Dying and Rising – The God of Grain at Lammas

Dying and Rising

The God of Grain at Lammas

by Melanie Fire Salamander

Lammas, to the Irish Lughnassah, comes at the first of August, the year’s first harvest festival. From the Old English “hlaf-maess,” “loaf Mass” or “loaf feast,” “Lammas” in Christian times was the Mass at which the first loaves of new grain were blessed on the altar. It’s clear, however, that under a thin Christian layer, a pagan feast survived. The early Scots knew Lammas as one of the quarter days for paying rents; Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legendcalls this an obvious Christianizing of an old Saxon first-fruit festival, when tenants brought the first new grain to their landlords. The English also used Lammas as a day of accounts and reckoning, and “at latter Lammas” is an English folk phrase meaning never, or at the day of last accounting. In the Scottish Highlands on Lammas Day, people smeared their floors and cows with menstrual blood, an action of especial protective power at Lammas and at Beltaine.

Lammas comes down to us trailing half-forgotten associations: the death and rebirth of the Grain God, the mystical link between a ruler and the Goddess of the Land. As a first fruits festival, Lammas marks a time of hope and fear, when the people sacrifice the first of the harvest to the gods, praying that the rest can be gathered without trouble or bad weather. All farmers recognize that grain and fruit, riches in the fields, remain unsafe until brought in, and the ancients sacrificed accordingly.

As Lughnassah, this Sabbat is the wake of Lugh, an Irish god whose name means “light” or “brightness.” In the Mediterranean, it marks the death of the Grain God, known by various names. Now the Goddess becomes the Reaper, as Starhawk writes in The Spiral Dance, “the Implacable One who feeds on life that new life may grow.”

Gods of grain and mourning

Grain is traditionally associated with gods that die and are reborn. In southern climates, this grain is corn, rice, or millet; in northern climates rye, barley or oats; in temperate climates wheat, as Pauline Campanelli points out in Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. The people of ancient Akkad, around 2000 B.C., believed at harvest their grain god Tammuz was slain by another god and went to the underworld. Tammuz was the beloved of Ishtar, great goddess of life and love, and as Ishtar mourned all Nature stopped its cycles of birth and reproduction. They only recurred when She traveled to the land of death to bring Tammuz back.

The Assyrians, Babylonians and Phoenicians called Tammuz Adonis, meaning “lord”; the Greeks took that title as the proper name of the god. Child of the myrrh tree, Greek Adonis, most handsome of young men, seduced both love goddess Aphrodite and Persephone, queen of the dead. The two goddesses battled bitterly over Him. Zeus solved the argument by making Adonis split his time between the sunny glades of Aphrodite and the dark underworld of Persephone, six months a year with each. Adonis died in a boar hunt, the pig throughout the Mediterranean region being sacred to the Great Goddess. He drew his last breaths in a bed of lettuce, associated by the Greeks with death and sterility.

Adonis was a god beloved of women, his chief cultists concubines and courtesans. At the World Wide Web site http://www.arches.uga.edu/~maliced/gothgard/, mAlice reports that Adonis’s devotees grew on their rooftops gardens of fast-sprouting lettuce, barley, wheat and fennel in baskets and small pots. Each garden surrounded a statue of the god. Adonis’s followers planted their ritual gardens when the sun was at its hottest; the plants quickly sent up shoots and just as quickly withered in the sun. Their gardens grew only eight days, after which Adonis’s worshipers threw the withering sprouts into the sea, along with images of the god. At the death of Adonis, the Greek women filled the cities with their keening.

In other cultures, the grain god is killed between millstones, as the grain is ground to make flour. In Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, Pauline Campanelli associates the circular motion of the millstones with Caer Arianrod, the castle of the goddess Arianrod, also known as the Castle of the Silver Wheel. In Welsh myth, Caer Arianrod is the dwelling place of the dead. Arianrod had a son Llew Llaw, remarkable for his rapid growth, called by different mythographers both a sun god and a grain god. One of the first feats to proclaim his godhead was killing a gold-crest wren, which connects him with the cycle of the Oak King and Holly King. Llew Llaw, a god of death and resurrection, was destroyed through his wife Blodeuwedd, the Flower Face, who like Persephone starts as a goddess of flowers and young spring and becomes a goddess of death.

Llew Llaw is a cognate of the Irish Lugh, or Lug mac Ethne, whose Lughnassah occurs August 1. Celebrants held Lughnassah every year in Ireland at Telltown on the River Boyne, where a mound still marks the spot, according to Funk and Wagnalls. The Irish books of lore The Dinnsenchas and The Book of Invasions and Keating’s History of Ireland all say that Telltown took its name from Tailtiu, Lugh’s foster mother, buried on that spot, and that Lugh instituted Lughnassah fair as an annual memorial.

