John Barleycorn Must Die

I seem to have developed a complete inability to finish anything at the moment. Not sure why that should be, but this is about the 5th blog post I’ve begun in recent weeks, so I hope that I will find my way to the end of it this time.   If you’re reading this then yay, looks like I made it :D.  So what to write about? Well, the focus of my days over the past week or so has been wheat. Or more specifically gluten, one of its proteins.

I won’t bore you with the frustrations of dealing with GPs, but suffice to say, that many months ago I had become very unwell and had started to strongly suspect that I had a bit of a problem with eating gluten. Rather than continue to endure it over the months it took to get an appointment with the right person, I decided to help myself, so I cut it out of my diet to see what would happen. After a few months I felt soooo much better and was really starting to feel more like myself than I had done for a long time: my symptoms were disappearing, I was exercising again, my energy was coming back more and more as the weeks went by. Yippeeeee I thought! So you may be able to imagine how dismayed I was a couple of weeks ago, to be told that I needed to be tested for a condition called Coeliac and that the preparation for this test would mean going back to a gluten diet on what they call ‘the gluten challenge’.

If you’re not familiar with Coeliac it is a condition where the immune system reacts inappropriately to the gluten found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats. It differs from allergies and some other intolerances and sensitivities because it causes damage to the small intestine and over time affects a person’s ability to digest not just gluten but all kinds of other nutrients. It has the potential to cause havoc in the body if left untreated.  For most people it is easily treatable (though not cured) through following a lifelong gluten free diet and for most people this will completely heal the intestines and remove or dramatically reduce the chance of any complications. To test for it though, if you’ve already stopped eating gluten then you have to…well basically you have to re-create the very specific kind of damage to your intestines by eating gluten so that it can be detected…quite frankly this sucks, but does bring me back to The Gluten Challenge! It sounds like some kind of corporate fitness event doesn’t it? The reality is much less glamorous unfortunately. It basically means I have to eat at least 3 slices of wholemeal bread or equivalent gluteny ‘goodness’ (for goodness read poison) every day for 6 weeks.

I have to admit I had a bit of a private tantrum about the whole thing at first and got very depressed about the sensation of going back to square one, which now feels entirely justified because it’s not going too well. After a couple of weeks I am nauseous a lot of the time, often aching all over with muscle pain,  dizziness, sinus pain, headaches, waves of overwhelming fatigue and drowsiness, and that’s before we even start with the painful cramps, acid, bloating and other gastro-intestinal symptoms that I won’t ruin your last meal with! It’s pretty gloomy and there’s another 4 weeks of it ahead (thank goodness for my lovely man who has been looking after me brilliantly :)). However, it has really made me appreciate my health even more and made me even more determined to get it back properly after these 6 weeks are over. Whatever the test results the gluten’s gone for good!

As I write this I have intruding thoughts that are asking me to consider whether this is really suitable blog material lol :D, but I started writing this because the gluten issue had led me to muse about wheat. Having to eat wheaty things at the moment was making me feel quite anxious because I know what they do to me, so I started talking to my food. Now that might sound a teensy bit strange but I always think it’s much harder to be afraid of or anxious about something that you’re having a conversation with – it’s the reason I talk to big spiders and explain to them why they can’t stay in the house before I put them out of the window. I end up feeling quite fond of them and then kind of mean for throwing them out in the cold, but it does mean I can deal with them. So I started talking to the bread and the pasta. I reassured them that I knew it wasn’t their fault and that I didn’t hate them for making me ill, it’s just the way it is.

Coming from an area that is rich in big fields of wheat, this conversation also made me remember how beautiful the plant is. I sat and imagined long stretches of gold, gently moving in a summer breeze under blue skies and a hot sun. I let the  image wrap around me like a warm blanket until I was there in the middle of the wheat, the wonderful rich smell of breathing soil and hot shade around the stalks; the sound of the shafts rustling and shooshing against my legs as I walked through the narrow trails of the golden forest, made all the more vibrant by the peppering of red poppies that entwined their stems amidst the throng. I remembered harvest; seeing the dust and shreds of grain flying into the air, the sound of farm machinery and the chug of a tractor. I remembered the sight of sharp, scratchy, roughly cut stalks; the decapitated remains of the plants left in the soil as the autumn closed in.

Wheatfield with Poppies and Lark by Vincent Van Gogh

My mind wandered further still and I started to think about all the food that people have made from wheat and other grains over so many centuries: from the humble loaf through to the most elaborate wedding cakes; from beers through to brandy & whiskey; about all the nutrients and satisfaction and pleasure that these plants have brought us. They have kept us from famine; become the basis of much of our agriculture and consequently the staple of our diets.

