by Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols website
Document Copyright © 1983 - 2009 by Mike Nichols. The original document can be viewed
by clicking here. Permission is given to re-publish this document only as long as no information is lost or changed,
credit is given to the author, and it is provided or used without cost to others. Other uses of this document must be
approved in writing by Mike Nichols
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....
Despite the bad publicity generated by Thomas Tryon’s novel, Harvest Home is the pleasantest of holidays.
Admittedly, it does involve the concept of sacrifice, but one that is symbolic only. The sacrifice is that of the spirit of
vegetation, John Barleycorn. Occurring one quarter of the year after Midsummer, Harvest Home represents
midautumn, autumn’s height. It is also the autumnal equinox, one of the quarter days of the year, a Lesser Sabbat
and a Low Holiday in modern Witchcraft. Recently, some Pagan groups have begun calling the holiday by the Welsh
name ‘Mabon’, although there seems little historical justification for doing so.
Technically, an equinox is an astronomical point and, due to the fact that our leap-year cycle causes dates to slip
and then snap back into place, the date may vary by a few days depending on the year. The autumnal equinox
occurs when the sun crosses the equator on its apparent journey southward, and we experience a day and a night
that are of equal duration. Up until Harvest Home, the hours of daylight have been greater than the hours from dusk
to dawn. But from now on, the reverse holds true. Astrologers know this as the date on which the sun enters the
sign of Libra, the Scales (an appropriate symbol of a balanced day and night).
However, since most European peasants were not accomplished at calculating the exact date of the equinox, they
celebrated the event on a fixed calendar date, September 25, a holiday the medieval church Christianized under the
name of “Michaelmas”, the feast of the archangel Michael. (One wonders if, at some point, the Roman Catholic
Church contemplated assigning the four quarter days of the year to the four archangels, just as they assigned the
four cross-quarter days to the four Gospel writers. Further evidence for this may be seen in the fact that there was a
brief flirtation with calling the vernal equinox “Gabrielmas”, ostensibly to commemorate the archangel Gabriel’s
announcement to Mary on Lady Day.)
Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days from sundown to sundown, so the September 25
festivities actually begin on the previous sundown (our September 24). Although our Pagan ancestors probably
celebrated Harvest Home on September 25, modern Witches and Pagans, with their desktop computers for making
finer calculations, seem to prefer the actual equinox point, beginning the celebration on its eve.
Mythically, this is the day of the year when the God of Light is defeated by his twin and alter ego, the God of
Darkness. It is the time of the year when night conquers day. And as I have recently shown in my seasonal
reconstruction of the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, the autumnal equinox is the only day of the whole year when Llew
(light) is vulnerable and it is possible to defeat him. Llew now stands on the Balance (Libra/ autumnal equinox), with
one foot on the Cauldron (Cancer/summer solstice) and his other foot on the Goat (Capricorn/winter solstice). Thus
he is betrayed by Blodeuwedd, the Virgin (Virgo) and transformed into an Eagle (Scorpio).
Two things are now likely to occur mythically, in rapid succession. Having defeated Llew, Goronwy (darkness) now
takes over Llew’s functions, both as lover to Blodeuwedd, the Goddess, and as king of our own world. Although
Goronwy, the Horned King, now sits on Llew’s throne and begins his rule immediately, his formal coronation will not
be for another six weeks, occurring at Samhain (Halloween) or the beginning of winter, when he becomes the
Winter Lord, the Dark King, Lord of Misrule. Goronwy’s other function has more immediate results, however. He
mates with the Virgin Goddess, and Blodeuwedd conceives, and will give birth—nine months later (at the
summer solstice)—to Goronwy’s son, who is really another incarnation of himself, the Dark Child.
