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The Bad Witch’s Guide to Lughnasadh

August, 2018

The Bad Witch’s Guide to Lughnasadh

Lammas and Lughnasadh get a bit of a bad rap. The biggest issue is the dating. When the shift from old to Gregorian calendars happened in 1782 the year lost 11 days. So we have two dates 31 of July and August 12. The next thing was that instead of celebrating on the day, the church bumped the celebrations to the nearest Sundays or saints’ days.

So what is this celebrating? Who is Lugh? What is a loaf mass anyway?

This is the beginning of harvest. From wild foraging, to gardens and fields full of golden wheat and barley all was about to gathered in. A good harvest can be spoilt with a run of bad weather, a sudden storm or infestation. It is then with all of your food for winter on the line a good idea to get the Gods on side. If it went well it was a time of celebration and merry making.

Lugh of Lughnasadh (the death of Lugh- feast of Lugh) is sometimes interpreted as a storm God or even a sky God in general. He is also the God of skill and many games. Sometimes he is seen as the sun God or God whom dies, much like the grain so the land is fertile. This sacrificial cycle makes sense and the “death” of the grain is part of many other Celtic traditions around Europe. Many harvest rituals of strangers cutting the last of the wheat or throwing the sickle as to avert bad luck come back to the “I don’t want to kill a God” part of the harvest. It is also the time when you will need to figure out what to hold back for next year’s planting, what to sprout for whiskey and beer, and what to keep for bread.

Farming communities would all help each other out, and everyone was expected to help bring in the harvest. This is still why at least in the UK our school holidays happen when they do, because children were also expected to help. “Straw marriages” of a year and a day would happen as the community was already gathered together and likely going to get drunk too!

Bilberry babies” were children conceived at this time. The fact that the wild places and ancient ritual mounds and wells had plenty of bilberries as an excuse to be there didn’t hurt either.

Sacred wells were often dressed with flowers and while Lughnasadh seems all about Lugh it is always a good idea to make sure that the ancestors and Goddesses were happy too. Ireland and Britain have a huge number of sacred wells. Water was seen as the connection to the Otherworld. Offering from swords to cauldrons, flowers and butter were left. Much like our wishing wells. Wells usually had a sacred tree nearby and a sacred hill. The deosil (anti-clockwise) route was usually taken to properly visit all three. Women in particular were to wash and/or drink from the well and then tie a strip of cloth to the tree, then maybe rub the standing stone or lie on a stone on the hill to help conception.

Lammas then? Loaf mass was exactly that. A Christian mass to celebrate the return of grain and fruit. I think this is always why I prefer Lughnasadh as a name. It is more complex and odd but it speaks of something older. It is important to understand something of the Celtic mind set to understand the wheel of the year properly. Celts celebrate death. A good death is important. Even now an average wake could last up to four days in more rural parts of Ireland. It isn’t morbid as such more that death is a necessary part of life. Community celebrations strengthened the bonds between them and created the future (in a real and Bilberry baby sort of way!) and gave an opportunity for the old songs to be sung and those lost to be remembered. Sure they WENT to the loaf mass. They made the bread, beer and whiskey, but they also went to the wilds, to the wells, and the ancient trees. They went up the Reek and watched the sunrise.

So what does this mean to you? What is your harvest? What is in a fragile state and requires gentle tending and an extra bit of luck? What food matters to you? Where does your food come from? Be it grain, bean or berry; what you put into your body now and later matters.

So how to celebrate Lughnasadh? It is a time to gather, food and people. To sit in the dark with a fire and sing the ancient songs. The sad songs, the old songs, the bawdy songs. To twist wildflowers in the hair. To whisper your sweet nothings under the stars and beside the standing stones. If you are alone for Lughnasadh you could have a fire, or make bread or cake. You could go and “pick your own” or give a little offer to Lugh before you harvest your own garden. It is an excellent time to mindfully harvest your herbs and flowers for the coming year.

You could go to a well, river or spring and decorate it with flowers. You could also go give to a food bank or homeless shelter. Or clean up a local cemetery or wild space of rubbish. Cleanse if you need to, be it at a sacred site or your bathroom.

Go outside, go to the wilds if you can. You are not separate from this sacred earth, not immune to its seasons. Plant something, scatter some seeds. Tie some cotton to a tree and make a wish.

For as you sow so shall you reap. I would advise listening to some folk songs, John Barleycorn in particular. Or maybe some Jethro Tull, and enjoying the poppies red and roses filled with summer rain.

Sacred Sites

November, 2008

Skara Brae

What makes a site sacred?

When I started visiting Pagan sacred sites I knew they would be places of great beauty, spiritually, and ancestor worship. Places that would make us feel as though we are a part of something greater than ourselves. My search was for a link between then and now.

While in the Orkney Islands, we walked in the footsteps of an ancient people. We saw the places where these people lived and where they buried and honored their dead. What did we have in common, how did they live and survive?  They tell us their stories preserved in stone, evidence of tradition and a link to their beliefs.

