As many of you know, one of my major interests is finding traces of Celtic tradition and lore in the Alpine region, home to the Hallstatt Celts and their successors. Since there are no written sources telling us that such and such an Alpine tradition is of Celtic origin, often enough the only way to find out is to compare existing local customs with those of the British Isles. If there seems to be a commonality, often only found after stripping several of the many layers of spiritual and mundane development over the past 2,000 years from the tale or practice, am I sometimes able to draw conclusions on the possibility of a Celtic origin of a particular tradition.
With the current seasonal festival that is widely celebrated under the name of Lughnasadh, this method proves rather difficult. It’s not like there are no customs that are being observed in the Alps at that time of year, but they are certainly different to what is known about the Lughnasadh traditions in Ireland.
Therefore, since there is no 1:1 comparison possible, I need to do what I could best describe as identifying the different layers of meaning each festival has. For that purpose, I found it helpful to approach a festival – or anything, really – as though it has three circles around it similar to the circles of Abred, Gwynvyd, and Ceugnant of the Welsh traditions. The circle of Abred, or the realm of necessity, would be the old Irish customs of the festival of Lughnasadh, as they were conducted in Telltown in Co. Meath. There, the actual “Assembly of Lugh” was celebrated as “A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariot, with adornment of body and soul by means of knowledge and eloquence”. When this Assembly of Lugh in Telltown in Co. Meath equals the Circle of Abred, the epicentre, then all the traditional celebrations honouring Lugh in the other lands of modern Celtica would be the Circle of Gwynvyd. This is the realm of spirit, where the people celebrating Lughnasadh do so under the spirit of Lugh, no matter their specific customs. And then there is the widest Circle of Ceugnant, the realm of infinity. There, we can explore the basic meaning of the celebrations, void of any local manifestations. This is where we talk about Lughnasadh being a festival in honour of the beginning of the harvest time, a time to be aware of the gifts Mother Earth presents to us and to ask for a bountiful yield of crop.
In the Alps, the traditions observed around this commencement of the harvest time, particularly the Schnitterfest (the “cutters’ festival”) would be the local Circle of Abred within the wider Circle of Gwynvyd of all such festivities on the north-western part of the European continent. And as such, this circle would again fit in the overreaching Circle of Ceugnant of this Quarter Festival. (Again, I am using these Welsh Circles just to illustrate how traditions in very different locations can still be connected to each other, even if it’s “only” the underlying idea of the festival that the customs have in common.)
So, the Schnitterfest itself is practically just a social gathering of the rural community to celebrate this beginning of the harvest. As with most such festivities, food, drink, music, and sometimes an official Church blessing, have replaced the original significance of the festival. But there is still something tugged away in lore that hints at the Magic of these times of year, when we celebrate the change of seasons and honour the Old Ways. In the case of the Schnitterfest, it is a set of stories that tell us of the importance of the main tool of the Schnitter, (“[corn]cutter”), the scythe. Obviously, a huge focus here lies on the sharpness of the blade, so that it can run smoothly through the stalks, and the Schnitter can do their work fast and efficiently. Much of the farmer’s income and livelihood depends on the crops being cut, gathered, and brought in from the fields while completely dry. Grain stalks wet from rain break and bend over, making it hard to cut. And grain kernels that have been lying on the ground and have gotten wet can easily mould, affecting even corn that has been brought in under dry conditions. At the same time, the summer heat of August in the Alps often causes local thunderstorms. I remember weeks in summer when there was a thunderstorm every late afternoon after beautiful summer days. It is therefore extremely important to cut and gather quickly, which means, again, that the blade of the scythe needs to be sharp like a razor.
To be most efficient, cutters would line up next to each other, a little less than a scythe-swing-radius apart from each other to ensure overlap. Then the cutter farthest to the left would start mowing, and when they have gone a few steps into the field, the one to their right would start and follow the first cutter with just enough distance that their blade wouldn’t hack into the heels of the person in front of them. Then the next cutter would start and so on and so forth.
All this is important to envision in order to understand the Magic stored in the lore of the Schnitter. All these tales sing about cutters who are not fast enough, and there are two main themes in these stories of old. One is where the cutter enters a deal with the devil to get a perfect tool. Now, whenever we encounter this theme of “deals with the devil” – even more prominently featuring in witch-lore – we can assume that the people who are making these deals did, in reality, hold on to the old faith. They were simply known to, or even been observed, invoking a Pagan deity to request for help with skill and equipment. These probably very basic pagan rituals were demonized under the Christian Church, and recorded in the tales thusly.
The other typical theme is where an empathetic gnome gifts a poor and underprivileged cutter with some magic to get back on track. Or we encounter a knowledgeable person who, with their magic, can improve the tools’ performance. In the tale below, it is a blacksmith who has knowledge of such magic. However, in these particular songs of old the cutter only receives the gift under the condition that they may not use it to get too far ahead of his peers. These rules are related to what was explained above about the line-up and mode of work of multiple cutters. If the cutter behind another one is faster than the person in front of them, they put a lot of pressure on them, and may get so close that they do cut into their heels. Cutting in a group is intricate clockwork – none of the cutters must be too fast or too slow for it to function properly.
Since such tales not only sing of the Magic, but also often bear a sublime moral meaning, they report of what happens when a cutter, driven by greed, gets carried away and falls out if line. Below is an example of such a tale:
Once upon a time, a cutter was plagued by bad luck; his scythe was not sharp, ever. His peers were always faster when they mowed behind him, so that he had to cut much harder to stay on track. But the cutter had heard of an old blacksmith deep in the forest, went to him, and asked for help. The old man gave the cutter a new scythe and told him that he has to sharpen it as good as he can. Then he told him to cut the wooden handle of the sharpening tool. If he was able to do that, he’d have a scythe like no other. “But know this,” the old man said, “never torment the other cutters by mowing unfairly fast. If the scythe gets old come for a new one. But I will see if you adhered to my request.”
After years, when the scythe’s blade had been sharpened so much it was almost gone, the cutter returned to the blacksmith and asked for a new one. “Let me see,” said the old man, and he took the scythe and hit its point against the anvil. With each hit, the blade shrank, and blood dripped from it. “You did not follow my advice; you pushed your companions to mow faster than they could. Look at all the blood!” Thus, the cutter had to leave and mow with bad scythes until the end of his days.
In the second part of the tale we are reminded again of what was said about the way a cutters‘ lines work. Clearly, the cutter in question did, due to his magically enhanced scythe, endanger his peers by injuring them, and so the Magic gifted by the black-smith was taken away again.
Of course, the Magic around the skills and tools of the Schnitter are only one of the aspects of the celebration of the Begin of Harvest. But I can easily imagine that the Schnitterfest was not only a gathering of farmers and cutters around a table filled with food and drink, but also – and maybe even more so – ritual to ensure a quick and efficient gathering of the crops, without injury and equal profit.
For more about Alpine festivals and how they relate to Celtic times, please consider my book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps”, available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com