This feast falls on the eve of August 1, at the beginning of harvest-time. The actual Heathen name of the festival is not certain. In England and Scotland, the "Loaf-Mass" (corrupted to "Lammas") was held when folk brought the first fruits of their harvest to the church as an offering - a custom which might well, in turn, have sprung from Heathenism. Similar customs were followed in Germany: the beginning of harvest was always both an offering and a bidding for a good harvest to follow, safe from hail and other dangers. In Donnersberg, a woman bound three stalks of grain together beneath the ears in every field, saying, "That belongs to the three maidens"; where she could not go herself, she tied three stalks of grain together with white silk and sent a child under seven years old to lay them on the field (Jahn, Ulrich, Die Deutsche Opfergebräuche bei Ackerbau und Viehzucht, pp. 158-59). Many of the "First Sheaf" customs that Jahn cites, such as the making of a corn dolly or the setting out of the sheaf "for the mice" are similar to the "Last Sheaf" customs discussed further under Winternights. The First Sheaf could be left lying on the field, thrown into running water, burned in fire, or hung up in the house or over the door, "because it, as a holy offering, possessed the strength to keep all ill-luck from house and court". Eggs were also given with it, as was bread (Jahn, Deutsche Opfergebräuche, pp. 160 - 63).
In Iceland, this was the time of fairs which were particularly marked by the sport of horse-fighting. From this sport we get the name "Freyfaxi" (Freyr's-Mane), as that was the name of one of the most famous Icelandic horses, the stallion which Hrafnkell Freysgoði dedicated to his god. The horse-fighting may well have been seen as a ritual act in itself; a horse-fighting scene appears on the stone from the Häggeby church (Uppland, Sweden - ca. 400-600 C.E.) in which we see both the horses and the men goading them on. The horses' heads are decorated with the crescent-horn head-dresses which also appear on many bracteate-horses from this period. A number of other picture stones from this period show duelling horses, usually flanking a great wheel with spiralling arms which may show forth the Sun. Nýlen and Lamm suggest that "The duel was probably of religious significance. The animals most suitable for sacrifice may have been selected in this way and the battle between the lord of the winter and the summer, between death and life in nature, which was current in Sweden up to the seventeenth century may reflect ancient fertility rites" (Stones, Ships, and Symbols, p. 26). The horse, as spoken of earlier, is a beast of both fruitfulness and death, and thus is very fitting to harvest-time rites. The bright horse is still the ruler at the time of this feast - but this will not last too much longer. The strength with which the horses fought could perhaps also have been seen as showing how the harvest should turn out, or even as blessing the fields with the might they spent in their battling.
Grønbech mentions that this same belief was shown by the Norwegian horse-contests held in Sætersdale in August. "The stallions were led out two by two, excited by the presence of a mare, and after the fights, there followed wild rides on bare-backed horses. And it was known that 'when the horses bite well it means a good harvest'. In this double play between the interpretation of the action as a test of manhood and an assurance of luck, there is very likely a glimmering of old sacrifical ideas" (II, p. 190).
In Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition, Nigel Pennick mentions that Loaf-Feast was also a time when wells and other holy waters were especially worshipped and offerings made to them, though his sources for this are difficult to track. He also suggests that the English folk song "John Barleycorn" is a fitting ritual song or ritual drama for this feast; and here we may think of Fro Ing's bondsman Byggvir, "Barley". In Scotland and parts of England, it is still traditional to make corn dollies at this time. These can easily be done as harvest-images for various god/esses (see "Crafts"), set on the Hearth harrow from now until Winternights.
In the elder days, this time would not only have been the beginning of the grain harvest, but also the end of the season of battling. Those warriors who lived through a summer of raiding and trading would be coming home with the harvest of gold and glory they had won, ready to set their weapons aside and get to work bringing in the winter's food. The other side of the Häggeby stone shows a ship rowing in, and this ship might perhaps be seen as the sig-ship faring homeward from battle.
We may also note that Óláfr inn digri was slain just before this festival, at the battle of Stiklastaðir on July 29, 1030 - by three men named Þórir Hound, Þórsteinn Shipbuilder, and a man named Kálf (though Snorri tells us that there was some disagreement as to whether the last was Kálf Árnason or Kálf Árfinsson). KveldúlfR Gundarsson suggests that "If one were looking for a broader pattern in Óláfr's death, one might, perhaps, read the Hound as a lesser form of Óðinn's wolf, the Calf as Freyr's ox, and know Þórr in the name 'Þórr-Stone'. Certainly it is fitting to think of the three great gods gathering together to strike down one of the worst traitors who ever slaughtered his own folk and turned against the holy ways of the North..." ("Outlaws in the Hof!", p. 12) Thinking on this, it might also be thought fitting to see Loaf-Fest as a time to celebrate the gods' harvest of sig over the foes of our folk, and the beginning harvest-time of the newly reborn Troth.
