The excitement of the harvest season has permeated the fabric of history since the agriculturally based societies were first established. Having weathered the delicate beginning of the planting stage and found mercy from the myriad catastrophes that could befall the crops, Lammas heralded the onset of the time of tremendous work met with equal reward. Wheat is thought to have been the first grain to translate out into deliberate agricultural production and the festival of the wheat harvest was of great significance.
The Anglo-Saxon word “hlaf-mass” or “loaf-mas” is thought to be the origin of the word “Lammas.” Lammas is also called “The Festival of the Wheat.” The date of August 1st is significant in that it marks the midpoint of the warm time of the year, which would begin at Beltane and end at Samhain.
On Lammas Day in England, it was customary for the villagers to bring a loaf of bread made from the first wheat of the new harvest. The loaf was blessed and was then the sacred bread would be broken into four pieces. Each piece was placed in the corner of the grain storage barn or silo to protect the rest of the garnered harvest.
English tenants were obligated to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords on Lammas Day, which was also called “The Feast of the First Fruits.” Churches in both the East and the West routinely blessed the first fruits of the harvest between Lammas and August 6th, which was the feast to celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ. Lammas itself corresponds to the feast of St. Peter in Chains, which celebrates the miracle of St. Peter’s release from prison.
John Brady’s 1812 annotated calendar compendium, Clavis Calendaris,suggests that the rather than from “loaf-mas,” the word “Lammas” originates from “Lamb-mass,” derived from the practice at the Cathedral of York of villages being required to bring a live lamb to the church. This was significant because lambs were not in season at that time, routinely being born in the spring.
Lammas marked the end of the hay harvest which started at Midsummer. At that time, it was customary for a sheep to be turned loose among the mowers in the meadows and the one who could catch it got to keep it.
In Ireland, the Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh (LOO-nah-sah) was the celebration of the first harvest. Lughnasadh honored the god Lugh (modern spelling: Lú) as a funeral feast and sporting competition to commemorate of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture.
In her 1962 book The Festival of Lughnasa, a study of Lughnasadh, folklorist Máire MacNeill compiled her exhaustive studies of medieval writings, surveys and studies throughout Ireland and Britain. She provides the following account of an ancient Celtic festival held on August 1st:
“[A] solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries of which everyone must partake; a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh, with some ceremony involving its hide, and its replacement by a young bull; a ritual dance-play perhaps telling of a struggle for a goddess and a ritual fight; an installation of a head on top of the hill and a triumphing over it by an actor impersonating Lugh; another play representing the confinement by Lugh of the monster blight or famine; a three-day celebration presided over by the brilliant young god or his human representative. Finally, a ceremony indicating that the interregnum was over, and the chief god in his right place again.”
Lughnasadh would also be celebrated huge bonfires lit across the countryside to bless the fields, the cattle and the people of the village. In Ireland, the Catholic Church still has the custom of ritually of blessing the fields on this day. Games were played believing that the energy invested into the field games would increase the power of the Sun.
Also traditional were pilgrimages to holy wells where people would pray for health while walking clockwise around the well itself. Offerings would be left in the form of coins or “clooties” which are strips of cloth that have been dipped in the sacred water of the holy well.
In Gaelic Ireland, Lughnasadh was the preferred time for handfastings — trial marriages that would generally last a year and a day, with the option of ending the contract before the new year, or formalizing it as a lasting marriage once the trial period ended. If the couple came back the following Lughnasadh and felt that their marriage was not working, they could “handpart” without any form of social disapproval. They would dissolve their union by standing back to back and symbolically walking away from one another.
It was also customary for other types of contracts to be negotiated at this time for business such as purchases or employment. Throughout the Middle Ages in England, Lammas was a time for holding great fairs, playing certain rents and electing government officials. As recently as 1940, farmers in Southern England still presented the first sheaf of grain to the church for blessing.
The Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Yuchi, and Iroquois Indians, as well as other Native American tribes, all celebrate the “Green Corn Festival.” The date of the ceremony in some manner is usually determined by to the corn. It is traditionally held on the Full Moon after the first corn crop is ready to harvest, although the Santa Ana Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico celebrate slightly before Lammas on July 26th. It is considered to be a time of giving thanks and for forgiveness. The ceremony lasts for several days. A sacred fire is tended by a tribal holy man as a symbol of health, life and spiritual power.
The first few days of this ceremony are known as “Busk.” During that time, people fast and cleanse both themselves and their homes. An herbal concoction called “Black Drink” induces vomiting to assist with the internal cleansing process. This clears the system so that the first taste of food that enters into the body after the cleansing is that of the first corn harvest. The foods prepared are all related to the corn from the first harvest, such as roasted corn, corn tortillas, corn soup and cornbread. Creek women adorn themselves with colorful ribbons, shells, rattles and other decorations and then perform a ceremonial dance that lasts up to three hours.
Modern Pagans honor the holiday by baking bread made from wheat or corn flower and making corn dollies. The “harvest” is now often metaphorical rather than literally in the fields, represented by a goal worked on throughout the year that manifests in the fall.
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