A Lame Goat, a Crooked Furrow and a Horned King

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Classical paganism in which the earth and its bounty are honoured through Ceres as the Harvest Mother and Kore as the Harvest Maid, differs from heathenism wherein a pragmatic, yet more personal sense of imminence is conveyed. Though both share a reverence for the divine feminine as a fecund virtue, the mediation of it shifts significantly across the belief systems that developed in the Roman world with that of the so called heathen Barbarians.  These diverse foundations led to separate traditions that crossed first in the Romanisation of Europe and then again in the Christianisation of Europe and finally in the re-introduction of classical paganism as a Romantic movement in the 18th century. Cross-cultural influences no doubt occurred, yet the distinct traditions of the British Isles have retained a fierce loyalty to the folkloric diffused beliefs of our heathen ancestors.

We briefly explore a nostalgic overview of the origins and patterns of quaint folk customs and traditions developed within the British Isles over many centuries concerning the relationship between a people and the land shared inspired by a belief in a divine agent. Social Bonding through festival and celebration has long been established as a way communities have come together to survive and thrive against adversity. Local customs reflect those behavioural patterns. Sadly, crises of self-identity through a loss of ‘Community,’ is not an uncommon feature in modern times. Yet if we consider the purpose of Harvest and of Thanksgiving festivals, they celebrate far more than bounty. What they offer besides abundant ample food, is a brief pause, a temporary freedom from toil to celebrate our humanity and its visceral needs pertaining to life and its celebration, primarily as a gift from the gods.

The principal feast of the Virgin Mary celebrates her departure from this life and the assumption of her body into Heaven on the 15th August as ‘Féile Mhuire ‘sa bhFomhar.’ Commonly known as The Festival of Our Lady the Harvest, it is held as a holy day of obligation in the Irish calendar. In the Scottish Highlands, Her feast is also known as  Là Féill Moire, the Feast day of Mary the Great. Early in the morning Barley Bannocks are baked on an open fire, fuelled by rowan wood, after being hand ground on stone querns and kneaded on sheepskins by the lady of the house. The husbandman breaks the bannock – The ‘Moilean Moire,’ or ‘fatling of Mary’.  into pieces for his wife and each child in descending order, hailing their abundance as a merciful gift from the mother, whom they hope will shield them from harm from cradle to grave. While singing  ‘The Paean of Mary Mother,’ known as raising the ‘Iolach Mhoire Mhathàir,’ the family walk sun-wise round the fire, the father leading, the mother following, and the children following in descending order – oldest to youngest.

Image result for bannocks on wiki commonsAcross England, various revels take place throughout the Summer held around this time that honour a Maid, prized for her charity and gifts of abundance.  A beautiful example of this is the Marhamchurch in Cornwall founded initially as a monastic settlement by 5th St. Morwenna (cognate with Welsh morwyn  – maiden).

A Queen of the Revel is elected from amongst the young girls of the village and later crowned by Father Time in front of St. Morwenna’s church. The newly crowned Queen riding on horseback, leads the procession through the village to the Revel Ground where villagers are entertained with games, contests, wrestling and other festivities.

Sharing that gift of life within the community is a sacred act once recognised in subtle contrast to Mary’s blessing above, as the aegis of the chieftain or tribal leader, Earls and later of Kings. In fact, the essence of Germanic sacred kingship is expressed as a gift of good fortune and fate, an archaic principle of cultic belief in his divine descendency from the gods within a faith where he is both subject and object. But it is a position earned and maintained on merit. Failure on his part resulted in dire consequences for his people who might starve or be overcome in battle.

Deemed as void of the blessing of the (female) fates, and the (female) spirits of the land, and of the (female) spirits of the ancestors within their burial mounds, 5th and 6th century Germanic kings were deposed when the harvests were lost to ill weather. Without the waters of fecundity, the ground remained arid, too much water and the crops were spoiled.

