Rituals of Wheat 2018
Performance talk, part of 'Wheat and Rush, Weave and Ritual' for the MERL Seminars: LAND AND FOLK, with Catherine Morland, at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading,Tuesday 16 October 2018.
Photography by Caroline Morris, Catherine Morland, Christine Couch and MERL.
Demeter, goddess of grain, agriculture, harvest, growth, nourishment as well as sacred law. She is the ‘bringer of seasons’, reigns over the cycles of life and death, and presides over the fertility of the earth. Because her only daughter, Persephone was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, Demeter was grief stricken, and angry, and searched for her all across the world. A terrible famine gripped the land. Demeter neglected the earth, living things stopped growing and began to die. Confronted with the possibility of the cessation all life on earth, Zeus insisted Persephone be brought back to her mother. Hades agreed but tricked her into eating a pomegranate seed, which bound her to him. And whilst Demeter was overjoyed that her daughter had returned to her, when Persephone descends for part of the year to the underworld, Demeter mourns dreadfully, causing the plants and crops to stop their growth for that time. But when Persephone ascends again, the earth surges once more with life.
Specialist in Greek philosophy and religion, Radek Chlup, recalls the 20th century anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski’s analysis of the ‘garden magic’ of the Trobriand islands, where it was believed that fertility was seen in opposition to agricultural work. He writes, 'fertility is connected with what cannot be achieved by technological means, with the unaccountable and the precarious. It is perceived as an unpredictable power standing outside the reliable structures of man’s world’ (Chlup, R. 2007 ‘The Semantics of Fertility: Levels of Meaning in the Thesmophoria’ Kernos 20, p77). Such rites are ‘means to deal with external powers which are beyond our control but on which we depend. By performing rituals, men [and women] try to domesticate them at least partly and bring them to their side’ (Chlup, 2007: 77).
Following this opening, I went on to discuss wheat as a staple crop, its recent (and not so recent) demonisation, corn/grain spirits and last sheaf customs. The performance ritual was informed by the varied ancient ways we once celebrated, made thanks and/or appeased the gods or forces of nature to ensure a good harvest, linking wheat, our bodies, and the land, through the ingestion and burying of wheat. It drew on the practice of the Lammas, or ‘loaf Mass’, the loaves of bread gifted by farmers for communion at the harvest mass, made from the new wheat crop. But instead of bread, it was biscuit recalling Reading’s biscuit making history and Huntley and Palmer’s connection to the MERL. My biscuit, a dough of sprouted spelt flour and normal plain flour, butter, sugar, eggs and a dash or vanilla essence was plaited to resemble the process of making a corn dolly, maiden or corn neck. It was then passed around to audience-participants by my mother, a nod to the opening of the talk where I recalled the mother-daughter myth of Demeter and Persephone. Audience-participants were invited to break off a piece, and to eat half. Processing outside, we then planted the remaining half as offerings in holes in the four corners of the museum’s garden.
In the fertility myth of Persephone and Demeter, Stuart Harris and Gloria Platzner in their book, Classical Mythology refer to Persephone as the seed that is planted in the ground, which refers to the Underworld; is dampened by the rain, i.e. Zeus’ intervention, and then the germination in spring into fully-grown grain is Demeter (Harris and Platzner, 2001: 115). In my ritual, Persephone is the flour (sprouted) and Demeter is the fully formed biscuit. By ingesting and burying fragments of the biscuit, we are enacting the cycle of regeneration by ‘planting’ them in our bodies, us becoming wheat, and then ‘planting’ them into the earth to symbolise possibility of new growth.