Sunday, July 31, 2022

For Lammas (or Lugnasadh)

Here we are on the last day of July, and this is the eve of Lammas, sometimes called Lughnsadh, Lúnasa, Calan Awst, "First Harvest" or "Loaf Mass". The festival celebrates summer, farming and harvesting, particularly the gathering, milling and putting by of grains and cereals.

Humans have gathered and consumed grains and cereals 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 gods: Lugh, 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, deity of vineyards and harvesting, wine making, drunken revelry and ritual madness.  He stands at the gate between summer and autumn, and his magical tavern with its ever turning mill wheel and rapture inducing brews is the stuff of legend. 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.

According to Irish mythology, the festival was created by Lugh in honor of the goddess Tailtu (his foster mother), who perished from exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for cultivation. August 1 is also 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.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, August 1st is called "the feast of first fruits". Loaves of bread were baked with grain from the first harvest and placed on church altars, to be blessed and later to be used in simple charms and rustic enchantments.  Tenant farmers presented grain to their landlords, and a tithe (one tenth of a farm's yield) was given to the local church. Farmers delivered their portion to parish tithe barns, and a number of the elegant brick and stone structures survive today.

Tim Powers' fabulous The Drawing of the Dark always comes to mind around this time of year. The book is full of harvest and brewing metaphors, 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 (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 whole shipload of Vikings sworn to defend the ancient brewery at the heart of the story and stave off Ragnarok and other mythical creatures too numerous to mention. For some time, the book was only available in paperback, but a hardcover edition was published a few years ago, and one of these days, I shall treat 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.  

We've come a long way from our early "hunting and gathering" days, but traces of old seasonal rites remain here and there. When I arrived in Lanark county years ago, I learned that Lammas festivities are alive and well in the eastern Ontario highlands. They are 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, there is even a formal harvest observance.

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