Lammas/Lughnasa

Lughnasa is the modern Pagan celebration of the beginning of the harvest, the bounty of the earth, and the abundance of all that Mother Earth gives us. The modern festival has its roots in both the Irish Lughnasa and the Anglo-Saxon Lammas.

In England, the first day of August was known as Lammas, probably from the Anglo-Saxon hlaef-mass meaning ‘loaf-mass’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 921 CE mentions it as ‘the feast of first fruits’. [1] It marked the time when the first of the grain crop was gathered in, ground in a mill and baked into a loaf. This first loaf was offered up as part of the Christian Eucharist ritual. In Ireland, Wales and England, Lammas was also the day for separating the lambs from the ewes, as it was thought to be luckier to do it on that day. Some even say that this is the origin of the word Lammas, as masses were said for the protection of the lambs on that day. Lammas appears just once in Old English poetry, in the calendar poem known as the Menologium. In the section for August, the poem describes Lammas and the coming of autumn: “… everywhere August brings/ to peoples of the earth Lammas Day. So autumn comes…Plenty is revealed, beautiful upon the earth.” [2]

The intense heat of the Dog Days has brought summer growth to its end, and the crops have ripened, ready for cutting. For the farmers, this is the most important time of year, the harvest – the gathering of the golden wheat and the silver oats, the root crops and the fruit, when they warily scan the skies and sniff the wind for the scent of rain. In the past, all the village would assemble to help, and itinerant labourers would be drafted in. Factory and school holidays were timed to coincide with the period, so that more people would be free to assist. However, where once lines of reapers crossed the fields with scythes and sickles, now there is a hum of machinery, often late into the night as the farmer tries to beat the weather. Sheltering and nesting mice and rabbits dash from the fields, and the face of the countryside changes from golden fields to dusty stubble.

Until the Industrial Revolution in Britain, Europe and the USA, most of the population worked on the land in a way that had changed little since ancient times. Even at the end of the nineteenth century much of the grain was cut by hand with the farmer and his labourers working side by side, mowing down the grain, then using sickles to gather it up into sheaves bound with straw which were left to dry before being threshed with hand flails to separate the grain from the chaff. Labourers, both local and itinerant, would gather at the appointed day at a given farmer’s field and begin work, fuelled with beer and cider and given dinner by the farmer’s wife. In some places the workers elected a foreman to negotiate with the farmer for wages and terms, and was addressed as ‘my lord’, was the first to eat and drink, and imposed fines and punishments on workmen who broke his rules. His deputy was the Lady of the Harvest.

According to the Irish, Lughnasa (1 August) is the last day of summer and the start of autumn, and therefore the correct day on which to begin the harvest.  To begin the harvest before Lughnasa was thought to be wrong, and even shameful, and only a very needy man or a bad farmer would do so. The Scots would exclaim “It’s lang to Lammas!” in jest when food was late to the table, reflecting the reality of scarcity when waiting for the harvest to begin. People looked forward to the day of first reaping when the hunger would be over. Everything that had been worked for was in reach. 

Around the world the first of the harvest, called the First Fruits, was offered to the Gods, and only after giving the Gods their portion, were people free to enjoy the rest. In ancient Greece, barley was offered as first fruits to Demeter and Persephone at the great temple of Eleusis, where underground granaries stored the produce. In some places, the First Fruits were believed to contain a spirit. Estonians would not eat bread from the new corn until they had bitten on iron to protect them from the spirit within. In Sutherland (Scotland), when the new potatoes were dug, the whole family had to taste them or the spirits in them would be offended and the potatoes would not keep. [3]

The idea that the grain contained a spirit persisted right into the nineteenth century in Britain, and even longer in other places around the world, possibly dating back to the ancient belief that the gods of the grain are ‘sacrificed’ and give their lives so that humankind might live, their flesh devoured in the form of bread or wheaten cakes. The followers of the Egyptian Osiris ate wheaten cakes marked with a cross which embodied the god, and today Christians eat the body of Christ in the form of bread wafers, similarly marked with a cross. In Greece, such deities were titled soter which means ‘one who sows the seed’, but which we often translate as ‘saviour’.

Many modern Pagans use the word Lughnasa for this festival. It is an Irish word, which translates as ‘the games/assembly of Lugh’, and the only time Lughnasa is mentioned in the Irish chronicles is in connection with the tribal assemblies held for the weeks each side of 1 August. It is always stressed that the events were presided over by kings, with the one near Tara headed by the high king of Ireland and the others by local kings.  The gatherings included the settling of tribal business matters, horse racing, athletic contests, martial contests, games, and even sometimes real fights for the right to rule and become king. They may have included rituals to ensure a plentiful harvest, though there is no record of this. [4] One chronicle does relate, however, that for the old Pagans, holding the fair ensured corn, milk and full nets, men like heroes, tender women and good cheer in every household; if it were not held there would be decay and immature kings. [5] Each assembly was held at the grave of a mythical woman who died clearing land for pasture, perhaps hinting at an earlier harvest celebration.  The eleventh century collection of Irish heroic tales known as the Ulster Cycle gives the four festivals of the old Irish year as Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Bron Trogain, rather than Lughnasa. Bron Trogain means ‘the earth sorrows under its fruits’ [6] and suggests the labour of the earth goddess in giving birth to the harvest.

© Anna Franklin, 2020


[1] King Alfred the Great, (trans. Rev James Ingram), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016 

[2] A Little History of Lammas, https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-little-history-of-lammas.html?fbclid=IwAR01BbnyJQP1mKPZ8r34JOcV5vA-kHIrcHYerMdjU8l0r4eekXm-byLDtlI, accessed 5.11.19

[3] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Macmillan, London, 1976

[4] Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996

[5]  Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Constable, 1995

[6] The Táin: Translated from the Old Irish Epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, Penguin Classics, 2008

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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