It Begins with a Song…or Does It?
I’d like to share with you the curious and disturbing facts I uncovered while digging into the fertile soils of history, myth, folklore and custom in an attempt to find a long-buried secret: an answer to the question, who was John Barleycorn?
You may have come across the old English folk song that tells the mysterious tale of John Barleycorn. Or perhaps you heard his name as a euphemism for intoxicating liquor. You may have encountered him mentioned in discussions of the pagan past. Or you may have stumbled here led by mere chance or idle curiosity.
Before we go further, let’s hear the song with its alluring, ancient melody and its evocative and disturbing lyrics. The song is sung here by The Watersons, one of the most famous families of traditional British singers in recent times. Listen very carefully, because many clues to our past and heritage – indeed, the true identity of our eponymous hero – are hidden within these words.
Play the video to hear this version
The Ballad of John Barleycorn sung by The Watersons
So it begins with a song. Or it ends with a song. What does it mean? Was there ever a real person behind the folkloric image of the life-cycle of the corn personified? If so, what evidence is there to support that idea and, more importantly, who was he? To answer that question, I invite you to come with me on a strange and surprising journey that starts with a 16th Century manuscript and ends deep in the human psyche.
Fact, Fiction or Folkloric Truth?
Our first task is to distinguish fact from fiction, a clue to deeper meaning from a red-herring of pure and fanciful invention. Even in the absence of hard facts, images and customs surviving from the ancient past can illuminate our understanding of the human mind, and its historical or even prehistoric evolution. I call this kind of insight folkloric truth, because while it may not be fact it is not pure fiction either, as it communicates something true about us, our heritage and our consciousness.
How then can we make these distinctions in the quest for John Barleycorn?
The Bannatyne Manuscript
Theory, Evidence, and Speculation
Let’s start with the clear facts and then attempt to fill the gaps with logical theories which can be tested against available evidence. Then, perhaps, we might also allow ourselves a little intelligent speculation.
The song (or the many versions of the song to be more accurate) that relates the life and death of John Barleycorn, is the necessary starting point – as it is in the words of the song that the secret of the story is held.
The first known written copy appears in a manuscript penned by George Bannatyne in 1568. He was a wealthy merchant from the Scottish city of Edinburgh and included the song of John Barleycorn in a collection of several poems, songs and other writings which he seems to have committed to paper as a simple amusement. The manuscript was subsequently passed down through several generations and is now held in The National Library of Scotland.
Of Ancient Origin, or Simply Old?
It ‘s worth pointing out at this stage how we know the song did not originate in this manuscript. There are several reasons. First and foremost, Bannatyne clearly states it’s a collection of pre-existent works, either already transcribed or circulating in the oral tradition. Further, other versions appear in writing during the following centuries that can have had no direct lineage from this manuscript. They must have derived from common or multiple sources. Finally, the content of the song itself, as we will soon examine in detail, is rich in traditional elements, motifs, folk memories and significance that can only indicate an older source.
Whilst there are some who will grant the song no greater antiquity than the Middle Ages in Europe, others see it as having a heritage going back into our earliest roots as cultural beings. I don’t think it matters whether the song is part of an unbroken tradition reaching back into antiquity or a revival created from a knowledge of other sources. Even a revival, by definition, has to be a revival of something, and there is no argument to prove the origins do not spring from an historical fact or series of events.
So, let’s take a careful, analytical look at the words of the song. Just to remind you of those words, listen again. This time to a more contemporary version by the rock band ‘Traffic’ – the music is different but the words remain unchanged.
Play the video to hear this version
John Barleycorn Performed Live by ‘Traffic’
There are clearly several ways to interpret the meaning of these lyrics (bearing in mind the antiquity of their origins).
The first and most obvious interpretation is that John Barleycorn is not, and never was, seen as a real person of any kind.
He is, rather, a symbolic figure; a poetic personification of the barley; the corn itself. Taken at this level the song simply describes the process of preparing the ground, sowing the seeds, watering and waiting for the crop to grow, followed by harvesting, threshing and milling. Finally, the products of brandy and bread made from barley are extolled for their virtues as staples of the diet of early agrarian peoples and upon which laborers, craftsmen and lords alike depended for their sustenance.
