Lammastide – the holy of holies

In the good old days, the harvest festivals began in August (Lunasa – ‘beginning of harvest’) followed by September (Meán Fómhair) and October (Deireadh Fómhair) translated as ‘middle of harvest’ and ‘end of harvest’ respectively. Harvest was one of the most sacred times of the pagan year and the Harvest Home or In-Gathering was a community observance at the end of the harvest to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty with all its attendant celebrations, including the singing of the traditional folksongs like John Barleycorn. Celebrating the harvest is still the holiest time of the Craft year and Lammas celebrates the coming of harvest-tide with its decoration of corn sheaves, fancy loaves, berries and fruits – all leading up to the Autumnal Equinox (or Michaelmas) that marked its zenith with the eating of the traditional goose and the raucous festivities of the community harvest supper and country fairs.

Lammas Day (Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, ‘loaf-mass’), however, is a holiday still celebrated in English-speaking countries in the Northern Hemisphere, usually between 1st August and 1st September, to mark the annual wheat harvest – the first harvest festival of the year. On this day it became customary to bring to the local church a loaf made from the new crop that began to be harvested at Lammastide. The loaf was blessed, and in Anglo-Saxon England it might be employed afterwards to work magic: a book of Anglo-Saxon charms directed that the Lammas bread be broken into four bits, which were to be placed at the four corners of the barn, to protect the garnered grain from rot and vermin. In many parts of England, tenants were bound to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords on or before the first day of August. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is referred to regularly, it is called ‘the feast of first fruits’

The Chronicle is an account of events in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England; a compilation of seven surviving interrelated manuscript records that provides the primary source for the early history of England. The original manuscript was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (c871–899). Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154 and seven of the nine surviving manuscripts and fragments now reside in the British Library. The remaining two are in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The ninth century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; the 10th– century Anales Cambraie; Chronicle of Aethelweard and even earlier sources such as the 8th-century historians, St. Bede of Jarrow and Nennius of Bangor, all shed light on the conversion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and each of them in turn referred to the 6th– century writings of Gildas the Wise. These are among the primary sources used to study who the early pagan Anglo-Saxons were – and how it was that they came to abandon their ancestral religion in favour of Christianity.

Lughnasadh’s pagan origins are mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, the festival being named after the old Celtic sun-god Lugh. It involved great ‘in-gatherings’ that included religious ceremonies, ritual athletic contests (most notably the Tailteann Games), feasting, matchmaking and trading – and visits to holy wells – with many of the activities taking place on hilltops and mountains. According to folklorist Máire MacNeill, evidence shows that the religious rites included an offering of the ‘first fruits’, a feast of the new food and of bilberries, the sacrifice of a bull and a ritual dance-play in which Lugh seizes the harvest for mankind and defeats the powers of blight. In Wales, Gŵyl Awst marks the first harvest, because there is a second harvest at the time of the Autumn Equinox.

Old Lughnasadh: Irish: Lúnasa; Scottish Gaelic: Lùnastal; Manx: Luanistyn is the Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and was originally held about halfway between the Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox; over time, however, the celebrations shifted to correspond to other European harvest festivals such as the Welsh Gŵyl Awst and the English Lammas. According to the Julian calendar, 14th August is the day to connect magically with the Ancestors for a true first Old Craft harvest celebration when ‘Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood’.

This is also a season of renewed growth in some trees during July and August in the northern hemisphere, and Lammas growth on trees can be really pretty. On oaks it tends to be lime green but is often tinged with red and it brings the trees to life again, and makes the woods and hedgerows look refreshed.  Lammas growth declines with the age of the tree, being most vigorous and noticeable in young trees. It differs in nature from spring growth, which is fixed when leaves and shoots are laid down in the bud the previous year. The Lammas flush is free growth of newly-made leaves throughout the tree.

It was beneath the oaks of the New Forest that King William Rufus went hunting on 2nd August in the year 1100, and was killed by an arrow through the lung, though the full circumstances still remain unclear. The earliest statement of the event was in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which noted that the king was ‘shot by an arrow by one of his own men’. According to an unidentified ecclesiastical account, a charcoal burner took the King’s body, placed it on a rude cart, covered it with a ragged cloth and conveyed it to Winchester.

The body was said to have dripped blood along the entire route, an idea consistent with the belief that the blood of the divine sacrifice must fall on the ground in order to fertilize it. The king was mourned not by the Christian nobles but by the largely pagan common folk, who lined the roads of his funeral procession and followed the body to the grave; thus giving voice to the legend that William Rufus’s death was a ritual sacrifice as part of the dying-god fertility cult since he was descended from a pagan leader on both sides of his family. Many of his friends and close associates were also openly heathen, and his chief advisor was Randolf Flambard, recorded in the Chronicles as the son of a witch.

