Lammas Bread

Lammas

A time of harvest & honour

The word Lammas comes from a word meaning “loaf mass” from the Anglo-Saxon “hlaf-masse” or loaf-mass. It is the first harvest festival of the year and many Celtic traditions bake a special loaf for this day. Here is a Scottish recipe.

Lammas Bread

Ingredients
  • 1 lb flour – a mix of flours tastes good
  • salt to taste
  • 1/2 tsp cream or tartar
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 pint milk
  • 1 tbsp vinegar
Method
  • Place the flour in a large bowl and add a pinch of salt, plus the cream of tartar and the baking soda.
  • Pour the milk into another bowl, and stir in the vinegar.
  • Then add the milk-vinegar to the flour mixture a little bit at a time to make your dough.
  • Knead this a bit and then shape into a fine, round lump.
  • Score a cross on the top of the loaf and bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 for about 35 to 40 minutes.
  • If you would like a sweet bread add in honey raisins & dried fruit

Even if you’ve never made bread before have a go. You can vary the recipe with herbs from the garden – lavender and rosemary, together or separately make excellent flavourings; sage bread is savoury and delicious; onion bread is good with soups as well as cheese.

Lammas Bread Corn King

As a shaman, I always honour my food – the ingredients as well as the finished meal. This means sourcing them well, with concern for how they’ve been grown, prepared and marketed for all food comes from the Earth who is our mother. If we mistreat her body with chemicals, force her to bear more vegetables and/or animals than she naturally can, starve her of water, pound her skin with heavy machinery and take no notice of her seasons then we rape her as surely as any man does with an unwilling woman.

So I source my ingredients locally as far as possible, grow a lot myself, know how the animals are treated who give me my meat and milk. I even know how the bees who give me the honey are treated, and that they are local, feeding from local flowers and orchards, not being air-bussed into California from Australia !!! And the flour I use is grown here in my country, in Britain.

This sort of honouring is far more important than any prayers and rituals I may use as I’m cooking and/or eating. It’s the sort of honouring that respects the Earth and tries to listen to her, to work with her rather than forcing her into what may be convenient to me.

Sometimes I make a corn king shape for my Lammas loaf, remembering the song John Barleycorn, and eat the bread with a glass of ale from one of our local micro-breweries. Sage bread is especially good for this.

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Gaia Dancing

I just found THIS, excellent! And so much what we do in Wye’s Woman.

Dancing, tapping the skin of the Earth with your feet, rubbing your skin on hers, feeling her rhythms flow up through you … so much connection :-).

Dancing is the language of the goddess …

Sit … listen … hear … dance …

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Lammas: Corn King

Corn King by Charles Vess

The corn king, John Barleycorn for us here in Britain, is the god who sacrifices himself for the goddess, for the Land, for the good harvest to come next year. He appears in other traditions around the world, for instance as Adonis, Osiris or Tammuz.

This image is very lovely.

The Gaelic name for Lammas is Lughnassadh, celebrating the Irish sun god Lugh (pronounced Loo), and variant spellings are Lughnasadh, Lughnasad, Lughnassad, Lughnasa and Lunasa. In Ireland, races and games were held in his name and that of his mother, Tailtiu, which may have been funeral games in honour of Tailtiu who died of overwork clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture.

The Brythonic sun-god is Llew Llaw Gyffes. His name becomes Lugus with the Gauls. Llew’s totem is the eagle – a sun-bird – and all forms of his name refer to “light”. More modern forms are names like Luke, Luc in French, Lucifer which means light-bringer. I live near a river called the Lugg, this too is a form of a word for light. Llew is killed and reborn, wiser, see my here for his story.

In Celtic myth-lore the goddess often changes her guardian/spouse – see the stories of Culhwch and Olwen, Blodeuwedd, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, and many others. Sometimes the change of guardian goes from father to husband, as in Culhwch, where the prospective bridegroom must kill the father in order to obtain the daughter. It is an initiation ritual that proves the new guardian is up to the job while, at the same time, removing the old king from the scene. This is what is happening in the John Barleycorn song-story.

