The Temples of John Barleycorn
(Originally published at Beltane 1995)
I have met few pagans who, whatever their devotions and sworn service to any particular God or Goddess, do not have a soft spot for the worship of John Barleycorn - at least in his liquid form! And in the sure and certain knowledge, therefore, that the temples of the said Mr Barleycorn are regularly patronised by pagans throughout Mercia and beyond, I present here a round-up of pub names and signs which have pagan connotations or which contain pagan symbolism in some form or other. Most can be found in Mercia or the Annexation Zone, though I have included a few rarities from outside the area if they serve to illustrate a point. And at the beginning of summer too! How thoughtful!
There are a number of traditional pub names which are blatantly pagan. Let us start with John Barleycorn himself who turns up around the country regularly if not exactly commonly. He can be found, for example at Goring on Thames in Oxfordshire. But the most common of these pub names, by far, is The Green Man , who appears in considerable numbers throughout England and is usually depicted on pub signs as a woodland wildman covered in leaves and other greenery and carrying a large club - and indeed there are a few pubs called The Wild Man . Allied to him is The Robin Hood and interestingly the image of Robin on many pub signs is depicted as little different from The Green Man as he also is often camouflaged with foliage. From the same stable comes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who puts in a single appearance at Connah's Quay in Clywd. The Druid is rather less common - I have only come across two example at Gosedd in Clwyd and Birchover in Derbyshire but presumably there are more. On the other hand The Maypole is not uncommon - and blatantly pagan!
Secondly there is a group of pub names in which the pagan imagery is less obvious but nevertheless present. The most widespread in this category is The White Hart . Like many of these strange beasts which appear in pub iconography, its historical origins to an extent lie in an heraldic badge - a later development of a family or clan totem; in this case it was the badge of Richard II and is usually shown as a white hart or stag with golden antlers and a golden crown round its neck with a golden chain falling from the crown. It may be worth noting that Dr Murray lists Richard II as one of England's sacrificed Divine Kings. In pagan terrns, however, it may be read as the symbol of Herne the Hunter, being the beast most commonly associated with Him. Allied to this one may be The Stag's Head , The Three Stags' Heads and The Roebuck which occur less frequently, as well as The Horns Inn Boningale in Shropshire. The Royal Oak , we are told, commemorates the escape of the young Charles Stuart (later Charles II) from roundheads by hiding in an oak tree until they had passed by. The place of the oak in non-Christian beliefs, however, is widespread and well-known. Interestingly, many depictions of this sign show a crown above the tree and, again, in older English lore it is particularly associated with Herne the Hunter.
The above, it will be noticed, are predominantly from the masculine side. On the side of the feminine we find most commonly The Rose and Crown . Like most pub signs this one had its origins in the Middle Ages when it was associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary (which arrived in this country in the 12th century) - she being referred to both as the Rosa Mundi (the Rose of the World) and the Queen of Heaven. Pagans however will recognise both titles as coming from the long list of epithets associated with Middle Eastern Goddesses such as Innana. The Rose is also found quite often on its own, of course.
The White Horse is probably some family's badge but may also be a folk memory of that ancient Celtic symbol of the various Goddesses of the land - Macha, Epona and most familiarly Rhiannon. An interesting one which we may add to this list is The Queen in the West which occurs only once to my knowledge. I have not visited the pub so I do not not know what image is depicted on the pub sign, but the image does have immense pagan possibilities! Goddesses as the Waters of Life born from the earth may be remembered in The Flowing Spring (a rarity occuring only at Sonning Eye in Oxfordshire to my knowledge) and The Fountain (the latter in particular being closely connected in the Middle Ages with Mary) found at the Welsh spa town of Builth Wells and numerous other places.
The Star and Garter naturally refers to the insignia of the chivalric Order of the Garter which, tradition tells us, was founded by Edward III when he rescued the Countess of Salisbury who was compromised by her garter falling off her leg in full view of the court - thus revealing her as an adherent of the Elder Faith. The star was added later as the blokes liked a sparkly bit they could wear! There is an alternative account of the founding of the Order of the Garter within the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in which the Order is founded by King Arthur to include all of the knights of the Round Table in commemoration of the ordeal of Sir Gawain at the hands of the Green Knight.
