Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Category: An Old English Autumn

The Origins Of Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh is an Irish festival that celebrates the first harvest of the year and honours the Celtic sun god Lugh, as well as his foster mother Tailtiu, an earth goddess. The word ‘Lughnasadh’ is a combination of the name Lugh and the word ‘nasadh’ meaning ‘assembly’. Its older Gaelic name of ‘Bron Trogain’ means ‘sacrifice of the earth’. Today this festival is celebrated on 1st August and also goes by the name of Lammas which derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlaef mass’, meaning ‘loaf mass’.

Very much like the Roman god Mercury, Lugh was known as a god of skill and craftsmanship. He was known as the many skilled god because he had countless abilities including healing, warfare, prophecy, music and poetry. One story tells of a time when Lugh realised that he was being refused entry to Tara and in response began citing a great list of things that he was capable of doing, but to no avail. The guard at the gates continued to refuse him entry after each skill was mentioned by saying, “We’ve got someone here who can already do that”. Finally, an unwavering Lugh asks,” But do you have someone here that can do all of these things?”

According to Irish myth, Lugh was the grandson of a Fomorian called Balor of the Evil Eye. The Fomorians were a terrible race of people; enemies of the Tuatha de Danann. One day, Balor learnt of a prophecy that foretold of his own death by the hands of his future grandson. On hearing this he imprisoned his daughter Eithne inside a cave on Tory Island so that she could never have children.

However, Cian, a young man from the Tuatha de Danann who wanted Balor dead, managed to track down Eithne and seduced her. When Cian was found out he was murdered and later when Eithne gave birth to three boys they were all thrown into the sea. Lugh was the only child to survive having been saved by a blacksmith who brought him up as his own son.

Many years later Lugh turned up at the court of Nuadhu, the king of the Tuatha de Danann. The king was so impressed with Lugh’s many skills that he abdicated, offering up his throne to Lugh, who then went into the battle of Moytura with his men and indeed killed Balor. This victory secured the country of Ireland ensuring its peace and prosperity.

The Book of Invasions, which chronicles the early history of Ireland, tells us that Lugh became associated with the harvest after he had held a funeral feast and athletic games in honour of his foster mother Tailtiu.

Tailtiu, whose name probably comes from Talantiu meaning “the great one of the earth”, once lived on the magical hill of Tara and was the daughter of a man called Firbolg, who was the king of the Great Plain. Tailtiu was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the forest of Breg so that her people could grow food and avoid starvation. It took a whole month for her to create the plain of Oenach Taillten.

The funeral games in her honour were called the Oenach Tailten and took place at Tailtin in what is now County Meath, Ireland.  It is said that Tailtiu asked Lugh to hold these games every harvest so that each home would forever have corn and milk. These Olympic style games lasted several days and would have consisted of trading, marriage arrangements and contract signing. Trial marriages were also conducted here whereby young couples would join hands through a hole in a wooden door. These Teltown marriages that enacted the marriage of Lugh to the goddess Eire, after whom Ireland is named, would have lasted a year and a day. After this time they could go on to marry or else go their separate ways with no consequences. These customs stopped in the 12th century after the Norman conquest.

The Celts being more than just one people had many gods and goddesses and most of them were attached to local landmarks. However, Lugh is one of the exceptions as he was honoured over a much wider area of Europe. There have been innumerable inscriptions and statues dedicated to Lugh found even as far away as Spain and Julius Caesar remarked how important this god was to the Celts. There was also a Lugus god cult in Lyon France (Lugundum) and the Welsh god Llew Llaw Gyffes is thought to be connected to Lugh, as well as there being a link to the Arthurian knight Sir Lancelot. There are other towns linked to Lugh also; Carlisle (Lugabalium) on the Scottish border and Leiden in the Netherlands.

In British folklore there exists a man called John Barleycorn, a figure that symbolises the harvest of the barley as well as the whiskey and beer that is made from it. In Robert Burns traditional folk song, John Barleycorn is described as having to suffer many kinds of indignities which correspond with the agricultural cycle of planting, growing and harvesting.

