The First Harvest: Lughnasadh or Lammas?

 

Happy August! As the golden sun winds down and the days ever so slightly grow shorter, we find ourselves in the midst of the first harvest feast also known as Lughnasadh or Lammas. This is a cross quarter festival which falls midpoint between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox in the northern hemisphere.

Some folks call this holiday “Lughnasadh.” Most folks call it “Lammas.” That is probably because Lughnasadh is a mouthful to pronounce. Plus it has a weird spelling. Most people are intimidated by the very sight of the word. Some folks might remember the old movie with Meryl Streep called “Dancing at Lughnasa” and they try to pronounce it.

Be not afraid.

Lughnasadh (also spelled Lughnasa) is pronounced LOO – NAH -SAH. Lammas is pronounced LAH-MIS. The two festivals are similar, and although they are celebrated on the same day, they are not exactly the same.

Lughnasadh & The Sun King

Lughnasadh dates back to prehistoric times. The name “Lughnasadh” is derived from the Celtic sun god Lugh. (Pronounced LOO, or LUKGH rolling the G in the back of your throat.)  The name Lugh literally means “The Shining One”. As the sun god, Lugh’s special mission was to make sure the sun stayed under control and did not burn us up. Hence, this time of year, with the sun’s first fading, is associated with him.

But Lugh was more than a mere sun god.  He was also the patron of all craftspeople, including metalworkers, musicians, magicians, healers, and warriors.

As a Jack of All Trades, Lugh covered a lot of territory and was an extremely popular god. He was the elected King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the tribe of Fair Folk.  Lugh was a master builder, harpist, poet, warrior, sorcerer, metalworker, and physician. He was also extremely beautiful and eternally youthful.  It’s easy to see why he was worshiped and loved throughout the Celtic world.

Lugh has an interesting history which is necessary to tell in order to fully understand how Lughnasadh came to be.

Forbidden Birth, Unlikely Death

Although Lugh was obviously a golden child, the circumstances of his birth were weird. His father was Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his mother was Ethlin, daughter of Balor, of the Fomorians. It should have been a great match, uniting the two tribes. However, there was one severe problem; Ethlin was forbidden, by her father Balor, to ever  have children. This was because Balor had once been given a prophecy from a sorcerer that his own grandson would kill him.

Balor’s solution? Simply lock his daughter in a tower and keep her away from all men.

Needless to say, it did not work. Ethlin had already fallen in love with the powerful and dashing Cian. He, using obvious Rapunzel style tactics, found ways to get into that tower.

When Ethlin became pregnant, the Tuatha Dé Danann knew there would be trouble. Balor would seek to kill the baby.  And so, Cian and Ethlin were whisked away to a nearby island. When Lugh was born, he was given to the harvest goddess Tailtiu (pronounced TAL-TU.)  It was she who raised the baby Lugh, and turned him into the fine young man he became.

Alas, poor Tailtiu! She had a lot of work to do. As grain goddess, she had to clear all the fields of Ireland for planting, then reap the harvest. As she grew older the burden became too much. One morning on the first of August, the poor goddess collapsed from exhaustion and died.

Lugh wanted to honor his foster mother. She had requested that only celebrations, with happiness and no grieving, should commemorate her death. And so Lugh held a great harvest feast. There were games, drinking and merry-making. (Arguably this could have been the first Irish wake. These wakes were known to last days on end, mired in celebration.)

Perhaps this festival should have been called “Tailtiuanasadh.” (That would have been an ever bigger tongue twister!) But instead it was named after Lugh, the beloved god who threw the party. It is always associated with the harvest, as Tailtiu was a grain goddess and Lugh was the god of the waning sun.

Lammas — All About the Bread

Some time in the 4th century AD, the Emperor Constantine advanced Christianity in Roman dominated Europe and the British Isles. A lot of Pagan practices, as followed by the Celts and other tribes, were outlawed. The festival of Lughnasadh was probably forbidden, or at least it went underground. However, the first harvest morphed into a new holiday called Lammas.

The word Lammas literally means “loaf mass”. This made sense because, as wheat was harvested in late July and early August, a lot of bread baking took place.  Lammas-tide was not just a one day festival, but was considered more of a baking season. It began on August 1st and lasted for a few weeks.

What’s In a Name? 

Lammas also has an interesting history and entomology. In medieval times the feast was sometimes known in England and Scotland as the “Gule of August”.  The true meaning of “gule” is unknown, but in Welsh there is a term Gŵyl Awst which means “feast of August”. Gule may have just been an alternate spelling. The word gule is also associated with “gullet”. This also makes sense, as all that bread goes into the gullet!