The Great Rite at Lughnassah

This tale probably reworks a more ancient one forgotten by later generations. Funk and Wagnalls notes that “nasad” seems related to words meaning “to give in marriage.” Telltown fair featured a marriage market; as the men stood on one side, the women on the other, their parents settled marriage contracts between them. Tradition tells that at the nearby “Hollow of the Fair,” couples made handfastings in pagan times, and in the 19th century couples still arranged trial marriages there, only later to have them sanctified by the Church. Presumably the leafy hollow, shaded by new haystacks, gave the newly bonded a consummation bed.

This tradition of Lughnassah marriages seems to echo an older tradition, where at Lughnassah the king of Ireland was ritually married to the land. Just so in ancient Akkad did the high priestess of Ishtar perform the Great Rite with the king, marrying him to the earth. A late medieval manuscript says that at Taillne, presumably Telltown, Lug Schimaig made the great feast for Lug mac Ethne to celebrate his marriage to the Goddess of the Land. It’s worth noting that August 1 is nine months before Beltaine, the beginning of summer; at this point Lugh impregnated the land with the following summer.

In a related myth, the great Irish king Conn of a Hundred Battles affirms his sovereignty by means of Telltown festival, according to The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Matthews. One day at Tara, Conn mounted the ramparts with his three druids to check for enemies approaching from afar. Doing so, he trod upon a stone that screamed so loudly it was heard all over Tara. Conn asked one of his druids why the stone screamed and what kind of stone it was. After pondering fifty days and three, the druid by divination answered that the stone’s name was Fal, or fo-all (“under rock”), that it had come to Tara from Inis Fail and that it yearly went to Telltown for the fair. Any king who did not find this stone on the last day of Telltown Fair would die within the year. The number of shrieks the stone made underfoot equaled the number of kings of Conn’s line who would rule Ireland.

Fal thus shows itself a stone of sovereignty, like the Scottish Stone of Scone, now ensconced below the ceremonial throne of British royalty. Fal’s shrieks are the voice of the land, speaking the relationship between the king and the Irish Earth Goddess.

At this point in the myth, a mist drifted over, and Conn and his druids lost their way. A horseman met them and, after making three casts against them, welcomed them to his home, a structure 30 feet long with a ridgepole of white gold. In it sat a girl in a seat of crystal, wearing a golden crown. Before her stood a silver vat with gold corners, a vessel of gold, and a golden cup, and on a throne nearby sat a phantom.

The phantom spoke to Conn and his druids, announcing himself as Lug mac Ethne. The girl in the crystal seat proved to be the Sovereignty of Ireland, the living goddess of the Irish land, and she gave symbolic food and drink to Conn, the ribs of a giant ox and a giant hog and also red ale. Lugh meanwhile told Conn of his rule and that of his sons. Then all disappeared.

Thus Telltown Fair, in other words Lughnassah, celebrates marriage not only of mortal to mortal but of the king to the Goddess of Earth, here the girl in the crystal chair. Just as the nu gig priestess of Akkad, symbolizing Ishtar and the land, married the Akkadian king, symbolizing Tammuz, so too at early Lughnassahs a priestess of the earth may have married the Irish king, symbolizing Lugh. The tales definitely make Lughnassah Lugh’s marriage feast, and the feast is also said to be his wake. At Lughnassah, Lugh fertilizes the Goddess and dies, as we ask for harvest.

Lugh of the many talents

Lugh was beloved of the Celts, who raised more inscriptions and statues to him than to any other deity, according to R.J. Stewart in Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses. The Romans associated him with Mercury, and like Mercury he was a patron of the arts and of all crafts and skills, of traveling and money and commerce. He also was a war god, the Celts regarding battle as an art; by Roman times their wars had become mainly ritual contests between champions, or conflicts to be settled by druidic decision, a civilized approach the Romans did not follow. As the battle god Lugh of the Long Arm, Lugh’s chief weapons were the magickal sling and spear, giving him the power of killing at a distance – hence the “long arm.” Such attributes seem appropriate to a god of light, who shines from far away.

Romano-Celtic images of Lugh show a young, handsome man, carrying the symbols of the caduceus and purse, his totems the ram, cock and tortoise. He also appears as bearded and mature, and he’s frequently accompanied by the goddess Rosmerta or Maia, representing wealth and material benefit. Such companionship parallels the marriage of the king to the material goddess of the land.