In modern Ásatrú, this feast is especially tied to the tale of Loki's cropping of Sif's hair, for which he pays not only by bringing her hair of real gold, but arranging the making of several of the great treasures of the gods (Þórr's Hammer, Óðinn's spear and ring, Freyr's boar and ship). This tale is well-fitted to be a ritual drama at this feast. At this time, also, many true folk call on Sif as a field-goddess and Thonar as the warder of the fields, whose lightning ripens the grain and whose thunder drives out all the wights that would scathe the harvest.
If possible, this rite should be held outdoors by a body of water, with a bonfire also burning and trees nearby to hang things on. You will need horn, ale, blessing-bowl, sprinkling-twig (possibly a few stalks of grain bound together), a small hand-baked bread or biscuit and a stalk of grain for everyone, and something with which folk can hang pieces of their offerings in the trees (such as little paper ships with strings attached to the masts). The fire should be kindled with one of the brands from the year's earlier holy fires; it should already be going well by the time the rite starts.
I. Godwo/man does the Hammer-rite.
II. Godwo/man stands in full elhaz stance (feet spread, hands upraised) and calls,
The Sun turns down from Summer's height,
the Earth is giving her gifts to all.
Fro Ing is faring frithful through acres,
Stands Byggvir high-waxed, staunch by the god.
The Sun turns down from Summer's height,
The ships are faring from sea to home-bays
Sig-laden, fair-winded, Farmatýr guides them,
Glad bear they loads, the glow of Rhine-fire.
The Sun turns down from Summer's height,
The Hammer flashes above fields gold.
Thonar hallows his holy bride,
Mjöllnir hallows high-growing grain.
The grain has grown for gifts threefold,
barley and bread and beer,
The quern shall whirl and quicken the yeast,
the seeds for sowing be saved.
Loaf-Giver, Loaf-Kneader, full-laden, we greet you,
with barley and bread and beer,
Hrosshárgrani, we hail thee forth,
to quicken the ale with awe,
to seed it with frothing foam.
III. The Godwo/man fills the horn with ale and signs it with the Sun-Wheel, saying,
Fro Ing and Frowe, Nerthus, Njörðr! Wans, look wynn-full on our harvest - Wans and all holy wights who help the growing grain.
S/he drinks and passes it about to all the folk. When it has made the round, s/he pours what is left into the blessing bowl and fills the horn again, signing it with the Hammer and saying,
Thonar and Sif, hallow this harvest-time - Bringing our works to being, blessing the winnings we reap, driving all ill away!
S/he drinks and passes it about to all the folk. When it has made the round, s/he pours what is left into the blessing bowl and fills the horn again, signing it with the Walknot and saying,
Farmatýr, we hail thee for summer sig - battles blessed, now coming to end. Draupnir's owner, holy ring-giver, strew forth the seed of the hawk's land's fire!
S/he drinks and passes the horn about to all the folk. When it has made the round, s/he pours what is left into the blessing bowl.
IV. The Godwo/man speaks,
Now we bring forth the signs of what we have wrought - the gifts we give to the gods! One-third to alfs of the air; one third to water-wights deep; one-third fares through the fire.
S/he breaks his/her bread in three parts and sticks a stalk of grain into each - hanging one on the tree, casting one into the water, the third into the flames. Each of the folk does likewise. If the rite is being held indoors, a basin of water (which will later be taken out and poured into the nearest body of water) may be used instead of a stream; the pieces for burning may be burned in a fireplace or passed through a candle-flame until they begin to char; and the pieces for hanging may be hung out the window. The Godwo/man lifts the bowl and speaks:
Hail to the gifts hail the givers, hail gods and goddesses all! Hail to Byggvir whose blood we share, barley-god, all blessing-full.
S/he sprinkles harrow, the airts, the water, the fire, the gifts which the folk have hung, and each of the folk in turn, finally pouring the last of the ale into the water, onto the tree, and into the fire (if the fire is very small, a few symbolic drops may be sprinkled on it here). S/he says,
Now fare all to feast in frith - win strength for harvest work.