Friday, July 22, 2016

John Barleycorn And Other Legends For Lughnasadh

Traditionally the first day of the First Harvest  is known on the ancient Celtic calendar as Lughnasadh. The Feast of Lugh, or more accurately, the feast in remembrance of his foster mother Tailtu, who died from exhaustion after clearing a field after she and her people were defeated by the Tuatha De Dannan in Ireland. Her death coincided with the yearly grain/cereal harvest. Lugh made a solemn vow that her selfless sacrifice would never be forgotten. At least for me, the real meaning of Lughnasadh is giving thanks for personal harvests, the sacrifices of ourselves and others that made that bounty possible. We sing and dance, light bonfires and share seasonal food as a way to acknowledge the promise of the continuation of life. In another age it was one of the times popular for trial handfastings for a year and a day. Lughnasadh marks the beginning of the harvest cycle in the Northern Hemisphere, and is the first of the harvest-themed sabbats celebrated by witches and neo-Pagans. It is also one of the cross-quarter days of the Wheel of the Year, days positioned half way between the Solstices and Equinoxes. ( It is mid-point between the Summer Solstice, or Litha, and the Autumnal Equinox, or Mabon.)

Lugh himself was a Sun god in the Celtic pantheon, often referred to as Lugh of the Long Spear (remember that Ancient Celtic stories are a part of an oral tradition, so that the myths and attributes of the main characters are often tailored to the specific area and audience to which the story is being told). Olympic-type games are featured at celebrations honoring Lugh-as well as the brewing of beer, mead and malt products. The stories of Lugh have changed and morphed over the years, and by the 17th century we see a secularized version of the myth featuring John Barley Corn as the personification of the grain deity. Scottish Poet Robert Burns immortalized him in 1782. The character of John Barley Corn has been remembered in countless songs (and many versions of those songs) until modern times. In the troubadour tradition, Steve Winwood, then the lead singer of the rock band Traffic, recounts the life and death of the hero in the song "John Barley Corn Must Die"(1970), one of the most familiar known versions of the story.

Many of the earlier versions have the protagonist being murdered by three kings of unspecified identity; later ones identify the assailants as mere mortal men reduced to the foul deed by drink.
The main concept of the story in all versions remains that the mysterious John Barley Corn was willingly killed, shedding his blood for the good of all in the manner of a dying god, and then being triumphantly resurrected.

In some places a kinder, gentler form of the corn/grain deity exists in the Corn Dolly. Variations of the spirit of the crop lived in the Corn Mother, or goddess of European origin. Effigies of her were woven out of straw and hung in the home as a talisman. (The most common version seen in the US today is the corn husk doll in Autumn.) Other times stylized fetishes were made out of shocks of corn still standing in the fields and often plowed under as an offering to the land.

Much later the pagan festivals were superseded by a Christian feast day in both the Roman and Orthodox Churches known as Lammas ("Loaf Mass", from the Saxon hlaf mas). On August 1st, tradition held that a loaf of bread freshly baked from the recently harvested crop was brought to the Church for blessing, then bits of the bread were distributed to the four corners of the keeping place where the grain was stored to protect it. Another custom says the bread must be given as an offering to the Church as an annual tribute to the Pope in Rome (" Pope Pence"). As with the ancient pagan oral traditions, many versions of customs related to Lammas exists; some are still in existence today, but most are long forgotten. Beginning in August and lasting until late November, countless harvest festivals abound in numerous forms, the prominent activity being a display of baked goods, apple cider pressing,and crafts.

At home my personal altar is laid with a few pieces of  wheat, an ear of corn and a dish of barley. Late summer flowers are included. The Great Offering is made with corn cakes and mead or apple cider. I have also used barley water sweetened with honey. I use corresponding colors of yellow, red, orange and greens. My invocations are addressed to corn goddesses such as Demeter and Ceres, and include Sun gods such as Lugh of the Long Arm. I especially love to include the Song of Lughnasadh by Caitlin Matthews from the Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayer and Blessings. One year we built a ritual around the legend of John Barley Corn, using stanzas of the song to help tell the story of sacrifice and renewal of the land. I often make simple corn husk dolls or straw braids tied with red ribbons to hang around the house or give to friends.

Something else I like to do is bread bread to give away. This is my favorite wheat bread recipe. It is one I learned about 30 years ago and still stands the test of time. Delicious right out of the oven with fresh butter ( I recommend Kerry Gold if you don't have anything local ):

2 Tbs. dry yeast
¾ C . warm water
1- 12 oz can evaporated milk
¾ tsp salt
½ C.  honey
1 ½ C. boiling water
7-8 C. whole wheat flour
1 C. unbleached white flour

> Put yeast in warm water to activate 10 minutes
>In large mixing bowl, whisk together milk, salt, honey, boiling water; mix in activated yeast
>Whisk in one cup at a time whole wheat flour. Knead in 1 ½ cups flour until dough is no longer sticky. On a well-floured surface, knead in more flour until smooth and elastic. Let rest 10 minutes. While allowing dough to rest butter two pans for bread.
>Cut dough in half, work half at a time. Knead five minutes more and cut into three 18 inches strips to braid bread. Braid dough and shape into ring.
> Place each braided ring into buttered pan or cookie sheet and let rise 30 minutes.
> Bake in moderate oven until loaf sounds hollow, or 2-3 hours in solar cooker.

How ever you choose to celebrate Lughnasadh, be bountifully and  joyously blessed!

[ Lyrics and audio version of John Barley Corn is Dead can be found here:]

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