How swiftly the days of summer pass. Here we are at the last day of July and the eve of Lughnasadh (also called Lammas, Lúnasa, Calan Awst, "First Harvest" and "Loaf Mass" among other names). It's a timeless agrarian festival that celebrates high summer, the cultivation of grain since early times and the abundance of the harvest.
There is nothing new under the sun, and our respect for grain and harvest is almost as old as humanity itself. Grain sheaves, grinding stones and mill wheels have been part of our cultures for so many centuries that we can't begin to count them, and this day has a whole host of harvest and vegetation (or "dying and rising") gods like Lugh, Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis and Attis. Then there is Dionysus (or Bacchus) - his magical tavern with its ever turning mill wheel and rapture inducing brews is the stuff of legend, and it can be entered from any street in the great wide world if one is in just the right frame of mind.
A book that always come to mind around this time is The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers - it's chock full of mythic metaphors related to grain harvesting and the brewing of beer, and it's a rollicking good read. The central characters in the book are King Arthur (reincarnated as an aging Irish mercenary named Brian Duffy), a sorcerer calling himself Aurelius Aurelianus (the legendary Merlin himself), and the Fisher King. Dionysus and his magical tavern put in an appearance, and they are in good company - the woodland god Pan, Gambrinus, Finn MacCool, Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Odin, Thor and Hercules also show up. There is a whole shipload of Vikings sworn to defend the ancient brewery at the heart of the story and stave off Ragnarok, and there are mythical creatures too numerous to mention. If only the book had been published in hardcover.
Tomorrow is sacred to harvest goddesses and female grain deities like Demeter, Persephone, Ceres, Bridget, the Cailleach, Tailtiu, Selu, Nokomis, the Corn Mother and Freya, who is also known as the Lady of the Loaf. Lammas is medieval Christianity's name for the festival, and when observed, it too is a celebration of grain and the harvest. Bread is baked with flour milled from the first grain of the season, the loaves are blessed and placed on church altars as offerings for continuing good harvest and in thanksgiving for bounty still to come.
Essential activities of the observance have to do with natural cycles and the harmony of the seasons, with timeless rhythms of growing, winnowing, gathering and storing things for winter. They include baking bread, weaving onion and garlic braids, making sun wheels, harvest wreaths and Corn Mother dolls, gathering and drying garden herbs and spices for winter.
For the ancients, this day marked the beginning of the year's "gathering in", but it also signaled summer's end. In these golden weeks, it is difficult to believe that summer is waning, but it certainly is - our days are growing shorter, and winter is only a few months away. The time has come to store the yieldings of orchard and garden to sustain us through long dark winter.
However far we have come from our roots and the ways of the ancestors, traces of old rites remain here and there. When I came to Lanark County several years ago, I was delighted to learn that Lughnasadh festivities are alive and well in the highlands. They are called céilidhs or "field parties", and the attendees are often unaware of the ancient origins and significance, but all the trappings are there; corn on the grill and fresh baked bread, wine and beer, music and storytelling, merrymaking (and once in a whole, ritual) in abundance.
Blessings of the harvest to you and your clan!