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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 120

In the Stone Age, as with many savages, a circle typified the sun, and as soon as the wheel was invented its rolling motion at once suggested that of the sun. In the Edda the sun is "the beautiful, the shining wheel," and similar expressions occur in the Vedas. Among the Celts the wheel of the sun was a favourite piece of symbolism, and this is seen in various customs at the Midsummer festival. A burning wheel was rolled down a slope or trundled through the fields, or burning brands were whirled round so as to give the impression of a fiery wheel. The intention was primarily to imitate the course of the sun through the heavens, and so, on the principle of imitative magic, to strengthen it. But also, as the wheel was rolled through the fields, so it was hoped that the direct beneficial action of the sun upon them would follow. Similar rites might be performed not only at Midsummer, but at other times, to procure blessing or to ward off evil, e.g. carrying fire round houses or fields or cattle or round a child deiseil or sunwise, and, by a further extension of thought, the blazing wheel, or the remains of the burning brands thrown to the winds, had also the effect of carrying off accumulated evils.939

Beltane and Midsummer thus appear as twin halves of a spring or early summer festival, the intention of which was to {272} promote fertility and health. This was done by slaying the spirit of vegetation in his representative—tree, animal, or man. His death quickened the energies of earth and man. The fire also magically assisted the course of the sun. Survival of the ancient rites are or were recently found in all Celtic regions, and have been constantly combated by the Church. But though they were continued, their true meaning was forgotten, and they were mainly performed for luck or out of sheer conservatism. Sometimes a Christian aspect was given to them, e.g. by connecting the fires with S. John, or by associating the rites with the service of the Church, or by the clergy being present at them. But their true nature was still evident as acts of pagan worship and magic which no veneer of Christianity could ever quite conceal.940

LUGNASAD.

The 1st of August, coming midway between Beltane and Samhain, was an important festival among the Celts. In Christian times the day became Lammas, but its name still survives in Irish as Lugnasad, in Gaelic as Lunasdal or Lunasduinn, and in Manx as Laa Luanys, and it is still observed as a fair or feast in many districts. Formerly assemblies at convenient centres were held on this day, not only for religious purposes, but for commerce and pleasure, both of these being of course saturated with religion. "All Ireland" met at Taillti, just as "all Gaul" met at Lugudunum, "Lug's town," or Lyons, in honour of Augustus, though the feast there had formerly been in honour of the god Lugus.941 The festival was {273} here Romanised, as it was also in Britain, where its name appears as Goel-aoust, Gul-austus, and Gwyl Awst, now the "August feast," but formerly the "feast of Augustus," the name having replaced one corresponding to Lugnasad.942

Cormac explains the name Lugnasad as a festival of Lugh mac Ethlenn, celebrated by him in the beginning of autumn, and the Rennes Dindsenchas accounts for its origin by saying that Lug's foster-mother, Tailtiu, having died on the Calends of August, he directed an assembly for lamentation to be held annually on that day at her tomb. Lug is thus the founder of his own festival, for that it was his, and not Tailtiu's, is clear from the fact that his name is attached to it. As Lammas was a Christian harvest thanksgiving, so also was Lugnasad a pagan harvest feast, part of the ritual of which passed over to Samhain. The people made glad before the sun-god—Lug perhaps having that character—who had assisted them in the growth of the things on which their lives depended. Marriages were also arranged at this feast, probably because men had now more leisure and more means for entering upon matrimony. Possibly promiscuous love-making also occurred as a result of the festival gladness, agricultural districts being still notoriously immoral. Some evidence points to the connection of the feast with Lug's marriage, though this has been allegorised into his wedding the "sovereignty of Erin." Perhaps we have here a hint of the rite of the sacred marriage, for the purpose of magically fertilising the fields against next year's sowing.


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