Lammas/Lughnasa

The year is 1100. The date is August 1. The monks in the abbey at Gloucester are celebrating the holy-day of St. Peter in Chains. One of the monks wakes from a strange dream in which God promises to strike down the wicked King who has abused the Holy Church. His superior, Abbot Serlo, on hearing of the dreams sends a warning to the King, William the Red, who has oppressed all of England with taxes and disgusted many with his licentiousness and blasphemy. Red, as he is called, receives the message the following day while preparing to indulge in one of his favorite sports, hunting, in the New Forest. Although there are no longer any people dwelling in the New Forest — they were all cleared out by Red’s father, William the Conqueror — there are rumors that it’s a hotbed of pagan activity. And August 2 is an important pagan holy-day. The Saxons call it Lammas, the Loaf-Mass. William the Red laughs at the warning from the monks and goes out hunting. A short time later, he is dead, struck in the chest by a stray arrow, and his brother, Henry, who was in the hunting party is riding hot-foot for Winchester and the crown.

Now some people say that William the Red was a Lammas sacrifice, that having made a wasteland of his kingdom, he was killed by the people (or the Gods) as a sacrifice to bring new life to the land. And some people say his brother Henry has him assassinated. And some people say that both versions are true.

This story comes to my mind when I think of Lammas because I spent ten years researching a medieval novel set in the time of William the Red and Henry. But this tale of sacrifice and hunting, a dying King and a wasted land, embodies many of the dominant themes of Lammas, one of the four seasonal quarter-days, and perhaps the least well-known.

The Celts celebrate this festival from sunset August 1 until sunset August 2 and call it Lughnasad after the God Lugh. It is the wake of Lugh, the Sun-King, whose light begins to dwindle after the summer solstice. The Saxon holiday of Lammas celebrates the harvesting of the grain. The first sheaf of wheat is ceremonially reaped, threshed, milled and baked into a loaf. The grain dies so that the people might live. Eating this bread, the bread of the Gods, gives us life. If all this sounds vaguely Christian, it is. In the sacrament of Communion, bread is blessed, becomes the body of God and is eaten to nourish the faithful. This Christian Mystery echoes the pagan Mystery of the Grain God.

Grain has always been associated with Gods who are killed and dismembered and then resurrected from the Underworld by the Goddess-Gods like Tammuz, Osiris and Adonis. The story of Demeter and Persephone is a story about the cycle of death and rebirth associated with grain. Demeter, the fertility Goddess, will not allow anything to grow until she finds her daughter who has been carried off to the Underworld. The Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated around the Autumn Equinox, culminated in the revelation of a single ear of corn, a symbol to the initiate of the cyclical nature of life, for the corn is both seed and fruit, promise and fulfillment.

You can adapt the themes of Lughnasad and Lammas to create your own ceremony for honoring the passing of the light and the reaping of the grain.

Honoring the Grain God or Goddess

Bake a loaf of bread on Lammas. If you’ve never made bread before, this is a good time to start. Honor the source of the flour as you work with it: remember it was once a plant growing on the mother Earth. If you have a garden, add something you’ve harvested–herbs or onion or corn–to your bread. If you don’t feel up to making wheat bread, make corn bread. Or gingerbread people. Or popcorn. What’s most important is intention. All that is necessary to enter sacred time is an awareness of the meaning of your actions.

Shape the dough in the figure of a man or a woman and give your grain-person a name. If he’s a man, you could call him Lugh, the Sun-King, or John Barleycorn, or the Pillsbury Dough Boy, or Adonis or Osiris or Tammuz. Pauline Campanelli in The Wheel of the Year suggests names for female figures: She of the Corn, She of the Threshing Floor, She of the Seed, She of the Great Loaf (these come from the Cyclades where they are the names of fertility figures), Freya (the Anglo-Saxon and Norse fertility Goddess who is, also called the Lady and the Giver of the Loaf), the Bride (Celtic) and Ziva or Siva (the Grain Goddess of, the Ukraine, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia).

