first published August 1, 2022
“The Little Death of the Sun.” This was how a wise woman I once studied with long ago in Oregon described Lughnasad, the Celtic celebration named for the god Lugh. August 1st has long been recognized as Lugh’s day, but astronomically speaking, as a true cross-quarter day, Lughnasad falls on August 7th in 2022 (it can move around). The ancients celebrated this moment as the midpoint between Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox, marking the turning of the Wheel of the Year in addition to Lugh’s defeat of the spirits of Tir na n’Og (the mysterious Otherworld).
Maybe you’ve noticed how the slant of light always changes during these first few days of August? or how the feeling in the air subtly shifts? or how suddenly night becomes longer and just slightly cooler? It is the beginning of harvest time in much of the Northern Hemisphere, as it was for the Celts in western Europe. It is the time of huckleberries and blackberries in wild places near me, while in the garden the peas and beets are ready to be picked and stored. The sweet-smelling hay that will feed my goats for the year was just delivered today, too.
How will you celebrate your first harvests of summer? What will this “little death of the sun” mean to you? The Celts of the British Isles celebrated with offerings and supplications to Lugh for blessings, and with feasting, hosting games, and climbing hills or mountains.
Lugh, art by Ingrid Graywolf
Lugh was a hero among the ancient Celts, but also at times a mischievous trickster. Like many tricksters, he crossed boundaries. Lugh was a child of two worlds. His father was a member of the Tuatha de Danann (“people of the goddess Danu,” sometimes known as the Fair Folk) and his mother was a Formorian (her people were enemies of the Tuatha de Danann). Varied threads woven through ancient lore also name various individuals as Lugh’s foster parents, so he was a boy of many influences.
The goddess Tailtiu is most frequently named as Lugh's foster mother. Tailtiu has quite ancient associations as an early earth goddess, and is said to have cleared the plains of Ireland for planting. She is closely connected to agriculture, life-giving, and sacrifice. Tailtiu's name is probably derived from Talantiu, which means "the great one of the Earth." An older Gaelic name for Lughnasad is Bron Trogain, which means "sorrows (or sacrifices) of the Earth." It is possible that prior to the appearance of Lugh, this day was associated with a great goddess as Earth mother, and that it was a time to honor the sacrifices made so that life might be sustained. Lugh is said to have held games and festivities on this day to recognize his foster mother.
In spite of his tricksy willingness to sometimes lie, cheat, and steal, Lugh was associated primarily with justice, oath-keeping, cunning, and the skills of the warrior.
Portrayed often as a strong, capable, and just warrior and leader, Lugh’s storied actions were often heroic. He was called “Long Arm Lugh” or “Lugh of the Long Arm.” As bearer of the Spear of Assal, he was unbeatable in battle. His talent with the sling allowed him to defeat Balor in battle and free the Tuatha de Danann from the oppression of the Formorians (his consultations with the Morrigan probably helped with this, too). His sword, Fragarach (“the answerer”) was given him by none other than the god of the sea, Manannan mac Lir, and forced the truth out of those at whom it was pointed.
Though Lugh has often been described as a solar god, there is varied opinion on this point based on the translation of this name. Current scholarly thought leans toward the proto-IndoEuropean meaning of the root lewgh, “to bind by oath.” Nevertheless, this day remains a good time to honor the decline of the sun’s rule while also honoring the day of Lugh’s winning of Tir na n’Og and the ultimate triumph of his metaphoric light. And while he is known for the standard he set as Ireland’s first High King, we mustn’t forget that Lugh was also the father of the beloved Celtic hero, Cuchulainn.
Upon his death, during the long-ago days when even gods could die, Lugh went finally to dwell across the sea in Tir na n’Og. Watch the golden rays lengthen tonight as the sun slowly settles into the western lands of the ever-young, and think of Lugh the Long Arm. Raise a toast of gratitude for the gifts - whatever yours may be - brought in from summer's first harvests. Raise a toast to this “little death of the Sun” and dream of the Fair Folk.