The Festival of Lughnasadh

Hello everyone, and welcome to LukeLore. A quick deep dive into a folklore topic, where I share some of the stories from around the world that have piqued my interest. That Pagan Wheel of the Year has turned once more, and we’re now hitting the Gaellic beginnings of the harvest season with Lughnasadh! Another Celtic seasonal festival that marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. Not one of the ones I was too familiar with, this Wheel of the Year series has been a massive learning experience for myself this year. We’re a bit heavy on names this episode, so I will be doing my best with getting at least vaguely close to the right pronunciation and I highly recommend you make use of the LukeLore.com transcripts for the spellings. Assorted Gaelic and Celtic words don’t much care how modern English tries to write them down. Let’s boldly go forth and see what gems we can find this time out! SECTION BREAK – The Meaning of Lughnasadh This festival is a little bonus pagan thanks to the name, as Lughnasadh loosely translates to the “Assembly of or before the God Lugh”. The express invocation of one of the old gods sets it apart from Samhein, which is the next big milestone for the Celts and more about a time and event than being linked to a set deity. Lughnasadh is also the Celtic name for the month of August, “August” being a month jammed into the calendar to glorify a Roman emperor (I’ll save my rant for that for a future LukeLore). The three faced god Lugh of the Long Arm was the god of justice, oathkeeping, and nobility. He had a dual nature as both a saviour and a trickster, with an ancestry that came from the royalty of both the Tautha Denann and the Fomorians. Something that very loosely (as pop culture would understand it now) gave him a mixed heritage as both a light elf and a dark elf. The divine and the monstrous combined, as well as everything he learned from being fostered and raised by assorted other Celtic gods. He has a long story in mythology taking him from a prophetic birth, through to reigning over a united Ireland, to his death and beyond as he would still reach back from Tír na nÓg (“Land of the Young”, a Celtic afterlife) to help his descendants. His namesake festival and month is a celebration of farming in honour of his mother, Tailtiu. The goddess exhausted herself to death clearing Ireland ready for agriculture, and so the Áenach Tailten became a key part of Lughnasadh. Tailtiu’s funeral games were something like the Olympic Games of pagan Ireland. Held in the area of modern Teltown in the two weeks running up to Lughnasadh itself, as shown by an Iron Age era earthworks nearby that held the festival off and on across the centuries. There’s folklore claiming this goes back as far as 1600 BCE, but this may be a tale that has grown in the telling as analysis of the earthworks points more to a still impressive 829 BCE. Competitions that would be very familiar to Ancient Greeks were all present. Racing with just horses and chariots, both long and high jump, running and swimming. Martial contests of spear throwing, boxing, swordfighting, archery, and wrestling. Hurling, a Gaelic proto football, had team turnouts. What’s a little different, and in my opinion more interesting than the Greek Olympic who’s-the-most-oiled-Chad contests, is other competitions that were a part of the Áenach focusing on crafting and mental skills. Strategy, singing, dancing, and storytelling made up the cerebral challenges, with goldsmithing, jewellery, weaving, and armoury making up the craft contests. Running around chestbeating is fine and all, but I would be going for the Gold medal in storytelling given the chance! With Lugh the god of oathkeeping, Lughnasagh took on extra special duties for the community. New laws were announced on the day, and a version of handfasting year and a day marriage under the patronage of Lugh was available. Earlier more Spring and Summer versions of this timed arrangement were more based in flowers and threads, the Lughnasagh one involved a wooden door with a hole to clasp hands through as a part of the ritual. As we’ve gone over in previous Wheel of the Year episodes, these year and a day marriages in law as we understand a full contractual marriage now, only they could be either allowed to expire or be renewed after their time was up with no consequences to either party. Big trades and legally binding contracts of all sorts were auspicious on Lughnasadh as well, it was a massively significant time for Irish communities to mix together. Lughnasadh is another one of the festivals that Christianity only managed to finally kill off in the 20th Century after as long unbroken run. Some local hill and mountain climbing customs around the time survived, but were rebranded as Christian pilgrimages. It followed a similar pattern to Beltane in Edinburgh of a modern revival towards the end of the 20th Century with either neopagan reinterpretations, or original elements getting dusted off as cultural events. While also like Beltane, the break didn’t even last a full hundred years, it still feels like something was lost in the subsumed culture… To be fair the old did kind of coexist with the new, it just still feels uncomfortable that we don’t even know what we’ve lost. It’s just… gone. SECTION BREAK – Ireland's Oldest Monsters With the god Lugh’s unusual lineage, this is a good time to discuss the monstrous Fomorians. Chances are if it’s ancient and monstrous in Irish folklore, emerging from beneath the earth or the ocean waves, it’s at least a close cousin of the ancient tribe who ruled before even the other ancient fae creatures. The exact meaning of their name is pretty muddy, we’re talking OLD old stories here, “Fomorian” roughly (and variably) means either “from below” or “nether” combined with “the sea”, “demons”, or “giants”. I’m open to it being all of these things, or none of them and this is just kind of a modern “feel” about what it could mean. They kind of fit in with modern ideas of an unseelie host, the Winter Court of fairie. Or they’re a part of that. It’s certainly complicated. There’s no one description of any Fomorii. They’re typically repulsive, distorted, in many ways malformed, unless they suddenly aren’t with some beautiful members of their tribe who were typically the ones to mix with the Tautha Denann. Being mixed with goat characteristics was common, as well as having less or more body parts than a standard issue human. As these are a part of what we would now call “fae”, there is still some duality of nature going on here. As brutal and inhuman as they are, they were the original tribe of Ireland and even the Tautha Denann who predated humankind are the invaders pushing the Fomorii out. Some of