Lammas | The Grain Harvest

Lammas (Loaf-Feast)

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!

On hærfeste ripan, in Agusto ⁊ Septembri ⁊ Octobri mawan, wad spittan, fela tilða ham gæderian, ðacian, ðecgan ⁊ fald weoxian, scipena behweorfan ⁊ hlosan eac swa, ær to tune to stið winter cume, ⁊ eac yrðe georne forðian.

In autumn, reap. In August and September and October, mow, dig up woad, gather many crops home, thatch, clean the pens and sheepfolds, put the cowsheds in order and also the pigsties, before too harsh winter comes to the farm. And also, diligently tend the crops.

Gerefa, a list of the duties of an estate supervisor (reeve) ed. Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, p. 454

The "First Harvest" is usually the Hay for your livestock, but then comes a special harvest where we actually get a little something for ourselves. Grain harvest! And with the grain harvest comes some of our favorite things: fresh bread, beer and all the good stuff that comes out of the oven. 

It's pretty amazing to think that of all the vegetation we have a relationship with, these cultivated grasses (that's really all grain is, a tamed grass) have had so much impact on our lives. Civilizations have risen and fallen on just this small collection of humble grasses: rice, corn, wheat, barley, oats and rye. It's even said that Geometry was first invented because Egyptians wanted to figure out how to tax their grain fields--so you have grass to thank for your high school geometry homework.

Harvest was a time of labor, but joy as well. Joy in the gifts of the Gods. Where we see and reap our good works. It's a time to celebrate the passing of the easy days of summer and look forward to the beauty that the Fall season will bring. Harvest is a celebration of life, abundance, community and the glory of the Gods.

Let's talk about the opening to the festivities, Lammas.

Historical References to Lammas and festivals celebrating the harvest of Grain

Though little grain could be grown in Iceland, even in the slightly warmer climate before about 1300, the Icelandic month that followed Heyannir was sometimes called Kornskurðarmánuðr, “Grain-Cutting Month” (e.g. Skáldskaparmál 63), although the usual name now is Tvímánuðr, “Double Month” (Janson, “The Icelandic Calendar,” p. 52).

Lammas in England

In England, after the hay was mowed, there might be a brief break and a last chance for a farmer to hire seasonal help, but the beginning of the grain harvest was traditionally celebrated on August 1, the Church holiday of Lammas (Old English Hlaf-mæsse, “Loaf Mass”).

On this day, bread baked from the first grain of the harvest was brought to the church for blessing. Lammas bread had magical powers: an Old English charm recommended breaking the bread hallowed on Lammas-day into four pieces and crumbling each one in a corner of the grain barn, to protect the grain that still had to be harvested and stored.

Six days later, autumn, which shared the name Hærfest with the harvest season, was said to begin, according to the Old English poem Menologium (136-143, ed. Karasawa, pp. 80-81; translation BW):

And þæs symle scriþ

ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted

Weodmonað on tun, welhwær bringeð

Agustus yrmenþeodum

hlafmæssan dæg. Swa þæs hærfest cymð

ymbe oðer swylc butan anre wanan,

wlitig, wæstmum hladen; wela byð geywed

fægere on foldan.

And then after seven nights [after St. James’s Day, July 25]

the summer-brightened Weodmonath

always comes to town, August brings

Lammas day to great peoples

everywhere. And so autumn comes,

after another such [seven-day period] but minus one day,

splendid, laden with crops; prosperity is revealed,

fair on Earth.

In Shetland, Lammas marked the end of the deep-sea fishing season, and the fishermen celebrated with a feast of the best food that could be had, followed by storytelling and many toasts, one of which was “Lord, hadd [hold] his hand ower de coarn, an apen da mooth o’ da grey fish”—a prayer for good fishing as well as protection for the harvest (Marwick, The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland, p. 114).

Lammas in medieval England also remained an important day for fairs, payment of rents, and election of local officials (Hutton, Stations of the Sun, pp. 330-331).

