Who is John Barleycorn? He is an aspect of the God whom we honor especially at the sabbat of Lammas, which is not just focused on wheat but also upon barley and all the alcohol beverages that can be made from it. Think of John Barleycorn as a personification of the cereal crops. As with most things about Wicca, he is British in origin. You might know of him from the British folk song, “John Barleycorn,” which has been covered by several folk-rock bands including Traffic, Pentangle, and Fairport Convention.
In the song, John Barleycorn represents the barley growing in the fields. He is seized and made to undergo several gruesome ordeals that correspond with planting, harvesting, and ale production until the poor devil is finally killed and then resurrected in a new form as the greatly celebrated beverage of ale (or beer). The song itself, and variations upon it, are very old. On Wikipedia, you can have a look at a Scottish version from the 15th or 16th century named, “Quhy Sowld Nocht Allane Honorit Be,” but I’ll admit that I found it completely incomprehensible.
Instead, I will give you the Robert Burns version, which is also from Scotland but from the 18th century and more accessible. Notice how the beautiful imagery corresponds with the growing season. In early summer, he grew thick and strong; his head well arm’d w’ pointed spears, but as fall approaches, he grew wan and pale; his bendin’ joints and drooping head show’d he began to fail.
There was three kings into the east,
three kings both great and high,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn must die.
They took a plough and plough'd him down,
put clods upon his head,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.
But the cheerful Spring came kindly on'
and show'rs began to fall.
John Barleycorn got up again,
and sore surprised them all.
The sultry suns of Summer came,
and he grew thick and strong;
his head well arm'd wi' pointed spears,
that no one should him wrong.
The sober Autumn enter'd mild,
when he grew wan and pale;
his bendin' joints and drooping head
show'd he began to fail.
His colour sicken'd more and more,
and he faded into age;
and then his enemies began
to show their deadly rage.
They took a weapon, long and sharp,
and cut him by the knee;
they ty'd him fast upon a cart,
like a rogue for forgerie.
They laid him down upon his back,
and cudgell'd him full sore.
they hung him up before the storm,
and turn'd him o'er and o'er.
They filled up a darksome pit
with water to the brim,
they heav'd in John Barleycorn.
There, let him sink or swim!
They laid him upon the floor,
to work him farther woe;
and still, as signs of life appear'd,
they toss'd him to and fro.
They wasted o'er a scorching flame
the marrow of his bones;
but a miller us'd him worst of all,
for he crush'd him between two stones.
And they hae taen his very hero blood
and drank it round and round;
and still the more and more they drank,
their joy did more abound.
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
of noble enterprise;
for if you do but taste his blood,
'twill make your courage rise.
'Twill make a man forget his woe;
'twill heighten all his joy;
'twill make the widow's heart to sing,
tho the tear were in her eye.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
each man a glass in hand;
and may his great posterity
ne'er fail in old Scotland!
If you would like to know what this sounds like, go through the link to Amazon.com and listen to the very pretty version by Traffic: John Barleycorn (Must Die) (Remastered)
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