Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles

John Barleycorn

Picture1 (1)John Barleycorn is the titular character of a popular English and Scottish  folk-song,  found in a number of versions  going back, at least, to the sixteenth century. John Barleycorn is given as  the personification of  ‘the nut brown ale’ (or the uisce beatha) and all the process the grain goes through in order to provide the welcome drink.  The song also celebrates the many  occupations and trades-people who work towards the creation of the intoxicating  liquid. Yet the processes that create the  end product are described as a  deliberate murder and torture of this personified character,  He is buried, chopped down, beaten, bound and ground up. In fact the song generally begins with an oath being taken to kill him and his death is celebrated with each stanza.

The true antiquity of the song cannot be proved and yet it seems to be more than an amusing  metaphor for acknowledging the origin of  ale or whiskey.  It is hard not to find connections between John Barleycorn and the ancient culture heroes of the bronze age  who are cur down only to rise up again reborn with the annual new growth.   Many of the ‘so called’ mystery cults of the Middle East with their familiar heroes, Damuzi, Attis, Adonis, may share something  with our more homely, John Barleycorn. That they are connected with  herb (vegetable) and grain crops can be readily demonstrated.  Osiris,  one of the most popular of the culture heroes of ancient Egypt was said to have brought the arts of civilization to the Black Lands, including knowledge of cultivation.  Osiris was  threatened by his brother Set, Lord of the storm and desert places, and aided by his sister and wife, Isis, who  restored him to life after he was cut down by Set, by gathering up the pieces of his scattered body.

Eleusis near Athens

Eleusis is not on the tourist trail but is well worth visiting.
It is an easy local bus ride from Athens

The Greek  Eleusinian  mysteries were practiced from Mycenaean times into the beginning of the Christian era.  The annual procession along the Sacred way from the gates of the Kerameikos cemetery to the cult centre of Eleusis, some fifteen km away, was an important annual festival. This cult of Demeter and Persephone was particularly popular with women and its rites were kept strictly secret. The anonymous author of the 3rd century “Philophoumena” did offer a hint  concerning  the  rites.

“The most marvellous, complete and apoptic mystery, an ear of grain reaped in solemn silence”.

If you have listened to our podcast episode on Airmed, you will know that the Irish stories also contain a John Barleycorn figure. His name is Miach, and like Osiris, he is cut down by a close relative and his parts, in the form of fresh growing herbs,  are gathered together by his sister Airmed.  He is later found restoring fallen warriors at the well of Sláinte, along with his father and sister. His story is to be found in the wonderfully rich 9th century saga of Moytura. We are by no means, implying that there are any direct connections between ancient Egypt and early Irish stories but these two  examples  provide fascinating glimpses into a widespread mythic theme.

But back to our  folk song.)… There are a number of different versions. My personal favourite is the version recorded by the band, ‘Traffic’, but I also offer a version by Robert Burns

Lyrics to John Barleycorn

(as recorded by Traffic)

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

Thrown 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, ’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 ’til Midsummer’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 their 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 their sharp pitchforks 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 onto a pond

And there they made a solemn oath on poor John Barleycorn

They’ve hired men with their crabtree 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 or pots without a little barleycorn

Watch “John Barleycorn” by Traffic on YouTube

John Barleycorn

(Robert Burns Version)

There was three kings into the east,

three kings both great and high,

and they hae sworn a solemn oath

John Barleycorn must die.

They took a plough and plough’d him down,

put clods upon his head,

and they hae sworn a solemn oath

John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerful Spring came kindly on’

and show’rs began to fall.

John Barleycorn got up again,

and sore surprised them all.

The sultry suns of Summer came,

and he grew thick and strong;

his head well arm’d wi’ pointed spears,

that no one should him wrong.

The sober Autumn enter’d mild,

when he grew wan and pale;

his bendin’ joints and drooping head

show’d he began to fail.

His colour sicken’d more and more,

and he faded into age;

and then his enemies began

to show their deadly rage.

They took a weapon, long and sharp,

and cut him by the knee;

they ty’d him fast upon a cart,

like a rogue for forgerie.

They laid him down upon his back,

and cudgell’d him full sore.

they hung him up before the storm,

and turn’d him o’er and o’er.

They filled up a darksome pit

with water to the brim,

they heav’d in John Barleycorn.

There, let him sink or swim!

They laid him upon the floor,

to work him farther woe;

and still, as signs of life appear’d,

they toss’d him to and fro.

