As pagans, we celebrate nature's power to feed and sustain us. Therefore, we, as neopagans, recognize eight roughly evenly-spaced seasonal holidays. We call this system the wheel of the year. At this time, we celebrate the beginning of the harvest season in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Known as Lunasa in Ireland, Lunastal in Scotland and Lammas in England, this ancient pagan holiday has evolved into a secular harvest home festival. Britain's climate is most favorable at this time of year for outdoor festivals and fairs.
Historically, in northwest Europe, this was a time for races, athletic games, matchmaking, weddings and gatherings on hill and mountain tops. It was a time when the first fruits of the grain harvest were offered up in an expression of gratitude. For us here in Florida, today, it's a good time to give thanks for air conditioning. I just offered up $600 up of my first fruits in a/c repairs.
Traditionally, Lammas is dedicated to honoring the first fruits of the wheat harvest. It is a time to give thanks for bread which, until recent times, was the staple of our diet, the stuff of our survival. It was a time to honor our relationship with grains, once-wild grasses that our ancestors first domesticated many thousands of years ago.
Our relationship with barley and wheat has underwritten all the great civilizations we hold in high regard: the fertile crescent, Egypt, Greece and Rome. To these peoples, the cycle of planting and harvest was encoded into their religion through the myths of such deities as Tammuz, Osiris and Demeter. The Irish name, Lunasa, means "Festival of Lugh" and alludes to a Gaelic hero or deity. Lugh's foster mother was said to have cleared large tracts of Ireland, so that agriculture would be possible. When she died from exhaustion, Lugh established the anniversary of her death as one of the great seasonal festivals of the island.
The English name, Lammas, is Anglo-Saxon for "Loaf-mass." Well into Christian times, people would bring a loaf of bread baked from the first fruits to church to be blessed. Some would then take their blessed loaves, break them into four parts, and leave them at the four corners of their storehouses with the expectation that it would protect the precious food supplies they were gathering for the winter.
Few of us these days live an agrarian lifestyle but most of the foods we enjoy are still grown on farms. Not only is this a time to be grateful for abundance in our lives, it is also an opportunity to reflect upon our deeds. "As a man sows, so shall he reap." Take a moment to think about how you have used your time over the past four months. Have you been charitable and kind? Have you taken time to stand up for justice, for sustainability, for peace? Have your words been encouraging or hurtful? Have your thoughts been hopeful or toxic? Life is like a fertile field and in this field we plant our thoughts, our words and our deeds. These seeds take root and become our destiny. They also take root in the lives of others. We are all connected. The good seeds you plant can help to soothe and to heal. Bad seeds create pain. Earlier in the year we reflected on the power of planting the seeds of our intentions. Now we watch those seeds begin to bear fruit. How does your garden look? Do you face the coming harvest with joy and anticipation? Part of what we learn through experiencing the wheel of the year is the interdependence of all things.
Here in South Florida, this is our monsoon season. The snowbirds are up north. There’s less traffic but business is usually slow. But our monsoons are an essential element of life for all of us. The summer rains help fill our wetlands and lakes, in the natural system, these areas would retain the fresh water, allowing it to seep into our aquifer, thus staving off salt water intrusion and replenishing our wells. The waters are meant to slowly flow south and nourish a quilt of unique communities such as the Everglades. Statistically, we are approaching the hottest, wettest part of the year here in Palm Beach County. It’s hot, humid and oppressive. The sun either broils you alive or else you’re being deluged by buckets of rain. It’s a good time to get out of Dodge.
But, as a Floridian, I’ve learned to feel the promise of life in the humidity. The summer air is thick with the promise of cooling rains that replenish and soothe. Our thunderstorms are spectacular orchestrations of nature’s glory. And it’s kind of nice to get summer bargains at swank restaurants when the snowbirds are out of town. We exist as a part of a finely tuned natural system. This system provides food and water to our seniors, to our children, to our manatee and to our geckos. The bald cypress and your kitchen sink ultimately depend on the same water supply.
We’re in this together, not just as human beings but as living beings: mangrove, ibis, gator and golfer. For myself, in addition to recognizing the importance of farming and agriculture in our lives and in our economies, I also recognize the importance of our typical seasonal rains, the importance of our wetlands and natural creeks, of our aquifer and estuaries. Like the wild things, we are children of the waters. We would die of thirst without them.
The original sermon I had prepared for today was quite short. However, I woke up this morning with an epiphany. I have to confess, Lammas is my least favorite of the neopagan holidays and when I was asked to prepare a sermon for it I wasn’t thrilled. I mean, we already have Thanksgiving, isn’t that enough? And the neopagan wheel of the year features three havest celebrations. I mean, give me a break already. If we were living a pre-industrial agrarian lifestyle up north that might make sense. The ripening of each separate crop would be a cause for great celebration but this is 21st century America. Who has time for that? Come on, we have to catch up on American Horror Story and play Pokemon Go!
Lammas is a fundamentally Celtic holiday. Most of its traditions in today’s pagan community derive from Ireland. That fact is, unlike most Wiccans and Druids, Irish mythology gives me agida. Greek mythology is a transparent anthropomorphization of nature’s grandeur. Norse mythology is part clever folk tale and part space opera on a cosmic scale. But, I’m sorry, Irish myths with their obsessions over royal successions is like Game of Thrones with magic cows. I mean, have any of you read the Book of Invasions? I’ll let you in on a little secret, even most pagan elders haven’t read it. Unpronounceable Gaelic names and complicated lineages that make all the “begats” in the Old Testament look thrilling. It makes Lord of the Rings look like Doctor Seuss. And it’s all about Ireland. Ireland, Ireland, Ireland.
