Posted by: Brian | January 30, 2021

Book of Leinster

A kind reader reached out asking what the Sonfg of Amergin looked like as captured in the manuscript tradition. Here is a close up from the Book of Leinster:

Here’s the page:

Posted by: Brian | September 28, 2020

RTÉ Podcast about the Song of Amergin


Posted by: Brian | December 20, 2017

Dàir na Coille: New Souls Coming In The Darkness

Dàir na Coille: New Souls Coming In The Darkness
By Brian Walsh (orriginally published in “The Hearth” emagazine, 2005)

We are deep in the season of darkness now.  Samhain, the festival of death, is long behind us, and Imbolc, the festival of birth still feels a long way off.  The life of most trees dwells hidden among their roots, but the holly flaunts its red berries amidst a mantle of thorny green, showing us both the harshness of the season and the power of life enduring.  The wren, little king of the birds, sings defiantly from bare branches.  And mistletoe, with its lightning-white berries, still grows green high above the frozen ground.

The days of mid-winter are the shortest of the whole year, which is why in parts of Ireland this time was once called Dubluachair, ‘Black Brightness’, a word still found in the idiom i ndúluachair an gheimhridh, which can be paraphrased as ‘in the dead of winter’.

In some traditions, this season is heralded as the rebirth of the Sun god, but in Celtic traditions the winter usually belongs to goddesses like the Cailleach, the ‘Crone’, and Griannán, the ‘Winter Sun’, and their reigns are far from over in December.  Though the birth of a child of promise, often as Lugh (lightning/inspiration/success), born of Ethniu (kernel/north star), may be celebrated, rather than the birth of new light; as seen in some Mediterranean religions at this time, it could just as well be seen as a birth in darkness, a distinction made evident in mythology by the hidden nature of Lugh’s birth.

Winter is a time of darkness, of incubation which prepares for the emergence and arrival of new life in the spring and through the rest of the year.  In parts of Gaelic Scotland this incubation is celebrated as Dair na Coille, (pronounced dayr na col-ya) the ‘imbuement of the woods’ or the ‘impregnation of the woods’, and according to folk custom, is believed to take place on the last night of December in preparation for the New Year.

Dair na Coille celebrates the arrival of blessings, life-forces, and spirits, brought on the West Wind and nestled in the trees until each new blessing and new life, and new spirit emerges in due course in the months ahead.  On New Year’s Day, the head of the household would go out and get a small twig from a fruit-bearing tree and bring it into the house saying “Fas is gnaths is toradh”, meaning ‘Growth, tradition, and abundance’, so that his family could share in the blessing of the new emerging life.  As far as I know, this is all that remains of this custom. We are not told where the blessings and spirits come from exactly, or who sends them, however, we can interpret the symbolism that is still present in this simple custom.

The new spirits are brought in on the West Wind, which, apart from being wonderfully animistic, says something important.  The wind is a vehicle for vitality; we affirm this fact with every breath we take, but the West, the direction of sunset, death, and the ancestors, is a direction of endings.  So these newly arriving spirits come from the place unto which departing spirits go.  The spirits are not just coming, the spirits are returning!  Renewed!

Michael Newton suggests in his handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World that the individual trees imbued in Dair na Coille are a source of life, much as the Tree of Life is the ultimate source of life.  While he does not elaborate, it is as though each tree is an allomorph of the World tree, and the spirits are like the bird/souls of many shamanic cultures nestled in the world tree waiting to be born.  While the custom does not mention birds explicitly, bird/souls are mentioned repeatedly in Celtic mythology, both pagan and Christian.

Many deities travel in the form of birds, or have birds associated with them, omens and auguries are taken from the flight of birds, and the soul’s ecstatic flight is compared to the flight of birds (as implied by the feathered headdress of Mug Roth and the tugen or feathered cloak said to have been worn by the druids).  In addition to the many mortal and supernatural beings who take on bird forms in the mythic literature, we have, in the Altus Prosator, the Vision of Adomnán, and the writings of Augustinus Hibernicus, early Christian examples of human souls, before or after their lives here among us, depicted as birds in the Tree of Life.

Returning to the custom itself, there is a great deal of significance in the householder’s ritual gathering of a small twig, which is brought in with the saying “Fas is gnaths is toradh”, ‘Growth, tradition, and abundance’.  This speaks clearly of continuance and a good life.  Interestingly, toradh means not only abundance; it is also the vital essence of persons, animals, plants, food and drink.

That the spirits return on December 31st and the household brings their blessings into the house on New Years day is also important.  While January 1st was not significant until well into the Christian period, it does bear a variety of customs, such as Hogmanay, associated with auspicious new beginnings for the year ahead.  That the Dair na Coille blessings of growth, tradition, and abundance come out of the west with the returning spirits connects them with the ancestors – it acknowledges that these coming blessings are intimately tied with what has gone before.

Beyond the implicit cyclical, and possibly reincarnational, motif, Dair na Coille heralds the blessing of one’s ancestors upon the living family.  These blessings, coming from the west, link this midwinter custom to ancestor veneration; something we know to have played a significant role in Celtic religion and Pan-Indo-European religions (both with and without reincarnation beliefs).  This might be why there are no deities or other spirits named in association with Dair na Coille.  While there are many gods and powers associated with the many aspects of our world, one’s ancestors are perhaps the only powers whose vested interests never run counter to the wellbeing of one’s household.

Samhain is the feast of the ancestors, but the role of ancestor veneration in Celtic religion is not restricted to a single feast, especially with regard to matters concerning the wellbeing of the household and the family.  The symbolism of Dair na Coille is rich and beautiful, yet quiet and understated.  This simple and barely ritualized belief has a great depth of meaning and points to a momentous event in the cycle of the seasons.

