There was three kings into the east,
three kings both great and high,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn must die.
They took a plough and plough’d him down,
put clods upon his head,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.
The domestication and cultivation of wheat began approximately 12,000 years ago, and archaeologists believe wheat originated in a mountainous region of what is now southeastern Turkey. The Egyptians were the first people to use wheat to bake raised (leavened) bread. They created the first ovens that could bake multiple loaves at a time. The practice and art of wheat weaving also started thousands of years ago. It is linked to the preservation of the spirit that was believed to dwell within the wheat itself. Created from the last sheaf of wheat in the field, wheat weaving was a way to house the spirit of the wheat over the winter in a decorative work of art. Starting at a time when survival depended on a good grain harvest, the wheat within the weaving could be sown back into the ground come spring and served as a blessing or promise of prosperity to the community.
This magical aspect of wheat weaving sparked my interest in this art lost to time. Designs vary by location but they are always tied to this idea of the spirit of the grain and the fertility of the earth. Many early beliefs about wheat in Egypt and Greece tied this grain to a female deity, mainly Isis and Demeter. Demeter actually means “wheat giver,” and she was revered as a goddess of agriculture. Rituals and symbolism surrounding the Isis earth-mother cult were tied to grain. Even Ceres, the Roman goddess of the fields, follows this pattern. We have even derived our word “Cereal” from her name. At that time, accounts point to extravagant woven centerpieces displayed on harvest tables made in tribute to her. The addition of red ribbons to wheat may have also come from these early decorations, a tradition that continues to this day.
In Europe the wheat spirit was revered. More personal than an agricultural goddess of the grain, this spirit was believed to jump from sheaf to sheaf as it was cut. This cutting angered the spirit and the last section was cut by a group so the spirit could not single any one person out. This final cut of wheat was fashioned into a weaving that trapped the spirit until it could be replanted in the spring.
Eventually, other reasons for weaving wheat became popular. Not only was wheat associated with the harvest but also as a courting favor. Young women would wear simple plaited designs woven by their sweetheart. Many courting favor designs were developed so the weaver could be identified by the plaited wheat. Interestingly, some of the older forms of wheat have been preserved to this day in these intricate braids.
Today, the main functions of wheat weaving beyond artistry are house blessings, love knots, and harvest decorations. Many pagans do house blessings anyway so weaving a blessing into a wheat decoration seems appropriate. Spells associated with love could be woven much like the courting favors of old with fine heart shaped plaited sheaths. I have mostly used wheat for blessing my home, and a Welsh fan hangs from my front door. A great online resource for just starting out with wheat weaving from The Woodland Elf can be found here. She also has other videos on how to make the faery harp and Welsh fan pictured in this post. A fantastic book on this subject is The Book of Wheat Weaving and Straw Craft by Morgyn Geoffry Owens-Celli. This can be found on Amazon and is also sometimes found on Etsy. This is a gorgeous book with amazing wheat and straw projects. This craft is relatively easy and very rewarding. Happy weaving!