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 ¼ of the year after Midsummer, Harvest Home represents mid-autumn, autumn's height. It is also the Autumnal Equinox, called Mabon by the Celts, 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 its 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 for 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 Roman Catholic 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, usually sunset on September 21st give or take a day.
Mythically, this is the day of the year when the Oak King is defeated by his twin and alter-ego, The Holly King. It is the time of the year when night conquers day as the days grow shorter from now and until the winter solstice.
The Holly King’s 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.
The Oak King’s sacrificial death at Harvest Home also identifies him with John Barleycorn, spirit of the fields. Thus, the Oak King 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 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 the Holly King in a new guise, not as brother that killed, but as a kindly farmer who harvests the crop, which had been 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-man 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 made 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 none. 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 Man. 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 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...
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 “traveling in foreign lands.” The doctor reaches into his bag of tricks, plies some magical cure, and presto! the young king rises up hearty 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 as formations 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 some 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.