As January 1st is not meaningful in my tradition of Celtic paganism, I celebrate Dair na Coille either at the cross-quarter holiday of Midwinter (Yule) or on the first visible crescent after Midwinter – the first time in the Celtic year when the sun and moon are both increasing – and moving it a few days to  New Year, in either direction, does not impact its symbolism as an imbuement in the middle of the darkest season.

Regardless of which day one celebrates Dair na Coille, New Year’s Day, Winter Solstice, the first visible crescent after Midwinter, or some other relevant and significant day, the simple acknowledgment of the souls returning and preparing for spring and the new life it will bring, should happen in darkness, in counter point to the boisterous defiance of winter, which is celebrated by decorating with mistletoe, holly and other evergreens, or listening for the brave wren, who unlike other birds that sing for a mate in spring, sings with joyous strength against the dark, all winter long.

Though there are solar themes associated with mid-winter, the three themes discussed in this article – Dair na Coille as an imbuement in darkness; defiance of winter as shown by the holly and the wren; and the birth of the hidden child of promise – are not solar themes.  They happen when the sun is at her weakest, and they happen independently of any of the goddesses who personify the sun in Celtic mythologies.  There is a lot going on in the dead of winter, and I invite you to celebrate both the overt and the subtle parts of the season, and incubate that knowledge so that you may warm and be warmed by it until all re-emerges with the light born of springtime.

Selected Bibliography

Carey, J. King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings, Four Courts, Dublin, 2000

Danaher, K. The Year in Ireland, Mercier, Minneapolis, 1972

Meek, D. The Campbell Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings, Gaelic Society of Inverness, Inverness, 1978

Newton, M. The Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, Four Courts, Dublin, 2000

Rees, A&B, Celtic Heritage, Thames and Hudson, London, 1961

Ross, A. Pagan Celtic Britain, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, 1996 (reprint of 1967)

Walsh, B The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex, Xlibris, 2002

Posted by: Brian | December 20, 2017

The Celtic Hearth: the Heart of the Household

The Celtic Hearth: the Heart of the Household
By Brian Walsh (originally published in “The Hearth” emagazine 2005)

Traditionally, Samhain is not only the Celtic New Year and feast of the ancestors, it is also the beginning of winter and the end of the outdoor activities of summer. The crops were all harvested; the cattle were brought down from the highlands and the pigs brought in from the woods; fishing and hunting were mostly finished; and the season of battle and cattle-raids was over. Though some outdoor work was still necessary, at this time our ancestors’ attention turned inward to matters of home and family. If the household was important, noble guests would arrive for various winter feasts while on tour of their territories; plans for next summer would be arranged; political alliances struck; marriage matches made; and stories, both entertaining and sacred, both fanciful and historical, were told. The focus of much of this activity was the household hearth. It was not only where food was prepared, but also the primary source of warmth and light for the dwelling, around which people gathered through the long winter nights.

In Iron Age round houses, the hearth was located in the center of the dwelling under the vertical ridgepole which held up the roof and protruded through the smoke hole. Even when the shape of houses changed, the hearth remained symbolically, and often literally, in the center of the house right up until the Early Modern period.

Though the secular functions surrounding the hearth were more prominent in the winter, the sacred functions of the hearth endured throughout the year. The most prominent of these sacred functions were carried out daily by the woman of the house, the (primary) wife of the householder. At night, it was the privilege and obligation of the woman of the house to bank the fire, insuring that it would smoulder under a blanket of ashes until morning. This act was accompanied by prayers invoking sacred protection to guard the home throughout the night. Before Christianity, these prayers would have likely been addressed to Brighid or her local cognate. In the Christian period, these prayers are typically addressed to Mary or Brighid, or occasionally Christ, but the following Scottish prayer only vaguely points to the Trinity:

The sacred Three
To save,
To shield,
To surround
The hearth,
The house,
The household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh, this eve,
This night,
And every night,
Each single night.
(Carmina Gadelica 84)

The next morning the fire would be roused from under its covering of ash and new fuel added to awaken it for the day ahead, again with prayers. It was considered very inauspicious for the hearth fire to go out at any time, except at Samhain and Bealtaine when the hearth was ritually extinguished and relit. For this reason the utmost care was taken in tending the hearth.

In addition to the daily tending of the fire, there were seasonal rituals which impacted the hearth as well. In Irish tradition, all four Ráithí, the seasonal quarter days, included paying some special attention to the hearth.

Ireland consisted of many tribal groups, who were theoretically (though almost never actually) united under a high king who ruled from Tara. Whoever was king of Tara was usually deemed high king, at least in name, and so had certain religious functions and responsibilities even if he was not politically the actual ruler of all. In this spirit of unity, on the eve of Samhain (Nov. 1st) every hearth in Ireland was ritually extinguished, plunging the whole island into darkness. A sacred fire was brought from Tlachtga to re-ignite the fire of Tara, the personal hearth of the high king and ritually the hearth of Ireland as a whole. Fire from the king’s household hearth was used to rekindle the hearths of households close to Tara. But for those households further from Tara than was practical to travel, bonfires were lit. When the light of these bonfires were seen by neighbouring communities they would light their own bonfires and spread the sacred fire to their local hearths. These bonfires in turn were seen by people in further outlying communities who would then light their own bonfires. From bonfire to bonfire sacred fire spread across the land until the whole of Ireland’s hearths were rekindled. In this way the whole island shares in one fire spread from the high king’s hearth.

On the eve of Imbolc (Feb. 1st), the hearth becomes the center of attention. St. Brighid, the Christian remembrance of a goddess of the same name, is welcomed into the house and Imbolc games are played to court her blessings. This connection is even more obvious among Scottish Gaels, who put an effigy of Bríd ‘to bed’ in a basket by the hearth along with a birch rod. The next morning, they hoped to see the imprint of the rod on the hearth’s ashes as a sign of her blessings. Many household chores were forbidden on Imbolc, but could be resumed the next day, the Christian feast of Candlemas (Feb 2nd).

