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The Sabbats

Sabbats in History and Mythology /  Samhain (October 31st)  /  Yule (December 21st)  /  Imbolc (February 2nd)  /  Ostara (March 21st)  /  Beltane (April 30th)  /  Litha (June 21st)  /  Lughnasadh (August 1st)  /  Mabon (September 21st)

Written and compiled by George Knowles

Lammas/Lughnassadh

The Hay Wain by John Constable (1821)

Lammas is one of the greater Sabbats of the Witches calendar and in the Northern Hemisphere is celebrated on the 1st August (in the Southern Hemisphere the equivalent Sabbat is Imbolc).  Traditionally Lammas is a celebration of the first fruits and first corn harvest of the year, when as a result of the union between the Goddess and God the land gives up its bounty.  As summer turns to autumn and the plantings from spring begin to wither and die, they drop their produce for our use and seeds for a future harvest.

In the mythology of the Sabbats as daylight decreases and nights grow longer, God grows old and his strength becomes weaker.  The Goddess looks on in sorrow and watches God dying, but knows he lives on inside her, a child to be re-born again at Yule in the never-ending cycle of life, death and re-birth. 

Lammas is commonly known by several other names:  Lughnasadh (named for the Celtic sun god Lugh), August Eve, Feast of Bread and Harvest Home.  The name Lammas comes from an old Christianised Saxon term “hlaf maesse” meaning “loaf mass”, which reflects the importance of bread at this time.  When Christianity arrived many Pagan traditions were incorporated and adapted for use in their churches.  One such was Lammas.  On the first Sunday of August homegrown produce and baskets of fruit were donated to local churches, and loaves of bread made from the first corn harvest placed on the alter to be blessed and consecrated.  After the service the food was distributed among the old folk and the homeless, or given to hospitals and other charitable organisations.

 

Common bread products

Lammas is the first of three autumnal festivals each year, the others being Mabon (21st Sept) and Samhain (31st Oct).  Corn, grain and barley, including wheat in the UK, oats in Scotland and Ireland, and maize in the USA, as well as fruit, berries and grapes, are all crops harvested at this time of the year.  As bread was one of the main staple diets of our ancestors, and with the success of the harvest being so important to the survival of the people, so the preparation and making of the first loaves of breads was often followed by ceremonies and sacrificial offerings to ensure the re-growth of crops for the following year.

While the hottest days of summer are still upon us and temperatures remain high, the climate slowly changes as we enter the harvest time.  Each day as the shadows grow longer, squirrels and other small animals of the woods get busy gathering and storing food for the winter to come.  Likewise for the people, this was a time to start canning and preserving goods ready to sustain them while the land recovers and nature sleeps.

In a continuation of the theme from the Summer Solstice, when the Holly King defeated God in his guise as the Oak King, at Lammas he takes on the guise of the sacrificial “Corn King”.  As the earth’s bounty is reaped and cleared for the harvest, so his death is necessary for the rebirth of the land.  The Corn King is also known by many other names such as:  “John Barleycorn”, the “Green Man” and the “Wicker Man”, whose spirit having sustained the crops through growth to maturity are now sacrificed to ensure that new growth will return in the spring.

 

Harvesting a field of wheat

In some traditions Corn dollies would be made from the last cut sheaves of corn and fashioned into stick like figures representative of the “Spirit of the Corn”.  These would be used as attractive table decorations at banquets and feasts, then saved until the following spring.  Many believed that with the cutting of the last sheaves of corn, the “Spirit of the Corn” retreated into the soil, there to sleep throughout the winter.  At the start of the new planting season, the Corn Dollies would be returned to the fields, burned and mixed with the new seed being ploughed into the ground.  It was hoped that the “Spirit of the Corn” would then awaken and ensure the next harvest.

