Days of Small Summer

If you follow the so-called Celtic calendar, you know that the year is divided into halves—Summer and Winter. The hinges for those seasons are at Beltane and at Samhain.  That places Midsummer at the Solstice and Midwinter at the other Solstice. Reckoning for four seasons—which we like to think we have here—that puts Spring at Bridnasadh/Imbolc and Autumn at Lughnasadh/Lammas.

This is the calendar I follow because it works with the land where I live. The earliest signs of spring come with a thaw at the end of January (I plant onions then) and in the evenings now, I feel a dampy coolness that foretells the great cooling that is to come.


At least, I hope so. Given our last winter here…

We are approaching the First Harvest, the grain harvest. We will wear sheaves of wheat in our flower crowns and weave corn dollies and dance the ring.  Someone will remember the old tale of John Barleycorn and how he died—and continues to die every year—only to rise again.  Do you know the old song?  I first heard it back in the glory-days of Steeleye Span.

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 ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in
Threw clods all upon his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John barleycorn was Dead.

They let him stand for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John’s sprung up his head
And so amazed them all
They let him stand till the Midsummer Day
Till he grew both pale and wan
Then little Sir John’s grew a great, long beard
And so become a man.

They hire’d men with scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee.
They bound him and tied him around the waist
Serving him most barb’rously.
They hire’d men with their sharp pitch-forks
To prick him to the heart
But the drover served him worse than that
For he’s bound him to a cart.

They rolled him around and around the field
Till they came unto a barn
And these three men made a solemn mow
Of poor John Barleycorn
They hire’d men with crab-tree sticks
To strip him skin from bone
But the miller, served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.

Here’s Little sir John in the nut-brown bowl
And brandy in the glass
But Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl’s
Proved the stronger man at last
For the hunts man he can’t hunt the fox
Nor cheerily blow his horn
And the tinker, can’t mend Kettle or pot
Without a little Barleycorn.

It takes me back to those Thomas Hardy books that hold so much of the ancient heart of our people.  As the month changes from July to August, as we stand under the sign of Leo with his proud back and tender heart, it is good to remember the best parts of the old ways and to bless those that sing them still.




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