LAMMAS HISTORY & LORE
The Lammas Festival at the beginning of August (Northern Hemisphere) is one of the four Celtic Cross Quarter Festivals, linked to the old farming calendar – some call it Lughnasadh. This was a time when people were very close to the land and their lives were governed by the changing of the seasons and the need to grow enough food to survive.
There are links to other cultures and religions too, notably Demeter and Ceres, also associated with crops and the harvest. Corn dollies are a feature of the Lammas festival, and in times past, different areas wove their own beautifully complex designs often decorated with bright ribbons or wool. Traditionally the corn dollies woven at Lammas (or their ashes) were ploughed back into the land at Imbolc, symbolising the return of the Corn Spirit to the earth, in an attempt to ensure a good crop the next year.
There are many ancient customs involving the cutting of the first and last sheaf. The spirit of the corn, sometimes referred to as the Corn Mother, was the sacred symbol of this festival. Many cultures, including the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, held similar types of rituals where the bounty of the land was honoured. It was also the time when John Barleycorn was sacrificed.
Lammas is also the time of year when sweethearts exchanged favours – these were simple knots woven from corn and sometimes tied with a ribbon. If a girl accepted a boy’s favour, she’d pin it to her clothing to show the community she was “walking out” with a lad, and he’d pin her favour to his hat to do the same.
In Anglo-Saxon history, it was customary to bring to church a loaf of bread made from the new crop, which began to be harvested at Lammastide. Lammas takes its name from hlaf maesse, the Old English for loaf mass. The loaf was blessed, and in Anglo-Saxon England it might have been employed afterwards to work magic. A common tradition was splitting the loaf into four pieces, which were then positioned at the four corners of the barn, to protect the garnered grain.
In many agrarian cultures it was, and in some places still is, common to bring the first harvest to be blessed at the Lughnassadh Celebration, or by the Parish Priest. In addition to honouring the Spirit of the Grain by keeping the last sheath of wheat or ear of corn, it is common to craft a Corn Mother effigy, to be sown into the fields at the start of the next planting season.
In many parts of England, tenants were bound to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords on or before the first day of the harvest.
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is referred to regularly, it is called “The Feast of First Fruits”. The blessing of first fruits was performed annually in both the Eastern and Western Churches on the first or sixth of August (Northern Hemisphere). The sixth of August is also the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ.
Lammas coincides with the feast of St Peter in Chains, commemorating St Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison.
In mediaeval Scotland, the feast was sometimes known as the “Gule of August”, but the meaning of “gule” is unclear. Some suggest it is merely an Anglicisation of “Gwyl Awst”, the welsh name of the “Feast of August”. A Welsh derivation would point to a pre-Christian origin for Lammas and a link to the Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh.
In “The Every-Day Book” written by William Hone in 1838, a later festive Lammas day sport was recorded as common among Scottish farmers near Edinburgh. He says that they “build towers…leaving a hole for a flag-pole in the center so that they may raise their colors.” When the flags over the many peat-constructed towers were raised, farmers would go to others’ towers and attempt to “level them to the ground.” A successful attempt would bring great praise. However, people were allowed to defend their towers, and so everyone was provided with a “tooting-horn” to alert nearby country folk of the impending attack and the battle would turn into a “brawl.” According to Hone, several people had died at this festival and many more were injured. At the day’s end, races were held, with prizes given to the townspeople.
Several antiquaries beginning with John Brady offered a back construction to its being originally known as Lamb-mass, under the undocumented supposition that the tenants of the Cathedral of York, dedicated to St Peter and Vincula, of which this is the feast, would have been required to bring a live lamb to the church, or with John Skinner, “because Lambs then grew out of season”. This is folk etymology.
In Ireland, Lugh, the Craftsman God of Light was paid homage to, as well as the Sacrificial Oak King. Also, it was a time to honour his foster mother, Tailtiu with outdoor games of skill. She was originally a Spirit of the Land, most likely, who died after clearing the forests of Ireland to prepare for planting.
In the medieval agricultural year, Lammas also marked the end of the hay harvest that had begun after Midsummer. At the end of hay-making, a sheep would be loosed in the meadow among the movers, for him to keep who could catch it.
For many villages, wheat would have been running very low in the days before Lammas/first harvest, thus when the new harvest began, a season of plenty, of hard work, company in the fields, reaping in teams, and a celebratory atmosphere prevailed.
The modern pagan calendar or Wheel of the Year, states that the Lord or Sun God grows old and ethereal, becoming the Elder, as the crops are cut down, so are the days of His life. He is weathered and beginning to weaken. The Goddess is the Mother, heavily pregnant with the infant God to be reborn at Yule.