Yesterday I got back from a well known pagan camp in North Yorkshire for Lammas and I’m still not caught up on sleep.

It’s a three day event but I help out by running the trader’s field, laying it out and getting everybody to the right pitch etc. It gets me to camp a day earlier and I get to know everybody which I like.

I’ve always been responsible for the building of the wicca man on a Sunday too. I say wicca man, that’s a bit of a misnomer as the wicca man is more often made of wood and willow withies stuffed with straw but we’ve all seen the movie and that’s the name he was given the first year. I saw a similar straw and withy man at a camp back in the late nineties so the following year when a friend and I went to this well known pagan camp in North Yorkshire I suggested we have a go at creating our own. I’ve been in charge of it ever since.

We build a larger than life effigy of a man on a pentagram made of bound together lengths of firewood that the farm gets as off-cuts from a saw mill. Often the figure is in the region of eight feet tall. After processing him around the camp site we prop him up against the fire and burn him.

The effigy is known as John Barleycorn which is a second misnomer as the legend of John Barleycorn doesn’t describe him as being burned. Instead he is cut down, harrowed in, boiled up and generally brewed into beer. In our case we are using the name to represent the grain crop in general.

The ritual has gained in sophistication over the years and we now have a standardized ritual (the beginnings of a tradition) where someone steps forward from the crowd and complains that the figure is golden, fit and healthy at our expense of toil in the field. The crowd are invited to decide what we should do about this and, in an acknowledgement of our animal nature, the crowd demands he be burned. As representatives step forward to take up torches the crowd shout burn him, burn him. As master of ceremonies I egg them on. Finally he burns in a glorious pyre.

As the figure burns someone else steps forward from the crowd and asks ‘what have we just done?’ This represents our remorse at our actions. After a short discourse the crowd are invited to decide what should be done and they call for the return of John Barleycorn.

Shortly, after long enough for the shouting to reach a peak, a man dressed in straw and very little else springs into the circle and proceeds to dance around as the returned John Barleycorn. Soon everybody is inside the circle, singing and dancing with pipes and drums and the party continues until after dark.

It’s great fun, we get two or three hundred people baying for the burning and then turn them into a compassionate population again. I get to lead the whole affair and this year I lost my voice what with all the calling for burning and compassion. It’s a cross between ritual and participatory theatre.

I’ll post more about the weekend when I’ve had a bit more sleep.