On the eve of Bealtaine (May 1st) Irish hearths were again ritually extinguished and the whole island plunged into darkness. The process of relighting the hearths was similar to what happened at Samhain, only this time a sacred fire was kindled by the druids on the hill of Uisnech. It is this druidic fire, in contrast to the king’s fire at Samhain, which is lit and spread across the whole of Ireland. Incidentally, there was also a prohibition on Bealtaine of letting fire or live embers leave the house, lest the household’s prosperity be taken away with the fire.

At first glance it would seem as though Lúghnasadh (Aug. 1st) is an exception to the above pattern, as the hearth usually is not explicitly mentioned in the seasonal customs of this holy day of first harvests and market fairs. This is not surprising considering the very public nature of the festival; but if we look a little closer, there are some household customs. Most important of these was a token harvest by the householder, which was then made into bread by the woman of the house, sometimes with berries collected by the children. This meal, like every other meal, would of course be cooked on the hearth. What sets this meal apart is it is the first meal of the new harvest, and so exalts the Powers that insure that the household will not starve through the seasons ahead.

So it is clear that the hearth plays an important role in the rhythms of the day and the year, at least in recorded insular tradition, but these are not the only times when attention is paid to the hearth. Reflecting what Bruneaux asserts with regard to Celtic sacred sites, the most important features of the home (as well as the community or the territory) are likewise the entrance, the perimeter, and the center. This is why prayers and auguries were done while standing in the doorway, and why perambulation of ritual boundaries, and circumambulation of ritual centers are all such important features in Celtic religious practices and/or later folk practices. The role of the center, which may be taken up by a tree, pillar, well, pit, or fire in various sacred sites, is taken up by the hearth, and the ridgepole above it, in the domestic cult.

With little evidence for separate or extravagant domestic shrines in a Celtic context, it is likely that the central hearth served in this capacity, not only as the representation of the hearth goddess, but also as the locus for worshiping other household gods as well as the ancestors. Iron Age and Romano-Celtic hearth andirons have been found in many regions decorated with bull, horse, or ram heads, all of which are sacred and sacrificial animals. One andiron from a late Gallo-Roman site was marked with “laribus augustis”, etched in an unprofessional hand by the householder, explicitly linking the hearth with ancestral spirits in his time and place. Evidence for ancestral reverence at the household hearth takes its most intimate and immediate form among the Aeduii of Gaul where the dead were actually buried under the household hearth. A variation on this practice is found around Lough Gur, Limerick, where the dead were buried under the hearths of abandoned houses, as though to afford them a hearth of their own, mirroring the living around `living’ hearths by putting dead people around `dead’ hearths.

Clearly, the cult of the hearth was not limited to matters of food and the home. It had important implications for community identity, as is made obvious in the Ráithí customs above which link the family hearth to the hearth of the king at Samhain, and the druidic fire (perhaps representing the hearth of the gods?) at Bealtaine. In addition to linking the family with one’s contemporary world, the whole of the nation and those who shared one’s gods, it also linked the living household to the community of those who had gone before, the ancestors.

For most of its history, Ireland consisted of many tribal groups, who were theoretically (though almost never actually) united under a high king who ruled from Tara. Whoever was king of Tara was usually deemed high king, at least in name, and so had certain religious functions and responsibilities even if he was not politically the actual ruler of all. The religious functions of the high king in Ireland, or a king in his particular region, mirrored that of the householder in his house. Similarly, as discussed by Enright, the role of the woman of the house is reflected on a grander and somewhat diffused way in the roles of the filidh (bards), cup-bearers, and, of course, the queen.

No discussion of the hearth would be complete without a look at the goddess of the hearth. With many local variants on her name, she was called Brighid and Bríg among the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland; Brigantia in Briton; and Brigindo, Brixia and Bricta among the Gauls. The Romans usually conflated her with Minerva, though she may also be profitably compared to Vesta, especially in relation to the hearth. This much beloved goddess was worshiped throughout the western Celtic world, and continued to be worshiped into the Christian period as the Gaelic saint Brigit and the Breton saint Brec’hed, keeping much of her original character and qualities intact.

Her name means ‘High/Exalted One’ with the added connotations of ‘Rising-Up’ and implications of fire and heat. Given her role as Banfile (she bard), her name likely also has a punning connotation of ‘sacred utterance’, linking her to other Indo-European gods like the Norse Bragi and the Vedic Brihaspati. Her Gaelic epithets include: Banfile ‘She-Bard’, Bé nGoibnechtae ‘Smith woman’, and Bé Legis ‘Healing woman’, as well as Briugu ‘She who runs a hostel’, Ambue ‘without cattle’ (referring to her as warrior and protectress of young warriors), Búadach ‘the Victorious’, and Boillsge ‘of brightness’.

In Gaelic tradition, Brighid is a daughter of the Dagda. She is a fire goddess with many solar traits. She is patron of the bards, and a goddess of poetry and inspiration. She is a goddess of healing, smith-craft, the hearth, hospitality, protection of the home, young children, and inexperienced warriors. Brighid is said to lean over every cradle, and through her interest in healing and children, she is often assumed to preside over childbirth (a role once governed by Bóann’s sister Bé Binn). Brighid is also protector of crops and livestock, especially against disease and malicious magic, and presides over dairy production and many household crafts. With the death of her only son at the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, Brighid started to keen. As this was the first time keening was ever heard, she came to preside over grief and mourning. Like the hearth itself, Brighid is intimately entwined with many everyday aspects, and so is a central feature of our lives from the cradle to the grave. It is the multivalent, culture-bearing quality which probably caused the Romans to see the Gaulish manifestations of this goddess as Minerva rather than quiet unassuming Vesta.

