John Barleycorn

Around me, the golden fields of grain are ripening in the summer light and heat, but they are not ready to harvest yet. It’s an anxious time for the farmers, as drought or storm might still ruin the crops.

The corn god (i.e. grain god) is an important figure in Craft lore, and we follow his story around the year in ritual. The old folksong John Barleycorn tells his story – John Barleycorn, the spirit of the grain, is cut down and buried in the earth, seeming to be dead, but when the spring rains come he is resurrected and grows with the summer sun. With the late summer he begins to wither and weaken, and his head droops. He ages as autumn comes and his enemies cut him down. They tie him up on a cart (the sheaves of grain are gathered, tied and carted away), they beat him up (flail the grain), wash him, toss him about (winnow the grain), roast the marrow from his bones (scorch the grain) and grind him between two stones (mill the grain), then drink his blood (the alcohol brewed from the barley).

Grain was probably the most vital crop for our ancestors, and it remains one of our most important foods. It could be made into bread, the ‘staff of life’ as the Bible calls it. In myth, it was often seen as a god in itself, the son/lover of Mother Earth who shoots in spring, grows to maturity in summer, is harvested in the autumn and is buried in the earth (in the form of seed) and dwells in the underworld during the winter, before the whole cycle starts again.  It stands as a metaphor for the spiritual cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. In the Craft we call this cycle the Eternal Return.


There were three men came out of the West

Their fortunes for to find,

And these three men made a solemn vow,

‘John Barleycorn must die’.

They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in

Through plods of barley’s head,

And these three men made a solemn vow,

‘John Barleycorn is dead’.

They let him lie for a very long time,

‘Til the rains from heaven did fall,

And little Sir John sprung up his head

And so amazed them all.

They’ve let him stand until Mid-Summer’s Day

‘Til 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 way

Serving him most barbarously.

They’ve hired men with the sharpest hooks

Who’ve pricked him to 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

‘Til they came unto a barn,

And there they made a solemn oath

On poor John Barleycorn.

They’ve hired men with the crofting 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 he’s brandy in the glass,

And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl

Proved the strongest man at last.

The huntsman he got off the fox

Oh so loudly to blow his horn,

And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pots

Without a little Barleycorn.



Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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