July 31, 2013

A Lammas Mystery: Sacrifice & Transformation of the Heart.

“Something has happened

to the bread

and the wine….

They are something else now

from what they were

before this began.”

~ Mary Oliver, The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church

Welcome, fellow traveler, to late Summer.

The grasshoppers are full-grown now, and the leaves of the trees have a cloud of goldenness around them. Trees and porches are graced with the mandalas of the orb-weavers. At some point that you didn’t notice, the crickets began serenading the evening.

Lammas, almost painfully beautiful, always seems to arrive before you are quite ready for it—it always carries the poignancy of change.

All of the pagan high holidays have a mystery buried within them like treasure. But what if that central mystery makes you uncomfortable? And is one that you would like to run away from?

Lammas is the threshold of the harvest cycle, the maturity of the “adult” season of the year, after the high glory of the Summer Solstice. Lammas was traditionally the time, in agricultural Scotland, of the weaning of calves and kids and lambs, and I think that is important to this theme: it is pull-away-from-gratification, get-off-the-teat-and-do-your-duty time.

And most importantly, Lammas is the beginning of the grain harvest, and the time of the grain god, John Barleycorn, who is reaped and winnowed and transformed into bread, who gives up one state in order to become another.

One of the central themes of Lammas, one that you cannot avoid, is sacrifice.

Sacrifice is something we resist. It is a difficult, unpopular theme to come to terms with in our modern mindset. We are encouraged, both in capitalist consumer culture and also “magically” by books like The Secret, to think that we can have everything all at once. Even though we know that, linearly, that is not true. Older, more mature and magical cultures than ours, actually understood this.

Sometimes, in order to have something that you love, you have to give up something else that you love.

Bestower, by Megan E. LaBonte, 2013

When you read about the sacrifices of ancient people, whether those sacrifices be bull calf or bundle of grain, they always gave their best: a calf free of blemish to have its life ended, a sheaf of full ears with no grains missing, to be immolated in the field. Lifeforms with genetic futures in them, that could have been held onto and hoarded, eaten, or bred, were offered to the gods.

Ancient people offered sacrifices in faith that next year, the harvest or hunt would be better. They restricted the gratification and comfort in their present selves in service of their future selves, and also of the people that would come after them. They didn’t hedge their sacrifices. Sacrifice was an absolute leap of faith, giving up the apparent and valuable, for something yet to arrive.

“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?” ~ John Keats

Many pagan traditions celebrate Lammas with a dramatized rite of the grain god being cut down for the winter by the Goddess’s harvest scythe. The Goddess takes the body of the slain god into her lap and mourns him, the form of a Pieta.

Paganism being cyclic, the ancient cycle then says that the god will be restored, rather like he is just going away for a few months on vacation.

I’m going to be a heterodox pagan here and say that is almost right, but there is a little lower layer: I think pure cyclicity belies the true nature of sacrifice. Sacrifice is not someone takes a seasonal holiday and you know they are coming back, intact and just the same. It is losing something beloved and known in a gamble with the unknown.

It is giving something up to a cause larger than yourself, without being quite sure what, if anything, you will get back in return (the Bhagavad-Gita is about this). In sacrifice, there are no guarantees. There is no real sacrifice if you know the resolution.

Instead of a circle, think of a spiral. The uncertainty of change makes sacrifice real and meaningful. The god who comes back is, but also is not the same god, just as the Phoenix who rises out of the ashes is and is not the same Phoenix, just as Gandalf the White is and isn’t any longer Gandalf the Grey, just as the New Year that arrives in January is not the same year as the old, just as the Doctor, when he regenerates on Doctor Who, both is and is not the same Doctor.

As long as we are in Time, there is sacrifice of the present for the future.

For all that it is fantastic, Doctor Who is very realistic and honest about loss. Beloved characters get killed, or changed or separated irrevocably. The show introduces in a safe way the idea that certain things can never be recovered, that one set of circumstances has to make way for another because all possibilities cannot exist at once. Doctor Who is notable for its acknowledgement of the emotional component of Time.

In the episode ‘The End of Time,’ the Doctor names, among the painful horrors of the universe, ‘the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-weres.’ Anyone who has ever sacrificed one time stream for another is familiar with that legion.

In Norse mythology, Odin gives up an eye to learn the secret of the runes. He gives it for its value, but even as a god, he never gets it back. He wears a patch for the rest of his existence. There is no sacrifice without loss.

Butterflies, although they seem Springlike and Summerlike in their imagery, are also of the Fall. They are creatures of sacrifice. Caterpillars have to liquefy, turn to protoplasm, before they can be reconstituted as butterflies, or moths.

They are totemic of having to surrender one state for another.

Growth occurs through sacrifice, on a material level and on the energetic plane. For carnivorous cultures, the autumnal hunts and the slaughter of the herds was bloody. The ritual hunt of the King Stag ensured the return of Summer, and the turning of the Year. The annual cull of the herd cleared the old to make room and resource for the new. One thing is necessarily given to gain another. That is why people always would sacrifice the most beautiful, healthy, whole animal of their herd—that is how badly they wanted, and what they were willing to give, for next year’s fertile harvest.

Harvest Goddess: Mary in Ahrenkleid, The Cloisters, NYC (by Laura Miller)

I recently had to give up a relationship very dear to me. As of right now, I have more idea of how my life won’t turn out than how it will.

Sometimes, something you love with all your life has to be surrendered and then you hope for the best. Can you release a beloved form, or way of being, valuable because it has value to you, to provide fertility to your future? Can you give up something you love for being able to live in your true worth?

A principle of microeconomics says that the cost of something is what you are willing to give up to get it. How valuable to you are your dreams?

“[Man] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” 

~ William Faulkner, Nobel acceptance speech, 1950

The word ‘sacrifice’ comes from the Latin sacer, which means ‘to make holy.’ No matter what wisdom traditions we follow, throughout the earth and among all peoples, our meaningful, devoted actions add more light to what is already full of light.

When we are willing to take a risk on behalf of a higher good that outvoices our immediate gratification and comfort, the Universe hears us.

Maria im Ahrenkleid (detail), Salzburg.

May what we give up be a sacrifice to our future self, to the possibilities of happiness and greater service on this Earth.

It is and is not the same god who comes back in the Spring. The spiral will continue until the end of Time, until we run out of gods.

May you forever be guarded and guided, and never lose hope! Blessed Lammas!




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Ed: Bryonie Wise

Photograph by Megan E. LaBonte Photography

{Main image: Source: via Adeeba on Pinterest}

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