We celebrated Lammas Eve last night at Wolf Paw Tipi Village, Bodenham, Hereford last night. It was a simple but profound ritual ad full of fun.

We gathered together near the top of the hill outside the big tipi then went inside. Everyone found themselves drums, rattles, wood blocks – those who had spare drums and things had brought spares to share. We began to drum. It grew and grew, everyone felt the Land Spirit waking and joining us, linking us together.

As the drumming came to its height I opened the circle and spoke with the directions: I used the Silver Branch – Taliesin’s Calling Rod of 9 hawk bells on a birch branch – circling my arms in front of me 3 times with the Branch in my right hand, the arms going in both directions is like the twining threads of the goddess and the god, the double helix (like spirit DNA) that carries life; I call to North, East, South, West, the Earth below, the Sky above and the Spirit within.

Fly agaric – Elen reindeer goddess’ plant

Then I smudged us all. I was gifted my smudging set, an old copper brandy-warming pan about 3” across and the wings of a pheasant from beside the Wye. I make my own incense using lavender, rosemary, sage, rose petals and mugwort from my own garden along with skullcap and fly agaric collected on the moors; all these plants are part of our sacred herb heritage in Britain and are magical. The words for this smudging were, “Blessings of the harvest to you”.

We then gifted the altar. Gifting is such a deep magical process whether it be to the goddess or to friend and family; it’s about emptying the self in order to make room for more wisdom gifts from the goddess as well as giving to her, if the cup is full there is no room for her to give us more. It’s also about exchange; in the Celtic tradition exchange is fundamental, it’s a shamanic truth … you offer gifts from your heart, they offer you gifts back; it must be from your heart, blackmail-gifts given with the idea of “scoring” will get you some very odd ad unpleasant returns! The old magical lore that you will receive what you give is as fundamental to life as is the law of gravity! If you give rubbish you will get rubbish back.

Paddy and Larna have built an altar just outside the tipi which all who go there use. We each, in turn, brought our gift to the altar and gave it from the heart, spending a moment recognising what we were giving away, leaving behind, and acknowledging what was coming towards us – even if we couldn’t clearly see its shape and form. It’s a changing experience. We also reminded ourselves that the gift-to-come might well come in a form shapeshifted from the one we now had in our mind’s eye and so we must be awake and aware to recognise it when it did come … and not reject it because it looked different!

Alex Gouch bread

We went back into the tipi to begin the deeper ritual part of the celebration, blessing ad eating the bread and jam and beer. Lammas is about the harvest, the fruits of the harvest and all Fruits are fire-beings. Our story would be John Barleycorn – the making of the grain into the bread and beer, staple foods for our ancestors as for us in this land. The bread was made by a local man, a real bread artisan, and was sourdough; it’s made with local Welsh flour and the sourdough starter is also made from the flour and a little local water, left to the air so the natural yeasts from our own air come to enliven it – another magical process! To make and keep a sourdough starter is rather like keeping a hawk, you must care for and pet and feed it every day and some sourdough starters I’ve heard of are over 100 years old, begun by grandmothers and grandfathers back in the 19th century.

I had also made some 3-Colour jam from red, white and black currants from my garden. Red is the colour of the Cup of Lordship, the power that enables, and the symbol-colour of Upperworld. White is the colour of the Cup of Fostering, the nurturing love that enables. Black is the colour of the Cup of Forgetfulness, the forgetting of ego-self  (the childish me-creature who clamours for our attention) and learning to work unselfishly for the good of all creation, non-human as well as human; this is another fundamental tenet of the shaman.

Hereford Brewery Jim & Matty stirring the malt in

The beer was also local, made in Hereford with Hereford hops and grains.

I’m almost OCD about working local as those of you who know me well will be aware! It’s so important that we honour and acknowledge and work with our own land, the land where we live, rather than wanting to be elsewhere all the time, eating all foreign and pre-packaged food that has no love and grace in it. I’m the same about working with our own plants for incense.