Demeter and Persephone presenting Triptolemus with sheafs of wheat to give to humanity

The symbol of the wheat sheaf has become synonymous with ideas of harvest, fertility, abundance and stability.

For our ancestors (and some of us modern day people ;)) this dependence spilled over into the spiritual world and grain plants in many cultures across the world have been an important part of life passages and rituals, celebrations and mournings; the essence of life and survival, continually reborn through their sowing and growing,  harvesting and rebirth.

As such vital crops, it is perhaps not surprising that ancient cultures placed the success of their harvests into the hands of their Gods and Goddesses and entire mystery religions formed around the rise and fall of these sacred plants. We have only to think of the Greek Demeter, the Roman Ceres (the root of the word ‘cereal’), the Celtic Lugh, the Norse Frey, along with a whole host of others whose sacrifice and blessing were sought in the gift of an abundant harvest.

In our modern Western world, it is so easy to forget how much of our food starts off in a field, swaying gently in a warm breeze; that plants must grow and thrive and be cut down, harvested, for us to survive.  It is easy to forget the terrible implications for humans if that harvest fails -we only have to look to places such as Somalia that is being torn apart by drought and famine once again, to see the suffering and misery that the loss of a harvest creates. We don’t even realise how much of these plants we consume -believe me, when you have to go gluten free, it brings it into sharp focus – and though spiritual traditions may still celebrate and remember the harvest, our secular society simply buys its food from supermarkets without thought, demanding all year round provision with little thought of the earth’s seasons and cycles.

In many ways I think these plants are really a symbol of the need to care for our planet, a symbol of sustainability. They remind us that we need to pay attention to our actions and take responsibility for our impact if we want to be able to survive and to preserve the ability of life to keep renewing itself in each turning year. If we want the blessing of the harvest, then we must recognise its value and take care of its needs.

Soapboxes aside ;)…one of the ways that the harvest was honoured and respected in times past was through using the body of the grain plants to make crafts that formed part of the rituals associated with the harvest. Some of these still survive today in the form of objects such as the corn dolly or mell doll.

Yorkshire Spiral Corn Dolly

For many of us, the corn dolly may just be a quaint, traditional craft that we are used to seeing at country fairs, or in rustically styled interiors.  However, it’s roots are tied up in much deeper and more significant customs and beliefs.  The spirit of the corn was believed to live within the physical plant and fields, either as a woman or a man depending upon the location: these are the origins of folkloric figures such as John Barleycorn, celebrated through the well-known traditional folk song that traced the course of the barley grain spirit’s rise and fall (It is perhaps a testament to this figure’s enduring presence within our cultural psyche, that this song has been picked up and covered by so many modern musicians: Traffic; Jethro Tull; Steeleye Span; The Imagined Village; Fairport Convention; Oysterband; Damh the Bard, to name but a few).

As the corn was harvested, the spirit of the corn was forced to retreat, back and back until only the final sheaf was left to be cut.  The cutting of this sheaf was often a ceremonious affair and this handful of wheat would not be added to the rest of the crop.  Instead, it was taken and formed into a corn dolly to represent the spirit of the corn, the hollow inside it providing a safe place for the spirit to spend the winter.  There are many regional variations of these forms across different regions of the UK, and they are known by many different names:

hereford lantern corn dolly

Hereford Lantern Corn Dolly

Essex Terret Corn Dolly

Once woven, the dolly was taken inside to the farmer’s home to be guest of honour at the Harvest celebrations and to spend the cold months safely nestled in the warm until it was time to sow the seed again.  As the fields were ploughed and the seed was scattered, the corn dolly would be taken from the hearth and dug into the soil, restoring the spirit of the corn to the fields where it could enter the new plants and ensure a good harvest.  The ability of the corn spirit to bestow this blessing meant that many country people also wove their own corn dollies to wear or hang inside the home as talismans of good luck.

