A Tribute to John Barleycorn
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.
It was early spring in southern England, cold as the dickens and unrelievedly damp. There seemed to be no remedy against the weather except to gather in a pub, sit next to a small blazing fire, and listen to folks sing the old songs. The uplifting tale of John Barleycorn, written by Scotland’s paramount folk poet, Robert Burns, is typical of the deeply rooted culture of the British Isles. There, pagan rites and Christian ritual are mixed in a steamy compost with love of strong drink and a hearty appreciation of the natural cycles of the earth. People sing together, in public, without instruments and without embarrassment. It takes the chill off.
All over the world wherever people are still connected to the soil or where they have reconnected as best they can, the old holy agricultural days are celebrated or at least, acknowledged. Many have been co-opted by the church or the communists to suit their own purposes.
It was from Britain that we got the names of these sacred days, mysterious gems of language glimmering with arcane meaning that mark the turning of the earth through the cycle of the year: Yule, Imbolg, Equinox, Beltane, Samhain, Lammas.
Because the earth always finds its balance, summer in the north of the earth is mirrored by winter in the south. Our Vernal Equinox is South America’s Autumnal Equinox. Each seasonal celebration contains the potentiality of the next phase. To many, the Winter Solstice, when darkness prevails, is the dreariest time of the year, a time when people feel suicidal and struggle with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). But to others it betides the joyful end of winter because from that day forward, light begins to return in minutely increasing increments. Similarly, the end of October, known as the Harvest Festival or Lammas, is a time when plants have died; but is also a time when new growth begins as seeds are dispersed in the harvesting process.
I was studying bio-dynamic agriculture at Emerson College in Sussex that spring, when our teacher, a man not given to consulting with others, announced one Friday that we must all gather on Sunday morning – one of our few free times – to celebrate the Vernal Equinox. His ponderous announcement implied the capital letters:
“We’re a group concerned with the Seasons and the significance of the Phases of the Moon. We’re aligning ourselves with the Farming People of the World who have their own ways of knowing that the Equinox is coming, without recourse to calendars. We are obligated to take on the Sacred Duty of commemorating this day when Spring Begins and the Winter is finally Over.” Our teacher had a way of speaking in grand terms, bombastic some might say, but there was no room for refusal though several of us groaned. I might have been one of the groaners. Weekends were for family, not for school.
I lost. But I already knew not to grouse about these weird celebrations. The college had already opened my eyes to the meaning behind the cycles of the year. I had transplanted myself from my Carolina home, and was living now in a more ancient place where folklore spanned thousands of years. The lunar calendar of the Celts, for example, associated every month with a tree or flower, and with a sense/sacred principle:
The Celtic Months
|Oct / Nov
|Nov / Dec
|The Darkest Depths
|Dec / Jan
|Jan / Feb
|Feb / Mar
|Time of Ice
|Mar / Apr
|Time of Winds
|Apr / May
|May / Jun
|Time of Brightness
|Jun / Jul
|Jul / Aug
|Aug / Sep
|Sep / Oct
For many of us, spring denotes the beginning of the year, far more accurately than the calendar’s designation of January First. In spring the sap rises, the pollen is released, and humans respond to the generative energy around them with decorative plantings and the creation of new beds for procreation of new species.
May Day is a holiday that has been co-opted by the workers of the world, who unite in their refusal to work on May 1. It is connected to the ancient celebrations of Beltane, or the fire of Bel, when the goddesses vies playfully with the gods, symbolized by the Maypole. Do I need to draw a picture here? Remember the sweet young girls bedecked in flowers, dancing around the, ahem, phallic Maypole? Beltane, like its calendar opposite, Samhain or Halloween, is a time out of time. It’s the earliest harbinger of summer fecundity, when the world of magic mystically permeates the world of nature and beings may be transformed. It’s a time when courting in the woods and ditches has traditionally been permitted.
Beltane falls on the gibbous moon, when buds are forming, and farmers are in a highly ambitious frame of mind calculating the profits to come. The harvest is underground and we leave it to the dark feminine principle to heave the plants toward the potent masculine sun.
I was nowhere more impressed with Midsummer’s Night than in Sweden, many miles north of anywhere I’d ever been. In Sweden, where I journeyed to study folk fiddle and the melancholy music called the “Polska,” I experienced winter even more stringently than in England. The day’s light lasted from just 10 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon. I survived SAD by taking regular saunas. Then came summer, with days that lasted until 10 p.m. and dawns that arrived at 4 in the morning. The bi-polar Swedes, who shut down and weep all winter, become extraverted heat-seekers in the summer, carousing without ceasing. Fiddlers conventions, known as “spelmanslag,” carry on all night.
