Or Harvest Home
"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 1/4 of the year after
Midsummer, Harvest Home represents mid-autumn, 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.
Technically, an equinox is an astronomical point and, due to the fact that
the earth wobbles on its axis slightly (rather like a top that's slowing
down), the date may vary by a few days depending on the year. The autumnal
equinox occurs when the sun crosses the equator on it's 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 Balance (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 25th, a holiday the medieval Church Christianized under the
name of "Michaelmas", the feast of the Archangel Michael. (One wonders if,
at some point, the R.C. 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 angel 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 25th
festivities actually begin on the previous sundown (our September 24th).
Although our Pagan ancestors probably celebrated Harvest Home on September
25th, modern Witches and Pagans, with their desk-top 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 which 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 wicker-work 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 re-stated 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 archeological 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 which 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
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 played
"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 "travelling 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
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."
See some Mabon recipes.
| Read an Interpretation
of the Pagan Holidays.
to the Wheel of the Year.
This article copyright Mike Nichols
. Reproduced with permission.