric Hamp that it might find its origin in a word for “purification” (perhaps imm "about, around" and folc "wash"). This would be interesting in light of the modern month name coming from Latin februus “instrument of purification.”

The purification idea is also found in an Irish custom of washing one’s face, hand, and feet on Brighid’s Day. This might well have the meaning of washing all of oneself because one is washing one’s extremities, and thus everything in between. I have to wonder what this says about how clean people were in Pagan days, if it were special to wash just those body parts.

One final purification aspect is the dedication of the day to St. Brighid, the Irish saint who in some way continued a Pagan goddess. She’s associated with the hearth, and thus with fire, and fire is traditionally considered both pure and purifying.

Customs surrounding this day involve invoking/welcoming the presence of Brighid, and her blessing the home. The ritual of course involved offering hospitality, in the form of cakes, milk, and sometimes a bed. The blessing can be done by means of “Brighid’s crosses,” decorations in the shape of a cross or crosses, and made of rush. Our house has one of these over the stove, and a brass one on our door. Recently, a Pagan visitor said she knew it was my house (i.e., she could tell which house was Pagan) because of the one on the door.)

In Rome, the festival of Lupercalia fell around this time. It was a festival of purification and fertility, in which youths, naked except for belts of goat skin, ran through Rome, whipping women, supposedly for the sake of fertility. As befitted its name, there were also a large number of purification rituals, as well as ones connected with the dead, in February.

Because Brighid’s Day falls halfway between Samhain (the beginning of winter) and Beltane (the beginning of summer), it was traditionally seen as the beginning of spring. And according to Varro, Feb. 5th was the beginning of spring as well.

Neo-Pagans celebrate this is a number of ways. It seems as if there isn’t much agreement on how it fits into the Wheel of the Year. Many celebrate it with the sort of Brighid’s Day customs from Ireland. This can fit in well with the idea of purification found in Rome, with Brighid being seen as a the Maiden, the young form of the Wiccan Goddess: she is made new again. The point seems to be that she is purified and revivified after having given birth to the God at Yule. This makes sense from that point of view, but may also have been influenced by the Christian holy day of the Purification of Mary. More Christian influence comes from the holy day of Candlemas, held on the same day as Imbolc; this is seen, for instance, in Scott Cunningham’s Imbolc ritual, which is very similar to what I’ve described for Yule – candles and fire.

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Minneapolis, MN: Mercier Press, 1972.

Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghan, 1971.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.


SPRING EQUINOX

Another day which doesn’t fit into the Celtic system, but was put into the Wiccan/Neo-Pagan/ADF one, this festival was pretty important in some ancient IE cultures. I believe, in fact, that was the beginning of the PIE year (but not its end; just as originally in Rome, the PIEs probably ended their year at the midwinters, but didn’t begin it again until the spring equinox).

The original Roman new year was the beginning of March, which would have been the new moon as well. The first of each month was dedicated to Juno; this one was especially dedicated to her in the form of the goddess of childbirth. Perhaps she was giving birth to the new year? Just as at Saturnalia, slaves were served; this time it was female slaves by their mistresses.

The most striking of the rituals of this month was the dancing of groups of priests, the Salii (“Dancers”), throughout Rome. They were dressed in archaic bronze armor, wore swords, and carried both spears and shields. The shields are the most important part of the ritual. They also were archaic, shaped like a figure eight. One of them was said to have fallen from the sky, as a gift from Jupiter to the early, law-giving king Numa; the rest were copies of it to prevent anyone from stealing the right one.

The significance is that in the month that belongs to the warrior god Mars, and that is the New Year’s, a ritual occurs which commemorates a metal military weapon thrown down by a lightning god. I believe on this, and other grounds, that Mars was the original lightning god of Rome. This makes him the Roman version of the PIE warrior/lightning god Perkwúnos. And Perkwúnos is the god who slew the serpent (just as Jupiter/Zeus was the main killer of Titans and Giants). This is a creative act, an overcoming of chaos by cosmos, which makes it perfectly appropriate for a month when Rome emerges from the February purifications into a new year.