Midsummer’s Night was given a whole play by Shakespeare, who depicted it as a time when shapes change and sensual love is at its zenith. No wonder. It is celebrated under a full moon in combination with the longest period of sunlight in the year. June 21 is the most powerful day of the year, a time when green shows its many shades and tints and the soil smells of its barely restrained potency. John Barleycorn is at his prime:
The sultry suns of Summer came,
And he grew thick and strong,
His head weel arm’d wi’ pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.
But there’s trouble on the way, with the coming of Lammastide, or “loaf mass” when grains are sacrificed to the harvester. Alas for John Barleycorn,
The sober Autumn enter’d mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show’d he began to fail.
Late summer arrives with a sense of feverish haste to have fun fast before the year shuts off. Our society has thus linked Lammas with Labor Day, another time when the workers don’t work, everyone parties, and good times are stored up against the hard times on the way. For farmers and gardeners, it’s a dry season when the process of clearing begins, in a phase aptly known as the “disseminating moon.” It’s the Celtic “claim time” when workers were sought for the fall harvest season and others claimed their wages for the summer’s labor.
Emerson College put on a lengthy celebration in late September, combining the folk holiday of the Autumnal Equinox with the holy day of Michaelmas. Rudolf Steiner, the progenitor of bio-dynamic farming, set great store by the commemoration of Michaelmas, which had fallen by the wayside in most of Europe by the early 20th Century. Steiner saw profound meaning in the story of Michael the Archangel who fought the legions of Satan. This battle between light and darkness is symbolically played out as the year dies and it seems that the sun will never return. Plants are dying and melting back into the earth. The moon is in its ominous “last phase.”
In England, it was easy to imagine primitive people in their Anglo-Saxon caves and stick houses huddling together in fear and dread as the cold crept in. This sense of foreboding was offset by Michaelmas, highlighted by hearty food, an emphasis on abundant grains, and, at Emerson, mysterious dramas presented in Middle English (I particularly remember the word “whales” being pronounced “wallace”).
In the United States, we have another name for the Autumnal Equinox: Harvest Home. In Christian churches on Harvest Home Sunday, the stirring old hymn rings out:
Come ye thankful people, come…Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide. For our wants to be supplied:
Come to God’s own temple, come, Raise the song of harvest home.
We ourselves are God’s own field, Fruit unto His praise to yield:
Wheat and tares together sown, Unto joy or sorrow grown;
First the blade, and then the ear, Then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest! Grant that we. Wholesome grain and pure may be.
The Autumnal Equinox doesn’t precisely coincide with Michaelmas but combining the two provides an excuse for a walloping long party. Similarly, the pagan festival of Samhain links up roughly with the church’s appropriated holy day, All Saints Eve which gave way to the more enjoyable and more profane Halloween, October 31, and both blend nicely into the English Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes Day), on November 1.
It is on Samhain, or Summer’s End, that the dead walk the earth. Pagans (really, just farmers and farm workers with a strong link to the soil and seasons) carried gourds elaborately carved with faces designed to scare away the demons of the night. They also left offerings of the grain harvest to placate evil spirits that roamed the darkness. Does any of that sound familiar? At the time of Samhain, the productive year falls away, and farmers batten down the doors of the granaries. And to preserve balance, the Celts celebrated Samhain as the beginning of the year rather than seeing it, as we tend to do, as nature’s last fiery gasp before the black night of winter.
Samhain coincides with the “balsamic” moon, signifying healing and emerging. The seeds of the dead harvest are secretly flying in the fire lit night. It’s chilly now, offering another excuse for a few more rounds of what’s-your-choice at the pub and a few more rounds of song. It was on Samhain that John Barleycorn was pronounced dead. Notice that in this song as in the hymn of Harvest Home, fruit and grain are anthropo-morphed: we are the fruits that God will use for his purpose; John Barleycorn is humanized as both the victim and the savior of the thirsty farmhand:
They took a plough and plough’d him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they have sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.
