Lammas: The First Harvest

It was upon a Lammas Night
When corn rigs are bonny,
Beneath the Moon’s unclouded light,
I held awhile to Annie… audio

in the heat of a Mid-western summer it might be difficult to discern,
the festival of Lammas (Aug 1st) 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 (Oct 31st), we will have run the gammut of
temperature from the heat of August to the cold and (sometimes) snow of
November. And in the midst of it, a perfect Mid-western 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, occuring 1/4 of a year after
Beltane. It’s true astrological point is 15 degrees Leo, but tradition
has set August 1st as the day Lammas is typically celebrated. The
celebration proper would begin on sundown of the previous evening, our
July 31st, since the Celts reckon their days from sundown to sundown.

However, British Witches often refer to the astrological date of Aug 6th
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 allign 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 ‘Lugnasadh’, 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 which Lugh hosted to commemorate the death
of his foster-mother, Taillte. That is why the Lugnasadh 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…audio


One common feature of the Games were 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 1500’s, 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

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, such as the one celebrated in near-by Bonner Springs,
Kansas, each fall.

A ceremonial highlight of such festivals was the ‘Catherine wheel’.
Although the Roman Church moved St. Catherine’s feast day all around the
calender 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 near-by 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

Many comentators 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.]


Document Copyright 1986, 1998 by Mike Nichols

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Revised: Sunday, Saturday, May 23, 1998 c.e.
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