Of this time, the Roman Boethius writes:
“The world with steady trust,
Changes in regular seasons.
Seeds that struggle out of earth
Keep to pre-determined bounds.
Daily the golden Sun
Leads with his chariot the rosy dawn,
And nightly the evening star
Leads out the Moon to rule the sky.
The greedy surging sea
Is kept to certain limits
Lest our uncertain world
Be swamped within its flood.”
The month of August was originally called Sextilis in the Roman Calendar but it was changed to August in 8 BC after the first Roman Emperor Augustus whose reign was extremely auspicious. However, it was known to the Anglo-Saxons as “Weed Month” (Weodmonath), that is the grassy or plant month. Among the herbs to be collected no doubt was Woad from which a special blue dye was made for clothing as well as tattoos. To the ancient pagan Celts this time signalled one of four major festival dates in their calendar along with Imbolc, Oimele or Brigantia (1st February or Lent) then Beltane (1st May), and Samhain-All Hallow’s Day (1st November or Halloween). The time of Lammas or Lughnasad, which means second flush of leaves, was generally celebrated from 1st – 8th August. The Harvest festival of Gule (Harvest Moon) was also part of this important seasonal celebration on the first full moon of the month. The apple tree is sacred to this month:
“Way up high in an apple tree,
Two little apples smiled at me.
So I shook that tree as hard as I could!
Down came the apples
Mmmm, they tasted good!” – Anon
The apple tree species in the British Isles also include quince, pears and medlar are sacred to this month. As the author D. H. Lawrence wrote:
“I love you, rotten,
- I love to suck you out of your skins
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So, morbid as the Italians say….
Wineskins of brown immortality,
What is it reminds us of white gods?
Gods nude as blanched out kernels,
Strangely, half-sinisterly flesh fragrant
As if with sweat,
And drenched with mystery.
Sorb-apples, medlars with dead crowns.
I say wonderful are the hellish experiences,
Orphic, delicate Dionysus of the Underworld.”
The Celtic name Lammas translates as “loaf-mass”, that being the first loaf ritually baked from the grain at harvest time. The ceremonial baking of bread from the first grain (Loaf-mas) was an important rite in many agricultural communities. Also equally important was the preservation of seed for sowing next year. At this time the hay meadows would be opened and available for grazing. Sheep fairs would be held, animals sold or slaughtered for sale or sacrifice. Hand-fasting was also a feature of August whereby trial marriages were arranged and need only legally last for one year, but could after that time be prolonged should partners decide. After the trial period the couple would decide whether to remain together or part forever. As a result in the discrepancy between the old and new calendar the old fairs usually fell by custom around the 15th day of the month (August Bank Holiday).
In London the early August festival was known as “Grotto Day”, on the 5th of August when street urchins were allowed to roam the streets and markets begging or scavenging for food and resources that might in any case be thrown away or given to pigs. Among the commodities were clinker, oysters and their shells, broken china, candles, ribbons, flowers and moss. From all that “bric-a-brac” they would build a small grotto on the street with an entrance and place a lighted candle within and invite passers-by to donate some money for charity. An ancient rhyme recalls:
“Please remember the Grotto
Me father has run off to sea
Me mother’s gone to fetch him back
So, please give a farthing to me!” –Rose Gamble, Chelsea Child (1979)
Other important feasts were The Knighthood of the Old Green, the Archers of Arden based in Meriden, Warwickshire, Harvest Thanksgiving in most regions and Minden Day for Army Veterans. The Feast of St. Peter and Vincula usually celebrated on the 1st August takes place in Congleton, with the early ringing of bells from the local church. This is usually the time of the Notting Hill Festival in London which in the past has seen riots and social disturbance. Many important rural fairs are held around this time in Cornwall, Ireland, Wales and Scotland celebrating the Harvest Queen in a variety of different ways. For example St. Bartholomew’s Day, followed by a fair, while in Kent there was the Sandwich Bun Race, and Marldon Apple Day Fair. In Exeter a large white leather glove is stuffed and paraded on a pole while the Lord Mayor gave his August Proclamation. In Ireland they have Ould Lammas Fair in the last week of August celebrated with tree prayers/blessings, well-dressing, poetry and of course ale. In the past celebrations focussed on the pagan god Lugh whose name incidentally means light and wisdom, since apples were synonymous with immortality and secret knowledge. It was also a time to reflect on Lugh and his own dedication to the Great Earth Mother (whose constellation was presumed to be zodiacal Virgo). The ancient Greeks knew her as Ceres and the Titan Gaia although in Gaul it was strongly connected to the cult of the Greek God Hermes (Mercury).
