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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Kathleen Herbert and the Lost Gods of the Harvest

Updated: May 23, 2021

(Left to right) Kathleen Herbert’s Looking for the Lost Gods of England; an epitaph for John Barleycorn in my wife's family cabin, dated to American Prohibition; the Gefion Fountain, Copenhagen and a corn dolly, both courtesy of Wikipedia.

We have entered September, or for the Anglo-Saxons, hærfest-mōnaþ, (Harvest Month, or earlier, hālig-mōnaþ, Holy Month) and I wanted to give a seasonal salute to what in New England (and in other places of our latitude, I presume) is the very beginning of Autumn, even if technically we have until September 22nd. This post will stand as a partial review of Kathleen Herbert’s Looking for the Lost Gods of England, but inspired by Herbert, I will also tackle some early fall traditions that I was not aware of until I researched them for this piece.

For my seasonal salute, I had particularly wanted to further research a figure that some have identified as the Old English god of grain, Beow, or Beowa, and the folk figure, John Barleycorn, a human representation of the grain used to make beer, whiskey and barleywine, a malty beer brewed to the alcoholic strength of wine. Barleycorn’s ritual death is memorialized in the song “John Barleycorn Must Die.” In the song, Sir John grows from child to bearded man in the growing season and is attacked with scythes, pitchforks and sticks, and crushed under a millstone. Each step represents the processing of barley into a brewable form. Robert Burns took his hand at the ballad, and there are many song renditions, but to my taste, the Watersons (as usual) produced the ghastliest version, to make one feel bound and gagged in the wicker man himself!

Beowa is not a figure you will find any stories about. His existence as a grain god is based entirely on his name, an analogous Norse figure and his proximity in genealogies and tales of other grain-oriented figures. Beowa though has gained traction as the root of Beowulf's name -- think "the wolf of Beowa," which would be similar to the name Thorulf, but with Beowa in place of Thor. I expected to find new information based on a Wikipedia entry using Herbert as a source. Herbert's various Old English oriented texts had appeared in online recommendations for a few years and though I didn't know anyone who had read her, I finally felt compelled to go to right to the source. Herbert, refers to an Anglo-Saxon royal genealogy and adds the following: “Beow; Barley, his son. This is the being , later known as John Barleycorn, whose passion, death and resurrection are told in a folk song, which also celebrates the reviving effects of drinking his blood” (Herbert, 16). Barley here is the son of Sheaf, another figure (and word) associated with grain. It is tempting to use the folk song to understand the Beowa figure, and perhaps the song does record an ancient tradition, handed down through the ages. The part of me that yearns for more knowledge of the past would like this to be the case. The (killjoy) part of me that wants the solid record attesting the firm connection simply says that it’s not there.

Herbert’s text is nevertheless full of thought-provoking theories about the harvest and other seasonal rituals and it is consistently based on the sources one would see in an academic text. Herbert surmises that if the English had an earlier name for September, if may have been based on the Old English word Gifan, to give, which also recalls the Norse Gefjon, who is associated with plows, the Danish island of Sjaelland (Zealand) and, according to the Heimskringla, marries Skjoldr, a figure associated with Scyld Seafing from Beowulf, another figure associated with grain because of his name, Sheaf. In the Norse story, Gefjon tricks a king into giving her as much land as she can plow in a day. She bears magical sons who turn into giant oxen and detach the landmass of Sjaelland from Sweden and tow it to its present location. Sjaelland, and excavations of a long hall in Lejre, have drawn associations with Heorot hall of Beowulf.

Herbert also analyzes the Old English charm “Field Remedy,” which I had never considered to be the full blown ritual she describes. Parts of “Field Remedy” are spoken aloud, but others describe complicated steps to producing a fertile field. The charm seems to represent a midway point between pagan and Christian belief in that it involves the ritual plowing of the field and invocations of an earth mother, but also blessings by a Christian priest, holy water and invocations of the Christian Evangelists. Herbert convincingly argues that the steps taken in the charm describe the ritual impregnation of the earth mother, which Herbert identifies with Nerthus, the Mother Earth goddess worshiped by the Anglo-Saxons’ continental ancestors, according to the Roman historian Tacitus. Part of the ritual involved blessing cut sections of turf, and another, the anointing of the plow with a salve of incense, fennel and salt. Herbert argues that the plowing represented a sexual consummation: “Before the plough/penis was put into Mother Earth, it had to be anointed and made potent with semen” (Herbert, 15). One of the final steps was to bake a small loaf of bread made from all grains and to lay it under the earth of the first furrow, essentially putting a bun in the oven of Mother Earth.

If “Field Remedy” is more of a beginning-of-season procedure, I’m going to finish up with the end-of-harvest ritual of corn dollies. Corn dollies are craft goods made from corn sheaves -- in Europe the word corn means grain, and can apply to wheat, barley, etc. Corn dollies may be figural, shaped like various objects or abstract in shape. James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, relates the corn dolly to earth mother worship, which was widespread, Frazer theorizes, because early agricultural work before the invention of the plow was conducted by women with spades. Cultures across ancient Europe and beyond call this figure the maids, mothers, brides, grandmothers and queens, to name a few. How this fits with the notion of barley as a male god, Beow, or of another masculine figure, Sheaf, in Old English, I cannot say. This is another good reason to question ancient cultural beliefs derived only from tales. Whether or not women were associated with agriculture, Frazer relates the story of Demeter and Persephone to the practice of celebrating the corn mother and corn maiden, which the corn dolly could represent. Like the loaf of bread from the Old English “Field Remedy,” corn dollies were thought to play a role in the agricultural year, with the corn dolly being plowed into the first furrow of the new year.

To wrap up, I have enjoyed Kathleen Herbert's 60-page volume, but I must confess a wariness to seeing it as the sole evidence for certain assertions made in Wikipedia about a lost English pantheon. All of us who are drawn to mysteries of these largely unattested or lost pre-Christian religions long for the knowledge to more fully experience a past we feel a passion for. If you are looking for well-reasoned theories based on respectable sources, you may not find better than Kathleen Herbert, but if you want to subject to rigor what you choose to hold as fact about what the ancients believed, I think it is important to remember that these are, in the end, theories.

But what do you think? Am I being overly critical of people relying on Herbert for Wikipedia claims? Am I a stick-in-the-mud for wanting more evidence? Are you a fan of any of Herbert's other scholarly writing or of her fiction? I would love to hear from you. I think these things should be talked about. Please let me know in the comments below.

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