Lammas - Lughasadh (1st August)
Lammas is a cross-quarter festival which falls around 1st August
when summer is at its height. With the coming of Christianity to
the Celtic lands, the old festival of Lughnasadh took on Christian
symbolism. Loaves of bread were baked from the first of the harvested
grain. It is the beginning of the long harvest period. 'Lammas'
literally means 'loaf mass' - a celebration of the bread made from
the first cutting of corn, and placed on the church altar on the
first Sunday of August. At this time of year it feels like summer
will go on forever, but this is the first warning of the coming
winter. Food must be gathered and preserved from now until the last
of the autumnal nuts have been collected. From now on the days will
grow visibly shorter.
The Ould Lammas Fair which takes place in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim,
on the last Monday and Tuesday in August, is a celebration which
has been carried on for more than three centuries. Within the town,
streets are lined with hundreds of stalls selling a wide variety
of goods, from livestock to painted scrolls. But the busiest trade
is always at the stalls offering the traditional Lammas treats of
Yellow Man, a sticky honeycomb toffee; and Dulse, a reddish sea
weed of the variety palmaria palmata which has long
been eaten and also used in medicine by the Irish - especially in
the north. For the fair, it's collected from the nearby shores,
dried out until it's crisp, and then packaged in bags for sale.
To read more about The Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle
In ancient days, the prosperity of the tribe relied upon the fertility
of the land and its people. Harvesting grain was laborious work
and each grain was considered to be precious. Threshing floors had
a board nailed across so none was lost and this is remembered nowadays
when a couple are newly married - the husband carried his wife over
According to Celtic legend, Lugh decreed that a commemorative feast
be held each year at the beginning of the harvest season to honor
his foster mother, Tailtiu. Tailtiu was the royal Lady of the Fir
Bolg. After the defeat of her people by the Tuatha De Dannan, she
was obliged by them to clear a vast forest for the purpose of planting
grain. She died of exhaustion in the attempt. The legend states
that she was buried beneath a great mound named for her, at the
spot where the first feast of Lughnasadh was held in Ireland, the
hill of Tailte. When the men of Ireland gathered at her deathbed,
she told them to hold funeral games in her honor. As long as they
were held, she prophesied Ireland would not be without song. Tailtius
name is from Old Celtic Talantiu, "The Great One of the Earth,"
suggesting she may originally have been a personification of the
land itself, like so many Irish goddesses. In fact, Lughnasadh has
an older name, Brón Trogain, which refers to the painful
labor of childbirth. For at this time of year, the earth gives birth
to her first fruits so that her children might live. At this gathering
were held games and contests of skill as well as a great feast made
up of the first fruits of the summer harvest. As years passed, traditions
surrounding the feast at Tailte began to solidify into events and
ceremonial activities designed to celebrate not only Tailtiu and
the bounty of the harvest that her original sacrifice provided but
also to honor the work and sacrifice of human beings as they strove
to provide sustenance for their families and community.
Lugh is also 'John Barleycorn', whose energy has gone into the
grain and is cut down as a sacrifice to the fertility of the land.
The god or spirit of the grain lived in the grain until the grain
was harvested and then was released. However, once the god was released,
there was no guarantee that it would return. So people may have
begun the earliest corn dollies as a form of trapping the god so
that it would not be freed, but would continue to grow good crops
thus ensuring the survival of the community.
Grain has been an essential part of the community since humanity
first decided to settle down and grow their own food rather than
having to hunt it or gather as they followed the prey. But the crops
were fallible. A storm could come at the wrong time, mice could
eat the seeded grain, etc. and such a disaster could mean the difference
between survival and starvation. So a new culture was built around
the cycle of the all-important crops.
One of the most important and dangerous times of the year was during
the harvest. If the crops were ripe and not yet safely gathered,
they were vulnerable to all sorts of natural hazards which occurred
according to the whims of the gods. So people did everything they
could to assure that the harvest was safe and that the grain would
rise again the following year.
It was also a common concept to hold sacrifices to a god or goddess
for a successful outcome. This also occurred to ensure the fertility
of the field and the success of the crop. Often the two concepts
were combined, so that a sacrifice was encapsulated in the last
few stalks of grain to be harvested from the field, such as the
tradition associated with the "Knack" or "Neck"
from Devon. Oral tradition has it that the story behind this particular
design is that a person walking past the field when the last few
stalks of grain were harvested was seized and ritually sacrificed
and the body rolled in the last few stalks of grain.