In her most regal aspect, the hearth goddess can even take on the role of Sovereignty. This is seen, though not emphasized, in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired where Bres gains his kingship over the Tuatha Dé by marrying Brig. Preeminently, the Sovereignty aspect of this goddess is seen among the Brigantes, for whom Brigantia was their tutelary goddess, a role which no doubt extended out of her qualities as culture-bearer and victory-bringer, and perhaps as the incarnation of the hearth of the nation (echoing the role of Tlachtga, legitimizing the king’s hearth at Tara).

Though worshipped through the Gaelic world, Brighid’s primary shrine was at Kildare. Kildare is about 60km away from both Uisnech and Tara, creating an equilateral triangle with them. Given Uisnech’s druidic (1st function) connotations, and Tara’s political/warrior (2nd function) connotations, it is not hard to imagine the shrine of the hearth goddess as having a decidedly nurturing (3rd function) quality. This was a round enclosure, in which a perpetual fire was tended by nineteen nuns in the Christian period, and probably nineteen virgin priestesses before that. They are the hearth keepers of a whole people, not unlike the role of the Vestal virgins in Rome, and (if Celtic logic resembles Roman logic on this count) their virginity insures that the hearth they tend remains a sacred communal hearth. Because the woman of the house tends the hearth of her husband’s household, were these priestesses married the fire they tend might be seen as that of a given individual rather than everyone. A similar 3rd century British temple, also with an eternal flame, was dedicated to ‘Miverva’.

Celtic sacred sites took on a variety of shapes, but it is interesting that Brighid’s enclosure was round, which may reflect another Pan-Indo-European precedent. Vedic rites had more than one fire; among them were a square fire as the ‘altar of offering’ and a round fire to represent the household or community of the petitioner. The round fire was tended by the petitioner’s wife. Likewise Roman rites had a square altar for offerings and a round fire on a tripod where wine and incense were offered at the beginning of the rite. Furthermore in Rome, Vesta’s temple was round, while those of other gods were square or rectangular.

Though certainly most prominent, Brighid is not the only deity in Gaelic culture with hearth associations. Previously mentioned is Tlachtga, the daughter of Mug Roth, whose fire is used to re-light the high-king’s hearth at Samhain. Furthermore Triad 120 mentions the hearth of Morrigan as one of the three things that constitute a smithy, along with Nethin’s spit and the Dagda’s anvil. As a final example, we also have a reference in Dinneen’s Gaelic dictionary, of Goibniu, the smith god, being invoked to insure a good yield while churning butter by putting a live ember in the churn.

With this brief overview of what the Hearth has meant to our predecessors – by looking at both Iron Age pagan practices and subsequent folk practices – we are now left with an important question: Can this be relevantly and appropriately translated into our modern practice?

The hearth and her fire are no longer the focus of attention in our homes; the television has taken that prestigious position. Our heating system is hidden in our walls, and our stoves are relegated to the corner of the kitchens, ignored when not in use. Even if we are lucky enough to have a fireplace, it has become a romantic archaism of no practical significance. However, even though our lifestyles have changed, we have not. We still require light and heat and food, as well as shelter, well-being, and companionship, all of which are represented better by the hearth than any modern device. We still gather in family units, both biological and chosen, and create communities in which we share and grow, create and nurture. We are still beholden to each other and to all who have gone before us to define who we are. So, if we are essentially the same human beings our ancestors were, and the hearth goddess, as a divinity, represents an eternal constellation of truths and Mysteries in this world, then certainly many hearth-based beliefs and customs can be relevantly and appropriately translated into our modern practice.

Even though most of us do not have literal hearths anymore, we can still honour the hearth goddess, and all that the hearth stands for generally, by setting up a household shrine. Exploring how this might be done inevitably moves this article from a historical exploration of the cumulative experiences of our ancestors to a more ‘confessional’ exploration of modern personal experience. Since the ancient Celts seemed to focus their domestic observances on the hearth (and since my biases are both Celtic Recon and minimalist) I would suggest a single household shrine on a shelf over the stove or on the mantelpiece, if one has a fireplace. This household shrine would be the focus of all household observances. The center of the shrine should, of course, be dedicated to the hearth goddess, with the other household gods to the right, and the ancestors to the left. Household gods would include the patron deity of the householder’s profession and the personal patron deity of each of the household’s members. The ancestors could include not only deceased family members, but also other dead people who have profoundly shaped a member of the household and their worldview or work, such as personal role-models or important founders or innovators of one’s religious tradition, profession, or nation.

Having said that, as neo-pagans, it is up to each individual household to determine how traditional or innovative, and how minimalist or extravagant, they wish to be in defining their hearth, their household practice, and how they wish to honour the gods. Furthermore, if a household honours more than one pantheon, it might be prudent to have separate shrines, each following the mandates and precedents of the culture in question. There are also practical concerns to be considered. For example, our household varies from my stated one-shrine ideal because we don’t have much room in the kitchen, so Brighid is above the stove, and the rest of the household gods are on the top of my computer hutch in the main room.

Brighid’s shrine has a Bride cross and a candleholder that looks like a miniature fireplace. We also have a couple of small bottles with water from special places and a bronze lamb I cast myself in a metal working class. Our ribín or brat brides come and go, and we use normal household dishes for offerings. Your household hearth shrine need not look like mine; I include this description merely to provide food for thought.

