Lammas
Lughnasadh / The First Harvest
by Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols website

Document Copyright © 1983 - 2009 by Mike Nichols. The original document can be viewed
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Greenman fountain at entryway
Mke Nichols Biography
                                      "It was upon a Lammas Night
                                       When corn rigs are bonny,
                                       Beneath the Moon's unclouded light,
                                       I held awhile to Annie....


Although in the heat of a midwestern summer it might be difficult to discern, the festival of Lammas (August 1) marks
the end of summer and the beginning of fall. The days now grow visibly shorter and by the time we’ve reached
autumn’s end (October 31), we will have run the gamut of temperature from the heat of August to the cold and
(sometimes) snow of November. And in the midst of it, a perfect midwestern autumn.

The history of Lammas is as convoluted as all the rest of the old folk holidays. It is, of course, a cross-quarter day,
one of the four High Holidays or Greater
Sabbats of Witchcraft, occurring one quarter of a year after Beltane. Its
true astrological point is fifteen degrees Leo, but tradition has set August 1 as the day Lammas is typically
celebrated. The celebration proper would begin on sundown of the previous evening, our July 31, since the Celts
reckon their days from sundown to sundown.

However, British Witches often refer to the astrological date of August 6 as Old Lammas, and folklorists call it
Lammas O.S. (Old Style). 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.

“Lammas” was the medieval Christian name for the holiday, and it means “loaf-mass”, for this was the day on which
loaves of bread were baked from the first grain harvest and laid on the church altars as offerings. It was a day
representative of “first fruits” and early harvest.

In Irish Gaelic, the feast was referred to as “Lughnasadh”, a feast to commemorate the funeral games of the Irish
Sun God Lugh. However, there is some confusion on this point. Although at first glance, it may seem that we are
celebrating the death of Lugh, the God of Light does not really die (mythically) until the autumnal equinox. And
indeed, if we read the Irish myths closer, we discover that it is not Lugh’s death that is being celebrated, but the
funeral games that Lugh hosted to commemorate the death of his foster mother, Taillte. That is why the
Lughnasadh celebrations in Ireland are often called the “Tailltean games”.


                                       
The time went by with careless heed
                                       Between the late and early,
                                       With small persuasion she agreed
                                       To see me through the barley....


One common feature of the games was the “Tailltean marriages”, a rather informal marriage that lasted for only a
year-and-a-day or until next Lammas. At that time, the couple could decide to continue the arrangement if it pleased
them, or to stand back to back and walk away from one another, thus bringing the Tailltean marriage to a formal
close. Such trial marriages (obviously related to the Wiccan handfasting) were quite common even into the 1500s,
although it was something one “didn’t bother the parish priest about”. Indeed, such ceremonies were usually
solemnized by a poet, bard, or shanachie (or, it may be guessed, by a priest or priestess of the Old Religion).

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. The atmosphere must have
been quite similar to our modern-day Renaissance festivals.

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, its 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.

Many commentators have bewailed the fact that traditional
Gardnerian and Alexandrian Books of Shadows say very
little about the holiday of Lammas, stating only that poles should be ridden and a circle dance performed. This
seems strange, for Lammas is a holiday of rich mythic and cultural associations, providing endless resources for
liturgical celebration.


                                       Corn rigs and barley rigs,
                                       Corn rigs are bonny!
                                       I'll not forget that happy night
                                       Among the rigs with Annie!


[Verse quotations by Robert Burns, as handed down through several Books of Shadows.]