After the labour intensive work of bringing in the harvest, then preserving, packing and storing enough stocks to last through winter, it was time to relax and take a break.  Lammas was traditionally a time for family re-unions, and a perfect time to arrange handfastings (marriages) aimed at strengthening links and alliances with neighbouring clans and their families.  With the prosperity afforded by a successful harvest, many attended Markets, Craft Fairs and Festivals to show off their wares and party.

During the day Marching bands and Morris dancers led parades around the villages followed by giant effigies of “John Barleycorn”, the “Green Man” or the “Wicker Man”.  Younger members of the family would compete in games designed to show off skills needed for working farms and raising livestock, thus proving their abilities to provide food, shelter and protection.  Women folk also competed showing off their skills in cooking and sewing, hoping to impress prospective mates.

 

Morris Dancers

The highlight of many such festivals was the lighting of a bonfire in tribute to the fading powers of the Sun, during which the giant effigies paraded earlier would be burned in a symbolic sacrifice of the Corn King.  To finish the celebrations a large wagon wheel (Catherine wheel) would be taken to the top of a near-by hill, smeared with tar and set alight, then ceremoniously rolled down the hill in a representation of the Sun’s decline into the autumn of its year.  Remnants from the bonfire would later be taken home and kept throughout the winter as protection against storms and fires caused by lightning.

Lughnassadh

Similar to Lammas is Lughnasadh a Celtic tradition named after the Sun God “Lugh”, which incorporates many of the old English Lammas practices.  Lugh is known as the “Lord of Light” and the “God of all Skills”.  In mythology due to his skill and ability with a spear and sling, he became a hero and high chieftain of the Tuatha de Danaan.  After the death of his foster-mother Tailtiu, he dedicated his festival “Lughnasadh” to her memory.  Lugh was also honored as the deity of Storms and Lightning, especially those occurring in late summer, during which if it rained gently on the day of his festival it was taken as his presence bestowing blessings on the event.

In Celtic mythology Tailtiu was a revered Goddess of the Land, the last Queen or chieftain of the Fir Bolg who had been defeated during the invasion of the Tuatha de Danaan.  After the invasion Tailtiu was placed in bondage and became the surrogate foster-mother of Lugh.  But shortly after the invasion her people suffered a bad harvest, and famine spread quickly throughout the lands.  Seeing her people suffering Tailtiu took up an axe and began to clear a great forest, by doing so she enabled the land to be re-cultivated and planted with grain, the harvest of which saved the people from starvation.  However the effort put too great a strain on Tailtiu’s heart and she died from exhaustion.  Lugh then instituted the “Óenach Tailtenn“ or “Tailtiu Games” in her honour at the festival of Lughnasadh in August.

As a favoured chieftain of the Tuatha de Danaan, Lugh’s festival quickly evolved into an annual gathering of the clans and tribes, which was attended by all their major chieftains.  Peace reigned over the games while assembles were held and differences discussed, laws passed and handfastings/marriages arranged in efforts to strengthen alliances.  A feature of the festival was sporting prowess, and competitions were held to test the courage, strength and skill in battle of the competitors.

Held on the 1st of August the date of his foster-mothers death after her battle with the land and the first harvest.  The common people ascended on the games to trade and display their wares, to sell food, animals, crafts and clothing.  Actor’s re-enacted the Tailtiu drama and Bards told their stories, musicians played music while singers sang and dancers danced, and everyone else joined in and made merry.

The old town of Tailtiu (now Teltown, between Navan and Kells) in County Meath was named in her honour, and is where the festival of Lughnassadh was traditionally held in early times.  The Lughnasadh games continue to be celebrated in Ireland, but more today in recognition of the skills needed to raise livestock and farm a successful harvest.

Sources

Microsoft® Encarta® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. 

Cunningham's Encyclopedia Of Magical Herbs - By Scott Cunningham 

A Witches Bible  -  by Stewart and Janet Farrar 

http://www.moonshadows-realm.co.uk/sab-lammas.htm

http://www.mythicalireland.com/mythology/index.html

Plus others to many too mention 

 

Written and compiled on the 04th July 2008  ©  George Knowles

 

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