They wasted o’er a scorching flame

the marrow of his bones;

but a miller us’d him worst of all,

for he crush’d him between two stones.

And they hae taen his very hero blood

and drank it round and round;

and still the more and more they drank,

their joy did more abound.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,

of noble enterprise;

for if you do but taste his blood,

’twill make your courage rise.

‘Twill make a man forget his woe;

’twill heighten all his joy;

’twill make the widow’s heart to sing,

tho the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,

each man a glass in hand;

and may his great posterity

ne’er fail in old Scotland!


The Story of Airmed from Cath Maige Tuired

The Eglone Stone, Moytura

The Eglone Stone, Moytura

from Cath Maige TuiredThe Battle of Moytura

edited by Elizabeth Gray

translation and notes by Isolde Carmody

[Terms in bold have notes and discussions below]


133] Boí dano Núadae oga uothras, & dobreth láim n-argait foair lioa Díen Cécht go lúth cecha lámha indte.

Meanwhile, Núada was debilitated.  A silver hand / arm was set on him by Dían Cécht, with the power of every [other] hand / arm in it.

Nír’uo maith dano liaa macsium sen .i. le Míach.

However, his own son did not like that i.e. Míach.

Atréracht-sim don láim & atbert, ault fri halt di & féith fri féth; & ícuis fri téorai nómaidhe.

He made for the hand and he said;  “Joint against joint of it and fibre against fibre.” He had healed it within three “niners”.

In cétna nómaid immus-curid comair a táeib, & rotonigestar.

The first “niner” he turns it around against himself and it is cleansed.

An dómaid tánisde immas-cuirid aro brundib.

The next “niner” he turns it around on his breast.

An tres nómaid dobidced gelsgothai di bocsibnibh dubhoib ó rodubtis a ten.

The third “niner” he would remove the bright flowers from black reeds that had been blackened from fire.


140] Ba holc lia Díen Cécht an freapaid-sin.

34. Dían Cécht did not like that cure.

Duleicc claidimh a mullach a meic go rotend a tuidn fri féoil a cinn.

He threw a sword at the crown of his son’s head so that the flesh was cut from its position on his head.

Ícais an gillai tre inndeld a eladon.

The young man healed it through the device[s] of his art.

Atcomaic aithurrach go roteind a féoil co rrodic cnáim.

He repeated the strike so that his flesh was split as far as the bone.

Ícais an gilde den indel cétnae.

The young man healed it by the same device.

Bissis an tres bém co ránic srebonn a inchinde.

He struck the third blow until it reached the membrane of his brain.

Ícais dano an gille don indell cétnae.

The young man again healed this by the same device.

Bisius dano an cethramad mbém co nderba a n-inchind conid apud Míoach & atbert Díen Cécht nach-n-ícfad lieig badesin ont slaithie-sin.

Then he struck the fourth blow and obstructed the brain, so that Miach died.  Dían Cécht said that no physician could cure himself from that death-blow.


147] Íar sin roadhnocht lia Díen Cécht Míoach & ásaid cóic lube sescut ar trí cétuib tresin athnocul fo líon a altai & féthe.

35. After that, Miach was buried by Dían Cécht, and three hundred and sixty-five herbs grew through the grave, as many as his joints and fibres.

Is íar sen scarais Airmedh a prat & decechlaid na lube-sin íarna téchtai.

It is then that Airmed spread her cloak and dug up those herbs fittingly.

Tosárluid Díen Cécht & conmesc-side na lube cona fesai a frepthai córi manis-tecaisceth an Spirut íar tain.

Dían Cécht came back to her and mixed the herbs, so that no one knows their correct cures unless the Holy Spirit taught them after that.

Ocus atbert Dén Cécht,  ‘Mane pé Míoach, méraidh Airmeth.’

And Dían Cécht said, “Though Miach is not [alive], Airmed will persist.”





This appears as a noun referring to some unit or technique of measurement.  The type of measurement seems to refer specifically to grain.  Glossators take the “-med” part of the word to mean measure, and this stands up to linguistic analysis.  However, I feel it also relates to the verb “ad-rími”; counts, records, ennumerates, computes.  While the verbal noun of this verb is “áram”, counting, it does have a verb of necessity form “áirmide”, countable, which seems tantalisingly close to “airmed”.  There may not be a direct etymological connection between “airmed” and “ad-rími”, but there is surely a poetic one.