We began the ritual. I took the bread, spread a little jam on it and passed bread and jam to my neighbour saying, “Blessings of the harvest to you”. She did the same and passed it round. Then I opened the beer and poured some into my brass sacred cup, took a sip and passed up and bottle to my neighbour saying “Blessings of the harvest to you”. She took it, did the same and passed it on. Each of us gifted each other with bread and jam and beer and offered the harvest blessings; it was good to give this way.

the image from Traffic’s album

Now, it was time for the song; I sang John Barleycorn (the words are at the end of this post). The song is about the sacrifice of the king to the good of the land and tells the story of growing corn, barleycorn in particular which is used for making ale and bread. The King-Harvest is about …

  • Verse one begins with the ploughing, sowing and harrowing of the field, sowing with the “seed of the king” – which really is meant to be taken both ways, as corn seed and semen. And the field is the earth, the soil, the womb of the Earth, of Sovereignty.
  • In verse two, little Sir John raises up his head, the first green of the corn breaks the surface of the earth, we know that there is hope, there is return, the food is likely to grow this year and we will not starve. Sir John grows a beard, the tassel of the corn appears as a beard.
  • In the third verse, the harvest happens. The corn is cut, scythed, & made into stooks, bound to the cart to be carried off to the barn.
  • In the fourth verse they wheel the cart around and around the field, partly to pick up all the stooks but perhaps also in an honouring of the Land, a ritual walking of the field that gave the hoped for grain. The corn is beaten with “crab tree sticks”, that’s branches of the crab-apple tree which is one of our ancient trees and also a good wood for threshing corn – the meaning of beat him skin from bone. And finally the miller grinds the corn between the great millstones.
  • In the last verse the ale is made, the corn is transformed and transmuted from a plant into a health-giving drink. Ale was (and is) good food as well as drink, there is much goodness for the body as well as the pleasures (and pitfalls!) of intoxication J. The reference to fox hunting is often repugnant nowadays, and may be a fairly late insertion, like the tinker. The original may also have referred to hunting, but for food animals not “the pleasure of killing”.

So, the song is about the growing of the corn, harvesting and making ale. It makes its references as if the corn is a person and, in ancient days, it would have been the king. Human sacrifice took place in all lands. Human life, to most humans, was the most precious gift that could be given to the gods – blood and seed hold the power of Life to be reborn.

In the days when bread was truly your harvest fruit, because you tilled the land, planted the grain and watered to soil to make it grow, the Lammas loaf was packed with mystical symbolism. The breadmaker, and those who ate her or his bread, were acutely aware of their relationship with Mother Earth and this was certainly the case in the village where I grew up. It’s not a relationship of words but of conscious interaction. Quite different from buying a loaf off your local supermarket or bakery shelf! These days bread-making is a mechanised process and you have had nothing to do with the planting, growing and harvesting of the grain.

We then drummed to honour the gift of the King, the harvest god who gifts his flesh and blood to us. At the height of the drumming again I closed the circle, this time very simply, using the fire as the centre and turning the circle in the opposite direction,Then, a widdershins.

Then, at last after our work, it was time to enjoy the food that everyone had brought to share and a goodly feast it was too! People enjoyed talking and hanging out together and, I think, went home full of fun and joy as well as good food and drink; a spirit of giving and receiving that opens us all up to the new cycle of the year.

Mabon: Autumn Equinox – 20th September

We’ll be doing the Mabon/Autumn Equinox feast at Wolf Paw on Thursday 20th September – Equinox Eve. Keep an eye on Facebook (Elen Sentier and Herefordshire Pagan Moot and Wolf Paw tipi Village) for details. The celebration will follow a similar pattern with drumming, gifting and ritual but we’ll be doing a goddess/god dance next time too – a hay-dance. This is two circles of people going round in opposite directions and weaving between each other, symbolising the Lady & Lord twining together, creating life. You find it in lots of old country daces, in Morris dancing and in the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance among others, all old customs of our Land. It’s not hard and we won’t be doing it fast but just walking round, so everyone can join in.

Calan awst blessing to everyone.

Song: John Barleycorn

There were three men come out of the west

Their fortunes for to try

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn should die.

They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,

Throw’d clods all on his head

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time

Till the rain from heaven did fall

Then little Sir John he throw’d up his head

And he so amazed them all.

They let him lie till the long midsummer,

Till he looked all pale and wan,

Then little Sir John grow’d a long, long beard

And so became a man.

They hired the men with the scythe so sharp

To cut him all down at the knee,

They rolled him and tied him around by the waist,

Served him most barbarously.

They hired the men with sharp pitchforks

And they pierced him to the heart.

But the loader he served him far worse than that

For he bound him to the cart.

They wheeled him around and around of the field

Till they came upon a barn,

And these three men made a solemn mow

Of poor John Barleycorn.

They hired the men with the crab tree sticks

To split him skin from bone.

But the miller he served him far worse than that

For he ground him between two stones.
There’s little Sir John in the nut brown bowl

And brandy in the cask.

And little Sir John in the nut brown bowl

Proved the stronger man at last.

For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox

Nor so loudly blow his horn,

And the tinker he can’t mend his kettles nor his pots

Without a little drop of John Barleycorn.

Traditional British folksong.