The year edges into increasing darkness until December and Yuletide, or the Winter Solstice, when the longest night came to be associated with the brightest light, the birth of Jesus. We rational moderns know that Jesus couldn’t have been born in the cold of the year because no shepherd would have been caught out in that weather. But the church saw fit to align its favorite celebration with the pagan rites of burning the Yule log and rejoicing in the beginning of the end of the winter siege. The New Moon arrives in its pale splendor, promising regeneration. Sometime in the eighteenth century in Europe the whole thing snowballed into what we now call Christmas, (note the “mas” – it means “feast”). To a farmer in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas comes in the season of longest light and least rain, so there are few agrarian societies that still fear the Christmas threat of hunger, debilitation and death. However, in Iran, a place from which we sense another sort of threat, the solstice of winter is still commemorated as Yalda, when fires are lit and tended all night long. At the darkest time of the year, when the sun deserts us, we bring it to ourselves.
In the British Isles, an ancient carol shows the mixing of pagan and Christian symbols. “The Holly and the Ivy” acknowledges the masculine attributes of holly and feminine properties of ivy, plus the potency of the sun, enmeshed with the purity of holly’s white flowers and the red of the berries reminding us of Christ’s blood sacrifice. It is a song voiced as often in pubs and folk clubs as in chapels and churches throughout the old English-speaking world:
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
Chorus: O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour
The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.
The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
The mysterious word Imbolg is a linguistic relative of the word “ombligo” (Spanish) meaning “navel.” Imbolg variously means “ewe’s milk” or “belly”- a time when we see the triumph of motherhood over the ravages of winter. Babies are born in the animal world. Imbolg, also called Candlemas, is celebrated around February 2, between the solstice and equinox, and is arguably the real beginning of spring. The earliest flowers will bloom tentatively in the temperate zones if the weather shows the merest promise of warmth. The Church linked Imbolg with the holy day when beeswax candles to be used in the church were blessed for the year. It was also associated with Mary’s presentation of her new baby to the synagogue. That would have coincided with her purification following childbirth. Irish householders look for a visitation of Saint Brighid, the “bride”.
The crescent moon at Imbolg makes the new seedlings vulnerable. At Imbolg, farmers fret. They move their beasts from the hay fields to make way for spring planting. They take down all Christmas greenery for fear of bad luck. It’s said that if you hear funeral bells on Candlemas, someone close to you will die in the coming year. There’s another superstition that good weather on Imbolg presages bad weather later, and this is almost certainly the origin of our more light-hearted Groundhog Day – it’s the same date, after all.
It’s worth another trip to the pub to hear about the late lamented John Barleycorn. It turns out that he’s not dead, only a-sleeping:
But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
And show’rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surpris’d them all.
…So it was that on a Sunday morning in late March we trudged up the hill to Emerson College and beyond it to an open field. It was in the middle of this field that our teacher had taught us our first lesson. We had been given hoes and were hacking at the dry earth of late September, me thinking about the high price of my tuition versus the calluses I was creating on my tender hands, versus what it would be like to drop my hoe, pack and fly home. Our teacher leaned on his hoe, not even short of breath, and asked us “What are we cultivating?” and after a few incorrect guesses (potatoes, root crops, beans) informed us that we were cultivating “ourselves.” That was my first lesson in the true meaning of agriculture.
On that Vernal Equinox, our teacher had gathered brush and a few wizened little logs. England is about treed out since the great plague reduced the population and required that forests be converted to animal husbandry, which required fewer people than raising crops.
Someone had a light.
With no special moment of ceremony, the fire was lit and slowly caught. We were invited to pray or meditate in our own separate ways. We were from Argentina, Venezuela, Ivory Coast, Ghana, England, Germany, Austria, and the United States. We were Catholic, Quaker, Jew, Buddhist, animist, and atheist.
Perhaps some of us were contemplating the connection between this spring day and its link with Passover, Easter and the pagan feast of Venus/Ishtar/Oestra (the goddess of gestation, creator of the ultimate Easter egg). The death of Christ symbolizes the rebirth of the world in the joyful fertility of spring, from the darkness of the wintry tomb to the warmth of a tender, fragrant day when a being of light is perceived by a woman in mourning. We know that the early Christian church was warring with pagan deities for the hearts and minds of its membership. But could there be a subtler principal at work, a line of destiny that brings all these spiritual forces into alignment no matter what the ostensible rationale? By this model, all sacred rites would coincide so that all people might feel kinship no matter what name they use for their religious rituals.
After a moment of silence, our teacher reminded us of the importance of the change of seasons and the remembrance of holy days for agricultural people everywhere.
Then we adjourned for tea and biscuits (cookies) in the refectory. It was almost warm inside.