(Photo of the Barley Moon by Catherine Kerr)
by Waverly Fitzgerald
The Full Moon Festival of August is one of the oldest continuous holidays of the Goddess. At this turning point in the year, between the yang energy of summer solstice and the turning inward of the autumn, the Goddess comes into her own as protector, provider and mediator between the worlds.
Known by many names, at this time of the year she is revered as Artemis, Hecate and the Blessed Virgin Mary. All three are moon goddesses: Artemis as crescent moon, Hecate the dark moon and Mary is often depicted standing on the crescent moon. All three are invoked for protection of the grain and the fruit which is so vulnerable to storms in these weeks before harvest. And all three are mediators between the worlds: Artemis in her origin as Goddess of the shamanistic cultures of the North (see Geoffrey Ashe’s book Dawn Behind the Dawn), Hecate as the one who stands at the crossroads between life and death, who goes down into the darkness of the Underworld with her two torches blazing, and Mary as the mediator between Earth and Heaven.
Below I trace the way this holiday developed and provide links to articles about how it is celebrated around the world.
Ancient Greece: Artemis-Hecate
This feast of the goddess was first celebrated in Greece at the full moon of Metageitnion. In Erkhia, Artemis (as Hecate) was invoked, along with Kourotrophos, and beseeched for protection summer storms, which could flatten and destroy the crops. This image from a Greek vase (ca 440 BCE) shows Hecate lighting the way with her torches as Persephone emerges from the Underworld to be reunited with her mother while Hermes looks on.
In Rome, the Greek lunar festival honoring Artemis-Hecate was placed on the fixed solar calendar on August 13th and called the Nemoralia, also known as Diana’s Feast of the Torches. Roman women made torchlight processions to the temples of Diana and Hecate or visited the groves of Diana with their hunting dogs leashed. Hair-washing was an important ritual activity.
Early Christianity: Assumption
The story of Mary’s Assumption derives from ancient stories called the Obsequies of the Holy Virgin, which were written in Syria at the beginning of the third century (or about 150 years after the event they relate). The story of “The Departure of My Lady Mary From this World” tells how Mary was lifted up into Heaven bodily, in other words, she did not die, but became immortal (a goddess). To commemorate this extraordinary event, the Apostles proclaimed a holiday in Her honor:
And the apostles also ordered that there should be a commemoration of the Blessed One on the thirteenth Ab, on account of the vines bearing bunches of grapes and on account of the trees bearing fruit, that clouds of hail, bearing stones of wrath, might not come, and the trees be broken, and the vines with their clusters.
According to the story, Mary’s Assumption took place at Ephesus, where she was living under the care of the apostle, John. Ephesus was one of the most famous sanctuaries of Artemis, the home of the famous statue of Artemis with many breasts, symbolizing the productive and nurturing powers of the earth. Mary, who is also well known for her nurturing and protecting qualities (she is so tender-hearted she cannot deny any sincere request for help), was clearly carrying this role.
Ab is the Jewish lunar month of Av and the thirteenth of Ab is therefore a full moon. So quite early on, long before Emperor Maurice proclaimed the Assumption a Church holiday during the seventh century, the apostles chose the full-moon feast honoring Artemis-Hecate as the time to honor Mary, as protector of the crops and mediator between worlds.
Wherever this holiday is celebrated, and it is a major holiday in many parts of the world, it is blended with native customs to produce a unique celebration.
In 19th century Scotland, this holiday was called Great St. Mary’s Feast of the Harvest. It’s probable that many of its customs were once those of Lammas Day. Women made a magical bannock (a kind of cake) on this day, from ears of new corn which were dried in the sun, husked by hand, ground with stones, kneading on a sheepskin and toasted over a fire made of magical rowan wood. Each member of the family ate a piece of the bannock, in order by age, and all walked sunwise around the fire. Then the embers were gathered into a pot and carried sunwise around the farm and field, while reciting this charm:
On the feast day of Mary the fragrant,
Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks,
I cut me a handful of the new corn,
I dried it gently in the sun,
I rubbed it sharply from the husk,
With mine own palms.
I ground it in a quern on Friday,
I baked it on a fan of sheepskin,
I toasted it to a fire of rowan,
And I shared it round my people.
I went sunways round my dwelling
In the name of Mother Mary
Who promised to preserve me
Who did protect me
Who will preserve me
In peace, in flocks, in righteousness of heart,
In labor, in love,
In wisdom, in mercy,
For the sake of Thy Passion.
Thou Christ of grace
Who till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
Oh, till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
– Carmina Gadelica
Poland: Blessed Mother of the Herbs
As early as the tenth century, the aroma of herbs and flowers was associated with Mary’s victory over death, and people brought medicinal herbs and plants to church (periwinkle, verbena, thyme) to be incensed and blessed, bound into a sheaf and kept all year to ward off illness, disaster and death.
In Poland, this holiday was called Matka Boska Zielna, Blessed Mother of the Herbs. Women gathered the plants growing in their gardens and brought them to church to be blessed. The blessed flowers were then tucked behind icons and over doorways in the house, and scattered into the seed sacks and feed bags, to bless them as well. Today August 15 is the day when pilgrims process to the shrine of the Virgin of Czestochowska.
In central Europe, August 15 was called Our Lady’s Herb Day. Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s mother kept this holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks, gathering wild grasses, a custom I’ve adopted in Seattle. It’s amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.
If you like charming little stories written in a rural, 1950’s folksy tone with lots of references to Scripture, you will like this story about a Catholic family gathering flowers and herbs by moonlight in honor of Our Lady.
Armenia: Blessing of the Grapes
In Armenia, the Sunday nearest the Assumption is called Blessing of the Grapes. None are eaten until this day when every churchgoer gets a cluster as she leaves church. This is also the name day for women named Mary, who host parties in vineyards or at their homes. The Syrian festival is characterized by offerings of new wheat and small three-cornered cakes.
Brazil: Our Lady of the Good Death
In Bahia, where Christian customs are mingled with African traditions, and the orixas are honored on the feast days of Catholic saints, a group of women created a lay sisterhood called the Sisters of the Good Death which worked to free slaves. Their descendants still celebrate the Festival of Our Lady of the Good Death today. Paola Gianturco who has been photographing women’s celebrations all over the globe has a photoessay about this festival at her web site.
Bolivia: The Virgin of Urkupiña
In Bolivia, August 15 is the holiday of the Virgin of Urkupiña and combines pagan and Christian traditions. There is a parade through town with dancing and costumes reminiscent of Carnival celebrations, followed the next day by a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin, where people leave items that represent their wishes. I learned about the holiday from Paola Gianturco, but also found descriptions of how it is celebrated at this blog and slide show at the Democracy Center web site.
Today Where You Live
Do you have any traditions you celebrate on this day? Or any customs you want to adopt? Will you pick herbs and flowers from your garden on August 15? Or do, as I do, and gather wild grasses? Will you wash your hair like the Roman women did on August 13? Will you leave an offering for Hecate on a crossroads on the full moon? Will you eat grapes for the first time on Sunday, August 16? Will you bake a magical bannock with ingredients you grew yourself? Let me know how you plan to celebrate this holiday.
First published July 21, 2009