I also find these images of corn snakes very evocative. A friend of mine has one – a lady in that case, so a corn queen rather than king. They’re very beautiful. I’ve added a painting by Wendy Davies of twisted gold torcs … the snakes remind me of them.

The Ballad of John Barleycorn

This is the old version by Traffic

There were three men come out of the west their fortunes for to try

And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn should die.

They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throw’d clods all on his head

And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time till the rain from heaven did fall

And little Sir John he throw’d up his head and he so amazed them all.

They let him lie till the long midsummer, till he looked all pale and wan,

Then little Sir John grow’d a long, long beard and so became a man.

They hired the men with the scythe so sharp to cut him down at the knee,

They rolled him and tied him around by the waist, served him most barbarously.

They hired the men with sharp pitchforks and they pierced him to the heart.

But the loader he served him far worse than that for he bound him to the cart.

They wheeled him around and around of the field till they came upon a barn,

And these three men made a solemn mow of poor John Barleycorn.

They hired the men with the crab tree sticks and they beat him skin from bone.

But the miller he served him far worse than that for he ground him between two stones.

There’s little Sir John in the nut brown bowl and brandy in the cask.

And little Sir John in the nut brown bowl proved the stronger man at last.

For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor so loudly blow his horn,

And the tinker he can’t mend his kettles nor his pots without a little drop of John Barleycorn.

If you follow the verses through you’ll see how it begins with the ploughing, sowing and harrowing of the field, then goes on to sowing with the “seed of the king” – which really is meant to be taken both ways, as corn seed and semen. And the field too is meant as the earth, the soil, and the womb of the Earth, of Sovereignty.

In verse two, little Sir John raises up his head, the first green of the corn breaks the surface of the earth, we know that there is hope, there is return, the food is likely to grow this year and we will not starve. At the end of the verse little Sir John grows a beard, the tassel of the corn appears.

In the third verse, the harvest happens. The corn is cut, scythed, it is made into stooks and bound to the cart to be carried off to the barn.

In the fourth verse they wheel the cart around and around the field, partly to pick up all the stooks but also in a ritual walking of the field which has given them the grain they hoped for, an honouring of the Land. The corn is beaten with “crab tree sticks”, that’s branches of the crab-apple tree which is an ancient tree but also a good wood for threshing the corn. Threshing is the meaning of “beat him skin from bone”. And finally the miller grinds the corn between the great millstones.

In the last verse the ale is made, the corn is transformed and transmuted from a plant into a health-giving drink. Ale was (and is) good food as well as drink, there is much goodness for the body as well as the pleasures (and pitfalls!) of intoxication J. The reference to fox hunting is repellent nowadays and is probably a fairly late insertion, like the tinker. The original may well have referred to hunting, but for food animals not “the pleasure of killing”.

So, the song is about the growing of the corn, harvesting and making ale. It makes its references as if the corn is a person and, in ancient days, it would have been the king. Human sacrifice took place in all lands. Human life was, and still is to most humans, the most precious gift that could be given to the gods, the power of blood is known worldwide.

With its habitual de-paganising zeal, the Christian church recycled Lammas as the harvest festival. Traditionally on this day a new loaf of bread was offered at mass as the first-fruit of the harvest. In the good old days when bread was truly your harvest fruit – you tilled the land, planted the grain and watered to soil to make it grow – the making of the Lamas/Lughnasadh loaf was packed with mystical symbolism. The breadmaker and those who ate it were acutely aware of their relationship with Mother Earth – a relationship not of words but of conscious interaction. Quite different from buying a loaf in your local supermarket off the bakery shelf! These days bread-making is a mechanised process and you have had nothing to do with the planting, growing and harvesting of the grain.

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Lammas: Old Country Customs

Just like the Sun God whose heat nourished its growth, the grain which goes into bread must be cut down in its prime to be useful. Death is necessary for life to flourish, otherwise  life dies. In the past humankind the world over acknowledged this relationship between death and life – harvesting grain for bread and seeds for next year’s crop – through ceremonies and rituals.