In act two, scene one of Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare writes:
“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania some time of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamelled skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.”
The annual harvest festival usually occurred anytime towards the end of August or September (depending on the harvest product or region) and occurs after the Celtic festival of Lammas or Lugnasad (Old Lamas Day-11th Aug). It was also intended to symbolise the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn. However, in some regions it usually began at the Autumnal Equinox, which is another important marker for the year when the days of light and darkness are equalised. The harvest feast was also known as “First Fruits”, “Harvest Moon” (Full Moon in August or September), “Harvest Home” or the “Mell Supper”.
Traditionally, the first grain and loaf were offered to the gods or altar and a goose was an appropriate offering to the lord or master of the shire. Corn Dollies or plaited decorations were made from the last corn sheaves gathered by the workers symbolising the Earth Mother and as a prophylactic to avert blight and ensure a good yield in the year to come. An ancient Greek hymn to Gaia proclaims:
“Gaia, mother of all, hard, splendid as rock,
Eldest of all beings; I sing the greatness of Earth!
She feeds the world’s creatures; those on the sacred land,
Those in the paths of the sea, and those that fly in air;
All are hers; she feeds them, from her sacred shore.
Fair children and fair harvests depend on her blessing;
She provides for us to live, and when she withholds we die.”
Although older than antiquity, and celebrated universally throughout the world, this secular and religious feast was not officially instituted until the late 19th century in the British Isles. Traditionally, before the advent of the New Year’s day festival in January, the old pagan year was coming to an end usually in September giving birth to the All Hallows festival in November when the veil of the astral world was permeable. On the 20th of August 1940 Winston Churchill gave his most renowned speech in the House of Commons:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
It was also the day when in 1914 German troops captured Brussels, when Russian troops marched into Czechoslovakia to put down the reform programme known as the Prague Spring in 1968 and in 1991 when independence was declared by the people of Estonia. The 22nd of this month was when the great English usurper Richard Crook-Back (Shakespeare’s Richard IIIrd was finally killed at Bosworth Field; 1485). While the 24th of August the citizens of Ukraine will be celebrating their Democratic Independence from Russia. However, on the Saturday nearest the 5th of August in Grasmere the annual rush-bearing festival, which is presumed to be of Egyptian origin is held as this hymn recounts:
“Our Fathers to the House of God
As yet a building rude
Bore offerings from the flowerie sod
And fragrant rushes strewed.
There by the Great Redeemer’s grace
Bright emblems here are seen
He makes to smile the desert place
With flowers and rushes green.”
Around this time of year in the countryside are beautiful displays of ferns, liverworts and rushes. Of this time Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:
“Glory be to dappled things
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon a trout that swim;
Fresh fire-coal chestnut-falls; finche’s wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced-fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle trim.”
Elderberries and its dwarf relative Guelder Roseberries are now forming on branches in colourful clusters for those who enjoy wine-making. Heather or Ling, as it is sometimes called, is flowering abundantly on the moorlands and is a rich source of nectar for busy, late summer bees. Evening Primrose, Soapwort, Goldenrod, Ox-eye daisy, Scentless Mayweed, Tansy, Yarrow, Mugwort, Teasel, Great Mullein, and Woody Nightshade are all out in bloom. Other flowering species during this period include Comfrey, Bugle, Borage, Wood Sage, Bugloss, Lady’s Bedstraw, Centaury, Cleavers, and a great number of umbelliferous plants such as Hedge Parsley, Wild Carrot, Giant Hogweed, Hemlock, and Purple Loosestrife. Look out for rabbits, moles and shrews who are out on secluded pastures, fields as well as deep undergrowth, in hedgerows and woodlands towards dawn or late evening when it’s quiet.
Brewer’s Phrase & Fable; revised by Adrian Broom (Cassell Publishing Group)
Chamber’s Book of Days; R. Chambers (Chambers Harrap Publishers)
The English Year; Steve Roud (Penguin Press)
|The links to my publications, “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and anthology of poems “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:|
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