Lammas – the festival of the first harvest, the bringing in of the grains from the fields – is here. From now into August, pagans
celebrate a season that our more agricultural ancestors would have marked with feasting, wheat sheafs and corn dollies. Largely now forgotten by the mainstream, it’s a festival redolent with the history and myth of Britain’s not-so-distant past.
‘Lammas’ – from the Anglo-Saxon hlaefmass – loaf mass – takes its name from the early Christian custom of placing loaves in churches by way of thanks. Also known as Lughnasadh, its origins are pre-Christian, stemming from the Celtic festival of Lugh, the Irish king of the sun and god of light. According to the accompanying myth, the sun god gives his power to the grain and is sacrificed when the crop is gathered in in order that food can be made and new seed planted. ‘So we have a dying, self-sacrificing and resurrecting god of the harvest, who dies for his people so that they may live. Sound familiar?’ asks the website The White Goddess.
The story lives on in the folk song ‘John Barleycorn’ which personifies the barley harvest as a man undergoing a horrible death at the hands of his fellow men, only to be reborn, triumphant, in another form. Check out this uptempo version by Damh the Bard. If you study the lyrics, you can’t help but hear overtones of the Christian resurrection story, with its elements of persecution and suffering. But the principal message of the song is that darkness and death are in the nature of things, conveying a truth that is as biological and agricultural as it is existential and spiritual: all things must die so that new life may grow.
I like pagan thinking for its courage in recognising that darkness and death are part of the whole, for its ability to hold opposites in balance without trying to cancel them out. At high summer, it is sanguine in the face of what most of us in the northern hemisphere can hardly bear to acknowledge – the nights are already drawing in; the dark half of the year is on its way. In pagan terms, this is all exactly as it should be, making for ‘the wonderful bittersweet of Lammas’, as the website The Goddess & The Green Man puts it.
I first came across Lammas while researching modern Druidry which, as part of a wider movement of neo-paganism, seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence in contemporary Britain. Attending Druid Camp one Lammas-tide a few years ago showed me a way of appreciating what had always been a special time of year but which had, in the course of an adult, largely urban life, somehow got lost, become unnamed (extract here.) Growing up in Gloucestershire, I used to wander the fields with my pals, sucking the germ out of wheat ears, affecting boredom but in fact revelling in the indolence of August.
I don’t think you need to be a pagan to appreciate the particular qualities of this time of year. While, for most modern Britons, this time of year is more about holidays and music festivals than harvesting cereals, it’s still possible to pause and give thanks for other kinds of harvest – academic years completed, jobs done or at least survived. If you’re out and about in parks, gardens or the countryside, you’ll see the first berries ripening and the flowers of the season gone by turning to seed.
And of course, Lammas can also be a time of thankfulness that most of us have, this year, as others, our daily bread (or a gluten-free option).
If you fancy attending a Lammas event, the excellent bad witch has a list here.