John Barleycorn is dead! That’s the call at Lammas, the European pagan festival of first harvest celebrated at the beginning of August each year. The grain, personified as the God of Harvest, is cut down with scythes, a sacrifice that provides food and therefore life for the people for the coming year. The god dies that we may live.
Many pagan groups make grain dollies and decorate their Lammas ritual areas with sheaves of wheat. But how many of you are really familiar with the sight of grain growing in the fields near your homes? How many of you have actually wielded a scythe or even know someone who has? All right, I’ll admit that I have, but I’m a living history demonstrator, so that sets me well outside the norm for the modern world.
If a grain harvest isn’t a regular part of your late summer life, how strongly does the image of the Harvest King resonate with you? Sure, you understand the concept of harvest and you know that certain crops become available at certain times of the year. But in modern life, with 24-hour supermarkets and food trucked, shipped or flown in from around the globe, what does harvest time really mean any more?
I live in Georgia, in the southeastern United States, and I can tell you what harvest time here means to me: watermelon. Huge stacks of them at roadside stands and farmer’s markets, and yes, even at the chain grocery stores. While it’s possible to get watermelon out of season, shipped in from southern Florida or California, in-season watermelon is a delight without compare. Its juicy red meat has a flavor and a perfume that simply speaks of hot days in late summer, of air so thick with humidity that stepping outside feels like walking into a wet blanket, of cicadas buzzing and clouds drifting slowly by. It is the taste of bounty, of Nature providing for us. To me, that’s what harvest is all about.
So this year, as we have done in the past, my friends and I will not call to John Barleycorn at Lammas. Instead, we will invoke the Watermelon King. We will not stride out into the grain fields with scythes in hand. Instead, we will crown the Watermelon King and sacrifice him with a sharp knife, cutting into his flesh and watching the red liquid drip, knowing that for us to live, something must die. This is the way of things.
As the wheel turns toward harvest time in the northern hemisphere, I encourage you to look to your local environment. What speaks to you, from the gardens and the fields, telling you that the bounty of harvest is nigh? What taste, what scent, what food has meaning for you? Focus on this, for it is the embodiment of the Harvest King, who dies that you may live.