August – the First Harvest

The intense heat of the Dog Days has brought summer growth to its end, and the crops have ripened, ready for cutting. For the ancient Romans, August fell under the protection of Ceres, the grain goddess. The Anglo-Saxons called it the Harvest Month,  [1] in Ruthenia it was the Sickle Month, in Moravia the Cutting Month, in Bulgaria the Fruit Month, while and in Denmark, it was the Corn-Month. [2]

For the farmers, this is the most important time of year, the harvest – the gathering of the golden wheat and the silver oats, the root crops and the fruit, when they warily scan the skies and sniff the wind for the scent of rain. In the past, all the village would assemble to help, and itinerant labourers would be drafted in. Factory and school holidays were timed to coincide with the period, so that more people would be free to assist. However, where once lines of reapers crossed the fields with scythes and sickles, now there is a hum of machinery, often late into the night as the farmer tries to beat the weather. Sheltering and nesting mice and rabbits dash from the fields, and the face of the countryside changes from golden fields to dusty stubble.

Until the Industrial Revolution in Britain, Europe and the USA, most of the population worked on the land in a way that had changed little since ancient times. Even at the end of the nineteenth century much of the grain was cut by hand with the farmer and his labourers working side by side, mowing down the grain, then using sickles to gather it up into sheaves bound with straw which were left to dry before being threshed with hand flails to separate the grain from the chaff. Labourers, both local and itinerant, would gather at the appointed day at a given farmer’s field and begin work, fuelled with beer and cider and given dinner by the farmer’s wife. In some places the workers elected a foreman to negotiate with the farmer for wages and terms, and was addressed as ‘my lord’, was the first to eat and drink, and imposed fines and punishments on workmen who broke his rules. His deputy was the Lady of the Harvest.

According to the Irish, Lughnasa (1 August) is the last day of summer and the start of autumn, and therefore the correct day on which to begin the harvest.  To begin the harvest before Lughnasa was thought to be wrong, and even shameful, and only a very needy man or a bad farmer would do so. The Scots would exclaim “It’s lang to Lammas!” in jest when food was late to the table, reflecting the reality of scarcity when waiting for the harvest to begin. People looked forward to the day of first reaping when the hunger would be over. Everything that had been worked for was in reach. 

Around the world the first of the harvest, called the First Fruits, was offered to the Gods, and only after giving the Gods their portion, were people free to enjoy the rest. In ancient Greece, barley was offered as first fruits to Demeter and Persephone at the great temple of Eleusis, where underground granaries stored the produce. In some places, the First Fruits were believed to contain a spirit. Estonians would not eat bread from the new corn until they had bitten on iron to protect them from the spirit within. In Sutherland (Scotland), when the new potatoes were dug, the whole family had to taste them or the spirits in them would be offended and the potatoes would not keep. [3]

The idea that the grain contained a spirit persisted right into the nineteenth century in Britain, and even longer in other places around the world, possibly dating back to the ancient belief that the gods of the grain are ‘sacrificed’ and give their lives so that humankind might live, their flesh devoured in the form of bread or wheaten cakes. The followers of the Egyptian Osiris ate wheaten cakes marked with a cross which embodied the god, and today Christians eat the body of Christ in the form of bread wafers, similarly marked with a cross. In Greece, such deities were titled soter which means ‘one who sows the seed’, but which we often translate as ‘saviour’.

This month is concerned with the rites at the beginning of the harvest, the offering of the First Fruits, and the sacrifice of the gods of the grain, so that we might eat. The Mother Goddess become the Queen of the Harvest.

 © Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2021


[1] Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

[2] Nilsson, Martin P, Primitive Time-Reckoning, Oxford University Press 1920

[3] James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Macmillan, London, 1976

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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