Feast

Like all holidays, Lammas calls for a feast. When your dough figure is baked and ready to eat, tear him or her apart with your fingers. You might want to start the feast with the Lord’s Prayer, emphasizing the words “Give us this day our daily bread.” The next part of the ceremony is best done with others. Feed each other hunks of bread (or gingerbread people or popcorn), putting the food in the other person’s mouth with words like “May you never go hungry,” “May you always be nourished,” “Eat of the bread of life” or “May you live forever.” Offer each other drinks of water or wine with similar words. As if you were at a wake, make toasts to the passing summer, recalling the best moments of the year so far.

corn dolliesCorn Dolly

Another way to honor the Grain Goddess is to make a corn doll. This is a fun project to do with kids. Take dried-out corn husks and tie them together in the shape of a woman. She’s your visual representation of the harvest. As you work on her, think about what you harvested this year. Give your corn dolly a name, perhaps one of the names of the Grain Goddess or one that symbolizes your personal harvest. Dress her in a skirt, apron and bonnet and give her a special place in your house. She is all yours till the spring when you will plant her with the new corn, returning to the Earth that which She has given to you.

Food for Thought

Lammas is a festival of regrets and farewells, of harvest and preserves. Reflect on these topics alone in the privacy of your journal or share them with others around a fire. Lughnasad is one of the great Celtic fire-festivals, so if at all possible, have your feast around a bonfire. While you’re sitting around the fire, you might want to tell stories. Look up the myths of any of the grain Gods and Goddesses mentioned above and try re-telling them in your own words.

Regrets: Think of the things you meant to do this summer or this year that are not coming to fruition. You can project your regrets onto natural objects like pine cones and throw them into the fire, releasing them. Or you can write them on dried corn husks (as suggested by Nancy Brady Cunningham in Feeding the Spirit) or on a piece of paper and burn them.

Farewells: What is passing from your life? What is over? Say good-bye to it. As with regrets, you can find visual symbols and throw them into the fire, the lake or the ocean. You can also bury them in the ground, perhaps in the form of bulbs which will manifest in a new form in spring.

Harvest: What have you harvested this year? What seeds have your planted that are sprouting? Find a visual way to represent these, perhaps creating a decoration in your house or altar which represents the harvest to you. Or you could make a corn dolly or learn to weave wheat. Look for classes in your area which can teach you how to weave wheat into wall pieces, which were made by early grain farmers as a resting place for the harvest spirits.

Preserves: This is also a good time for making preserves, either literally or symbolically. As you turn the summer’s fruit into jams, jellies and chutneys for winter, think about the fruits that you have gathered this year and how you can hold onto them. How can you keep them sweet in the store of your memory?

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Weaving Wheat

by Waverly Fitzgerald

[Excerpt from the Lammas holiday packet available at our store]

Many years ago I was in Aberystwyth in Wales on Lammas. I hadn’t planned any special activity for this, my favorite seasonal holiday, but I had gleaned some wheat stalks a few weeks earlier from a field near Rose Cottage (the home of my favorite novelist, Elizabeth Goudge, who lived outside Henley-on-Thames).

That primitive wheat weaving came back across the ocean to Seattle and for over a year sat above my stove, my very own harvest spirit, blessing the food I prepared and ate, while reminding me of my pilgrimages in the British Isles.

I didn’t have any instructions for wheat-weaving with me. All I remembered was that I had to soak the wheat, which I did in a bathtub, releasing that wonderful nutty aroma from the stalks. Then I wove it into a simple plait which I tied in a loop with a strand of orange yarn. That primitive wheat weaving came back across the ocean to Seattle and for over a year sat above my stove, my very own harvest spirit, blessing the food I prepared and ate, while reminding me of my pilgrimages in the British Isles.

In earlier times in England, the last sheaf of wheat was cut down with special pomp and ceremony and carried into the house where it was displayed throughout the winter, being returned to the soil when the fields were ploughed in spring. Sometimes the spirit of the grain was invited to inhabit weavings made of wheat stalks interlaced in intricate patterns. These were often called corn dollies, corn being a word for grain and dolly describing the shape.

To make your own wheat weavings, you must first obtain wheat, either from a craft supply store or a field (I have friends who grow a small patch in their garden for harvesting at Lammas and using in wheat-weaving and bread-baking). The excursion to get the wheat could become a part of your holiday rituals. I will never forget my first sight of wheat fields, driving one Fourth of July weekend with my daughter through the wheat country of eastern Washington. For miles and miles as far as the eye could see, for hours we drove among the silent rolling hills of golden wheat.

