Lughnasa and Lammas: Summer Holidays Lost and Found Again
The August 1st Holiday
For centuries two holidays were celebrated by neighboring peoples on the same day. The people were the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons, and their holidays were Lughnasa and Lammas respectively. Usually the date fell on August 1st, but there could be variations.
The Celtic Lughnasa, also spelled Lughnasadh, was thus named because it was originally associated with the god Lugh, but the festival had other names in Celtic regions outside of Ireland.
The Anglo-Saxon word Lammas evolved from the Old English hlaf-mas, meaning "loaf-mass" in honor of bread baked from the first grain harvest.
Confusing the Two Holidays
Over time, there has been a conflating of these two holidays that still occurs today.
The Celtic Lughnasa was originally dedicated to Lugh, it was more of a religious festival probably facilitated by the Druids. It was also a time of games and sport, and has been referred to as a sort of ancient Irish Olympics.
Whereas Lammas was the first harvest festival of the year. Therefore, early Lammas celebrations would not have had a fixed date, as it depended on how the crops faired that season
As time moved forward and the regions became Christianized, both high days became disconnected from their original meanings. They became seasonal festivals, time for gatherings and celebrating, and holiday markets.
Like other festivals based on seasonal changes and crop cycles which varied from year to year, Christianization altered the meaning and Lammas was assigned the fixed date.
*It should be noted that the “mas” suffix in hlaf-mas is demonstrative of early Christianization of this festival. However, like other holidays ending in “mas” (such as Christmas, Candlemas, St. Michaelmas, etc), a pre-Christian origin is strongly believed.
Although these festivals were altered greatly over the passage of time, there are historical references to both of them which demonstrate their continued widespread presence in both cultures.
We know a bit about ancient Lughnasa thanks to ancient Roman writers who described the festival in Gaul.
Lugh was a multi-faceted deity featured in ancient myths and who possessed many attributes. In this case, he seems to have an association with agriculture and fertility as Roman writers described a widespread harvest cult devoted to him.
So, the harvest was probably also an element in the Lughnasa festival, although as explained above there was much more to it.
Lugh’s festival also gave its name to the month of August, which was called Lúnasa in the Irish language
The celebration of Lughnasa was celebrated by Celts far and wide, although the festival had different names in different regions. For example, the Welsh corresponding festival was called Gwyl Awst.
While there were local variations, there were also shared practices. It was common for Lughnasa gatherings to be held high upon a local hilltop in regions far and wide. Visitations to holy wells were also common in both Ireland and Scotland. As the festival moved forward into the Christian era, these places became sites of holy pilgrimages made on this day.
Another notable change in tradition between the pagan and Christian versions of Lughnasa was the incorporation of Saint Patrick to the holiday lore. Pagan lore told the tale of Lugh’s victory over a magical rival, Balar of the Baleful Eye. When the rival was defeated, Lugh confiscated his possessions (consisting of corn and a bull) which he then distributed among his people. The Christian Lughnasa story replaced Lugh with Patrick as the hero. His opponent is Crom Dubh, representing the archetypal pagan who must be defeated.
Yet, in both cases, the festival appears to have been a time of great revelry. People travelled distances to join in the festivities. In some areas, such as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, food could be scarce in the period before August 1st. So, Lughnasa was a feast time of great happiness.
Certain areas appear to have had overlapping customs between Lughnasa and Lammas over the years. For instance, the Scottish Lowlands were a place of heavy Anglo-Saxon cultural influence from the very early Middle Ages. In fact, the Scots language (sometimes called Doric) is not Gaelic, but is descended from the Old English of the early Anglo-Saxons (for more on this see Scotland’s Other Heritage: The forgotten legacy of Germanic Scotland).
Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Britain
Lughnasa and Lammas were both celebrated in different parts of Scotland. In fact, in some old reports, people actually lamented that Lammas is no longer being celebrated in places like Aberdeenshire, implying that it once was. This August 1st festival was sometimes celebrated as Lammastide in parts of Wales as well. But, because these festivals were all celebrated on the same day, it is also possible that these two traditions merged into one another over the years, especially as English speakers simply referred to the Gaelic festivals by the English term Lammas.
Margaret Killip does this very thing when she makes mention of Lammas Day in her book “The Folklore of the Isle of Man.” She quickly makes it clear that she is actually discussing the Manx festival called Laa Luanys, which corresponds with Lughnasa. Killip states that:
They observed it without realizing that they were doing so or that such a festival existed, since all that remained of its ritual was a general inclination to climb to the tops of mountains on the first Sunday in August and visit any wells that could be taken in on the way…
But very little is known of how the day was spent originally, as one of the few surviving accounts of its rites only tells how the inhabitants of Kirk Lonan climbed to the top of Snaefell, and behaved there ‘very rudely and indecently.’ The church disapproved strongly of the way the day was observed, and to give it holier associations the holiday was changed from the first of August to the first Sunday of the month. (Killip, p176).
The early roots of the true Lammas festival are even more difficult to trace, and the constant conflation of the two holidays does not help matters. We can assume that that Lammas was widespread, as references to it turn up frequently in folklore accounts. As we have just seen, the word is often used to mean Lughnasa when describing Celtic regions. But, in areas with a strong Anglo-Saxon heritage, we can assume that the word Lammas does in fact refer to the descendant of the Anglo-Saxon holiday Lammas.
Frustratingly, even a fairly recent scholarly work conflates these two holidays. A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick mentions Lammas in both their chapter on the Celts as well as their chapter on Germanic culture.
