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.
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.