There were many customs throughout Europe around the harvesting of crops. The first sheaf of wheat would be ceremoniously cut at dawn, winnowed, ground into flour and baked into the harvest bread which was then gratefully shared throughout the community. The last sheaf was also ceremoniously cut and often made into a corn dolly dressed in ribbons and cloth and was carried into the village as the focal point of the harvest supper. If the harvest had been a success then the corn dolly was made into the image of a maiden, but if the harvest had been bad then the corn dolly resembled a cailleach.

In some parts of Europe it was tradition to weave the last sheaf into a large corn mother with a corn baby inside her that represented the next harvest.

Sometimes the last sheaf would be placed above the hearth of the home, placed in a tree trunk or mixed with the grain for the following year’s planting. In some way it found itself returned to the earth so that the fertile spirit of the harvest god could live on.

Once the harvest had been stored away safely then the festivities could begin. A bull was sacrificed, circle dancing was performed and a feast was enjoyed. Much of this took place on top of hills. Tributes were also brought to the king such as venison, fish and fruit.

Lastly, a tradition of Lughnasadh that still survives today across Britain and Ireland is the wake fair, although it has sadly lost its original meaning of mourning the death of the sun. The most well known is the Puck Fair which is held every year in early august in Killorglin, County Kerry. The fair has been traced back to the 16th century, but it is believed to have origins that go further back still. At the beginning of this three day festival a goat is brought into the town and is crowned the “king”, while a local girl is crowned the “queen”. The festival includes traditional music and dancing, a parade, arts and crafts workshops, a horse and cattle fair and a market. Young men and women from Irish traveller families also get a chance to come together.

All Hallows’ Eve Traditions

All Hallows’ Eve is a time of the in-between; a time that is neither here nor there. Deeply rooted in ancestor veneration, the Christian church was powerless to wrench it away from our forebears and like many of our ancient feasts it was adopted into the Christian calendar instead. To allow for this to happen, the Christian feast day of All Hallows was moved from the month of May to 1st November.

It is believed that the term ‘All Hallows’ most probably dates back to 17th century Scotland and the shortening to ‘Halloween’ was eventually made popular by Robert Burns’ poem of the same name in 1785.

The discovery of what is known as the Coligny Calendar, unearthed in 1897 France, shows us a glimpse of a much older tradition. The bronze tablet portrays the merging of a lunar calendar with a solar one; a hybrid of the old ways with the new Roman way of measuring time. Dating from the second century AD, the Coligny Calendar depicts Samhain, a Gaelic name given to the time period that coincides with All Hallows. The actual wording is ‘Trinoxtion Samonii’ which translates to ‘three nights of the end of summer’. There are written sources such as the Icelandic Sagas that mention pre-Christian peoples celebrating important feasts that lasted for three nights; Yule and Winter Nights being two examples we have from northern Europe.

Samhain for the Iron Age people was the end of the old year and the start of the new. Any livestock they thought would not survive the winter was slaughtered and preserved or otherwise ritually purified on the fire before eating. The remaining entrails were used for divinatory purposes. The gathering of the last harvests, fruits and medicinal plants also took place during this time. A small share of the harvest was left to placate the puca, a strange shape shifting creature of Celtic myth that was capable of great mischief.

In later years, the Beltane fires were lit once more for All Hallows’ Eve in readiness for driving away evil spirits and household hearths were also lit from these new flames. All Hallows was a time for seeking answers from the Otherworld which was an easier task during this period due to the belief that the veil between our world and the other was much thinner than usual. The ancestors were also honoured with prayers and offerings of food, as were the nature spirits and saints who had no feast day of their own.

It was common for these ceremonial fires to be lit for the repose of the souls in purgatory. People would pray as they held burning handfuls of straw in the air in the belief that this comforted the souls trapped in limbo.

It is very likely that the enjoyment of celebrating Guy Fawkes Night owes more to the ancient rites of All Hallows than it does to the celebratory tradition of the 5th of November, started in 1605 after the failed attempt by Catholic plotters to assassinate the protestant King James.

