John Barleycorn, Death's scythe, an alehouse broom

Asheville's 17th Annual

Free Public Witch Ritual
on Samhain (Halloween)

Flash Rite Pub Moot
with Mummers Play

was performed in downtown Asheville
Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011, 8-10 PM

Death, Ol' Charmer, Witch

The first Samhain Flash Rite and Pub Moot with Mummers Play ever celebrated in Asheville (not to mention America) was a magical hit! Adapting a favorite traditional European ritual, thousands of years old, to 21st-century downtown Asheville, NC, we performed a quick, funny, poignant play at three local brew pubs that enacted the annual harvest-death of John Barleycorn, the personification of reaped hops and grains that make ale. (The downtown Asheville brew pubs were The Thirsty Monk, Jack of the Wood, and Hannah Flanagan's, and our dress rehearsal the previous night was at Tolliver's Crossing Irish Pub in West Asheville.)

John Barleycorn, Healer, Fool

After each performance, we gathered more followers and solemnly processed to the next pub to the Dorian strains of "John Barleycorn" by The Horses of the Gods, through downtown streets thronged with costumed Halloween revelers and Moogfest 2011 attendees. Our rite culminated with a Spiral Dance around the magnolia trees between Pack's Tavern and Asheville City Hall as Flaming Lips played Emerson Lake and Palmer's "What a Lucky Man He Was" nearby.

Medieval masked mummers

The mumming tradition in Europe goes back thousands of years but is as lively and popular as ever. Beneath their odd costumes and broad humor, the plays are seasonal magic rituals meant to ensure that light and warmth will rise again after being slain by dark and cold, and that health and prosperity will win out over death and dearth. From one town or village to the next, they adapt universal themes and characters to local traditions and concerns — as Lady Passion has done in creating Asheville's first mummers play.

Our "flash-rite" (a ritual flash mob) is not a religious excuse to get "cupshotten" (a Witch word meaning "drunk"). It appeals to many because it perpetuates Pagan magic, bonds Crafters in Sabbat fun, and supports our local economy.

"Mummers Play" is from the German word "Mummerspiel", meaning "masked play". (Wear makeup or masks to ensure good luck in the New Year!) Mummers plays are pantomimed and rhymed, and involve traditional characters, jokes, and audience quips. They are also an ancient ritual to bring the Gods' blessings of fertility and prosperity to a community, believed to have been brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons and blended with Celtic traditions.

Asheville's Samhain Flash Rite and Pub Moot with Mummers Play was the talk of downtown that Halloween weekend. Below, you can read the script and cast of characters of the play. And thanks to some great volunteer photographers including Jack Hedden, Tyrfire, and Monty, you can view hundreds of amazing photos and our descriptions documenting the rite and our dress rehearsals at Coven Oldenwilde's Photo Gallery.

Do you have or know about videos or photos of this event? Please contact us so we can add them or a link to them!

Samhain 2011 Flash Rite Mummers' Play:
The Death & Life of John Barleycorn

Mummer Players & Helpers:

  • Witch — our leader & mistress of ceremonies
  • John Barleycorn — our beery & bombastic spirit of prosperity & fertility
  • Death — our cold, impersonal harvester of life
  • The Healer — our self-proclaimed expert, who has all the answers but none of the solutions
  • Ol' Charmer — our ghost horse, a spirit of Nature
  • The Priestesses — our silent guides of Ol' Charmer
  • The Fool — our honored filler of cups
  • The Audience — You,
    foregathered at one of these three Asheville pubs
    and choosing, if you will, to follow us,
    adding your energy to this magic rite
    as noisily or silently as you might,
    seeing its symbols through eyes not just yours
    but those of a thousand generations before,
    raising your spirits (alcoholic or non-)
    in a toast to the Spirit that lives ever on
    though the sun may go dark and the body be gone!


Mummers enter pub and line up prominently in front area while Fool heads to the bar to arrange for half-pints of local brew and, if necessary, to get house music turned down. One Priestess blows a
loud, piercing whistleWe use an authentic English bobby's Acme siren whistle! until everyone in the pub is paying attention.

