August 1st is often referred to as Lughnasadh, the name given in Ireland to the festival dedicated to the old Hibernian God, Lugh. Here in Britain, we call it Lammas in English, from the Anglo-Saxon hlafmæsse(half~loaf + mæsse~mass) meaning ‘loaf-mass’, while in Welsh we call it Gwyl Awst, which is simply ‘August Festival’. It marks a time of the first grain harvest and when traditionally, tenants were bound to present newly harvested wheat to their landlords, and ritual loaves were made of the first harvested grains. Protective charms were uttered both during the making and baking of these loaves before they were cut into four equal parts which were placed in the four corners of the barn to protect the gathered grain.
Lugh, who was honoured at this time in Ireland, is one of the most prominent gods in Irish mythology. A member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, he is portrayed as a warrior, a king and a master craftsman. He is considered a solar and storm deity and associated with skill and mastery in multiple disciplines, including the arts.
But to whom is this feast dedicated here in the British Isles? Our feast names give us no clues. Lleu or Lleu Llaw Gyffes to give him his full name is the Welsh counterpart of Lugh. While he is mentioned in a number of poems and tales, we encounter Lleu most fully in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Trouble is, I’ve never warmed to Lleu. He bothers me because he mostly appears as a bit of a wimp, and I can’t find much to recommend him!
Nevertheless, this year, with Lammas around the corner, a journey to and from Belfast for a conference to undertake, and a deadline to write something for this newsletter looming, it was time to take a trowel and dig into the Fourth Branch in the hope that something akin to mythic archaeology or even story forensics might help me make sense of Lleu and appreciate him a little more. For a useful synopsis of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, click here.
Like his Irish counterpart, Lleu is a solar deity – the sun represented as a shining youth. In the Fourth Branch, Lleu’s mother, Arianrhod has put upon him three fates: never to bear a name, never to bear arms nor to have a wife of womankind. One by one, Gwydion the magician uses magic to trick Arianrhod into giving the boy a name and then into arming him. But obtaining a wife is more of a challenge. For this, Gwydion enlists the help of King Math, Lleu’s uncle who is a powerful magician, and together they conjure a woman of flowers, essentially entrapping the verdant spirit of spring in a woman’s form. They name her Blodeuedd (flower face) and hand her over to Lleu as a wife. Here my mythic trowel hits a tiny fragment of something that looks interesting - a tarnished metaphor for the union between the sun god and spring maiden. Lleu is ‘husbanding’ the spirit of burgeoning nature, which is essentially what farmers do when cultivating crops. Encouraged, I dig a little more.
Nature cannot be tamed for long. She has her own instincts and laws and they are red in tooth and claw. Lleu and Blodeuedd’s marriage is short lived. When Lleu is away, Gronw Pebr the Lord of an adjacent kingdom rides by with a hunting party and Blodeuedd’s wild, natural urges are aroused. Different to Lleu, Gronw embodies a strong sense of the wild. She invites him to feast and inevitably they fall into each other’s arms and into bed. Three days later, before Gronw departs they hatch a plan to kill Lleu. This makes both a good story and perfect sense within the pattern of the year - it is the necessary release of nature from union with the sun (summer) into partnership with the hunter who rules autumn and winter. Lleu’s death represents both the end of summer and associated waning power of the sun as well as the ‘culling’ of crops at Lammas, once enacted ritually in the sacrifice of the corn king. This may well be what our ancestors were celebrating at Lleu’s Feast or Lammas – the sacrifice of the harvest king and the waning of the sun’s power.
While August is these days considered a ‘high point’ of summer because it’s the time many of us take our summer holidays, it is actually the beginning of Autumn. In Welsh, the month of July is called Gorffennaf, which means ‘the end of summer’: gorffen~end + haf ~summer. The tenth century Anglo Saxon Calendar poem, Menologium, notes August 7thas the first day of autumn. It is adate calculated by its position halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, and so we can consider Lammas as the festival that marks the turning of summer towards autumn here in Britain.
When it comes to killing Lleu things are not straight-forward. He cannot be easily killed by a blow, neither inside a house, nor outside, neither on horseback nor on foot. Furthermore only with a spear made ritually over a year and a day. Bizarre though this may seem to our modern sensibilities, if we consider Lleu to be the embodiment of the sun, it is perfectly reasonable. The sun cannot be killed, though its strength wanes considerably in our northern hemisphere from Lammas as we head towards the Autumn Equinox and on towards winter.
