Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles, and Celebrations
Lammas 2004, Vol 3-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
point of summer is like a well-seasoned woman. The galloping growth of
spring and sweet blush of early summer have slowed and faded in her sweltering
heat. She's slower now, and surer. Strong and steady. She's salty and
sultry and a little bit dusty. A little wrinkled. A little weary. A whole
lot wiser. She bears the fruits of her own labors, and she wears them
well. By midsummer, Dame Nature has grown tired of her wardrobe with it's
dizzy palette of vibrant greens, vivid pinks, randy reds and a profusion
of pretty pastels. She now prefers the warmer, deeper, richer tones more
flattering to her present station: the time of proud maturity which Ms.
Brody would term her prime.
The summer cross-quarter day marks the ripening season. Trees and vines, stems and stalks are hung heavy with the abundance of the earth. Mushrooms push themselves up uninvited onto the musty floor of the dark forest. Animals, birds, and fish, fat from their greedy feasts -- and lazy -- all but offer themselves up to the hunters who are a step above them on the food chain. Summer crops are ready for the table, read to be collected and prepared for the larder. But it is the growth of the grain which holds the strongest significance of the midsummer season in agrarian societies. Grain, the staple, the sustenance, the stuff, the staff of life.
From grain comes bread. Bread making is one of the oldest human arts. The calcified remains of cakes made from coarsely ground grain which date back to the Stone Age have been found in Swiss lake-dwellings at Wangen and Robenhausen. Perhaps the first form of bread was prepared from crushed acorns and beech nuts, a recipe still used in many Native North American cuisines. The procedure for making acorn bread involves a step wherein the bitter juices of the nut must be leeched out -- repeatedly soaked and then squeezed -- before the pulp is rendered palpable. South American Indians and Africans use the same method to remove the poison in taro and manioc before grinding it into an edible flour.
How in the world did the first person ever think of making bread? The idea is an extremely clever and sophisticated one involving an almost magical-alchemical conversion of matter in consort with the elemental forces of nature. Consider the process: In fields of wild flowers tall grasses grow. First green, then gold, they yield tiny compact kernels which, if first stripped of their papery casings, then pounded and ground into powder, can be mixed with water and baked by fire to produce bread!
The hard seed pellets of wild and cultivated grasses need to be processed in a somewhat complicated manner in order to be rendered palatable. The development of clay pots, and the kilns in which they were fired, suggested innovative ways of preparing grain for consumption, revolutionizing forevermore the dietary habits of the vast majority of people worldwide. Bread in its endless unleavened varieties -- flat bread, fry bread, oat cake, johnny cake, tortilla, pita, paratha, papdam, naan, grêên, matzoh, blini -- as well as other cereal stuffs -- porridge, pozole, polenta, pone, pilaf, pasta, tsampa, tamale, conjee, kasha, cous cous, gruel, grits, mush -- soon replaced animal flesh as the staff of life. This carbohydrate-concentrated fare was augmented with greens, gathered and grown, and seasoned with only the occasional portion of a feast meat offering.
bread has long been thought to be the one essential food. The bare necessity,
along with water, for survival. The sustenance of prisoners and penitents,
sinners and saints, alike. Bread has come, in fact, to symbolize food
itself. Its vital importance is clear in such common expressions as "earning
one's bread," "taking the bread out of somebody's mouth,"
"knowing which side one's bread is buttered on," and "thank
you for our daily bread." In English slang, bread equals money,
another essential commodity. "Having a bun in the oven" is such
a marvelous metaphor for pregnancy. The nurturance of life baked in the
warm and nurturing womb of Mother Nature.
Considering this miracle of transformation, it is no wonder that bread was held to have curative and magical powers. In Belgium, bread was placed in the cradle to protect the baby from illness or harm. In Egypt, it was considered a cure for indigestion. In Morocco, it was a specific against stammering. And in certain backwoods' communities of the United States, bread, when placed with coffee under a house, was said to keep away the ghosts. Saint Hildegard, abbess of the Bingen convent in the twelfth century, prescribed bread as a cure for loss of mind which had been caused by a magic spell. In order to be efficacious, the loaf first had to be in inscribed, "May God, who cast away all precious stones from the devil ... cast away from thee all phantoms and all magic spells, and free thee from the pain of madness."
