On Sunday the 5th of August 2018 I attended what was to be the last Pagan Pride in Nottingham, of course none of us knew that at the time. I attended purposely as people I know in real life were speaking and conveniently they presented their talks in the same gazebo tent consecutively. One of these speakers was Shani Oates the Maid of the Clan of Tubal Cain. I have been following the career of Shani Oates for several years now, often travelling some distance to hear her speak. My attendance has become so regular that I am in danger being described as a stalker.
This particular talk was seasonally appropriate in being titled 'Sacred Folk - Sacred Food' and began with the observation that folk traditions once bound communities together but today, society as a whole suffers from a severe loss of connection. Connection within the community and of course, with our landscape. There has been a loss of Sacred Kinship. Historically and obviously, the harvest has been variable and dependent upon the weather. Today we are cushioned by imports and a bad harvest in one part of the country, although economically disastrous, does not result in localised starvation. Historically the people were a land dependent collective.
Lammas is the celebration of the first loaf from the first wheat harvest. The name cereal being derived from the Roman Goddess Ceres, who with her daughter Proserpina are the patrons of agriculture. Their Greek equivalents being Demeter and her daughter Persephone, sometimes known as Kore. In explaining these associations Shani Oates made allusions to the concepts of the Sacred King, the Divine Blessing of a good harvest and the deposition of a king if he does not provide for his people. Bread is the great provider of our welfare and our wellbeing. Today we still talk of our daily bread, putting bread on the table and of course, earning our bread. In a general reference to the harvest and recognising its importance, it is noted that many country charms exist to protect the harvest from the chaos of bad weather. In some traditions today the country word for the harvest; the potentially Saxon Herfest, is used for the season of Autumn (Fall in the USA).
In looking back at the history of agriculture; spanning some 14,000 years, we learnt that perhaps unsurprisingly ancient cereals had less gluten. Is there a significance to this? What does this mean for us today when dietary allergies are on the increase? The controlled utilisation of nature by mankind marks in the words of Jacob Bronowski in his book the Assent of Man, the beginning of civilisation. It is a book I recommend and Shani Oates observations reminded me of his own.
Peat has been used as fuel, bracken has been used for fuel and as a building material, from herbs to hazels, society has benefitted from the produce of nature in uncountable ways. Wheat, barley and other cereals are the foundation of this utilisation, marking the change from hunter gatherer to settled agriculture and the creation of civilisation. Returning once more to Jacob Bronowski, I observe that modern bread wheat cannot propagate without the aid of man, the grains can no longer be blown by the wind. Man cannot live by bread alone but we cannot live without it. Our dependence upon wheat is symbiotic, representing a connection to the land sadly lost.
Lammas is in a sense the first of three harvests, being primarily cereal it is followed by fruit and slaughter. The head scythe or head reaper of the harvest being a pertinent reminder that for anything to live, something must die. Each worker traditionally hired at harvest time and starting work with the dawn would it is said, be allocated eight pints of cider per day. Sadly modern health and safety regulations no longer permit this generous perk.
Times change, at the turn of the 19th into 20th century, there were 200,000 apple presses operating in Somerset. Most have gone today. August is the month of abundance, the primary harvest month and up until the middle of the last century, almost everything would shut down for the harvest. This is the origin of our summer break, when schools and factories would close releasing labour to work on the land. Workers from London and the Midlands would travel as far as Kent to pick hops for the brewing industry, a cultural practice that was still common in the 1950s.
The harvest moon rises late and coupled with an early dawn, made a longer working day. The meeting of the itinerant urban worker with the country dweller, is perhaps one of the last examples of a shared experience within a community. Historically of course and across the country, harvest traditions were manifestations of this shared experience and include the election of the Harvest King or Harvest Queen, decorated carts and farm equipment.
Many of these traditions ranging from the election of a Harvest Lord and Lady, perhaps a throwback to the time of the Sacred King, were traditions designed to propitiate the spirits of the land. To garner a good harvest and to protect it. These would include cross dressing to confuse malevolent spirits and the use of plants. The arum lily kept the scythe sharp but did it also prevent landwights from blunting the edge? The harvest practices of the past have left a mark upon us and has influenced our language, we still talk of making hay while the sun shines.
In running through the wide range of harvest customs, Shani Oates obviously made mention of those well known customs such as Crying the Neck. In some areas this was Crying the Mare, the corn spirit being perceived as a Horse Goddess and figures made from the wheat; the famous corn dolly, are sometimes made in the shape of a horse. These figures, whether a maiden, a mare or referred to by a name such as John Barleycorn, all would later be returned to the earth. They would be ploughed into the first furrow, the crooked furrow on Plough Monday to ensure (it was hoped) a good harvest to come.
Customs less well known included that of the Lameworker, an indication of the rivalry existing between work gangs prior to the introduction of machinery. The fastest gang could be rewarded for their efforts but the slowest would be ridiculed. The slowest worker in the slowest gang, the lameworker is our lameduck and on occasion a lame duck or even a lame ram would have been thrown at him.
Many ceremonies marking the end of the harvest would continue until quite late in the year. Wakes Week a variable festival in England if not necessarily a movable feast; usually falling in August or September depending upon the region, has today all but disappeared. This is primarily due to the standardisation of school holidays.
Despite the many changes within society and country life brought about in part by the gradual introduction of machinery in the late Victorian Period, first with the horse drawn reaper and later steam power, traditions do live on. Late summer still remains the season for gatherings and celebrations of an agricultural nature. In England these include our county shows, church fetes and carnivals, complete with their own Carnival Queen of course and traditional dances such as the Broomstick Dance. In this context Pagan Pride taking place in early August is a continuation of that tradition. In the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church the Feast of the Assumption of Mary; held on the 15th of August, is a religious adjunct to the ancient customs of the harvest.
In closing the talk Shani Oates wished us peace and a good harvest, by sharing food and drink with all gathered to hear her words. The breaking of bread together is a shared blessing, recognising the work involved in its creation and that we share a bond. Whether that bond is faith, blood or friendship is dependent upon circumstance but it is an action repeated in churches, temples and by covens universally.
"By the breaking of this bread you are blessed - Bara Frith."
As I was about to leave I found a decorated stone placed quite deliberately on the corner of the groundsheet of the tent. This leaving of decorated stones and rocks to be found by strangers, is of course a modern folk custom. There are many websites and Facebook groups of a regional focus; such as Derbyshire Rocks and Nottinghamshire Rocks, which promote this activity and feature reports on finds. I took away this particular example and kept in until September. I left it in the grounds of the Church of Saint Nicholas in Abbots Bromley Staffordshire when visiting the village to watch the famous Horn Dance. I wonder if it was ever found?
Paean to Hekate – 6th October 2017
SACRED MASK SACRED DANCE BY SHANI OATES
HERITAGE AND THE POETIC VISION OF ROBERT COCHRANE (NOTTINGHAM SATURDAY 25th JUNE 2016)
PAGAN PRIDE (NOTTINGHAM UK) 2nd August 2015