July 22nd 2018
1st August marks the next festival on the Pagan wheel of the Year - Lammas, or the First Harvest. For modern witches who are new to the path and living in the city, this might seem like a perplexing festival, as it can seem like it is full of alien concepts. To help it make sense, we have to think of it in its original rural context, and think about what is happening in the agricultural world at this time of year. You do not need to travel very far outside of London or the other British cities in order to see the evidence of Lammas time all around you. I am in the outer edges of North London - just across the border from here in Hertfordshire, the corn fields which have grown golden in the summer sunshine are already being cut.
Lammas marks the first of three harvests - the grain, the fruit, and the meat harvests that take place over the next three festivals, so we have Lammas (grain), Autumn Equinox (fruit) and Samhain (blood). We have already passed the Midsummer Solstice point, so we must acknowledge that the days are already growing shorter, but we are still in the intense heat of summer. At this time, farmers will be harvesting the grain - corn, wheat, barley - and drying it, prior to threshing to separate the wheat from the chaff. The activities in the fields illustrate many of the themes of Lammas, and it is crucial to think of these in order to understand the first harvest festival.
THE SHORTENING DAYS OF LATE SUMMER
The long days of summer will start to grow shorter now as we move into the dark half of the year. So we turn our attention to the coming winter. What stores can we put away now in order to sustain us through the long dark nights ahead? What are you harvesting in your life? What have you poured your loving attention into this year? Is it yielding fruit?
THRESHING THE GRAIN
The process of sparating the corn from the chaff - this has to be done by a process of threshing, which is a harsh process. Historically, in rural communities, this would have been done by a process of beating the corn stalks with a flail to separate the grain. You will notice in representations of fertility gods that they take on a dual quality f life and death, love and pain. For instance, the green-faced Egyptian god Osiris, is presented in his osiride position, where he stands holding a crook (for herding animals into the safety of the pen) and a flail (for threshing the grain) as fertility often comes with both pain and love.
This threshing process, then, often becomes a metaphor for the process we have to go through in life - learning, growing and coming into our power as fully developed adults (and witches) can sometimes be a painful process.
THE ANIMALS OF THE FIELD
We also think about the animals of the field who are affected by the grain harvest - while the grain was growing taller, it offered refuge to the wildlife that thrives within the safety of the corn stalks - field mice, birds nesting in the hedgerows, crickets chirring in the fields, and hares, which were given a level of invisibility. Suddenly, you may start to see startled hares in the fields, exposed and caught unawares. The whirring of the crickets is silences, and the fields can look bare and stubby, with the tall, graceful corn stalks cut down so rapidly.
Traditionally, all of the fields would be harvested, leaving one last sheaf of corn in the field still standing, which would be cut as part of the Lammas celebrations. In folk tradition, this is the sheaf that represents the harvest goddess, or more commonly, John Barleycorn. John Barleycorn is the harvest representation of the sacrificial god - cut down in his prime in order to sustain us. In Wicca we acknowledge this as part of the natural cycle of life - life is immortal for the living must die. We are all subject to the natural cycles of birth and death, and sometimes the death brings a sustaining force for the living who are left behind. In the case of John Barleycorn, he is sacrificed in order to make bread and brandy or ale. If the theme seems familair to you (if you have come from an Abrahamic upbringing) it should - the sacrficial Sun god is a theme common throughout many religions - the sun / son (of) god, who is given to the earth to sustain or save humanity, only to be sacrificed, and then rise again to offer renewed hope of the spirit eternal.
WAYS TO CELEBRATE LAMMAS
Our Lammas circle will be resonating with the Lammas themes throughout - the circle might be decorated with poppies, sunflowers, and corn sheafs. We will toast John Barleycorn with the fruits of his sacrifice - we will eat bread, and drink brandy, and we may sybolically re-enact his sacrifice. As a solitary witch, there are many ways you can celebrate this festical without a coven around you. You may:
Make bread at this time. Making bread by hand is an essential learning for any witch in practice, so that you understand the effort it takes (or doesn't) to produce something as basic as bread. There is a really good recipe for making bread here on the BBC Food website.
Make a Corn Dolly - Cathy James does a good and easy step by step instruction on her website here.
Decorate your altar with seasonal produce - wheat, grass, poppies, sunflowers, etc.
Meditate on the Empress tarot card - she is the mother of fertility and of the harvest, and her symbols can help you delve more deeply intot his festival.
Listen or sing along to John Barleycorn (please see my other blog post here).