Lammas Day - the first day of August, once observed as the first harvest festival, during which bread baked from the first crop of wheat was blessed. Lammas means "Mass of the Bread", although in pre-Christian times it was called Lughnasadh (Day of Lugh) a traditional celebration of the Celtic Sun God Lugh. As such, the celebration often traditionally included many games and feats of strength, among them the famous Highland Games, which included sports such as log throwing and sword dancing.
The Wicker Man was traditionally related to the Lammas ceremonies - he represented the God who dies and is ever reborn, the eternal "Green Man" in the next year, next growing season, next cycle, next turning, the lover of the Goddess, the Earth Mother. This ancient and ubiquitous symbol of the sacrificed and resurrected God, related to both the Sun and the Grain is found "resurrected" in numerous myths and religions, among them Osiris, the Green Man, Dummuzi the shepherd, even in Christianity where it is found in the death and ressurection of the Christ - born at the Winter Solstice (often called the "return of the light"), sacrificed, and then reborn, appropriately at the time of the Spring Equinox.
Fields of listening, whispering corn
Ripen in the heavy air
Lugh the Golden dancing forth,
Leaves and sheaves in his wild hair.
In perfect circles bow the stalks,
Mark the path where great Lugh walks,
Mark days and seasons, round they go,
As above, so below.
All that dies shall be reborn
All that dies shall be reborn
Rev. Raven Spirit 2002
John Barleycorn Must Die is a traditional English song very much related to early traditions of Lammas and Lughnasadh - records of its origins go back as far as the 1300s, and it is probably much older than that. Over time, many variations have arisen, and the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote his own version of the story. In the 70's, John Renbourne, Traffic, and Steeleye Span popularized the song, along with many folk artists during the Folk Revival of the 60's and 70's.
John Barleycorn is a very prime myth indeed - the Great King who is sacrificed, dies and is reborn in the agricultural cycle. The motif is found as the Sumarian Dumuzi, the Shepherd husband of the Goddess Inanna who goes into the underworld for part of the year to be with the Queen of the Dead, and returns to Inanna in the Spring. The same idea of the dying and reborn King is found with the Egyptian Osiris, who is reborn in the Sun God Horus.
John Barleycorn is the personification of the grain, and the life of the grain from planting to harvest, its transformation into bread and beer, the staples of agricultural life. After Barleycorn’s "first death" he is buried, and laid within the ground. In midsummer he grows a “long golden beard” and “becomes a man”. The song goes on to describe threshing and harvesting. Barleycorn is bailed and taken to the barn. And then the grain is parceled out. Some is taken to the miller to make flour for bread. And some is saved and brewed in a vat to make ale. And some is planted, so that the whole cycle can begin again. Some of these rituals survive to this day in modified form, most famously the sacrifice of the wicker man "the burning man". Here is a rendition of the song "John Barley Corn Must Die" by Green Crown, a wonderful group I remember from my days at the Renaissance Faire:
Photo with thanks to Avalon Revisited
John Barleycorn is, in particular, also the God of Ecstasy - because he provides celebration and ecstasy as the barley becomes the source of beer and the beloved malt whiskey of the Highlands. The malting and fermentation is also a part of his "life cycle" and divinity. Perhaps one of the most famous "ecstatic" manifestations of the Wicker Man, his rituals of sacrifice, rebirth, and celebration is Burning Man, the festival that happens in Nevada every fall. Originally associated with the burning of the Wicker Man at the Lammas Harvest Festival by neo-Pagans in the Bay Area, it's grown to become a fantastic festival and art event. I'd be willing to bet however that the majority of people who attend Burning Man don't know about its origins in a traditional myth.
Here's an excellent quote I take from a Druid's Blog called "The Dance of Life"
about the Wicker Man:
It's interesting that in Robert Burn's poem, there are "three kings", similar to the kings from the east in the Nativity story. Early Christians who came to the British Isles (and elsewhere) often absorbed native pagan mythologies and traditional rituals into Christian theology, and the evolution of the Story of Christ is full of such imagery in order to help the natives accept Christianity. Certainly John Barleycorn shares with the Christ Story the ancient, ubiquitous theme of the death and rebirth of the sacrificed agricultural King.
I am a great admirer of the wisdom traditions of Christianity, but I also believe it is necessary to separate the spiritual teachings of Christianity from the mingling (and literalization) of earlier mythologies throughout in the very long development of the Church. For example, I believe the metaphor used to describe Jesus as the "Lamb of God" directly relates to Biblical Hebrew practices prevalent in his lifetime of the sacrifice of lambs and goats to Yahwah (indeed, the sacrifice of animals was common
thoughout the Roman and Jewish world.) The later development of the doctrine that Christ "died for our sins" may have some of its origins in the important, and quite ancient, Semitic Scapegoat Rituals, wherein the "sins and tribulations" of the tribe were ritually placed on the back of a goat, which was then driven away from the village to literally "carry away the sins" into the desert.
Observing recently a Catholic "Communion" ritual ("This is my Body, This is my Blood") I was impressed by the many layers of mythologies and archaic cultures inherant in that ceremony, still important to so many people today. And one of those threads may very well originate in the prime agricultural myth of the dying and reborn God, a long tradition from which John Barleycorn arises re-born every spring to be "sacrificed" in the fall.
Ubiquitous indeed! This same idea is found in variations throughout the Americas, this time with the story of the Corn Mother (among the Cherokee, Selu) who is killed, dismembered, and reborn in the spring - and when her sacrifice is not honored, misfortune befalls the tribe.
by Robert BurnsThere was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should 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 surpris'd them all.
The sultry suns of Summer came,
And he grew thick and strong,
His head weel arm'd wi' pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.
The sober Autumn enter'd mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show'd he began to fail.
His coulour sicken'd more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.
They've taen a weapon, long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then 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 heaved in John Barleycorn,
There let him sink or swim.
They laid him out 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 heart's 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!