If this is a satisfying conclusion then we already have the answer to the question, who was John Barleycorn? And here it is if that is the case:
John Barleycorn is a poetic metaphor personifying the barley, a staple crop for the peoples of olden times.
My argument is that this is not a satisfactory conclusion. To stop at this point would be to rest our eyes on the window, failing to look through at the landscape beyond the glass.
The Celtic Triad
Subtle Signs and Symbols
There is strong reason to believe the song has deeper, richer, and more disturbing levels of meaning which can only be brought to light with a deeper analysis of certain key elements in the song.
But what are those elements in the song which suggest there’s more to understand; even that the figure of John Barleycorn may have roots in some historical person? Let’s look at those more mysterious indications one by one. As we do so, bear in mind that each in and of itself may not be sufficient grounds upon which to build an argument for the historical identity of John Barleycorn, but the cumulative effect is overwhelmingly in favor of my case.
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.
This very first verse is highly suggestive when properly understood. These are the first indications that the story in the song has its origins in a religious or magical ritual actually enacted in the pagan past. If such is the case, then it would be a reasonable assumption that the role of John Barleycorn would have been played out by a real person. So what are these indications?
The first fact we should notice is that there are three men and that they come out of the west. Why three? Why from the west? These are very specific statements unlikely to have been derived from chance invention. So if not chance invention, what is the significance of these things?
The number three has been clearly demonstrated to have religious or magical significance in most human cultures across the globe. The song originates in a Celtic land and the number three expressed in the symbol of the Celtic Triad is central to ancient Celtic belief and mythology. The art and writing of the Celtic peoples is full of references to the sacred number three. The image of the Triad was adopted in later centuries by the Christian Church as a symbol of its Holy Trinity, but was originally ascribed to worship of the Earth Goddess, who was represented in three aspects as a young maiden, a life-bearing mother, and a wise old crone.
It’s also worth noting that in the earliest Celtic writings and myths, the male heroes frequently set out in groups of three to undertake their sacred quests in the name of their Goddess.
Equally, in Celtic myth, ‘The West’ was a euphemism for the ‘otherworld’ or ‘faerieland’ – the mystic isle across the western sea where wonders and magic were commonplace, where pleasure and immortality could be found in the dwelling place of the gods.
Thus it seems reasonable that these words of the song are a remnant, a memory, of an earlier myth surrounding the figure of John Barleycorn. Three magical heroes, in service to their Goddess, coming from the mystic ‘otherworld’ to bring about his death.
Why they would come to kill him will become clear as we delve deeper into these myths. It’s the key to the true identity of the original John Barleycorn.
Neolithic Triple Spiral Symbol
This triple spiral symbol is found engraved on the neolithic tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, and demonstrates the antiquity of threefold earth goddess worship.
The next verse we should notice as having some importance on this quest is the following one.
They let him stand till midsummer
Till he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John he growed a long beard
And so became a man.
This is slightly more esoteric in its meanings but very significant. They let him stand until midsummer day. He grew a beard and became a man. In the ancient pagan cultures, midsummer was the most important festival of the year, celebrated as the longest day, the victory of light before the long descent into Winter darkness.
This was not only a fact (and we in the modern West with our central heating and electric light must exercise some imagination to appreciate the very real significance of the seasonal changes to our ancestors) but also of considerable symbolic significance. It was the time when the Sun god, at the peak of his power, gave himself up to death, sinking into the tomb of darkness that was understood equally to be the womb of Mother Earth from which he would be reborn in the Spring.
This cycle of death and rebirth was of tremendous and practical importance to our agrarian ancestors, who depended entirely on the health and productivity of their crops for survival. The relationship between the Sun god and the Earth Goddess was absolute in ancient Celtic culture.
