The Legend of John Barleycorn
In English folklore, John Barleycorn is a character who represents the crop of barley harvested each autumn. Equally as important, he symbolizes the wonderful drinks which can be made from barley — beer and whiskey — and their effects. In the traditional folksong, John Barleycorn, the character of John Barleycorn endures all kinds of indignities, most of which correspond to the cyclic nature of planting, growing, harvesting, and then death.
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, but the most well-known one is the Robert Burns version, in which John Barleycorn is portrayed as an almost Christ-like figure, suffering greatly before finally dying so that others may live.
Believe it or not, there’s even a John Barleycorn Society at Dartmouth, which says, “A version of the song is included in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568, and English broadside versions from the 17th century are common. Robert Burns published his own version in 1782, and modern versions abound.”
The lyrics to the Robert Burns version of the song are as follows:
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!
In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer cites John Barleycorn as proof that there was once a Pagan cult in England that worshipped a god of vegetation, who was sacrificed in order to bring fertility to the fields. This ties into the related story of the Wicker Man, who is burned in effigy. Ultimately, the character of John Barleycorn is a metaphor for the spirit of grain, grown healthy and hale during the summer, chopped down and slaughtered in his prime, and then processed into beer and whiskey so he can live once more.
In early Anglo Saxon Paganism, there was a similar figure called Beowa, or Bēow, and like John Barleycorn, he is associated with the threshing of the grain, and agriculture in general. The word beowa is the Old English word for – you guessed it! – barley. Some scholars have suggested that Beowa is the inspiration for the titular character in the epic poem Beowulf, and other theorize that Beowa is directly linked to John Barleycorn.
In Looking for the Lost Gods of England, Kathleen Herbert suggests that they are in fact the same figure known by different names hundreds of years apart.
Patti Wigington, Author
Published on ThoughtCo