The Time of John Barleycorn and Reaping the Harvest

Lughnasadh is traditionally the time marking the first harvest, that of grain and corn. The traditional English folksong about the Killing of John Barleycorn is often recited reflecting this time of the year.

There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.

John Barleycorn is a personification of the barley crop and this multi-versed song tells his journey from planting to the harvest and from harvest to being “reborn” a the alcoholic beverages which are made from the crop, beer and whisky.

The Bannatyne Manuscript (1568) contained a Scottish poem with a similar theme, Quhy Sowld Nocht Allane Honorit Be, which is often considered to be the oldest version of the poem. Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns published his own version in 1782, with the 1970s English rock band Traffic naming their fourth album after the ballard as well as recording it.

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 laid him out upon the floor,
To work him further 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. 

However here in southern Australia, the grain harvest has already been completed (this often occurs around Mid Summer) but there is still harvest to gather in – providing the intense Southern sun has not scorched everything.

Now is the time that we reap what we have sown, receiving back what we have put out. Now is the time when our deeds and actions over the solar cycle are presented to us. It is almost as if we find ourselves being weighed upon the Scales of Ma’at (excuse the Egyptian metaphore) – from which nothing can escape for the actual truth (and not the truth we may perceive through rose-tinted glasses) is exposed to us.   Now is the time we need to ask ourselves:

How well have we sown?
How well have we tendered our crops?

Lughnasadh provides a timely reminder that should our harvest not be what we expected, there is time ahead over the coming winter months, for introspection as what to do in order to achieve a more fruitful harvest next time.

What you sow comes back to thee
Flower and grain, fruit and tree.
What you reap be thankful for,
Return a piece and reap some more.  

The complete version of Robert Burn’s “John Barleycorn” can be found here.