In the area in which I live, then, I would have to say that the spring equinox is a more appropriate new year than Samhain (or Jan. 1, for that matter). No matter how much it pains me, I also have to say that it is a good time to say that spring begins. The pain comes from my annoyance at weathermen calling the spring equinox the “official” beginning of spring. “Official?” As determined by the government’s Department of Seasonal Beginnings? Breathe, Cei, breathe.

Neo-Pagan celebrations focus on two things; the solar aspect and the growing warmth. As regards the sun, this is a good day to see the Sun God triumphing over darkness, since it’s the day after which there is more light than dark.

The growing of warmth, and the resultant return of flowers and greenery, is more popular, however, especially in public, open ritual. Often this is expressed through the imagery of the return of Persephone from the land of the dead, bringing spring directly through herself and indirectly through the resultant joy of her mother, Demeter. Flowers are often used, even though in many parts of the country this is a bit premature. I once attended an ADF spring equinox ritual in which asparagus was distributed

The most common Neo-Pagan name for this day, “Ostara,” combines the solar and warmth imagery. “Ostara” is an unattested (probably; I’ve been told differently, by someone I trust, but haven’t been able to track down the source myself) reconstructed name for a spring/dawn goddess. Neo-Pagans have assigned it to this day because of the Venerable Bede’s comment that “Easter” comes from the name of the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess Eostre. Her name means “Rising” (from PIE *H2es- “rise,” leading to *H2(e)s(t)os “rising, risen”), so she’s a good goddess for the solar aspect, but is seen as a young goddess, so she can be applied to the aspect of growing warmth.

Connected with the name “Ostara” is a belief that such Easter customs as dying eggs were originally Pagan. These are then adopted by Neo-Pagans as their own. I’ve never been able to pin down any evidence for this other than the all-too common one of “it’s a seasonal custom that isn’t expressly Christian, so it must have been Pagan.” I have my doubts on this one, since not only are eggs a pretty obvious symbol of new life – in Christian terms, the Resurrection of Jesus – but the rooster is an equally obvious symbol for a new dawn, the dawn at which the empty tomb of Jesus was discovered, and the announcement of this miracle to the world. I can see decorated eggs as arising in Christian times, then. Nevertheless, for the same reasons they’re appropriate for Ostara, and are part of secular Easter customs, so it makes sense for them to be adopted for this season, no matter what their origin is.

Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1989. Cunningham, Scott. Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1988.

Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghan, 1971.

Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.


BELTANE

The first of May is one of the eight festivals that fits into both the Celtic and Germanic calendars, as Beltane and May Day, respectively. They have little in common, however, other than the date and the idea that an important change has taken place.

Beltane, “Bright Fire” or “”Bel’s Fire” (Bel being perhaps a god of the sun) is primarily concerned with purification, and that by fire. This is performed by driving one’s herds between through fires, and of passing between or jumping fires oneself. The question is, of what is one purifying oneself?

The answer lies in the economy of the traditional Irish, who practiced transhumance. This system includes both pastoral and agricultural components. It might be called a limited nomadic lifestyle. In the summer, herds are taken to pastureland at a higher elevation than the one of the town, and in the winter they are brought back. In Ireland, these were done at Samhain and Beltane. Transhumance tends to create a binary ideology, with the town/home being female, inside, and friendly, and the summer pastures being male, outside, and dangerous. To go from the town to the pastures is to pass from our own turf into those of the Land Spirits and the Outsiders. We can expect that the Outsiders might be hostile to us, because that’s just one of the things they do, and that the Land Spirits might be as well, because we’re bringing our herds from the townland that we took from them to the pastures that are partly theirs anyway. What to do?

First, we have to purify ourselves and our herds. It’s a good idea from a practical point of view, anyway, since traditionally both have probably been cooped up for a long time and could use a little airing out. This is the time of spring cleaning. Thus, in the Roman equivalent of Parilia, the sheep pens were cleaned out. From a religious point of view, we have to wash some of the stink of the culture from us before we go into the realm of nature. The two traditional ways of doing this are with fire and water; at Beltane, the choice is fire.

Second, we have to buy off the spirits who might wish us harm. We have to pay the spirits of the wild for the land on which we will grow our crops and raise our animals. In modern times, we still have to take the land, even if most of us don’t do so directly.

