By Sarah Connor
Welcome to earthweal, and welcome to Lammas!
Lammas is the third of the Celtic cross quarter festivals we’ve looked at this year. It sits between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox at the start of August. The ancient Celtic name is Lughnasadh – the festival of Lugh, the sun god. The word “Lammas” is Saxon, meaning “Loaf-mass”, which is an indication of what this festival is all about: harvesting the corn.
This is the first of the great Celtic harvest festivals. The Autumn Equinox marks the second harvest of fruit, and Samhain is the final harvest of nuts and berries. When I was a child, our harvest festival was always around the Autumn Equinox – leading to a motley selection of harvest sacrifices: apples, overgrown marrows, tinned peas… But Lammas/Lughnasadh is all about grain. Grain is essential for making bread, and for making beer – both very important commodities!
Here in the west of England we are mainly pastoral – sheep and cows dot the fields around here. It makes sense that Beltane and Samhain are celebrated here. Traditionally animals were put out to pasture on May Day and taken back into the shed on All Hallows. In the east of England there is much more arable farming, and harvest traditions lasted longer there. Here is George Ewart Evans, from The Pattern under the Plough:
Originally, it is suggested, the stranger was considered an embodiment of the Corn Spirit. This was a dubious role for anyone to have thrust upon him, as we know from those counties were there was a competition in the harvest-field to see who cut the last sheaf of standing corn. The reapers stood with their backs towards it, and turning round threw their sickles without properly sighting it. The man whose sickle actually cut the corn was roughly handled because it was considered that the Corn Spirit had migrated from the last sheaf to his person. It is suggested that the rough handling was the vestige of what was once a fertility sacrifice.
Who is the Corn Spirit, and what are we sacrificing?
And as well as two great commodities, there are two deities present here; the Corn Mother and Lugh himself. There are traditions across Europe that incorporate these two, who have come together to produce the harvest.
The Corn Mother has many names – Corn Mother, Grain Mother, Ceres, Demeter, Harvest Mother. This is the goddess in her mother aspect – bountiful, golden, abundant. There are traditions about cutting the first corn, which could be woven into an old wife and passed from farm to farm. The first grain is made into a Lammas loaf. The last corn was woven into a Corn Maiden, and kept until Yule, or even longer. Sometimes that Corn Maiden had a smaller Corn Maiden woven inside her belly.
The story of Demeter and Proserpine is thought to relate to the grain crop. Proserpine is the spirit of the grain, taken into the underworld while her mother grieves for here, and then emerging in the spring as the crop that will be cut down again at the end of the summer.
There’s another Corn Spirit, though. Lugh, the Sun God, is present in the golden colour of the corn. He has poured his energy into the crop, and now he’s being cut down. Here’s Steve Winwood singing “John Barleycorn must die” – a 14th century song about the death and rebirth of the barley crop (and beer. Don’t forget beer).
So what energy are we capturing here? The energy of bounty, of reaping what we have sown. We prepared the ground at Imbolc, we planted at Beltane, and now we are reaping our rewards. It’s time to celebrate our creativity and our achievements – but to remember that we have lean days ahead. The days are shortening, evenings are getting colder, and we must prepare ourselves.
Yes, we reap what we sow – but we also sow what we reap. The corn we gather now will feed us, but it will also be the seed for next year’s crop. Creativity doesn’t stop here – the work we produced last week, last month, last year, feeds the work we produce today – and the work we produce today will feed our creativity next week, next month, next year. The Corn Mother carries a Corn Baby in her belly.
The grain we gather now will also be transformed. Think how grain is ground down into flour, and then mixed with water and yeast to make bread. A total transformation from something small and solid to something light and airy. That same yeast and water will transform grain into ale. It’s amazing that those three basic ingredients can produce two such different things under different conditions. It’s rather like the poems we get from prompts – the same prompt can produce such different work from different poets.
For this Lammas/Lughnasadh prompt I’d like you to think about harvest at all levels. The actual harvest of grain, the production of food and seed for next year; but also how our wishes, dreams, plans have ripened. The things that have given us a sense of achievement, the things that turn out to be rungs on a ladder to something new. The experiences we have transformed through our own personal water, yeast and time. Of course, we are not the only creatures who gather harvest – squirrels create food stashes, bears prepare for winter. Corn, barley, wild grass – they all sacrifice themselves to plant the seeds of the next generation.
We reap what we sow, and we sow what we reap.