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Our ancestors would dress the last sheaf of corn to be harvested in fine clothes preparatory to burning it as part of the harvest feast. The sun spirit (Llew Llaw Gyffes) and the corn spirit were set free from the ears and the ashes spread on the fields. This was still done in my village when I was a child 50 years ago. It’s something I’d like to bring back to where I now live but haven’t got a-round-tooit as yet … you probably all realise that round tooits are regularly in very short supply :-).

The old song, John Barleycorn, is another telling of the ritual of harvest; here the corn (barley) is made into ale and drunk. We used to sing and celebrate this when I was a child too; it was one of the few times in the year we children were given beer as part of the ritual feasting. We also got cider for the week we were let off school to help with the harvest.

These feasts and festivals help us to know where our food comes from; to thank both sun and rain for producing the crop … food cannot grow without both of these, the current obsession with wall-to-wall sunshine is ridiculous but comes about largely because most folk haven’t any idea how food grows. Than the gods for the increase in people wanting allotments, that is certainly bringing back some sense and balance and grown-up attitudes, as well as understanding of the intimate connection of weather and food.

Spreading the ashes of the corn god dolly on the fields tells you things about your food and how it’s grown too. Ash, potash, is vital for plant growth; even the modern culture of reducing everything to NPK recognises this, even if it’s stuck in a box that is far too small for proper agriculture. Potash is the “K” of the trilogy. Potassium promotes flower and fruit production and is vital for maintaining growth and helping plants resist disease. It’s used in the process of building starches and sugars so is needed in vegetables and fruits. Potassium is naturally found in wood ash which is where it its name potash is derived from; our ancestors knew this, hence the harvest burning and spreading on the land.

The amount of ash from the harvest bonfire was not enough for even one field but the spirit of the action was there, and that spirit, intent, means a great deal to the Earth. Most of us know about, and may have experienced, homeopathy; less-is-more is the principle here, with the highest potencies of a substance modern science can detect none of the original substance in the homeopathic remedy … but it still works. There are all sorts of daft mutterings about it must be a placebo effect but how, please tell me, does a placebo effect work on an animal or a plant? Yet homeopathy works well on both to the extent that several farmers round here regularly use homeopathy on their beasts and some on their fields too. It often works even better on them than on humans; I wonder if this is because the humans can turn on scepticism (animals and plants just don’t have this quality) and this anti-spirit-intent turns off the homeopathy? Ummm!!! So we regularly cut our own noses off to spite our faces, eh?

So, when we spread the ashes of the corn-dolly-god on the fields as a token of our agreement to work with the land we did a homeopathic-like thing, for want of a better modern term to use. I think so. And our ancestors had been doing it in that village for 4000+ years and likely back to the Neolithic.

Because we didn’t use writing (nor revere it) in the way we do now people tend to denigrate the ancients. However it’s worth realising that our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors only had to work for about 15 hours a week to get a very good living. If that sounds nuts to you go and look at the Rillaton Cup from the Bronze Age or the Sandwich Cup in the British Museum. The people who could do this sort of work were not savages; it would cost millions of pounds to have something like these made nowadays. And they had the time and leisure to think of them, invent them. Go back to the intricate cave paintings of the Neolithic; Picasso thought very well of them and the way they worked with colour was at least as good as anything the “Old Masters” could do. Most people nowadays with their multiple jobs, children, mortgages, holidays, cars, etc, don’t have any leisure to think at all. It seems to me we’ve gone backwards since then.

And we no longer thank the Earth for the bounty of food she gives us; we expect it as a right, think we can force the Earth to provide for us, believe we can improve on her … Ummm again!

I would like to bring back the old festivals here where I now live, maybe I will. It would be good to celebrate as a people, a village, a community, and to mean it, not “do it for the kids” but do it for ourselves, have the ability to thank and honour the Earth for her bounty.

I added the Brighid Dolly (the one that looks like a swastika) because it’s very lovely and it is about the 4 elements – earth, water, air and fire – that are fundamental to all Life.

Elen Sentier

behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat …

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