Story Archaeology

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John Barleycorn

In the folklore of the British Isles, John Barleycorn represents the barley crop harvested each autumn. John Barleycorn endures much, corresponding to the cyclic nature of planting, growing, harvesting, and death.

Our English (and Scottish) John Barleycorn has become a celebration of the barley crop and its intoxicating products – beer and whisky – but he is closely connected to a very ancient figure, the Bronze-age “sacrificed and risen hero”. This figure is frequently, although not conclusively, found in the mystery cults of the Middle East. Damuzi, Attis, Adonis, are all connected to the more homely John Barleycorn.

The anonymous author of the 3rd century “Philophoumena” gives a little away about the ancient rites of the Greek “Eleusian Mysteries”.

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

… But back to our English (and Scottish folk song.)…

Although written versions of the song date back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, there is evidence that it was sung for years before that. 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 which makes barleycorn into a kind of sacrificed saviour.

Watch “John Barleycorn” by Traffic on YouTube

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

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!

article by Chris Thompson

May 2012

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