From Germanic, especially English, custom, comes the familiar May Day, with its poles, baskets, flowers, and queens. That the Roman Floralia is celebrated around this day may have played a part in this.

Neo-Pagans, not known for liking dour things, have removed the scary parts of the Celtic Beltane, and left the fires. It’s jolly fun to jump over one, and a good Beltane fire makes an impressive sight.

They’ve also left the pole, adding the non-Pagan tradition, developed in Christian times, of the Maypole dance, in which ribbons from the top of the pole are intertwined by dancers who loop in and out around each other. This is great fun; as the ribbons get shorter, the dancers have to get closer to each other, and eventually there’s a big chaotic clump.

In the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, this is the time for the mating of the God and the Goddess. There are plenty of old customs implying going out into the “Wild Wood” to have illicit sex, the modern version of which is expressed in the poem, “Hurrah, hurrah, it’s the first of May; outdoor fucking starts today.” The Maypole is seen as the phallus of the God, descending from the Sun, to penetrate the Goddess, who is the Earth. The dance may be seen as erotic, with male and female intertwining and ending up in what my family calls “one big grunch.” This is especially the case when the dancers going in one direction are male, and those going in the other are female.

All in all, the Neo-Pagan Beltane is a big party.

Cabot, Laurie. Celebrate the Earth: A Year of Holidays in the Pagan Tradition. New York: Delta, 1994.

Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1989.

Cunningham, Scott. Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1988.

Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghan, 1971.

Farrar, Janet, and Farrar, Stewart. Eight Sabbats for Witches. London: Robert Hale, 1981.


MIDSUMMERS

Midsummers, the summer equinox, was not celebrated by the Celts. Its traditional customs share some with Beltane. The most striking of these is the lighting of fires. Like Beltane, this sometimes involves jumping over them. Ashes from the fires were believed to have protective powers, and could be scattered on the fields to bless them. Midsummers is right before the wheat harvest in the British Isles, so this might have been seen as a plea for the grain’s protection until it might be brought in.

The use of fires in Midsummers rituals is no surprise, since it is connected not only with the sun, but with the sun at its highest. The day is also connected with water, however. That’s probably because welcome as the sun generally is, at this time of year its strength can bring drought. Too much sun is as bad as too little. It might even be worse; you rarely hear of crops failing due to dark.

Midsummers customs therefore sometimes involve an interaction between fire and water. The one I find the most impressive is rolling flaming wheels down hills into a pond or lake.

Midsummers seems to me to be, in New England, at least, the least celebrated of all the Holy Days. Open circles aren’t that common around this time of year here. I’m guessing that’s because, first, the solar festivals are seen as less important than the Celtic ones, and second, because it’s summer, and a weekend day here is either too hot for anything but the beach, or rainy. We get too few really good beach days that it’s hard to motivate people to do all the work necessary to organize an open circle. I’m sure covens celebrate it themselves, but on a much smaller scale.

In my first book, The Pagan Family, I went along with this, suggesting such things as a short ritual at a beach, and water balloon fights. The figure and mythology of Santa Claus at Christmas makes it pretty clear that seasonal festivals can be just fun, with no clear religious content.

Those rituals which are done this day concentrate, no surprise, on the sun. He is invoked and honored, being at his height. In those groups which work with the model of two Gods (really two versions of the same one), the Oak God –and the Holly God, this is the time of the year when the Holly God takes over, something that may be represented by a fight between the two, with the death of the Oak God.

Cabot, Laurie. Celebrate the Earth: A Year of Holidays in the Pagan Tradition. New York: Delta, 1994.

Farrar, Janet, and Farrar, Stewart. Eight Sabbats for Witches. London: Robert Hale, 1981.


LUGHNASAD

Now starts a series of three harvest rituals; Lughnasad, Fall Equinox, and, to an extent, Samhain.

Lughnasad has an Irish component and an English one. In traditional Ireland, it was a major festival. This was to be expected, since it was the first harvest, which put an end to the lean period of the last bit of last harvest’s food. It was a happy day indeed. We are lucky to have Marie MacNeill’s exhaustive study of this Holy Day, The Festival of Lughnasa, which includes every custom connected with the day that she could find either in living form or in written sources.