Lugh possesses skills in many arts simultaneously. In the Irish tale of the Battle of Magh Tuiredh, those in the royal hall of Tara began by refusing Lugh entrance, because though he claimed skills as a wheelwright, metal-worker, warrior, bard, magician, doctor, cupbearer and more, the inhabitants of Tara already boasted those skills. Lugh’s Welsh cognate Llew was also known as a shoemaker, and an inscription from Romano-Celtic times in Osma, Spain, notes the Guild of Shoemakers’ dedication of a statue to the Lugoves, a triple version of Lugh. The people of Tara finally conceded that only Lugh combined all the skills mentioned, so at last they admitted Him.

The Celts also credited Lugh with the invention of ball games, horsemanship and fidchell, a symbolic board game like chess. As Stewart notes, the Celts regarded these three games as having a ritual, magickal significance.

A loaf of bread for Thou

Lugh’s marriage to the goddess of worldly wealth and sovereignty links Him by association to the grain gods Adonis and Tammuz. These gods of grain and their goddess brides stretch back to prehistory. In the Eastern European countries of the Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Hungary, still known for their wheat fields, archaeologists have found small clay temple models dating to 6000 to 5000 B.C., Campanelli writes. Many of these models show humans shaping and baking loaves in bread ovens, and many incorporate bird heads as architectural elements, indicating shrines to Bird Goddess. These bird heads connect to Aphrodite of the Doves, the bread baking to her consort Adonis. Similarly, Ishtar sometimes took bird form, and dying and rising Tammuz is a god of grain.

To celebrate this dying and rising god of grain, it’s appropriate to bake and eat ritual bread. From a ritual point of view, the important point is to focus while baking on imbuing your bread with the spirit of the God of Grain, however you see Him. From a practical point of view, a breadmaking acquaintance offers a few tips:

  • Making bread is very easy.
  • Make sure you use flour with a high gluten content, as opposed to baking flour. Gluten provides protein; baking flour specifically has very little protein.
  • When you mix flour and your water or yeast mixture, don’t worry too much about portions. Basically, you take flour and add liquid until it’s the right consistency. Bread is a tactile thing.
  • When you knead your bread, knead till the bread feels right, elastic but not too heavy.
  • You can let the bread rise and reknead as many times as you want. The more times you knead, the smaller bubbles will occur in the loaf, resulting in a finer bread.
  • Put a little fresh rosemary or other herbs in your bread for a different tang.

Almost any general-purpose cookbook, including The Joy of Cooking, includes bread recipes. Pauline Campanelli offers the following recipe and ritual for multigrain bread:

  • In a large mixing bowl, combine two cups warm milk, two packages dry baking yeast, one teaspoon salt, one-half cup honey and one-fourth cup dark brown sugar.
  • Cover the bowl and set it aside in a warm place till the mixture doubles, about half an hour.
  • Add three tablespoons softened butter and two cups unbleached white flour and stir till bubbly. Campanelli suggests at this point also adding sprouted wheat, expressing the idea of a god that dies and is reborn. If you do so, start your wheat sprouts a few days before you bake the bread.
  • Next, mix in one cup rye flour and two cups stone-ground whole wheat flour.
  • With floured hands, turn the dough onto a floured board and gradually knead in more unbleached white flour until the dough is smooth and elastic and no longer sticks to your fingers.
  • Place the dough in a greased bowl, and turn it so the dough is greased.
  • Cover the dough with clean cloth and keep in a warm place to rise until doubled, about an hour.
  • Punch the dough down, divide it in half and shape the halves into two round, slightly flattened balls.
  • Place these balls onto greased cookie sheets, cover them and return them to a warm place to let them double again.
  • When the final rising is almost complete, with your athamé incise a pentagram on the loaves with ritual words. Campanelli suggests “I invoke thee, beloved Spirit of the Grain/Be present in this Sacred Loaf,” but whatever words you want to say to the god of grain and material harvest are appropriate.
  • Beat a whole egg and a tablespoon of water together and brush this onto the loaves.
  • Bake the loaves in a 300-degree oven for about an hour, or until they are done and sound hollow when tapped.

Make and eat your ritual loaf in celebration of the dying summer, to be reborn after nine months at Beltaine. Celebrate too your summer’s harvest, your wealth of material life, for we are all wealthy while we live. At Lammas, the loaf-feast, we greet Lugh in the loaf, hail his marriage to the earth and eat him. By so doing, we avow our wealth and our mortality.