Grain Harvest Festivals in Germany

In Germany, farmers often prayed and attended special church services at the beginning of the harvest season, but other practices of theirs sound a bit different from Christian orthodoxy.

  • In Donnersberg im Pfalz, a woman would visit every field of wheat, spelt, or rye and tie three stalks together beneath the ears, saying “That belongs to the three Maidens.” If she could not go to the field herself, she would tie three stalks together under the ears with silk and have a child under seven years lay the stalks on the field.
  • In Oberpfalz, the farmer cut the first three ears and set them in the field in the shape of a cross; after the harvest, he might lay them in a churchyard or in the church’s holy water vessel, or nail them to his front door. (Jahn, Deutsche Opfergebräuche, pp. 158-159). 
  • In Lower Bavaria and Middle Franconia, for example, farmers would tuck a red egg, bread, salt, and herbs into the First Sheaf and sprinkle it with consecrated red wine. The sheaf was brought home on top of the harvest cart and kept in the storehouse, but later had to be taken out, threshed, and then burned.
  • This would keep a land-spirit known as the Bilmesschneider from cutting off the heads of the unharvested grain (Jahn, Deutschen Opfergebräuche, pp. 158-159). In other regions, the First Sheaf. might be left in the fields, made into a corn-dolly, thrown into running water or a fire, or hung up over the door. As an offering, it held the power to protect the home from misfortune (Jahn, pp. 160-163).

As with many festivals, Lammas one cannot be documented back to pre-Christian times.

While it is always tempting to see such customs as “pagan survivals,” we do not absolutely know if the Heathen English or Germans celebrated at the beginning of the grain harvest.

However, agricultural seasons and crops did not suddenly shift when the English accepted Christianity, and the need for hard work, and the hope for a good crop, were the same regardless of who was being asked for blessings. So it might be the case that Pre-Christian Pagans just switched from having their crops blessed by the the Pagan Gods to having them blessed by the Christian God.

But there's nothing inconsistent about celebrating the good things that life has to offer, whether you're Christian or Pagan.

Modern Heathen Lammas Celebrations

Modern Heathens inspired by English tradition have sometimes replaced the word Lammas (Loaf-Mass) with the term Hlaf-mæst (Loaf-Feast). That's because we don't have "Mass" in Heathenry, so to have a "Loaf-Mass" doesn't make much sense. Still, though, most Heathens simply call it Lammas. Old habits die hard.

Though it shouldn't pass without saying that many Heathens came from Wicca as their first Pagan religion. Wicca has Lammas firmly embedded in their Wheel of the Year and so when Heathens made the jump, they took the Wheel of the Year with them.

Rural Heathens and those who work in agriculture may reckon their Lammas celebrations more terrestrially than celestially. That is to say, they might be paying more attention to what is growing out of the ground rather than what phase the moon is in. Most modern Heathens, though, are urbanites, and so don't have a particular "crop" they watch grow--so Lammas takes on a more metaphorical and symbolic meaning.,So the reckoning of when Lammas is celebrated can vary.

We set it "celestially" as an example: so it's the first full moon after the autumnal equinox

Sacrifice to Freyr Yngve

Many Heathens celebrate Lammas with a sacrifice to Freyr Yngve in gratitude for sharing His abundance. You don't have to have a garden or a plot of land to tend in order to feel that sense of gratitude. You can think about it more abstractly in terms of success at your job, health in your family or the presence of a good community. Or you can think of it as a time when you hope for such things if you don't have them. 

Foods for the Lammas Table

Foods for Lammas include fresh bread usually cut and shaped in the form of an effigy like a "John Barleycorn" type figure. This first loaf is often the sacrifice made to the Gods, so make sure to bake a few more if you're hungry. Beer is also popular this time of year (well, anytime of year, really) as an offering for the Gods and as a gift for your guests.

Meat features heavily on most Heathen tables, and Lammas is not an exception to that. Expect a lot of pork at the feast, as the pig is a sacred animal to Freyr Yngve. 

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