The name means “Feast of Lugh.” Explanations of this vary. It can be seen as either the festival of Lugh himself, or as a funeral feast established by him in honor of his mother, Taltiu. The second makes some sense, since it included games, especially horse races, and those are pretty common at funerals in IE cultures. On the other hand, they’re pretty common at any occasion when lots of people get together, so that might not be significant.

That the horse races are at this time makes me wonder if they have something to do with Lugh being a god of Sovereignty, which is connected with horses throughout the IE world. That they are on beaches could be seen as simply a practical matter, since beaches provide stretches of clear land suitable for race courses. However, Ireland has always had lots of land good for racing. Horses are traditionally closely connected with the ocean, with waves being called the “manes of the horses of [fill in the local sea god],” and bodies of water are found in horse sacrifices, so there may be more to it than that.

Traditional Irish customs including climbing hills, usually dedicated to St. Michael, a ritual harvesting of the first grain or potatoes, the picking and eating of bilberries (i.e., a harvesting of wild food to go along with that of the cultivated crops), and dancing and courting on top of the climbed hills. MacNeill suggests that the ritual ran like this in Pagan times:

“[A] solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries of which everyone must partake; a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh, with some ceremony involving its hide, and its replacement by a young bull; a ritual dance-play perhaps telling of a struggle for a goddess and a ritual fight; an installation of a head on top of the hill and a triumphing over it by an actor impersonating Lugh; another play representing the confinement by Lugh of the monster blight or famine; a three-day celebration presided over by the brilliant young god or his human representative. Finally, a ceremony indicating that the interregnum was over, and the chief god in his right place again” (p. 426).

The other component is from the English festival of Lammas. The name comes from Old English hlafmas “Loaf Mass,” which says it all: it was a Christian holiday involving the blessing of bread made from the new grain. Doing this is a pretty obvious thing in any agricultural society, though, so it’s reasonable to think that English Pagans observed a similar custom. A related one is the ceremonial cutting of either the first or the last sheaf of grain, sometimes identified with a divine or semi-divine figure.

Neo-Pagans often celebrate rituals that are based on this, with bread forming a central part. This bread is sometimes identified with the Dying God.

Lugh is naturally the god of the occasion. Following his Irish festival, games have become a big part of Neo-Pagan Lughnasad rituals. These are beginning to make the day an important one for Pagan community unity. I went to one Games which included the sacrifice of a watermelon. It could have been seen as kind of silly, but it was so well handled that I, and apparently most of those present, found it very moving. The watermelon juice of course stood for blood, and pieces of the watermelon were passed around for sharing.

Farrar, Janet, and Farrar, Stewart. Eight Sabbats for Witches. London: Robert Hale, 1981.

MacNeill, Maire. The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.


FALL EQUINOX

This second harvest festival wasn’t celebrated in Ireland, and therefore, as with the other solar days, overlaps with the previous Holy Day of Lughnasad. This overlap is in the harvest portion, no surprise, since Lugh an Irish deity, so in non-Irish context customs connected with him wouldn’t make much sense. Fall Equinox customs therefore centered around reaping, with the death of the spirit of the grain in the first or last sheaf being particularly important. The making of corn dollies was also big.

Neo-Pagans have generally taken the idea of the cutting of the grain, applied James Frazer’s Dying Corn God, and come up with the belief that this is the festival of the death of the God. Corn dollies are seen as representations of the God, and used in enactments of the death, sometimes by burning. The day is often called “Mabon.” Since this is Welsh for “Youth” or “Child,” I haven’t been able to understand why.

As might be expected, rituals sometimes center around a thanksgiving for the harvest, an important part of such holidays everywhere. This doesn’t prevent American Pagans from celebrating the November holiday of Thanksgiving as well, of course.

Cabot, Laurie. Celebrate the Earth: A Year of Holidays in the Pagan Tradition. New York: Delta, 1994.

Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1989.

Cunningham, Scott. Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1988.

Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghan, 1971.

Farrar, Janet, and Farrar, Stewart. Eight Sabbats for Witches. London: Robert Hale, 1981.