Once the year moves past mid-May and into June, festivals celebrate days that are getting so long that the Russians still call the June summer solstice week the White Nights. For ancient peoples in the northern hemisphere, the point of the time leading to the next mid-season feast of Lughnasad (July 31—August 1) was the waxing power of the Sun, especially after July 3 during the dog days, so called because the great star Sirius in Canis Major (Big Dog) rises near the Sun each morning. As this is the time when the Sun ripens the grain, many rites now praise the Sun’s vitalizing warmth. And marriage is celebrated too in the Moon-ruled Cancer month (June 21—July 23), particularly at the end. This is why the Greco-Roman world celebrated on July 19 the marriage of Aphrodite-Venus to Adonis in the high summer of their love.
Lughnasad (August 1—5)
Early August is the season of mid-summer festivals in the Northern Hemisphere. These days have been celebrated in Europe since ancient times as the Celtic Lughnasad and the Christian Lammastide cycle of the new bread and the first fruits of the summer. As the Sun is now high in the middle of Leo, which the Sun rules, this time is sacred to solar and fire deities. Feasts in their honor may begin before August 1, as they did among the Teutons, who celebrated the trickster and fire god Loki and his consort Sigyn on July 31.
Early August is the festival time of love, abundance, and magic, and communications with Nature, especially animals. Lughnasad is said to have been established by the Sun god Lugh to honor his mother Teiltiu, whose name is the basis of Teltane, another name for this feast. The legend has it that Teiltiu died of exhaustion and heatstroke after having cleared great boulders from the plains of Ireland so that the land could now be farmed. Her devoted son decided that the hot summer days when she had given her all would be from now on an interval of rest after toil, a time for games and tests of strength, betrothals, and family gatherings. While this feast has migrated over the centuries to other parts of the calendar, such as the Japanese Obon (August 15) and the American Fourth of July, this time has always been the Festival of New Bread—even if the bread liquefies as beer—celebrated in the baking and offering of ritual bread and cakes at the beginning of the main harvest season.
This is traditionally the time when the power of the god wanes as the goddess waxes. This transition is symbolized in the zodiac by the fading solar energy of Leo yielding to the fertility of Virgo, bearer of grain, grapes, and the harvest. Before the waning of the light, and days that get shorter toward autumn and December, the point is to celebrate the fire, in its power and purity, illuminating majesty, and especially in the mysterious way it has of drawing communities together as nothing else ever does. This is why Lughnasad was always a time for a grand bonfire. The ancient meaning of this ritual has been almost completely lost, and today few people know that the bon in bonfire comes from “bone.” Ancient cultures added pieces of bone to their fire to honor and thank again the food animals who have given their lives to nourish the people. This must be done now, as the next Hunter’s Moon may come in October, and Lughnasad may offer the last opportunity before Samhain to ask permission and blessing from the animals who give their lives in the next great hunt so that the human community may go on living. Important as the hunters’ and athletes’ prayers are now, and the prayers too of the couples who are betrothed now for marriage in the spring, the main communal point of the bonfires at Lughnasad, and at the other great Celtic seasonal feasts, was to unify the clan. Before they gathered at the cone of logs and branches, all the villagers extinguished their hearth fires and all other lights, then doused their torches so that the village would be in total darkness as the ceremony began. When the fire ceremony ended, all the families would light their torches from the sacred fire, so that when they relit their hearth fires, all would be sharing fire from the same source. This sacred fire, called the Teinne or Tan, gave its name to the Tan Hill festival, the best-known of the countless communal fire rituals performed by the Celts in the first week of August.
In Christian calendars, August 1 was Lammas, meaning “loaf mass,” because this day was for baking and consecrating new bread from the early harvest. This holy day is a counterpart to the older rites of Lugh, Apollo, and other lords of the Sun. Whatever it is called, this feast is always solar, honoring both the Sun’s vitalizing power and his role of maintaining the order of time on Earth. Like all of the great feasts, Lughnasad is universal in its meaning and timing. Each year the Japanese celebrate their country’s noisiest fire holiday, the Kuwana festival, complete with all the percussive music, the sports, and the beer on, naturally, August 2.
From Dance of the Moon, by Dan Furst