The heavens provide another rich source of pagan imagery within pub names. The solar influence is particularly widespread with The Sun and The Rising Sun putting in an appearance in most parts of the country - though, interestingly, I have never come across a Setting Sun. The moon also appears regularly on our pub signs, usually as The Full Moon and The Half Moon and more rarely The New Moon , The Crescent Moon , The Moon and Sixpence or even The Whispering Moon and The Moon Under Water! Again, I have never come across a Dark Moon. Christians have long claimed that drink leads to the Devil and perhaps they are right for once. One rare pub name is The Morning Star and presumably refers to Lucifer the Fallen Angel rather than Lucifer the brother of Diana! Even rarer is The Evening Star . A common pub name is The Seven Stars , whose imagery is often quite imaginative. It is depicted either as a simple cluster of stars, probably representing the Pleiaedes but also appears in the shape of the Great Bear or the Plough. However an interesting thing sometimes occurs with pubs called the Plough; even when apparently named for the agricultural implement they are not uncommonly depicted in the form of the constellation The Plough marked out by seven stars, as occurs at Guisborough in Cleveland. I have also seen a Seven Stars marked out in the shape of Orion the Hunter - which raises very interesting questions of mythology and symbolism! There is even one Half Moon and Seven Stars . Stars on their own also regularly appear - usually and unimaginatively called The Star . Whether any particular star is being depicted however is not clear! One might also think of Middle Eastern Goddesses, particularly the Semitic Mari who was later hijacked to become the Virgin Mary, one of whose most important epithets was Star of the Sea - later Stella Maris to the mediaeval Catholic Church.
Given that the majority of our pagan ancestors were involved in agricultural and/or pastoral activities, it is not surprising that these areas of everyday life have left such a rich heritage within our pub names and signs. Now we come to the wide range of pub names which depict the various aspects of the agricultural year and rural life. Of the yearly cycle itself, harvest time seems to have caused the greatest inspiration and pub names include The Sheaf and Sickle, The Wheatsheaf, The Harvester, The Corn Dolly and The Barley Mow ; allied to these is The Load of Hay . The ploughing or preparing of the land for sowing has also spawned a number of pub names - including The Plough, The Ploughboy, The Share and Coulter and The Plough and Harrow . Some rural activities are distinctly regional - The Hop Pole and The Oast House , for example, are usually found only in those areas where hop-growing occurred such as Kent and Worcestershire. Other sides of agriculture are depicted in the common names of The Woolpack and The Fleece Inn or The Beehive and rural life in general is commemorated in the common pub names of The Cart and Horses or Waggon and Horses amongst many others you can no doubt think of.
Farm livestock also provides a vast array of pub names and signs up and down the country: The Ram, The Lamb (where this appears as The Lamb and Flag, however, it is a Christian symbol brought back by returning crusaders, though I sometimes wonder if the crusaders' flag of a red cross on a white ground flag should not be replaced by a Jolly Roger...) The Shoulder of Mutton, The Goat and The Three Goats' Heads, The Black Bull and Dun Cow, The Bay Horse and The Black Horse . Pub names referring to pigs are rather rarer except for the occasional Blue Pig and the even rarer Red Pig ; which raises some questions as to why the pig, of all domesticated beasts, should have made so little impact. The Blue Boar , however, is fairly common and probably refers to the heraldic device of Richard III; blue pigs may of course be a jokey reference to this device. And last but not least The Three Cocks .
Apart from agriculture, other folks who lived and worked in the countryside appear on pub signs, including The Woodman, The Royal Forester, Blacksmith's Arms, The Gamekeeper, The Drover's Arms, The Miller's Arms and The Hurdlemakers .