Corn Dolly from Winterspells

The presiding figure was often female, the Corn Dolly, made from the last corn to be cut. In northern Europe she was known as the Corn Mother, in Scotland as the Carline, meaning Old Woman. On the island of Islay she was the Old Wife, the Cailleach, which is the title Ceridwen takes. After harvest Islay’s Cailleach was hung up on the wall until ploughing time for the next year’s crop. On the first day of ploughing the mistress of the house divided her among the men going to plough the field. They took the Old Wife in their pockets and fed her to the horses when they reached the field, thus ensuring a good harvest next year.

This picture is from Winterspells – very beautiful.

In Wales (north Pembrokeshire) a plaited tuft of the last corn was known as the Hag (wrach). The reapers would throw their sickles at the last patch of standing corn and the one who succeeded in cutting it down received a jug of home-brewed ale. Sometimes the lucky reaper would try to bring the Hag into the farmhouse without being seen. The inhabitants would be waiting with buckets and pans of water to drench him. If he managed to get the Hag in dry and undetected, the farmer had to pay him a small fine or sometimes a small cask of the best beer. Then the Hag would be hung up on a nail and kept until the following year.

Some harvest celebrations are rather curious, like the biblical Pesach (“hobbling”) ceremony performed at Beth-Hoglah in Canaan, where devotees danced in a spiral imitating the partridge’s way of hobbling. In ancient Greece male dancers hobbling and wearing wings performed an erotic partridge dance in honour of the Moon Goddess.

Other celebrations take life and death literally, like the Indians of Guayaquil in Ecuador who used to sacrifice human blood and men’s hearts when they sowed their fields (In one year they were said to sacrifice hundreds of children to make sure their crops flourished!) The Khond, a Dravidian race in Bengal, ritually sacrificed choice victims and distributed their flesh among every family in the tribe to bury it in their fields. Human sacrifice, whether real or symbolic, plays a key role in the harvest culture. Frequently the victim was a total stranger, chosen for sacrifice not out of any personal animosity towards him but merely because he happened to be passing by at the “right time”.

And, look up the rites of the Corn King and the Eleusinian Mysteries. If you fancy an excellent story that’s also telling the rites read Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die” and you’ll find the story of the Eleusinian mysteries about 1/3 through, after Theseus comes down from his trials on the Isthmus. Remember, the ancient Greeks were Celts too.

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The Bad Guys

In fiction, the most plausible and interesting villains do not believe they are the bad guys. In very basic stories for children, the bad guys act in certain ways because they are bad, and that seems like reason enough. However, in real life, how many people act in a way that they consider to be deliberately evil? The Nazis genuinely believed that ‘racial purity’ was a good thing. Most people who act in a way others find objectionable, have a rationale for doing so.

Which raises an interesting question. Both from a writing perspective, and a sense of self awareness, how do we actually know if we are the good guys? When life runs along smoothly and everyone is happy, then everyone can be right, without conflict or reason for doubt. However, when there are radically different perspectives on what constitutes ‘good’ how do we know where we stand? Further, would we actually want to know if, by an objective measure (assuming there is one) we have become the villain of the piece?

I imagine that from his perspective, the Sheriff of Nottingham was a decent bloke trying to do a hard job, hampered by criminals and uncooperative peasants. I think there’s a tendency in British myth and story making to favour the person who has the least power as being the more morally justified. On some very basic level, most of us do not believe that might is really right, and we are suspicious of those who wield power. That’s even more curious when you think about the shape of our culture and legal system which is far less pro self defence than, for example, America. In terms of how we run the country, I could argue that the UK is full of people who believe they are Robin Hood, when in fact they are the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Are the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ things that we can establish objectively, or are they to some degree relativistic? What is happily ever after for the fox is a tale of tragedy for the rabbit. While it’s preferable to have situations where everyone benefits, often what is good for one proves harmful for another. How do we judge our own actions in light of this?

I find myself with far fewer points of reference for who I am than feels comfortable right now, and a handful of different ways of making sense of my own history. I tend to understand myself, and others, not through belief about who we are, but through actions. Doing is everything, but I do not currently know how to do anything. How do I step far enough back from myself to be able to see a bigger picture? How can I be certain whether I am Robin Hood, or the Sheriff of Nottingham? Am I even in the right story here?

