by Jesper Toad
Three Contemporary Pagan harvest festivals mark the Wheel of the Year as it turns from summer into autumn, the first of which is the cross-quarter day of Loaf Mass (the other two being the Autumnal Equinox and All Hallow’s Eve). The festival of Loaf Mass—also called Lammas, Lughnasadh, or August Eve—comes down to us from the celebrations of our forebears expressing gratitude for the harvest of grain, and the bread made from that grain. Bread is a ubiquitous human product, manifesting in all cultures dependent in some part on agriculture. Whether appearing as big chunks of crusty wheat bread, corn pone, tortillas, injera, middle eastern flatbreads, oatcakes, pancakes, cookies, or the host of the Catholic mass, bread is often regarded as the food of life.
Human beings, in common with all the other animal forms of life on this blue planet, lack the ability to engage in photosynthesis and fail completely to pull sustenance directly from heat or mineral sources. Consequently, to continue our existence, we must feed off other life, be it plant or animal life. Now, we can greedily gobble up our plant and animal relatives, smacking our greasy lips in satisfaction, which results in not living in any sort of balance with our environs, or we can realize that each life we consume is a sort of sacrifice: something has ended, and the energy of that life no longer serves that plant or animal being, but now serves the continuance of a human life. This is the underpinning of much of the contemporary Pagan Ritual surrounding the first harvest of Loaf Mass, with the divine masculine spirit of the corn (corn here referencing the wheat, barley, or other grain crop of that region and culture) giving freely of himself in a sacred sacrifice in order that our human lives may continue, and our children not starve in the dark months to come. The focus of these rituals in invariable one of the sacrifice of life force of the land, the thanks we give in return, and consequently the reciprocal relationship between a people, the land in which they dwell, including the invisible others that dwell within the land. There is an emphasis on the way that all are entwined and dependent upon one another.
However, how many of us take the scythe to the corn or the knife to the neck of the goat in our post-modern world of pre-packaged processed food? Our Contemporary Pagan rituals of sacrifice and thanks giving—based on the folkloric practices of time long past—become increasingly significant in our world where food appears plentiful and the processing of our meals is less time-consuming and intimate than in former times. Our striving for survival lead us to forge and sustain the reciprocal relationships between our ourselves, our communities, and the visible and invisible worlds; it seems to me that our relatively easy lives have lead us to be lax in the maintaining of all our relationships, and both distant and unaware of the sacrifices that are involved with the sustaining of our life.
Upon August Eve this festival will re-enact the harvesting of the first sheaf of wheat, engaging in metaphors of reaping, threshing, milling, and baking this grain into the bread of life. According to Sir James Frazier (whose work The Golden Bough serves as inspiration for countless rituals around the rim of the wheel as it blithely disregards the book’s raison d’etre) the last shock of grain to be harvested contains the vital essence of the field, and must be treated with caution. This last sheaf is twisted up to stand tall in the field of harvest stubble, and the harvesters take turns casting their sickles at the “neck” of the tussock of grain, until one of the blades severs the last of the golden stems. At this point a great ululation breaks forth from the harvesters, a cry of mourning for the spirit of the grain, the virtue of the field. The sheaf is then gathered up, often dressed in makeshift clothing creating a corn dolly, and hung over the hearth of the person whose sickle parted the sheaf from the field. For most Contemporary Pagans this festival includes eating of bread—the sacrificed body of the spirit—and an honoring of the life that this spirit has willing given to sustain our own.
The turn of the wheel at Loaf Mass is also a time for us to reflect on our personal sacrifices. Our lives are finite: the years, days, and hours of our being in the world are limited by the span of our incarnate, physical lives, from birth to grave. For what will we trade the precious hours of our lives? For most of us, we trade minutes for money by working for or with others. Our relationship with the spirits of money is strengthened. Many of us sacrifice our time to raising children for two decades, engaging the spirits of family. Our sacrifice may be on the altar of the academy, engaging our time in research and writing, or in the halls of artistic expression, engaging in poetry, dance, and painting. How do we include in this relationship the spirits of the land, or the ancestors, or those invisible others with whom we share the world? During this time of harvest, of the willingness to sacrifice and the gratitude for that sacrifice, give some time to examine your personal sacrifices: are the spirits you put the energy of your life toward giving back to you in a reciprocal manner? Do these relationships still serve you, or do they control you, sapping life of vitality and mirth, giving nothing in return? It may be time to cut away these dysfunctional relationships, and dedicate the time of your life to activities that offer sustenance, growth, happiness, or whatever it may be that you need.
In the end, it seems that the sacrifice is what we give and receive, and gratitude the corresponding response to sacrifice. It is one of the ways in which we, as keepers of a different way of being in the world, build the reciprocal relationships required for our continued existence in this space and time, this here and now.
Jesper Toad is a Georgian and a Gardnerian initiate, and studied the Feri Tradition with T. Thorn Coyle for nearly three years. His personal practice of three decades blends elements of all these traditions, as well incorporating spiritualist, shamanic and depth psychological perspectives.