Wheat of Song
Gwion turns himself from a small bird into a germ of wheat to escape Ceridwen’s wrath – within an inch of his life he made himself smaller and slipped through her talons down, down, down onto the threshing floor of a nearby farm – there to hide amongst the grains. The story has travelled from May Eve, when Elphin makes his discovery at his father’s weir, to late summer – from Beltane to Lughnasadh, suggesting the chase is a cyclical one reflecting the turning of the wheel, the life-force as it manifests throughout the seasons (‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ as bard Dylan Thomas expressed). Here we have come to the rich field of harvest rites. Brighid has become Demeter. An ear of wheat was a symbol of the Eluesinian Mysteries, as enacted at Delphi. A symbol of the rebirth that comes about through sacrifice. We must give of ourselves for the greater good. At this time the grain god is slain in his prime. Llew, Baldur, Bacchus, Sir John Barleycorn – he is known by many names.
There is no escaping this fate.
Even Orpheus, grieving for his Eurydice, high in the mountains cannot escape it though he has renounced Dionysus for Apollo. The gods are jealous. The wine-deity sent his Bacchanae after him – wild women who tore him to pieces when he would not join in their sensual frenzy. He had gone to one extreme (turning away from the world, from women, from the needs of the flesh – virtual self-mortification) and the Bacchanae were the other (driven crazy by bodily lusts). The two collided, resulting in Orpheus losing his head (torn off in the attack it floated down the Hebron on his lyre to, of all places, Lesbos – that which you avoid…) and the wild women being turned into trees (withered, juiceless and bark-skinned – perhaps a symbol of old age, of the physical cronedom that awaits all women). The poet was ‘harvested’.
Death is very much in the air at this time. The glint of the sickle in the corn. The days have an added poignancy as they start to get shorter. We must savour every drop of sunlight – as rich and golden as mead. There is an easing of pressure, of pace – after the harvest is gathered. First we must sweat in the sun, even work through the night, under the fat harvest moon. A collective effort, to bring the harvest home. The stooks of wheat stacked in the shorn fields, raw stubble like Ysbaddeden’s beard after Culhwch had managed to give his future father-in-law a haircut: with the scissors and comb gleaned from between the ears of Twrch Trwyth. In the Welsh story of Henwen, another giant boar, wherever she fled she dropped various symbolic offerings, amongst them a grain of wheat. A symbol of potential, of how our every action, our every word creates an effect –
wherever we find ourselves. Through the katabolic winnowing of the goddess Gwion is reduced to his bare essence – his soul-seed. As this germ-sperm he ‘impregnates’ the crone-goddess, making what is barren fertile once more. The black hen is very much a figure in the same lineage as the Morrigan, Cailleach, and Kali. Death is made fertile. Returned to his primal essence, Gwion ‘dies’ to be reborn again: as a twice-born, shining-browed, bard – Taliesin.
Lughnasadh is the name of the Celtic fire festival related to the funeral games of Lugh, a sun god who dies at this time of year. In Saxon parts of Britain the festival was known as Lammas, or ‘loaf-mass’. A sacred loaf was made from the first or last sheaf of wheat. Corn dollies were made, mirroring the Bridey doll’s, Bride’s bed and Bride’s Cross made at Imbolc. This is the promise of the Spring Maiden given full potential. The maiden turned mother. Demeter is the quintessential harvest mother – she wanders the fields, searching for her lost daughter, her grief shrivelling the fields in her wake. Yet, her daughter has tasted forbidden fruit – three pomegranate seeds from her dark captor, Hades; her own fruit of the harvest – and must spend three months of the year below ground. Spring maiden must wear the colours of winter. Her innocence has been ‘defiled’ – or rather, she has reconciled her Shadow self. The ‘virgin’ and the ‘whore’ two patriarchal pigeon-holes, categorising – and thus restricting – women’s sexuality.
In the story of Llew Llaw Gyffes from the Mabinogion, Blodeuwedd, the bride made of flowers by Math and Gwydion, betrays her husband and orchestrates his assassination so she can run off with his rival, Gronowy. This apparently heartless act may have been part of a bigger pattern – the consort of the goddess ‘changing guard’ from the solar Oak King (Llew, in the form of a golden eagle hides in an oak tree) to the shadowy Holly, (Gronowy’s spear shaft is hewn from holly) symbolising not a woman’s fickleness but the turning of the year from its bright to dark half, from its waxing to waning tides, as days shorten and nights lengthen.
I feel more connected to this festival than any, perhaps because it falls less than three weeks before my birthday – a time I always feel a sense of my own mortality. This year, the festival had intense resonance, for the week before I had scattered my father’s ashes and planted a tree for another ‘father figure’, Tim Sebastion. Both were Barleycorn-esque figures, larger-than-life characters who enjoyed a few too many beers! Both died before their time – Tim at 59, Dad at 69. I commemorated what would have been Tim’s 60th last year, and my Dad’s 70th last month, a week before the Bardic Camp where I performed ‘Grim Reapings: bloody tales for harvest tide’. My performance had an extra depth and edge to it because of the raw reality of its subject matter. My life is transformed into my art – and like the grazes acquired during the slog of harvest, raw scratches against the skin from the sharp stubble, the process of harvesting was painful. What can be gleaned from life’s fields?
My first Lughnasadh was spent in pilgrimage, during the my gap year, to Croagh-Patrick in the far west of Ireland, the climb the sacred mountain of the Celts at the beginning of August. Unlike the Catholic pilgrims, I deigned not to climb it bare foot. I did hitchhike to it from the East Midlands, so still felt like a pilgrim – making to just outside Westport around midnight. My last lift came when I actually prayed it at a roadside shrine with its effigy of the Holy Virgin-Mother. It was late and it seemed like I’d never get a lift – who’d give a lift to a single bloke at that time of night? And yet I had come so far, having crossed Ireland. I came upon the illuminated shrine as I trudged the dark road out of Westport, past the pubs closing their doors. The lift took me to its flank and I slept in the arms of a tree to the sound of the Atlantic, waves crashing on that far shore. I climbed the mountain the next morning and felt euphoric – what had been a vision made a reality, through my own efforts. I passed the stations of the cross until I reached the summit. It wasn’t completely clear, but the view was still stunning. I gazed out over the bay, watching the white breakers roll in. It was literally a peak experience. It seemed anything was possible, if done with the right intent. When you are a pilgrim you are on the holy road and it seems the universe acknowledges that and conspires to help you.
Lughnasadh, like all of the festivals, makes us reflect. It is time to take stock. Decide what to keep, what to cut. We must work hard now to gather in enough to see us through the harder months ahead. Life seems easy now, in the fat of summer, but lean winter awaits. The grain stores must be filled.
What sacrifices are you prepared to make for your harvest?