In Lancashire, there was a custom called ‘Leeting the Witches’, meaning ‘scaring the witches’. It was believed that lighting a candle and carrying it around the fells between 11pm and 12am would unnerve the witches and therefore keep them away. However, it was also thought that the witches would do their best to extinguish these flames which would bring misfortune to the carrier. In many places it was believed that waving around fiery brands would scare witches away too.

Another name for All Hallows is Mischief Night and many tricks were played on people. Doors were taken off their hinges, gates were left open, door latches were tied and doors were whitewashed. This was the perfect pretext for petty revenge.

Children played simple and fun games on this evening such as apple bobbing. Each child in turn had to dunk their head in a barrel of water to try and catch one of the floating apples with their mouth. Snap apple was a similar game, but this time the apple was tied to a string that hung from the ceiling. In both of these games the important symbol is the apple. The apple harvest ends at this time of year and these games are surely relics of ancient rites that were performed in gratitude of the fruit harvest.

Captivating stories of fairies, witches and ghosts were traditionally told on All Hallows Eve, which was also called Nut-Crack Night (a form of divination) and Cake Night (some households baked a small cake for each member of the family).

In some regions on Punkie Night (a punkie was a lantern) village children would walk through the streets singing their Punkie Night song, knocking on doors and asking for money or candles to put inside their hollowed out turnips. Sometimes these hollowed out lanterns were stuck on poles and covered in a white cloth or a face was cut into it and a candle placed inside. Strategically placed on a gate post or in a tree, its purpose was to scare away witches and evil spirits.

“A Soule cake, a Soule cake, have mercy on all Christian soules for a Soule cake”.

The custom of souling, which entailed begging for specially made cakes for the souls of the dead, was widely practised from the time of the Middle Ages. Originally, soul cakes were given to friends and family of the deceased and in some parts soulers begged for soul cake in return for saying a prayer for the dead of the family whose doors they knocked on. In Ireland, beggars would be given food to feast on in honour of St Columbus. A Soul cake was a flat round biscuit that was made from a mixture of spices, currants and raisins and was marked with a cross.

“Soul, soul, for a soul cake! I pray, good missis, for a soul cake! An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry. Any good thing to make us merry. One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all. Up with the kettle and down with the pan, give us good alms and we’ll be gone.”

In other soul songs there were requests for ale, beer or silver coins and they usually contained verses that thanked the donor, wishing him good health and a long life to his family, workmen and livestock.

In Cheshire, the soulers were accompanied by the Hodening Horse; a man dressed in a white sheet and a horse’s head with hinged jaws that snapped. The Hodening Horse’s origins are obscure, but some believe that it derives from the Norse God Odin or sacrificial horse rites. Others believe there to be a connection with Robin Hood.

Like so many old customs that fade from memory or morph into something else entirely, the custom of baking Soul cakes became rarer and rarer until eventually they were replaced with sweets and money. Irish immigrants settling in America took these traditions with them and the begging of sweets and cake became an activity for children. Events were eventually organised to make it safer for children and the phrase “trick or treat” was coined for the first time in 1939. So now the original reason for giving is forgotten and all that remains is a shadow of a custom that is devoid of any true meaning and importance.

Of all the festivals that offer the opportunity for divination, none is more well known and favourable than All Hallows’ Eve in respect of love, marriage, health, wealth, sickness and death. I will end this post with the following forms of divination that were once performed in England at one time or another on All Hallows’ Eve.

In Derbyshire, young girls would put a crooked sixpence and a sprig of rosemary under their pillow in order to dream of their future husband. Pouring molten metal in cold water and deciphering the shape afterwards was another popular form of divination.

All Hallows’ Eve was a favourite time to test the fidelity of lovers. In Lancashire, this was done by burning nuts in the fire. A woman would put two nuts in the fire, one for her and one for her love. In southern England it was believed that if the nuts exploded, then that was a sign of a happy marriage and in the north of England they believed that same future would occur if the nuts burnt quietly. In Suffolk, ripe brown apple pips were used instead, with the hope that the heat would cause them to explode.

