In Irish tradition, the festival of “first fruits” on August 1 is significant for more than one reason. Lughnasadh is said to have been named after the god Lugh because his foster-mother, Tailtiu, died at the beginning of August, and he ordered that the first day of that month should ever be held sacred in her memory. Accordingly, the Assembly of Tailtiu was convened by the king of Tara, the religious and political center of old Ireland on 1 August – an important gathering which “all of Ireland” was expected to attend if the well-being of the community was to be assured.
Going even further into the mists of mythic Irish history, August 1 was also the day on which the Fir Bolg – a warrior aristocracy – were said to have arrived in Ireland; Tailtiu belonged to the Fir Bolg, conferring on the date a double significance.
In Scots Gaelic, Lughnasadh was known as Lunasdal or lunasduinn, while in Manx – spoken on the Isle of Man – it was called Laa Luanys. The festival was obviously an important one throughout the Celtic world, for it was also celebrated across the water among continental Celts. Under Roman rule, the population of Gaul – now modern France – gathered together at the beginning of August to honor the god Lugus in the city named after him – Lugudunum, the Latin for Lug’s town, or Lyons as it is now known. Under Roman influence, this Gallic festival was later dedicated to Augustus – the deified Roman emperor – and in Britain it was similarly transformed, being dubbed Goel-aoust, Gul-austus, or Gwyl Awst (Welsh).
Lugh, god of Lughnasadh, was a relative newcomer to the inner circle of divine beings of the Irish pantheon. In an attempt to forge an alliance with the demonic, giant race of Ireland, the Fomoire, the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods, had agreed to a marriage between Cian, one of their company, to Ethniu, daughter of Balor, Formoire King of the Isles. The child of this union was Lugh, who in his turn fathered – or was reborn as – the Irish hero Cú Chulainn…
Lugh’s presiding over a harvest festival may have something to do with his possible role as a solar god – the Sun that has brought the corn to ripeness. However, Lughnasadh is not a solar feast, but is held in honor of the fruits of the Earth, and was, it will be remembered, inaugurated in memory of the god’s foster mother, Tailtiu, rather than the god himself, which supports the idea that the feast now called Lughnasadh replaced an earlier fertility festival. As a mother, Tailtiu would have represented the Mother Goddess, Mother Earth, the source of all fertility.
Chronologically Lugh, being her “son”, would appear after his “mother”, and he also had a late entry to the ranks of the original Tuatha Dé Danann. These mythic clues suggest that his festival, like the god himself, was a comparative latecomer – a newer version of an older feast once held in honor of an earth goddess from the pre-Celtic period.
Tailtiu’s death on this day is, in itself, very significant, for in the seasonal cycle the beginning of the harvest is the time when the Earth ceases to bring for th life, and when her “progeny” – the corn or another crop – is cut down. Right across the old Pagan world, this dying of the Earth and the “killing” of vegetation was conveyed in mythic picture language as the seasonal death of a fertility figure or vegetation spirit, who might be either female or male, depending on the culture and period of origin of the legend. In classical Greek myth, for example, the spirit was the maiden Kore, daughter of the fertile Mother Goddess, Demeter (whose other name, Ceres, has given us our word cereal), snatched while out picking flowers by the God of the Underworld, Hades: in Sumeria, it was Dumuzi, lover of the goddess Inanna. In British folk tradition, the spirit of the corn (and of malt liquor) was known as John Barleycorn, while in France, Germany, and Slavonic countries, the spirit might take the form of an animal – the Corn Wolf, whose invisible presence could be detected in the rippling of the corn.
Of course, the deaths of these figures was an occasion for some sadness, but there was hope, too, that the corn or vegetation spirit who died in Autumn would be reborn in Spring, as has always happened since time immemorial in the eternal cycle of departure and return. The ceremonial “killings” of the vegetation spirit, the Sacrificial God, were magical rituals to ensure this return. His death was not just something that happened, but something that had to be made to occur, if life was to go on. The Sacrificial God had to be slain in order to be reborn…
In European folk tradition, as the harvest neared its end, the attention of the reapers became focused on the last portion of the crop still standing, for this was redolent with magic – it was where the Corn Spirit had taken refuge. Thus the last sheaf to be cut was often shaped into the form of a human figure, dressed in clothes and adorned with ribbons.
Depending on the view of the particular community, the Spirit-in-the-Sheaf might be seen as old or young. If “old”, it was in the sense of “ripe” or “mature”, and then the figure made from the last sheaf might be called the Corn Mother, Harvest Mother, Great Mother, Grandmother, Cailleach (Gaelic for “old wife”), Wrach (“hag” in Welsh), Baba or Boba (old woman in Slavonic languages), or even the Old Man.
If “young”, the corn figure was seen as the child that has been delivered from its mother when the sickles cut its cornstalk “umbilical cord”. In this case, the figure might be called the Maiden, the Corn-maiden, the Maidhdeanbuain (“shorn maiden” in Gaelic), or the Kirn-baby or Kirn-doll, after kirn, which means corn in Scots and northern English dialect. In Germany, the birth of the corn baby was even enacted with fake labor cries, new-born wailing, and all.
The part of the mother was played by the woman who had bound the last sheaf, while her “baby” was a boy inside a figure made from the sheaf. The folk custom recalls the rite of the Greek god Dionysus in his role as Corn God, the infant Dionysus Liknites symbolically carried in procession in a winnowing basket, for the adoration of the worshipping crowd. In the Corn Mother and the Corn Maiden, we also glimpse the images of Demeter and Kore.
The figure formed from the last sheaf played a central part in the joyful processions, dances and suppers of Harvest Home, and was closely associated with the person who had cut, bound, or threshed the corn from which it was made. This person was sometimes given the same name as the figure – for example, the “Old Woman” – and it was often necessary for there to be a link in age, too: when the sheaf was called the Mother, it was the oldest woman who had to shape it into human form; when called the Maiden, the sheaf had to be cut by the youngest girl. Thus, like the corn figure, the person most intimately involved with it was also seen as a representative of the Corn Spirit.
The last sheaf and the “corn dolly” – as this traditional effigy is now best known – had a magical, fertilizing influence that was put to use in various ways. Some of the grain from the sheaf might, for example, be mixed with the seed corn, or scattered among the young corn in the following spring. The doll itself might be kept in the farmhouse and then broken up and shared among the cattle at Yule to make them thrive in the year to come, or given to the first mare in foal. A Mother sheaf, shaped like a pregnant woman, might even be presented to the farmer’s wife to make her fertile and give her a child the following year…
Source: Excerpted from The Magickal Year – A Pagan Perspective on the Natural World by Diana Ferguson
“Among the Inner Hebrides, it was the custom for a newborn child to be taken by its mother outside
and, at noon and in the sun, to touch the baby’s brow to the ground.
This was called ‘the old Mothering’.
How could one better be blessed, on coming into life,
than to have the kiss of that ancient Mother of whom we are all children?”
~~ From The Celtic Book of Days by Caitlin Matthews ~~