“Airmed” has a specific relationship to measures of grain.  In O’Davoran’s Glossary, he explores the connection thus:

“…inna met airmeth .i. medh tomuis arba no bracha .i. criathur”

…an “airmed” in weight i.e. the amount of weight of corn or malt i.e. a sieve

Even more intriguingly, “airmed” is often found in the same contexts as “míach” (see below for an exploration of “míach”):

che(i)thir méich mracha ┐ ḟidlan[n] airmeide di tharu

four “míach”s of malt and a wooden platter containing the full of an “airmed” of kiln-dried wheat

[from Críth Gablach, a law-text concerning commerce and status]

O’Davoran’s connection between “airmed” and “críathar”, sieve, is suggestive of an “airmed” being some standardised container or vessel used in storing or measuring dried grains.  This is in contrast to “míach”, which seems a more abstract amount, and many examples of its usage are in combination with words such as “lestar”, cup, and “bolg”, bag.  Further, the specific use of “críathar”, sieve - a tool used to winnow or separate dried grains, points to the connection with “ad-rími”, counting, recording.

This fits with the role of Airmed in our story.  She separates out and records the growth from Míach’s grave into her mantle, acting as a “cráthar” for winnowing and recording the crops of Míach.


Dían Cécht:

The most straight-forward literal rendering of this name I can offer is The Eager Plough.  It may seem strange that the lauded physician of the Túatha Dé Danann should be named for an agricultural implement.

To be more precise, “cécht” is part of a plough, probably the plough-beam; the central “stem” to which the plough-share, coulter and handles are attached.  But it seems likely that, as in much poetic language, the part can stand for the whole.  Dían Cécht is not the only member of the Túatha Dé to have “cécht” as part of his name: one of the sons of the Dagda is called “Mac Cécht”, son of the plough [beam].

As for “dían”, it is a popular and wide-ranging adjective.  It can mean swift, rapid, sudden, eager, impetuous, forceful, vehement, swift-passing, fleeting, active, strong… and is even found in the names of some poetic metres.  Although this story may point to the senses impetuous and forceful, we have chosen eager as a less negative and more general description befitting a plough at work.

Dían Cécht is not only the head of this mythical family of physicians; he stands as the exemplar or founder of the entire profession of medicine.  There are four related law-texts, of which one is Bretha Déin Cécht, “The Judgements of Dían Cécht”, – the other three similarly citing Goibniu the smith, Luchta the carpenter and Creidne Cérd the brazier – which set out laws and regulations relating to their respective professions.  Why, then, is the founder of medicine called a “plough-beam”, however “eager” it might be?

Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the basis of “medicine”; that is, health.  It is worth noting that, in Old Irish language and texts, there is no distinction between a plant, a vegetable, and what we might term a medicinal herb.  There was even an Old Irish maxim that all one needed to stay healthy was celery and leeks in one’s garden. [Cf. Early Irish Farming by Fergus Kelly].  So good food-crops and good health were intrinsically entwined in the mindset of Early Irish Society.  It is not, then, so surprising that the mythological character who is most adept at healing human wounds is also most adept at preparing and maintaining the health of the soil.



In most translations of “ault fri halt di & féith fri féth”, “féith” is translated as sinew.  I chose to translate it as fibre, since it is unclear to me whether there was a specific anatomical sense of the word (e.g. sinew, tenon, muscle etc.), or if it was a more generalised meaning.



As noted when discussing “Airmed” above, “míach” has a specific relevance to grains and their harvesting and measuring.  It is often translated bushel, in an attempt to render the sense of an agreed amount or unit of value.  Indeed, several law texts indicate that a “míach” of malt (mrach) was worth one “screpall”, scruple.  There were 24 “screpuil” in one “ungae”, ounce [of silver], and some uses of “míach” use it in terms of value: e.g. “ag lōige mēich”, a cow of the value of a ‘miach’.

As we noted above, “míach” also has a special relevance to measures of grain, but even more to malt; the source of beer and whiskey.  There is even reference to a “fleith in méich”, Feast of the “Míach”, in Munster – an Irish feast would not be a feast without whiskey or beer!

Since “míach” can be used as a unit of measurement or value, it seems more abstract than “airmed”.  One comes across phrases such as “lán armide méich”, which we might interpret as the fill of a bushel-sack or something similar.  The “míach” seems to be the amount, and the “airmed” the vessel with the capacity.