I want to talk about America. Where are the stories that celebrate the sacredness of our land? What about our relationship with the spirits that haunt our forests and wetlands? I feel like telling some pagans, why don’t you just move there? I understand the country has a fairly liberal immigration policy. But I have read the Book of Invasions. I do have a passing knowledge of Ireland’s grotesquely complicated mythology.
The wee folk saw fit to dust my eyes while I slept and I awoke this morning with an important message for you all. I mentioned that Lammas, called Lughnasadh by the Celtic peoples who inhabited the British isles before the Romans and before the Anglo-saxons, was founded by the hero Lugh in commemoration of his foster mother.
Tailtiu is assumed by scholars to be a mother goddess and a personification of the fruitful fields. But scholars can never quite grasp the magic of our relationship with nature’s gods as lived by our ancestors.
The Irish myths as we have them today were written down in the middle ages so they tend to sound like feudal fairy tales. Tailtiu was a queen in Ireland during a time when a new race of people invaded the land. She was the foster mother of the hero Lugh, who was a member of this new race. Of course there were great battles between these two peoples and they were usually bitter enemies but sometimes there was deep love between members of these rival communities.
Tailtiu, a heroine in her own right and possibly a goddess of the harvest, was said to have cleared the plains of Ireland so that they could be farmed. When she was finished, however, she died from exhaustion. Her foster son then founded a festival, the first Lammas, in her honor.
I think it’s interesting that this folk tale goes to great pains to celebrate the deep love of a hero for his foster mother. If Lugh is just a son god (as the scholars suggest) and if Tailtiu is just an earth goddess then wouldn’t it be more poetic to present them as mother and son? They’re not even of the same race? Why is Lugh mourning the death of a woman who belongs to clan that are bitter enemies of his own?
Let’s re-tell this story as if it occurred here in America… Paul Bunyan is a great folk hero in American folklore. There are many conflicting tales told about him. Among the swamp witches and cowboy poets he is especially honored. While the mainstream regard George Washington as the father of our country, the outcast, however, regard Paul Bunyan as the true father of our people.
They say that when he was a small boy, there was a battle between the red man and the white. Young Bunyan was separated from his family. The daughter of a powerful Indian chief found him and raised him as her own. They call her Pocahontas but they are quick to point out that she was not the same Pocahontas who is said to have saved William Smith. This Pocahontas was not only an Indian princess. She was also a powerful shaman and she taught all she knew to the small Bunyan. From her, he learned to speak the language of the animals. He learned how to hear the ancestor’s voices on the winds and how to see the future in dance of sunlight upon still water in summer.
As the boy grew, Pocahontas knew that there would be trouble for him because of the conflict between her people and that of her foster child. She peered into the future and she saw that many new people would come to Turtle Island. In a few generations the land would be crowded with many people from many other lands.
In those days, all of Turtle Island was thick forest. The red man and the white settlers farmed narrow strips of land along the rivers and shores. Pocahontas knew that, in time, there would not be enough farm land to feed all the people who were coming.
She prayed to Creator and He told her to take up her axe and her medicine bundle and to go into the forest. There, in the wilderness, she showed her vision to the spirits of the forest and begged them for help. They agreed to help but she would have to pay a price. With the permission of the forests, Pocahontas set to cutting down trees. Day and night, year after year she labored until countless acres were cleared and ready to be sown with grass and maize. Westward she went, further and further, until she reached the continental divide. There, exhausted from her labor, she made the ultimate sacrifice and died. Her lifeblood and her spirit flowed into the soil of the land. That is how the Great Plains were cleared.
Paul Bunyan mourned his foster mother’s death. She had been his teacher, his friend and his guide. He, too, prayed for peace between the red man and the white. In her memory, he founded the first American Lammas to commemorate her sacrifice.
Of course I’m making all of this up but the point is to show how Lammas is more than just a festival of bread. Unless you are native American, I hope you can see how this Irish holiday can inspire us to celebrate our relationship with our foster mother, Turtle Island, this sacred land we call America. I hope you can see how it can help inspire us to build understanding and respect between the indigenous peoples and those who came here more recently. As Irish or German or Italian as we may be, the ghosts of the Taino and Tequesta and Calusa dwell here with us.
How many of you have seen ‘Gone with the Wind?’ There’s a scene where Scarlet O’Hara’s father is trying to explain to her their near mystical relationship with their land. He says:
“Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that Tara, that land doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts.” “And don’t you be forgettin’ missy that you’re half Irish too and to anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them why the land they live on is like their mother. Oh there there, you’re just a child. It will come to you, this love of the land. There’s no getting away from it if you’re Irish.”
Today, and in the weeks ahead, let’s reflect on our relationship with our land. Let’s also reflect on our relationship with our foster family, those with whom we share this land but who may be of different race or creed. Are we going to continue a tradition of exploitation? How are we crafting new ways of relating to our land and to our fellow Americans? Are we willing to end cycles of destruction and abuse? We are all children of Tailtiu, of that Indian princess whose spirit haunts the soil beneath us. Honor her.
Lammas, a sermon by Mathew Sydney, at 1stUUPB, July 31, 2016