Lammas or Lughnasadh?

Back when our ancestors lived in an non-mechanised agrarian society, the grave importance of a successful harvest was deeply ingrained in the minds of our folk. In modern times however, our links to the natural cycles and the food in our bellies have been totally severed, and in many ways this poses a dangerous liability. In a world today going through the throws of deep economic and climatic changes, coupled with a multiplying global population - I would personally argue that getting back into a more traditional and appreciative mindset regarding both nature and our own food stocks is simply common sense. Many children growing up today lack even the most basic understanding of where our food comes from, and as a society I feel it is something that really ought to be addressed. Whether Pagan or Christian, dates put aside each year to celebrate a successful harvest could enrich our appreciation and understanding that we are a part of nature, rather than being some outside entity.

Now obviously, as the title of this post suggests, we are nearing Lammas or Lughnasadh, which on the 1st of August or the Sunday nearest to it, was the day the Church put aside to celebrate the first harvest of the year. The practice of Lammas in England actually died out after King Henry VIII enforced the reformation of the church and created the Church of England - although it saw some revival throughout the nineteenth century, before once again descending into obscurity going into the mid to late twentieth. It could be argued that today it is mainly due to neo-paganism that Lammas is still remembered at all, although therein lies some pretty big discrepancies.

One of the biggest problems with the festival from a pagan perspective is that there seems to be a general confusion over the interchangeability between Lammas and Lughnasadh. Lughnasadh is a 'Celtic' word, with a proven historic reference to pre-Christian rituals and celebrations throughout the British isles. The Celtic celebration gets its name from the Pagan God, Lugh, hence its name. Lammas on the other hand is Anglo-Saxon, and the word is derived from the Old English word Hlafmas, meaning Loaf-mas. Lammas unfortunately has scant historical record of any pre-Christian ritual, which may create an issue for Germanic pagans today who are looking to roughly follow the same holidays and celebrations as other pagan groups that are out there.

From an outsider's perspective, the terms are pretty interchangeable, and for all intensive purposes are the same thing. They also both happen to fall at the same time of the year, so maybe I am being a little nit-picky in trying to draw a proper distinction. You would hope however that as arbiters of a faith's revival, pagan authors would do the correct research into what terms to use in their own literature. Take the book entitled "The Tree" as an example of this confusion, written by Raymond Buckland who was one of original progenitors of neo-pagan 'Wicca'. His book attempts to create a Saxon-based Wicca offshoot called Seax-Wica, but lo and behold, he includes the harvest festival as one of the annual rites under the term Lughnasadh instead of Lammas! It comes as no surprise then that there should be much confusion surrounding the two terms within neo-paganism when some of the main folk behind mainstream paganism's revival were so blasé with facts.

Having said all of this though, there may be some merit in linking the two together in such a way.

When the Anglo Saxons began arriving in Britain, their culture is likely to have been altered slightly by the Briton tribes they were coming into contact with. The idea of a Saxon genocide of all the Celts in England is more or less debunked by research into the DNA of the British Isles. Secondly, as Christianity spread through Anglo-Saxon lands, the already established Celtic church which had already amalgamated it's own native pre-Christian practices, would have had quite a large influence upon the early English Church. As such its not a great leap to conclude that Celtic missionaries would have brought whatever had already been amalgamated into their faith, to be passed on to the Saxon heathens. St Cedd for instance who is recognised as being the character who successfully evangelised both the Middle and East Saxon Kingdoms, was taught the faith at Lindisfarne monestary. Lindisfarne at that time practiced an Irish denomination under the direction of Aidan (who himself was Irish and was credited with restoring Christianity to Northumbria.)

To make matters even more confusing, the Roman Catholics also celebrated the "Feast of St Peter in Chains" until the early 1960s. Its link to the Catholic church is probably the reason why the Church of England dropped the Lammas festival after the tudor reformation. Whether the date of the Feast of St Peter was deliberately chosen to coincide with Harvest festivals across Europe in order exploit and Christianise them is a possibility, although I'll admit I haven't personally looked into that to form an educated opinion either way.

So, lets recap for a second; Lughnasadh was a Celtic pagan celebration, whereas Lammas is a later Saxon Christian festival that is somewhat based on the older Celtic festival of Lughnasadh - with some influence from the Catholic church?

Officially yes, although whilst I risk totally contradicting myself here, I must say that my personal belief is that it's a little more complicated that that.

Whilst modern scholars of medieval history say there is little evidence of pre-Christian Lammas celebrations in Anglo-Saxon culture, I suspect this is false, and that the original pagan Saxon festival has been simply omitted from records, considering most if not all scribes in the early medieval period would have been Christian clergy writing in Latin. The only pre-Christian records which were really deemed acceptable at this time were the teachings of enlightened Romans or Greeks.

There are two reasons for why I suspect Lammas is older than Christianity, and hopefully someone out there will be able to vouch for my logic.

