The ritual of harvest
The greatest body of agricultural folklore is connected to the harvesting of grain, whether it be wheat, barley, oats or rye. In Asia, the tears of the God Indra created the fertile Punjab basin, with his spirit residing in the crops that grew from the soil. Some of the other, more well-known corn spirits or gods were Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest (from which we get our word cereal); Demeter (Earth Mother), the Greek goddess of the harvest, and Isis, the Egyptian Goddess of Fertility. Others include the Cherokee goddess Selu; Yellow Woman and Chicomecoatl, the goddess of maize who was worshiped by the Aztecs of Mexico. The Maya believed that humans had been fashioned out of corn, and based their calendar on the plantingof the cornfield.
Focusing upon European traditions of harvest, John Barleycorn (the spirit of the corn) has his roots in themythical Anglo Saxon figure of Beowa(meaning barley). As the song lyrics describe,living within the ripening fields of barleyhis spirit retreats before the oncoming reapers at harvest time, taking refuge in the last of the standing crop. Throughout
northern Europe saving this last sheaf of harvest was a common tradition, keeping the spirit safe within the remaining stalks. Fashioned into a Harvest Trophy or CornDolly, the crafted figurine functioned asa vessel to house the Spirit, letting it rest throughout the cold winter months.
Examples of early Corn Dollies were collected in abundance by the German folklorist Wilhelm Mannhardt. Later James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A study in comparative religion(1890) detailed examples of agricultural
rituals that occurred around the last sheaf of the harvest.
“In the neighbourhood of Danzig the person who cuts the last ears of corn makes them into a doll, which is called the Corn-mother or the Old Woman and is brought home on the last wagon. In some parts of Holstein the last sheaf is dressed in women’s clothes and called the Corn- mother… In the district of Bruck in Styria the last sheaf, called the Corn-mother, is made up into the shape of a woman by the oldest married woman in the village… Thefinest ears are plucked out of it and made into a wreath, which, twined with flowers,is carried on her head by the prettiest girl of the village to the farmer or squire… In other villages of the same district the Corn- mother, at the close of harvest, is carried by two lads at the top of a pole. They march behind the girl who wears the wreath to the squire’s house, and while he receives the wreath and hangs it up in the hall, the Corn-mother is placed on the top of a pile of wood, where she is the centre of the harvest supper and dance.”
Honoured in the harvest celebrations, the Corn Dolly housing the incumbent spirit of corn was returned tothe field, ploughed back into the earth withthe new agricultural calendar. Traditional rituals around the return to work after
the winter months often take the form ofPlough Monday. The first Monday afterepiphany, Plough Monday marks the start of the English Agricultural year. The tradition is honoured in Cirencester with a Plough Monday service held annually in the church. The Dean of the Royal Agricultural College, fellow farmers and townsfolk congregate around a traditional plough decorated with seasonal greenery that is blessed by the minister.
Sheltering John Barleycorn through the dark winter months and returning him to the soil with the start of the agricultural year was perceived to ensure a bountiful harvest. Returned to the land John Barleycorn would live again. Yet throughout the sleepy winter his Spirit does not entirely disappear, John Barleycorn does not die, his essence can be found in the grain that was harvested — he risesin the flour used for bread and bubblesup in the fermented malt of ale.