Although in the heat of a Mid-western summer it might be difficult to discern, the festival of Lammas (Aug 1st) marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall. The days now grow visibly shorter and by the time we’ve reached autumn’s end (Oct 31st), we will have run the gammut of temperature from the heat of August to the cold and (sometimes) snow of November. And in the midst of it, a perfect Mid-western autumn.
The history of Lammas is as convoluted as all the rest of the old folk holidays. It is of course a cross-quarter day, one of the four High Holidays or Greater Sabbats of Witchcraft, occuring ¼ of a year after Beltane. It’s true astrological point is 15 degrees Leo, which occurs at 1:18 am CDT, Aug 6th this year, but tradition has set August 1st as the day Lammas is typically celebrated. The celebration proper would begin on sundown of the previous evening, our July 31st, since the Celts reckon their days from sundown to sundown.
However, British Witches often refer to the astrological date of Aug 6th as Old Lammas, and folklorists call it Lammas O.S. (‘Old Style’). This date has long been considered a ‘power point’ of the Zodiac, and is symbolized by the Lion, one of the ‘tetramorph’ figures found on the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune (the other three figures being the Bull, the Eagle, and the Spirit). Astrologers know these four figures as the symbols of the four ‘fixed’ signs of the Zodiac, and these naturally allign with the four Great Sabbats of Witchcraft. Christians have adopted the same iconography to represent the four gospel-writers.
‘Lammas’ was the medieval Christian name for the holiday and it means ‘loaf-mass’, for this was the day on which loaves of bread were baked from the first grain harvest and laid on the church altars as offerings. It was a day representative of ‘first fruits’ and early harvest.
In Irish Gaelic, the feast was referred to as ‘Lugnasadh’, a feast to commemorate the funeral games of the Irish sun-god Lugh. However, there is some confusion on this point. Although at first glance, it may seem that we are celebrating the death of the Lugh, the god of light does not really die (mythically) until the autumnal equinox. And indeed, if we read the Irish myths closer, we discover that it is not Lugh’s death that is being celebrated, but the funeral games which Lugh hosted to commemorate the death of his foster-mother, Taillte. That is why the Lugnasadh celebrations in Ireland are often called the ‘Tailltean Games’.
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, such ceremonies were usually solemnized by a poet, bard, or shanachie (or, it may be guessed, by a priest or priestess of the Old Religion).
Lammastide 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 colors 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, such as the one celebrated in near-by Bonner Springs, Kansas, each fall.
A ceremonial highlight of such festivals was the ‘Catherine wheel’. Although the Roman Church moved St. Catherine’s feast day all around the calender with bewildering frequency, it’s most popular date was Lammas. (They also kept trying to expel this much-loved saint from the ranks of the blessed because she was mythical rather than historical, and because her worship gave rise to the heretical sect known as the Cathari.) At any rate, 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.
Many comentators have bewailed the fact that traditional Gardnerian and Alexandrian Books of Shadows say very little about the holiday of Lammas, stating only that poles should be ridden and a circle dance performed. This seems strange, for Lammas is a holiday of rich mythic and cultural associations, providing endless resources for liturgical celebration.