Witches often refer to the astrological date of August 6th as
Old Lammas. This date has long been considered a 'power point' of
the Zodiac, and is symbolized by the Lion, one of the 'tetramorph'
figures found on the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune
(the other three figures being the Bull, the Eagle, and the Spirit).
Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four 'fixed'
signs of the Zodiac, and these naturally align with the four Great
Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the same iconography
to represent the four gospel-writers.
It was a time for communal festivities with bright, flaming Catherine
Wheels (the root of "Catherine" is cognate with Cathar,
a "heretical" group in southern France which was massacred
by the Catholic Church):
Lammastide was also the traditional time of year for craft festivals.
The medieval guilds would create elaborate displays of their wares,
decorating their shops and themselves in bright colors and ribbons,
marching in parades, and performing strange, ceremonial plays and
dances for the entranced onlookers. A ceremonial highlight of such
festivals was the 'Catherine Wheel'. Although the Roman Church moved
St. Catherine's feast day all around the calendar with bewildering
frequency, it's most popular date was Lammas. (They also kept trying
to expel this much-loved saint from the ranks of the blessed because
she was mythical rather than historical, and because her worship
gave rise to the heretical sect known as the Cathari.) At any rate,
a large wagon wheel was taken to the top of a nearby hill, covered
with tar, set aflame, and ceremoniously rolled down the hill. Some
mythologists see in this ritual the remnants of a Pagan rite symbolizing
the end of Summer, the flaming disk representing the Sun-God in
his decline. And just as the Sun King has now reached the Autumn
of his years, his rival or dark self has just reached puberty.
The thing, the other, and what's between" form the magic three,
recognizing the too often ignored yet crucial relationship between
ostensible opposites. Inside and outside meet at thresholds, earth
and sky meet at mountain tops, sea and earth meet at tide lines,
new year and old year meet at Samhain. Any of these things, by bringing
opposites into reconciliation, also represent the meeting place
of our mundane world and the magical "Otherworld", and
are therefore sacred. A god who embodies the coming together of
many different realms and energies, would be extraordinarily powerful
even in the company of other deities. Such a god is Lugh.
According to Pagan beliefs, as the corn is cut, the corn mother's
energy retreats into the last stand of grain. Traditionally, this
sheaf is ceremonially cut and made into a corn dolly. The Celtic
Sun god, Lugh, dies as the Sun begins to wane. Lughnasadh is named
for Lugh, the Celtic deity who presides over the arts and sciences.
From the outset, Lugh's unique place in the pantheon is guaranteed
by his "inter-racial" conception. His mother, Eithne,
is the daughter of King Balor, and therefore a princess of the Fomoire,
the one race said to have always inhabited Ireland. Fomorians, depending
on which tale is heard, are monstrously ugly or breathtakingly beautiful,
and in either case not to be trusted. Lugh's father, Cian, is of
the Tuatha de Danaan, the "Tribe of Danu" who will ultimately
be the Shining Ones worshipped by ancient Celts. Eithhu delivers
Lugh, and in some versions, two more babies (destined to become
seals) making Lugh one of three. Balor tries to drown all three,
but only Lugh escapes the briny deep, to be fostered by Tailtu and
Mannanan, each of whom have qualities that add to the liminal essence
of Lugh's nature.
Another custom drawn from Lammas relates to fire. Lammas was, to
the Celts, one of four Great Fire Festivals, held on the cross-quarter
days. During Lammas, the custom of lighting bonfires was intended
to add strength to the powers of the waning sun. Afterward, the
fire brands were kept in the home through the Winter as protection
against storms, lightning and fires caused by lightning.
One traditional Lammas custom was the construction of the kern-baby,
corn dolly, or corn maiden. This figure, braided into a woman's
form from the last harvested sheaf of grain, represented the Harvest
Spirit. (In America, the tradition is continued in the making of
corn husk dolls.) The doll would be saved until Spring, when it
was ploughed into the field to consecrate the new planting and insure
a good harvest. In other traditions, the corn dolly was fed and
watered throughout the Winter, then burned in the fires at Beltane
to insure a continuation of good growth.