New houses were blessed and friendships sealed, oaths taken, agreements consecrated, contracts made by eating bread and salt. The sharing of bread is associated with peace and the resolving of differences which begins with basic hospitality. Eating a meal together is the most prevalent way people admit a stranger into a kinship relationship. A sacramental and physical union of communality is born of having the same food in your stomach as someone else has in hers. Participation in such intimate accord creates an inviolate sympathetic bond between sister/fellow diners. It is unthinkable to engage in armed conflict with someone having once eaten together. The Egyptian hieroglyphic for peace, hotep, is a loaf of bread resting on a reed mat.
English girls used to appeal to the three goddesses of fate by passing bread crumbs three times through a wedding ring, in order to be rewarded with a glimpse of their future husbands. Bread has even been used as an aphrodisiac. French brides used to arouse the passion of their new husbands by sharing with them a sweet baked loaf called "the bride's pasty," the forerunner of our wedding cake. On the flip side, abused wives would visit the shrine of Saint Wilgerfort in Saint Paul's Cathedral in London with offerings of pecks of cut grain and prayers for their husbands who were, perhaps, too aroused and rowdy to drop dead soon. Apparently their pleas were heard, because Saint Wilgerfort gained the nickname, Saint Uncumber.
The reaping of the first ripened grain was great cause for celebration in honor of the Great Grain Mother who feeds us all. She has been known by many names: Astarte, Ashtoreth, Isis, Demeter, Ceres, Ops, Terra Mater, Tailltiu, Chicomecoatl, Green Corn Girl, Blue Corn Girl. The English word Lady is derived from the Old English, hlaf-dig. The root word, hlaf, means loaf. Dig means knead. Used together, they have the connotation of woman, lady of the house, as provider, "giver of daily bread."
Though still surrounded by the glorious bounty of the season, the summer midpoint offers the earliest intimations of mortality. The lady is of a certain age. The light is lessening; the year has entered its dark half. There are new spaces in the dense foliage where the first leaves have begun to drop. And it becomes clear in the hunt and in the harvest that some things must die so that others may live. And so the taking of life, animal and vegetable, becomes a sacrificial act surrounded with much awe and 'please and thanks' and praise. Life is never to be taken lightly.
In gratitude, people made offerings of the first harvested ears of corn -- corn being the generic term for a multitude of grains: wheat, barley, millet, oats, rice, rye, spelt, quinoa, buckwheat, sorghum, as well as what we know as maize or Indian corn. Fresh cut sheaves were bundled and braided, decorated with ribbons and flowers and placed at the altars of the Grain Mother. Considered very potent, the first corn was also held to be an effective love charm, symbolizing as it did, fertility, prosperity and growth. Throwing rice at the bride and groom after a wedding is a relic of this belief.
In pagan Europe, the first sheaths at midsummer and the last sheaths at the autumn harvest were twisted and shaped into corn dollies which were the embodiment of the harvest. She was called Corn Mother, Harvest Mother, Mother Sheaf, Old Woman, Queen, and was honored in different ways in different places. She was left in the fields. She was taken to dances. She was promenaded through the town. She was kept for good luck for one year. She was ceremonially cremated on a funeral pyre to be resurrected in the sowing of the spring seeds. Whatever the occasion, she was always well dressed.
Bread, too, was traditionally offered. Teutonic women who had once made offerings of their own hair to the goddess developed the braided loaves which are popular in Germany. These were called Berches, or Berchesbrot, or bread offered to the Goddess Berchta. German Jews developed the contemporary form of the biblical Sabbath bread, Challah, from the Berches bread. The Swedish custom of baking bread from the last sheaf of grain in the shape of a young girl recalls a much earlier sacrifice to the Great God/dess of the Fields of Grain.
