John Barleycorn Must Die!

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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.

They’ve ploughed, they’ve sewn, they’ve harrowed him in, Threw clods at Barley’s head,
And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn was dead.

They’ve let him lie for a very long time, Till the rains from heaven did fall,
And little Sir John sprung up his head, And so amazed them all.

They’ve let him stand till midsummer’s day, Till he looked both pale and worn,
And little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard, And so become a man.

They’ve hired men with the scythes so sharp, To cut him off at the knee,
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist, Servin’ him most barbarously.

They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks, Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he has served him worse than that, For he’s bound him to the cart

They’ve wheeled him around and around the field, Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath, On poor John Barleycorn.

They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks, To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he has served him worse than that, For he’s ground him between two stones.

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl, And he’s brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl, Proved the strongest man at last.

The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox, Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pots, Without a little Barleycorn.

(John Barleycorn Must Die, as performed by Traffic)

It’s the beginning of August, and here in East Tennessee, we’re experiencing what has become a typical summer with temperatures in the nineties and high humidity. On many of these hot, sticky afternoons we get treated to a brief, sometimes fierce thunderstorm. These afternoon storms cool things down for a brief time, but the heat and humidity are even more intense after the clouds break up. It’s also around this time that I start seeing posts on social media from friends sharing pictures of produce harvested from their gardens. The beginning of August has been associated with the early harvest, particularly grains, a staple of human diets since the introduction of agriculture.

There are many traditions associated with harvest, including thanksgiving celebrations throughout the fall. One song associated with the harvest is The Ballad of John Barleycorn, or John Barleycorn Must Die. The song has appeared in different forms over time, with the most famous being a version by Scottish poet Robert Burns, who is perhaps best known to us as the writer of Auld Lang Syne. In the song, John Barleycorn experiences horrific abuse at the hands of various tradesmen, eventually resulting in his death. The horrific treatment of John Barleycorn is a rather bloody allegory for the cycle of planting and harvest. For there to be a harvest the seed must be buried in the ground, else it remains only a seed. It never grows and is of no use to anyone. When the seed is buried, it grows and becomes food, drink, and any number of wonderful and useful products that help nourish and sustain us.

Not so hidden in the allegory is the idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good. The idea of personal sacrifice, even to the point of physical deprivation and death is part of many religious traditions throughout history. These sacrifices lead to a rebirth of some type that carries some great benefit. Stories from many religions speak of a deity who actually dies, or suffers pain and loss, and is reborn. We have Osiris from Egypt, Dionysus/Bacchus from Greek and Roman mythology, Odin from Norse legends, Siddhartha from India, and many others. Most familiar to modern Americans, Christian or otherwise, is undoubtedly the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the gospels.

In John’s gospel, Jesus uses the agricultural metaphor to describe his own approaching death:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

Jesus even uses wheat and grapes to describe his body and blood as a sacrifice, expressed in the Christian Eucharist. Though not as graphic as The Ballad of John Barleycorn, Jesus’ declaration expresses the same idea: that a personal sacrifice is necessary. Though this verse from St. John is not at all painful, we know that Jesus experienced incredible levels of abuse, physical pain, and humiliation before he was ever nailed to the cross, just like poor John. In fact, Robert Burns’ version of the ballad turns John into an almost Christ-like figure. And, like Jesus, John Barleycorn triumphs in the end.

Sacrifice is a necessary part of living, and sometimes sacrifice involves suffering. In order to have a functioning society, we sometimes need to sacrifice our individual desires for the good of the community. It’s this last idea that seems to be disappearing from our society. American life has become characterized by selfishness disguised as personal freedom. We are threatened by the idea that we need to accommodate other people, especially those who look, think, act, worship, and love differently. We’ve become a society where each individual is a law unto themselves, where being asked to sublimate our own desires in favor of the common good is anathema. The events of the past few years have made it abundantly clear that many of us are completely comfortable with throwing out the Golden Rule and turning Jesus into some kind of weird god of nationalism, wealth, and power, willfully ignoring Jesus’  teachings of love of God and neighbor.

Regardless of your beliefs, our current mode of behavior isn’t sustainable. Community cannot exist when everyone is out for themselves. What would society look like if we followed the advice of the prophet Micah? What if we truly did justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly? (cf. Micah 6:8) What if we really loved God with all our being, and our neighbors as ourselves? I suspect it would be radically different than what we’re living now.

Lughnasadh 2020

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