Also known by its more Christian name, Lammas, aka “Loaf-mas”, Lughnasadh marked the time of year villagers would celebrate the first Harvest, on or around August 1, by baking and sharing bread from the first grain of the season.
Lughnasadh is a cross-quarter day—days that fall directly between equinoxes and solstices—the others being Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day), and Samhain (Halloween).
The holiday would have been celebrated by the Celts starting at sundown (on the 31st) until the following day.
July 31 is also Harry Potter’s Birthday! Coincidence?
Today the ancient pagan tradition is carried on by wiccans and is becoming increasingly popular in neopaganism.
When midnight comes and drops silence for sleep,
and dogs and dappled birds are hushed,
The man who remembers the ancient rite
and fears the gods, rises up (barefoot)
And makes a thumb sign between his closed fingers
to avoid some ghostly wraith in the quiet.
When he has washed his hands clean with fountain water,
he turns around after taking black beans,
Glances away and throws, saying: ‘These I release;
I redeem me and mine with these beans.’
The head of the Roman household would, according to Ovid, perform this rite nine times and then, after rinsing his hands, would shout, “Leave, ancestral spirits!” another nine times, purifying his house of those departed whose souls refuse to rest. (The Japanese still observe a similar bean-throwing tradition during the Shinto lunar new year, Setsubun.)
The Roman superstition that Ovid describes was once a public festival known as the Feast of Lemuria, or Lemuralia, decreed by Rome’s co-founder Romulus.
She-wolf suckles Romulus & Remus
Romulus and Remus were twin sons of Mars, god of war, who were nursed by a she-wolf in the wild. They wanted to build a great city, but couldn’t agree on the location. Romulus preferred Palatine Hill, Remus preferred Aventine Hill. They each built their own city. When Remus mocked Romulus by jumping over the wall meant to protect his, Romulus slew Remus in a fit of rage.
Guilt-ridden, Romulus was haunted by Remus’s ghost, who asked to be remembered on this day.
Lemuralia, says Ovid, is a corruption of Remus (Maybe Remuralia was too hard to pronounce?):
Over a long time the rough letter became smooth
at the beginning of the whole name.
Soon they also called the silent souls lemures…
The ancients shut temples on those days, as you now
see them closed in the season of the dead.
The same times are unfit for a widow’s marriage
or virgin’s. No girls who wed then live long…
Folk say: “Malicious girls marry in May.”
Around 610, Pope Boniface IV declared May 13 “All Saints Day”, in honor of all martyred. All Saints Day was later moved to November 1, coinciding with regional harvest festivals remembering the spirits of the dead.
I was taught in elementary school that we didn’t celebrate May Day anymore because it was a Communist holiday.
Not only was this a lame excuse not to celebrate a holiday, it also wasn’t true.
In ancient and medieval Europe, seasons were determined not by equinoxes and solstices, but by the days that fell directly in between, known as “cross-quarter days.” The first cross-quarter day of the year is Groundhog Day or Candlemas, between winter solstice and spring equinox. The second is today, May Day, which once marked the beginning of summer.
May Day traditions such as creating floral wreaths date back to the Romans and Celts (Beltane), and survived well into the 20th century, including dancing around the Maypole and crowning a ‘May Queen.’
In the 19th century May Day became a standard date for workers to re-negotiate contracts with employers. One reason may be because it was one of the few days off workers had that wasn’t a Sunday (church day) or a religious holiday. Thus, as communities got together to celebrate, the workers–usually the fathers of the family–could also unite for better wages or working conditions.
Over time May Day was adopted by (or hijacked by, depending on your politics) communist, socialist and labor groups. May Day fell out of favor in the U.S. where the first of May is celebrated with other, more patriotic holidays, including:
National Day of Prayer (1st Thursday in May)
and the more casual
Lei Day is, believe it or not, the oldest of those four holidays. It’s the Hawaiian version of May Day, dating to the 1920s. Loyalty Day, Law Day, and National Day of Prayer were officiated in the 1950s under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.
Even though May Day was seen as a communist import in America, it was in Chicago, Illinois, that May Day gained notoriety as a day for workers and eventually became the international holiday known as Labour Day.
Oh, and the distress call ‘Mayday! Mayday!‘ has nothing to do with the holiday. It’s from the French venez m’aider, meaning ‘come help me.’
Now to the Brocken the witches ride;
the stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
with witches a-farting on stinking old goats.
Exactly six months before Halloween, the Germans and Scandinavians celebrate Walpurgis Night, May-Eve, Beltane, or Hexennacht, aka Witches’ Night.
According to legend, on the last night of April, witches would meet at Hexentazplatz (Witches’ Dancing Place, conveniently named in case you got lost and had to ask a tourist) near the town of Thale in northern Germany. From there they would fly upon broomsticks to the highest point in the Harz Mountains, a summit called “The Brocken.”
At the Brocken there they would dance with the devil, a horned he-goat demon named Lord Urian, who would grant them mystical powers…for a price. Scarier than even the orgiastic rituals of Walpurgis Night, is the unholy marriage of Google-translation and the German language in describing this event:
“On the chunk of dance legend after all witches in a large circle around the fire and then the devil kiss the butt. Then you can have with the devil marry and receive from him magic powers.”
Don’t be Frightened!
OK, be a little frightened. For centuries, tales spread of sordid revels atop the Harz Mountains. To this day, the Brocken is haunted by the spirits of angry tourists who felt cheated having yet to encounter a single supernatural event.
There are many reasons this mountaintop became synonymous with the dark legends of Deutschland. Its inaccessible height and remote location for one—okay, that’s two actually. Also, the region wasn’t settled until after 1000 AD. (That’s the German equivalent of 1950 in America.) And perhaps most important, the Brocken is the site of an unusual and eerie optical illusion known as the Brockengenspenst, or the “Brocken spector.”
“As the sun sinks, the shadow of a walker cast from a ridge becomes magnified and an enormous silhouette appears on low-lying clouds or mist banks below the mountain. Although it’s only a shadow, the distant “specter” appears to be walking at the same pace, doggedly tracking the observer’s path.”
In other words, in the centuries before the meteorological sciences, many a Brocken hiker were spooked by their own shadows. At least one visitor was literally frightened to death.
Germany may not have been the birthplace of the witch, but it did propagate the image of the witch as we know it today, through its literature, legends, and its ‘litigation’:
“Between 1623 and 1633, the prince-bishops of two Bavarian towns, Wƒrzburg and Bamburg, ordered the burning of at least fifteen hundred “witches” between them. The victims of Wƒrzburg’s bishop included his own nephew, nineteen priests, and a child aged seven. One reason why medieval Germany developed an obsession with stamping out “witchcraft” may lie in the food that was being eaten. If the weather is warm and damp, rye (then a staple crop) can produce a poisonous fungus called ergot. Hallucinations, fits, pinpricking sensations, muscle spasms: the symptoms of ergotism are similar to the effects of LSD, which itself is derived from ergot.”
Walpurgis got its name from an 8th century saint. Walpurgis had nothing to do with witches, but April 30 was her feast day. In the Church’s effort to Christianize Germany’s tenacious pagan roots, they made Walpurgis Night about Walpurgis’ fight with the dark forces of paganism.
Yet still the pagan rituals continue to this day…
Walpurgis Night, the time is right
The ancient powers awake.
So dance and sing, around the ring
And Beltane magic make.