Lunasa – John Barleycorn

But John Barleycorn proved the stoutest man
Though they did all that they could
So raise up your horn and praise John Barleycorn
And we shall drink his blood
Yes, we shall drink his blood!

– Heather Alexander’s version of old English folk song “John Barleycorn”

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

John Barleycorn is one of my favorite versions of a god archetype that is particularly relevant at this time of year: the god of vegetation who dies and is reborn. There are innumerable versions of the poem and folk song that tell his story, including one by Robert Burns. [1]  The story is a metaphor for the agricultural cycle of barley, and by extension nearly any grain crop, personified in “little Sir John.” [2]

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sabbat at the start of August is called either Lammas or Lughnasadh, and under either name it is a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, and especially the beginning of the grain harvest. The consistent theme at these celebrations is thanksgiving that there is a harvest to be gotten in, and that communities come together to do the hard and vitally necessary work of harvesting. In the Southern Hemisphere, this Sabbat is Imbolc, which is also a festival of change, but in a different way, focusing on poetry and inspiration, and the end of winter, rather than preparing for the coming winter as we in the Northern Hemisphere must do at this time.

Lammas comes from the Old English for loaf-mass, the offering and blessing of the first symbolic loaves made from the newly-reaped grain, representing the whole harvest to come. Lughnasadh is the festival of the Celtic god Lugh; he is said to have instituted the celebration in honor of his foster-mother after her death. [3] As far as we can tell from surviving information, in old Celtic cultures this was a time for communities to gather and engage in games and contests of skill, especially martial skill, but it was also a celebration of the harvest.

The Lughnasadh festival was considered a good time for people to come together in more ways than one. Because the harvest assured people that they could plan for the winter to come, this time of year was appropriate for finalizing all kinds of arrangements, including living situations from renting lodgings to setting up marriages and handfastings. A handfasting, according to some sources, may have been a kind of trial marriage that lasted for “a year and a day” and could be dissolved without prejudice at the end of that time. [4] In a largely agricultural society, the gold of the grain was more important than a gold ring to making it possible for a couple to live together.

The song of John Barleycorn – a story of violence and death – may seem like an odd tune for these festivals of fresh bread and new weddings.  The conflict is resolved when we realize the story is not just about death, but death and rebirth. Little Sir John comes back in many forms, none of which are exactly the same as the life he lost. He is reborn, not resurrected.

John Barleycorn is another face worn by the Green Man, the god of living things that are green and growing, things that live and die and live again, year in and year out, around the Wheel. The Green Man or the vegetation god often appears in art, especially carvings, as a face made of leaves, sometimes with vines and grasses growing from his mouth or flowing as his hair. As I have found common in Paganism, he “speaks in leaves,” that is, in complex symbols without a single, simple allegorical meaning, so there is not just one story but many going on simultaneously as we try to read his story in the leaves and in his songs. [5]

In the song, John Barleycorn, the seed, is planted and buried, by men who are vain enough to assure themselves that he is dead. But because Barleycorn knows that the tomb is also the womb of the earth, he sprouts and begins to grow. As the grain begins to ripen, it is described in some versions as the figure growing a beard. This is a literal description of ripening grain, which grows long thin protrusions called the beard or awns, but it could also be a symbol of puberty, with all the attendant metaphors between sexual and agricultural fertility. In Burns’ version, though, he describes this growth as “pointed spears” that are Barleycorn’s defense, until he ages and becomes weak in autumn. In either telling, Barleycorn’s ripening marks the point that he has become useful to others, and by the same token, it is the time that he is beginning to be ready for his next death.

Then in great detail the story and song describe the cruelties inflicted on Barleycorn, all of which refer to the activities of preparing grain for human use: cutting the stalks, binding the sheaves, loading the grain, threshing, and milling. But here the song departs from the Lammas theme of the importance of bread. Burns’ version gives away the difference by including the step of malting the barley over a fire before it is ground, which makes it ready for brewing beer, which will be the ultimate rebirth of the barley. Some versions insist that Sir John was not only made into the everyday beer, but also into stronger stuff such as uisge beatha, the “water of life,” better known today as whisk(e)y.