In closing, as Samhain approaches, with its traditional relighting of the hearth fire, consider doing something special at your hearth, be it setting up a household shrine for the first time, or paying special homage at your existing household shrine(s), or simply lighting a votive in the center of your stove for the hearth goddess. Spend some time mulling what the hearth has meant not only to countless generation of Celts, but to humanity as a whole. The fire which has given us light and warmth and cooked food; the fire which was pivotal in transforming us into tool makers and shapers of metal; the fire around which our history and sacred stories were told. Take some time to contemplate the hearth, and the goddess whose Mysteries are embodied in it.

Selected Bibliography

Bruneaux, J.L. (D. Nash, trans.), The Celtic Gauls: Gods, Rites and Sanctuaries, Sealby, London, 1988.

Danaher, K. The Year in Ireland, Mercier, Minneapolis, 1972.

Enright, M. Lady with a Mead Cup, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1996.

Kondratiev, A. “Brigit”, Devoted to You (J. Harrow, ed.), Citadel Press, New York,2003.

Patterson, N. Cattle Lords and Clansmen, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, 1994

Rees, A&B, Celtic Heritage, Thames and Hudson, London, 1961.

Posted by: Brian | July 29, 2016

Lughnasadh Goddesses

“About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lughnasadh if Lugh; round her grave from that Monday forth is held the chief Fair of noble Erin.
White-sided Tailtiu uttered in her land a true prophesy, that so long as every prince should accept her, Erin should not be without perfect song.
A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariots, with adornment of body and soul by means of knowledge and eloquence.”
~“Tailtiu” lines 45-56. ~ The Metrical Dindshenchas~

Lughnasadh is translated as the ‘Assembly of Lugh’; celebrated on August first, this holiday coincides with the weaning of the lambs born at Imbolc and the shearing of the sheep. It is also the time of first harvest. This day celebrates the protective power of the god Lugh, who presided over this holiday and was honoured as guardian of the wild and cultivated crops. Lughnasadh was celebrated with market fairs and games, offerings to the god on hill tops, bonfires, and horse races through water. Just as Brighid tempers the winter elements at Imbolc, Lugh tempers the heat of summer at this, the hottest time of the year. Thunderstorms on this day are considered a good omen.  And just as Imbolc has an exclusively female focus, the goddess Brighid herself, Lughnasadh, half a year later, has a predominantly masculine focus.

The upcoming New Tara lecture will explore Lugh and his stories and the themes of Lughnasadh from the perspective of this divinity, the most popular and widely worshipped god in the whole of the Celtic world, Lugh (Llew, Lugus, the Lugoves, etc).

There are, however, other divinities which can be loosely grouped through their association with Lugh and their importance to the holiday of Lughnasadh; these include goddesses such as Carman, Búi, Nás, and, the most famous, Tailtiu.  It is these goddesses which will be our subject here.

Carman is associated with the great assembly in Co. Wexford, Leinster.  Her story is recorded in the Dindshenchas (MD III 2).  It describes her as a provident power able to give and withhold the abundance of the land.  Her father-in-law is described as ‘right hospitable’ and his father as ‘rich in substance’.  They come from the East, the direction of Prosperity.  However, her husband is ‘fierce’, and her three sons, ‘violent’, ‘dark’, and ‘wicked’, show a more sinister side.  They seem to embody the tribes of the earthy Fir Bolg and the chaotic/destructive Fomoire in a single lineage; and to give the direction of their origin more worldly pizzazz, they are said to come from Athens.

Lugh captures Carman and drives away her sons.  She is kept in a grove, her abundance producing powers thus controlled by the god of the tribe and the tribe itself while her dangerous offspring are no longer a threat.  When she dies, Lugh inaugurates a festival in her honour to maintain a good harvest.  Whether this is to keep her subject to the tribes needs or to placate her spirit is uncertain, as it is described as merely commemorative.  But even as commemoration, it is attributed with power.

Búi, Nás, and Tailtiu are all associated with the great assembly at Telltown in Co. Meath – the ritual center of Ireland.  In Meath, just as Tara is most strongly associated with Samhain, and Uisnech with Bealtaine, Telltown is the site of Co Meath’s Lughnasadh gatherings.  Cnoc Lugdach is another name for the hill there, and under this name it is the grave of Lugh; though he is also credited with several other tombs in various places (which is perhaps apropos for a god often referred to in the plural by Continental Celts).  The more common name, Telltown is derived from Tailtiu, naming the place after her personage.

The Dindshenchas (MD III 483) says Lugh has four wives, Echtach, Englic, Búi and Nás.  Another (D 20) says that the assembly at Telltown was instituted for two of these wives, Búi and Nás.  The fist is also the personal name of the Cailleach Beare (which is of course a title, not a name), the second is the eponymous goddess of Co. Nass, where she also had an assembly site for Leinster Kings.  The name, Nás, might be derived from the word ‘assembly’ itself’.  Both have Sovereignty associations.

By far the most obvious goddess associated with the assembly at Telltown/Tailtiu, is Tailtiu herself.  The Dindshenchas (MD IV 146, quoted above) say that the Telltown Lughnasadh assembly was instituted for the Fir Bolg queen, Tailtiu.  The connection between the Fir Bolg and Lughnasadh is further strengthened by the fact that the Lebor Gabala, or Book of Invasions, says that the Fir Bolg first arrived in Ireland on Lughnasadh, unlike most of the tribes, which were said to have arrived at Bealtaine.

Tailtiu, a Fir Bolg queen, instituted agriculture and was the foster-mother of Lugh. She died clearing the land that would become Co. Meath, and so Lugh instituted funerary games to be held on Lughnasadh to honour both her and her accomplishments.

Brón Trogain, ‘the sorrowing’ is what Lughnasadh is called in Tochmarc Emire, the Wooing of Emer, and the Acallamh na Senorach refers to it as Lughnasadh but calls the month which it begins ‘Trogan’.  This name, so contradictory to the festive and victorious nature of Lughnasadh celebrations, may refer to the death of Tailtiu and related goddesses.  Equally it may be for the land’s loss – an obviously conciliatory act, as it is we ourselves who are the one’s about to do the taking.

