Last Saturday evening witnessed the apogee of the summer solstice in Ireland, leading to this description of its cultural significance by a regular guest contributor on the RTÉ website.
The ancient Celtic festival acts as a timely reminder and celebration of who, where and what we really are.
Our ancestors saw this key turning point in the Celtic calendar as momentous – a time of blooming, blossoming and wild abandon. Even though it does herald the light starting to lessen, we can imagine they revelled in the height of summer and the fresh earthy freedom seeking new pleasures before Harvest.
The eternal ancestral voice from spiritual traditions is remembered in ceremonies and rituals in nature that can remind us who, where and what we really are. It is a traditional time for weddings, fires, garlands of colourful blossoms, and dance rituals.
Our ancestors had many references to deify the sun, outstanding is Lugh the Sun God, known as Lugh Samhildánach or Lugh of the Many Arts. His entry to the court of King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann (in Gaelic the “Tribe of Mother Earth”) at Tara, the nexus of supreme power, was only possible by his response to the tests heaped upon him by the gatekeeper.
Just as our ancestors gathered to celebrate together for three days of feasting and revelry, there are many modern-day equivalents…
Needless to say these claims, from a “Shamanic Energy Therapist” no less, are utter nonsense. There is precious little evidence that the Celtic-speaking peoples of north-western Europe observed a celestial calendar or took any great heed of reoccurring celestial events in their festivities (acrimonious debates about the continental Coligny calendar notwithstanding)*. The indigenous Irish year was almost wholly agrarian in character, shaped by rather more prosaic concerns about the life-cycles of crops and livestock. Yes, the waxing and waning of the moon and the movement of the sun played a part in the calculation of the seasons, but only in so much as this informed a society largely dependent on grain and cattle for its survival and its wealth.
Furthermore, though the Celtic pantheon – if we can speak of such a thing – had many different deities none of them were explicitly identified as “sun gods” or “sky gods” or “earth gods” (the early Christian Irish concept of “gods under the earth” is a rather different matter from the nebulous notion of a “Mother Earth”). Various supernatural beings may have had characteristics related to nature or natural phenomena, and Lú was certainly associated with solar-like symbolism, but that did not make for divine personifications of nature itself. Such clear-cut ideas and categorisations are largely modern concepts, reflecting a need to impose a bureaucracy of divinity on ancient pantheons.
While the earlier non-Proto-Celtic peoples of western Europe, the megalith-builders, may well have regulated their year and any associated festivities with the solstices, a logical assumption given the physical alignment of most Neolithic monuments in the landscape, that does not mean that their culturally Celtic descendants did the same. The evidence, in Ireland at least, is that our Gaelic-speaking ancestors did not commemorate the movement of the sun or the phases of the moon and what rudimentary mid-summer and mid-winter celebrations or folk traditions we have on this island are Irish adaptations of much later Scandinavian and English introductions. Some of which are very late indeed.
* While some populist sources may claim that the culturally Celtic peoples practised astrology, and that this was integral to a broader “Celtic calendar”, the evidence from the Insular literary tradition is extremely weak and largely Classical in nature (with some exceptions). Instead it is more common to encounter textual references to some form of aeromancy, divination based upon atmospheric events, particularly nephomancy or cloud-reading. However this stands alongside divination based upon the flights of birds and so on. And neither are related to any particular form of solar or lunar observation.