Another form of divination was performed by slipping a wedding ring onto a piece of thread held between the thumb and forefinger saying, “If my husband’s name be…….Let this ring swing”. When the preferred man’s name was spoken the ring would hopefully swing.

On the Saturday closest to All Hallows’ Eve, fruit pickers in Penzance would display their largest apples in their windows and locally these apples were called ‘Allan Apples’. It was customary to buy and give these apples to every member of the family to be eaten for good luck. Young women would put them under their pillow first so that they could dream of their sweetheart.

Young girls would place a piece of clover with only two leaves on it in their right shoe in the belief that the first young man that they came across would either become her husband or another man who had the same surname would.

In Herefordshire, if a girl went out into the garden on All Hallows’ Eve to cut a cabbage at midnight then she would she a vision of her future husband.

The following death divination was also performed in Herefordshire. An ivy leaf was taken for each person and their name was written on it before being placed in a bowl of water and left overnight. It was believed that if a leaf was marked with the appearance of a coffin image then that person would soon die.

In the north of England it was customary to wave a lighted brand in front of the face to forecast good or bad luck. How the fire burnt out indicated this. For example, if the fire burned out quickly, then it could mean the loss of some money.

It was once a custom in Devon and other parts of England to beg for fire on 31st October at rich people’s houses. The fire was generally gifted with money as well.

In Shropshire, groups of young girls would lay their clothes on the back of a chair in front of the fire and waited until midnight when they repeated a charm for ten minutes while waiting to see which of their clothes moved first. This indicated the first of the girls to marry.

If a young girl went out into the garden at midnight and picked a sage leaf at every strike of the clock up until the ninth one, then if she was to be married she would see the face of her future husband. If not, she would see a coffin.

The ‘Church Porch Watch’ was a custom where people used to sit in the church porch all night on All Hallows’ Eve, with the expectation of seeing the spirits of the living who would die in the next twelve months. If any watcher fell asleep during this time then it was believed he would die before the next night watch.

Sources:

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Henry Taylor, 1906

The History of Honley, Mary Jagger, 1914.

The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Anna Eliza Stothard. 1879

Shropshire Folklore, Charlotte Sophia Burne 1883

Old English Harvest Celebrations

Harvest thanksgiving is one of the oldest and most joyous of all the traditions our ancestors celebrated. A community’s sense of relief at seeing their crops safely gathered must have been an unimaginable weight off their shoulders; knowing that they would have a greater chance of surviving the coming winter.

Most pre-Christian harvest festivals have either completely died out or have become a shadow of their former glory due to the age of industrialisation and Christianity. Today, harvest festivals are celebrated in churches all across the country and have been in their present form since 1843 when a Victorian vicar had the idea of bringing the tradition back as part of a holy sacrament for his parishioners. However Harvest Festival is celebrated today, we must not forget that it is a relic of our ancient past that is capable of reconnecting us to our folk memory.

The leading role of the harvest celebration was held by Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. In Britain, she was later known as the Maiden, the Harvest Queen, the Kern or the Corn Baby, the Kern Doll, the Ivy Girl, the Neck and the Mare. Sometimes she was just simply stalks of corn dressed in fabric and decorated with ribbons and lace. Whatever her form she could always be found in the centre of harvest feasts and rituals of ancient times.

The Kern Baby, or whatever name she was given locally, was made from the last corn left standing in the field, which was ceremoniously cut with great respect. The act of cutting the last sheaf of corn was such a fearful one that no one wanted the responsibility of cutting down the spirit of the goddess herself. More often than not, this act was left to chance and everyone present at this ritual would all throw their sickles at the same time so as not to leave this responsibility to just one person. In Herefordshire, one of the men would shout, “I have her!”, and the others replied, “What have you?” The reply back was, “A Mare, a Mare, a Mare”. In deep folk memory there has always been an awareness of the cycle of life and death and the sacrifice that it entails.

