Category Archives: Lammas

The First Fruits

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In the modern world, the first of August is not necessarily an important harvest date, and may seem quite early to some—after all, the summer is still in full swing! In fact, due to our advanced agricultural technology, there are now actually multiple growing cycles for various types of grain and other crops. But back when harvesting, threshing, winnowing and sieving of the grain was all done by hand, farmers needed to start as early as they could. After all, once this hard work was done, it would be time to bring in the later-season crops ahead of the first killing frosts.

Of course, August 1st wasn’t necessarily a hard and fast date for our ancestors, though it was considered the earliest acceptable time to begin bringing in the wheat. But if the crop wasn’t quite ready, due to insufficient rain or sunshine, then the harvest—and the accompanying festivities—would wait. Nature’s schedule was far more powerful than any calendar humans could devise.

Although the harvesting process meant long hours of hard work for the farmers, it was still cause for celebration and merriment. Many families’ stores of wheat would have run very low or even empty by this time, and the onset of the harvest season meant that plenty of new abundance was on its way.

It was also a very social time, as neighbors worked together in order to bring the harvest in successfully for everyone in the community. Feasting was a must, and a special emphasis was placed on bread, as a staple of nourishment that would provide for the family throughout the long winter months and beyond. The first loaves made from the first wheat of the new season were particularly significant, and in Anglo-Saxon England, these loaves were brought into the churches and laid on the altar to be blessed. This is where the holiday gets its name—the old Saxon phrase “hlaf-maesse,” which translates literally to “loaf mass,” and eventually became “Lammas.”

The custom of blessing the bread makes Lammas an interesting example of how Christianity and pagan religions coexisted for a time. Bread is actually an important symbol in many spiritual traditions, going back to the ancient world. For Wiccans and other modern Pagans, bread is representative of all the Elements: the seeds growing in the Earth, the yeast utilizing Water and Air to make the dough rise, and the Fire of the hearth making the finished product. Add to this the concept of Akasha—or Spirit—being present in the grain thanks to the power of the Sun, and you have a very sacred food indeed.

Given the significance of bread to the communion rituals of the Christian Church, it’s easy to see how these traditions overlapped. But if the Church officials had hoped to stomp out pagan practices with the “loaf mass,” they didn’t succeed, at least not immediately—the Anglo-Saxon peasants were known to use their church-blessed bread in protection rituals and other magic.

As an agricultural festival, the First Harvest would certainly have preceded the arrival of Christianity to Europe. And yet it’s unknown what this holiday was called in England prior to the custom that brought about the name of “Lammas.” However, in Ireland the day was, and still is, known as Lughnasa (pronounced “LOO-na-sa” or “Loo-NOSS-ah,” also spelled “Lughnasadh”).

This cross-quarter festival was held as a tribute to the Celtic God Lugh, a warrior deity who was associated with the Sun, fire, grain, and many skills and talents such as smithcraft, building, music and magic. The association with grain comes from Lugh’s foster mother, Tailtiu, who was said to have cleared the plains of Ireland for use in agriculture and died of exhaustion from doing so.

Lugh held an annual harvest festival in her honor, which included athletic games and contests that resembled the original Olympics, along with music and storytelling. This mythical festival was made real by the ancient Celts and was celebrated in one form or another well into the 20th century.

As with other ancient harvest festivals, Lughnasa was a time to offer the “first fruits” to the gods. The first of the crops were carried to the top of a high hill and buried there. Bilberries were gathered and a sacred bull was sacrificed for the great feast.

Ritual plays were performed in which Lugh defeated blight or famine and seized the harvest for the people. Dancing, drinking, trading and matchmaking were popular activities at the gatherings, which might last for three days before coming to a close. Handfastings and trial marriages (which lasted a year and a day and could then be broken or made permanent) were also common, as were visits to holy wells, where people would pray for good health and leave offerings of coins or strips of cloth.

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Lammas Correspondences

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Colors: gold, yellow, orange, red, green, light brown
Stones: carnelian, citrine, peridot, aventurine, sardonyx
Herbs: sage, meadowsweet, ginseng, vervain, calendula, fenugreek, heather, dill, yarrow
Flowers: sunflower, passionflower, acacia flowers, cyclamen
Incense: sandalwood, frankincense, copal, rose, rose hips, rosemary, chamomile, passionflower
Altar decorations/symbols: first harvest fruits and vegetables, fresh baked bread, grapes and vines, corn dollies, sickles and scythes, Lugh’s spear, symbols representing your own skills
Foods: apples, breads, all grains, berries, hazelnuts, summer squash, corn, elderberry wine, ale

Lammas

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Northern Hemisphere: August 1 or 2
Southern Hemisphere: February 1 or 2
Pronounced: LAH-mahs
Themes: first fruits, harvest, gratitude, benevolent sacrifice, utilizing skills and talents
Also known as: Lughnasa, August Eve, Feast of Bread, Harvest Home, Gŵyl Awst, First Harvest

Situated on the opposite side of the Wheel from Imbolc, which heralds the end of the winter season, Lammas marks the beginning of the end of summer. It is the cross-quarter day between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox.

