This pagan holiday is often celebrated with games and feats of strength, to align with the vigor of this time of year and the manly energy of the harvest deity. Lammas, the beginning of the grain harvest, is sacred to a masculine god-energy manifest in deities like Lugh, Tammuz, Osiris, John Barleycorn: gods of agriculture and the skill to bring the crops in.
But sometimes the harvest god-figure has something wrong with him, has a flaw, like green Osiris missing a member. That flaw is important, because it is the crack in the myth where the light gets in, the fissure where icon becomes story, and wants us to respond.
The Arthurian story of the Fisher King is one such fable, containing the grail quest, a wounded fertility deity and ever so much more besides. Arthur’s knight Perceval, in his quest for the Holy Grail, eventually finds it: but in a vast wasteland, where all the fields are parched and barren, the streambeds dry with fish dead on their banks. In the middle of this lifeless void, incredible and unlikely, is a castle replete with a high-functioning court of lords and ladies coming and going, clad in gold. And in the center of this court is the cup, the object of Perceval’s search, the precious grail that is the end of all quests, levitating in mid-air, and also in the great hall is the king of the land, the Fisher King, who in the midst of the gilt and grandeur reclines with a deep and suppurating wound in his thigh.
Perceval sees the King’s agony, but he has learned at Camelot’s court that you do not ask questions that might make other people uncomfortable. Perceval is from a farming background, so he has been on a steep learning curve trying to fit in with his colleagues of noble blood. This is a crucible moment for the young knight-errant on his own making a first impression, and both as himself and as a representative of Camelot he does not want to seem like a rube. So he doesn’t ask what is the matter, how the King got hurt. As the hearer of this tale, at this moment, you cry out to the knight in your mind, ‘Ask, Perceval! Ask the question!’, even though you know what is going to happen. But Perceval doesn’t, and in te morning when he wakes the whole court has disappeared, the King and Grail with it, and he is left in the waste. Because Perceval does not ask, because of the ego that even he as the sweetest and humblest of knights possesses, because he worries more about what other people think of him than he worries about the King, the grail is taken from him.
I have been Perceval. A few weeks ago I went to the climbing gym with my boyfriend. I am an enthusiastic beginning climber—I can shinny up an easy course like a spider monkey—but I’m not yet proficient at belaying. I was eager to impress the man, but that day my energy was retrograde. Every time I belayed him I did something wrong: I couldn’t smooth out my method for taking out the slack; I let him down too haltingly, &c. I got madder at myself until I turned into a balled-up little rock of ego, making every time he went up a demonstration of the fact that I had internalized the correction from the last time. On his last descent, trying to let the rope ‘flow’ down, instead of the stuttery and jarring release I’d done the time before, I ended up slamming him down hard on his heels. I could have really hurt him.
Afterwards, to my shame, I realized that I was so intent on impressing him, convincing him that I had learned, proving myself to be a worthy climbing partner, that I had actually put him in danger. My first duty as a belayer was to protect him: even if the descent lacked finesse, he would have been safer coming down haltingly. So what if I looked like I couldn’t learn? He would have been safe. Aesthetics are only secondary. In the end it is more important that he is safe than that I did anything with an effortless polish.
But I did exactly what Perceval did. Perceval forgets the primary duty to another human, which is compassion, and lets the secondary concern of courtesy, an aesthetics of compassionate behavior, get in the way. The first thing he should have done is to ask the King about his wound, and if he could help. Who cares if it was good manners? Concern is prior, just like safety is prior. Both Perceval and I tripped on our own egos. I did because I wanted to look adept; Perceval does because he wants to appear cultured and ‘gracious.’ Neither of us is those things, but in the thrall of what we can’t do we ignored the things we can, the powers of compassion we do have, and would have been solid in.
Because the Universe is merciful, we get second chances. Perceval finds his way back to the kingdom and knows this time to ask the right question. When Perceval asks the King about his wound, the land is restored: the grail spills over, erupting with joy, an Ace of Cups, fountaining into shining green rivers that teem with fishlife, watering the fields until they shine with golden grain. All Perceval had to do was ask.
The fertility of our heart, the harvest of our heart, comes from getting over ourself. Pride is the energy of the mind, and there is an arid little knot of the brain that comes when we get hung on the ego, like Perceval does, like I did. But there is a great liberating wash of kindness and mercy when we open the taps and allow our attention to pour in a lustrous dhyanic flow toward another. The harvest, of fields and of love, needs water to nourish it. Louise Hay on observing Masaru Emoto’s work with water crystals, writes, ‘Say loving words to water and it smiles; be angry at water and it shrivels.’ The same can be said for paying attention: the fields of our heart, and others’ hearts, are fertile when we get over ourselves, when we water them with compassion. When we care enough not to care how we look. When we ask.
At Lammas, the harvest is not all in; it is only beginning. There is a tenuousness to it, and much still depends on the good graces of nature, of sunshine and sweet rain. Much depends also on the good graces of our own nature. Love—because attention is love, listening is love, asking is love—is a great liberator, both of others and of ourselves. Perhaps the offering of our hearts this Lammas might be this gentle attention, to be aware when self-concern keeps us from noticing the bigger picture, what someone else needs, to bless the fields in this way.
May the waters of your heart on this Lammas turn your fields from green to shining gold!
Ask, Perceval! Ask the question!
Blessed be, namaste, and love!