Stirring the Witchblood: John Barleycorn Must Die, A Lammas Ritual

Hail to the Corn King and the Harvest Queen!

In the Northern Hemisphere, early August has been the time to harvest the grain. The celebration is called Lammas in contemporary Witchcraft, and honors the spirit of the grain as it is made into bread and beer for the sustenance of the people. This celebration is as old a agriculture.

We celebrate Lammas on August first, but it was really celebrated on the Full Moon  after the turn of the month. I imagine that the light of the moon was needed to complete the harvest far into the night, and that the lunar tides were observed in planting and harvesting. The Full Moon is like the end of Summer, after fullness is waning and emptying in preparation for the coming darkness.

This year we have an eclipse of the Moon in Aquarius. Aquarius is represented by the Water Bearer, the Grail Bearer, the giver of life.  A Lunar Eclipse means the shadow of the Earth passes over the Moon. It is a time whens spirits are said to descend. For me it is an image of acceptance of sacrifice to the matrix of life.

We can celebrate by being conscious as we eat our bread today. I like to feed the birds. Perhaps you can donate bread to the food bank in you area. Being mindful that our food is a gift from Mother Earth on a global level will help to shift human consciousness about our relationship with the planet from exploitation to recognition that She provides our very lives to us.

I decided to bring back this old post of mine because this song celebrates Lammas as no other.
This is from the Golden Bough by James George Frazer:
We have seen now that corn-spirit is represented sometimes in human, sometimes in animal form, and that in both cases he is killed in the person of his representative and eaten sacramentally….the harvest suppers of our European peasants have furnished unmistakable examples of the sacramental eating of animals as representatives of the corn-spirit. but furthur…the new corn is itself eaten sacramentally, that is as the body of the corn-spirit…
In Wermland, Sweden, the farmer’s wife uses the grain of the last sheaf to bake a loaf in the shape of a little girl; this loaf is divided among the whole household and eaten by them. Here the loaf represents the corn-spirt conceived as a Maiden. just as in Scotland  the corn-spirit is similarly conceived  represented by the last sheaf made up in the form of a woman and bearing the name of Maiden…
In La Palisse in France, a man made of dough is hung upon the fir tree which is carried on the last harvest wagon. The tree and the doughman are taken to the mayor’s house and kept there until the vintage is over.
Then the close of the harvest is celebrated by a feast at which the mayor breaks the dough man in pieces and gives the pieces to the people to eat.”

When I was 15 this song came out and changed my life. It caused an explosion in my soul. The Earth was alive! It had been alive for our European ancestors who harvested the fields with compassion for old John Barleycorn, the personification of the grain.
I was never a city person, but grew up in Leicester, Massachusetts, a town with one road bordered by a gas station, an Italian restaurant, the library, and a cemetery from the Revolutionary War. (An interesting aside: when I was back there in Sept 2006, the graves of British soldiers were decorated with Union Jacks in honor of the British soldiers.) I loved the corn fields where, in the summer nights, the ripe stalks stood tall and dense as a forest, rustling, whispering to each other, accompanying  the mating calls of the crickets and frogs. Not far from the corn fields,  apple trees  bloomed cloud pale under the moonlight; the vast blueberry fields were bushy with ripe  fruit, fragrant in the summer heat.  The beauty of the tilled land was alive and full of spirits.
Like all great Faery tales John Barleycorn Must Die, with its subtext of human sacrifice for the sake of the land,  awakened  my Witchblood, and there was no going back to Christian consciousness alone.

The Spirit of the Grain, John Barleycorn Must Die

John Barleycorn

There were three men came out of the west
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.

They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in
Threw clods upon 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 rains from Heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all.

They’ve let him stand till Midsummer’s day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist,
Serving him most barbarously.

They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him through the heart
And the loader, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s bound him to the cart.

They’ve wheeled him around and around a field,
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller, he has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.

And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last

The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker, he can’t mend kettle nor pots
without a little barley corn


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