The time of year of the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Lughnasa is approaching. Adherents in the reconstructed pagan religions like wicca and druidry will point out that this festival is also part of the modern pagan calendar too, and on reflection in many ways it has never really gone away.
About ten years ago, on the last Sunday in July, my wife and I climbed Slieve Croob, a small mountain in County Down, Northern Ireland and the source of the river Lagan (the main river that eventually flows to the sea through Belfast).
We had not been going out for long at the time and were still desperately trying to appear as sporty and outdoor-type to each other as possible, so we went through a phase of mountain climbing, biking, snowboarding and the like so as to appear ”wind swept and interesting” as Billy Connolly put it.
It was a typical July day in Northern Ireland: Overcast, misty with the odd shower of rain and we were out for a Sunday afternoon walk. As we climbed the hill we were surprised by the number of other people who emerged from the gray mist above us on their way back down the mountain. Unlike us with our hiking boots and peter storm jackets they wore everyday clothes form jeans to tracksuits to trainers and duffle coats. There were a lot of young children and quite a few old people too. These were clearly ordinary people rather than hill walker types. In the car park at the bottom of the hill they were catered for by a table full of orange squash and an ice cream van.
What we didn’t know then but I do know now, was that these people were taking part in a ritual that goes back to time immemorial. For millennia, people in Ireland have been climbing up mountains around the end of July or the start of August as part of the rituals around the festival of Lughnasa. The folklorist Máire MacNeill published a study of the festival in her book “The Festival of Lughnasa”. Through comprehensive study of medieval and surviving traditions she pieced together a picture of a festival that involved the common elements of the faithful climbing mountains to honour their Gods, the sacrifice of a bull and some sort of ritual play where a young God is imprisoned by an Old God, but eventually escapes and triumphs, a story that may still survive in the mummers plays today.
Who were those Gods? The name of one of them is obvious and appears in the name of the festival. Lugh was the long-armed, many talented God who was worshipped in one form or another across Celtic Europe and after who towns as diverse as Lyon in France, Leiden in Holland and Loudoun in Scotland are named. He was the father of Ireland’s most famous hero, Cuchulain and his deeds are the subject of many ancient Irish tales and medieval Irish Literature. He currently is having a renaissance within the Wiccan and other neo-pagan religions that blossom across the Internet.
Who Lugh’s dark opponent was is more obscure. One of the other names for this time of year, however, was Domhnach Chrom Dubh - Black Crom’s Sunday. While Lugh’s memory may survive, if anyone has heard of Crom these days, the chances are it is as the God worshiped by Conan the Barbarian, either in Robert E Howard’s sword and sandal epics, or in the 1980s movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. After all, who could forget such classic cinematic moments this ?
Alternatively, it may be familiar as the name of the castle in County Fermanagh currently being used as a location for the new BBC series “Blandings” based on P. G. Wodehouse’s books .
Few will be aware that Crom was a God worshiped by the ancient Irish. And not just any old God either. It looks like Crom could well have been the main deity worshiped by the original people of Ireland and the tale of Lugh’s battle with him could well be a mythologized version of the battle between the incoming Celts with their new Gods and the indigenous people. His religion is associated with a bull, standing stones (an ancient name for a ring of standing stones was a cromlech) and, as readers of my novel “The Spear of Crom” will know, human sacrifice. He survived into the Christian era too. When Christianity came to Ireland, the Church had the extremely successful idea of taking over existing traditions and holy places instead of stopping or destroying them. The Goddess Bridget merged with Saint Bridget. Saint Patrick replaced Lugh as the spiritual hero of the people and it is he who we see going head to head with Crom (and defeating him) in the surviving tales. Another tradition the Church took over was the tradition of climbing hills at Lughnasa. The pagan pilgrimage became known as Garland Sunday, or Blaeberry Sunday. The actions were the same but now its Jesus and the Christian Saints who are honored.
And that's what those people were doing that misty Sunday on Slieve Croob. Did they know they were continuing a tradition going back to pagan times? I don’t know but I’ve always thought the nearby village of Dromara has more that a touch of “The Wicker Man” about it.
I’ve chosen the last Sunday in July (this Sunday) as the most appropriate date for the end of the Goodreads Giveaway competition to win a copy of “The Spear of Crom”. You can enter here: