Corn, Ritual, Women, Festival, Cult, Feast
The 1st of August, coming midway between Beltane and Samhain, was an important festival among the Celts. In Christian times the day became Lammas, but its name still survives in Irish as Lugnasad, in Gaelic as Lunasdal or Lunasduinn, and in Manx as Laa Luanys, and it is still observed as a fair or feast in many districts. Formerly assemblies at convenient centres were held on this day, not only for religious purposes, but for commerce and pleasure, both of these being of course saturated with religion. "All Ireland" met at Taillti, just as "all Gaul" met at Lugudunum, "Lug's town," or Lyons, in honour of Augustus, though the feast there had formerly been in honour of the god Lugus. The festival was here Romanised, as it was also in Britain, where its name appears as Goel-aoust, Gul-austus, and Gwyl Awst, now the "August feast," but formerly the "feast of Augustus," the name having replaced one corresponding to Lugnasad.
Cormac explains the name Lugnasad as a festival of Lugh mac Ethlenn, celebrated by him in the beginning of autumn, and the Rennes Dindsenchas accounts for its origin by saying that Lug's foster-mother, Tailtiu, having died on the Calends of August, he directed an assembly for lamentation to be held annually on that day at her tomb. Lug is thus the founder of his own festival, for that it was his, and not Tailtiu's, is clear from the fact that his name is attached to it. As Lammas was a Christian harvest thanksgiving, so also was Lugnasad a pagan harvest feast, part of the ritual of which passed over to Samhain. The people made glad before the sun-god—Lug perhaps having that character—who had assisted them in the growth of the things on which their lives depended. Marriages were also arranged at this feast, probably because men had now more leisure and more means for entering upon matrimony. Possibly promiscuous love-making also occurred as a result of the festival gladness, agricultural districts being still notoriously immoral. Some evidence points to the connection of the feast with Lug's marriage, though this has been allegorised into his wedding the "sovereignty of Erin." Perhaps we have here a hint of the rite of the sacred marriage, for the purpose of magically fertilising the fields against next year's sowing.
Due observance of the feast produced abundance of corn, fruit, milk, and fish. Probably the ritual observed included the preservation of the last sheaf as representing the corn-spirit, giving some of it to the cattle to strengthen them, and mingling it with next year's corn to impart to it the power of the corn-spirit. It may also have included the slaying of an animal or human incarnation of the corn-spirit, whose flesh and blood quickened the soil and so produced abundance next year, or, when partaken of by the worshippers, brought blessings to them. To neglect such rites, abundant instances of which exist in folk-custom, would be held to result in scarcity. This would also explain, as already suggested, why the festival was associated with the death of Tailtiu or of Carman. The euhemerised queen-goddess Tailtiu and the woman Carman had once been corn-goddesses, evolved from more primitive corn-spirits, and slain at the feast in their female representatives. The story of their death and burial at the festival was a dim memory of this ancient rite, and since the festival was also connected with the sun-god Lug, it was easy to bring him into relationship with the earlier goddess. Elsewhere the festival, in its memorial aspect, was associated with a king, probably because male victims had come to be representatives of a corn-god who had taken the place of the goddess.
Some of the ritual of these festivals is illustrated by scattered notices in classical writers, and on the whole they support our theory that the festivals originated in a female cult of spirits or goddesses of fertility. Strabo speaks of sacrifices offered to Demeter and Kore, according to the ritual followed at Samothrace, in an island near Britain, i.e. to native goddesses equated with them. He also describes the ritual of the Namnite women on an island in the Loire. They are called Bacchantes because they conciliated Bacchus with mysteries and sacrifices; in other words, they observed an orgiastic cult of a god equated with Bacchus. No man must set foot on the island, but the women left it once a year for intercourse with the other sex. Once a year the temple of the god was unroofed, and roofed again before sunset. If any woman dropped her load of materials (and it was said this always happened), she was torn in pieces and her limbs carried round the temple. Dionysius Periegetes says the women were crowned with ivy, and celebrated their mysteries by night in honour of Earth and Proserpine with great clamour. Pliny also makes a reference to British rites in which nude women and girls took part, their bodies stained with woad.
At a later time, S. Gregory of Tours speaks of the image of a goddess Berecynthia drawn on a litter through the streets, fields, and vineyards of Augustodunum on the days of her festival, or when the fields were threatened with scarcity. The people danced and sang before it. The image was covered with a white veil. Berecynthia has been conjectured by Professor Anwyl to be the goddess Brigindu, worshipped at Valnay.
These rites were all directed towards divinities of fertility. But in harvest customs in Celtic Scotland and elsewhere two sheaves of corn were called respectively the Old Woman and the Maiden, the corn-spirit of the past year and that of the year to come, and corresponding to Demeter and Kore in early Greek agricultural ritual. As in Greece, so among the Celts, the primitive corn-spirits had probably become more individualised goddesses with an elaborate cult, observed on an island or at other sacred spots. The cult probably varied here and there, and that of a god of fertility may have taken the place of the cult of goddesses. A god was worshipped by the Namnite women, according to Strabo, goddesses according to Dionysius. The mangled victim was probably regarded as representative of a divinity, and perhaps part of the flesh was mixed with the seed-corn, like the grain of the Maiden sheaf, or buried in the earth. This rite is common among savages, and its presence in old European ritual is attested by survivals. That these rites were tabu to men probably points to the fact that they were examples of an older general custom, in which all such rites were in the hands of women who cultivated the earth, and who were the natural priestesses of goddesses of growth and fertility, of vegetation and the growing corn. Another example is found in the legend and procession of Godiva at Coventry—the survival of a pagan cult from which men were excluded.
Pliny speaks of the nudity of the women engaged in the cult. Nudity is an essential part of all primitive agricultural rites, and painting the body is also a widespread ritual act. Dressing with leaves or green stuff, as among the Namnite women, and often with the intention of personating the spirit of vegetation, is also customary. By unveiling the body, and especially the sexual organs, women more effectually represented the goddess of fertility, and more effectually as her representatives, or through their own powers, magically conveyed fertility to the fields. Nakedness thus became a powerful magico-religious symbol, and it is found as part of the ritual for producing rain.
There is thus abundant evidence of the cult of fertility, vegetation, and corn-spirits, who tended to become divinities, male or female. Here and there, through conservatism, the cult remained in the hands of women, but more generally it had become a ritual in which both men and women took part—that of the great agricultural festivals. Where a divinity had taken the place of the vaguer spirits, her image, like that of Berecynthia, was used in the ritual, but the image was probably the successor of the tree which embodied the vegetation-spirit, and was carried through the fields to fertilise them. Similar processions of images, often accompanied by a ritual washing of the image in order to invigorate the divinity, or, as in the similar May-day custom, to produce rain, are found in the Teutonic cult of Nerthus, the Phrygian of Cybele, the Hindu of Bhavani, and the Roman ritual of the Bona Dea. The image of Berecynthia was thus probably washed also. Washing the images of saints, usually to produce rain, has sometimes taken the place of the washing of a divine image, and similarly the relics of a saint are carried through a field, as was the tree or image. The community at Iona perambulated a newly sown field with S. Columba's relics in time of drought, and shook his tunic three times in the air, and were rewarded by a plentiful rain, and later, by a bounteous harvest.
Many of these local cults were pre-Celtic, but we need not therefore suppose that the Celts, or the Aryans as a whole, had no such cults. The Aryans everywhere adopted local cults, but this they would not have done if, as is supposed, they had themselves outgrown them. The cults were local, but the Celts had similar local cults, and easily accepted those of the people they conquered. We cannot explain the persistence of such primitive cults as lie behind the great Celtic festivals, both in classical times and over the whole area of Europe among the peasantry, by referring them solely to a pre-Aryan folk. They were as much Aryan as pre-Aryan. They belong to those unchanging strata of religion which have so largely supplied the soil in which its later and more spiritual growths have flourished. And among these they still emerge, unchanged and unchanging, like the gaunt outcrops of some ancient rock formation amid rich vegetation and fragrant flowers.
|Written By J. A. MacCulloch|
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