How a folk song changed modern mythology

I’ve enjoyed folk music ever since I can remember.  I have an extensive collection of music from many of the ‘folk rock’ performers of the 1960’s and 1970’s – Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy, Pentangle and the like – as well as rock and progressive groups inspired by them – Magna Carta, Traffic, Jethro Tull, etc. – and listen to them often.

One of the classic English folk songs is ‘John Barleycorn‘.  Earliest known versions date back to the 16th century, and it probably goes back much further than that.  Wikipedia describes it thus:

The character of John Barleycorn in the song is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering attacks, death and indignities that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.

There’s more at the link.

What I didn’t know – until a few days ago, when I learned it while doing some research for one of my forthcoming books – was that the ‘dying-rising’ mythos embodied in ‘John Barleycorn’ was one of the influences on Sir James George Frazer when he wrote The Golden Bough in 1890.  This classic study of mythology and religion reinterpreted many ancient myths and fables, including those of Greece and Rome, in the light of what Frazer intended to be a synthesis of religious belief, cultural history and scientific inquiry.  Nowadays we know that much of what he wrote was so much hooey, but his book had a profound and lasting influence on European folk history, much of which was subsequently reinterpreted in the light of his ‘findings’ (no matter how spurious).

One of Frazer’s principal theses was the ‘sacrificial king’;  a king who came to the throne by killing his predecessor, only to learn that his task was to die for his people (or for the gods, or for a plentiful harvest, or some other plausible reason) at the hands of his successor after a period of time.  In that sense, the ruler became a divinely ordained sacrifice for the sake of the ruled.  One source for Frazer’s interpretation was the Rex Nemorensis, a priest of the goddess Diana in Italy, and another may have been the figure of Domalde from a Norse saga.  (Both links are worth following if you’re interested in the origins of modern mythology.)  In turn, Frazer’s reinterpretation of ancient myth and legend influenced subsequent authors like Mary Renault (in ‘The King Must Die‘, a novel about Theseus) and Rosemary Sutcliff (in her young adult novels ‘The Mark of the Horse Lord‘, ‘The Shining Company‘ and ‘Sun Horse, Moon Horse‘).  I’ve read all those novels and highly recommend them;  in fact, I have copies of all Mary Renault’s historical novels and many of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s in my permanent library.  They’re very good indeed.

The point of all this rambling is, of course, the influence of ‘John Barleycorn’, a simple folk song, on so many literary masterpieces since it was written.  It may be one of the single most important influences on modern retelling of ancient mythology and fairy-tales.  It’s strange to think that a centuries-old drinking song could have such an impact.

For those who don’t know the song, here are two versions (out of literally dozens out there).  My favorite folk-song rendition is by British band Traffic, from their 1970 album ‘John Barleycorn Must Die‘, with vocals by Steve Winwood.

The second is a rollicking rock/jazz fusion version by Jethro Tull during a live concert, from their album ‘A Little Light Music‘, one of my favorite Tull anthologies.  It’s a lot of fun.

You’ll have to excuse my occasional rambling about such subjects.  I find them fascinating.



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *