How swiftly summer days pass. Here we are again on 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. Our relationship with grain and harvest is almost as old as humanity itself, and here on earth, sheaves stooks, mill wheels and grinding stones have been prominent cultural motifs for centuries.
August 1st has a throng of harvest and vegetation (or "dying and rising") gods: Lugh, Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis and Attis to name just a few. Then there is Dionysus (or Bacchus). That god is in a class all by himself as patron of vineyards and the grape harvest, of wine making, drunken revelry and ritual madness. His magical tavern with its endlessly turning mill wheel and rapture inducing brews is the stuff of legend, and according to folk tales, its doorway can be entered from any street in the great wide world if one is receptive and in just the right frame of mind. Tomorrow is also associated with harvest goddesses 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 it too is a celebration of grain and the harvest. On this day, loaves baked from the first harvest of the year were placed on church altars and blessed; afterward the bread could be used in simple charms and rustic enchantments. An early book of Anglo-Saxon folk magics suggested putting pieces of the blessed bread in the four corners of one's barn to protect grain gathered in and stored there. Tenant farmers were required to present freshly harvested grain to their landlords on or around the the first day of August, and in medieval Europe, a tithe (one tenth of a farm's yield) was given to the local church. Farmers delivered their portion to designated tithe barns, and a surprising number of the elegant structures survive today. In the medieval Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the day is called "the feast of first fruits".
A book that always come to mind around this time is The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers, a novel I read years ago. It's chock full of mythic metaphors related to grain harvesting and the brewing of beer, and it's a rollicking good read. The main characters are King Arthur (reborn 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're in good company - the woodland god Pan, Gambrinus, Finn MacCool, Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Odin, Thor and Hercules also show up. There's a 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. For years the only available edition of the book was paperback, and I've owned at least three copies, but a hardcover edition was finally published last year.
For the ancients, August 1 marked the beginning of the harvest season, and it also marked summer's end—so it is for us although many sunny golden weeks are still before us. It is difficult to believe that summer is waning, but it is doing just that, and our days are growing ever shorter. It's time to begin putting by the yieldings of our orchards and gardens to sustain us through darker times.
We've come a long way since our beginnings as a species, but traces of old seasonal rites remain here and there. When I arrived in Lanark County years ago, I was delighted to learn that Lughnasadh festivities are alive and well in the eastern Ontario highlands. They may be called céilidhs or "field parties", and the attendees are (for the most part) unaware of the ancient origins of their revels, but all the festival trappings are there: bonfires, grilled munchies and fresh baked bread, wine and beer, music, storytelling and merrymaking in abundance, once in a while even a formal observance.
Blessings of the harvest to you and your clan!