In the medieval agricultural year, Lammas also marked the end of the hay harvest that had begun after the Midsummer Solstice.  At the end of hay-making the tradition was to release one sheep into the meadow. (A rarity because this was not lambing season.)  Anyone who could catch the sheep could keep it. This leads to the suggestion that “Lammas” could also have been derived from “lamb mass”, an additional celebration at the harvest.

Shakespeare famously mentioned Lammas, as Juliet’s birthday in Romeo and Juliet.

“Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.”

Thus, the festival of Lammas was well known and would have been easily recognizable to Elizabethan audiences.

Regardless of how the words and legends came to be and to be remembered, one thing is certain: Lugnasadh/ Lammas is a great time of year to celebrate!

In Modern Times

We may not all be farmers, and we do not live as close to the land as our ancestors did, but there are still many ways to honor the harvest.  Even the modern day city dweller can hit the local farmers market for some corn on the cob, or the local bakery for a fresh loaf of bread. (Or if you are skilled in the kitchen, bake your own!)

Have some fun today, and also over the next few weeks as “tide” sets in. Thank the earth for her abundance. Thank the overlooked goddess Tailtiu for her hard work and sacrifice. Create an altar dedicated to Lugh, Tailtiu, or Mother Earth.  Offerings could include corn, tomatoes and berries. Candles could be yellow and orange, the colors of the sun. Carnelian, amber, citrine and other yellow crystals are great decorations. Sunflowers are always perfect, as are marigolds and daisies.

Whatever you do to celebrate, have a safe, happy and healthy Lunasadh/ Lammas-tide! Blessed be.

 

 

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A Tale of Lughnasadh

 

He came to me as an infant. Washed like driftwood in the sea’s tide, from which his own grandfather, King Balor, had thrown him. O, it was a vile act! An attempt to drown the poor boy! The old king had his reasons. Years before, a Druid had prophesied: “Any grandson of Balor will cause the death of him.”

Such a warning was not to be taken lightly. Druids were the seers, the soothsayers of all things known and unknown. Yet Balor’s solution was foolish! The most foolish thing I had ever heard in my life. Imagine preventing a pregnancy by holding your daughter hostage in a tower, thus keeping her from all male contact. Even one with the brains of a sheep should know such a plan would never work!

But I get ahead of myself.

My name is Tailtiu. I served the land, the grain and the harvest. It was I who made all of Erin’s Isle green, bringing rain and wind, making the fields fertile.

It was I who ripened the wheat, sprouted the potatoes, made the apples fall and the berries go plump. I had ample work — enough tasks of my own, just to keep the land in good order so people would not starve. The last thing I needed was a baby at my breast to complicate my life.

And yet it was.

King Balor was a giant, a mighty sorcerer who was able to cast many spells and kill with his evil third eye.

Few things frightened him, but when he heard the Druid’s prophecy he was taken aback. The Druids were never wrong. And for this reason, Balor decided; it must be arranged that his grandson would simply never be born.

Balor had but one daughter, a beautiful lass by the name of Ethlin. So lovely was she that every lad for miles around offered his fortune for her hand in marriage. Yet Balor refused them all.

“Given the slightest opportunity, that girl shall get herself with child and birth an evil whelp,” he said. “One that would as soon take a dagger to me as blink an eye. O no! I shall prevent it at all costs! The fair Ethlin will be locked in a tower, where no male will ever get to her. There she shall live, forever barren. In doing this, I shall retain my own power and wealth.”

And so it was.

The girl Ethlin was locked in the Mor Tor, a crystal structure that one could neither climb nor descend into. Its walls were thick as a citadel, made of pure diamond, the hardest glass, which could not be broken with pick nor hammer. It had but one key for entrance which Balor  kept only to himself, hidden in the darkest depths of his castle dungeon, its location known to him alone.

There, in the tower, Ethlin lived out her days in solitude, attended only by the twelve midwives who served her. Balor had commanded that there be no talk of men, and his daughter should forget they ever existed.

She had no sunlight, no fresh air, no diversions, no pleasure. Only the steady work of needlepoint, such to make her eyes bleary and her fingers numb.  ‘Tis a wonder the lass did not go mad with boredom!  A life such as that was no life at all.

“When am I to be free?” she would ask, to which her midwives would be silent, for they feared the wrath of Balor.

Far out in the glen, in the land of dusk and faerie, where time and space cross and all things are possible, there is an Otherworld. In that Otherworld dwell the The Tuatha Dé Danann  – the Tribe of the goddess Danu.  And in that tribe there was a lad.  Brave and handsome he was, and young and strong, with a will of his own and much admiring of Ethlin. His name was Cian.

“How difficult could it be,” Cian asked me, “to climb that tower, to enter into it, to rescue the lass from her condemnation?”

“Not difficult at all,” I answered.