Evidence of this can be found on Swedish rune-stones of the 7th and 8th centuries, from Stentoften and possibly Sparlösa where the Kings are depicted ‘giving the harvest,’ and of divine ancestry. As the mediator of fate amongst his people, the King was responsible for the weather and the harvest as well as for external and internal peace. In Christian times skaldic poetry referred to this perfunctory mediation as the duty of the saints who thereafter dispensed those sacred duties, ensuring  ar ok friðr – peace and good year/harvest.

This principle is at the heart of reciprocity by which a leader of a community is the Drighton lord, that is the one who provides for his people and is rewarded by their loyalty. Their mutual bond creates and serves – community. It is this relationship and sacred dynamic deemed co-existent between fate, the dead and the living that fuelled the auspices of a people, of folk whose customs and traditions protect and preserve the lawful balance that staves chaos and all that it invites.

The Drighton Lord is a role adopted by the Lords of the Harvest, of Misrule, of the May and of the Mound or Hunt. He is partnered by a Mistress whose role is to mediate the sacred element of fate imparted to him through the land wights, and ancestral forms. Her presence is the assurance of the divine blessing from the gods that inspires the people of his community and himself as Drighten Lord to serves them truly in return, ensuring and their faith in him will not be unrewarded. Veneration, blot, sumble, libation and Houzle are sacred rites that have evolved around the sharing of bread and mead, or wine – they are always conducted by the women of the house.

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And so, throughout the folklore calendar, predicated upon a round of feasting events, that relationship and principle of provision is projected onto the main characters of those events, from Mummery to Morris, and most especially within the Harvest traditions. The central features of all Harvest festivals are: feasting, joviality, song, laughter and the vital interplay with physical contests of speed, agility and strength to build the rites and festival of life and thanksgiving celebration for it around the world. But how did it all begin?

Cultivation of cereals crops such as barley, and early strains of wheat: einkorn, emmer and spelt, then later oats and rye, helped humans transit from hunting and gathering to agriculture.  Archaeologists have discovered the oldest evidence of bread dating back 14 back over 14,000 years – predating farming. As the origins of domesticated cereals, wild seeds and grains were ground, sieved and kneaded prior to cooking as unleavened flatbreads identified at several Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey, produced long before the development of farming.

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Bronze-age myths of Inanna and Dumuzi were formulated in the region later named Mesopotamia. These and other classical descent myths such as The Eleusinian Mysteries were introduced in the 18th century as part of the pagan revival that blossomed in art and literature, especially poetry. Though these clearly influenced James Frazer they do not reflect the rural traditions of Britain, which follow a different origin, as noted above.

The word ‘harvest’ is from the Old English word ‘hærfest’, meaning ‘autumn’. It then came to refer to the season for reaping and gathering grain and other cultivated products. Poor folk especially have long depended upon a staple diet of bread, beer, porridge or oatcakes, a subsistence that hovered between life and death, as this succinct ditty illustrates:

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“The wheat and the barley, as much as the corn

Have kept us alive, ever since we were born.

But unless we had turned them in to flour and bread,

Few would be living, and many’d be dead!”

 First of three main harvests of grain, fruit and meat, Lammas,  is Anglo Saxon for ‘loaf-mass.’  Earlier pagan and heathen celebrations often took place on the last day of July and again marked the first grain harvest. The success of the harvests determined the quality of life through the long winter months. Some Irish and Scottish customs are linked through the ancestry of Celtic speaking peoples, and share the celebration known as Lughnasadh that many presume is named after a Sun god, bearing the name Lugh.

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Traditionally, Lammas marked the culmination of the growing season.’ Lammas is recognised today as a Christian holy day. Since medieval times, loaves of bread baked from the first grain harvest were laid on the church altars as offerings. It was the custom in past centuries to eat them as a celebratory feast, served with early potatoes, boiled over an open fire in a huge pot, then mashed and flavoured with freshly churned butter, or even with other seasonal vegetables and herbs. Wild garlic, leeks and cabbage were common choices available to the poor.

Further north in the Shetland Isles, barley and oats ripened later, around September. Blessing rituals were performed there upon the harvest and upon the entire farming community. Shetland crofters believed the grain harvest and October potato crop (as well as the cutting of peats for winter fires) should take place during a waning moon, during an ebbing sea tide. Food crops are at the mercy of weather so harvesting can be an unpredictable operation. Our ancestors observed the seasons very carefully, monitoring each fluctuation in the weather very carefully.

Early fruits, gooseberries, red and blackcurrents, raspberries, then strawberries, bilberries and bramble berries were gathered as soon as they were ripe, providing valuable source dietary supplements. Some were dried along with herbs gathered at their peak.

The Harvest Moon is the full moon that rises nearest the autumnal equinox, therefore, Harvest Festivals are traditionally held on or near to the Sunday of that moon as it blooms full. Once every three years or so, this moon rises later, in October. Food production is dictated by season, hence the importance of seasonal rites. But due to modern trends like polytunnels that help delay or speed up growth, so many of our seasonal traditions and customs are now sadly redundant. New potatoes can be lifted as early as April and root vegetables are available all year round. We need to re-introduce the rhythmic growth cycles celebrated by our forebears if we are to understand the traditional customs they constructed their lives around.

Harvesting Crops

To some extent, being so out of touch with those cycles, modern pagans have lost sight of just how wide-ranging the crops harvested were, and of their value to the livelihood and well-being of the common folk who devised the lore and customs around them accordingly. Harvesting of these vital resources began in June with the first apple crop and hay load, and did not cease until December with the last crop of apples and root vegetables. Apples grown for Cider-making created a lucrative trade and business for the apple blessed counties of the UK. During a waning moon, animal parts and even nitrogen rich blood was added to the barrels of raw pomace to ensure fermentation.  Each round of cider given to the workers, was passed sun-wise around the men, with the last man pouring a little onto the ground as “a drap t’ t’ owd mon.”

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The grain harvest and its attendant lore concerning John Barleycorn, was made popular by James Frazer’s promotion of the mythic cycle of a dying and resurrected King. The myth of John Barleycorn properly refers to the magical brewing of beer and its communal consumption, and is not classical at all. We should remember that August is just one month which falls midway in this extended preparation for the long winter ahead. Now remote from this reality, we are no longer sensitive to the ebb and flow of seasonal tides of land and of celestial orbits.

In July, sheep shearing, sheep fairs and mop fairs begin, signalling the influx of labour needed for the forthcoming hop-picking events of Kent and parts of the Welsh borderland counties, Herefordshire, Shropshire and parts of Worcestershire. Hops were picked by hand until 1960s from middle of August through into mid-September, providing employment for local and non-local labourers. For the duration of the harvest, urban working class people from the Midlands were drafted en-masse, into the countryside on trains chartered by the farmers, as seasonal labour.  Exacting, arduous graft, it was nonetheless the closest the urban poor ever came to experiencing a holiday. Moreover, the summer weeks given over to this task generated the long break in schools and factories that once ‘shutdown’ for the summer to enable the free- flow of labourers to the countryside to bring in the harvests.

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One man recalled that it was:

“Lovely in th’ ‘opyard. Everybody was a-singin’.

You sung while you were pullin’ the ‘ops off.

“We ‘ad sing-songs round the fire.

I’ve ad some good times down th’ ‘opyards.

I ‘ardly missed a year.

 It was the best o’ my days”

 Observing a natural camaraderie, a custom arose known as ‘cribbing;’ it was much frowned upon by the farmers. Some of the men, fresh from the cities, were seized by women and thrown in to the ‘hop cribs,’ which were effectively, large cradles constructed out of sacking and wooden frames. Enveloped with hops, the young man was held captive until he’d kissed all the women party to his predicament who then released him only after providing the ring leader with enough money to buy them all a drink.

Once the hop-picking was over, any young lady a lad had taken a fancy to might expect to be treated in like manner, but where the lad himself would join her in the cradle, both covered in hop bines. This relaxation of strict social conduct between the sexes exhibits a lifting of the taboos normally imposed through gender motivated behaviour. For a few brief weeks, women could act with the same free license as men.  During the picking season, the man and woman elected as King and Queen had to goad and chide the workers, tease and torment them, keep spirits high and the load moving, driving them towards a fruitful conclusion.

