This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the eight points of the wheel of the year. It is written by a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. You can read more of Tony’s writing on his website, The Enchanted Silence.
It was upon a Lammas night,From “The Rigs of Barley” by Robert Burns
When corn rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
I held awa to Annie;
Lughnasadh is the fourth of the four cross-quarter days in the celtic year, falling at the midpoint of the summer solstice and the following equinox. It marks the point where the year becomes middle-aged. Although the sun still rides high in the sky, it is in reality the first day of autumn, with the path of descent stretching out in front. It is a time to be thankful for everything that has been given before but we also know, if we allow ourselves, that the days will shorten and powers will wane, making each new day of sunshine more precious still.
For the agricultural peoples of the British Isles, it was the festival of the first harvest and an offering of the first fruits of the grain, also a time when prayers were offered, or magic made, for the safekeeping of the crops in the fields in the increasingly anxious weeks ahead until the full harvest is brought home.
Lughnasadh is the only one of the cross-quarter days that unequivocally references a figure from pre-Christian mythology. Lugh Lámfada (Lugh the ‘Long-Armed’) was counted as one of the legendary Tuatha Dé Danann of Ireland’s dream time, who populated the island before the arrival of the mortal Milesians. He is described as having the appearance of a young warrior with a radiant face, and went by the name, amongst others, of Samildánach, meaning “equally skilled in many arts”, given to him when he came to the hall of King Nuada at Tara.
At the doors of the hall, he gained entrance by boasting of his mastery of all the skills known to the Tuatha Dé Danann. Once admitted he beat all-comers at the traditional board game of fidchell, bested Ogma in a challenge to hurl a stone so heavy that it required four score yoke of oxen to move, and played three magical strains upon the harp that moved the assembled company to sleep, lament and laughter, upon which he was granted the honour of Ollamh Érenn, the chief bard or loremaster of all Ireland.
The element Lug- appears in a long list of ancient place names across a wide swathe of western and central Europe, although scholars are divided over whether this references Lugus, a presumed pan-Celtic deity, of whom Lugh is the Irish instantiation, or comes from some other shared etymology. ‘Lug’ place names include modern day Lyon in the Rhone valley (Lugdunum of the Romans) and Carlisle in northern England, previously known as Luguwalos, Luguvallum and Caer Luel.
The Irish folklorist Máire MacNeill published a comprehensive survey of the rites of Lughnasadh in 1962, recording seasonal practices from 195 different locations across Ireland. One of the elements recorded by MacNeill was a dance-play telling the story of Lugh’s promethean raid on the granaries of Crom Dubh, to win back the grain harvest, sometimes personified by Lugh’s natural mother Eithniu whose name means ‘grain’.
In other myth cycles, Lugh battles his Fomorian grandfather Balor or other figures representing the blight of the harvest, evoking the bountiful and destructive faces of nature in contention with each other. Crom Dubh appears in Irish folklore where he is often the counterpart of a folkish version of Patrick, suggesting that Patrick has been substituted in for Lugh as the light-bearing hero of these stories.
In some stories their relationship is adversarial, whilst in others their relationship is more ambivalent. In a story in the Book of Fermoy, following Crom Dubh’s death, Patrick intervened with a host of saints and angels to retrieve Crom Dubh’s soul from the demons who would have claimed him. Folk traditions name the Sunday nearest the 1st of August as Crom Dubh Sunday in his honour.
Another common element recorded in MacNeill’s book is the tradition of taking the first fruits of the grain harvest to mountain tops where they were buried as an offering, a clear application of a universal principle of sacrifice that would be as recognisable to the farmers of Ireland as it was to the Old Testament Israelites; what has been given can be given up, as the same providence that gave the first fruits will continue to give blessing again.
It is hard to avoid the idea that the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick, held on the last Sunday in July, has pre-Christian origins shared with these other hill top gatherings, although the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage now honours a forty day vigil kept by St Patrick on top of the mountain, which later story tellers conflated with the occasion of him driving the snakes out of Ireland. In the southern areas of Ireland, where the hill top gatherings were less frequent, Lughnasadh gatherings were as often held by lakes or rivers, or at the site of holy wells.
The “Book of Conquests of Ireland”, or Lebor Gabála Érenn, also associates Lugh with the harvest festivals of early August through the Tailteann games mythically instituted by Lugh as a mourning ceremony for his foster mother Tailtiu of the Fir Bolg people. Tailtiu had spent her life force and died clearing the wild land of Ireland and preparing it for cultivation and in this way matches the goddess Ceres, bringer of agriculture – and “cereal” – grain crops – to the Roman world.
The games culminated in the celebration of Lughnasadh but also consisted of athletics, chariot and horse racing, cultural contests and tests of skill in the different crafts and took place at Tailteann, modern day Teltown in County Meath in the heart of Ireland. These were celebrated for certain from the early mediaeval period until the aftermath of the Norman invasion in the twelfth century, although various mediaeval sources and modern folk lore all claim earlier origins, hundreds of years BC. The games were revived on and off as the Tailten Fair from the High Middle Ages onwards and had a final reincarnation as the twentieth century Tailteann Games organised as a celebration of Irish identity after Irish independence.
On the island of Great Britain, the August festival is most commonly known as Lammas. This was a specifically Christian commemoration that emerged in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the Christian era. The name derives from Anglo-Saxon hlaef-mass or loaf-mass and the day, celebrated on the 1st August, was a feast commemorating the start of the harvest season where a loaf baked from the new harvest is brought into the church and blessed, and in some cases consecrated as the host for the celebration of the Eucharist. The theme of sacrifice is again clear; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the day a number of times as “the feast of first fruits”. In Wales the day is generally known as Gŵyl Awst, the festival of August, and the celebration is basically that of Lammastide in English-speaking areas.
In the Brecon Beacon mountains in South Wales, however, traditions survived which feel more in keeping with the traditions of Ireland. (The annals say that Brychan Brycheiniog, semi-legendary founder of the old kingdom of Brecon and patriarch of a dynasty of saints, came to Wales from Ireland.) In particular, the mountain lake Llyn y Fan Fach was visited at the beginning of August by villagers bringing gifts to propitiate the Tylwyth Teg, the fair folk who are the welsh equivalent of the Tuatha Dé. In the story of the Fairy Bride associated with the lake, the everyman hero woos his supernatural bride with the offering of a barley loaf which, in Goldilocks fashion, is baked neither too hard or too soft. The use of barley in the loaf may be significant as the barley crop generally matures before the wheat crop, and the whole scene is often said to be a memory of offerings brought to a Celtic goddess of the place.
Here and now in York, the grass of the riverside meadows has grown full of seed and was cut for a second time a few weeks ago. The fields of wheat and barley have started to be brought in by GPS-guided combines. The harvest time both embodies and symbolises the time when everything that has been sown and nurtured comes to maturity, is brought in and tallied, reckoned for better and worse. It is a time of thanksgiving for what has been gained in a previous season, and a time to look forward to new seasons and new work, the fields about to be ploughed to await the new year’s planting.
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