Firstly, the month of August in Anglo-Saxon times was named "Weod-Monath" or "Plant-Month". It seems obvious, but it's logical to assume the month was named in reference to the agricultural demands at that time of year. You have to consider that on the continent in other Germanic regions, the month was also called "Harvest-Month", although admittedly that doesn't necessarily prove the Lammas festival's existence. In addition to this though, is the practice of loaf blessing documented in Christian times. After the first loaf of bread baked with the newly reaped grain was blessed, it was thought to possess magickal properties. According to a book of Anglo-Saxon Charms, the loaf could be split into four and put in the four corners of a barn or silo, to protect the grain from perishing over the coming winter.

Whilst this is not specifically an indication of pagan practice, (Christian cunningcraft was common up until the turn of the twentieth century) it is interesting to note that the Book of Charms in question were written at a time of duel-faith observance, a time where both Woden (or Odin) and Jesus were revered by the population at the same time. In my opinion, there is a very high chance that the blessing of the loaf, from whence the name Hlafmas is derived, was in fact pre-Christian after all, and the rise of Christianity, confusion with Lughnasadh and the Catholic St Peters feast has erased much of the folk-memory of the original heathen meaning in England.

What Happens On Lammas?


It's easy to see why Lammas would be considered on par with Lughnasadh, and why it's origins are considered pagan regardless of historical fact. In the romanticised days of nineteenth century England, there seems to have been a brief folkish revival, and it is from this romantic view of middle England that the typical Tolkien Shire image haunts us from. One of the biggest components of that image is the idyllic agrarian community living happily with their own local folk customs, something the annual harvest certainly would have been a part of, and something which would have also varied from village to village. Interestingly it was a Cornish Reverend in 1843 that brought back the Lammas Harvest festival, and resparked the national interest, but it's imagery certainly has a pre-Christian tone.

Before the use of traction engines and their latter day diesel counterparts, the evenings and days immediately after a successful harvest were times of great rejoicing and merriment. As an example, most English customs maintain that the horse and cart pulling the 'last load' of grain from the field were decorated with summer flowers and boughs of Oak and Ash, indeed powerful pagan symbols in their own right. As the grain came in to the stores and silos, some of the men would sit on top of the load, sometimes in women's clothing, singing, blowing horns and shouting.


One of the recorded songs from a book entitled "A Dictionary of British Folk Customs" by Christina Hole goes like so:

Harvest Home! Harvest Home!
We've ploughed, we've sown,
We've ripped, we've mown,
Harvest Home! Harvest Home!
We want water and kain't get none!

A corn dolly which can be found at the
 Museum of East Anglian Life
On the last line of the song, the young girls in the village would tip pitchers of water over the men as part of a fun, theatrical display. Another harvest home song known predominately in east Anglia was Someone Stole My Heart Away.

In the evening after, the Harvest Feast would commence whereby the community would get together and eat summer foods such as pork pies, plum puddings and a copious amount of cider and ale. It would, one would like to think, very much resemble the party from the Lord of the Rings. Dancing, merriment, and no doubt a feeling of great community spirit. Sadly all the things apparently missing from a modern and progressive society.

There is one thing that probably does a good job of binding the Celt and Germanic practices together though, and that comes in the form of the Corn Dolly, generally seen to be in some way or another, a ritualistic idol where the last piece of corn or wheat to be harvested is stylised into elaborate patterns or humanoid shapes. It's thought that this may be a remnant from Northern Europe's Iron Age practices, perhaps harking back to a time before today's Celt and Germanic tribes had fully separated from one another on the continent. The idea behind the corn dolly is thought to have been to protect the land-wight (a spirit, generally seen as the Corn-Mother) of the fields, because it was thought that after the field was left bare, the land wights had no place to dwell.

The Corn Dolly was brought in on the 'last load', thoroughly drenched with water (which presumably is what the men dressed in women's clothing and getting water poured over them also represents) and was then left somewhere to be safely housed for the winter. Exact practices vary from town to town and country to country. In some villages the Corn Dolly would have been carried by men on a form of totem pole, whereas in other villages the beautiful young May Queen elected earlier that year would carry it to the landlord who owned the fields. The general theme all across Europe from Scotland to France, Ireland to Austria - were generally the same practices. Despite them clearly being a pagan or at least majorly superstitious custom, our cultures reverence for the practice was clearly too strong for the Christian church to destroy. The church not only accepts them even to this day - but still in many cases displays them proudly in the church itself!

An 'Essex Terret' regional corn dolly.
So, should you call your observation of first harvest Lammas or Lughnasadh?

To be honest, I think it depends entirely on your personal feeling. Do you feel Celtic, or do you have a more Germanic calling? Obviously as an Anglo-Saxon heathen, I'm going to call the practice Lammas, but in all honesty apart from taking into account the tribe you feel more apart of, there are certainly more similarities between them than there are differences.

In any case, whatever you decide to call it, I hope you have a good harvest day! Hail to the Gods, and give thanks to our land wights for a full larder cupboard in the year to come!

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