Harvest Home | Last Harvest

Harvest Home

This entry is adapted from Our Troth Volume 3 and generously donated by the Publisher for the education and enjoyment of all Heathens. For the unedited and uncut version, buy the book!

If beginning the harvest calls for a celebration, completing it successfully is a time for even more celebrations. Harvest Home marks the end of the holy-tide and it ends much the same way it begins: with feasting, sacrificing, dancing and sharing all the abundance that our Gods have blessed us with.

Harvest Home is a time of giving, sharing, taking care of our communities and expressing deep gratitude to the Gods for Their many blessings in our lives. 

History of Harvest Home

As part of their payment, the hired laborers who had labored so hard to bring in the harvest on a large British farm were feasted with the best food and drink the farm could provide.

Your Hay it is Mow’d, and your Corn is Reap’d;

Your Barns will be full, and your Hovels heap’d:

Come, my Boys, come;

Come, my Boys, come;

And merrily Roar out Harvest Home.

—John Dryden, song from King Arthur, Act V, Scene ii

The Works of John Dryden, vol. 16, p. 62

The owner of the farm treated them as equals for the night: “the Servant and his Master are alike, and every Thing is done with an equal Freedom. They sit at the same Table, converse freely together, and spend the remaining Part of the Night in dancing, singing, &c. without any Difference or Distinction” (Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities, pp. 303).

Harvest Home Feasts

In Scotland this feast was the “kirn supper”, in Orkney the “heuk butter” or “muckle supper”, in East Anglia the “horkey supper”, in north England the “mell supper,” and in the Isle of Man the mheillea (from Norse meldr, “flour” or mel, “oats”), just to give a few of the names. A farm known to be generous with food and ale would attract the best hired hands next year.

A similar feast may once have been customary in southern Norway. The Gulaþingslǫg, one of the oldest Norwegian legal codes, was codified by King Óláfr kyrri (Olaf the Quiet) and amended by King Magnús Erlingsson. Although both kings were Christian, some practices mentioned in the laws seem to be older.

One of them was a legal requirement for every free household to brew a certain quantity of ale, get together with a minimum of two other households, and hold an ale feast on an unspecified date before All Saints’ Day (November 1), “with thanks to Christ and St. Mary for peace and good seasons” (I.6; transl. Larsson, The Earliest Norwegian Laws, p. 40).

The phrase “peace and good seasons” is significant here, because it is strongly associated with the god Freyr (see Our Troth volume 2, chapter 8), and it seems plausible that the ale-feast held before All Saints’ Day replaced an earlier feast to Freyr, who is associated with good harvests

Robert Herrick described the harvest supper well in his poem “The Hock-Cart” (Hesperides, p. 101-102):

Well, on, brave boyes, to your Lords Hearth,

Glitt’ring with fire; where, for your mirth,

Ye shall see first the large and cheefe

Foundation of your feast, fat Beefe:

With Upper Stories, Mutton, Veale

And Bacon, (which makes full the meal),

With sev’rall dishes standing by,

As here a Custard, there a Pie,576

And here all tempting Frumentie.116

And for to make the merry cheere,

If smirking Wine be wanting here,

There’s that, which drowns all care, stout Beere;

Which freely drink to your Lords health,

Then to the Plough, (the Common-wealth)

Next to your Flails, your Fanes, your Fatts;117

Then to the Maids with Wheaten Hats:

To the rough Sickle, and crookt Sythe,

Drink frollick boyes, till all be blythe.

When was Harvest Home Celebrated?

The exact date of Harvest Home would vary, depending on the location and the weather that year.

  • In medieval England, Michaelmas, the feast day of the Archangel Michael (September 29), was the traditional end of the harvest season and the usual day to settle accounts with the hired hands.
  • In Protestant Germany, the Sunday closest to September 29 was Erntefest (“Harvest Feast”) or Erntedankfest (Harvest Thanks Feast), while Catholic churches in Germany often celebrated the harvest on the autumn Ember Days around September 14.
  • Among the Pennsylvania Germans, the harvest celebration could fall at any time between July and October, as each church congregation might decide.

The Last Sheaf and the Harvest Queen

All over northern Europe, there are customs that focus on the Last Sheaf: the very last bundle of grain to be cut and brought in. On a completely mundane level, some of these customs may be intended to get everyone to work faster by stimulating the competitive spirit—especially the customs that are meant to embarrass the slowest worker.

But there was more to the Last Sheaf than “last one to the barn is a rotten egg!” The Last Sheaf was widely considered to be the home of a wight, called the “corn spirit” by folklorists, who had to be either driven out or captured. In others, the Last Sheaf was treated as if it were a wight itself.

The corn spirit may be human-like; in parts of Germany the spirit is die gute Frau “the Good Woman,” die Braut “the Bride,” das Holzfräulein “the woman from the woods,” and so on (de Vries, Contributions to the Study of Othin, p. 9) The Last Sheaf itself may be made into a humanlike figure, as was described in accounts from late 16th century England (quoted in Strutt, Sports and Pastimes, p. 364):

The Last Sheaf could sometimes be seen as a woman. It was called the “Old Woman” (Kælling) in parts of Denmark, or sometimes the Bygkælling “Barley Old Woman,” Havrekælling “Oats Old Woman,” Rugkællingen “Rye Old Woman,” and so on, depending on the crop grown. The worker who bound the Old Woman would have to sit in the oven during the harvest supper (Troelsen, Nordisk Bondereligion, p. 73).

In Northumberland in England, it was the “Harvest Queen” in Northumberland, (Whistler, The English Festivals, p. 188). In Langeland in Denmark, the Last Sheaf was dressed up as an old woman, and the harvesters who made it would throw it into the yard of a neighbor who hadn’t finished harvesting his grain.

