Lughnasa

by Anna Franklin, author of Pagan Ways Tarot.

With the hot days of summer shortening, the Fool reaches the coast. He finds a voluptuous, reflective woman standing alone by the sea, which represents the unconscious mind. She holds a goblet in one hand and a sheaf of wheat in the other, symbolizing the harvest of water and earth. Behind her, the Sun is beginning to set in the west, descending into the Otherworld.

“The Wheel turns,” she tells him. “The blazing heat of the Dog Days brings summer growth to its end, and the crops ripen as the earth gives birth to the autumn harvest. We go forth with our sickles to make the first cut, and grasp the abundant ears of grain to bake our bread, offering the first fruits to the Gods.”

Extract from The Pagan Ways Tarot by Anna Franklin

For most modern Pagans, the month of August begins with Lughnasa, the celebration of the beginning of the harvest, the bounty of the land, and the abundance of all that Mother Earth gives us, a festival that has its roots in both the Irish Lughnasa and the Anglo-Saxon Lammas. The Old English calendar poem the Menologium tells us: “… everywhere August brings/ to peoples of the earth Lammas Day. So autumn comes…Plenty is revealed, beautiful upon the earth.” [1]

By August, the intense heat of summer has brought growth to its end, and the crops have ripened, ready for cutting. The Anglo-Saxons called it the Harvest Month,  [2] in Ruthenia it was the Sickle Month, while in Denmark it was the Corn Month. [3] For the farmers, this is the most important time of year, the harvest — the gathering of the golden wheat and the silver oats, the root crops and the fruit, when they warily scan the skies and sniff the wind for the scent of rain. In the past, all the village would assemble to help, and itinerant laborers would be drafted in. Factory and school holidays were timed to coincide with the period so that more people would be free to assist. However, where once lines of reapers crossed the fields with scythes and sickles, now there is a hum of machinery, often late into the night as the farmer tries to beat the weather. Sheltering and nesting mice and rabbits dash from the fields, and the face of the countryside changes from golden fields to dusty stubble.

Around the ancient world the very first of the harvest, called the First Fruits, was offered to the Gods, and only after giving the Gods their portion were people free to enjoy the rest. In ancient Greece, barley was offered as first fruits to the grain goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone at the great temple of Eleusis, where underground granaries stored the produce. The First Fruits were often considered to contain a spirit, an idea that persisted right into the nineteenth century in Britain and even longer in other places around the world, possibly dating back to the ancient belief that the gods of the grain are ‘sacrificed’ and give their lives so that humankind might live, their flesh devoured in the form of bread or wheaten cakes. The followers of the Egyptian Osiris ate wheaten cakes marked with a cross that embodied the god, and today Christians eat the body of Christ in the form of bread wafers, similarly marked with a cross. In Greece, such deities were titled soter which means ‘one who sows the seed’, but which we often translate as ‘savior’.

The Wheel of the Year and the passage of the seasons lie at the core of Paganism, so it was important to me to represent it in The Pagan Ways Tarot. This is an unapologetically Pagan tarot, and the stories of the gods are threads in the tapestry of this deck, creating links between cards, between the Major and Minor Arcanas, winding between the outer and inner paths. There are gods from many different pantheons to illustrate the fact that the concepts they embody are not restricted to one culture or period, but are universal ideas that embody mythological truths. The phrase ‘mythological truth’ is not a paradox. Myths are stories that give us clues to the nature of life, temporal and spiritual, manuals to the whole experience of ourselves and others.  Used wisely, myths initiate the individual into the realities of his or her own psyche and become guides to spiritual enlightenment.

The eight major festivals of the Pagan year are reflected in the princesses and queens of the Minor Arcana. Princesses mark the opening of each season, while queens represent its zenith. The tides of the year weave a magical web which twines about us and binds the life cycles of humankind, animals, and plants together. There is a balance of energy pouring into the land during the spring and draining away again in the autumn: a time to receive, a time to pay out. This is something not well understood nowadays, when darkness, death, and winter are deemed to be evil and unwanted, rather than as a necessary part of the whole.