the greatest figures in Irish mythology are descendants of Fomorians, such as Lugh who would be a pivotal uniter of Ireland and god of the pre-Christian Irish. In addition to being natural prodigies and masters of ancient magics, they also had a grasp of technology others needed of them. While happy to live in a totally wild Ireland foraging and hunting wild game it was their leader Bres who taught Lugh the secrets of ploughing the land for farming. While the Fomorians haunt fairytales and myth across the millennia as the monsters, there’s a lot more to them than simple caricature bad guys. As vague as all the old stories are, with who knows how much lost to time, there are key parts of the lore here for these dark otherworldy creatures that persist in modern storytelling. The shadow they cast is just that persistent! Let me tell you a cliffnotes version of one of their Kings, you see how much feels familiar. Balor of the Evil Eye was one of the rulers of the Fomorii, and his name wasn’t a figure of speech. He had a giant eye that he must always keep closed around his own people, for fear of his own power. Bear in mind here that one of the meanings of “Fomorian” is “giant”, this wasn’t a minor case of a bulging eye. It was so immense that should Balor want to open it four men must help lift the lid. This Evil Eye was kept tightly covered in seven cloaks at all times to both keep it cool and keep it from unleashing an eldritch force that was essentially a magical WMD. With a single cloak removed, ferns as far as Balor could see would begin to wither. If two cloaks were removed, grass began to redden. To remove three cloaks began to heat up the barks of trees, leaving them warm to the touch. Remove a fourth cloak? The trees would go from warm to beginning to smoke. Taking the fifth cloak away and everything near Balor became red hot. To remove the sixth cloak would result in the land surrounding the Dark King beginning to catch fire and living thing Balor stared at would turn to charred stone. To lift the seventh and final cloak is to unleash devastation. One time Balor did this he blasted all the Western islands of Scotland, which remain withered and haunted even now. I strongly suspect The Nuckelavee, one of my favourite monsters of folklore I went into detail over way back on Episode 4: The Good Folk, is Fomorii. They’re big, scary, they emerge from under the sea, are very disturbing to look at, and incredibly cranky when it comes to humans. Especially when it comes to if humans should go un-killed when they are around. The Nuckelavee being a Fomorian that refuses to rest, riding forth into the world that should be forbidden to it to lash out at the humans who have taken over, feels like it fits. These cantankerous and violent original inhabitants of Ireland are supposed to have moved to the Aos Si, or otherworld, with the Tautha Denann and other old spirits of the world to make way for the harsh world of iron humans have wrapped the earth in. But they’re still with us. When ancient giant, or troll, or ogre rises up to terrorise a story, the memory of the Fomorian lives on in the subconscious these stories come from. Childhood fear keeps the monsters alive, and we learn to be heroes from our opposition of them. AD BREAK Hello everyone, I would once again like to take a quick moment to sing the praises of the Spooks, Creeps, & Assorted Devilry Podcast. Today, we have them in their own words: AD. Please do go check them out if you’re looking for some awesome paranormal content. SECTION BREAK – Let’s Get This Bread There’s a very simple staple food associated with the early harvests: Bread! Anyone who follows me on social media will know this is weirdly significant to me. Across this year I’ve been on something of a bread baking rampage; practicing the basics, getting experimental with additions, or else just cheating with some pre-mixed fancy flours and just living my best life snacking on bread. As the first grains came in, there wasn’t that much to do in the way of variety, but there was definitely a way to stay full: Those grains could become loaves. This aspect of the first harvests that would have been celebrated as Lughnasadh got folded into Christianity across the centuries with Lammas, or Loaf Mass Day. Whether pagan or new fangled Christian there were important blessings to be had with the first loaves of the first harvests. This is in large part an expression of relief and new hope, given that back in pre-industrial days about the time that new grains were being harvested last year’s flour would be running out. It was a delicate balancing act to keep communities fed. It’s very easy to take for granted that bread will be found on shop shelves, when that really wasn’t the reality until relatively recently as far as human history goes. When specifically a Christian Lammas it is tradition to take a first loaf of the harvest to church on the 1st of August for blessing. Depending on denomination and local customs one of these new loaves can be used as the Eucharist instead of Jesus crackers. A smidge of paganism can creep in around here, as people compete to make beautiful bread in the shape of animals or with ornate crusts to invoke the harvest fields. It’s an ultimately simple cultural touchstone, though. If you have flour, you can make bread. If you have bread, you won’t go hungry. (also, I can confirm that fresh bread is delicious) Such is the simple yet foundational importance of bread, that storyteller Hans Christian Anderson made a moral tale where wilfully stepping upon bread spiralled into a loaf based Dante’s Inferno. You know what? I’m going to read the whole fairytale. It’s going to boost the episode length like every other time I read a fairytale, but it’s Lughnasadh! Let’s have a little Lammas celebration. SECTION BREAK – The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf THERE was once a girl who trod on a loaf to avoid soiling her shoes, and the misfortunes that happened to her in consequence are well known. Her name was Inge; she was a poor child, but proud and presuming, and with a bad and cruel disposition. When quite a little child she would delight in catching flies, and tearing off their wings, so as to make creeping things of them. When older, she would take cockchafers and beetles, and stick pins through them. Then she pushed a green leaf, or a little scrap of paper towards their feet, and when the poor creatures would seize it and hold it fast, and turn over and over in their struggles to get free from the pin, she would say, “The cockchafer is reading; see how he turns over the leaf.” She grew worse instead of better with years, and, unfortunately, she was pretty, which caused her to be excused, when she should have been sharply reproved.