It was a mere sleight of the body. Balor, in his anger and scheming, had deeply underestimated the likes of me, the likes of Cian, the likes of the entire Tuatha Dé Danann. We are, you see, present in one place, and then we simply are not. This is the nature of our Otherworld.  I gave Cian a potion of magic herbs with a drop of dragon’s tears; as he drank it I uttered these words:

“Eye of thistle, heart of drake

Through this charm a lover make

A path to his desired space

Full of lust and full of grace

With this potion may you prove

Dedication and true love!”

In an instant Cian had taken to the sky; in another instant he had entered  through the walls of the crystal tower.

The very sight of him set Ethlin’s heart a-flutter, for the girl was young and ripe. She had never known the touch of a man. And such a man Cian was! Strapping and stunning, with chiseled cheekbones, dazzling eyes and locks of hair that put Samson to shame.  His manners were impeccable, and chivalry graced every bone in his body. The Mor Tor quickly became their love nest. Within weeks Ethlin was with child.

Balor, for his part, had no concern for his daughter. Foolish man! He never visited, left all dealings to her midwives. But now! The surprise that awaited him would be one most displeasing.

Nine months later the child was born. We named him ‘Lugh’ for Light. No other name could suit such a child, for he was radiant as the sun itself. As the offspring of the two most gorgeous beings in Eire, he was bound to be beautiful – but the baby Lugh far exceeded mere beauty.

When Balor got word of the birth he was furious.

In the dead of night, Balor slunk into the tower, whittling his dull key to the door and ascending the crystal staircase. He kidnapped the baby and whisked him away to the edge of the sea.

Balor stood on a monstrous cliff, overlooking the waves that crashed below like a liquid glacier. Without so much as a thought, he tossed the child in, hoping the ocean would crush him to a watery grave.

It was Manannan mac Lir, the god of the sea, who found the baby.  The infant was near death, bobbing and thrashing in the cresting waves, his lungs waterlogged and breath scarce. Manannan mac Lir knew immediately this was a very special child. He cradled the baby in his sturdy sea arms, wrapped him in a cloth of clean cambric, then brought him to me.

“You, Tailtiu, are a goddess of the earth. If anyone can suckle this child and give him renewed life, it shall be you.”

He was right of course. And even though Ethlin was his natural mother, it was not safe that she keep him, for Balor would surely track her down and attempt to kill the child again. I bid Ethlin and Cian flee the isle. They were young and could produce many more for their family. Lugh would be mine.

And so I raised him. He became my foster son, the Celtic god of the Sun, a radiant and celestial being. Prince Lugh was much loved and much revered, known for his kindness and benevolence.

He was, in fact, so loved that the Tuatha Dé Danann eventually chose him as their king. As such he was obliged to fight great battles.  It was in the Battle of Mag Tuired that the Druid’s prophecy once again came into question.

Lugh was required to fight Balor.

The two met on a battlefield of mud and weaponry, a wasteland of gouged bodies, severed limbs and rotting blood.  Balor had managed to kill many a soldier with his tricks and spells and evil eye, but now his grandson confronted him.

Lugh hurled a great spear, all the while shouting, “Forgive me, Grandfather, for what must be done!”

The spear then hit Balor, smack in his third eye. Balor fell to the ground, flailing like a fish on a hook. Yet the spells of Balor were still viable, and he managed to kill more of the Tuatha Dé Danann with his magic.

Having no choice, Lugh then pulled his sword and in one swift stroke, beheaded his own grandfather. The Druid’s prophecy was complete.

It was victory for the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through this, Lugh was given sacred powers. He become the god of skill and craft, of honor, truth and law. He was granted eternal radiance and eternal youth.

As for myself, by this time I was growing old, my twilight years upon me. My endless duties had left me strained. I had cared for the boy.  I had cared for the earth. As the years passed, the land became wild and ornery. Sometimes it would not even produce a potato for me, thus leaving the people in famine. Yet I did my best. Finally, in my feebleness, I could no longer serve the greenery, the plants and grain I loved so well.

My health fell ill and I began to wither back into the land from which all living things come. I, like a crone of autumn, faded into that golden haze that marks the end of the long summer. Upon the first day of August I breathed my last.

To mark my death, my foster son called for a great celebration. He saw this fitting, as he wanted to pay homage to me and all I had meant to him.  There would be no funeral dirges, no veils of mourning, no maudlin processions.  Instead, there was sumptuous feasting, a bounty from the harvest, dancing and song, all forms of revelry and games.

From far away in the spirit world I watched. And I was most pleased. So pleased, in fact, that I wished this feasting and revelry could occur every year, on the first day of August, as a holy day, not only for myself but for the land, the harvest, and the people.

My wish was granted.

Because the festivities had been orchestrated by Lugh, it was only proper that this holy day ever after be called “Lughnasadh.”