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… listen

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. Recently,
some Pagan groups have begun calling the holiday by the Welsh name
‘Mabon’, although there seems little historical justification for doing

an equinox is an astronomical point and, due tothe 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…listen

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 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 played along.


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…listen

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 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.listen

[Song quotations from recording by Traffic]

Document Copyright 1986, 1998 by Mike Nichols

This and all related documents can be re-published only as long as no
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Revised: Friday, July 17, 1998 c.e.
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