The festival of Lammas 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, we will have run the
gamut of temperature from the heat of August to the cold and
sometimes snow of November. And in the midst of it, a perfect 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, occurring 1/4 of a
year after Beltane. It's true astrological point is 15 degrees Leo, 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 align 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
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
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 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.
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 commentators 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.
Return to the main Lammas page