Maggie Oster in Gifts and Crafts from Your Garden says that wheat for wheat-weaving should be harvested about two weeks before the regular harvest when it is in the “dough stage.” Test it by pinching one of the grains with your thumbnail. If it releases a milky say, it is too green. If it is hard, it is too ripe. It should puncture easily but no sap should appear. Cut the wheat about four or six inches above the soil and bundle in sheaves about four to six inches in diameter. Keeping all the heads of wheat in one direction, bind near the bottom of the stalk and either hang them up or stack them for two weeks.

Wheat weavings were often hung on walls, not just as decorations but as protection, like the charms made in the Scottish Highlands on Lammas by tying red strings around crossed rowan-twigs and hanging them over doors.

Wheat weavings were often hung on walls, not just as decorations but as protection, like the charms made in the Scottish Highlands on Lammas by tying red strings around crossed rowan-twigs and hanging them over doors. In Wales, wheat weaving has become a traditional art form, divorced from harvest customs. Everywhere I went in Wales, I saw beautiful and elaborate wheat weavings for sale. You may be able to find someone in your area who can teach you this traditional art. Like many women’s arts, it’s hard to describe on paper–it cries out for one-to-one instruction and a kinesthetic experience.

Prepare the wheat by cutting off and discarding the second-joint straw and removing the leaf-sheaf. Soak them in warm water for at least 30 minutes. Then drain and wrap in a damp towel so they will stay moist.

Witch’s Mark or Cat’s Paw

The first set of instructions come from Helen Farias’ unpublished book, The Harvest Mysteries. This creates a long flat braid.

Tie three straws together, just below the heads with stout thread (Helen suggests buttonhole twist). Fan them out into north, east and west positions with the heads to the south. Fold the east (right) straw under the north (top) straw just before you fold the north straw over the east straw–in other words, they trade places. Then fold the west (left) straw under the north straw, just before folding the north straw over the west straw–again they trade places. Repeat.

As you work, you may wish to stretch the braid slightly. With your left thumb and forefinger (if you are right-handed) firmly hold the weaving, and move your grip up the weaving as it grows. Stop a few inches from the end and tie off.

Four Straw Plait or North, South, East, West Plait

This creates a plait with a bit more dimension. Tie four straws together under the heads. Hold the heads down (towards the floor) with your left thumb and forefinger, keeping your palm upward. Fan the four straws out in the four directions.

With your right hand (if you’re right-handed), fold the south straw to the north and the north to the south. Put your thumb across the fold. Fold the east straw to the west and the west straw to the east. Secure with your thumb. Repeat, moving your grip slowly upwards as the weaving grows, stretching it when necessary, holding it securely with your thumb. Stop a few inches from the end and tie off.

Shaping the Weaving

These braids can now be twisted into various shapes.

The simplest is a simple loop. Tie the end to the to the neck of the heads and either fan the straw ends out, snipping them at an angle, or hide them behind the heads.

Or loop the braid twice and overlap the loop, creating a vesica pisces or almond shape in the center.

Or make three concentric loops for a miniature “dolly” (with the loops as the head, the sheaves as the skirted body).

Secure the ends again, straighten the weaving and pat it until it is even and pleasing. Mist it once or twice, if it’s dried out, and place under a brick, heavy book (protected with plastic) or some other flat weight. When it has dried, decorate as you like. The traditional decoration is a red ribbon.

Mordiford Wheat Weaving

If you are now ready for a more complicated wheat weaving, try this heart-shaped “corn dolly” associated with the Mordiford district in England. I found directions for it and a picture at www.wheatweaving.com.

References:

Campanelli, Pauline, Ancient Ways, Llewellyn 1991
Farias, Helen, The Harvest Mysteries, 1990, unpublished [copy in my collection] Oster, Maggie, Gifts and Crafts from the Garden, Rodale 1988

Web Links:

American Museum of Straw Art

At this web site, you can take a virtual tour of woven straw art. It’s just like walking through a museum. Great photos and informative captions. I came away with a new appreciation of the marvelous capabilities of woven grain and the spiritual dimensions of this art.

World Wide Wheat Weavers

This association sponsors a web site that features photos of wheat weavings created by members and information on where to buy grains, find classes and buy books on the topic.

Originally published July 20, 2009

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