The neighbor would have to leave it in the yard of someone else who hadn’t finished harvesting, and it was a great embarrassment to be the last person to end up with the sheaf (de Vries, Contributions to the Study of Othin, p. 10).

The Last Sheaf could also be offered to a womanly being: in northern Germany, the Last Sheaf was often left for “Fru Gode” or “Fru Gauen.” Grimm interprets these names as variants of the masculine title “Fro” instead of the feminine “Fru / Frau,” with “Fru Gauen” being a corruption of something like Fro Woden (Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, pp. 252-253), but there seems no reason to interpret the name this way, given that we have plenty of other evidence for a female wight. 

In other areas, the Last Sheaf may take animal form.

  • The pioneering German folklorist Wilhelm Mannhardt recorded dozens of names for animal-shaped corn spirits in various parts of Germany, which could take the form of almost any common animal, from a wolf or a boar, to a sheep or goat, to a mouse or toad. Often these were named for the crop; there might be a Roggenwolf “Rye Wolf,” Gerstenwolf “Barley Wolf,” or Haferwolf “Oat Wolf.”
  • In Scandinavia, the Last Sheaf may also be a wolf, cat, dog, horse, pig, bull, or other animals, depending on the region; in Jutland, people say “we have captured the hare” when the Last Sheaf is bound, while on Fyn and Zealand, binding the Last Sheaf is called “catching the fox” or “driving out the fox” (Troelsen, Nordisk Bondereligion, p. 72).
  • In Groningen in the Netherlands, when the cabbage seed stalks were being harvested for threshing, a boy would gather grass and flowers and quickly plait them into the figure of a hare. He would hide in the cloth used to transport the seed stalks, then creep out and give the hare figure to the farmer, at which time the men would begin threshing the stalks vigorously to “beat the hare blood out” (De Vries, “Contributions to the Study of Othin”, p. 15).

Harvest Offerings

It’s a very widespread harvest custom to leave at least a small portion of the crop in the field. This may be left for the poor to glean (a custom also mentioned in the Bible, Leviticus 23:22, and possibly originating there), for the birds, for the landwights, or for other spirits.

The Last Sheaf was sometimes left in the farmyard for the birds to plunder until there was no grain left and the straw and decorative flowers had been scattered by the wind (Troelsen, Nordisk Bondereligion, p. 71)

Aside from appeasing the landwights or other beings that might be out and about during this time, there seems to have been a very general sense that it was wrong to take every last possible bit of the harvest, possibly because if the field or storehouse were ever completely emptied, it would lose its luck and never be filled again (de Vries, Contributions to the Study of Othin, p. 10-11).

Odin and the End of the Harvest

The Last Sheaf is sometimes left for a spirit named Wold, Waudl, Waur, Waul, or “the Wolf.” In Bavaria, the Waudlhunde (“Wod-Dog?”) comes on the third night after the end of the harvest to eat the Last Sheaf, along with beer, bread, and milk left out for it.

The names seem to come from the same root as Wodan’s name (PG *wōda-, “frenzied, furious, inspired), but Jan de Vries originally doubted whether Wodan had anything to do with the Last Sheaf rites, and whether Waudl, Waur, etc. were descended from an older belief in Wodan (“Contributions to the Study of Othin,” pp. 53-56).

He later changed his mind, writing in his essay “Wodan und die Wilde Jagd” (p. 51) that:

(Wodan’s) relationship to the Yule-time, in which he came to Earth with his host of einherjar, led the thoughts to the return of the dead to their old homesteads. . . They gave out luck and blessing, but especially a blessed harvest. . . . The host of the dead, that roared about in field and meadow at this particular time, must tread forward in just such a mystical connection: its leader Wodan had also a certain might over the success of the harvest.

The end of Harvest may be the time that Odin reasserts himself as a "reaper" of men as men have reaped the grain. As Winter Nights comes shortly after Harvest, Odin's journey across the lands reminds us of our own mortality.

Modern Celebrations of Harvest Home

Heathens celebrate Harvest Home by giving back to our communities. Most of us don't live in exclusively Heathen communities, and the Heathen community is just one of the many communities we live in. While we celebrate Lammas within our religious community, Harvest Home is a good time to branch out. 

This is a great time to step out and volunteer in your community, especially if it involves feeding and providing for the needy. Practitioners of Urglaawe often hold food drives on Erntefest (Schreiwer and Eckhart, Dictionary of Urglaawe Terminology, p. 20)

But you don't have to hold a "Heathen Food Drive" to help. You can join with people of any faith tradition who are doing work you admire. If the best opportunity to help the needy is by going to the Central Lutheran Soup Kitchen, then that's what you do.

Festivals at the end of Harvest

It's a time of giving, but also a time of enjoyment. We aren't required to be somber when we give back to our community! It's a joy and a time to make friends. It's also a time to go enjoy other harvest festivals like Oktoberfest or whatever anyone else might be doing around that time. 

You can also hold a harvest party of your own--if people aren't already too worn out from Lammas. 

Sacrifices for Harvest Home

You of course should make offerings to your Land Spirits. You can also make a sacrifice again to Freyr Yngve. Some Heathens might also decide to begin making sacrifices to Odin in preparation for the dark season ahead. 

Sharing Abundance

We talk a lot about "Hospitality" in Heathenry, but along with hospitality, we talk about generosity. Generosity is in sharing the good things in life, not just with those we love, but with those who need them even if we don't know who they are. And as Odin reminds us at the end of the Harvest: one day, like the grain, we too will be reaped and scattered. Death will someday come for us too, and whatever wealth we hoard will not stop it. 

But in sharing abundance, in giving generously and living a generous life, we create memories and a reputation that is a blessing and a comfort. 

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