The First Harvest
(Lammas, August Eve, Feast of Bread, Harvest Home, Dozynki, Luhnasa; Lunasda, Lunasdal; Laa Luanys and Luanistyn; Gwl Awst, Cornucopia, Thingtide, Garland Sunday, Bilberry Sunday, Fraughan Sunday, Chrom Dubh Sunday, Black Stoop Sunday), Lammas, Cornucopia
One of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic year, Lughnasadh marks the beginning of autumn. It is the beginning of the harvest season and celebrates the decline of summer into winter. Festivals and rituals typically center around the assurance of a bountiful harvest and the celebration of the harvest cycle. The name Bilberry Sunday comes from a tradition of gathering bilberries (a cousin of blueberries) at this time. If the bilberries were bountiful, it is symbolic of a success harvest all around. Lughnasadh is typically the feast of the first grain harvest. Though the exact date of the festival varies, held anywhere from August 1st to August 14th, since the Celts reckon their days from sundown to sundown most harvest festivals begin at sundown on July 31st. An alternate date, August 5 (Old Lammas), when the sun reaches 15 degrees Leo, is sometimes employed by Covens.
Lughnasah is named for Lugh, but the god most associated with the ancient festival is Crom Cruaich or Crom Dubh, the "dark bent one." Lughnasah has the alternate name "Crom's Sunday." Originally, Crom Dubh was a deity to whom it is thought sacrifice was made at the Cross-quarter Days, including Lughnasadh. As Crom Dubh, he is stooped from carrying sheaves of wheat to mankind and dark from his time spent in the underworld Sidhe of Aine, emerging from the Otherworld on or about August 1st. People still exclaim "Dar Crom!" more or less the equivalent of "By Jove!"
Though it is said that the ancient Irish sacrificed a third of their children to Crom Cruaich on Samhain, I don't know how seriously this can be taken considering the sources are mainly from the scribing of Christian monks. To my knowledge, though the figure of Crom Cruiach has been excavated, no bones of the slain have ever been recovered to give credence to the stories. Though Cruach (cruaich) can be interpreted as an adjective derived from the Old Irish word cru, meaning "bloody" or "gory," it is more commonly interpreted as "heap," "stack," or "pile," referring to piles of grain, or as a "hill or mountain." According to legend, worship continued until the cult image was destroyed by St. Patrick with a sledgehammer or his crosier, a story which figures prominently in medieval legends about St. Patrick but appears nowhere in his own writings. It seems to me that the legends of human sacrifice may be nothing more than stories told to keep the people attached to the Christian faith out of fear of the alternative.
Crom Cruach's cult image, consisting of a gold figure surrounded by twelve stone figures, stood on Magh Slécht, "the plain of prostration," in County Cavan and was supposedly propitiated with first-born sacrifice in exchange for good yields of milk and grain. The description of his icon and the surrounding stones indicates his function as a solar deity and the twelve bronze figures may have represented the zodiac. A decorated stone was found at Killycluggin, County Cavan, in 1921. Roughly dome-shaped and covered in Iron Age La Tène designs, it was discovered broken in several pieces and partly buried close to a Bronze Age stone circle. When excavated and placed upright, it was found to lean to the left, perhaps explaining the name Crom, "bent, crooked." The Killycluggin Stone, as it is known, is now in the Cavan County Museum, while a replica stands near the road.
There has been a small movement in Ireland in recent years to shift the national Irish holiday of St. Patrick's Day in March to a celebration in honor of Crom Dubh in August. The Friday (Aoine Cromm Dubh) before the Sunday (Domnach Cromm Dubh) before August 1 is the date of an annual pilgrimage up the 2510 ft Cruach Padraig (St. Patrick's Mound) in County Mayo. Before the arrival of Christianity, the Celtic people regarded the mountain as the dwelling place of Crom Dubh. The sacred mountain was especially important to women, who would sleep on the summit during Lughnasah to encourage fertility.
Other gods associated with this day are John Barley Corn and the Green Man. Lugh, God of All Skills, is known as the "Bright or Shining One." He is called Samhioldanach, "equally skilled in all the arts," and is the patron of craftsmen and artists. As the god Lug Lamfhota, roughly meaning "bright and long-armed," he is associated with both the Sun and agricultural fertility. He is a hero of the Tuatha De Danann in their later years. Lugh was the father of the famous Celtic hero Cu Chulainn. Though he was later replaced by St. Michael and St. Patrick, Lugh remained in folk memory as Lugh-chromain ("little stooping Lugh"), or Leprechaun, and sounds very much like Crom Dubh (if the name is reversed to Dubh Crom).
Lugh is the son of Ethne, daughter of Balor, and Cian, son of Dian Cecht the Healer, and a chieftain of the Tuatha De Danann. His life eerily parallels the story of King Arthur and Perseus. (Incidentally, Perseus was the son of Danaë who, by her very name, was the ancestor of all the Danaans, a collective name for Greeks in Homer's Iliad.) It had been foretold by druids that Balor would only die at the hands of his own grandson. To prevent this, he had his only child Ethne imprisoned in a high tower, Tor Mor, with twelve matrons instructed to keep her away from all men. Cian wished revenge on Balor for stealing his magic cow, and with the help of a druidess, he disguised himself as a woman and sought shelter at the tower. The druidess placed the matrons under enchantment, and when she and Cian left, Ethne was pregnant. Nine months later, she gave birth to three sons (this would have made Lugh a three-fold god). Balor ordered that the children be killed, and a servant wrapped the babies in a cloth and took them to be drowned. One of the babies, Ludh, fell from the wrapping, and only his brothers were murdered. A stillborn infant was thrown into the sea instead, and Lugh was fostered by Tailltu (the last Queen of the Fir Bolgs), Goibhniu (the Celtic smith-god), and Mananann Mac Lir (the sea god). Lugh grew up and learned many trades. He was a carpenter, warrior, druid, mason, smith, harper, poet, physician and goldsmith. In the second battle of Moy Tura, he threw a stone into Balor's eye and killed him, thus fulfilling the prophecy and driving the Formorians from Ireland.