“Your headstrong will requires severity to conquer it,” her mother often said to her. “As a little child you used to trample on my apron, but one day I fear you will trample on my heart.” And, alas! this fear was realized.

Inge was taken to the house of some rich people, who lived at a distance, and who treated her as their own child, and dressed her so fine that her pride and arrogance increased.

When she had been there about a year, her patroness said to her, “You ought to go, for once, and see your parents, Inge.”

So Inge started to go and visit her parents; but she only wanted to show herself in her native place, that the people might see how fine she was. She reached the entrance of the village, and saw the young laboring men and maidens standing together chatting, and her own mother amongst them. Inge’s mother was sitting on a stone to rest, with a fagot of sticks lying before her, which she had picked up in the wood. Then Inge turned back; she who was so finely dressed she felt ashamed of her mother, a poorly clad woman, who picked up wood in the forest. She did not turn back out of pity for her mother’s poverty, but from pride.

Another half-year went by, and her mistress said, “you ought to go home again, and visit your parents, Inge, and I will give you a large wheaten loaf to take to them, they will be glad to see you, I am sure.”

So Inge put on her best clothes, and her new shoes, drew her dress up around her, and set out, stepping very carefully, that she might be clean and neat about the feet, and there was nothing wrong in doing so. But when she came to the place where the footpath led across the moor, she found small pools of water, and a great deal of mud, so she threw the loaf into the mud, and trod upon it, that she might pass without wetting her feet. But as she stood with one foot on the loaf and the other lifted up to step forward, the loaf began to sink under her, lower and lower, till she disappeared altogether, and only a few bubbles on the surface of the muddy pool remained to show where she had sunk. And this is the story.

But where did Inge go? She sank into the ground, and went down to the Marsh Woman, who is always brewing there.

