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Lughnasadh - The Grain Harvest Print E-mail
Mynie Geldenhuys   
Monday, 23 January 2006

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(Quotes by Robert Burns from "Upon a Lammas night")

It was upon a Lammas Night
When corn rigs are bonny,
Beneath the Moon's unclouded light,
I held awhile to Annie...


Pronounced - (Loo-nah-saah) this day is celebrated as the First Harvest Festival. In the midst of the scorching heat of a South African summer it might be a little difficult to believe; but the festival of Lughnasadh marks the tail end of summer and the beginning of the change in season towards autumn. We can see that the days are growing visibly shorter and by the time we've reached autumn's end on May 1st at Samhain, we will have run the gamut of temperature from the heat of summer to the cold and frost of winter.

The history of Lammas is as convoluted as all the rest of the old folk holidays. It is a cross-quarter day, one of the four High Holidays or Greater Sabbats of Witchcraft and Wicca, occurring 1/4 of a year after Beltane. It's true astrological point is 15 degrees Aries but tradition has set February 1st as the day Lammas is typically celebrated. The celebration proper would begin on sundown of the previous evening, our January 31st, since the Celts reckon their days from sundown to sundown. British Witches often referred to Feb 6th as Old Lammas, and folklorists put it on the 20th. Be that as it may, today it is celebrated globally on 1st of February. This date has long been considered a 'power point' of the Zodiac.

'Lammas' is the medieval Christian name for the holiday and it means literally 'loaf-mass', for this was the day on which loaves of bread were baked with the first grain harvested from the fields. These first loaves were laid on the church altars as offerings. It was a day representative of 'first fruits' and early harvest of many fruits and other crops. The grain harvest was thought so important because it could be stored and used for both man and beast during the coming barren winter months. As such it was vital to the many villages and communities, for without a good grain harvest, many would starve.

Pagans, Witches and Wiccans have adopted the name 'Lammas' for the Sabbat, as it is by far the easier to pronounce. There are purists who will not use the Christian names for festivals, but in this age of tolerance, this seems rather impractical. In a country that has never heard Gaelic spoken, it is often embarrassing to hear the efforts at pronouncing it. Lammas means exactly what we celebrate - the first grain harvest - thus as Wiccans, we see no harm in adopting the word and celebrating its true meaning.

In Irish Gaelic tales, the feast is referred to as 'Lugnasadh', and said to be the feast to commemorate the funeral games of the Irish sun god Lugh. Although at first glance, it may seem that we are celebrating the death of Lugh, the god of light does not die (mythically) until the autumnal equinox, which is Mabon. And indeed, if we read the Irish myths closer, we discover that it is not Lugh's death that is being celebrated, but the death of his foster mother Taillte. The nasad were the funeral games, which Lugh hosted to commemorate her passing. That is why the Lughnasadh celebrations in Ireland are often called the 'Tailltean Games'.

The time went by with careless heed
Between the late and early,
With small persuasion she agreed
To see me through the barley


One common feature of the Games were the 'Tailltean marriages', a rather informal marriage that lasted for only 'a year and a day' or until next Lammas. At that time, the couple could decide to continue the arrangement if it pleased them, or to stand back to back and walk away from one another, thus bringing the Tailltean marriage to a formal close. Such trial marriages (obviously related to the Wiccan 'Handfasting') were quite common even into the 1500's, although it was something one 'didn't bother the parish priest about'. Indeed, a poet or Bard usually solemnized such ceremonies. We suspect that these were often presided over by a priest or priestess of the Old Religion.

Lammas was also the traditional time of year for craft festivals. The medieval guilds would create elaborate displays of their wares, decorating their shops and themselves in bright colours and ribbons, marching in parades, and performing strange, ceremonial plays and dances for the entranced onlookers. The atmosphere must have been quite similar to our modern-day Renaissance Festivals.

A ceremonial highlight of such festivals was the 'Catherine wheel'. 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 god in his decline. And just as the sun king has now reached the autumn of his years, his rival or dark self has just reached puberty.

Corn rigs and barley rigs,
Corn rigs are bonny!
I'll not forget that happy night
Among the rigs with Annie!


To many of us, Lammas represents the unbroken physical link of seed to harvest and back to seed. We see this in our Mythologies when the Sun God transforms into the Lord of Shadows and the lady Goddess moves from being Mother to Crone. The Seed however, is the most obvious concept, as seed from one crop has always been saved back as seed for the next crop since man began to plant and harvest the land. The importance of the transformation of the seed into flour is the Transformation, reflected in our Myths and stories as they drift down the ages to us.

We, the Pagans of modern times, understand the symbolism even in our modern cities and suburban living, and see it still today for what it is - the kernel of soul, our unbroken link to the Ancient Ones; We recall the ancient tales of the Bards, that tell us of the Harvest King or Green man who every year sacrifices his life blood at this time, so that the Harvest we reap may be fruitful

And what should we as Pagans be doing at this time?
We look back on the period from the birth of the Sun God at Yule, to the preparation of the soil at Imbolc, from there we travel to Spring and Ostara, the planting. We watered and weeded all through the time between Beltane and Litha and stand now at the harvest we have made for ourselves. We see now what harvest we have drawn to ourselves from our actions and thoughts of the year now passing. We look back even further to that harvest of Karma that we bring with us into this new turn of the wheel from past lives. And so we see that Lammas is not merely a time to celebrate and feast and make merry in the largess of Nature, but a time to take stock of and also responsibility for what we have sown in the recent past and are now reaping in our own personal lives. We have to pause and see what has worked for us and what needs to be discarded or changed. This is truly the season of transformation.

Wiccans the world over will make a straw effigy of a man representing the Green Man or the god of all vegetation, who it is believed, offers up his life for the Land at this time. This effigy will be placed in the sacred circle and set alight during the ceremony. As it burns much dancing and singing takes place as giving thanks for the life giving harvest is vital to all who gather there.

There is little doubt that Robert Burns was very Pagan in his lifestyle and it is reported that he visited many circles and was witness to many a Sabbat. The following poem, is a delightful blend of old and modern mythos. It describes the burning of the effigy. It inspired him to write the following:


John Barleycorn by Robert Burns

There were three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
An' they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

They took a plough and ploughed him down,
Put clods upon his head;
An' they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerfu' spring came kindly on,
And show'rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surprised them all.

The sultry suns of summer came,
And he grew thick and strong;
His head weel armed wi' pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.

The sober autumn entered mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Showed he began to fail.

His colour sickened more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.

They've ta'en a weapon long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then tied him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.

They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgelled him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turned him o'er and o'er.

They filled up a darksome pit
With water to the brim;
They heaved in John Barleycorn,
There let him sink or swim.

They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him farther woe,
And still, as signs of life appeared,
They tossed him to and fro.

They wasted, o'er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller used him worst of all,
For he crushed him 'tween two stones.

And they hae ta'en his very heart's blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
'Twill make your courage rise;

'Twill make a man forget his woe;
'Twill heighten all his joy:
'Twill make the widow's heart to sing,
Tho' the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland!



At Lughnasadh turn to look to the future, and that, which is not yet ready to harvest. We look to see if it should be ploughed under now for compost, or kept, to be gathered as we roll on to Harvest Home and Mabon. This is the season to rethink and regroup as to what you would wish to see growing next year this time.

This is the time to look deep within and to assess the legacy we leave for those who will one day follow and call us, "Ancestor."

Rev. Mynie Geldenhuys, Temple of Athena SA, www.pagan-home.net  HPS and Elder, Hecate's Loom Coven SA National Secretary Pagan Federation of South Africa, www.pfsa.org.za

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