What is a sacred site? It’s what transcends us.

It is in that sense that I consider this month’s selection to be a sacred place. It’s not what you might consider the typical site. The selection is a village, a community of people, perhaps even the builders of the nearby passage tomb at Maeshowe. Located in the islands of Orkney, it shares the stark landscape with other Neolithic sites. Amongst the standing stones and burial cairns there is a place called Skara Brae.


The Land Itself  – The Geography

Once buried in sand until a storm in 1850 unearthed it, Skara Brae is one of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in the U.K.  The land is desolate and the wind roars in your ears. You can hear the nearby ocean with the waves crashing on the rocks. There is a sense of the timeless nature of this ancient landscape, over 5000 years ago the ocean was miles away from where it is today, it has slowly crept in with time and is eroding away the edges of the Neolithic village. Soon the earth and water will take back its secrets, but for now it stands against time.

According to Historic Scotland’s Guide to the Orkneys, “Radiocarbon evidence indicates Skara Brae was occupied from about 3100 BC, for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, the climate changed, turning much colder and the settlement may have been abandoned by its inhabitants”. There are many theories as to why the people of Skara Brae suddenly left, but there is no solid evidence suggesting why this occurred.

Skara Brae used to sit inland a bit more and there had once been a fresh water loch. Gradually the cliffs were eroded by storms and the loch drained out into the sea. Not much has changed from then to now, if you took away the houses and the rock walls, little would be different.

Community

Skara Brae was a well integrated closely knit community. Connecting the houses in the village was a series of passageways from the main entrance to the other buildings. The evidence speaks of a people who worked closely together for survival. When excavated the findings suggested that there was a freestanding structure separate from the houses and it was designed as a workshop. Archaeologists found chert fragments left from making stone tools. There was no metal at this time so people used chert (a local stone) to fashion animal bones into tools.

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Here is a picture of one of the Houses, clearly visible is the dresser and the fire, with the beds on either side of the hearth.


In the Midden

Skara Brae is built on top of an older village. The people living in the earlier village had collected their refuse on a nearby site where after gradual decomposition, midden formed. Midden is refuse; essentially it is the trash that these people piled up at the edge of their settlement. This was a huge compost heap containing ash, shells, bones, stone and other waste from everyday activities. The midden became the glue that held together the walls of their homes, adding much needed wind proofing and weatherproofing.

They began building Skara Brae by carving into the midden, forming the new houses and passageways. Once completed, flagstones were brought in and placed along the interior walls giving structure to the rooms.

Their furniture was made of stone because Orkney then as now, was almost without trees. Flagstones were readily available in Orkney and you see them used in everything from beds and dressers to doors and hearths.

The design of the entry required a guest to bow down as they entered, perhaps in a gesture of humility or respect to the host. What they displayed upon entering the house seems important to them based on the placement of the dresser and the position of the door.
Preservation of the Houses

The houses have survived because the midden it was built into protected it. After the village was abandoned, a sand storm buried the village and the sand settled into the foundation and between the flagstones giving everything a stabilizing factor.

Because of the way the houses have been preserved, we must look down into them to view them. It’s hard to imagine these houses were once roofed. Timber and whalebone were more than likely used for the roofs depending on what was available at the time. It is thought that the roofs were made of turf, weighted down with a network of ropes made from twisted heather.

Heating

A central hearth would have heated the house as well as providing the fire for cooking. The lighting would have been poor, the only light would have come from the fire and there is no evidence to suggest any lamps existed. There would have been little ventilation, (possibly a hole in the roof) and the houses would have been very smoky.
Farming

They grew crops, chiefly barley and some wheat. Fishing was coastal, mainly cod and saithe. Evidence from refuse tells us that they ate fish, shellfish, sheep or goats, and pigs. Eggshells found in the midden tell us that they collected eggs from bird’s nests.

Clothing

No tools related to spinning or weaving have been discovered and no clothing survives. Jewelry has been found mostly in the form of beads, pendants, and pins, almost all were made from bone, stone, or teeth from marine mammals.


Their Religion

It is uncertain what these people believed in. But as evidenced by the nearby passage portal tomb at Maeshowe it leads us to believe it was some form of ancestor worship. It is during this time period that our ancestors were spending a considerable amount of time and energy constructing tombs, an estimated average of 10,000 working hours on each tomb. Once again indicating that this was of great importance to them.
Skara Brae Abandoned

Some speculate that the village was abandoned because of some disaster, others believe that it fell into disuse, people moved away in the greater interest of farming and better lands.

With the beginning of the Bronze Age new ideas and concepts were spreading through Britain. Construction moved away from the large monuments such as Maeshowe and clustered designs such as Skara Brae were abandoned in favor of individual stone houses in small, dispersed communities.

Skara Brae is a World Heritage Site. Inscription on this list confirms the exceptional universal quality of a cultural or natural site, which deserves protection for the benefit of humanity

Reference:

Historic Scotland – Skara Brae – Official Guide

Visitor Center and Guided Tour

http://www.orkneyjar.com