The Bard's Grove

"There are times when people need stories more than they need nourishment, because the stories feed something deeper than the needs of the body."
Charles DeLint, The Onion Girl

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lammas Blessings

The feast of Lammas, or Lughnasad as it was celebrated in Ireland, occurs on August 1st, during high summer. It is the festival of the first harvest, the sacrifice of the first born. It is the time when the fruits of our labor are ripening and yet still to be harvested. It is the festival of the king who is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of his people.
Lammas is a festival of the fire - both the creative and the destructive aspects of fire. It is a time to let the fires burn away all that is ready to die, to make room for the new life to come. If we can allow the old life, which has served us well, to fall away within the transforming fires, we will be ready to discover the new life which has been growing within us.
At Lughnasad, all the clans of Ireland gathered under a truce, and held games of skill and strength for the young boys ready to enter manhood. It was a time to show off the beauty of their daughters, the strength and skill of their sons, and the bounty of their cattle herds.
Lughnasad also celebrated the great Celtic sun-god, Lugh of the Long Arm, mighty king and bringer of civilization. Lugh was a member of the Tuatha De Danann, and his name means, "The Shining One." He was skilled in all crafts, and possessed a marvelous spear. He is the good king, willing to face malevolent otherworldly beings for the sake of his people. And so Lammas is truly the festival in which we commemorate the King within us all.
And so it begins.
                                  Lammas - Elana Gibeault

