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Monday, 1 August 2016

Crying the Neck, Corn Dollies and Fairy Folk: Customs and Traditions of Lammas


The 1st August is the ancient festival of ‘Lammas Tide’, which traditionally is the start of the harvest calendar: - a time of giving thanks to ‘Mother Nature’ for all her fruits and reaping what has been sown.

The Celts originally called it ‘Lugnasad’ and would celebrate by honouring ‘Lugh’, the sun god; however, the Saxons renamed the festival ‘hlaf-maesse’ meaning ‘loaf mass’, which later became ‘Lammas’, as we know it today. Traditionally it was the day when the first new grain was milled and baked into small loaves of bread, which were offered on the altar for a blessing and as thanks-giving for the first fruits of the harvest. Sometimes this service was reserved for ‘Garland Sunday’, the first Sunday after Lammas Day.

Music Barrows and Fairy Folk
Bincombe Bumps Music Barrows

The Dorset landscape would not be complete without its numerous ancient earthworks and barrows. In the past these burial mounds were believed to be inhabited by fairies, and at Lammas they are said to rise on pillars to reveal the revelling fairies dancing inside to the sweet sound of fairy music.

On Bincombe Hill, overlooking Weymouth, six such hillocks - which date back to the Bronze Age can be seen They were known locally as 'Music Barrows', for it was said if you put your ear to the top of one at noon, you would be able to hear the plaintive tones of music.

Corn Dollies

A traditional Corn Dolly
Corn dollies are a form of straw work made for, and associated with, harvest customs of Europe before mechanisation.
Before Christianisation, in traditional pagan European culture it was believed that the spirit of the "corn" (in modern American English, "corn" would be "grain") lived amongst the crop, and that the harvest made it effectively homeless.

Among the customs attached to the last sheaf of the harvest, hollow shapes were fashioned from the last sheaf of wheat or other cereal crops. The corn spirit would then spend the winter in their homes until the "corn dolly" was ploughed into the first furrow of the new season. "Dolly" may be a corruption of "idol" or may have come from the Greek word 'eidolon' (that which represents something else) as does the word 'idol'.

Crying the Neck

'Crying the Neck', ‘Crying the Nack’ or ‘Crying the Mare’, is a harvest festival tradition practiced in the West Country of England, in particular Cornwall, Devon, and parts of West Dorset.

In The Story of Cornwall, by Kenneth Hamilton Jenkin, the following explanation is given on the practice:
"In those days the whole of the reaping had to be done either with the hook or scythe. The harvest, in consequence, often lasted for many weeks. When the time came to cut the last handful of standing corn, one of the reapers would lift up the bunch high above his head and call out in a loud voice.....,

"We have it! We have it! We have it!"
The rest would then shout,

"What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee?"

and the reply would be:

"A neck! A neck! A neck!"

Everyone then joined in shouting:

"Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr. So-and-So"

(calling the farmer by name.)"
Although mostly discontinued the tradition is still practised by members of the Old Cornwall Society every year.

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days August 1st 1864, details the traditions of Lammas.

"LAMMAS - This was one of the four great pagan festivals of Britain, the others being on 1st November, 1st February, and 1st May. The festival of the Gule of August, as it was called, probably celebrated the realisation of the first-fruits of the earth, and more particularly that of the grain-harvest. When Christianity was introduced, the day continued to be observed as a festival on these grounds, and, from a loaf being the usual offering at church, the service, and consequently the day, came to be called Half-mass, subsequently shortened into Lammas, just as hlaf-dig (bread-dispenser), applicable to the mistress of a house, came to be softened into the familiar and extensively used term, lady. This we would call the rational definition of the word Lammas.
There is another, but in our opinion utterly inadmissible derivation, pointing to the custom of bringing a lamb on this day, as an offering to the cathedral church of York. Without doubt, this custom, which was purely local, would take its rise with reference to the term Lammas, after the true original signification of that word had been forgotten. It was once customary in England, in contravention of the proverb, that a cat in mittens catches no mice, to give money to servants on Lammas-day, to buy gloves; hence the term Glove-Silver. It is mentioned among the ancient customs of the abbey of St. Edmund's, in which the clerk of the cellarer had 2d.; the cellarer's squire, 11d.; the granger, 11d.; and the cowherd a penny. Anciently, too, it was customary for every family to give annually to the pope on this day one penny, which was thence called Denarius Sancti Petri, or Peter's Penny.'—Hampson's Medii AEvi Kalendarium.
What appears as a relic of the ancient pagan festival of the Gule of August, was practised in Lothian till about the middle of the eighteenth century. From the unenclosed state of the country, the tending of cattle then employed a great number of hands, and the cow-boys, being more than half idle, were much disposed to unite in seeking and creating amusement. In each little district, a group of them built, against Lammas-day, a tower of stones and sods in some conspicuous place.
On Lammas-morning, they assembled here, bearing flags, and blowing cow-horns—breakfasted together on bread and cheese, or other provisions—then set out on a march or procession, which usually ended in a foot-race for some trifling prize. The most remarkable feature of these rustic fetes was a practice of each party trying, before or on the day, to demolish the sod fortalice of some other party near by. This, of course, led to great fights and brawls, in which blood was occasionally spilt. But, on the whole, the Lammas Festival of Lothian was a pleasant affair, characteristic of an age which, with less to gain, had perhaps rather more to enjoy than the present"

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