Thursday 18 July 2019

Lughnasadh and the endless cycle of death and rebirth - by Lu Hersey

In the Celtic wheel of the year, August 1st is the ancient fire festival of Lughnasadh. Also widely known as Lammas (from Anglo Saxon hlaef-mass, when the first loaf of the harvest was consecrated at mass), it's traditionally the point in the year when the first grain is harvested. It's likely we've been celebrating this event for thousands of years, ever since the first farmers became dependant on growing crops - which was enough for me to want to write about it.

John Barleycorn - the personification of the crop
There's a lot of folklore about the harvest, much of it centring around the Green Man, or John Barleycorn -  a personification of the crop who must sacrifice himself every year to enable life to continue. In some areas, John Barleycorn's death was mourned with wreaths decorated with poppies or cornflowers, but a far more widespread (and very old) tradition is the making of a corn dolly. This is a plaited shape made out of stalks from the last sheaf of the grain crop, believed to hold the spirit of the grain. The following year the corn dolly is ploughed back into the ground, so the spirit grows back when the next crop is sown. Basically, John Barleycorn folklore is about the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

When I was much younger, a combination of watching folk horror movies like Straw Dogs and the Wicker Man, laced with a background soundtrack of Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die, meant this time of year wedged itself into my subconscious. Which goes some way to explain why I felt compelled to write a John Barleycorn based, teen folk thriller. 
To give yourselves a flavour of this season, and as all writers like a bit of practical research (okay, displacement activity), here's a link to how to make your own corn dolly  Go on, you know you want to...
Gillian Nott is a great name for corn dolly maker...
Even better, if you're feeling really ambitious, you can make a crop circle. My book (it's called Broken Ground) is full of them, so I researched a lot. There's a wonderful guide written by one of the best known human (can't speak for the aliens) circle makers, John Lundberg and fellow circle maker Rob Irving called The Field Guide: The Art, History & Philosophy of Crop Circle Making. Admittedly I've never tried it, but I read the book and did a lot of sitting in crop circles at all times of the day and night. As I said, research and displacement activity are closely linked...

visiting a crop circle at dusk
If nothing else, have a good Lughnasadh - even if you just make it an excuse for a good meal, lighting a few candles, and possibly drinking a little mead. I wouldn't recommend writing a book about it though. Takes blooming ages.

Lu Hersey


Anne Booth said...

I will remember this on August 1st! Very interesting!

LuWrites said...

It's August 1st today, so hope you're all busy making your corn dollies! Happy Lughnasadh :)