They first describe Lammas in their chapter on the Celts discussing Lowland Scotland, which had strong Anglo-Saxon heritage so it is likely that this region’s festival did have roots to the Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas.
Then in the next paragraph they describe “Lammas” in Ireland, with no mention of Lughnasa whatsoever $6 (p. 109). But, in the following chapter on the Germanic people they discuss the Anglo-Saxon festival taking place on August 1st and say that it was “later equated with Lammas” (p122).
They have completely misconstrued the terms! These authors have apparently read accounts wherein Lughnasa has been erroneously referred to as Lammas and misunderstood Lammas to be the name of the Irish holiday, and then assumed the English adopted the word when, in fact, it is the exact opposite and the English word Lammas is often incorrectly used to refer to Lughnasa!
Clearing up the Confusion
Well, to clear it up, Lughnasa is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish records and it was also recorded by the Romans who observed the festival.
Likewise, Lammas is mentioned eight times in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written in the 9th century. Unfortunately, Lammas is not described in detail in this document. It is simply mentioned in passing and used as a calendar reference.
But, regardless, we do have early mentions of Lughnasa by the Irish and early mentions of Lammas by the Anglo-Saxons. So, their cultural identities are solidly documented. But, that hasn’t stopped them from being confused by the public over the years.
Lughnasa and Lammas Today
Moving forward into the new millennium, Lughnasa and Lammas have been reborn. These holidays are being revived with great vigor by the Neo-Pagan and Pagan Reconstructionist movements.
Unfortunately, the terms are still being conflated and confused even by adherents of faiths which celebrate them today! It is still erroneously believed that Lammas is another word for Lughnasa, and vice versa. Yet, when we see that folklorists and academics have conflated the terms right along, it is no wonder why there is such confusion among practitioners today
Although the term “Neopaganism” is technically an umbrella term under which virtually all forms of modern European paganism fall, there is a distinction between religious groups such as Wicca, which was invented in the 1940s by a founder who was more interested in ceremonial magic and secret societies than historical ancient religion, and other forms which take a scholarly approach to reconstructing the ancient beliefs.
The former (Wiccans) appear to be more likely to misconstrue the two terms, whereas Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Pagan reconstructionists literally do their homework and tend know even more about these holidays than those confused scholars mentioned above.
Regardless of what they call it, all of these groups are building new traditions associated with the August 1st holiday. Lugh is again being honored by Celtic Pagans. Anglo-Saxon Pagans remember the first wheat harvest by baking home-made bread. (And, Wiccans seem to do a little of everything!)
Modern Pagans from all backgrounds look to the past to infuse new meaning as they revive these ancient high days.
Importance of Seasonal Holidays
Personally, I think that the loss of the holidays that previously occurred regularly throughout the year is one of the direct causes of what some might consider a sickness in Western society today.
We used to have feast days, seasonal markets which were more like fairs, high days and holy days which often lasted for several days, and so forth, built in to our calendar.Our current capitalist machine demands that we wear ourselves down to breaking point with two weeks of paid vacation per year if we’re lucky.
And now, because the West has become so self-conscious about how we have interacted with minority cultures in the past, we have allowed the few holidays we have left to come under attack to the point where we may lose them, too.
How short sited of people to be unable to see that you do not have to be a Christian to appreciate Christmas. How ignorant of history to not understand that not only was Christmas originally the pagan Yule in English speaking society (and other Solstice festivals in other cultures), but also that the religious implications of a holiday are not necessarily more important than the pragmatic things that come along with it, such as a break from work, time to decompress, time to spend with the family and friends, and time to share a pint and have some fun!
Should a religion be pushed upon others? Absolutely not. But should we lose all of our scheduled holidays because some people are too short sited to see the bigger picture?
Resurgence of Indigenous European Culture
Lughnasa and Lammas survived a drastic change in religious culture of the people who celebrated them. They continued to be celebrated for hundreds of years.
What stamped them out? Modernity, puritanical work ethic, and the rise of industrialism and capitalism. Our holidays have been cherry-picked off one by one. For example, how many of us celebrate Michaelmas or Candlemas today?
I think it is time that we, as a culture, stop to evaluate what we are doing. Does being inclusive have to mean we allow the few holidays we have left to disappear? Do we continue to bow down to the capitalist machine as if that is our new religion only to watch our remaining holidays be eaten alive by corporate greed?
The modern pagans have got the right idea. They, perhaps, are the only people putting their money where their mouth is and holding tight to the identity and culture of Olde Europe, while the rest of Western society is complacent to watch it slip away.
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The video below is a song representing the agricultural cycle as it was perceived by our ancestors, and the spiritual associations that the Earth held. It's by Gjallerhorn, a Finnish folk musical group. The music and imagery is strikingly beautiful, I hope that you watch it!
Suvetar by Gjallerhorn, a Finnish pagan band
Citations for the scholarly journal articles I referenced for this piece are:
Buchan, David D. “A Lughnasa Piper in the Northeast of Scotland.” The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 81 Issue 321 (1968): pp. 261-262.
Jolly, Karen Louise. “Prayers From the Field: Practical Protection and Demonic Defense in Anglo-Saxon England.” Traditio. Vol. 61 (2006): pp. 95-147.
Wallis, Robert and Blain, Jenny. “Sites, Sacredness, and Stories: Interactions of Archeology and Contemporary Paganism.” Folklore. Vol. 114. Issue 3 (2006): pp. 307-321.
And placed within the article are Amazon links to the books from my own collection that I referenced for this article.
© 2014 Carolyn Emerick