Although the days are still hot, sunshine is still abundant and the fields and forests are still teeming with life, we can begin to feel the telltale signs of the approaching autumn. The Sun sets earlier with each passing day, and many plants begin to wither, dropping their seeds to the ground so that new life can return at the start of the next growing season.

Berries, apples, and other fruits begin to ripen on trees and vines, and the grain in the fields has reached its full height, ready to be cut down and stored for the winter. This is a bittersweet time, as we are surrounded by the abundance of the summer’s bounty, yet becoming more aware by the day that we are heading back into dark time of year.

Lammas is the time of the “first fruits” and is known in Wiccan and other Pagan traditions as the first of the three harvest festivals. Grain crops are now or soon will be ready for harvesting, along with corn and many other late-summer vegetables and early-autumn fruits. Of course, plenty of produce has already been available for harvesting, and plenty more will be ready later on in the season. But Lammas marks the point in time when harvesting, rather than planting or tending, becomes the main focus.

This is a time to consciously recognize the fruits of our labors—whether literally or metaphorically—and to give thanks for all that has manifested. We recognize the inherent sacrifice of the plants that give their lives so that we may eat, and we are humbled by the greater life-and-death cycles that govern all of creation.

Just six weeks after the Summer Solstice, the God at Lammas is now visibly on the wane. He is approaching his old age, rising later each morning and retiring sooner every night.

The Goddess in her Mother aspect is still waxing, as the Earth continues to bear the fruit of the seeds planted at the start of the growing season. She is still pregnant with the new God, who will be born at Yule, after the old God completes his journey to the Underworld at Samhain. This is one of the most poignant moments on the Wheel of the Year, as the Goddess demonstrates that life goes on even though we all experience loss and the fading of the light.

In ancient agricultural civilizations, grain was often associated with the death and rebirth cycle, and many Wiccan mythological traditions draw on this archetype at Lammas. In one version, the Sun God transfers his power to the living grain in the fields, and so is sacrificed when the grain is cut down. The God willingly sacrifices himself so that his people may live.

And yet the God is later reborn, ensuring that the crops will grow once again to feed the people for another year. The harvest practice of saving seed grain for planting next year’s crop is both a practical necessity and a way of participating in the metaphor—saving the seeds is a way of ensuring the God’s rebirth.

Celebrating Lammas

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Across the spectrum of Wiccan and other modern Pagan traditions, celebrations at Lammas can vary widely. Those inspired by the ancient Celts may choose to focus on honoring Lugh, and many call this holiday Lughnasa rather than Lammas. Others might be more rooted in Anglo-Saxon traditions, while still others incorporate a blend of ancient sources into their practice. Among all this diversity, however, the central theme is almost always the first harvest and the beginning of the transition into the darker, colder months.

Feasts are part of every Sabbat, but the significance of the feast is a particular focus during the harvest holidays, as we give thanks to the God and Goddess for the bounty of the Earth. Wiccans deliberately choose to prepare and savor the first “fruits” of the harvest season, whether it be apples and grapes, wheat and corn, or anything else that has come into season where they live. This feast is a physical participation in the turning of the Wheel of the Year, as we recognize that this time of newly-reaped abundance, like all other moments in time, will soon pass. Coven rituals at Lammas often honor the waxing energy of the pregnant Goddess and the waning energy of the fading God. They give thanks for the manifestations of the year thus far, whether material, spiritual, or both. In some traditions, goals for the next two harvest Sabbats are stated, as well as intentions for the bounty of the Earth to be shared by all beings.

For solitary practitioners, a full-scale feast may be somewhat impractical, especially for those who live alone. If this is the case, you can still make a point of enjoying some fresh baked bread and late-summer fruits and vegetables as part of your Lammas celebration. Save any seeds from the fruits for planting, or use them in your spellwork.

Another way to mark this Sabbat is to make a corn dolly from corn stalks or straw. This is a manifestation of the ancient “Corn Mother” archetype found around the world. She can be placed on your altar and even used in magic. Since crafting is a way of honoring the Celtic god Lugh at this time, consider making and/or decorating other ritual items, such as a wand or pentacle.

You could also choose to practice any of your skills and talents, whether that means writing, playing an instrument, playing in a soccer or basketball game, or simply going for a nice long run. If there’s a new skill you’d like to learn, now is a great time to get started.

Whatever you do, be sure to spend some time outdoors drinking in the sights, sounds, and smells of summer because they will be fading away before you know it!