Other places likely also had particular goddesses associated with their Lughnasadh assemblies, but it is difficult to conflate them as local variations on the same goddess.  Tailtiu and the Fir Bolg generally seem to represent the generosity of the land; Carman, though still a fertile power, had to have her gifts wrested from her and her sons kept from wreaking chaos; and Nás seems to have more to do with politics and Sovereignty than concerns of the harvest.  They express different themes as to how Lughnasadh can play out, and so there are stark differences in their relationship with the god Lugh – be it adversary, foster mother, or wife – but in each place or time, he makes them the matron power of his great assembly.

Posted by: Brian | July 29, 2016

Sunshine and Lightning


Lugh, born to Ethniu in her tower of glass, fostered by Manannán and Tailtiu and others, leads the Tuatha Dé to victory in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, defeating his grandfather, Balor of the Baleful Eye, thus fulfilling the prophecy of his birth.

Lugh represents the union of opposites and the victory of law over dissolution and chaos. He presides over communication, commerce, mercantile endeavours (buying, selling, trading, travelling, and moving persons or resources across ‘borders’), oaths, and social contracts. He is a god of the harvest, protection, healing, victory, success, skill in any endeavour, shoes/shoemakers, inspiration, journeys (both worldly and Otherworldly), doorways, borders, games, especially Fidchell/Chess, horse racing and ball sports, especially hurling.  He is strongly associated with Sovereignty.

Lugh is a ‘friendly’ god, a fact attested to by his pan-Celtic appeal. He was worshipped throughout the Celtic world and was popular among all classes of people from kings to shoemakers to farmers.  On the Continent, he is often called by the plural form of his name, which could indicate he can be many places at once, or assist in multiple endeavours. It is obvious, the god Lugh is intimately entwined with many aspects of public and private life.

Lugh’s epithets include: MacEthlenn, ‘Son of Ethniu’; Maicnia, ‘Young Warrior’; Samildanach, ‘Equally Skilled in All Arts’; Lamhfada, ‘of the Long Hand’; Lonnbeimnech, ‘Fierce striker’; Lethsuanach, ‘Half-Cloaked’; and Scal, ‘Phantom/Apparition’.  His name means ‘Illumination’; but is Lugh a sun god?

Many 19th and early 20th scholars, and subsequently many modern pagans, have, in an almost automatic way, associated Lugh with the sun. But is the sun the only form of illumination?  And do his epithets point to the sun in any substantial way?  Given epithets like ‘fierce striking’ and a connection with thunderstorms (see below) some current scholars, like Kondratiev, propose that Lugh’s ‘illumination may mean something more like ‘lightning-flash’ (like the Welsh luched, Cornish luhed, and Breton luc’hed-enn).

Are there other indicators that Lugh may not be a sun god? Manannán, the seafaring god who fostered Lugh, resides in the west.  In Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh’s poem, Lugh arrives at the Royal Seat of Tara from the west. Likewise, in the myth, “The Fate of the Children of Tuirenn”, Lugh arrives on the battlefield from the west.

In both poem and myth a strong connection is made with Manannán and the west, either by eulogizing the beauty of Manannán’s realm, or by Lugh using Manannán’s armour, equipment and horse in battle.

In other myths, both Lugh and Manannán have produced mists or fogs; a phenomenon more strongly associated with cooling the land than is sunshine. This coming from the west resembles the prevailing global weather pattern where cooling rain and thunderstorms, like most other weather patterns, arrive from the west and move eastward, unlike the sun which moves east to west across the sky.

How was Lugh seen on the Continent?  The Galo-Romans never conflated Lugus with Apollo, making it very clear that they did not see Lugh as solar.  Instead, in the iterpretario Romana of the Celtic Lugus was conflated with Mercury. In addition to the Mercury’s trademark caduceus and winked helmet, Romano Celtic ‘Mercury’ or ‘Lugus-Mercury’ was often depicted with Lugh’s trademark spear. We also have some images that have ‘Lugus-Mercury’ holding a spear in one hand and a hammer in the other – the hammer normally being a symbol for thunder in Northern and Western Europe and the spear a suitable representative of lightning.  The facing S-curves associated with some of his images have been interpreted by some as lightning bolts, an idea confirmed by an image of Taranis who is throwing a lightning bolt, with several other curled as S-curves under his other arm.  In addition to this association with Mercury, some modern scholars have begun to do work comparing Lugus with another spear wielding, winged-helmeted god:  Odin.

But how does this view figure in our understanding of the ritual year? Six months ago, at Imbolc, we celebrated the Mysteries of Brighid, indisputably a fire goddess, who prepares the way for spring by bringing the spark of warmth into the icy cold of winter.  At Lughnasadh, we celebrate the mysteries of Lugh, who wins the harvest for us and stands against the blistering heat of summer by bringing cooling thunderstorms.  These two feast days stand in complementary opposition to each other.

So it is clear that Lugh’s role at Lughnasadh is not that of the sun, but the adversary of the sun’s heat. He reaches his full strength and takes up his most vital role at Lughnasadh, not because he is the sun or its light and heat, but precisely because he is needed to balance that very heat with his tempering power, lest it burn up the harvest.  For this reason thunderstorms are deemed auspicious at Lughnasadh.

Likewise, the custom of running horses through water depicts a typically solar or fiery animal being tempered and balanced by the cooling power of water; an obvious inversion of the Beltaine custom of herding cattle between two fires, which depicts a typically watery animal being tempered and balanced by the warming power of fire.