The radiant sun beat down on the golden fields of barley and wheat, spreading rippling, hazy heat above their spiked heads. The open-air oven of high summer was baking the grain to its ripeness, but there were still weeks to go before the harvesting began. And there had been no rain for over a month.
A young man, Leuw, stood on the hillside, watching the fields and the sky. The brilliant blue of the sky held sway from horizon to horizon, burnishing the golden plains to a painfully bright glare. Shielding his light-dazed eyes beneath a hand, Leuw looked to the river flowing past the edge of the field, but its water had shrunk to half the width of its rocky bed. His hiss of apprehension was swallowed in the heat.
          Leuw walked down the hill into the field of grain. Standing within the golden sea, he quieted his mind to listen to the whisperings of the wheat field. Listening, he felt the fire in the air around him drawing water out of his body, and he heard the wheat sigh for that touch of moisture. He heard the earth, dry and hard, crack apart as he shifted his weight. It sparked a memory. Alan and Rob, the best of friends, had quarreled last week and were still not talking to each other. They were as hard and brittle as the earth crumbling beneath his feet. The dryness of the land was echoed in a dryness of the Spirit. Alan and Rob weren't the only ones at odds. How much longer could this go on?
It was later that night, when Leuw and his father had stopped talking and where silently watching the stars that Leuw knew what he had to do. His father listened patiently to him in the darkness, then rose silently and walked into the house. He heard murmurings, and a quick catch of breath, and soon the sounds of his mother gathering food and supplies. With a glad but heavy heart, Leuw went to find his horse.
 His family gathered in the starlight to bid him farewell. His father handed him the ancient shield and spear which had hung in the hall since he was old enough to remember, concrete reminders of his love and protection. Kissing Leuw on the forehead, he stepped back to allow Leuw's younger brothers and sisters their chance to say goodbye to their beloved brother. As they crowded around him, Leuw's heart lifted, for their love and confidence in him shone out of their eyes like a reflection of the starry heavens above.
 Then, with a last sweet kiss from the baby of the family, Leuw turned to his mother, who waited quietly by his horse. As he approached her, she bravely held out a small packet to him. "Journey cakes.  For the morning." Then she held him close, and right before she pulled away from him, she whispered, "Remember. The waters can carry as well as overwhelm. Look to the blessing, rather than the fear." And her tears fell on his cheek in blessing as she turned away and let her first-born ride out to seek his fate.
 Leuw rode through the star-splashed night into a dull gray dawn. As he travelled through the sweltering night air, the dampened sounds of waters had enticed him onwards, but he never found the source of those thick, wet sounds. When the sun finally rose up behind him, Leuw found himself riding through the high, dry plains to the west of his father's lands. Although he rode across many dry streambeds which crisscrossed the land, the water was gone. It had all disappeared from the summer-struck lands. 
 Leuw rode on through dry, bright days and warm, stifling nights. His dreams, full of the sound of running waters, dissolved in the golden-red glow of many sunrises. He rode now without water, as dry and sear as the lands around him, letting his horse take him where he would. One day, coming out of a sun-daze just as the burning red sun touched the horizon, he saw a tree growing large and green before his eyes. And with the sight, he fell unconscious to the ground.
          He awoke to a gentle touch and to cool, wet water on his parched lips. He painfully opened his eyes to a night filled with stars and dark shadows, and was helped to drink from a cup of the refreshing waters. Sinking back, he fell into a deep sleep. And he dreamed. He saw a beautiful lady standing beneath the tree, holding out a golden cup full of the life-giving waters he had just received. But as he reached for the cup, the lady sadly shook her head and spoke.
    "The waters you seek are precious.  They carry a great price.  Are you willing to pay the price?"
 "It is for this reason that I have journeyed through the fires of summer." And Leuw stood before the lady with his father's shield and spear. "I will pay any price to bring the waters back to the land."
The lady searched his face.  "Any price?  Even unto death?"
          "Unto death and beyond, if the waters will come back to the land!"
          "Then lay aside your spear and shield, and follow me."
 Leuw stood still for a moment as the lady walked away. Without the shield and spear of his father, how would he protect himself from the adventure the lady was calling him to? But the lady herself turned, and looking in his eyes, said, "Will you go with the fear, or turn toward the blessing?" And remembering his mother's words, he cast the spear and shield to the ground, and followed the lady.
          She led him around the huge trunk of the tree, and there he saw a large and deep pool. The lovely lady turned to him and smiled, and jumped into the pool and disappeared into its depths. Leuw looked down into the waters in alarm, but the lady was gone. He knew that he would drown if he tried to follow after her, but if he did not? His whole journey would be for nought if he stopped before his adventure began. As he leaped into the pool, he heard a voice brush through his mind. "Remember the blessing!"
Down, down, down he sank, through golden, azure and emerald waters.  Down into the dark waters.  His chest became a burning fire, as hot and brazen as the sun shining down on the fields of his home. As he sank, and the fire within him burned, he slowly lost all sense of who he was, where he came from and why he was there. All he knew was to remember the blessing.
          But what was the blessing? The fire within his chest was an agony, but the coolness on his skin was a blessing! And then he opened his mouth against the fear, and the waters rushed in. What delight! And then the greater delight in finding that he could breathe in the waters!
And so he sank down to the bottom of the pool. Out of the darkness, he sank into a light-filled land of sands and water, all colored in blues and greens and golds.  And there was the lady, waiting for him.
Taking him by the hand, the lady led him to a coral seat beneath a waving strand of kelp. Once he was seated, she stood back from him, letting him look at her closely for the first time. He saw a woman with the face of an angel, her hair a midnight cloud outspread around the pearly whiteness of her face. What he could see of her form beneath the floating veils of her dress made his heart beat faster. And then he let out a shocked breath! For where he looked to find the feet to match the pearl-like beauty of her face, he saw a fish's tail!
In his confusion, Leuw turned his head away; his heart beat loudly in his breast. The lady watched him silently. Slowly, as his heart quieted, Leuw turned back to confront the lady waiting patiently before him. And with the utmost courtesy, he said to her, "My lady, you have promised to show me the way to win back the waters that have departed from my lands. If you will tell me the price, I am ready to do your bidding."
Smiling sadly, the lady came and sat by his side. "To know the price, you must know my story. Once upon a time, there were many maidens such as I who were chosen as guardians of the springs and wells. We ministered to all who came, freely sharing the waters in our charge. The waters were abundant and their blessings were free to all who came for refreshment. But slowly, over the past years, the waters began to dry up and the maidens began to disappear. I am the last of the maidens of the wells, for all the others are gone. My well is guarded with my most powerful spells, but as you see, my form is beginning to change and soon I, too, will be lost to the world above. And then my waters will disappear forever from the land."
 "Tell me how I might fight to save you, beautiful lady, for if this is the price of the waters I will gladly pay it! Only, I wish that you had let me bring my spear and shield, for the strength of my fathers are in them, and mighty is their power."
