Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday Ramble Before Lughnasadh

How swiftly summer days pass.  Here we are again near the end of July and only four days away from the eve of Lughnasadh (also called Lammas, Lúnasa, Calan Awst, "First Harvest" and "Loaf Mass" among other names), a 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 sheaves, stooks, mill wheels and grinding stones have been prominent cultural motifs here on earth for many centuries.

August 1st has a veritable throng of harvest ("dying and rising") gods: Lugh, Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis and Attis to name just a few. Then there is Dionysus or Bacchus—the grapey god is in a class all by himself as patron of vineyards and the grape harvest, wine making, drunken revelry and ritual madness.  His magical tavern with its ever 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 in just the right frame of mind and receptive to the idea. August 1 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 was medieval Christianity's name for the festival, and it too was a celebration of grain and the harvest. Loaves baked from the year's first harvest were placed on church altars and blessed, later to be used in simple charms and rustic enchantments.  An early book of Anglo-Saxon folk magics suggested putting pieces of blessed Lammas bread in the four corners of one's barn to protect grain gathered in and stored there.  Tenant farmers presented 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 at the same time.  Farmers delivered their portion to designated tithe barns, and a surprising number of the elegant structures survive today. In the medieval Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, August 1 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. 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 called Aurelius Aurelianus (actually 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 (medieval King of Beer) , 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 a few years ago, and I treated myself to a copy.

For the ancients, August 1 marked the beginning of the harvest season, and it also marked summer's end—so it is for us. Many warm and sunny weeks are still before us, and it is difficult to believe that summer is waning, but it is doing just that, and our days are growing shorter.  It's time to think about storing the yieldings of our orchards and gardens to sustain us through darker times. 

We've come a long way since our beginnings as a hunting and gathering species, but traces of old seasonal rites remain here and there.  On arriving 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 often unaware of the origins of their revels, but all the festival trappings are there: bonfires, grilled munchies and fresh baked bread, wine and beer, music, storytelling, dancing and merrymaking in abundance, once in a while even a formal observance.

 Blessings of the harvest to you and your clan!


Barbara Rogers said...

How lovely to have a bit of Lughnasadh written up...with lots of good references to gods and goddesses. I'm going to a celebration on Aug 6 afternoon, a bit better late than never! I'm really looking forward to it! Happy Lughnasadh to you and yours!

Riognach said...

Blessed Almost-Lughnasadh! May your harvest be bountiful and joyful!

sarah said...

I hope your Lughnasadh brings you bountiful joy <3

Guy said...

Hi Cate

Loved your discussion of one of my favourite authors Tim Powers. His Anubis Gates is a book my wife and I both love. We also enjoy the work of his buddy James Blaylock. It just occurred to me to ask, have you read Little Big by John Crowley, if not I suspect you would like it. I love the quote “The things that make us happy make us wise. ”