So, if Lugh is not a sun deity, who is? As in most other religions of Western and Northern Europe, the sun in Celtic religion is represented by various goddesses.  Like the Germanic Sunna, the Baltic Saule, and further a field, the Vedic Surya, the sun is venerated in Celtic countries as Sulis, Aine, Grainne, Brighid, and possibly Cigfa.

In Brighid’s case, her solarity is well depicted by the sun-wheel shaped Bride crosses made for Imbolc.  As well, there are references to Saint Brighid, the canonized version of the goddess, being prayed to in solar terms:

“Brighid, excellent woman,
Flame golden and sparkling,
May she bear us into the eternal kingdom
She, the sun, fiery, radiant!”

We also have a seasonal myth from Scotland which depicts her solar character at Imbolc:  In this tale the Cailleach (the hag of winter) captures Bride at Samhain and secrets her away in mountain until she is eventually rescued by her brother Aengus (the subject of this month’s New Tara lecture) at Imbolc, returning her life-giving, warmth-restoring power to the world.

That the feminine character of the sun survived well into the Christian period is attested in prayer 316 from the Carmina Gadelica, which refers to the Sun as the ‘glorious mother of the stars’ and ‘a young maiden in flower’.

Conversely, another prayer from the Carmina Gadelica refers to the sun as the Eye of God, an idea which points to a concept of Immanent Divinity, but is also reminiscent of other gods, namely Dagda as Eochaid Deirgderc, ‘Horse-lord Red-eye’ and Balor Birugderc, ‘Baleful-eye’.

I think there is an important distinction between being a sun god(dess), and a god who is not a sun god per se, but whose eye is the sun. In the case of Dagda, a fire god, I see no contradiction between the sun as his eye, a part of a greater whole, and Brighid, as a whole and complete sun goddess in her own right, and not merely a part of Dagda, but his daughter.  This points to a complexity of Celtic world view that is not easily explicated by a simplistic or singular way of understanding divine relationships.

In the case of Balor, the sun is his baleful eye, a tool or weapon to be used by him against his enemies.  Balor, and the fomoire who sided with him, represent chaos and a more pervasive danger; in this instance, the fierce heat of summer itself, when the crops could be ruined and winter could mean a time of starvation.

This is a necessary tactic, as the sun when personally represented as a goddess, is depicted as almost universally generous and well disposed toward humanity – quite unlike the potential danger of the sun in the Lughnasadh season.  Of course, even at Lughnasadh, the sun is not totally vilified; while Balor is getting his eye struck out by Lugh, in some regions of south western Ireland, Aine is being thanked and propitiated along with the dark god Crom for their respective roles in bringing the harvest this far to fruition.  This theological complexity is interesting, but even in these instances; the god in question is not Lugh, nor does the god in question take on a uniquely solar function or have the sun as his primary sphere of influence.

In fact, a feminine understanding of the Sun may be an essential difference between Celtic religion and the religions that come out of the Mediterranean; a difference which aligns the Celts more closely with other peoples of Western and Northern Europe, like the Germans, Scandinavians, and Balts, and perhaps an older stratum of Indo-European belief; given that sun goddesses are found at the two ends of the Indo-European world.  Given this understanding of Celtic sun goddess, how can we attribute their sphere of influence to any male divinity, let alone Lugh?

This being the case, Lugh is not unique in having his ‘solarity’ questioned.  Other Celtic gods once assumed to be sun gods are having this designation questioned.  Advances in etymology are now questioning whether Belenos, once assumed to mean ‘Shining One’, might actually be ‘Powerful One’, and Grannus, once assumed to mean ‘Fiery One’, might actually be ‘Bearded One’.  Thus Belenos and Grannus, despite being equated with Apollo in his healing aspect by the Romans, may have to yield their solar status to Celtic goddesses like Sulis.

Despite the antiquated ‘solar’ theory of Frazer and other Victorian scholars, an idea which remains popular among many pagans, and given the evidence provided above, I think it is a mistake to see Lugh as a ‘sun-god’.  Though this view would likely not go uncontested, in the opinion of many, Lugh is better understood as a god, not of sunshine, but rather of lightning.

Posted by: Brian | July 27, 2016

What is Lugh today?

Lugnassad, luaidh a hada
Cecha bliadna ceinmara,
Fromad cech toraid co m-blaid,
Biad lusraid la Lugnasaid.

Lughnasadh, makes know its dues
In each distant year:
Tasting every famous fruit,
Food of herbs at Lughnasadh.

~ Collected my K Meyer in Hibernica Minora (1894) ~

Lugh’s name is likely derived from ‘lightning’ or ‘swiftness’ or ‘oath’. This god is born to Ethniu in her tower of glass then fostered by Manannán and Tailtiu. He arrives at the royal seat of Tara to lead the Tuatha Dé to victory in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, where he defeats his grandfather, Balor of the Baleful Eye.

His most common epithets include MacEthlenn, ‘Son of Ethniu’, Samildanach, ‘Equally Skilled in All Arts’, and Lamhfada, ‘of the Long Hand’.

His name is cognate to the Welsh Llew, and the Continental Lugus, as well as the Spanish Lugo or Lugoues (plural). The Romans interpreted him as Mercury, and his is probably the model from which the Germanic Odin/Wodan developed in the 1st century BCE. The Church re-sanctified many of his sites in France and the British Isles by attributing them to St Michael, another defender against the powers of Chaos.

Lugh represents the union of opposites and the victory of law over dissolution and chaos. He presides over communication, commerce, mercantile endeavours (buying, selling, trading, traveling, and moving persons or resources across ‘borders’), oaths, and social contracts. Furthermore he is a god of the harvest, protection, healing, victory, success, skill in any endeavour, shoes, journeys, doorways, borders, games, especially Fidchell/Chess, ball sports, especially hurling, and horse racing.  He is also strongly associated with Sovereignty. Lugh is a ‘friendly’ god, a fact attested to by his pan-Celtic appeal; he was worshiped throughout the Celtic world and was popular among all classes of people from kings to shoemakers to farmers. The fact that he is often depicted in triplicate, or simply described by the plural form of his name, would also indicate he can be many places at once, or assist in multiple endeavours. Thus this god is intimately entwined with many aspects of public and private life.