Along with the Mid-Winter Festival, the celebration of the Harvest is one of the most important celebrations in the Old Calendar and, like Yule, is celebrated over a number of weeks until the full harvest has been gathered in – culminating in a community In-gathering or Harvest Home. That a working knowledge of the natural tides was requisite in traditional witchcraft is shown by Paul Huson in Mastering Witchcaft (1970) and later by Patricia Crowther in Lid Off the Cauldron (1981).  And yet apart from the monthly moon cycle, much of this teaching is absent from contemporary pagan writings. 

In truth, the ‘dark tide’ first begins to stir at Lammas, the time of fruition and harvest when the crops are gathered and fruits begin to ripen. Under the new style calendar, Lammas would be celebrated on 1st August; since we still follow the old calendar, so would perform the Lammas Rite on 12th August.  We’re heading towards the Autumnal Equinox, when the two tides of summer/winter, bright/dark, god/goddess stand equally opposed so – the bright tide will start to wane, the dark aspect ever increasing – and traditionally Lammas was essentially a male-oriented ritual. The goddess-imagery now begins to fades into the background until the fires of Candlemas and the Vernal Equinox call her forth once again; with a shared celebration of fresh bread and wine/beer she takes her leave and future Coven rites reflect the god’s power.

In ye olden days, the Lammas celebration was exclusively a male affair with the women waiting outside the Circle in order that they may – or may not – be invited to participate in the rite.

Within CoS we tend to keep things simple at Lammas and wait for the ‘big event’ at the Autumnal Equinox when the feast should be a full scale, bells and whistles, Harvest Home supper.  Weather-wise, however, Lammas is still basically a summer event and fresh-baked crusty bread goes with all sorts of seasonal food; if it happens to be cold a thick home-made soup goes down just as well.

It is also a great time for implementing one of those other popular pagan institutions – Pot Luck – that is a communal gathering where each coven member contributes a different, often homemade, dish of food to be shared. The pot-luck supper is a great idea in theory: but in practice, it still needs organizing. What if the dishes clash? What if everyone brings lasagna? If you’re a Type-A personality, like most Dames and Magisters, tell people what to bring, especially if you intend eating outside.  This dispenses with any difficulties.

Everyone uses pot-luck to bring their favorite indulgent dishes, like pasta salads or macaroni and cheese bakes, but don’t be afraid to offer to bring something new.  Ideally, people almost always bring dishes that can be eaten off a plate and that’s fine: but the pot-luck plate often lacks crunch and brightness. Bring something fresh like a grain salad or a raw vegetable side dish for some variety.  If you’re going store-bought, bring cured meats and cheeses, or pick up a great nut mix.  Don’t forget that fresh produce is never better than during the summer, so take advantage and make a dish that highlights the produce of the season. A crisp veggie/salad tray fresh from the garden is a welcome addition to a spread that features mostly comfort foods; serve any dressings separately to prevent things from going soggy – or the beetroot salad escaping into the coleslaw!  And lots of fresh, crusty breads for this Lammas night.

Don’t forget that the Lammas loaf was made from the first corn cut that morning, and by night-fall the woman of the house would have had a freshly baked loaf waiting to be eaten.  The designs for Lammas loaves are varied and can be from a simple cottage loaf to a plait, or the more ambitious wreaths and corn sheaves – the latter often having a little mouse cunningly concealed at the bottom – like Mouseman furniture!  If we’re not bread-makers make a trip to the local bakers and fill a large wicker shopping basket with a selection of different breads and rolls that can be served with lashings of ‘real’ butter. 

Since I’ve never made bread that couldn’t double as a door-stop, the following recipe from A Witch’s Treasury of Hearth & Garden became part of our own Coven tradition and could be quickly prepared when time was pressing at the time of the harvest …

The Lammas Cake

8 oz self-raising flour with 1 teaspoon mixed spice

5 oz castor sugar and 5 oz butter

6 oz currants

6 oz sultanas

2 oz chopped peel

2 eggs beaten with 6 tablespoons milk

Mix flour and spices. Beat butter and sugar to cream. Beat eggs and milk together. Alternatively stir in flour and egg/milk mixture to the butter and sugar a little at a time. Add fruit and mix thoroughly. Line a loaf tin with grease-proof paper and bake the mixture for 1 hour at Gas Mark 5 (350F/180C) for 1½ hours, then at Gas Mark 2 (300F/150C).  Wrap the tin in a thick layer of newspaper to prevent burning.

It is from those last sheaves of Lammas corn that the stems for making the corn dollies are taken. Even today the corn dolly tradition is still followed in the UK, where most counties have their own designs and forms. The Stafford Knot, the Suffolk Horseshoe, the Yorkshire Spiral or Corn Drop are just a few of the old variations that survive today. While many don’t look like a typical ‘dolly’ in the general sense of the word, their care and crafting are still imbibed with intent and mystery, and a desire to protect the promise of the next growing season. Whatever shape or form they take, the ‘Spirit of the Grain’ is still a potent pagan custom and magical working, and we don’t have to be a farmer to take advantage of its talismanic power. It can represent success and bounty, and the fervent hope the future will hold prosperity and abundance. 

