The corn king, John Barleycorn for us here in Britain, is the god who sacrifices himself for the goddess, for the Land, for the good harvest to come next year. He appears in other traditions around the world, for instance as Adonis, Osiris or Tammuz.
This image is very lovely.
The Gaelic name for Lammas is Lughnassadh, celebrating the Irish sun god Lugh (pronounced Loo), and variant spellings are Lughnasadh, Lughnasad, Lughnassad, Lughnasa and Lunasa. In Ireland, races and games were held in his name and that of his mother, Tailtiu, which may have been funeral games in honour of Tailtiu who died of overwork clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture.
The Brythonic sun-god is Llew Llaw Gyffes. His name becomes Lugus with the Gauls. Llew’s totem is the eagle – a sun-bird – and all forms of his name refer to “light”. More modern forms are names like Luke, Luc in French, Lucifer which means light-bringer. I live near a river called the Lugg, this too is a form of a word for light. Llew is killed and reborn, wiser, see my here for his story.
In Celtic myth-lore the goddess often changes her guardian/spouse – see the stories of Culhwch and Olwen, Blodeuwedd, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, and many others. Sometimes the change of guardian goes from father to husband, as in Culhwch, where the prospective bridegroom must kill the father in order to obtain the daughter. It is an initiation ritual that proves the new guardian is up to the job while, at the same time, removing the old king from the scene. This is what is happening in the John Barleycorn song-story.
I also find these images of corn snakes very evocative. A friend of mine has one – a lady in that case, so a corn queen rather than king. They’re very beautiful. I’ve added a painting by Wendy Davies of twisted gold torcs … the snakes remind me of them.
This is the old version by Traffic
There were three men come out of the west their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throw’d clods all on his head
And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn was dead.
They let him lie for a very long time till the rain from heaven did fall
And little Sir John he throw’d up his head and he so amazed them all.
They let him lie till the long midsummer, till he looked all pale and wan,
Then little Sir John grow’d a long, long beard and so became a man.
They hired the men with the scythe so sharp to cut him down at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him around by the waist, served him most barbarously.
They hired the men with sharp pitchforks and they pierced him to the heart.
But the loader he served him far worse than that for he bound him to the cart.
They wheeled him around and around of the field till they came upon a barn,
And these three men made a solemn mow of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired the men with the crab tree sticks and they beat him skin from bone.
But the miller he served him far worse than that for he ground him between two stones.
There’s little Sir John in the nut brown bowl and brandy in the cask.
And little Sir John in the nut brown bowl proved the stronger man at last.
For the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor so loudly blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend his kettles nor his pots without a little drop of John Barleycorn.
If you follow the verses through you’ll see how it begins with the ploughing, sowing and harrowing of the field, then goes on to sowing with the “seed of the king” – which really is meant to be taken both ways, as corn seed and semen. And the field too is meant as the earth, the soil, and the womb of the Earth, of Sovereignty.
In verse two, little Sir John raises up his head, the first green of the corn breaks the surface of the earth, we know that there is hope, there is return, the food is likely to grow this year and we will not starve. At the end of the verse little Sir John grows a beard, the tassel of the corn appears.
In the third verse, the harvest happens. The corn is cut, scythed, it is made into stooks and bound to the cart to be carried off to the barn.
In the fourth verse they wheel the cart around and around the field, partly to pick up all the stooks but also in a ritual walking of the field which has given them the grain they hoped for, an honouring of the Land. The corn is beaten with “crab tree sticks”, that’s branches of the crab-apple tree which is an ancient tree but also a good wood for threshing the corn. Threshing is the meaning of “beat him skin from bone”. And finally the miller grinds the corn between the great millstones.
In the last verse the ale is made, the corn is transformed and transmuted from a plant into a health-giving drink. Ale was (and is) good food as well as drink, there is much goodness for the body as well as the pleasures (and pitfalls!) of intoxication J. The reference to fox hunting is repellent nowadays and is probably a fairly late insertion, like the tinker. The original may well have referred to hunting, but for food animals not “the pleasure of killing”.
So, the song is about the growing of the corn, harvesting and making ale. It makes its references as if the corn is a person and, in ancient days, it would have been the king. Human sacrifice took place in all lands. Human life was, and still is to most humans, the most precious gift that could be given to the gods, the power of blood is known worldwide.
With its habitual de-paganising zeal, the Christian church recycled Lammas as the harvest festival. Traditionally on this day a new loaf of bread was offered at mass as the first-fruit of the harvest. In the good old days when bread was truly your harvest fruit – you tilled the land, planted the grain and watered to soil to make it grow – the making of the Lamas/Lughnasadh loaf was packed with mystical symbolism. The breadmaker and those who ate it were acutely aware of their relationship with Mother Earth – a relationship not of words but of conscious interaction. Quite different from buying a loaf in your local supermarket off the bakery shelf! These days bread-making is a mechanised process and you have had nothing to do with the planting, growing and harvesting of the grain.