Alexei Kondratiev comments on his polyvalent and popular nature by saying, Lugh “is the saviour-hero, the bringer of happy endings, the embodiment of a new synthesis that transcends earlier problems. Very likely the elaboration and dissemination of his cult by the druids was associated with a wealth of theological speculation. In his daring ‘leaps’ – an element stressed in several traditions about him – he even puts one in mind of the Vedic Vishnu, whose ‘steps’ create space where there was none, permitting the defeat of the cosmic destroyer Vrtra.  It is quite possible that the druidic thinking about Lugh was developing along similar lines, and that, if the religion of the Free Celts had been left to evolve on its own, Lugh would have come to play a role as universal and all-pervading as Vishnu does in modern Hinduism.” [Apple Branch p.183]

The preceding is as applicable today as it was when the worship of Lugh was at the height of its appeal.  But we, as modern pagans, tend to focus on some of these spheres while ignoring others, or treating them as obsolete.

To address this point I would like to ask:

“What is Lugh today?”

Lugh as protector of the harvest, defender of order, victor, skill-bringer, and game-winner, are all still popular spheres among neo-pagans.  In fact, for many urban pagans, who have no real connection to food production, Lugh’s role along with those of many other deities allows us to cultivate a kind of mindfulness around this basic necessity that is too easily taken for granted.

His lightning is a powerful symbol for the experience of Imbas or prophesy,  the ethical repercussions of his role as a guarantor of oaths, and even his powers of healing (as the blasting of disease).

Where do we see Lugh’s battle against the Fomoire and their powers of chaos and dissolution?  Mad cow disease? Crop blight? West Nile virus? SARS?  At first these suggestions might sound simplistic or naïve, but protecting the cattle and corn is part of his traditional role; and being a healer and equally skilled in all arts, Lugh is the ideal candidate to oversee research and development and interdisciplinary studies for any practical or technical field like medicine; medicine being one more arena wherein we battle the powers of chaos and dissolution.

Though Lugh is a culture god with a great interest in the arts (which includes sciences and trades), he also stands against the imbalance and chaos we humans have caused.  In the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, when Bres is pleading for his life, he offers Lugh and the gods a crop in every season and an un-natural overabundance of milk.  Lugh declines, understanding that this is no less chaotic that the stingy and ungenerous attitudes expressed by Bres earlier in the story. Does this offer us any insight on the way we use our resources?  Usually the fomoire represent powers outside those of the gods and the tribe, but as imbalance can be expressed by our technologies as readily as by fomoirian magics, thematically they can express our own actions as well.  Lugh’s dialogue with Bres can be seen as a call for restraint or for balance.

Unfortunately, the spheres of commerce, politics, military defense, and contracts (integral to the legal professions), all sacred to Lugh, are largely treated by neo-pagans as secular, if not outright counter-religious, spheres of human activity.

This view, of course, is a result of many factors coming together:  those Christian denominations which polarize spirit and material life; the alternative community views brought to light in the 1960’s counter culture (which were born out of the ‘drop-out’ mentality of the 1950’s); as well as the ongoing dialogue North American culture is having between values of individualism vs. community, and what we expect from our various institutions.  These have all strongly impacted both modern secular and modern pagan views.  I think the modern assumptions which write off our governments and large institutions as inherently corrupt are in part responsible for the low opinions we have of them.  I also think by assuming they are corrupt by nature actually provides an excuse for bad behaviour and lax ethics within these spheres of activity.

What if, instead of deriding these aspects of our culture, we acted on the premise that they are, or at least should be, governed by sacred standards, and thus acted within them and critiqued them accordingly?  What if we stopped accepting unreasonably greedy behavior from ‘business’?  What if we demand an equitable and fair exchange of energy (goods, time, effort, money are all just manifestations of energy/resources which we are capable of exchanging) regardless of the sphere?  Does this give a different way of participating in the world in which we live? To adapt a Christian expression, “What would Lugh do?”

On a more playful note; hockey was first invented on Long Pond, in Windsor Nova Scotia, by a bunch of Irishmen trying to play hurling on ice. Hurling resembles grass hockey and has been played in Ireland for at least 2000 years – CúChúllainn and Finn MacCumhal the great heroes of the Ulster and Fenian Cycles were both avid hurling players.  CúChúllainn’s father, the god Lugh, is the inventor of ball sports, and hurling ‘play-offs’ took place at Lughnasadh. So Lugh as the patron of hurling can thus be seen, by natural extension, as the patron of our national sport: Hockey!  🙂

This is hardly a complete survey of the god Lugh in our modern world, but I do hope that it offers some food for thought.  Many neo-pagans seem all too willing to see our religion(s) in terms of the modern world.  I’d love to see more of us attempt to see the modern world in terms of our religion(s).  I think a living religion requires both perspectives.

Posted by: Brian | February 2, 2015

Song of Amergin Art

A beautiful picture of the Song of Amergin by Pamela Budge from The Croft Studio

Posted by: Brian | August 28, 2014

The Song of Amergin by Lorcan MacMathuna

Here is a beautiful and haunting version of the Song of Amergin by Lorcan Macmathuna. I’d like to thank the artist for bringing it to my attention.


Posted by: Brian | May 16, 2014

The Song of Amergin by Smatboyd

Here is a playful little reinterpretation of the Song of Amergin, which includes flashes of modernity but remains true to its essential nature. It made me smile.

Older Posts »