This term arose in the tale “Noinden Ulad”, The Debility of the Ulstermen, in relation to the length of time for which the curse of Macha would last.  In that tale, it was “co nnómad n-ó”, until nine generations.  In the current story, “nómaide” still relates to a period of time, but we have no means of exactly determining what that time was.  It could have been nine days, nine hours, or some other formulation relating to nine: since we cannot be certain, I have left it as “niner”.



We  learned much more of Núada in Series 2, when we  examined  Cath Maige TuiredThe Battle of Moytura, in greater depth.  For now, I will tantalise you by saying that the name of the king of the Túatha Dé Danann, who lost his hand in the battle with the Fir Bolg when he first came to Ireland, seems to relate to an Indo-European root meaning acquisition.  Subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss out on the discussion!

Airmed’s Story

airmid picture

mixed media on glass by Chris Thompson

The green grey morning is soft with mist.

Airmed sits on the soft earth of the mound, her yellow cloak spread empty before her covering the damp earth.

All around her lie green herbs, no longer fresh and growing for they were harvested in hope and are now scattered in sadness.

Airmed gathers the measure of her cloak around her and her thoughts are not soft.

She gathers her thoughts to her, garners her memories.

There was her father, Dían Cécht, physician to the Dé Dannan, greatest of healers who, when Nuada the king had lost his arm in battle, had not despaired.

“For though I cannot restore your arm”, he had told the blemished chieftain, “yet will I make you the greater.” And with his healing magic he had constructed a hand of silver so cunning that each joint moved to grip and grasp as easily as a hand of flesh.

Yes; the hand of silver had brought renown to Nuada Lám Argait, and it had kept him the kingship, for no blemished man could be king, but it had not healed the lost limb.

No; that had been left to Míach, her brother.  Together, he and Airmed had learned the lore of healing, both becoming wise, each the measure of the other, until Míach had gone the further. With the magic of his learning he had recovered the lost hand of Nuada. For three times three days he had kept it by him, preparing it with spells and incantations, and then, when it was ready, he joined it, bone to bone, sinew to sinew, to Nuada’s arm.  There it re-grew and Nuada was whole and healed.

If Nuada was glad of this healing miracle then Dían Cécht was not. A dark mood had descended on her father. Taking up his shining blade he brought it down upon his son’s head, cleaving the skin of his skull.

Míach healed himself.

Twice more, Dían Cécht brought the blade down on his son’s head, each time cutting into the skull more deeply.

Twice more, Míach healed himself.

Again the blade fell, and this time Míach’s brain was split in two and he died.

Airmed sadly buried her brother under a mound of soft earth and watched there as the bare soil softened and grew green with new grass; new grass and green herbs.

And Airmed had guarded these herbs, harvesting them in their time, sorting and recording them. For there were 365 herbs that grew from her brother’s grave, one for each of his joints and sinews, one for each day of the year ,one for each illness that ever had been or ever would be. She gathered and garnered them all.

But her father’s dark mood had not yet fled.  He found her where she was. In his jealousy and anger he scattered the plants, destroying their order.

And Airmed sits still on her brother’s grave in the grey green morning. She sits with the basket of her empty cloak before her until the time of his seed healing shall come again.



Revisiting Mythical Women. 4: Revisiting Airmed.

Painting of Airmed by Chris Thompson

ceramic on glass by Chris Thompson

Airmed is the daughter of the great Dé Danann physician, Dían Cécht, part of a family of healers.  Together, they create the healing well of Sláine, which restores injured warriors at the Second Battle of Moytura.  But do the meanings of their names tell a different story?

In our  revisit to what may seem at first reading, a side story in the great battle saga, join the  the Story archaeologists as they re-evaluate the role of Airmed and her family, finding their actions  central to the main theme of the epic Moytura  story.

In this episode, and our update, we referenced many other episodes, including our entire second series on Moytura.. However, for now, we will include a couple of the most  relevant links.

For the story of Dían Cécht, Miach and Airmed in the context of Moytura,  go to: The Battle of Moytura Episode 5: The Four Craftsmen.

For examples of laws on sick-lying  ( crólige)  in context go to : Dindshenchas 09: Tocmarc Étaíne 1 – A Fly On The Wall and Dindshenchas 10: Tocmarc Étaíne 2 – The Re-Born Identity

Many Shades of Darkness

Irish colour words and concepts

midsummer4In primary school,  I was very confused to learn two different Irish words for “green”: glas and uaithne.  I knew there was a difference, but I wasn’t clear what that difference was.  As my schooling continued, more confusion arose: black people were referred to as daoine gorma, “blue people” (according to the dictionary) and animals such as deer and cows were described as glas, which seemed to mean “green”.

