Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Happy Lammas

Here we are again at the end of July and nearing Lammas, also called Lughnsadh, Lúnasa, Calan Awst, "First Harvest" or "Loaf Mass". Tomorrow is the eve of a festival celebrating summer, farming and harvesting, particularly the gathering, milling and putting by of grains and cereals.

Humans have gathered 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.

Our festival has a veritable throng of harvest (dying and rising) gods: Lugh, John Barleycorn, Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis and Attis to name a few. 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.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first day of August was called "the feast of first fruits". 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 around the same time. Farmers delivered their portion to designated tithe barns, and a surprising number of the elegant brick and stone structures survive today.

I always think of Tim Powers' fabulous The Drawing of the Dark at this time of the year. Tim's novel is chock full of mythic metaphors related to grain harvesting and brewing 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 are billed as céilidhs or "field parties", and the attendees are often unaware of the origins for the most part, but all the festival trappings are there.  There are 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!


Barbara Rogers said...

I'm looking forward to a small circle of women to share ritual on Sunday afternoon...celebrating water goddesses. It should be fun, if not anyone's particular tradition!

Tabor said...

I am out of rhythm this year. Garden harvests are off, weather is too hot, I am missing the harvest theme muchly. Hopefully next year it will all be on track. I will have to look for that book...sounds oddly compelling.