Even having followed to the letter the instructions on the only way Lleu can be killed, Gronw’s spear still fails in the task. Instead Lleu is transformed into an Eagle, a bird that symbolises the sun as well as kingship in many cultures including our own, and flies to an oak tree where he decays, shedding rotting flesh from his wounds. Eventually Gwydion tracks him down and over time magically restores him to health. Presumably in some older oral iteration of the story, Gwydion would have taken a few months to heal Lleu, so that he would have recovered his strength and returned to vigour the following spring.
Meanwhile, Blodeuwedd and Gronw have their time of wild union and hunting. While our early ancestors would necessarily have hunted all year round, it is likely that the coming of farming during the Neolithic would have had an impact on the seasonality of the hunt. The sheer amount of labour involved in cultivating grain and husbanding animals would have made much hunting prohibitive during the sowing and growing season. Most cultures have a taboo on hunting pregnant and nursing animals – for very practical reasons. To this day in the UK it is prohibited by law to hunt most animals during their breeding season, hence open season for hunting birds in the UK is generally from about mid August to February, deer from August 1stuntil April or May (bucks and does differ).
As sure as day follows night, the year must turn. The wild huntsman’s dark half of the year must end, hunting must give way to planting and cultivation once more. In an almost exact parody of the attempted murder of Lleu, Gronw is made to stand and take a spear thrown by Lleu, thus light overcomes darkness – cultivation overcomes the wild hunt once more. But what to do with Blodeuedd, the spirit of nature?
A custom that I remember from golden days of haymaking as a child in Carmarthenshire might give us a clue here. When all the hay was gathered in, the last few stalks of hay were cut by hand and woven into a plait, looped over and hung on an old nail on the wall of an outhouse. The men who had laboured on the haymaking would take turns to throw an old sickle at it in an attempt to cut it down. Whoever was successful would then carry the hay pleat above his head, and rush for the farmhouse shouting something akin to “I have her…..the witch…..I have her” in Welsh. Our job as children was to hurl jugs of water towards the man and the plait to stop it being brought inside. The English word ‘witch’ isn’t a perfect translation here. Our Welsh word gwrachhas been less tainted than the English, by the negative meaning loaded during the Middle Ages when witches were persecuted. In Welsh it still retains a strong sense of ‘crone’ and wise woman. So, in a sense the last of the harvest becomes the witch ~ y wrach, the crone, marking the ending of the fertility of the field for that year.
The female principle, the Goddess, nature herself, must rest in the cronehood of dark of winter before she can renew. This helps make sense of Blodeuedd’s fate at Gwydion’s hand. He turns her into a bird of night, an owl (which may also symbolise the crone), and consigns her to darkness.
The story of the Fourth Branch is of course far more complex and intriguing than merely a metaphor for the endless battle between the light and dark, sowing and reaping, cultivating and hunting. Over the many centuries it was borne from tongue to ear it gathered detail and power. It was changed with each telling, adapted by cyfarwyddion(storytellers) and bards for their own ends: to provide entertainment, share deep wisdom, to enchant and to teach, before being captured in ink upon vellum by a scribe in the fourteenth century.
This symbolic turning of the year is a deep layer within the Fourth Branch. It is part of the story’s bedrock, alluding to ancient origins; a time when explaining the turning of the year, the vital relationship between taking and giving, nurture and sacrifice were necessarily explained as story. It sings of a time when these characters were the gods of our native tribes, and the turning of the year was celebrated by honouring them, possibly by ritually enacting parts of their story. It may be then, that deep in DNA of Gwyl Awstor Lammas are rites to commemorate the cutting down of Lleu in the knowledge that the sun can never die, the growing power of the lord of the wild hunt, the time when the sickle was laid down and hunting spears were taken up, as well as the oncoming cronehood of the female principle; her release from fertility and cultivation to embrace her wild nature and the dark.
Understanding Lleu’s character from this perspective, I’ve come to understand the sacrifice inherent in his slaying. I can now appreciate the steadfast in him as he gives himself willingly to the goddess knowing he will only hold her attention a short while and never truly know her passion, and perhaps I now see the hero in him as he stands to take the hunter’s inevitable blow. I hope you can too.
Here’s wishing you a rich harvest this Lammas, of all you dreamed last winter and sowed and cultivated as Lleu ruled the year.