Witch storms into pub with staff

Witch leads flash rite, storms into pub with staff and sweeps it 'round to create a small sacred space for the players to perform, rhyme-singing:

In comes I ...
to cast a space —
I am the Witch
in this Mummer's play.
You'll love our tale
Of life and loss —
Pray if you do
A coin you'll toss!
John Barleycorn expostulates

John Barleycorn enters the scene, swaggering/bombastic, sporting a cloak pulled back behind his shoulders and corn shucks/wheat sheaves, etc. poking from his pockets, collar, belt, shoes/boots, etc., bragging about his prowess, rhyme-singing:

In comes I ...
my might to wield —
I'm John Barleycorn
of the summer fields.
You brew my ale
and down my drinks —
then wonder why
your costume shrinks!

The Players and the Audience say in unison:

It does tend to shrink a lit-tle each year!
Death scoffs at John Barleycorn and audience

Death dressed in black robe with a scythe, and opposes Barleycorn's claims, rhyme-singing:

In comes I ...
to reap this corn —
I'm Death who causes
all to mourn.
You all fear me —
With this I'm fine.
I'll cut him down
While in his prime!

John Barleycorn puts up a dramatic resistance to elicit crowd sympathy, rhyme singing:

I am the grain
that lifts your care,
but of my pain
you're unaware.
You watch me die —
But seed I plant.
I'd love to live
but know I can't.
John Barleycorn dramatically dies, with red strips of cloth spilling from heart

Death taps his foot, unimpressed, then turns his back on the audience and "slays" John Barleycorn with his scythe.

John Barleycorn plays out a comically exaggerated death scene, eventually turning his back to the audience during his throes, and pulls out red strips of cloth pinned inside his front shirt pocket, representing spilled blood. He finally wilts "dead" semi-erect against the wall, clutching his "heart" melodramatically.

Healer attempts to revive John Barleycorn
Healer costume of 6,666 knotsThe Healer's rope costume has 6,666 hand-tied knots.

The Healer enters, dressed in rope costume as here. [Lady Passion has made this for use by volunteer — see at right.] Healer brags in rhyme-song about their curing ability:

In comes I ...
to cure all woes —
the bite, the bleed,
the hot death throes.
You all trust me
to fix your gout —
Got six devils?
I'll cast sev'n out!

Healer's pantomimed ministrations yield minimal results.

Death derides Healer's remedies

Death steps forward.

Our ghost horse Ol' Charmer enters with jaws snapping. He takes pity on John Barleycorn, and nudges him alive.

Audience and participants cheer, then sing/snap fingers/clap the Ol' Charmer-Barleycorn chant:

Ol'Charmer heals John Barleycorn
Snap, snap!
Ol' Charmer is here —
To bring us a boon
And give us good cheer.
Clap, clap!
John Barleycorn dies
Our spirits to lift
But then he'll arise.
Witch takes a bow and bids goodbye

Witch closes the play rhyme-singing as Players link arms:

Barley's cut
your glass to fill —
but grows again
on summer hill.
We hope you've learned
That nothing dies —
Toss us some coin
We bid you 'bye!

Players bow arm-in-arm.

A Priestess goes 'round the audience with a trick-or-treater's cauldron after Players cajole donations in rhyme-song, in unison:

Fool with frying pan and club Mummers sing
If you haven't got a penny,
a half penny will do.
If you haven't got a half penny
Then what are you doing spending all your money in a pub?

The Fool (costumed brightly, masked, and carrying a frying pan in one hand, and a club in the other) ushers Players to their half pints, and taunts the audience to reveal his or her identity — but never admits it.

Players down their half pints, and they and Craft audience depart to the next pub on the route, repeating the flash-rite play at each site.

For More Information

Spiral dancers (and an orb) by the Mast Beast at Asheville's Free Public Witch Ritual
At left, participants in spiral dance at Samhain 16 in 2010 circle Ol' Charmer at his debut.