Although for most of our society, the beliefs attached to the harvest and the corn dolly have faded from conscious cultural memory, the craft tradition lives on, with modern makers finding new ways to use corn weaving skills, styles and traditions.  Still more of us continue to be creatively inspired by the sights and mythologies of the grain plants that live all around us.  My gallery this time reflects this, with a selection of work on these themes.  Enjoy :)!:

Corn Maiden by Elaine Lindsay at http://www.somethingcorny.co.uk

Home Rites by Cathy Ward and Eric Wright

Earth Mother at Maddy’s Corn Dollies at http://www.corndollies.co.uk

Phoenix by Reids Weeds at Etsy

Harvest Wheat Spiral Hare by Square Hare at Etsy

Wheat & Barley Harvest Wreath by Gypsy Wedding Gifts at Etsy

Mice That Are Nice Gocco Print by Jane Ormes at Etsy

Ode to Wheat, Sterling Silver Spoon Ring by Spoonier at Etsy

Harvest Wheat Towel and Napkin Set by Stolen Moments at Etsy

Wheat Heart Design Fair Isle Hand Warmers by Clova Knits at Etsy

Hops, Barley & Wheat Necktie by Toybreaker at Etsy

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4 thoughts on “John Barleycorn Must Die

  1. Polly bucknall on said:

    Well you have covered a lot of ground there Beth,not sure which bits to comment on….I can relate totally to the diet issue as I follow a restricted diet myself …..my own choice as I believe my problem is intolerance of certain foods (wheat being one of them) rather than serious allergy….but you know yourself I’m sure that lots of symptoms of not feeling quite right all stack up in the end till you have to do something about it…I found GPs useless and did my own research…this is many years ago now so could be different matter if I went to one these days…having said that my husband has just had major bowel surgery which I believe could have been prevented so maybe not lol.
    I’m not sure why you are eating gluten again just to rule out coeliac disease unless the cure is something other than avoiding gluten which you already have been doing :/

    Hope that you continue to feel improvements in your wellbeing though……be that through following the advice of your doctor or what you have realised for yourself 🙂

    btw…don’t know all the john Barleycorn versions but love the cover byThe Imagined Village with Mr Weller guesting 😉 xx

    • Hi Polly, thanks for reading :-). It’s amazing how many people do have a problem with gluten. There is more known about it now I think than in the past, particularly with regard to coeliac. From what I’ve read they think coeliac could be affecting as many as 1 person in every 100, though so many are wrongly diagnosed as having IBS.

      I have had that conversation with myself about why I am subjecting myself to gluten when the outcome will still be to not eat gluten lol!! I decided to do it because if it is coeliac, then unlike a straightforward intolerance or allergy, the kind of damage it causes to the intestine means that depending on how long I’d had it there could be associated conditions that need checking or monitoring such as bone thinning or vitamin/nutritional deficiences which can cause problems in other parts of the body. So, I figure for the sake of 6 weeks feeling lousy, it’s worth it, to be able to make sure that the condition hasn’t caused any other nasties which might need seperate treatment.

      Sorry to hear about your hubby, that must have been quite an ordeal for both of you. I know how frustrating it is when you are not getting the treatment you know you need. I hope he’s on the mend now xxx

  2. Thanks for this Beth, enjoyed reading it. I was diagnosed with coeliac disease 4 years ago, having spent many, many years of my life suffering from headaches, fatigue, lack of energy, and many other complaints such as heat rash and a dust allergy. I had been backwards and forwards to the doctors time and time again, and in the end it was only because I was severely anaemic that they finally thought I might be coeliac.
    I totally sympathise with your unwillingness to subject yourself to gluten again; I suppose they want to (finally) give you a definite diagnosis, but it is so unpleasant. I wish you all the best for the remaining 4 weeks of your ‘challenge’, although as Polly says it sounds as if gluten is not good for you, whatever the outcome 😦
    What you say about the rituals around grain is interesting – I didn’t know that about corn dollies! But – as a coeliac – I can’t help thinking about all the people in the past who were gluten-intolerant and didn’t know, couldn’t know. So in spite of everything, I find myself being thankful for being alive now, in our ‘modern’ society where such things are known about!

    • Hi Lesley, glad you enjoyed the post :). I can totally relate to the years of those vague symptoms. I had felt very similar for a long time, then had a particularly nasty virus a couple of years ago and after that it seemed to get worse, and I slowly started to have more digestive complaints and bad reactions to increasing numbers of foods. I finally realised that I was lactose intolerant, but it took me much longer to identify the gluten problem. When I spoke to my sister (who has coeliac) she recognised the symptoms immediately though.

      Thanks for your support with the ‘challenge’. Just can’t wait to stop eating this stuff now. I never thought I could develop such an aversion to cakes and biscuits lol :)!! If I had any doubt in my mind about whether I had a problem with gluten, that’s gone; it’s just now confirming what kind of problem it is.

      Isn’t it fascinating about the corn dollies? Made me look at them in a whole new way! I agree with what you say about the people in the past who did not know they were gluten intolerant though – that must have been miserable, particularly with so few other food choices available. At least now we have the option to eat what will keep us healthy. xxx

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