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An informal procession of pickers and sack bearers each bedecked with hop sprays, signalled the end of that harvest. The chief hop picker bore a pole garlanded with hops, leading them all to the farmhouse where they could expect a lavish feast presided over by the ‘King and Queen’ of the hop pickers. In order to avert ill fortune or ill luck from the evil eye, or sprites, the King and Queen caused confusion by exchanging their clothing. Cross-dressing during a celebration is yet another peculiar custom of the British Isles that has it origins in the superstitions that surround the fear of misfortune importuned upon them by non-human beings and forms. Everyone raised the first toast to the farmer and his wife for the feast’s provision.

Rush-bearing ceremonies also occur in August, although this is now commemorative rather than functional, though reeds gathered from the fenland reed-beds remain essential roofing and thatching materials. In the Middle Ages, rushes were strewn across cold flag floors to bear the bulk of dirt trodden in from muddy streets.

Towards the end of August and into September, coppiced hazel poles from managed woodlands were harvested and made into essential baskets for the fruit harvests, and hurdles for the sheep and cattle corals and pens.

Under the right to forage laws within the forests, fallen branches were gathered, dried and stored for winter fuel. This supplemented the gorse, bracken and peat gathered in July, used for fuel, baking ovens and thatches. Acorns, beech-mast and cobnuts, beans and barley spears were gathered by the poor to sell to farmers as winter feed for the pigs.

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Brambles and other late soft fruit, including wild bilberries and sloes were gathered along the lanes and hedgerows to eat, preserve or dry. It was a common superstition that after the 29th September, they were not fit for eating as the Old Devil had either spat upon them or trodden them with his dirty hooves. Turning now to folklore and tradition connected to the harvesting of grain, we find an even greater association with the King and Queen of the Harvest as purveyors of abundance.

The Harvest Lord

Seasonal harvesting was a prized skill and a good crew could command a healthy stipend. Carried out by travelling bands of casual labourers, Reaping gangs toured local farms announcing their arrival by scraping their scythes on farm yard cobbles. The most skilled reaper was elected as Harvest Lord who negotiated rates of pay for reaping, carting and stacking of the grain and for gloves to protect hands against thistles and thorns. The contract was sealed by a token payment of 1 shilling and a pint of ale per head. Newcomers to the crew, especially if unseasoned, or from out of town, could expect an ‘initiation.’

Undertaken by the Lord, this took the form of a simple charming secured by scraping the soles of the newcomer’s boots with a stone, ‘to ground’ any unfavourable sprite activity, or ill-luck brought there from outside the ‘consecrated’ gang members. Ably assisted by his Harvest Queen, the work began in earnest as soon as the corn was deemed ripe. It was her role to ensure each man received his allotted cider allowance of 8 pints per day and sandwiches and small pies to keep them going until sundown. Caraway seed cake was a popular treat served to the workers because the seeds were deemed to provide strength whilst securing their loyalty from other farmers wishing to lure away a proficient gang with the prospect of better pay.

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No time was wasted in their wandering off to find food and drink – it was brought to them. The race was on to harvest whilst the grain was dry and before it could deteriorate or spoil. A prolonged wet spell at the critical time could – and still can – cost an entire harvest. While the weather held, every able-bodied man, woman and child would be out in the fields. Harvest was a time of social bonding.  On fine days, work began at dawn around 4am and continued well into the evening as the Harvest Moon rises very close to sunset providing a few hours more of valuable extra light.

Sporting his conspicuous rushen hat entwined with green bindweed, interlaced with wild red poppies, the Harvest Lord opened the day’s work, setting the pace at an acre a day per man in each field tackled. Working in lines known as ‘flights,’ the men advanced through the swaying corn armed only with hand sickles or scythes, laying out the cut sheaves across the field ready for binding. The cut must be swift and sure, if manoeuvred incorrectly, the blade would knock back the stems, flattening them, rendering them useless.  To help counter this, the juice form the wild Arum lily was rubbed over the blades at intervals to retain sharpness and charm away ill strokes. Each field was cut in a circle, from the outside in.

