Many things are different as summer gives way to autumn. The leaves change colors and the weather grows cooler as the sun shifts its course across the sky. These are all signs of the growing season coming to a close. It is thus a time for both celebration and reflection.
Modern paganism recognizes the significance of this period of the year through a holiday known either as Lammas or Lughnasadh (pronounces Loo-na-sa). It is celebrated as a grain festival where the wheat, barley, and corn are ready to be picked; Lammas is also known as the Sabbat of First Fruits1. For our ancestors this would be the year’s only pay day and so marked the return of abundance. With the last year’s harvest running low the previous month was one of scarcity and indeed July was known as “the hungry month” in Ireland2. In fact the association with the harvest was strong enough to have spawned a belief that gathering the crops earlier than Lammas was a sign of bad luck or poor farming3.
Today, of course, most people are not farmers. However the concept of “the harvest” can be seen symbolically as the time when people reap the rewards of the previous year’s work. Thus Lammas can be seen as a “time of personal reflection … of our deeds and actions, events and experiences, our gains and losses. A time when we begin the cycle of personal reflection of that which is our life”4. It is during this holiday when we look back at the seeds planted earlier in the year to see what grew, what did not, and evaluate where life’s journey has taken us.
The history of Lammas is difficult to trace, starting with the name. Most pagans indeed know the holiday as Lammas. The term is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “loaf-mass” and comes from the custom of bringing a loaf made from the recent harvest to church5. Others know it as Lughnasadh. That name is Irish in origin and means “an assembly or series of games of the god Lugh”6. According to Irish mythology, Lugh began the games in honor of his foster mother Tailtiu who was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the land for farming7.
Late July and early August were indeed a time for gathering in Ireland. Festivals would take place outside with entire communities coming together. Harvest fairs occurred around this time as would athletic competitions and games. Some have even said it was a time for marriage8. Many of these assemblies would take place on hilltops with the most famous being at Croagh Patrick in Ireland. To this day it is the site of a regular pilgrimage associated with St. Patrick9.
However the exact customs practiced in ancient Ireland are not well known. The first written accounts are from the sixth century and do mention assemblies which had been occurring since pagan times. Yet Lughnasadh is not often mentioned in mythology10. There are tales devoted to the god Lugh, the specifics of which are outside the scope of this essay. But most are not tied to the harvest except that he is said to have started games as noted above. Furthermore most Irish folks themselves had not heard of the festival of Lughnasadh until recently11.
Instead they knew the holiday as Crom Dubh’s Sunday, after another deity connected with the harvest. As with Lugh there are several myths surrounding Crom Dubh and the connection with the harvest is stronger. For example, one story says that Crom Dubh was once buried up to his neck for three days and not released until the harvest had been guaranteed12. In others, Crom Dubh must be defeated by Lugh in order to ensure the safety of the harvest13.
The point is that one does not see the sort of cross cultural celebration around Lughnasadh as one does around midsummer. And it should come as no surprise since the latter was based on an astronomical phenomenon while the former is rooted in the diverse customs of the British Isles. Although different cultures attached differing significance to it, the Summer Solstice always occurred at the same time varying only according to the Hemisphere in one lived. However harvest time will vary depending on a number of factors such as geography, climate, and the crops being grown. Furthermore some cultures did not leave many written records making it difficult to draw a solid line between the ancient world and the modern one.
Even the date on which Lughnasadh/Lammas was celebrated is a matter of contention. Modern pagans peg August 1st (or the first Saturday after it) as being the big day. The same was true of the old days as well with Lammas being a quarter day in English law when the rent was due. However Anna Franklin noted in her book on Lughnasadh that folk traditions tended to happen over a period of weeks rather than all at once. Possibly changes to the calendar in the 16th Century were to blame although the actual start of the harvest would have depended on the weather14.
Yet regardless of how Lammas was celebrated in ages past, there are many options for practicing pagans today. One can embrace the metaphorical harvest as noted above and honor and celebrate what one is reaping. This can include giving thanks to the sun or the God and thanking the land around you15. Alternatively one may simply meditate on what this harvest season has brought and what it all means. Do whatever feels right to you.
Another fun option is to embrace the spirit of the harvest in a more literal way: feasting! Not that such an activity need be confined to August although some may argue that it should. However Lammas has traditionally been a celebration of the gathering of the crops and so food fits well into it. There are certain foods such as barm brac and porridge (oatmeal) which have been associated with Lammas. Cornbread or other dishes made with corn would be another acceptable substitute16.
If one is celebrating with a group then a gathering would be the perfect activity. August (or February for those in the Southern hemisphere) is one of the warmer months of the year so any sort of outdoor gathering would be appropriate. This can be an outdoor ritual, hiking trip, or even a simple barbecue. Games and athletic competitions can be a part of the festivities if one is feeling up to it17.
Ultimately whatever you choose to do should be something enjoyable, fun, and safe. The twilight of the year is beginning as the wheel of the year turns towards autumn. Now is a great time to celebrate and be thankful for what you have. For it will be a long time until the next harvest.
River Loneruner is an active member of Hecate's Cauldron's Inner Circle and a second year student of the Temple Tradition.
1 Edain McCoy, Sabbats: A Witch’s Approach to Living the Old Ways, 173.
2 Anna Franklin and Paul Mason, Lughnasa: History, Lore, and Celebration.
3 Morgan, “Lughnasa: Festival of the Harvest (A Druid’s Perspective).”
4 Christina Aubin, “Lughnasadh - Overview by Christina.”
6 Anna Franklin and Paul Mason, Lughnasa: History, Lore, and Celebration.
8 Morgan, “Lughnasa: Festival of the Harvest (A Druid’s Perspective).”
9 Anna Franklin and Paul Mason, Lughnasa: History, Lore, and Celebration.
13 Morgan, “Lughnasa: Festival of the Harvest (A Druid’s Perspective).”
14 Anna Franklin and Paul Mason, Lughnasa: History, Lore, and Celebration.
15 Rachel Ann Sunshine, “Celebrate Lughnasadh With Me!”.
16 Morgan, “Lughnasa: Festival of the Harvest (A Druid’s Perspective).”