He stands in my garden; leaning slightly back with his gaze lifted to the heavens, his arms outstretched joyfully, looking as if he might burst into song.
And he will continue to stand this way throughout the summer and autumn.
I am talking about Jack Barleycorn, the scarecrow we Earendel folk build every year in early May as a representation of the life of the fields. Scott and I have been doing this for many years; long before Earendel was formally established, before we moved east to Pennsylvania. Although details have changed and evolved, the tradition of Jack Barleycorn has been a part of my life for a long time now.
Today that tradition is well defined by years of repetition. When Earendel first gathers on or after May Day we build a scarecrow as a part of our first summer rite. I am almost always the one who sews up Jack’s head. Taren is usually the person who brings and assembles the wood framework for his body. Everyone helps, and everyone critiques our group progress as we fill out Jack’s gluts and biceps and abs with handfuls of straw. When the scarecrow is built, each person comes forward with a small piece of cloth that he or she has embroidered one or more runes on. The runes represent what that person hopes to harvest in his or her own life through the coming year. These cloths are carefully stitched to Jack Barleycorn, who is then processed to a garden where he will stand until the Winterfylleth moon grows full. At that time, six months later, he is burned on a bonfire as an offering to our gods.
Scarecrows have been around for a long time. 2500 years ago Greek farmers carved wooden scarecrows in the image of Priapus, the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite. The Romans later adopted this custom, and Roman armies introduced Priapus scarecrows to Britain.
Our Jack Barleycorn could be thought of as a spiritual descendant of those early scarecrows, and in fact we do stuff extra bundles of hay into Jack’s crotch to give him a well-endowed, Priapic appearance. But the truth is that our ancient Pagan tradition only goes back to the early 1990′s. That’s a funny thing about traditions, they always have to start somewhere. Whether the tradition is twenty years old (like our annual Jack Barleycorn) or twenty thousand years old, somebody had to do it first.
So if you don’t have a lot of ancient, pre-Christian traditions at hand, start a few of your own! Don’t make the mistake that many 20th century Wiccans did of claiming a long and completely fake history for your tradition. It doesn’t matter if you’ve only been following a ritual practice for three years or three hundred years, that practice will gain power in its repetition very quickly. Create a tradition meaningful to you and your folk. It need not involve building a scarecrow. Your own tradition could be staying up all night to see the Midsummer sunrise. It could be making all of your ritual candles on Candlemas Eve.
Whatever you choose to do, cherish your traditions. We are defined by what we do, and Pagan traditions both new and old define the life and vitality of our paths.