I’m not sure now how I came to develop the theory of Irish colour-words being more concrete than abstract.  It may have come from learning, as I studied Old Irish, that flann was said to be the colour of fresh blood, and ruad the colour of dried blood.  I began to wonder whether glas might be the colour of the sea, which can range from gun-metal grey to deep azure to mossy green.

Read more »

Texts of Ethliu

From Tocmarc Étaine, “The Wooing of Étain”

Edited O. Bergin & R. I. Best,

Translated with endnotes by Isolde Carmody.  Terms with related notes are in bold.

View Bergin & Best’s edition on CELT

While this text is included here in relation to “Tales of Eithliu”, we dealt with the whole of Tocmarc Étaíne in 3 episodes in Series 3, “Dindshenchas and the Art of Mythic Cartography“.

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The Son of the King of Erin and the Queen of the Moving Wheel

milky-wayThis is the second of two supplemental  episodes supporting  our recent podcast, Tales of Ethliu (revisited). “The Son of the King of Erin and the Queen of the Moving Wheel” is a folktale collected in the west of Ireland by  Jeremiah Curtin in the late 19th century. The tale first appeared in “Irish Folktales”.  This tale has a cast of powerful women. There is a wise warrior ‘Mammy’ and a bride with world class, martial arts at her finger-tips. There is even a  Queen, with a lot to lose, who is driven to become a ‘wicked stepmother; and we must not leave out  the supporting cast of magical beings including a family of five-headed giants and their Super-mammy.

The story also throws a new light on the image of Arianrhod and her Silver Wheel.

find a copy of “Irish Folktales“, collected and retold by Jeremiah Curtin.

Read the story of Arianrhod.

Midwinter Special 2015 – Fair’s Fair

Illustration of Iron Age warrior in modern craft fair

This time of year is a frenzy of shopping, family gatherings and exchange of gifts. But is this simply a modern phenomenon?

For this year’s MidWinter Special, the Story Archaeologists dig as deep as their virtual spades will go, comparing the deepest layers of human settlement through medieval mayhem to the contemporary craft fair, searching for the common threads.

Links from the Episode:

Here is The Óenach Project, research conducted by Patrick Gleeson under the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork.

Here is a talk given by Ian Hodder on entanglement at Göbekli and Çatalhöyük, “Origins of Settled Life“.

And finally, as promised in the episode, here’s a link to a short animation, “Little Red Riding Hood: The Alternate Version” by An Snag Breac / Maker Magpie:


Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page, or e-mail us for other ways to support our work.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

Cows as Currency

kerry cow linkAs with many ancient societies, the early Irish did not use coinage.  They still had a complex system of value, which may welll have changed over time or from area to area.


One unit of value was cattle,which were used as currency up to around 1400 CE, long after the introduction of coinage.  This could be “exchanged” to a value in sét, “jewels”, ungae, “ounce” (usually of silver), or cumal, “female slave”.  The mug, “male slave”, was never used as a unit of value.  The cumal seems to have been the basic unit and may have been worth 2 sét,, but if one was being paid reparation for a crime, it would be paid in sét if you were a noble or a poet below the rank of king, and in cattle if you were a farmer.

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Elin Gow, the Swordsmith and the Cow, the Glas Gaianach

Elin Gow

Elin Gowand the cow Glas Gainach

This is the first of two supplemental  episodes supporting  our recent podcast, Tales of Ethliu (revisited). “Elin Gow, the Swordsmith and the Cow, the Glas Gaianach” is a folktale collected in the southwest of Ireland by  Jeremiah Curtin in the late 19th century. The tale first appeared in “Hero Tales of Ireland”. It is a great story that overlaps the better known, tale of  Balor and the stealing of a marvelous cow but this version answers the surprising question of how  the cow got to be kept by a sword-smith  in the first place and fills in some details of Cian’s amazing adventures.


Read “Hero Tales of Ireland online.

Folklore from the Dingle Peninsular. Local  folklorist , Doncha Ó Conchúir talks about ‘The Gate of the Cow”, two pre-historic stone pillars near Ballyferriter, Co. Kerry. He tells a recent version of the last milking of the marvelous cow.  The stone pillars are very interesting. Maybe it is these pillars that gave rise to the story of the transformation of cian in the story we tell of Elin Gow.