Most of the time, as we write our own life stories, we cast ourselves as the heroes. Our actions make perfect sense in light of our motives and perceptions. We are doing the right things, for the right reasons. But if our whole world view crashes against a radically different perception, what then? If in someone else’s tale you stalk menacingly through their life, bringing grief and destruction, how do you deal with that other story of who you are? I find myself thinking of Douglas Adams, and the entity Arthur Dent inadvertently kills in all its incarnations. The ‘hero’ is unwittingly transformed into something hideous and malicious in the eyes of the victim, without even knowing what he has done. In other people’s stories, we can play very different roles, without knowing it.

Who am I, in my own story? Victim or aggressor? Hero or villain? Success or failure? In reality, these distinctions are too basic to be meaningful, and most of us are both at some time or another.

What a good novel should have …

Of course, this is only my opinion but for a good novel must have the following attributes …

  • Fully 3D characters
  • Excellent description of places, so you feel you are there
  • Complexity – nothing is simply black or white
  • Heroes who get it wrong some of the time
  • Bad guys who get it right some of the time
  • Events and characters that explode cliches
  • The ability to make you think, turn your values upside-down, if only a little
  • The story should grow you, your attitudes, as it does those of the protagonist

Novels that have all this do not grow on trees :-).

I’m currently re-reading Frank Herbert’s “Whipping Star”, it has all of these qualities and is still brilliantly thought provoking after 38 years.

What do you think? What makes a good novel for you?

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Stories in the Land

There’s a strong relationship between land and story, or at least, there should be. For one, stories happen somewhere, even long, long ago and far, far away is somewhere. Knowing the stories of a landscape you are in enriches the experience of being there, and knowing the landscape enriches the story. From a bardic perspective, this is definitely something to bear in mind. Crafting stories, exploring place and history, and seeking inspiration should all include a sense of land. Everything happens somewhere.

There are stories that exist purely to explain a feature of the land – often supernatural creation stories for notable features. Silbury hill was made by a man who lugged a bag of shoes there as part of a ruse to keep the devil out of Salisbuy. Some stories are born of place names – making Bromsgrove the grave of the giant Brom. Others focus on a feature – as in the story that sitting and Caedr Idris all night will make you into a poet, or a madman. It’s a way of making sense of the world as we find it.

Some land stories come from actual history – battles, heroic ventures, and events that changed things. Bosworth field and Hastings have their stories, and people visit them because of the history. Sometimes those true tales blur into myth. Tintagel becomes part of the Arthur myth, Joseph of Aremathea gets tied up with Glastonbury. We place stories in the land, and in so doing own the myths for our own part of the country. King Arthur crops up just about everywhere in the UK. By placing a story ‘here’ we make it our own. Local history gives colour to where you live, a sense of connection with the past, a way of relating to ancestors of place.

Some tales grow out of misconceptions. There’s a hill near where I am just now, called ‘Smallpox Hill’ because there was an isolation hospital on it. On the side, you can see several distinctive raised mounds. Local legend has it that these are mass graves for all the people who died. More likely these are the remains of early Norman rabbit warrens. People fit features together to make coherent tales.

We make up stories about what we see – I’ve just shown my son how to interpret some of the hills as a pair of sleeping dragons. We’ve done that other places too, improvising our own myths. Where such things catch on, they become part of the narrative of a place.

Modern writers add to the richness of the stories. Kevan Manwaring’s The Long Woman works with the Long Man of Willmington. Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen works with and adds to older myths. Dr Who has a habit of using iconic UK landmarks as settings, adding in an alien twist, making new legends. There are many more such examples. It’s fun. It adds to the story, helps to draw the audience in.

Some places are richer in stories than others. Folklore can be hunted for. If there’s a shortage, new tales can be made to fill in the gaps. I think, in fact, that new tales should be made. If a land is impoverished, storywise, we ought to create new ones. We can also add in our own stories, taken from our families or our own time in a place. Sharing those tales with others is a sweet thing to do. These days people move round a lot, but it is good to go back, to remember, and to tell the tales.

Telling the stories is an honouring of place, and of ancestors, it connects us with the land and lends extra beauty and resonance to our tales.