Lughnasadh – the ancient festival that would become the medieval festival of Lammas – was named for the God Lugh, but it was celebrated in honor of his foster mother Tailtiu. She cleared the lands of Ireland for planting but died from exhaustion immediately afterwards. Forests are beautiful, magical places, but if you want to plant crops someone has to clear the land. Of course, having seen parts of Ireland, “clear the land” may have meant “pick up all the rocks.” Regardless of how the Tuatha De Danann found the land, clearing it was necessary.
Lughnasadh is the first of the three harvest festivals. It’s the grain harvest, which led to the name Lammas – “loaf mass.” But before we can bake the loaf, the grain must be cut down.
There were three men came out of the West,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn must die.
We live only because we consume other life – everything we eat was alive only a short time before we eat it. This is what every animal on the Earth does. Some eat plants, some eat other animals, some eat both. All of Nature is sacred. But sacred or not, life feeds on life.
No matter what we offer to the Gods, our ceremonial sacrifices stand as a reminder that real, tangible sacrifices are necessary. Something has to die so we can eat. As long as humans continue to use violence to dominate others, military service is necessary. There are hard, dirty, dangerous, unpleasant jobs that have to be done and someone has to do them.
What is truly necessary and what is merely desired by the privileged and powerful is a question we need to raise loudly and often. But however we categorize a particular activity, we cannot escape the truth.
Sacrifice is necessary.
Lammas Night 1940
Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz is a wonderful work of historical fiction set in Britain during the early days of World War II. Its main character is a British Intelligence officer who finds himself caught up in an occult battle with Nazi magicians. While it repeats some of Gerald Gardner’s myth-as-history (it is a work of fiction, after all), the book is good portrayal of Wiccan and proto-Wiccan beliefs and practices. Its divination scenes could almost be teaching examples, and its initiation scene is just a few oath-bound elements away from being complete.
I don’t know Kurtz’s involvement with Wicca and magic (if any), but when you read the acknowledgements you understand why it’s so good. Her advisors included Doreen Valiente, John and Caitlin Matthews, and Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. Plus Kurtz is a good writer – the characters are strong and the storytelling is excellent.
As the story progresses, the primary characters come to understand they’re not just trying to magically influence Hitler to keep him from invading Britain. They’re also battling against Nazis who are trying to magically turn the tide in their favor. Eventually they come to an inescapable conclusion: a very special sacrifice is necessary.
Sadly, Lammas Night is out of print, but it occasionally turns up in used book stores, and there are used copies available on Amazon and other sources at a reasonable price. If you like historical fiction or magical fiction or both, I highly recommend it.
The Magical Battle of Britain
The characters and plot of Lammas Night are fictional, but the novel contains more history than a casual reader might recognize.
By Midsummer 1940, things looked bleak for Britain. Germany had overrun France and invasion seemed imminent. If your home is under attack you defend it with all the tools at your disposal – the witches and occultists of Britain responded with an on-going magical working to protect Britain from invasion and to convince Hitler he could not invade.
Over on the Gods & Radicals site, Sable Aradia has an excellent summary of the battle, drawing from the letters of Dion Fortune. Go read the article – it’s long but it’s well worth your time. We’ll come back to it a little later.
In 2012, I heard Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki talk about how the Fraternity of the Inner Light built astral Guardians in defense of Britain. Dolores was too young to take part (she was 11 at the time) but her mother and her grandmother were active participants. Gerald Gardner participated in what he called Operation Cone of Power, an on-going magical working that resulted in the deaths of two of his coven mates. Were those deaths a willing sacrifice? Gardner implied they were.
Did the magic of Dion Fortune, Gerald Gardner, and many others like them prevent Hitler from invading Britain? The pilots of the RAF certainly deserve the lion’s share of the credit. Their heroic performance during the Battle of Britain inspired Winston Churchill’s famous quote “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” The Royal Navy made sending an invasion force across the English Channel a high-risk proposition, and all those who supported the war effort made the military success possible.
Yet great events often turn on the smallest of matters. As Sable Aradia says:
But what’s more interesting is the “want of a shoe” going on here. If the RAF had kept it up for a few days less; if less pilots from outside of Britain had volunteered; if Hitler had figured out a way to transport tanks (how much effort would it have taken the highly-industrialized Germans to put cranes on the boats?); if the Luftwaffe had persisted against the RAF. . .
History is a series of “what ifs,” and sometimes those branching paths depend upon a single moment of choice.
Here’s what we know with certainty: Hitler never attempted an invasion of Britain.
Our Battles Today
In the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Sara Amis drew on this heritage and performed a similar working (albeit on much smaller scale) to protect her home city of Atlanta. Sara described this at the Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes conference in 2013. Her story is retold in Issue #30 of Witches & Pagans magazine.
If your home is under attack you defend it with all the tools at your disposal.
Our home – the Earth – is under attack. Our friends, our neighbors, and sometimes we ourselves are under attack. But as Sable Aradia pointed out, this is not an aerial assault or an amphibious invasion – this is an attack from within by forces that aren’t always easy to identify, much less fight.
Their names are climate change, fracking, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, globalization, income inequality, militarized police forces, and on and on and on. We fight them with political campaigns, demonstrations, education, and with acts of compassion and justice at every level of society, from one-on-one interactions to international initiatives.
And we fight them with magic.
Magic alone will not be enough, any more than Dion Fortune’s astral Guardians would have stopped the Nazis without the Spitfires and Hurricanes and the pilots who flew them. But one of the greatest needs right now is creating a change in consciousness – changing the way we see the world and the way we think about our place in it. Magic is particularly useful for changing consciousness.
As Sable Aradia said, “history is a series of ‘what ifs,’ and sometimes those branching paths depend upon a single moment of choice.”
Over the coming days, many of us will celebrate Lammas or Lughnasadh, either with our friends and fellow Pagans or by ourselves. We will honor our Gods, our ancestors, and the spirits of the land where we live. We will celebrate harvesting the crops of the fields and the crops of our lives.
But as we celebrate, let’s remember the sacrifice of Tailtiu, the sacrifice of those who fought the Battle of Britain, and the sacrifice of the magicians whose workings may have tipped the scales toward victory.
What sacrifices – of time, treasure, effort, convenience, or more – will you make to help build the kind of world we want to see?
Because while we live in a hi-tech, post-modern world, some ancient truths remain.
Sacrifice is necessary.