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A field of crops on a summer's eve

4 historic pagan customs for the summer's first harvest


Originating in Ireland, Lughnassadh was a celebration in honour of Lugh, a Celtic god associated with the Sun who was also believed to be a powerful warrior and a master craftsman. Sitting midway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, it was originally initiated by the closest full moon.

Today it is also widely celebrated across England and Scotland on 1st August as Lammas (Feast of the First Fruits), a name first documented in Anglo-Saxon chronicles around 921. It has also been referred to as Hlaef-Mass or Loaf Mass, particularly fitting as first and foremost, this is a festival of harvest and thanksgiving.

1. First night

In order to have a harvest festival first they need to have a harvest and so preparations would begin at sunset which marked the start of the Celtic day. It was an incredibly bad omen to harvest any grain before Lughnassadh, as it meant that the previous harvests had run short and people were starving.

The cutting of the first sheaves took place at dawn and was an important ceremony. The night before, the scythe making the all-important cut would be sharpened, decorated with ribbons and blessed with sacrificial blood.

Bringing in the harvest was a huge job with men, women, and children all playing their part, from cutting, sorting, and grinding the grain to properly preparing and storing enough to last through the winter. So, while Lammas is celebrated for one day in modern times, then it would have lasted long enough to make time for feasting and celebrating in amongst the toil. All work and no play is definitely not the pagan way!

2. Three weddings and a funeral

There are mixed theories on why early August became Lugh’s feast day. One suggests that it marked his wedding and a huge feast was thrown in honour of him and his new bride. However, Lugh is fabled to have taken three brides and a mistress so this seems unlikely. More popular is the opinion that it marks a funeral celebration in honour of his adoptive mother, the goddess Tailtiu who is said to have died of exhaustion after she had cleared the lands of Ireland to make way for arable crops.

Lugh wasn’t the only one indulging in a marriage or three. Lammas fairs were held over this time to trade livestock, hire and fire servants, drink, visit craftsmen, and perhaps get handfasted. Handfasting remains the Pagan union most similar to a modern-day marriage and those attending the fair could opt for a trial run lasting a year and a day before making it more permanent.

For some even that was too much commitment, so those only interested in the honeymoon period could be joined as Lammas Brothers and Sisters, a sexual union lasting only the 11 days of the fair.

3. Breaking bread

This Celtic sun god don’t want none unless you got buns hun! So, by the end of the first day of harvest, those sacred first sheaves would already be ground into flour and baked into beautiful loaves to take centre stage at the feast.

Baked goods, such as cornbread and fruit-laden bara brith, were common at the feast table alongside summer fruits, and libations like whisky which, being made of grain, was a particular favourite. Another familiar figure in English celebrations is the gingerbread man. He represented the divine victim sacrificing himself each year so that the people may survive the winter and is known as John Barleycorn, or The Green Man.

4. Children of the corn

While this is a festival of thanksgiving, historically it was also considered a time of polarity, ideal for course correction. If some crops had failed there was still time to encourage others or to exchange trades and crafts at the fair for grain and livestock. It also made it a popular time for sympathetic magic, planting their name beneath pansies on Lughnassadh if they’d been disappointed in love for example. But perhaps the most common for this festival is the corn dolly.

Made from corn husks or stalks fashioned into a poppet, left open at the base for a skirt or split and tied into legs, it was traditional to tell a corn dolly their wishes, secrets, and problems as they crafted. They then kept it somewhere such as their bedchamber to make those wishes come true, or problems go away. Those made from the last corn cut were considered especially powerful as they held the corn spirit and would take a place of honour at the feast table and be buried in spring to let the spirit return to its work.

Similarly, Corn Kings were made from thick bundles of straw for a ritualistic, if somewhat treacherous game. Participants would throw a sickle at the figure and the winner would be whoever succeeded in beheading it. While the winner took pride of place at the ensuing feast, the Corn King would be burnt to release him back to the earth to rest and begin his work anew come spring.