Llew’s sacrificial death at Harvest Home also identifies him with John Barleycorn, spirit of the fields. Thus, Llew
represents not only the sun’s power, but also the sun’s life trapped and crystallized in the corn. Often this corn spirit
was believed to reside most especially in the last sheaf or shock harvested, which was dressed in fine clothes, or
woven into a wicker-like man-shaped form. This effigy was then cut and carried from the field, and usually burned,
amidst much rejoicing. So one may see Blodeuwedd and Goronwy in a new guise, not as conspirators who murder
their king, but as kindly farmers who harvest the crop that they had planted and so lovingly cared for. And yet,
anyone who knows the old ballad of John Barleycorn knows that we have not heard the last of him.
They 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....
Incidentally, this annual mock sacrifice of a large wickerwork figure (representing the vegetation spirit) may have
been the origin of the misconception that Druids made human sacrifices. This charge was first made by Julius
Caesar (who may not have had the most unbiased of motives), and has been restated many times since. However,
as has often been pointed out, the only historians besides Caesar who make this accusation are those who have
read Caesar. And, in fact, upon reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars closely, one discovers that Caesar never claims to
have actually witnessed such a sacrifice. Nor does he claim to have talked to anyone else who did. In fact, there is
not one single eyewitness account of a human sacrifice performed by Druids in all of history!
Nor is there any archaeological evidence to support the charge. If, for example, human sacrifices had been
performed at the same ritual sites year after year, there would be physical traces. Yet there is not a scrap. Nor is
there any native tradition or history that lends support. In fact, insular tradition seems to point in the opposite
direction. The Druid’s reverence for life was so strict that they refused to lift a sword to defend themselves when
massacred by Roman soldiers on the Isle of Mona. Irish brehon laws forbade a Druid to touch a weapon, and any
soul rash enough to unsheathe a sword in the presence of a Druid would be executed for such an outrage!
Jesse Weston, in her brilliant study of the Four Hallows of British myth, From Ritual to Romance, points out that
British folk tradition is, however, full of mock sacrifices. In the case of the wicker man, such figures were referred to
in very personified terms, dressed in clothes, addressed by name, etc. In such a religious ritual drama, everybody
They've hired men with scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
They've rolled him and tied him by the waist
Serving him most barbarously....
In the medieval miracle-play tradition of the “Rise Up, Jock” variety (performed by troupes of mummers at all the
village fairs), a young harlequin-like king always underwent a mock sacrificial death. But invariably, the traditional
cast of characters included a mysterious “Doctor” who had learned many secrets while “traveling in foreign lands”.
The Doctor reaches into his bag of tricks, plies some magical cure, and presto! the young king rises up hale and
whole again, to the cheers of the crowd. As Weston so sensibly points out, if the young king were actually killed, he
couldn’t very well rise up again, which is the whole point of the ritual drama! It is an enactment of the death and
resurrection of the vegetation spirit. And what better time to perform it than at the end of the harvest season!
In the rhythm of the year, Harvest Home marks a time of rest after hard work. The crops are gathered in, and winter
is still a month and a half away! Although the nights are getting cooler, the days are still warm, and there is
something magical in the sunlight, for it seems silvery and indirect. As we pursue our gentle hobbies of making corn
dollies (those tiny vegetation spirits) and wheat weaving, our attention is suddenly arrested by the sound of baying
from the skies (the “Hounds of Annwn” passing?), as lines of geese cut silhouettes across a harvest moon. And we
move closer to the hearth, the longer evening hours giving us time to catch up on our reading, munching on
popcorn balls and caramel apples and sipping home-brewed mead or ale. What a wonderful time Harvest Home is!
And how lucky we are to live in a part of the country where the season’s changes are so dramatic and majestic!
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl--
And he's brandy in the glass,
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last.
[Traditional song quotations from recording by Traffic.]
Traffic - John Barleycorn. Recorded live 1972 in Santa Monica, CA
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'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 waist 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 unto a barn
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
F.S. Music Ltd (PRS)
All rights on behalf of F.S. Music Ltd. admin by
Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp (BMI)