In European pagan culture it was believed that the spirit of the corn lived amongst the crop, and that the harvest made it effectively homeless.  James Frazer devotes some four chapters to the ‘corn mother and corn maiden’ customs in The Golden Bough. Among the customs attached to the last sheaf of the harvest were hollow shapes fashioned from the last stook of wheat or other cereal crop. The corn spirit would then spend the winter in the house or barn until the ‘Spirit of the Grain’ was ploughed back into the first furrow of the new season.

Smaller versions of this country craft were usually made for individuals and it is with these personal examples that we are most familiar. A countryman’s favour was usually a braid of three straws and tied into a loose knot to represent a heart. It was believed that if it had been made by a young man from straws picked up after the harvest and given to his loved one – and if she was wearing it next to her heart when he saw her again then he would know that his love was reciprocated.  Corn dollies were also made as a badge of trade at hiring fairs, where men and women would decorate them with a wisp of wool or horse hair to signify that they were a shepherd, for example, or a wagoner.

These annual hiring fairs were held later in the year, during Martinmas week at the end of November, in the northern market towns where both male and female agricultural servants would gather in order to bargain with prospective employers and, hopefully, secure a position for the coming year. The yearly hiring included board and lodging for single employees for the whole year – with wages being paid at the end of the year’s service. These fairs attracted all the other trappings of a fair, and they turned into major feasts in their own right, which attracted poor reputations for the drunkenness and immorality involved.

The corn dolly is another way of connecting with a tradition our Ancestors would have celebrated around Lammas-tide – even if we just take a bunch of corn stalks, trimmed and tied with a scarlet ribbon. What will our corn dolly represent? What promises, what hopes do we wish to manifest in the coming seasons? Will we make room at our altar or hearth for the ‘Spirit of the Grain’ to ward off the lean times? The magical power of the dolly is not merely the object itself, but the care and work put into it: a representation of the sacrifice we all make today to ensure a better tomorrow. Whatever form of greater increase and prosperity we desire, perhaps keeping the ‘Spirit of the Grain’ in a safe, warm place through times of slack and dormancy could help us stay opportunistic on our way to our own bountiful harvest!

Because it was common practice to break up corn dollies from the previous year and sow the grains in the spring with the new planting, it’s unusual to see many old ones around.  Since the corn dolly is a symbol of wishing wealth on the household, it is pointless leaving it to gather dust for years on end, particularly as the ‘wealth’ comes from the releasing of the Spirit of the Grain back into the fields to work its magic.  If we give a corn dolly to someone else, do make sure they understand that come spring they should take it outside and burn it, sprinkling the ashes onto the garden.

Lammas is still a time of excitement and magic. The natural world is thriving around us, and yet the knowledge that everything will soon die looms in the background. This is a good time to work some protective magic around the hearth and home.  This occasion celebrates the beginning of the harvest season and the cycle of rebirth, and can be done by a solitary practitioner or adapted for a group or coven setting.  It is an expression of gratitude for the change in seasons — from a season of planting to a season of harvest – that marks today’s observance.

The floral tribute for this time of year is a huge vase full of dried grain stalks with as many different varieties as possible – wheat, oats, barley – these characteristic heads make a distinctive display that will last for weeks. Wheat is one of the oldest and most important of the cereal crops cultivated in Britain since prehistoric times, so its symbolism is timeless.

If working solitary, prepare a platter of fresh bread together with small dips of oil, honey, together with wine and spring water to symbolise the age-old offerings.  Think about the bounty that fills our life. What are we getting ready to ‘harvest’? Have we taken time over the summer to enjoy the fruits of our labour? How are we preparing to shift into the darkness of the coming months? 

Break the bread into large chunks and set some outside (or at your altar) as an offering. Have some of the bread yourself, first with olive oil, and then with honey. Wash it down with your harvest beverage and fresh spring water, and offer your thanks for the abundance of the coming harvest.   Mix the oil, wine, honey and water together and make a libation for the Old Ones by pouring it on the ground outside. 

We often forget that honouring the seasons and our Tradition do not have to be grand celebrations, full of complicated Compass casting, fancy rituals with bells and smells, and sumptuous feasts – yet!  Of course the Sabbats can include one or all of those things, but do they have to be? Of course not. Honouring the change of the season can be as simple as a lighted candle, a murmured invocation, and a libation. Just five minutes to reconnect with our beliefs, our deity and the land.

‘Wishing you all the joy of the Season’ – Melusine Draco

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