Related imageAble-bodied youths followed behind the Reapers binding the corn sheaves with wisps of straw. An efficient binder was able to bind the sheaves for three Reapers; these were then stacked, or ‘shucked’ in pairs to dry for several days before taking them to the winnowing barns.

There was intense rivalry and competition between Reaping gangs, all desperate to prove their superiority, thus retaining the title of top gang which ensured their Lord could secure the best fee for them at the next year’s harvest tide. Singing loudly, folk songs echoed out across the busy landscape, each gang showing their prowess keeping up the pace and rhythm whilst giving good voice. In the Hebrides, this rivalry manifested in the creation of the Gobhar Bhacach -‘Lame Goat,’ fashioned intentionally to lay low the prowess of rival gangs. Once completed, the figure was hurled into the field where Reapers were yet to finish.  Tossed back and forth along the line to the last man reaping his own acre, fighting often erupted as a result of this grave insult.  No one wanted this misfortune, for it meant that perceived as lazy, he would not be hired in next year’s gang, and would find labour elsewhere hard to come by and he and his family might starve in the winter. There was a hardened incentive then to work hard in order to survive.

The Last Sheaf

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Deemed sacred, the last sheaf of corn left standing in the last field, known as the Mare or the Nack was believed to shelter the retreating corn spirit, which attracted several customs attached to its culling. Cutting this final sheaf was therefore subject to great ceremony and reverence.  Known as ‘Crying the Nack,’ the reluctance to cut this blessed last sheaf was never lightly broached.

In many cases, the reapers would encircle it backwards (so as not to be ‘seen’), and throw their sickles up and over from a safe but close distance, each man pitching for the prize. Once won, it was raised up with great pomp to “Holla the Nack,” the winner declaring “Arnack, Arnack, Arnack! We hav’en, we hav’en, we hav’en!” This was quickly fashioned into an intricate knot known as a corn dolly and tied with ribbons.

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A very similar rite took place in Hertfordshire called ‘Crying the Mare;’ using variations on the calls, including the following one, the Sheaf was fashioned into a four legged figure, with the ears of corn falling as a mane:

“Master he’s got in his corn
Well mawn, well shorn

Ne’er heeled over, ne’ stuck fast
Harvest he’s come home.”

The Reaper claiming that prize was awarded a place of honour at the supper table opposite the ‘Maister’ or ‘Lord.’  As so much of this lore is created to stave or assuage ill luck befalling the farm, the land and its produce, we can see how the Harvest King and Queen were substitutes for the farmer and his wife, who were the real patrons of the feast and the couple obliged to the Reapers for their labour. Diverting attention to them, and their antics, the ill-luck was distracted and lost to that subterfuge.

In the Scottish highlands, the youngest member of the team was given the dubious honour of culling the last sheaf, named the Maiden if the harvest was plentiful, or the Hag (Cailleach) Hag if the harvest was poor. In other places, she was referred to as the Kern Babby, plaited and knotted to form a female figure, which may even be ‘dressed’ later by the harvest Queen. It was deemed an ill omen if the Kern Babby got wet on its way to the Barn, the person guilty of that transgression was duty bound to forfeit any drinks owed to them by the rest of their gang members.

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The Mare, Nack, Kern Babby, Maiden or Hag, brought its own blessing to the household that held it, to maintain the flow of good luck upon and across that threshold. It was dispatched in several different ways according to local custom, via a complimentary rite that again, invited further blessings upon the land. They could be hung up by the farm house hearth, ploughed into the field on Plough Monday, hung out on New Year’s Day to feed the birds, fed to the horses or burned and trampled into the ground by horses hooves during the next year’s harvest when a new one was fashioned. When ploughing began in the New Year, a crooked furrow was tilled near the farm house to ensure any malicious intent from the faerie folk or curmudgeonly mortal was averted away from its hearth.

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The Hay Wain

The end of the grain harvest was cause for great celebration. A procession of the horse led hay wain, laden with the Harvest Lord/Maister his Lady/Dame, the exhausted Reapers, trundled triumphantly in the fading light back to the farm, bedecked with ears of corn, ribbons, corn flowers and poppies amidst much jubilation.