Wildlife in the countryside is commemorated in The Fox, The Cross Foxes, The Fox and Goose, The Three Moles, The Squirrel and The March Hare . The One Eyed Rat is presumably a joke name and is found in Ripon in North Yorkshire! Similarly a number of birds appear - The Blackbird, The Jenny Wren, The Nightingale, The Dove, The Raven, The Magpies, The Barn Owl, The Cuckoo, The Heron, The Swan and The Kingfisher . Birds of prey and the field of falconry are represented by The Golden Eagle, The Marsh Harrier, The Sparrow Hawk, The Falcon and The Bird in Hand.
Whether the anti-blood sports and vegetarian fraternity like it or not, there is also a strong vein of hunting imagery running through many pub names such as The Hunter, The Poacher's Pocket and The Lincolnshire Poacher , along with their tools of the trade including The Gun and The Gin Trap . and their quarries - The Hare and Hounds , Duck and Duck or Dog and Pheasant , The Game Cock and The Tally Ho . Incidentally, I note that it is reported that a group of hunt saboteurs chucked bricks through the windows of a pub called The Fox and Hounds . I can't help thinking that that is going a bit too far ...
Alongside the wildlife and birds, the trees of the British countryside occur regularly in our pub names. Mention has already been made of the oak tree, which occurs simply as The Oak as well as The Royal Oak . However many of our other native trees rate the occasional mention, including fruit trees such as The Cherry Tree, The Apple Tree and The Pear Tree . Also The Elm Tree, The Yew Tree, The Hollybush, The Ivy Bush, The Linden Tree, The Wych Elm, The Thorn Tree, and The Olde Withy Trees all turn up with varying degrees of popularity. Surprisingly, although the oak tree features so widely, pubs named for the ash are a rarity (there is one in Kent) - as are those named for the fir, although there is a Fir Tree Tavern in Oxford and The Rowan Tree occurs from time to time in Scotland.
There is a surprising derth of mythological names for pubs. Leaving aside for the sake of argument the fact that Robin Hood was almost certainly an historical figure who has passed into myth, we might mention again here that Robin does of course pop up all over the country; he turns up in with his most celebrated side-kick occasionally as The Robin Hood and Little John , and Little John rates the odd star billing on his own, though I detect a certain regional pattern to this in as much as these tend to crop up in and around Nottinghamshire as far as I can work out. There is a Little John Inn at Ravenshead in Notts, for instance. Also relatively widespread and are pubs called The Maid Marian , though she often turns up also alongside Robin as The Robin Hood and Maid Marian .
But the big surprise is the real rarity of pubs called The King Arthur . Considering that King Arthur must be the most celebrated historical/mythological figure of our culture, it is truly astonishing that the whole mythos of the Round Table and its players do not put in much of an appearance in our pub names. There are only a handful of traditional (ie non-theme) pubs named after Arthur, none for the Round Table, Excalibur, Guinevere, Merlin or any of the Knights of the Round Table that I have been able to discover so far - with the single exception quoted earlier of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . Not even Sir Lancelot or Sir Galahad get a mention. Only the land itself has entered the lore of the British pub name - pubs called The Albion are not uncommon and perhaps the Grail as very occasionally pubs turn up called The Golden Cup or The Chalice for example. What is going on here? I haven't the faintest idea. Given however that my researches have so far been restricted to personal experience of traditional and established pubs and to consulting the Good Beer Guide over a number of years, I have to admit that my researches have been somewhat selective but as far as I can see these figures have not become traditional names for traditional pubs. If anyone has any theories about this or can cite examples which I have missed please let me know!
Mythical beasts on the other hand have made inroads! The Unicorn and The Green Dragon are relatively common and The Griffin and The Phoenix do occur not infrequently. The Red Dragon is rare, however, though is not confined to Wales but there appear to be no White Dragons! Surprisingly common is The Hobgoblin which seems to be fairly widespread in the south of England and the Home Counties. I have always had my doubts about southerners!
So what, you may be wondering, is the point of all this? It is simply this. That the majority of pagans today are forced to live their lives in towns and cities, cut off from the natural world, and often cut off also from the lives of our pagan ancestors and our own roots. I believe that the pagan and rural imagery in Britains's pub names and signs may provide a lifeline to us to regain an understanding of the lives of those ancestors and their way of life.
