Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Happy Lammas

How swiftly summer days pass.  Here we are again at the end of July and the eve of Lammas, sometimes called Lughnsadh, Lúnasa, Calan Awst, "First Harvest" or "Loaf Mass". Tomorrow's festival celebrates summer, farming and harvesting, particularly the gathering, milling and putting by of grains and cereals.

Humans have gathered and consumed wild grains since Neolithic times, and the beginning of domestic grain cultivation is an important moment in our evolution. It marks the transition from an ancient, nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of farming and settlement. Sickles, sheaves, stooks, mill wheels and grinding stones are common motifs in almost every culture on island earth.

Gods and goddesses?  Oh yes, our festival has a veritable throng of harvest (dying and rising) gods: Lugh, Llew Llaw Gyffes, Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis and Attis to name a few. John Barleycorn is the corn king god who sacrifices himself for the Land and next year's harvest. Then there is Dionysus or Bacchus—the grapey god is in a class all by himself as deity of vineyards and the grape harvest, patron of 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 the right frame of mind and receptive to the idea.

According to Irish mythology, the festival was created by Lugh as a funeral feast and athletic competition in honor of his foster mother Tailtiu, a Fir Bolg earth goddess who perished from exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for cultivation. August 1 is associated with other harvest goddesses like Demeter, Persephone, Ceres, Bridget, the Cailleach, Selu, Nokomis (the Corn Mother) and Freya, who is sometimes known as the Lady of the Loaf.

Tithe barn, Charleston Manor
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first day of August is called "the feast of first fruits". During the middle ages, loaves were baked with grain from the first harvest and placed on church altars to be blessed and later used in simple charms and rustic enchantments.  Tenant farmers presented freshly harvested grain to their landlords, and 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 stone structures survive today.

A book that always comes to mind around this time of the year is Tim Powers' fabulous The Drawing of the Dark. The novel is 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.

The first day of August marked the beginning of the harvest season for the ancients, but it also marked summer's end, and so it is for moderns. There are still many warm and sunny weeks before us, and it is difficult to believe that summer is waning, but it is doing just that. Our days are growing shorter.  It's time to give some thought to pickling and preserving the contents of our orchards and gardens for the darker times to come. 

We've come a long way since our early days as a hunting and gathering species, but traces of old seasonal rites remain here and there. When I arrived in Lanark county years ago, I learned that Lughnasadh festivities are alive and well in the eastern Ontario highlands.  They may be called céilidhs or "field parties", and the attendees are unaware of the origins for the most part, but all the festival trappings are there: bonfires, corn, 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, happy August!


Jennifer said...

Lammas blessings to you as well!

Barbara Rogers said...

In our busy lives these days, festivities are relegated to weekends, so we will do a bit of celebrating this Sun. afternoon...getting in touch with our wild woman side. Happy Lammas to you and yours!