The tarot lends itself to the fourfold view of the universe recognized by mystics around the world: the four directions, the four elements, the four pastoral festivals, the four Sun festivals, and the four seasons. The suits of the Minor Arcana correspond to the four magical tools of the Pagan — the sword (or athame), the wand, the cup, and the pentacle. Most modern Pagans follow the Golden Dawn system in which swords correspond to air, wands to fire, cups to water, and pentacles to earth. These powerful symbols encompass a universe of meanings within them.

The Major Arcana of the tarot is often called ‘The Journey of the Fool’ and is said to describe the life experience from innocence to wisdom. Few decks and books give equal weight to the Minor Arcana, but I believe that the realms of the minors are an essential part of the Fool’s journey. Together, they give a rounded picture of human life, of who and what we are and the forces that shape us. The Minor Arcana describe the outward journey of life and its lessons, while the Major Arcana describe the inward focus of the path of spiritual quest and initiation. The whole tarot is the Fool’s journey, and ours, as he represents each one of us as we travel through the events and mysteries of life, both mundane and sacred.

The youthful Fool begins his journey in the Realm of Swords. For most modern Pagans this corresponds to the direction of the east, the point of sunrise at the vernal equinox, and is associated with spring, youth, new beginnings, growth, and the element of air. Then, the now-adult Fool continues his journey into the Realm of Wands. The Sun stands highest in the south, so the south is the point of the circle associated with the summer solstice, midday, with things beginning to ripen, maturity, with will and illumination. On the third stage of his journey, the Fool enters the Realm of Cups, which corresponds to the season of autumn, harvest, sunset, the west, and middle age.  Pentacles relate to the north, the cardinal point of the circle never touched by the Sun and therefore associated with darkness, midnight, winter, old age, mystery, and the unknown. It is also the point of the winter solstice and rebirth through death.

From the everyday concerns of the Minor Arcana, the Fool turns inwards and enters the Major Arcana, the path of initiation. True initiation is not a moment or a ceremony, but an ongoing process of expanding consciousness. The flawed old self must die so that the purified new self can emerge. Initiation is an ongoing journey of the spirit which is a continuing succession of trials, revelations, back-sliding and progress, and these stages are reflected in the Major Arcana.

Each stage of life, each season, each experience, has its spiritual lessons for us. As we approach Lughnasa, the Princess of Cups embodies not only the outward change of seasonal energies from summer growth to autumn harvest, but the beginning of a spiritual fruition — the macrocosm and the microcosm reflect each other.

We mark this time of year by giving thanks for the harvest, always honoring the work and the sacrifices that have made it possible.

In an age when crops can be imported all year round we tend to forget just how important this time was to our ancestors when the failure of the harvest meant starvation and death. This is still true today in many parts of the globe, as disturbing TV pictures of hungry children show us. Let us remember these as we thank the Gods for their bounty, and send some practical aid in the form of a charitable donation.


[1] A Little History of Lammas, https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-little-history-of-lammas.html?fbclid=IwAR01BbnyJQP1mKPZ8r34JOcV5vA-kHIrcHYerMdjU8l0r4eekXm-byLDtlI, accessed 5.11.19

[2] Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

[3] Nilsson, Martin P, Primitive Time-Reckoning, Oxford University Press 1920

Pagan Ways Tarot
by Anna Franklin

About the Author:

Anna Franklin is a well-known Pagan priestess and the author of twenty-eight books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Sacred Circle Tarot and The Fairy Ring Oracle. Her books have been translated into nine languages. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops. Anna lives in an English village with her partner, John, and their three cats.

Need more ideas for celebrating Lammas and the other Sabbats? Enjoy a brief video that explores Red Feather’s magickal titles: