When Lammas, or Lughnasadh, rolls around, many modern Pagans celebrate the harvest of the grain crops. This is nothing new - for our ancestors, the grain harvest was a cause for great celebration. A successful harvest meant families would be able to bake and store bread through the winter - and that could mean the difference between life and death for many. The word “Lammas” comes from the Old English phrase hlaf-maesse, which translates to “loaf mass.” Today, it’s not uncommon to find a celebration of bread at a Pagan festival during the Lammas season.
There are a number of different ways that bread itself can be incorporated into a ritual or magical setting. Let’s look at some of the magical folklore surrounding bread in different cultures and societies.
Bread and the Divine
Grain has held a place of importance in civilization back nearly to the beginning of time. Grain became associated with the cycle of death and rebirth. The Sumerian god Tammuz was slain and his lover Ishtar grieved so heartily that nature stopped producing. Ishtar mourned Tammuz, and followed him to the Underworld to bring him back, similar to the story of Demeter and Persephone.
In Greek legend, the grain god was Adonis. Two goddesses, Aphrodite and Persephone, battled for his love. To end the fighting, Zeus ordered Adonis to spend six months with Persephone in the Underworld, and the rest with Aphrodite.
Spirits of the Grain
In European cultures, a corn doll was often used to represent the spirit of the harvested crops. However, Europe didn't have a monopoly on this at all. In South American countries, some tribes took the largest portion of the crops -- typically maize -- and dressed it in clothing as an effigy.
Folklorist Sir James Frazer makes mention in The Golden Bough of the global phenomenon of the honoring of the spirit of the grain. He says that the mere fact that underdeveloped, primitive cultures honor a "corn mother" archetype indicates that this has been going on for thousands of years. In other words, because these cultures are "unspoiled" by modern society, their worship of such an embodiment of the grain is probably very close to the original ritual and ceremony.
The Final Sheaf
In many societies, the cutting of the final sheaf of grain was indeed cause for celebration. People celebrated by making corn dolls, which represented the spirit of the grain. Sometimes these dolls were full-sized, made of the last stalks of corn to be harvested, and decorated with ribbons, streamers and even articles of clothing.
Bread Magic and Superstitions
- In Yorkshire, it was believed that if a loaf of bread failed to rise, it meant there was an undiscovered corpse nearby.
- One English tradition revolves around hot cross buns. If you bake yours on Good Friday, they will not spoil or grow mold. Another custom says that sailors should take a hot cross buns on their travels to prevent shipwreck. The cross on the bun comes from a superstition that marking the bun so would prevent the Devil from getting into the baked goods.
- In parts of Appalachia, it’s important to watch when you slice a loaf of bread for the first time - if you slice through a hole in the bread, it means someone is going to die. It is also well-known that if you put a slice of bread into a cradle, it will protect the infant from disease.
- For many cultures, the breaking of bread is symbolic of peace and hospitality. Once you have welcomed someone into your home and you have eaten bread together, you’re far less likely to kill one another.
- In parts of Norway, boys and girls who share bread from the same loaf are destined to fall in love and marry.
- For residents of Scotland, there's a tradition known as "first-footing," in which the first person to cross a home's threshold brings the residents good luck for the coming year. While waiting for your first guest to arrive, place a slice of bread and a silver coin outside the door for prosperity and warmth.