Once this was done and all the crop was safely brought into the barn, it was finally time to celebrate. The cart which brought home the last of the corn was sometimes called the Hockey Cart and a young girl dressed in white rode the leading horse. Enthusiastic villagers waiting for the cart would throw water over the harvesters as they approached. This might have been a relic of an ancient water ritual to ensure plenty of rain for next year’s crops. A seed cake baked during harvesting was given to the hard workers and was called the Hockey Cake.

The custom of ‘crying the neck’ was once very common in the west of England. Some believe that the origins of the word ‘neck’ may come from an old Norse word for ‘sheaf of corn’ while others believe that it is connected to ‘nix’  meaning water spirit.

While the harvesters were reaping the last of the wheat, one of them would plait several of the best sheaves together into four plaits. After the others had finished working they surrounded the man with the ‘neck’ who then bent down and held it to the earth. The surrounding men would then take off their hats and bow in reverence to the soil. Standing back up again, they all raised their arms and hats in the air, shouting, “The neck, the neck. the neck. Wee yen. We yen, We yen!” (meaning “We end the harvest”). With laughter and hats thrown in the air, the ‘neck’ was taken to the farm house door, where one of the maids would be waiting with a bucket of water. If the man was able to get into the house without passing the front door he could kiss the girl, if not then he had the bucket of water thrown over him. Again this is yet another form of water ritual that continued to be practised right up until the end of the nineteenth century.

After the harvest was in the barn, a Kern Baby was held up high and carried with great ceremony to wherever the harvest feast was taking place. The farmer and his workmen ate and drunk their fill of ham, beef, vegetables and fruit with plenty of cider and beer. Afterwards there were games, singing, dancing and exchanges of gifts. After the feast, the Kern Baby was taken up to the farmer’s house where she stayed until the next harvest celebration. The previous year’s Kern Baby was ceremoniously burnt in the farmyard.

The Kern Baby could still be found many years after the conversion of Christianity in church decorations. A decorated conical figure hanging in the church porch or perhaps a Kern Baby at the end of a church pew.

Most places had their own special way of celebrating the harvest and these customs all went back to pre-Christian times. It was an act of sacrifice to cut the corn and bury the seed, so as to allow the corn spirit to rise again in the spring.

The Ivy Girl of Kent was a human shaped figure made from the best of the corn. In Scotland it was called the Maiden and was cut by the youngest girl among the harvesters. In the north east of Scotland it was called the ‘Cailleach’ or Old Woman and was dressed accordingly. The Cailleach took place of honour at the feast and was toasted by everyone. She was even taken for a dance by some of the young men.

In Bromley, The Horn Dance was a processional dance that started outside the local church at dawn and would last all day long. Touring the countryside and visiting farms, the dancers were seen as bringers of good luck and fertility.

There were six dancers, a Fool, a Hobby Horse, also known as Robin Hood, Maid Marion (the Man Woman), a Bowman who snapped his crossbow in time with the beat and two musicians playing a triangle and a melodeon. The Hobby Horse would also snap his jaws in time with the music. What makes this dance unusual is the six pairs of antlers mounted onto poles and carried by the dancers on their shoulders. The heads and antlers were wooden copies of reindeer heads and three sets were painted black while the other three were painted white. They were so heavy that the dancers had great difficulty carrying them during this symbolic mock battle, moving forward and back with their heads bowed down. The leader of the black antlers then broke away to start the procession once more while the rest of them followed behind in a single file with the Bowman at the tail posing his arrow as if to shoot at the escaping ‘Deer Men’. The Horn Dance goes back even further than we can imagine, a relic of an ancient hunting dance from a time when reindeer roamed these lands. The ‘Man Woman’ who carried two items that represented the male and the female, suggests a fertility rite was once part of this dance. Perhaps the battle of the ‘Deer Men’ represents the struggle between life and death. The Horn Dance only existed as long as it did because the Church adopted it and made it its very own. The dance not only started at the church, but the props were kept there when not in use. The money collected during the day was of course given towards the upkeep of the church.

Sources:

A Year of Festivals, Geoffrey Palmer, 1972

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978