The Marsh Woman is related to the elf maidens, who are well-known, for songs are sung and pictures painted about them. But of the Marsh Woman nothing is known, excepting that when a mist arises from the meadows, in summer time, it is because she is brewing beneath them. To the Marsh Woman’s brewery Inge sunk down to a place which no one can endure for long. A heap of mud is a palace compared with the Marsh Woman’s brewery; and as Inge fell she shuddered in every limb, and soon became cold and stiff as marble. Her foot was still fastened to the loaf, which bowed her down as a golden ear of corn bends the stem.

An evil spirit soon took possession of Inge, and carried her to a still worse place, in which she saw crowds of unhappy people, waiting in a state of agony for the gates of mercy to be opened to them, and in every heart was a miserable and eternal feeling of unrest. It would take too much time to describe the various tortures these people suffered, but Inge’s punishment consisted in standing there as a statue, with her foot fastened to the loaf. She could move her eyes about, and see all the misery around her, but she could not turn her head; and when she saw the people looking at her she thought they were admiring her pretty face and fine clothes, for she was still vain and proud. But she had forgotten how soiled her clothes had become while in the Marsh Woman’s brewery, and that they were covered with mud; a snake had also fastened itself in her hair, and hung down her back, while from each fold in her dress a great toad peeped out and croaked like an asthmatic poodle. Worse than all was the terrible hunger that tormented her, and she could not stoop to break off a piece of the loaf on which she stood. No; her back was too stiff, and her whole body like a pillar of stone. And then came creeping over her face and eyes flies without wings; she winked and blinked, but they could not fly away, for their wings had been pulled off; this, added to the hunger she felt, was horrible torture.

“If this lasts much longer,” she said, “I shall not be able to bear it.” But it did last, and she had to bear it, without being able to help herself.

A tear, followed by many scalding tears, fell upon her head, and rolled over her face and neck, down to the loaf on which she stood. Who could be weeping for Inge? She had a mother in the world still, and the tears of sorrow which a mother sheds for her child will always find their way to the child’s heart, but they often increase the torment instead of being a relief. And Inge could hear all that was said about her in the world she had left, and every one seemed cruel to her. The sin she had committed in treading on the loaf was known on earth, for she had been seen by the cowherd from the hill, when she was crossing the marsh and had disappeared.

When her mother wept and exclaimed, “Ah, Inge! what grief thou hast caused thy mother” she would say, “Oh that I had never been born! My mother’s tears are useless now.”


And then the words of the kind people who had adopted her came to her ears, when they said, “Inge was a sinful girl, who did not value the gifts of God, but trampled them under her feet.”


“Ah,” thought Inge, “they should have punished me, and driven all my naughty tempers out of me.”


A song was made about “The girl who trod on a loaf to keep her shoes from being soiled,” and this song was sung everywhere. The story of her sin was also told to the little children, and they called her “wicked Inge,” and said she was so naughty that she ought to be punished. Inge heard all this, and her heart became hardened and full of bitterness.


But one day, while hunger and grief were gnawing in her hollow frame, she heard a little, innocent child, while listening to the tale of the vain, haughty Inge, burst into tears and exclaim, “But will she never come up again?”


And she heard the reply, “No, she will never come up again.”


“But if she were to say she was sorry, and ask pardon, and promise never to do so again?” asked the little one.


“Yes, then she might come; but she will not beg pardon,” was the answer.

“Oh, I wish she would!” said the child, who was quite unhappy about it. “I should be so glad. I would give up my doll and all my playthings, if she could only come here again. Poor Inge! it is so dreadful for her.”


These pitying words penetrated to Inge’s inmost heart, and seemed to do her good. It was the first time any one had said, “Poor Inge!” without saying something about her faults. A little innocent child was weeping, and praying for mercy for her. It made her feel quite strange, and she would gladly have wept herself, and it added to her torment to find she could not do so. And while she thus suffered in a place where nothing changed, years passed away on earth, and she heard her name less frequently mentioned. But one day a sigh reached her ear, and the words, “Inge! Inge! what a grief thou hast been to me! I said it would be so.” It was the last sigh of her dying mother.


After this, Inge heard her kind mistress say, “Ah, poor Inge! shall I ever see thee again? Perhaps I may, for we know not what may happen in the future.” But Inge knew right well that her mistress would never come to that dreadful place.


