John Barleycorn Must Die!

By Wendy (Woodwife) on October 3, 2010

John Barleycorn Must Die!
Pagans Celebrate the First Harvest


We know the plight of poor John Barleycorn, who was cut down only to rise again and be cut down once more, from the song that chronicles the harvest of the barley crop from growing grain to the whiskey barrel:

“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 plowed, 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've let him lie for a very long time,
Till the rains from heav'n did fall.
And little Sir John sprung up his head,
And so amazed them all.” 


In the Northern Hemisphere the 1st and 2nd of August mark the calendar dates of the holiday called variously Lughnasadh, Lunasa, Lammas or Hlafmass which is celebrated in the pagan community primarily by those with Celtic or Germanic influences but also by those who simply enjoy marking the passage of the seasons. It is the first of the harvest festivals. For both Celtic and Germanic pagans Lammas/Lunasa celebrates the harvest of grain and the first fruits of the season. 

While calendar dates are convenient markers used by many, some pagans see the holy days not as fixed dates but as seasons or tides that may stretch for several weeks. 

Some mark the beginning of a festival with a natural event, in this case the grain harvest.

Some reckon the date astrologically with the sun at 15 degrees of Leo which usually falls on the 6th or 7th of August and is sometimes referred to as Old Lammas. Some choose to celebrate at the full moon closest to the calendar date.

There are many old traditions associated with the harvest. They included competition between farmers to see who could bring in the first crop, and prizes for the harvesters who cuts down the last sheaf. 

The last sheaf would often be decked with flowers and ribbons and paraded through the village. Sometimes it would be dressed as a maiden called a kern baby. For good luck stalks of wheat or barley were woven into intricate decorations called Corn Dollies that would be saved until the next year when they would be plowed under as the fields were prepared for that year’s sowing.

Corn Dolly Corn Dolly

A big feast for the workers and farm families might follow to give thanks and celebrate the end of the hard work of the summer.

This was also the time for fairs, brewing berry wines, baking loaves of bread and brewing the first beer of the season with the fresh grain.

For Celtic pagans Lunasa also commemorated the funerary games in honor of Tailtiu, a goddess who was the foster mother of the god Lugh, the many gifted. 

Alone Tailtiu cleared the fields of Ireland so crops could be planted and then died from exhaustion. The bereft Lugh assembled a festival of games of skill and strength in her honor that some have likened to the European version of the Olympic games. The old Irish word Lughnasadh means Assembly of Lugh.

While funerary games may sound gloomy, they are a celebration of life and the gift of agriculture.

Modern pagans might celebrate this time of year by baking bread and making foods that contain grains and berries or the last of the summer vegetable garden. They may make jam or start some homebrew. They may make offerings of their bounty to their gods or land spirits.

They may make old world corn dollies or new world corn husk dolls to keep through the winter and to remind them of the 
giving months.

cornhusk dollCorn Husk Doll

They may visit a fair or take a stroll around their neighborhood enjoying the last days of summer and the first signs of autumn. 

They may organize ‘feats of strength and skill’ for children that might include foot races and seeing who can throw the farthest.

This is the time of year for family reunions, story telling, feasting and giving thanks for the bounty of summer.


 Have a happy and bountiful Lammas!

Corn Maiden

Artist depiction of a kern baby and corn dollies


Special thanks to Val, cerridwenn, cobaltblue, catherinemonks, aelwyn and comfrey for sharing their traditions with me.

Related articles:
autumn, bread, fall, grain, holiday, lammas, lughnasadh, lunasa, pagan

About Wendy
Wendy is a digital artist, wife and gardener who lives in the great state of Texas.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Interesting article, Wendy! sheryl Aug 7, 2010 4:27 PM 6
Thanks everyone! Woodwife Aug 2, 2010 12:39 PM 0
To Learn Ridesredmule Aug 2, 2010 11:03 AM 0

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