To Burn in Sacrifice: A Lammas Ritual
by Melanie Fire Salamander
The sun rises hot in the sky, dries the long grass yellow. Summer has settled in, and from crops in the fields and wild things in the forest the sun presses the first fruits of the coming harvest. It’s a classic time for ritual. Around the world, farming cultures have traditionally offered up the first harvest gleanings to their deities to ask that the remaining harvest be full and sweet. So too, symbolically, do we, many of whom have come away from our agrarian roots but still feel the pull of the seasons and the older gods.
My coven and I presented the following ritual for Lammas, or Lughnasadh, following one traditional theme of the Sabbat, sacrifice. In many pre-Christian European cultures, Lammas was the time when farmers, probably first using a human representative, later an effigy, sacrificed the Corn King, symbolizing ever-reborn vegetable life. Traces of this tradition can be found throughout the British Isles and the Continent. In the ritual I describe following, participants identify themselves with the dying and rising God by first sacrificing to the fire straw dolls, symbolizing the selves to be left behind so that new selves can be reborn. The ritualists then consider the harvest they have gleaned and continue to glean from the past spring and summer and give thanks. Raising energy to symbolize that harvest and the giving Goddess and God, ritualists put the energy into ritual bread and eat it, taking in the harvest more fully.
Preparation the week before
A week to ten days beforehand, the high priestess or priest begins ritual preparation by making Lammas incense. The recipe for the incense I used is as follows:
2 parts frankincense
2 parts sandalwood
1 part pine resin
1/2 part bay
1/2 part cinnamon
1/2 part coriander
1/2 part meadowsweet
1/2 part oregano
1/2 part rosemary
A few drops rose oil
Slightly less oak moss oil
Very little patchouli oil (start with one drop)
On the day before or the day of the ritual, the high priestess or priest bakes Lammas bread. To do so, you can follow any simple bread recipe to produce a loaf to your liking. We shaped ours into the form of a small man for the sake of the sacrifice symbolism, but that’s a personal call. While baking the bread, the ritualist should concentrate on the harvest, the Good Goddess and God and thankfulness. When the bread is finished and cooled, consecrate the bread. I raised energy and consecrated the bread with a pentacle of blessed olive oil, but you can use whatever form of consecration you prefer.
During the week before the ritual, participants should collect or make flammable decorations to symbolize attributes or events they’d like to either leave behind or offer as sacrifice. The ritual as structured leaves it up to individual participants to decide whether they want to let go of negative things or truly make sacrifice, giving up something so as to receive blessings from the deities. You can amend the ritual to focus on either approach.
During the week before the ritual, the high priest and priestess and any helpers should also collect the following:
· Wood, matches and fire starter materials to build a fire
· Straw, enough for all participants to make dolls from
· Multiple colors of yarn and embroidery thread
· Flammable ornament makings, such as colored sisal, dried flowers, flammable cloth, colored paper and markers
Bring enough materials that any ritualist who hasn’t been inspired previously can whip up a few symbolic decorations on the spot.
Preparation on the day of the ritual
On the ritual day, an hour or two before the rite itself, the high priest, priestess and helpers build a fire, and the high priest and priestess consecrate the built pile of wood and tinder to the ritual purpose, without actually lighting it. Likewise, ritualists set up their usual altar near the firepit (not too close!). On the altar or a side table nearby, helpers place the ritual wine and juice and the various ritual materials.
In my coven, we celebrate every Sabbat with a potluck feast. A feast is particularly appropriate after this ritual, which ends with the intake of our year’s harvest. I’d suggest traditional harvest foods (think Thanksgiving), but really hot weather might call for salads and ice cream. Before the ritual, everyone should make or set up their potluck dishes so that the ritual can segue smoothly into feasting and merriment.
Just before the ritual begins, the high priest and priestess should explain the ritual to everyone, start the Lammas incense on the altar burning and light the fire.
The ritual itself
The high priestess or priest begins the rite by leading everyone in a grounding exercise.
After grounding, the high priest, priestess and coven members cast the circle and invoke elements or directions in their usual way. The Goddess and God should be invoked with their harvest attributes; you can choose a particular pair of harvest deities or just call general female and male deity energy in harvest form.
Creating and burning dolls for sacrifice
The high priestess or priest then explains the technique for making straw dolls. To make such a doll, you take a hank of straw, bend it in half and tie a loop of string around the bent end. That creates the head. You then tie off some straw on one side for one arm and some on the other side for the other arm. Leaving some straw for the torso, tie a belt around the waist. Next, tie off one leg and then the other, and you’re done with your basic straw person. You can tie on or otherwise create genitals if gender is important in your sacrifice.
When the doll bodies are done, ritualists decorate them, incorporating the materials they brought and also things provided. Everything that goes on the dolls must be flammable and ideally should burn with a sweet scent. As the ritualists create their dolls, they concentrate on imbuing the dolls with the qualities of self that they bring to sacrifice, that their new selves be reborn. The high priest and priestess should keep an eye out and when doll-making is nearly complete ask the slower workers to finish.
When everyone’s done decorating dolls, it’s time to call the energies to sacrifice into the dolls. Before doing so, the high priestess or priest can describe how through this ritual we identify ourselves with the dying and rising God of Grain and Vegetation: Lugh, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Adonis, et al. To raise energy, the group performs a circle dance widdershins around the altar and chants the well-known couplet:
Horned one, lover’s son, leaper in the corn
Deep in the Mother, die and be reborn
This verse is not entirely vegetation-god oriented, but it’s a sweet chant most pagans know and definitely brings up dying and rising god energy. You can of course create your own chant instead.
Using this chant, raise energy and project it into the dolls.
When the dolls are imbued with energy, it’s time for sacrifice. Each participant, going widdershins around the circle, walks to the fire and feeds his or her doll to the flames. Ritualists can say a few words or work in silence as their dolls flare up.
While the dolls burn, people can also sacrifice to the fire by jumping it, as at other fire festivals. If you choose to do so, you can call out your sacrifice as you leap, or leap in silence. It’s probably best to limit ritualists to one jump each, lest the momentum of the ritual be dissipated. Once all are done jumping, the group grounds any remaining sacrifice energy and moves to the second part of the ritual.
Taking in the harvest as bread
At this point, the high priestess or priest asks ritualists to recall their spring and summer, particularly any ritual requests made six months ago at Imbolc, and to consider the things they are beginning to harvest.
Having considered their harvest, each group member going deosil around the circle gives thanks, spoken or wordless, for that incipient harvest. After thanks are given, the group raises energy of thanks and hopes for harvest by performing a circle dance deosil around the altar. For this second dance, the group can either create a thanksgiving chant, continue to call out their personal thanks or simply intone:
Thank you for the coming harvest, blesséd Lady and Lord.
Sometimes simple chants are best.
With the chant or calls of thanks, the group sends the raised energy into the ritual bread. The bread consecrated, the high priest and priestess break the loaf, take a piece each and pass the remainder deosil around the circle. Each ritual participant breaks off a chunk and eats it, taking the harvest within. The group follows the bread with ritual wine and juice.
When bread, wine and juice are finished, the group releases the elements or directions and deities in their usual way and takes down the circle.
This Lammas ritual is simple but contains, I think, some techniques to get energy moving. For me, sacrifice by fire and the intaking of bread — grain transformed by fire — create a satisfying cycle that resonates with the harvest beginning in this season.