The Temple Tomb at Newgrange
The Sun God and the Earth Goddess
This essential relationship between the god and goddess was an element of ancient pagan practice dating right back into prehistory. But the myths were not merely stories to tell, they were the basis of ritual enactments that were thought to link the fate of the humans who performed them with the divine powers which they invoked.
Many are familiar with the ancient stone temples (of which Stonehenge in Wiltshire is probably the most famous example) but this distinct myth showing the relationship between the sun and the earth and expressed in the seasonal cycle of the dying and rising sun god is nowhere made more explicit than at the temple tomb at Newgrange.
It’s commonly accepted that this extraordinary Neolithic site was not only a place of burial but also of religious ritual practice. The domed, earth covered tomb of stone was also a temple, possibly used for rites of initiation and sacrifice. Once a year, the midwinter sunrise (the time of resurrection, when the sun passes its lowest point and the days grow longer) casts a shaft of light directly and with mathematical precision into the entrance, penetrating deep into the heart of the building and illuminating the inner chambers of the tomb.
The mound, with the Goddess’s Triple Spiral carved at the entrance, was used as a tomb for sacrificial victims in the pagan rites and is also symbolic of the womb of the Goddess from whence these heroes would emerge reborn.
The god is himself the sacrifice that, descending into darkness, rises again to renew the fertile earth.
The essential myth of the dying and rising Sun God, sacrificed to darkness with the changing seasons and whose tomb is also the womb of the Mother Goddess, from whom he is reborn, is a key motif common to all occidental mythology and indeed the myths of the middle and near east. We must remember that for our ancestors, these myths were not merely stories to be retold but truths to be believed and enacted ritually. It was considered that by personifying and enacting these mythic rites the fate of the people would be linked to the power of the divinities that those rites invoked.
So, the fact that our John Barleycorn is left to the midsummer day is highly indicative of his role as personifying a deity, and, as we will soon see, an actual human sacrifice.
Returning to the song, you will recall John Barleycorn grows a long beard. In part, this is a simple reference to the ‘bearded barley’ which has long hair-like strands coming off the ear of corn when it is ripe for harvest. However, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the ‘wyrd’ or life-force (comparable to the Chinese ‘chi’ energy) was considered to be channeled through the bodily extremities. It was for this reason that Celtic “shamans” and later the Druid Priests – who worshiped at sites such as Stonehenge and Newgrange – let their nails, hair and beards grow long. This is further evidence to be stored up of the sacred identity of our folk-hero, John Barleycorn, as the sacrificial kings of ancient times were often conferred with the priesthood, too. Hence the term “Sacred Kings” and the reason for their anointing with holy oils – a practice which continues to this day in the coronation rituals of English monarchs. It is no coincidence that the title “Christ” – which is Greek for “the anointed one” – was bestowed on one of the most famous Sacred Sacrificial Kings in the mythologies of the Middle East, Jesus of Nazareth.
Tollund Man – Sacrificial Victim
The Triple Death
We are beginning to establish, purely on the basis of the lyrics of the song, an accumulating body of suggestions that behind the simple agrarian metaphor is hidden a tale of pagan religious ritual and human sacrifice dating back into deep antiquity. The following verse, seen in this light, only serves to further confirm this notion.
They hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him by the waist,
And served him most barbarously.
They hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart.
This is strongly suggestive of the Celtic sacrificial practice of The Triple Death (undoubtedly with its roots even further back in prehistory) in which – again following the principle of the sacred number three and in honor of their Earth Goddess – the sacrificial victim was ‘killed thrice’. Given what has gone before and what comes next, all the more reason to believe that the deeper layer of metaphor in this song disguises and reveals a story of pagan sacrifice in honor of the Earth Goddess of the ancient peoples.
There is a traditional practice which continues to this day in some parts of rural England which involves the making of ‘Glory Corn’ or ‘Corn Dollies’ – little figures woven of corn in various shapes broadly suggestive of human bodies and tied with red ribbons. These are then hung in the doorways of the home after harvest until the following spring plowing, when they are buried under the first earth to be turned.