          "To enter the well, you had to leave behind everything you held dear. If you had brought the weapons with you into the waters, their power would have made you fear the blessings of the waters, for their powers are of the sun and the fire. When you chose to leave behind the fire and accept the waters, you became one with them. Now, the weapons of the sun can be carried by the waters, instead of being overwhelmed by them."
And hearing the lady's words, Leuw remembered his mother's words, and knew that if he held true to his purpose, the waters would indeed soon return to the land.
          And looking up, Leuw beheld two shadowy forms floating down into the depths. And when they had settled on the bottom of the well, there were his father's shield and spear, just as he had left them under the tree. Picking them up, he turned to the lady and said, "Now fire and water will act together. Where is the danger,  that I might go and battle with it!"
Then the lady led him through deep caverns and along underground rivers until Leuw could hear the sounds of many waters running in a roaring cataract down into the center of the earth. And then the lady turned to him and told him what she knew of the theft of the waters.
          "As the other maidens disappeared, I left my well and travelled far and wide to discover what had become of them. And finally I found out why the waters have disappeared. There is a mighty demon of fire who, sitting in the halls of the underworld, consumes the waters of the wells. He strives with the spirits of the waters, overpowering them with his heated breath. He has drawn the maidens of the wells to his cavern in the center of the earth, keeping them prisoner and forcing them to watch as the precious waters are drawn down to the depths. As I fled from his halls, he sensed my presence and put forth his powers to entrap me. But my powers were strong enough to help me escape, although not without the loss of my legs. He cannot find me yet, but the traces of his spell will slowly overwhelm me until I become the fish my tail proclaims me. And then he will have won, and I, too, will be his slave."
          Leuw gazed at the roaring cataract, and gazed down into the endless chasm. Then turning to the lady, he demanded, "Tell me what I must do, for I have pledged my life both to you and to recovering the waters."
"The demon has but one weakness. His skin is harder than adamant, except for one soft spot on his chest. Your spear must find its way to that one spot, or else all is lost." And saying that, the lady kissed him, and her tears fell like a blessing on his cheek. And he heard a voice whisper, "The waters can carry as well as overwhelm. Look to the blessing.!" And turning, he jumped into the abyss. 
          He was enveloped in the roaring cascade, and swept down with the force of a whirlpool, yet held within the shapeless watery flow. He fell for an eternity. And then he fell no more, but became aware of floating on the water and drawing air into his waterlogged lungs. On his third breath, he was swept into a huge shadow-filled cavern, and slammed into a boulder which divided the underground river into two streams which continued flowing past him. Exhausted, he pulled himself up onto the boulder and fell asleep.
          As he pulled himself back up into consciousness, he remembered his dream of the lady. Thank the Sun that it had only been a dream, for he never imagined his task to be so hopeless! Before he opened his eyes, he tried to remember what had happened to him after he had come upon the lonely tree at sunset. But while he remembered the coolness of the water on his parched lips, he could not separate the image of the lady from the water. Sighing, he opened his eyes. . .
 . . . Only to find that it was not dream, but reality. He lay on the boulder in the cavern, with his shield and spear lying by his side. He closed his eyes quickly to shut out the sight, but after a moment's denial, he knew that he was, indeed, in the demon's lair.
          After he struggled with hopelessness, he sank down into the quiet depths of despair. There, at the center, he remembered himself, remembered his decision to reclaim the waters for his clan and for the land. And as he felt his mother's tears and his father's blessing, he knew that he could fulfill his task, even unto death. 
Creeping to the top of the boulder, Leuw looked over the edge. By the light of hidden fires, he could see something of the large cavern and the swiftly flowing water running past the boulder. The flickering light was coming from his right, and the river curved off in that direction. He suddenly realized that the loud echoing in his head was the noise of the river falling into some further, unimaginable depth.
          Slipping his father's shield upon his right arm, he took the ash spear into his left hand and felt its balance. A shiver of energy ran up his arm as he felt the spear find its own balance within his hand. Then, taking a deep breath, Leuw leapt off the boulder to the further bank of that dark river. He landed on hard rock, but quickly turned his fall into a roll which brought him swiftly to his feet. He searched the shadow-filled cave for a path through the boulders, and moved off in the direction of the light and noise.
          The heat of that subterranean fire seared him well before he came within sight of its source. The river was turning to steam all around him, and he walked through a burning gray fog. Closing his eyes against the heat, he felt as if he once again stood on the hillside beneath the burnished sky. Then he heard the still-roaring voice of the river flowing at his left, and painfully opening his eyes, he stumbled toward the sound. 
          Unlooked for, he stepped into a space of cool, fresh air, as if the winds of Autumn blew through that deep, hidden cavern. As Leuw took deep, gulping breaths of the cooling winds, his mind cleared of the mists and his body stopped trembling. And he opened his eyes upon the end of his quest.
The demon sat enthroned within the fires rising from the depths, while the waters of the Earth fell roaring into its mouth. The demon itself was a shadow within the bright flames, flickering and growing with the shifting and dancing of the fire. The waters disappeared into the darkness of its heated breath.
 Leuw stood within the cool breath of Earth's winds, seeing the demon devouring the precious waters, searching for the spot the Lady had spoken of.  As the winds filled him with the clarity of the high mountains which were their true homes, his body moved of its own accord. The ash spear of his father’s sang out for the blood of the demon, and with a mighty shout, Leuw cast it into the heart of the fire.
 In the moment before Leuw sent forth his spear, the demon felt his presence. Secure in its power, it never imagined its own doom. But it sensed an unraveling of its spell, and it began to open its hidden, third eye - the eye that brought annihilation to anything its glance touched. And as the spear sped toward its goal, the dreadful glance of the demon sought out Leuw. The spear penetrated into the darkness of that monstrous form just as the eye found its mark. But Leuw had thrown up his right arm as he cast the spear, and now the shield of his father deflected that dreadful glance back into the fires from which it came. And the fires stormed up and swept through the cavern, and the waters flowed there no more.
          It wasn't until many days after Leuw left that the rains finally came to refresh the parched lands. Fine, gentle rains came in time to save the grains; sudden fierce thunderstorms came, reviving the Spirit amongst the people. And as friends and families gathered together for foot races, horse races and dancing to celebrate and bless the crops, their thoughts were on Leuw, who had disappeared in high summer, when the drought was at its worst, and who was never seen again.
          Leuw's family mourned him all their lives, for they alone knew who had brought back the rains. Every year at high summer, they told the tale to each other of the first-born son who had sacrificed himself for the life of his people. 
Many years later the oldest son of the baby who had kissed Leuw goodbye that fateful summer's night rode west until he came to a tree which sheltered a clear pool of water. It was sunset, and the sky was streaked with a golden light. And as the young man bent down to refresh himself, the last rays of the sun fell into the depths of those waters, and he saw a beautiful lady with a face like the full moon surrounded by flowing dark locks, and at her side sat a man with hair as golden as the sun and with a face that could have been his own. 

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