Lammas Customs and Traditions

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The early harvest and the threshing of grain has been celebrated for thousands of years. Here are just a few of the customs and legends surrounding the Lammas season.

Legends and Lore of the Lammas Season

Corn Dolls
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There are a lot of myths and folklore surrounding Lammas, or Lughnasadh.

  • Thor’s wife, Sif, had beautiful golden hair, until Loki the prankster cut it off. Thor was so upset he wanted to kill Loki, but some dwarves spun new hair for Sif, which grew magically as soon as it touched her head. The hair of Sif is associated with the harvest, and the golden grain that grows every year. 
  • In the Shetland Islands, farmers believed that grain harvesting should only take place during a waning moon. They also believed this about the fall potato crop, and the cutting of peat. 
  • At Lughnasadh, calves are weaned, and the first fruits are ripe, such as apples and grapes. In some Irish counties, it was believed farmers had to wait until Lughnasadh to start picking these fruits, or bad luck would befall the community. 
  • In some countries, Lammas is a time for warrior games and mock battles. This may hearken back to the days when a harvest festival was held, and people would come from miles around to get together. What better way for young men to show off their strength and impress the girls than by whacking away at all the competition? Games and contests are also held in honor of Lugh, the mighty Celtic craftsman god, in which artisans offer up their finest work. 
  • It’s become a custom to give people the gift of a pair of gloves at Lammastide. In part, it’s because winter is just around the corner, but it’s also related to an old tradition in which landowners gave their tenants a pair of gloves after the harvest. The glove is a symbol of authority and benevolence.

Deities of the Fields

Statue of Abundance, in the Boboli Garden. Female sculpture in white marble with wheet bouquet of bronze.
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When Lammastide rolls around, the fields are full and fertile. Crops are abundant, and the late summer harvest is ripe for the picking. This is the time when the first grains are threshed, apples are plump in the trees, and gardens are overflowing with summer bounty. In nearly every ancient culture, this was a time of celebration of the agricultural significance of the season. Because of this, it was also a time when many gods and goddesses were honored. These are some of the many deities who are connected with this earliest harvest holiday.

The Legend of John Barleycorn

Beer glass full of barley grains on a wooden board in a ripe golden barley field with blue sky and cloud
John Barleycorn symbolizes not only the harvest, but the products made from it as well. Michael Interisano / Design Pics / Getty Images

In English folklore, John Barleycorn is a character who represents the crop of barley harvested each autumn. Equally as important, he symbolizes the wonderful drinks which can be made from barley — beer and whiskey — and their effects. In the traditional folksong, John Barleycorn, the character of John Barleycorn endures all kinds of indignities, most of which correspond to the cyclic nature of planting, growing, harvesting, and then death.

The Festival of Vulcanalia

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In ancient Rome, every August 23 was the celebration of Vulcan (or Volcanus) the god of fire and volcanoes. He was honored with sacrifices in hopes of protecting the city from devastating fire. Similar to the Greek Hephaestus, Vulcan was a god of the forge, and renowned for his metalworking skills. He was also somewhat deformed and is portrayed as being lame. As a son of Jupiter, Vulcan is the creator of his father's powerful lightning bolts, but he also forges armor, weapons, and jewelry for the gods and heroes of Rome. 

Bread Folklore and Legend

Close-Up Of Various Breads In Bakery
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Grain has held a place of importance in civilization back nearly to the beginning of time. Grain became associated with the cycle of death and rebirth. The Sumerian god Tammuz was slain and his lover Ishtar grieved so heartily that nature stopped producing. Ishtar mourned Tammuz, and followed him to the Underworld to bring him back, similar to the story of Demeter and Persephone.

In many societies, the cutting of the final sheaf of grain was indeed cause for celebration. People celebrated by making corn dolls, which represented the spirit of the grain. Sometimes these dolls were full-sized, made of the last stalks of corn to be harvested, and decorated with ribbons, streamers and even articles of clothing.

For many cultures, the breaking of bread is symbolic of peace and hospitality. Once you have welcomed someone into your home and you have eaten bread together, you’re far less likely to kill one another. In parts of Norway, boys and girls who share bread from the same loaf are destined to fall in love and marry.

Corn Myths and Magic

Close-up of colorful Indian corn in shop in Cherokee, North Carolina
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Parts of Appalachia are rich in superstitions surrounding corn. Some farmers believe that if you miss a row while you’re planting corn, someone in your family will die before harvest season. Likewise, if you see kernels of corn lying in the road, it means that company is on the way, but if you brush the kernels away or bury them, your visitor will be a stranger. If the husks on your corn extend far beyond the ear itself, it's a sign you're in for a long hard winter. Burning the cobs, husks, or kernels will bring about drought in the coming season.