It’s commonly accepted among anthropologists and folklorists alike that this practice harks back to the long ago days when an actual human sacrifice would have been offered – the red ribbon being symbolic of the blood spilled, and the body buried as an offering to the earth and to guarantee continued fertility of the land.
Barleycorn Harvested in the Traditional Way
Ritual Regicide and The Corn King
The practice of ritual regicide (sacrificing the king) has been well attested to in such famous and authoritative works as The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer and Primitive and Occidental Mythology by Prof. Joseph Campbell.
It is highly likely that the figure of John Barleycorn is a folk-memory of ‘The Corn King’ or the god of the fields.
In his seminal work (no pun intended) “The Golden Bough”, Sir James Frazer has demonstrated that this deity, the Corn King, was personified in ancient ritual practice by a real man, often selected by lots – effectively, chosen by the gods. This man was honored as a King and for the whole yearly cycle, and sometimes a seven year cycle, was treated with every respect and indulged with every luxury.
When his term of office as King was come to an end, he was sacrificed and dismembered, his broken body being dragged through the fields to ensure a fertile harvest. His blood was considered to have sacred powers. There is some evidence that the King’s body and blood would then be eaten by the people to unite them with his supernatural identity and power.
In the light of this information, the following line from the song becomes clear in its meaning:
They wheeled him round and round the field
This happens after he has suffered a triple death at the hands of the the three mysterious characters from the west. Why, if this tale only represents a metaphor of the natural cycle, would they wheel him round and round the field? Yet if this song is truly the tale of ancient pagan sacrificial practices as I maintain, that line makes perfect and logical sense.
Conclusions: Who Was John Barleycorn?
In the body of anthropological and folkloric study that has been undertaken over the last hundred years or so there is a wealth of information and evidence to support the theory I propose here for the interpretation of this song – and for its roots in antiquity. From the common symbol of the Sacrificial King, the tomb/womb of death and rebirth and the residual folk customs (such as Corn Dollies and Soul Cakes) that are so redolent of the more terrible offerings of the pagan past, to the rites and rituals of modern pagan revival movements and interpretations in popular media (Stephen King’s ‘Children of The Corn’ and the original ‘Wicker Man’ for example).
But for me there is an argument a little less scientific, but personally no less compelling: the simple enduring power and emotional impact of the story and of the song. It has survived a long time and still makes the hair on the back of one’s neck stand on end. That speaks to me of ancient roots that stir deep memories in the psyche.
Extra bits of interesting and related stuff…
The folk custom of ‘soaling’ or ‘soul-caking’ dates back to the time of John Barleycorn. Special barley cakes were made and distributed to children who went form door to door on Hallow’s Eve or Samhain, the new year in the old Celtic calandar.
Some of these cakes would be eaten (reminiscent of eating the body of the sacrified Corn King) but one or two would be kept back to lay under the first sod of earth turned at the spring plowing. Further folkloric evidence for the ancient practice of human sacrifice and the cult of the Sacred King being the origins of this song.
Soaling had its own traditional song sung here in a very enchanting version by Peter, Paul and Mary.
Soailn’ Sung by Peter, Paul and Mary
John Barleycorn and The Wicker Man
Roman historians and others have attested to the practice of human sacrifice by the Druids in early Britain. Among the most famous traditions is that of the ‘Wicker Man’. This was a huge construction of interwoven hazel and willow branches, effectively a piece of giant-size basket work, in the shape of a human figure.
In the interior of this extraordinary construction were several compartments into which the sacrificial offerings were placed. These might include corn, fruits and vegetables, livestock and, in central place, a human sacrifice. By the time the Romans gave their account of these things (or were their accounts merely influenced by their political need to give the Druids a bad press?) it would seem that these victims were no longer the willing Sacred Kings of earlier times but persons chosen as offerings quite against their will – even including children.
The ‘Wicker Man’ was then set alight and the blaze of fire consumed the offerings, releasing their spirits to the gods. A grim business it would seem to us today.
The ‘Wicker Man’ is clearly a close cousin of old John Barleycorn and certainly belongs to the same pagan lineage.
