The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Sunday, 2 August 2015
john barleycorn at lughnasadh
Lughnasadh. Lammas. The most ‘outward’ of the four fire festivals of the Celtic year, each midway between one of the astronomical stations of the turning year (the solstices and equinoxes). Yesterday evening I celebrated with friends on their beautiful land under the full harvest moon with fires and song, storytelling and poetry, music and food.
Lugh is the god of fire. In Welsh, he is Llew; in England his memory lives on in those places with ‘Lug’ or ‘Lud’ in their name.
Samhain, the start of the Celtic New Year on October 31st/November 1st, is the most inward of the fire festivals, and ‘feminine’ in tone: the Crone going into the cave of winter, readying the ground for new seed.
Imbolc is Brigit’s time: a time for the Maiden, for creativity, for the thoughts of spring flowers.
At Beltane, maiden-become-adult readies herself for Motherhood in her union with the sun god (‘Bel’; Lugh in one of his guises). The Beltane fires are lit and couples jump through them, share the cup, then take each other joyfully in the long grasses on this cusp of late spring and early summer. The days lengthen; we live outside.
Lughnasadh is the first, the early, harvest. At Lughnasadh we celebrate; but also in the northern hemisphere we turn towards autumn, and there is a dying in the reaping, too.
Robert Graves tells us that ‘Lammas’ in the old English calendar comes from ‘hlaf-mass’, meaning ‘loafmass’: that bread which we make from the new barley, just reaped. Ale was the other product of barley: historically until relatively recently drunk in the UK because the fermentation process rendered it 'cleaner' than water.
The old English folksong, below, speaks of John Barleycorn and how he must die. The King in joining with the Queen (the sun god with the goddess of the land), in spending his seed has also to sacrifice himself back to the earth for new life to emerge the following year as young green barley.
The seeds we have planted have ripened now; what are we harvesting? At this peak of the fire festivals, this culmination of a cycle, something has to be given back. For new life to emerge in the psyche something old has to be sacrificed.
I’m (nearly) dumbstruck by the timing of a sacrifice I have to make in my own life right now. I’m torn apart by it. And yet we can’t resist what has to happen for the continuity of life; we can’t forever resist the natural cycles and tides of things and the continual drive towards transformation and renewal.
Autumn will bring further fruit, and the journey into the darkness will restore fecundity and vitality in the composting of what seems like loss but is simply a shedding.
May the Lughnasadh fires burn up the old and your first harvests be safely gathered in, my friends.
There were three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
That John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn is dead.
They let him lie for a long, long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John popped up his head,
And soon amazed them all.
They've let him stand till midsummer day
When he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.
They hired some men with scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him by the waist,
And served him most barbarously.
They hired men with sharpest pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he served him worse than that,
For he bound him to the cart.
They wheeled him round and round the field
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn mow
Of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired men with the crab-tree threshing sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he served him worse than that,
For he ground him between two stones.
Now, here's little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl,
And brandy in a glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proves the strongest 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 kettles nor pots
Without a little Barleycorn.
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