Though Lughnasadh means the funeral games of Lugh, the funeral was not his own. The god of light does not really die until the autumnal equinox. It was in the area of Tailltu's burial that the festival of Lughnasah evolved. As a favor to Lugh she cleared the Forest of Breg, making a plain for cultivation, and died of exhaustion for her trouble. Lugh decreed that a feast was to be held in her honor every August 1st at Tailtiu (now Teltown near the river Blackwater) for fifteen days. The great annual Lughnasah fair included bonfires, feasting, chariot races and other sporting events. The Tailtean Games were athletic contests very much like the Olympics. Traditional craft fairs and Tailtean marriages (which last for a year and a day) were held at this time. The last games were held August 1st, 1169 under Ruraigh O Conchobar, last High King of Ireland at the traditional site, 15 miles from Tara, the holy city.
One possible derivation of the name of Lugh is from the old Celtic word "lugio", meaning "an oath." A traditional part of the celebrations surrounding Lughnasadh is the formation of oaths. From before recorded history into the twentieth century, marriages, employment contracts and other bargains of a mundane nature were formed and renewed at this time of year. Since the agricultural year had its culmination in the harvest and harvest festivals, oaths and contracts that had had to wait until after the crops were in could be focused on at this time. Marriages, hiring for the upcoming season and financial arrangements were often a part of the Lughnasadh activities. In many areas, fairs were held specifically for the purpose of hiring or matchmaking.
Another tradition of the festival were the Teltown or Tailtean marriages. Joining hands through a wall or holed stone, participants were joined until the following year when they were at liberty to walk away from the arrangement if they so chose. Such trial marriages (or Handfastings) were common even into the 1500's, although it was something one "didn't bother the parish priest about." Such ceremonies were usually solemnized by a poet, bard, shanachie (a traditional Irish storyteller), or possibly a priest or priestess of the Old Religion. The site of these marriages has tentatively been identified as the "Knockauns" in the ritual enclosure still existing at Teltown. From the early Irish term "Cnocan a Chrainn," Knockauns refers to "the little hill of the tree," possibly alluding to the presence of a sacred tree which unfortunately no longer stands.
This festival was also the traditional time of year for craft fairs. Medieval guilds created elaborate displays of their wares, decorating their shops and themselves in bright colors and ribbons. There were parades and ceremonial plays and dances.
The 'Catherine wheel' or sun wheel was a ceremonial highlight. 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 in its decline. Though the Roman Church moved St. Catherine's feast day all over the calendar, its most popular date was August 1st. 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.
Irish sites associated with Lughnasah include Teltown in County Meath, the Lios stone circle in Lough Gur in County Limerick and the sanctuary of Aine and her harvest consort Crom Dubh atop Croagh Patrick. The area of Knockauns in Teltown contains two parallel mounds, extending approximately 200 feet east-west and sitting roughly 10 feet apart. Occupying the highest point in the area, these mounds provide a clear view of the surrounding ritual area. In 1998, a local farmer bulldozed part of this ritual enclosure, the mound Rathdhu or "Rath Dubh," which had previously stood revered and untouched for hundreds of years and comparative in importance with the Hill of Tara and Rath Cruachain in County Roscommon.
The Christian religion adopted the harvest theme of Lughnasadh and called it Lammas, meaning 'loaf-mass,' a time when newly baked loaves of bread are placed on the altar. Columcille (St Columba) tried to change Lammas into a "Feast of the Ploughmen" with no success. When it was Christianized as Michaelmas, the date of Lughnasadh shifted from late July to September 29. The Burning Man festival, held in Nevada, has its roots in another Lughnasadh tradition, the erection of giant wicker men or smaller Corn Gods, which were then set on fire. The Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone also comes to mind at this time of year. As August progresses, you can see the subtle changes in tree and plants that mark Persephone's preparations to go underground again.
In Slavic countries, the harvest festival is called Dozynki. Sponsored by the lord of the manor for the people who worked his fields and harvested his crops, villagers would dress in colorful folk costumes, sing, and play instruments. The przodownica, or best girl harvester, wore a harvest wreath (Wieniec) as a kind of headpiece. Made of woven golden grain and decorated with meadow flowers, small apples or clusters of mountain-ash berries (Rowan), and ribbons, she would present this wreath to the squire who hung it up in a place of honor in his home. He would then pour himself and the oldest male harvester a glass of vodka and toast the entire village. A loaf of bread, baked from the fresh grain, was also presented to the lord and lady of the manor, who would give a slice to the guests who had worked hard to make the harvest possible. They then invited all present to a feast. After the meal, the squire danced the first dance with the przodownica, and his wife danced with the przodownik (leading male harvester) before the whole community was allowed to dance. In Poland today, the ceremony has changed to include everyone living in the entire countryside. Elected officials and area representatives have taken the place if the lord and lady of the manor. The celebrants continue to dress in traditional costumes and carry their harvest wreaths, attempting to surpass each other in originality and beauty.
Yellow cloth and candles
Sheaves of grain, ears of corn, local fruits
A corn dolly (if you choose to burn it, be sure to use a fire-safe container)
Fruit (especially apples, and berries)
Races, Games of Endurance, Horse Races
Rhibo (Welsh game)
Musical or Poetry Contests
Making Corn Dollies
Save and plant the seeds from the fruits consumed during the feast or ritual.
Visits to Holy Places; Walk through the fields and orchards or spend time along springs, creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes