Monday, August 1, 2011

Happy Lughnassadh/Lammas!

Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun - Van Gogh

 August 1st on the traditional Irish calendar marks Lughnassadh--"the assembly of Lugh", wherein Lugh of the Long Arm, the Many-Skilled God of All Arts, is honored, along with his foster-mother Tailltiu, who first tilled the land in order to plant crops.

§59. Tailltiu daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg, came after the slaughter was inflicted upon the Fir Bolg in that first battle of Mag Tuired to Coill Cuan: and the wood was cut down by her, so it was a plain under clover-flower before the end of a year. ...and Cian son of Dian Cecht, whose other name was Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, namely Lugh, whose mother was Eithne daughter of Balar. So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu, and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lugh. With gessa and feats of arms were they performed, a fortnight before Lugnasad and a fortnight after: under dicitur Lughnasadh, that is, the celebration (?) or the festival of Lugh.
So what's so great about Lugh? Why's he so important? We can be relatively confident he was worshiped in places like Iberia (where we have inscriptions to "the Lugoves", which means "the Lughs"), Gaul (with the city of Lugdunum "fort of Lugh", today called Lyon), Britain (where the story of Lleu is set down in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi), and Ireland (where we have lots of stories about him), and so on. So why is today, the harvest day, the day the Celts worshipped Lugh?

Simple--not only was he the MacGyver of deities, he got the secrets of harvesting food from the king of the Fomoraig, the Bad Guys of Irish mythology:

Thereafter Lugh and his comrades found Bres son of Elotha unguarded. He said:"It is better to give me quarter than to slay me."

"What then will follow from that?" said Lugh

"If I be spared," says Bress, "the cows of Erin will always be in milk."

"I will set this forth to our wise men," said Lugh.

So Lugh went to Maeltne Mor-brethach , and said to him: "Shall Bress have quarter for giving constant milk to the cows of Erin?" " He shall not have quarter," said Maeltne; "he has no power over their age or their offspring, though he can milk them so long as they are alive."

Lugh said to Bress: "That does not save thee: thou hast no power over their age and their offspring, though thou canst milk them. Is there aught else that will save thee, O Bres?" said Lugh.

"There is in truth, Tell thy lawyer that for sparing me the men of Ireland shall reap a harvest in very quarter of the year."

Said Lugh to Maeltne: "Shall Bres be spared for giving the men of Ireland a harvest of corn every quarter?"

"This has suited us," said Maeltne: "the spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for the end of the strength of corn, and the beginning of autumn for the end of the ripeness of corn and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it"

"That does not rescue thee," said Lugh to Bres; "but less than that rescues thee."

"What?" said Bres.

"How shall the men of Ireland Plough? How shall they sow? How shall they reap? After making known these three things thou wilt be spared."

"Tell them, said Bres, that their ploughing be on a Tuesday, their casting seed into the field be on a Tuesday, their reaping on a Tuesday." So through that stratagem Bres was let go free.

The story of Lugh wrestling the secrets of agriculture--in other words, making sure people can eat--from Bres is paralleled in Christian texts wherein St. Patrick does battle with Crom Dubh. The theme of St. Patrick winning food has many versions, the oldest of which is found in the vita found in the Book of Armagh, and other variants, as described by Máire Mac Neill:

In general, the folk-legend has the following plot: the saint comes to the distrct and begins t build a church; in a time of food-shortage he asks the pagan magnate for food for his workmen; the pagan has a fierce bull which kills all who approach it, and he offers the bull to the saint in the ope that it will kill him; the bull, however, submits quietly to being taken and slaughtered; the bull's flesh is eaten by the saint's company but the saint enjoins that the hid and bones be carefully kept; the pagan, enranged at the loss of his bull and the failure of his plan, asks the saint to give back the bull; the saint has the bones and hid put together, and the bull rises to life.

The Festival of Lughnasa, pg 393
Mac Neill's book is the go-to source on the holiday, and if you can get a copy of it, grab it--it's often very hard to find.

And it wasn't just the Irish: the medieval English knew the day as hlafmæssen-dæg, literally "loaf-mass day"1, the feast of first fruits, when the harvest first ripens. The cereal crops come in, and are turned into such wonderful things as bread, beer, cakes, whiskey, Cheerios... Well, I think Cheerios. Pretty sure.

Anyway, the word eventually became Lammas, and was the time of year for the Lammas fairs, especially the Ould Lammas Fair, held in Co. Antrim, Ireland, for the last four hundred years.  Mac Neill maintains that Lammas--particularly given its timing on August 1st ultimately comes from Lughnassadh, and I really don't see any reason to contradict her.

In Wales, the day is called "Calan Awst", which is rather straightforward, meaning "First Day of August". And as far as I know, there's no connection made between Lleu and August 1st. Indeed, very little of the day seems to survive in Wales; Mac Neill mentions that in the nineteenth century, people would gather on the Breckon Beacons, heading for Llyn y Fan Fach, as described by Sir John Rhys, where the Lady of the Lake would make an appearance.

But Lugh shows up in Wales as well, as Lleu, the put-upon son of Aranrhod, cursed by his mother, raised in isolation by Gwydion, murdered by his wife's lover, but ultimately triumphs over all of it to become king of Gwynedd. It's unfortunate that we only have scraps left to us in the Mabinogi and the poems of Taliesin to piece together Lleu's story.

So today, Loaf-Mass-Day, the Festival of Lugh, and oddly enough the birthday of Clau-Clau-Claudius in the city of Lugdunum, I baked a loaf of beer bread, and will enjoy eating it, preferably with a bottle of beer homebrewed by a friend of mine.

On that note, I leave you with "John Barleycorn"; I wish I could find the Fairport Convention version, but Traffic will have to do.


1. Just as Christ-mass is now Christmas, Loaf-Mass became Lammas.

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