The name of this festival is often written as Lughnasadh, but from now on I’m going to use the modernized Irish spelling: Lunasa. This rendering gives a better impression of how to pronounce it and is easier to remember and write.
Lunasa represents the beginning of the harvest season. It is often described as the grain harvest, but local experiences will vary based on ecology, climate, and weather. Whatever the precise agricultural situation is, Lunasa marks the turning of the year towards autumn. We’re still in the heat, but we know the season will change, and it’s time to think about how to deal with that future and the coming winter.
Harvest festivals have a long history in a huge variety of cultures. Having enough food is a good thing to celebrate, and it’s downright fun. Having enough to get through the next season and be able to make both beer and bread is even better, and definitely deserves a party. But in this day and age few of us harvest any kind of food with our own hands, and although gardens are growing in popularity, only a tiny proportion of us harvest the kind of bounty that provides security through the cold months. I think one result is that we tend to focus on the mystical meanings of bread and life while ignoring the seemingly mundane but fundamentally necessary part of the harvest: work.
Harvesting historically has been hard, sustained physical labor which was utterly vital to the survival of not just the laborers themselves but also everyone they knew and maybe more. Yes, harvest festivals are a way to celebrate the results of that work, but the more I think about it, the more I think that those festivals were originally meant to honor the work itself as well. The amount of work accomplished – how much of the grain was brought in before the onset of the ever-uncertain autumn rains – made a discernable difference to everyone’s lives. Getting that work done, and done quickly and well, was vitally important. The more I think about it, I think festivals weren’t just honoring the person of John Barleycorn but the people who brought him in.
After all, work doesn’t exist without workers. In a harvest festival, the community comes together to celebrate; maybe they were celebrating each other as much as the goodness on the table. Since we do talk about the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth, including how they are seen in food, it’s easy to imagine – and to romanticize – harvesting as a kind of sacred work, especially because most of us don’t have to do it.
We need to face the facts, though: in the US, a tremendous amount of food is harvested by workers who have little to no legal protection and suffer despicable labor abuses as a result. Such a high proportion of them are undocumented immigrants that when some southern states implemented harsh anti-immigrant laws, farmers were unable to find enough workers and food literally rotted in the fields. Workers who do find jobs are subject to being paid a pittance for work performed in totally unsupervised conditions. Clearly, we are not treating this harvesting work as sacred.
If we want to honor a sacred understanding of Lunasa, it is imperative that we acknowledge this problem and begin to engage with it. I’m not going to begin to attempt to speak to the experiences of farm workers; they are an extremely diverse group of people with equally diverse experiences and opinions. But we can and should think about how to treat their work as sacred – and I mean a lot more than simply murmuring a prayer before eating.
In experiences closer to my own, I know that even without outright abuses, there are plenty of problems. Today’s complex economy creates the opportunity for abusing farm workers because their work is technically “unskilled,” while the diversified, stratified, post-industrial service economy tends to reserve more pay for things that take more skill or education, drawing all but the very least privileged away from physical labor. Even though it’s more lucrative, though, I venture that many of us would not instinctively describe the work of a department store sales associate or cellular billing data analyst as sacred.
Perhaps that’s why we like to romanticize the work of the harvest; it gives us a role, even if only a supporting one, in the myth of John Barleycorn. It lets us know where we belong in the sacred story at a time when we crave meaningful work done for its own sake. But even in the most basic subsistence farming, not everyone in a community goes out to reap and bind grain in the fields. A truly communal festival should include everyone.
All of this leads me to ask: what is work?
When I want to talk about sacred work, it’s not acceptable to define work purely by economics; it’s not just something we do that makes money. There is work that leaves us utterly numb but puts food on the table – and harvesting can fall into that category – and there is work that invigorates us, that aligns with our most important goals and does real good in the world, but pays no money at all. With millions of people searching for jobs that don’t exist, many more millions working at jobs that undervalue their efforts, we cannot rely on a dysfunctional economy rife with inequality to indicate what is or is not valuable work.
So what is it that we can honor as sacred which reflects the values of Wicca and Paganism being acted out in the world?
More than anything else, my understanding of Wicca means living in relationship. We are doing sacred work when we honor our relationships with our work, when we reaffirm and renew relationships with our work.
This includes even actions that aren’t done directly for another person. I was mulling over this topic while going about some of the domestic tasks of everyday life. Scooping the litterbox seems like the very definition of what is not sacred. But when I reflected on it, I found that my understanding of the task makes a difference. When I do chores because I “have to,” or because I feel guilty about not doing them, they seem utterly mundane, and they even feel like something that takes up time I wish I could use to do this mythical sacred work.
My mind kept returning to a line from the Charge of the Goddess that I focused on for Beltane:
I can’t say that scooping the litterbox becomes an act of pleasure, but it can be an act of love: love for my cats, yes, but also love for my spouse and myself so that we can enjoy the pleasure of the cats’ companionship in a clean and pleasant environment.
If I can find a nugget – however small – of love and pleasure in a piece of drudgery, how much more can be found in the work of an artist whose relationships with his medium, with his muse, with the world in general, are manifested in a creative way? Although she may not seem to be relating to another person, she can be living in relationship and honoring those relationships as part of her sacred work.
This shifting of awareness or intent is not going to heal our fractured world of work with the wave of an imaginary magic wand. It’s not going to redeem the drudgery of a job done solely for economic reasons, and it certainly won’t repair the harm done by inequality and abuse. But it might point the way towards how we can change the world and ourselves, teaching us to honor workers and their work, in their myriad forms.
Paganism today is often thought of as an “alternative” form of spirituality, and this label has some truth to it. I hope that Paganism isn’t just an alternative but that it helps us create alternatives. For people whose practice is earth-centered but live in an urban environment, Paganism can help them recognize the coexistence of the “natural” and the human environements and also encourage them to move their lives in more sustainable directions. Perhaps there are alternatives to be found here as well.
Perhaps we can create an alternative vision of work that doesn’t deny the realities of post-industrial capitalism and consumerism in the “First World” today, but helps us create meaningful actions, responses, and relationships. We can examine our experiences to find and make more opportunities for meaningful, even sacred, work for ourselves. And we should certainly work to change our society to one where everyone has those opportunities: where no one is hungry, or homeless, or marginalized. Especially the people who do the sacred work of harvesting.
Finally, this alternative vision calls on us to do a particular kind of sacred work: sharing. This is, deep down, one of the fundamental ways to work in relationship. If we are looking for sacred work, then sharing is the act of grace that blesses what we have done by confirming its value for and with others. It makes the work sacred – and that is the real meaning of sacrifice.