Finding Bēowa

Information concerning Bēowa is sparse, even by Anglo-Saxon standards. Modern polytheists and academics alike have to tried to link him to a several different characters , the most predominant of them being John Barleycorn and the Geatish hero, Beowulf.

Most of the proponents of the Bēowa-as-Beowulf theory seem to be wading in dangerously speculative waters. Some early scholars became convinced of the supposed connection, which was based almost entirely on the similarities between the two character’s names. William Witherle Lawrence lead the charge, claiming the scribes who penned Beowulf may have mistaken Beowulf’s identity or been ignorant of it altogether. Lawrence stated, “a god Beowa, whose existence in myth is certain, became confused or blended with Beowulf.”

While we can assume human error may have played some part in the name “Bewowulf” being used in genealogies of Scyld Scefing, it still raises more questions than it provides answers and is not compelling enough evidence for me to accept the connection.

The John Barleycorn connection is, in my mind anyway, more likely. John Barleycorn is a folk song of unknown dating, which records the violent death and resurrection of the titular character. At first glance the song relays a confusing tale about a man named John who is murdered and subsequently consumed by a group of enraged, cannibalistic farmers. Upon further inspection, it becomes fairly obvious John Barleycorn is not really human at all and the events leading up to his eventual consumption correspond quite nicely with the sewing, cultivation and eventual harvesting of cereal grains. So, in reality Mr.Barleycorn is not a young man, but the personification of barley.

There was three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
Throwed clods upon his head,
And these three man made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn was dead.

Then they let him lie for a very long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John sprung up his head,
And soon amazed them all.
They let him stand till midsummer
Till he looked both pale and wan,
And little Sir John he growed a long beard
And so became a man.

They hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee,
They rolled him and tied him by the waist,
And served him most barbarously.
They hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he served him worse than that,
For he bound him to the cart.

They wheeled him round and round the field
Till they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn mow
of poor John Barleycorn.
They hired men with the crab-tree sticks
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he served him worse than that,
For he ground him between two stones.

Here’s little Sir John in a nut-brown bowl,
And brandy in a glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proved the stronger man at last.
And the huntsman he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettles or pots
Without a little of Barleycorn.

The final verse of the earliest extant version implies John Barleycorn was turned into Barley wine and consumed, thus getting the men drunk so they were unable to complete their tasks.

So, you may be asking yourself at this point, what does a song about barley personified have to do with a possible Anglo-Saxon deity named Bēowa?

In some versions of the genealogies, Bēowa is listed as ‘Bēow’ . The Old English word for barley was also ‘Bēow’, making a fairly compelling case, at least linguistically speaking, for a connection between Bēowa and a ‘John Barleycorn’.

Bēowa may also have had a Norse counterpart in Byggvir, who appears briefly in Lokasenna and is depicted as a miller of grain.

“What little creaturegoes crawling there,Snuffling and snapping about?At Freyr’s ears everwilt thou be found,Or muttering hard at the mill.”

(Bellows trans.)

In The Golden Bough, James Frazer claimed the events depicted  in John Barleycorn recalled a half-remembered, Pre-Christian ritual where a man was selected from the tribe to temporarily become the ‘Corn god’ and was subsequently sacrificed to provide good harvests the following year. He even went as far as to speculate that this Corn God may have been cannibalised, much in the same way Barleycorn was consumed in the song. While I don’t subscribe wholeheartedly to his theory (especially the bit with the cannibalism), it does find some parallels in modern May Day celebrations. Each May Day a young woman is selected to represent the ‘May Queen’, the personification of Springtime and lead the festivities. Perhaps John Barleycorn DOES recall a similar folk custom related to a barley deity.

In closing, I’m of the belief that Bēowa was an agricultural deity, a barley deity associated with cyclical change and renewal. His life cycle mirrored the growing season and although he laid dormant after harvest, he returned with renewed vigour when the seeds were sown each Spring.

14 Wheat compressed


One thought on “Finding Bēowa

  1. I am working on a similar blog post, but was hoping to find something on Beowa beyond the genealogies and Beowulf. I purchased Kathleen Herbert’s Looking for the Lost Gods of England, which is the only reference in a Wikipedia entry that links Beowa with John Barleycorn. The Herbert book hasn’t arrived yet, but it seems a long shot. Beowulf does seem a secondary sort of connection, unless you get caught up in Scefing/Beow in the opening of the poem, and then imagine that there was some deeper relationship with grain. However the arguments about Beowulf relating to Beowa get stronger if you analyze the name as Beowa-ulfr, or Wolf of Beow, akin to something like Thorulf. Anyway, I think your site looks great and I hope to check out more of your articles.


    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s