The song ends with a verse or two about how everyone partakes of Barleycorn’s reborn “spirit,” pun very much intended. This is why I describe Barleycorn’s process as a rebirth, rather than a resurrection; the parts of the grain that are used, whether for bread or for brewing, are completely transformed. Only the small portion reserved as seed will give birth to new grain next year. Even then, it will be cut down in turn, in the repeating cycle that closes the circle of the song and of the Wheel of the Year.

Now, I don’t focus on this song to imply that everyone ought to drink alcohol; although alcoholic drinks may have been healthier than plain water in the past, today that is (thankfully) no longer the case for most people in the developed world. And although beer, sometimes called “liquid bread,” may once have been an important source of calories, grain-based foods are seldom in short supply these days.

The important point is that the song ends with examples of people doing work together and celebrating as they share “little Sir John in the nut brown bowl,” or as Heather Alexander puts it, “raise up their horns.” This beer is more than a health measure, a source of calories, or an intoxicant. Its importance comes from its place in shared celebration. This sharing in the harvest is more than just a source of sustenance. It symbolizes the way we also need hilarity and opportunities to socialize, to join with other people in feast and festival.

From start to finish, the song subtly reminds us that we need each other. It’s not just one man fighting against John Barleycorn; it’s three men who plow him, and then all the different people involved in the processing of the grain. And at the end, when the singer or poet addresses the audience directly, it is an acknowledgment that we are all human together. Just as these festivals weren’t instances of individual and private devotion, none of the harvest tasks could be done by one individual alone. The cooperation of the entire community was necessary to have enough to eat, let alone extra to brew into celebratory beer!

We’ll see these themes of work, life, and rebirth played out over the next few Sabbats, culminating in Samhain and Yule, but this is the start of that process, and a clear sign that the Wheel is turning to such matters as the harvest and the very heart of some of the most human Mysteries of all. As we go into them, it is important to note that what matters is not that John Barleycorn is resurrected in some perfected, idealized, changeless form that will exist forever. What we find is rebirth, like the rebirth of John Barleycorn, the irrepressible spirit of life that continues to renew itself in myriad forms and through myriad generations.

That is what I worship about the vegetation god, and it is the starting point that helps carry us through the darkening part of the year. No matter what happens in those many deaths and rebirths, we remain children of Earth, connected to the cycle, and always alive in the sense that something carries on – although it may be greatly changed in form.

The deepest meaning of the song, to me, is that when John Barleycorn rises again, his spirit rises within each of us. When we eat bread and whether we drink beer, or tea, or juice, we are partaking of that spirit of irrepressible life, which flows into each of us to make our own lives possible. It is the very interconnections in which we live our lives, both in relationships with others and in relationship with the world around us, from which we draw sustenance and to which we will return. On this Sabbat, we come together in celebration to acknowledge that cycle and to reaffirm our role in the shared work and shared rewards of the harvest.

—–

[1] ^ This video has a good performance of the song with reasonable sound quality; you may want to listen while you read.

An Ulster variant speaks from the point of view of the barley itself in some verses, a good reminder that at times we are the harvester, and at times we are the harvest itself.

This Morris dance to the song has additional Pagan symbolism. The character in the center wearing mixed colors is Barleycorn and the four around the edges are the Elements. Yellow, in the East, is Air, red in the South is Fire, blue in the West is Water, and the brown-green in the North is Earth. (The video is taken from the south side of the circle, facing north.) At the beginning, the central character clacks sticks with each Element, invoking its power, and they all interweave in the dance, finishing together, centering on Barleycorn, to show the way all living things (and all things, really) partake of all four Elements.

Versions of the lyrics may be found here and here for the Heather Alexander ones.

Burns’ version and a comparison to a conflated version of the usual song lyrics is at this site.

[2] ^ Note that throughout this article and the tales of John Barleycorn, “corn” means grain in general, not specifically maize as it does in the US.

[3] ^ The god and festival are respectively spelled Lu (with accent) and Lunasa (which means the month of August) in modern Irish, and pronounced “loo” and “LOO-na-sah.” The tales of Lugh are many and complex.

[4] ^ This was also a marriage contracted by agreement between the couple themselves, rather than their families, with or without a specified length attached, and without the need for clergy. This type of marriage has a long and contested history in Europe. Contemporary Pagans have adopted the term for nearly any relationship commitment ceremony.

[5] ^  King, Laurie R. The God of the Hive. New York: Bantam, 2010, p 48.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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