Time-passed—a long bitter time—then Inge heard her name pronounced once more, and saw what seemed two bright stars shining above her. They were two gentle eyes closing on earth. Many years had passed since the little girl had lamented and wept about “poor Inge.” That child was now an old woman, whom God was taking to Himself. In the last hour of existence the events of a whole life often appear before us; and this hour the old woman remembered how, when a child, she had shed tears over the story of Inge, and she prayed for her now. As the eyes of the old woman closed to earth, the eyes of the soul opened upon the hidden things of eternity, and then she, in whose last thoughts Inge had been so vividly present, saw how deeply the poor girl had sunk. She burst into tears at the sight, and in heaven, as she had done when a little child on earth, she wept and prayed for poor Inge. Her tears and her prayers echoed through the dark void that surrounded the tormented captive soul, and the unexpected mercy was obtained for it through an angel’s tears. As in thought Inge seemed to act over again every sin she had committed on earth, she trembled, and tears she had never yet been able to weep rushed to her eyes. It seemed impossible that the gates of mercy could ever be opened to her; but while she acknowledged this in deep penitence, a beam of radiant light shot suddenly into the depths upon her. More powerful than the sunbeam that dissolves the man of snow which the children have raised, more quickly than the snowflake melts and becomes a drop of water on the warm lips of a child, was the stony form of Inge changed, and as a little bird she soared, with the speed of lightning, upward to the world of mortals. A bird that felt timid and shy to all things around it, that seemed to shrink with shame from meeting any living creature, and hurriedly sought to conceal itself in a dark corner of an old ruined wall; there it sat cowering and unable to utter a sound, for it was voiceless. Yet how quickly the little bird discovered the beauty of everything around it. The sweet, fresh air; the soft radiance of the moon, as its light spread over the earth; the fragrance which exhaled from bush and tree, made it feel happy as it sat there clothed in its fresh, bright plumage. All creation seemed to speak of beneficence and love. The bird wanted to give utterance to thoughts that stirred in his breast, as the cuckoo and the nightingale in the spring, but it could not. Yet in heaven can be heard the song of praise, even from a worm; and the notes trembling in the breast of the bird were as audible to Heaven even as the psalms of David before they had fashioned themselves into words and song.


Christmas-time drew near, and a peasant who dwelt close by the old wall stuck up a pole with some ears of corn fastened to the top, that the birds of heaven might have feast, and rejoice in the happy, blessed time. And on Christmas morning the sun arose and shone upon the ears of corn, which were quickly surrounded by a number of twittering birds. Then, from a hole in the wall, gushed forth in song the swelling thoughts of the bird as he issued from his hiding place to perform his first good deed on earth,—and in heaven it was well known who that bird was.


The winter was very hard; the ponds were covered with ice, and there was very little food for either the beasts of the field or the birds of the air. Our little bird flew away into the public roads, and found here and there, in the ruts of the sledges, a grain of corn, and at the halting places some crumbs. Of these he ate only a few, but he called around him the other birds and the hungry sparrows, that they too might have food. He flew into the towns, and looked about, and wherever a kind hand had strewed bread on the window-sill for the birds, he only ate a single crumb himself, and gave all the rest to the rest of the other birds. In the course of the winter the bird had in this way collected many crumbs and given them to other birds, till they equalled the weight of the loaf on which Inge had trod to keep her shoes clean; and when the last bread-crumb had been found and given, the gray wings of the bird became white, and spread themselves out for flight.


“See, yonder is a sea-gull!” cried the children, when they saw the white bird, as it dived into the sea, and rose again into the clear sunlight, white and glittering. But no one could tell whither it went then although some declared it flew straight to the sun. SECTION BREAK Well, I’ve done it to myself again. That was a lot more than I initially planned! The siren call of a good fairytale gets me every time. Don’t forget to check out the Spooks, Creeps, & Assorted Devilry Podcast when you get the chance, and I should be popping up with some sort of weird loaf of bread for Lughnasadh on social media around Monday 1st August. Feel free to join in with me, it’s a delicious form of celebration! And don’t take your bread for granted, or the Marsh Woman will have you… LukeLore is a Ghost Story Guys production. If you do want to contact me there’s the show’s dedicated email lukeloregsg@gmail.com, and the general show email ghoststoryguys@gmail.com. Both myself and the main show are really easy to find on Facebook and Twitter if you want to make day to day contact, as well as a very active Instagram account a lot of the community gets involved with. The LukeLore Instagram is now up and running for your more folklore focused content needs, with a lot more to come for the LukeLore brand soon.


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Goodbye for now.