Celebrating the Harvest

It was the Autumn Equinox last Sunday, a time of harvest celebrations. But what a strange year this has been! A late winter with snow in April, then drought in May, June and July, before a wet and chilly August.

The apples loved it. The extra cold helped them create more flower buds, they survived the drought, losing excess fruit without me having to thin them out, and then the rain came just in time to help the fruit swell. The first fruits were ready at the start of August, two weeks early even for our early trees, and carried on into September with larger fruit. I spent the days before we went on holiday (late August) madly making apple sauce to freeze, as this early fruit doesn’t keep and we were overflowing with apples on every counter.

Plums came at their normal time, but suffered from being eaten more than normal. The apples also had lots of wasps early on which I’ve never seen before, I assume there just wasn’t much else for them in the drought.

Blackberries came a month early – but with the cold weather finished early as well. Yet my strawberries have had a second crop and been a really delicious treat – they are still going. The raspberries cropped well in the drought but didn’t make new canes, so the autumn crop and also next summer’s are greatly reduced, even though there is plenty of rain now.

In the vegetable garden, the sweetcorn drank all the water offered so underplantings (mainly nasturtiums) all died. I had a crazy plant with a cob growing around a male flower, but it proved edible and we managed a small crop of good cobs as well. The climbing French beans were so prolific that eventually the wind blew them over. The edging and supports will all need replacing over the winter. Similarly the tomatoes grew so well in the heat I actually had to stop them at the top of their six foot stakes!

Finally, one crop I harvested but didn’t grow was barley. I promised myself last year that I would as so many Lughnasadh rituals are based around wheat – which I am allergic to, but barley is fine for me. Unfortunately I never found any small quantities of seed for sale. However, I did keep an eye on the fields around here, and spotted barley growing along a lane I sometimes cycle, with a footpath going conveniently along the edge of the field. With the drought it was harvested in mid-July, earlier than I have seen previously. So I parked up my bike, climbed the style which luckily wasn’t completely overgrown with nettles and brambles thanks to the drought, and walked along the field edge to see what had been left behind. Enough barley, and also some wheat for the rest of the family, to make a display and grind some into bread. A token amount – it takes a lot of grain for a loaf and barley I discovered is much harder to separate from the chaff than wheat, but somehow the inclusion of even a few grains of my own picked and winnowed barley seems worth it and makes the bread special. I have managed to be part of the wheel of the year and the turning of the seasons, not just an observer.

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Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh was on Tuesday this week, a festival I realise I tend to be slightly ambivalent about compared to the other fire festivals of the year. A fairly important family anniversary the day after Lughnasadh may have something to do with that, as well as the fact it normally features the grain harvest as its central message (thanks to its connection and confusion with Lammas, the Christian Loaf Mass) and I am allergic to wheat! However, this year Lughnasadh marked some major unexpected events for me that make me really look forward to the next year (more of which to follow) – so I was feeling puzzled as to why seeds are being madly sown in my life while the rest of the world is apparently at harvest, and wanted to explore some of the meanings of the festival a little deeper.

Lughnasadh, also spelt Lughnasa, Lughnasad, Lunasa etc, is an old Irish festival, named for the Celtic sun-God Lugh, and Nasadh meaning an assembly. It didn’t actually celebrate the harvest, which is frequently a little later in August; however, Lughnasadh was started as a result of the start of growing and harvesting crops. Besides, if the assembly was held at harvest time most able-bodied people would have been too busy to compete in any games!

When the Tuatha de Danaan invaded Ireland, the High King of the Fir Bolg, Eochaidh mac Eirc was killed in battle. His wife, Tailtiu, was then given a high-born son of the Danaan to raise as her own, as a mark of trust. Fostering children was a common way of creating peace between kingdoms, in the same way as marriage was used. The son she was entrusted with was Lugh.

Clearly as a way of inspiring loyalty, this was an inspired choice. Lugh flourished and developed incredible skills and talents, winning the titles Lamfhada, ‘of the long arm’ for his prowess with spear casting, and Samildanach, ‘master of all arts’. He went on to become High King, and was a Druid and a Warrior.

He remained very close to his foster mother, despite leaving to seek his fortune, and was devastated when Tailtiu died of exhaustion on 1st August after clearing a great forest on the plains of Brega in readiness for farming. (The Bronze Age had arrived in Ireland.) When the men gathered at her death-bed, she told them to hold funeral games and celebrations in her honour. As long as they were held, she prophesied Ireland would not be without song. This is of course what Lugh did.

The first games were held at the town now known as Teltown in County Meath, where they continued to be held until the Norman invasion – and informally in rural areas until the eighteenth century. They were known to include sporting contests in hurling, spear throwing, sword fighting, handball, running, wrestling, boxing, horse and chariot racing, staged battles and displays of Irish martial arts, as well as music, poetry, story-telling, singing and dancing, and competitions amongst craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, jewellers, spinners, weavers, and the forging of weaponry and armour. It was also the time that laws were made and announced to the people by bards, and contracts, politics and alliances were agreed between families. Even weddings or handfastings took place by linking hands through a hole in a stone, which could be dissolved the next year by walking away from each other if it didn’t work out. August remains one of the most popular times of year for weddings. Violence was not tolerated for the period of the festival, all those who came had to agree to a truce.

So it was Tailtiu who made the sacrifice so that man could plant corn, offering herself as the divine feminine. She was not afraid to work hard, and was an excellent mother in all senses of the word. Her festival reminds us to look at all our talents, use them, and as well as reaping our harvest, see what we can give back to others, and to the Earth. In that sense I now understand where my new seeds have come from, and what responsibility I have to nurture them and help them grow.

Corn Dollies

Last weekend was the pagan harvest festival of Lughnasadh, or Lammas if you prefer. It celebrates primarily the grain harvest, used for making the staples of beer and bread.

Once upon a time people were more aware of how all is conscious and alive and contains spirit. The corn (grain) spirit was one of the most important not only because it was such an essential part of the diet, but because barley, oats, rye, spelt, wheat etc were all annual plants. It would be a disaster if the corn spirit died over the winter, so a figure or other vessel was made and kept for the corn spirit to live in, which could then be returned to the ground in the Spring to help the new crop grow. Some areas have developed their own particular styles or shapes, which may have their own particular significance.

There is a second use of a corn dolly that I have used on occasion. Anything that you create with specific thoughts in mind will carry your intentions within it, and woven or knotted items do this particularly well. This year I wished to manifest something in my life, so focused my thoughts on the successful outcome while I wove the six stems of grass into ever repeating pentagons. The end result here is somewhere between a chalice and a horn of plenty, because that is the shape that fitted my spell. (No I’m not giving details of what the spell was for!)

Corn dolly made from grass stems

Corn dolly made from grass stems

What you see here is made from four foot long fresh grass stems cut from beside my hedge, woven into shape, and then dried out. (I did not wish to photograph the corn dolly for several days after I made it.) It is not as strong as one made from stems that are already dried, because they have shrunk slightly, but it did not require soaking to bend them into position so was doable in the time available to me. It serves its purpose. And later I will return it to the hedge.