This comes from my blog, on which I’ve written extensively about our old ways, including the 8 Celtic festivals.
Lughnasadh. Lammas. 31 July/1 August. The most ‘outward’ of the four fire festivals, the cross-quarter dates of the Celtic year, each midway between one of the astronomical stations of the turning year (the solstices and equinoxes). Yesterday evening I celebrated with friends on their beautiful land under the full harvest moon with fires and song, storytelling and poetry, music and food.
Samhain, the start of the Celtic New Year on October 31st/November 1st, is the most inward of the fire festivals, and ‘feminine’ in tone: the Crone going into the cave of winter, readying the ground for new seed.
Imbolc, 31 January/1 February (some say 1/2 February) is Brigit’s time: a time for the Maiden, for creativity, for the thoughts of spring flowers.
At Beltane, 30 April/1 May, maiden-become-adult readies herself for Motherhood in her union with the sun god (‘Bel’; Lugh in one of his guises). The Beltane fires are lit and couples jump through them, share the cup, then take each other joyfully in the long grasses on this cusp of late spring and early summer. The days lengthen; we live outside.
Lughnasadh is the first, the early, harvest. At Lughnasadh we celebrate; but also in the northern hemisphere we turn towards autumn, and there is a dying in the reaping, too.
‘Lammas’ in the old English calendar comes from ‘hlaf-mass’, meaning ‘loafmass’: that bread which we make from the new barley, just reaped. Ale was the other product of barley: historically until relatively recently drunk in the UK because the fermentation process rendered it ‘cleaner’ than water.
Lugh is one of the gods of light (Bel, or Baal, Bala, celebrated at Beltane, May 1st, is also an earlier and less-well-developed, both in terms of the year and in terms of the ‘lineage’, fire or sun god). He’s also known as Llew Llaw Gyffes in the Welsh Mabinogi. In Eire Lugh was a chief of the Tuatha de Danaan, Children or People of Dana (Aosdana in the Scots Gaelic); Dana, the divine feminine, being the mother of the god of poetry. In some versions of the story Lugh was a triple-god (birth, death, renewal; youth, man, sage; page, prince, king – many variants), and he marries a triple goddess. This makes him a ‘primary’ god, so to speak.
Lugh’s trace remains at places in England that begin with ‘Lug’ or ‘Lud’ – I can think of a number on and around Dartmoor.
At this time of the grain harvest, having successfully impregnated the earth goddess, the sungod-king is sacrificed. (This sees the wheel of the year, at its peak now, beginning to roll down the hill to end in the river of dissolution, before the next rebirth.) New seed has been created, and as the old harvest is reaped so the fire-god in his kingly form is sacrificed to feed and water the earth so that the new green barley may shoot next year.
We remember this in the traditional folk-song of John Barleycorn (you may know the particularly poignant tune sung by – I think – Fairport Convention), ‘murdered’ that we all may live. Listening to that version of the song, it’s impossible not to be aware of the ancient and archetypal rituals associated with harvest-time behind the surface words.
It’s a time of merrymaking in the outer world: dancing, feasting, games and competition (interesting that the Olympics span this period), a time too of crafts, Lugh being an artisan-god.
At this turning point, it’s good to make some time to look at the ‘staple’ harvests in one’s life: what has been safely gathered in; what harvest is still not ripe; how one’s inner male and female are relating (or not); what might need to be let go of, ‘sacrificed’, as we turn away from longer days and the peak of fire and light.
The seeds we have planted have ripened now; what are we harvesting? At this peak of the fire festivals, this culmination of a cycle, something has to be given back. For new life to emerge in the psyche something old has to be sacrificed. We can’t resist what has to happen for the continuity of life; we can’t forever resist the natural cycles and tides of things and the continual drive towards transformation and renewal.
Autumn will bring further fruit, and the journey into the darkness will restore fecundity and vitality in the composting of what seems like loss but is simply a shedding.
May the Lughnasadh fires burn up the old and your first harvests be safely gathered in, my friends. Here’s the traditional and mysterious John Barleycorn song for you, redolent as it is with memories of early vegetation rites.
There were three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
That John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn is dead.
They let him lie for a long, long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John popped up his head,
And soon amazed them all.
They’ve let him stand till midsummer day
When he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.
They hired some men with scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him by the waist,
And served him most barbarously.
They hired men with sharpest pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he served him worse than that,
For he bound him to the cart.
They wheeled him round and round the field
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn mow
Of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired men with the crab-tree threshing sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he served him worse than that,
For he ground him between two stones.
Now, here’s little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl,
And brandy in a glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proves the strongest man at last.
For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettles nor pots
Without a little Barleycorn.