In this day and age of gluten and wheat intolerance, it may be hard for us to believe the massive impact of the first harvest upon our ancestors. All things grain were celebrated, alongside the ripened summer fruits and vegetables.
Commencing on the eve of July 31st and celebrated through August 1st, Lammas derives from the Old English words “hlaf-maesse” which literally translates as “loaf feast” and is representative of the first loaves baked from that year’s crop. Nowadays when we can just pop to the shops, it is easy to forget how important it was for our forefathers to look after their crops – the harvesting and processing of grain was crucial and could often make the difference between life and death.
This festival is also celebrated in the Wheel of the Year to honour the Celtic God of Light, “Lugh” – hence the name “Lughnasadh”. Lugh is the archetypal Sun God (who reached his zenith at Midsummer Solstice), and who now transfers his waning power into the grain to be ultimately sacrificed when the grain is harvested. This season is not only a time to celebrate life and abundance but also to reflect upon harvest and death, the complete cycle of life.
The Green Man's guise of the season and personifying the Divine Masculine, John Barleycorn is the God of the Harvest and Spirit of the Fields. Upon his sacrifice when the grain is harvested, the dance continues as the Earth Goddess is pregnant and goes on to give birth to the Sun (King) again on the Winter Solstice (on or around 21st December).
In 1970 the UK band “Traffic” released an album “John Barleycorn Must Die” featuring the Old English folk song of the same name. The first known written account of the life and death of John Barleycorn appears in the Bannatyne manuscript, dated 1568, held in the National Library of Scotland. Records of this song go back to the 1300’s but it is probably much older. The lyrics portray a symbolic figure and poetic personification of the corn itself, describing the preparation of the ground, sowing the seeds, growing the crop followed by harvesting, threshing and milling. Finally, the products made from the corn are extolled, such as bread, beer and whiskey, further cementing its value as an important staple crop for our ancestors. Countless versions of this song exist, with the famous poet Robert Burns publishing his own version in 1782. The importance of the crop and this particular turn of the Wheel of the Year cannot be over-stated in relation to the survival of the village, clan or town.
Today we have many pubs named for John Barleycorn – an obvious tip of the hat to the ale and whisky served therein! Whether we are aware of him or not, this ancient deity is indelibly engraved upon our collective psyche.
Representing the Divine Feminine aspect of nature we have the “Grain Goddess” who is honoured as the Queen of Abundance. The first harvest is acknowledged as the fruit of the union of the May Queen and Sun King at Beltane. The present harvest holds at its heart the seed of all future harvests, just as the Goddess carries the seed of the Sun God for the New Year within her.
The First Cut of the Harvest
The first cut of the harvest was of supreme importance. Up until quite recently, in some areas of Scotland, the first cut was made on Lammas Day. In a ritual called “Iolach Buana”, the whole family dressed in their Sunday best and would to go into the fields where the head of the family faced the sun and cut the first handful of corn with a sickle. He would then put the corn sun-wise around his head three times whilst thanking the god of the harvest for:
“corn and bread,
food and flocks,
wool and clothing,
health and strength,
and peace and plenty.”
In West Dorset a common custom was “Crying the Neck” or “Crying the Mare” – it was believed the the Corn Goddess lived in the grain, with the reaping forcing her to retreat into the ever dwindling corn. No one wished to be the person who destroyed her last refuge so they would throw their sickles at the last strands of wheat, hoping this ploy would disguise whose hand was responsible for cutting the final straw. The last ears of wheat were formed into a bundle known as the “Neck” or the “Mare” and held high, with all those present at the harvest singing a ditty:
Well a plowed! Well a-sowed!
We’ve reaped! And we’ve mowed!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Well a-cut! Well a-bound!
Well a-zot upon the ground!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
The Neck would then be fashioned into a Corn Dolly, representative of the Corn Goddess. Sometimes, a young girl of the village would be appointed the “Corn Maiden” and would ride upon the Hock Cart with the Corn Dolly as part of Lammas celebrations. Many villages kept the Corn Dolly until “Plough Monday” – the first Monday after January 12th – when she would be ceremoniously buried in the first furrow where it was hoped she would work her magic for the following year.
The threshing of the grain was also seen as a sacred act, threshing houses contained small wooden panels under the door so none of the grain could escape – giving us the original meaning of the word “threshold”.
Celebrate the Fruits of the First Harvest with a Lammas Feast!
Because Lammas is a celebration of the new harvest, people cooked special festive and ritual meals. You could try your hand at a Lammas Loaf - this was traditionally baked from the first sheaf of wheat, the loaf was blessed, and in Anglo-Saxon England it was employed afterwards to work some magic. A book of Anglo-Saxon charms directed that the Lammas bread be broken into four bits, which were to be placed at the four corners of the barn to protect the garnered grain. You can easily conjure up your own Lammas Superfood Feast – here are some suggestions to get you started:-
If you feel inclined to create a special space or altar, decorate it with colours that represent the changing of the season to harvest time – opt for fiery reds, yellows and oranges that relate to the sun. Freshly harvested seasonal vegetables and a traditional Lammas Loaf are in order, as are Corn Dollies and anything that represents the abundance you wish to manifest for the year to come. Include tools to inspire your creativity – a pen for writing, a paintbrush for art, a camera for photography, whatever you need to motivate you and get those creative juices flowing.
Blend your own Lughnasadh Incense as a beautiful finishing touch to your altar and focus your intention whilst you mix:-
2 parts Benzoin
1 part Oakwood
1/2 part Basil
2 parts Frankincense
1/2 part Gorse Flower
1/2 part Borage
1/2 part Pine Resin
Celebrating Lammas in Avalon
This important festival falls in the middle of the “Goddess Conference” here in Glastonbury. Running for 21 years since its inception in 1996, the conference attracts women from all over the world – some who have trained as “Priestesses” here in Avalon – and is a celebration of the Divine Feminine. The Mother Goddess is revered for her fertility and the fruits of her body, the Earth. There is a ceremony honouring the Abundant Mother in the Goddess Hall on August 1st and a Lammas Bonfire takes place upon Chalice Hill – reputed to be the pregnant belly of the Goddess.
As ever, there is a midday meditation at the Chalice Well focussing on Fruition – here we can express our gratitude to the earth for her bounty. Afterwards you can chill around the fire on the lawn at the Conversation Café, a place to share thoughts, ideas and beliefs.
Lammas or Lughnasadh is possibly one of the lesser known and celebrated festivals in the Wheel of the Year, with the excitement of Beltane and the craziness of the Summer Solstice tending to overshadow it. However, staying in tune with the beat of the earth and the rhythm of her seasons allows us to reconnect with nature - the sustainer of all life. This is a perfect opportunity to give gratitude for the abundance we have in our lives and for the food we have on the table. It is a time of rebirth, transformation and new beginnings.
Here at Indigo Herbs we wish you all abundance, joy and a very happy Lammas!
Sources for this article include:
John Barleycorn Images, Licensed under public domain via Flickr commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/32662384@N02/20042069865/in/pool-lammasfest/
Corn Dolly Licensed under public domain via Flickr commons: Lavender Pillow http://bit.ly/29LLmsN
Large Corn Dolly: Licensed under public domain via Flickr commons: Nick Hubbard http://bit.ly/29zo7j9
Corn Dolly: Corn Dolly Renata Wiki https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EssexTerret.jpg
Barley Favours: Renata https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BarleyFavours.jpg
Wheat Sheaves: Licensed under public domain via wikimedia: http://bit.ly/29RhlYT