This image is one that inspired the 70’s cult classic movie entitled ‘The Wicker Man’ (there was a remake recently but it missed the point of the original movie and entirely failed to reproduce the macabre and mystic atmosphere). This story recounts the ill-starred fate of a devout christian policeman, lured under false pretences to a remote Scottish Island in which old time paganism is still practiced. His fate is to be the sacrificial victim that will satisfy the gods and goddesses of the sun and the fields and renew their apple harvest.
Interestingly, the film mentions John Barleycorn by name. While the police officer is searching for a missing girl, a baker shows him a huge loaf in the shape of a man. When he asks who it is, the baker replies, “John Barleycorn, god of the fields”. While on one level it’s a simple tale of mystery and suspense, it was clearly very well researched and is full of genuine allusions to real pagan thought and practice.
Performances by Edward Woodwood as the ill-fated cop and Christopher Lee as the charming and deadly Lord Summerisle carry the whole thing off to superb effect.
Theatrical Trailer for The Wicker Man
Corn Rigs and Barley Rigs
This is the original title track based on the Robert Burns ballad ‘Rigs O’ Barley’ and performed by Paul Giovanni. Not only is it one of the most beautiful folk songs ever penned in recent times but it makes quite explicit the links between John Barleycorn, The Wicker Man and ancient fertility rites.
John Barleycorn And The Brewer’s Trade
It may be worth mentioning the association between the character of John Barleycorn and the Brewing Industry. Needless to say, since farming first began barley has been used in the production not only of bread and cookies but also beer, wine and whisky. In England, he is often seen on pub signs and indeed many pubs and inns are named after him. In the US his name is used as a synonym for strong liquor.
There is some evidence that back in the days of the Sacrificial Kings, the victim was given powerful drink made from the barley in a ritual context, to induce an intoxicated stupor so that he would not struggle or recant at the last minute, being by then oblivious to what was going on.
John Barleycorn And Strong Liquor
As we have seen and understood, the figure of John Barleycorn, whatever his origins in the sacrificial customs of the pagan past, became the mysterious figure sung about in a traditional ballad, caroled throughout rural England at least as early as the 16th century and possibly earlier. The song clearly relates the hidden history of a ritual in which the blood of the sacrificed Sacred King and folk-figure, John Barleycorn, blesses (from the Old English bloedessan, meaning ‘to sprinkle with blood’) the fields of wheat and barley and gives strength and succor to all those who eat his flesh – later symbolized by the barley cakes. He will also return to life from the fallen seed at the following spring.
The famous and highly revered Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote a version of the ballad in 1782, in the form of a poem with the following lines added at the conclusion of the story:
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland.
It was probably by the addition of those words that Sir John Barleycorn – one time pagan god and sacred king – became the personification of alcoholic beverage and drunkenness.
Indeed, in the nineteenth century, the figure was taken up as a personification of all that was wicked and immoral about ‘the demon drink’ and many preachers who supported the growing temperance movement gave powerful sermons that predicted John Barleycorn’s final death and that would be the herald a new age of social order and universal prosperity.
In 1913, Call of The Wild author Jack London, wrote and published his anti alcohol novel entitled John Barleycorn. Needless to say, the prohibitionist movement warmly embraced and promoted the work and the true meaning of Sir John was yet further obscured.
However, the temperance movement might have rejoiced at the graveside of our corn king for some years but ‘little Sir John popped up his head and so amazed them all’ once more when the prohibition laws were repealed in 1933.
A Last Word Afore Ye Go…
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey into myth, folklore and our ancient past. It’s perfectly possible that you may disagree entirely with my interpretation and consider me to have taken unwarranted liberties with the facts. I’d truly welcome any comments and discussion or further insights in the comments. What do you think? Who was John Barleycorn?
If you have any questions, I’ll be more than happy to help if I can, or just connect and share experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas.
Leave a comment and share the post on your social media if you’ve found this interesting. That is absolutely the loveliest way to say thank you to a blogger!
Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.