Perhaps the greatest value of these names is that they appear to pop up at random. We drive through a village and there is a pub called The Rising Sun or The Seven Stars . As magickians we usually believe in the concept of synchronicity - meaningful coincidence. So if we suddenly come upon a pub, may the name not be significant to us at that moment? If we are faced with a Rising Sun , may we not be jolted into a brief and spontaneous meditation on one of the sun God(desse)s - Lugh or Belenos, Horus or Sunna, or on the significance to us as pagans of the summer solstice; and may not a Seven Stars prompt us to think about our place in the universe? Our origins and relationship with the Old Ones? On passing a Falcon , may we not think of Freyja, to whom the falcon was sacred and who, the myths tell us, possessed a falcon-feather coat which permitted its wearer to shape-shift? Can not a Raven make us think upon Odin, a Crow upon the Morrighan and the Goddesses of battle while a Barn Owl may bring to mind the tale of Blodeuwedd or remind us of Athena, to whom the owl was sacred. May not a Green Man or a Maypole cause us to pause and ponder a little upon the mysteries and meaning of The Lord of the Greenwood and the Beltane mysteries? And should we pass a John Barleycorn without giving at least a little thought whence our bread and beer come?
Often it is the very randomness that allows us to use a pub sign as a form of divination into ourselves or as a trigger for thought and meditation. We may work in the centre of Birmingham and travel to work five days a week on the upper deck of a number 71 bus, but the chances are that we will pass by at least one pub whose name may provide an instant point of contact with our pagan lives beyond the ratrace of 20th century living. They provide an opportunity which we ignore to our detriment.
Secondly, although serious doubts are now being raised about the validity of the cycle popularly called the wiccan eight-fold wheel, it is (mildly!) amusing to fit pub signs and what they depict to the changing energies of the year. One might start at Ostara with The March Hare - a traditional British symbol of the spring and of Goddesses of spring in a number of cultures (even though the evidence for the worship of a Saxon goddess known as Eostre rests on a passing reference in Bede's History of the English Church and People). For Beltane - what better than The Green Man or The Maypole or perhaps The Royal Oak ? At the Summer Solstice we have an obvious choice in The Rising Sun or The Sun and at Lughnasa are almost spoilt for choice; will it be The Wheatsheaf , The Barley Mow or The John Barleycorn ? Personally I favour the latter. At Samhain we may look to The Yew Tree , The Apple Tree or The Crow to symbolise the death energies of that time which marks the ending and the beginning or the year; and at Yule The Holly Tree or The Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It requires only openness of the mind to our surroundings and the imagination and ability to see the magickal in those things which are part of our everyday lives and which we take for granted.
It is very noticeable how imaginative many pub signs are today; 20 or so years ago lit neon reigned supreme but now many of our smaller independent regional breweries are reinstating their traditional painted signs. Full marks go to Mansfield Brewery for their intricate and highly detailed but immensely beautiful large circular signs which are superb works of art. On a number of occasions I have stood for many minutes contemplating one of their signs - perhaps showing a superb painted harvest landscape behind a wonderful depiction of a wheatsheaf and scythe. It is no exaggeration to describe many of our pub signs as mandalas in which we may lose ourselves for a short while!
Those who know me will appreciate that a great deal of (expensive) research has gone into this article(!). Anyone wishing to undertake further investigation into the subject is heartily recommended to buy the CAMRA Good Beer Guide - a copy of which should appear on all good pagans' bookshelves.
And finally, I must mention The Witchwood in Manchester and a dreadful modern boozer in Stratford upon Avon called The Witches , along with a couple of comic names - these being The Slug and Lettuce , The Toad and Tulip and The Fiddling Monkey . Does the latter commemorate a dishonest landlord, I wonder?
Illustrations for this article by Dave Taylor (though the model he used for the Maypole remains anonymous....) Ta, Dave!