Symbol for life that it was, bread represented and was revered as the body of the deity whose gift it was. The Egyptians were among the first to eat their god in the form of bread. Wheat was cultivated on the mummy case of Osiris with which communion cakes were made. Worshippers could, by eating them, partake of the divinity of the god, and like him, become mortal. The flesh of Adonis and Dionysus was likewise consumed symbolically as wheaten cakes. And the blood of Dionysus as well as that of Bacchus was drunk as wine. In Aztec Mexico, twice a year in May and December effigies of the god Huitzilopochtli were molded from dough made of roasted maize with beet seeds and honey. These were broken into pieces and shared by his devotes.
The Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, the offering of the body of Christ to his father, God, is a direct descendent of this ancient pagan practice. The official church doctrine of Transubstantiation -- that the bread and wine are the actual, literal body and blood of Jesus -- calls for absolute faith in the impossible. This created quite a controversy and by the Middle Ages it drew widespread dissent from within the ranks of the Church. Eventually this resulted in the formation of the first Protestant churches. Voltaire's summation of the Transubstantiation quarrels was, "Catholics eat God but not bread; Calvinists eat bread but not God; and the Lutherans eat both."
Most nourishing of all bread, the holy host has been credited with being able to put out fires, fertilize fields, stimulate a hive's honey production, keep caterpillars out of the vegetable garden, cure sick pigs and gain freedom for incarcerated prisoners. There was a time when people would abstain from swallowing the host that the priest placed in their hand at Mass so that they could secret it away to horde for a rainy day. (You never knew when you might need a love charm, or a healing amulet!) Determined to keep the host in the province of the Church and not the service of the devil, priests began dispensing the host directly onto their congregants' tongue. Although now in the age of AIDS, some churches have reverted to offering the body of Christ hand-to-hand.
The summer cross-quarter
day was celebrated by the Saxons as Hlaf Mass, "Feast of Bread,"
and by the Celts as Lughnasadh, "Commemoration of Lugh."
Lugh was the grain god, son of Mother Earth. Every August he was sacrificed
with the reaping of the corn only to be born again in the new shoots of
spring exactly as had been the Egyptian Osiris. At the moment of death,
according to Egyptian scriptures, a person is also a kernel of grain,
"which falls into the earth in order to draw from her bosom a new
life." Loaf Mass and Lugh Mass evolved into Lammas,
the Druid corn feast, one of the four cornerstone festivals around which
their year revolved. When the Church adopted (co-opted) Lammas, it was
referred to as Lamb's Mass in commemoration of St. Peter in Chains, and
the practice of the offering of the first fruits on the altar remained
exactly the same.
All of these celebrations of the first corn were observed on August 1. Named for Juno Augusta of Rome, August was particularly sacred to the Goddess-Who-Gives-All-Life-and-Feeds-It-Too. It was considered for this reason an especially propitious time to be born. To this day, when a Scot says that someone was born in August, it is a compliment in praise of skilled accomplishment, with absolutely no bearing on the person's actual birthday.
The midsummer cross-quarter day is the only one of the four which is not still actively celebrated in our contemporary culture. Midsummer is celebrated in Europe, but there it refers to June 21, the first day of summer and not the middle at all. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream actually takes place on the Summer Solstice. The only living vestige of Lammas in the United Stated is a rural holiday called Second Planting. But unless you read the Farmer's Almanac or belong to the Grange or 4H Clubs, you would have no reason to hear about it. It is celebrated exactly as Midsummer has always been celebrated. The first grain is harvested, threshed, milled, baked into bread and cake, then shared in community. After a night of feasting and dancing, work starts again at first light planting the second crop of summer wheat which will mature by the fall harvest.
How can we, separated from the agricultural process by city and century, appreciate the atmosphere of the season which surrounds us, but which we cannot see? What is the Goddess of Grain to us of the boulangerie? The patisserie? We who buy our grain in bags, in boxes, premixed, premeasured, prepackaged, prepared; sown, grown, harvested, hulled, milled, by someone else, somewhere else. How can we identify with the earth values taught by Terra Mater during this time of year, we who are held captive in the synthetic heart of this poptart culture which claims us?
Well, we can behave, as they say, as if we were born in August. We can, in fact, become august -- wise and generous and gloriously noble, each in our own chosen paths. We can hone our skills as the tenders of Mother Earth. We can hoe our row. We can carry our load. We can break bread together. We can feed the hungry.
We reap what we sow.