Lughnasadh (pronounced Loo-na-sah) is one of eight festivals celebrated on the ancient Wheel Of The Year seasonal calendar. It marks the midpoint between The Summer Solstice and The Autumn Equinox. It was once observed when the first sheaf of corn was cut and now, most commonly, on 1st August.
The First Harvest is named for the Irish Sun God, Lugh, who also lends his name to the Modern Irish name for August. In Gaelic Mythology Lugh held a funeral and athletic games to honour his foster-mother, Tailtiu who died of exhaustion after clearing the land for agriculture. Tailtiu represents an earth or harvest deity whose labours feed and nurture the people.
At Lughnasadh tribal people throughout Western Europe and The Northern Hemisphere gave thanks for their grain and cereal harvest and sought blessings for next year’s crop. The birth, death and rebirth of the cornfield was symbolic of the eternal cycle of all life.
The Anglo-Saxons referred to The First Harvest as Hlaef-mass, meaning “loaf mass”. Loaves would be baked in the shape of a corn god then broken and consumed to represent the blessings of his sacrifice. The practice was adopted by modern Christians who refer to this festival as Lammas.
Corn dollies, or spirit cages, are traditionally crafted at Lughnasadh to lure and capture crop spirits. Combine this with the often misconstrued concept of sacrifice and you have the plot for The Wicker Man!
It was common in agrarian societies for a god and goddess to marry at Beltane (1st May) and conceive a child to represent the new year and it’s harvest cycle. In Folklore the father god “John Barleycorn” is “sacrificed” at Lughnasadh to nourish the bountiful goddess, her child and the people. This is still reenacted today via the burning of a cornstalk effigy (not Edward Woodward). Sometimes a bull would be sacrificed in the fields for a celebratory feast.
Today the people of Ireland still honour Lugh’s prowess by climbing closer to the sun, at the summit of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, to gather bilberries for celebration foods and wine.