Painted and garlanded horns, were placed upon the head of the Harvest Lord; anointed with cider, he was then hailed as King of the Harvest. As the old folk gossiped and told stories to the young, fires were lit, the grand supper of meats, cheeses fresh bread, pies, fruits, tarts and puddings was served and the ale and cider flowed ever freely accompanied by singing that became increasingly bawdy, drinking games and much reverie.

In Wiltshire, the traditional harvest shout was:

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“Well ploughed! Well sowed!

Well harrowed! Well mowed!

All safely carted to the barn

with nary a load throwed!

Hip hip hip hooray!”


The woman elected as Harvest Queen or Dame, supervised the acquisition and fair distribution of the fallen ears of corn, a process called gleaning. Once grain harvest proper and the Harvest Supper over, women and children began scouring the fields for the leftover ears of corn picking up stray ears of corn from the stubble. Claimed under forage laws, all they could gather before sunset the next day was theirs to keep, an essential bonus that once ground into flour, could help provide bread during the winter months. In like manner to her Lord’s ‘initiation’ of new unseasoned Reapers, new gleaners would receive the grounding stone, tapped upon the sole of their boots before they were allowed to step foot into the fields to work.

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Once replenished with food and drink, sporting contests held the next day were favoured activities, these included football, swimming, sack races, leap frog, wrestling, tug o’ war, racing and dancing.  There was even an extraordinary broomstick dance contest, where the fittest men vied and pitted their agilities against each other, a quality that could mark them as potential Lord the following year. Gatherings of entire communities also honoured patron saints by visiting shrines and holy well, leaving tokens and making wishes for loved ones. Afflicted body parts were sometimes immersed in healing waters. Above all, the sense of a blessing, an obligation, a reciprocity, and gratitude for abundance instigated the theme for the grand fairs and events undertaken during August through to October. Celebrating community through custom and tradition, all of them involved drinking, feasting and revelry.

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In 1921, Punch published the following rhyme entitled ‘Hell in Herefordshire’ after hearing of the Bishop’s railing against the perils and consumption of cider and ale in England.

“The wild white rose is cankered
Along the Vale of Lugg,
There is poison in the tankard,
There’s murder in the mug;
Through all the pleasant valleys
Where stand the palefaced kine
Men raise the devil’s chalice
And drink this bitter wine.

Unspeakable carouses
That shame the summer sky
Take place in little houses
That look towards the Wye;
And near the Radnor border
And the dark hill of Wales
Beelzebub is warder
And sorcery prevails.

For spite of church and chapel
Ungodly folk there be
Who pluck the cider apple
From the cider apple tree,
And sqeeze it in their presses
Until the juice runs out,
At various addresses
That no one knows about.

And maddened by the orgies
Of that unholy brew
They slit each other’s gorges
From one a.m. till two.
Till Ledbury is a shambles
And in the dirt and mud
Where Leominster sits and gambles
The dice are stained with blood.

But still, if strength suffices
Before my day is done,
I’ll go and share the vices
Of Clungunford and Clun,
But watch the red sun sinking
Across the March again
And join the secret drinking
Of outlaws at Presteign.

Beware of farmhouse cider!”

Sadly, during the 1870s, harvest traditions changed forever when the horse-drawn reaper-binder appeared. What had once taken one man a day to reap and another to bind after him, could now be achieved by two men in an hour. Combine harvesters arrived in the 1930s which further reduced our active engagement and celebration of the land. Even so, over and over again, there are clear examples of long cherished customs preserved within the folk traditions of the British Isles, from the sacred gift of life, the divine king, the fecund queen, ancestral protection, and of camaraderie. What was once a collective effort and magical celebration of life that involved an entire community, now involved only a handful of farm workers. How much we have forgotten. How much we take for granted. How flaccid we have become. How apathetic to the chimes of Life and death? It is surely time to reclaim and revive an understanding of the customs we have lost and understand those better we continue still!

ár ok friðr! peace and good harvest!

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~ by meanderingsofthemuse on August 7, 2018.

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