The ancient summer festival of Beltane occurred at the beginning of May; and St George’s Day was on 4 May until calendar reform moved it to its present date. So it seems an appropriate time to raise the question: Was the song “Norwegian Wood” written by John Lennon and/or Paul McCartney, as they claim, or is it really an ancient folk song?
This discussion is based on the book Where is Saint George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong by Bob Stewart. The book’s thesis is that a small number of folksongs are survivals from liturgical songs associated with the pre-Christian religion of Europe, as is shown by internal evidence within the songs themselves. Some features of this religion, shown in folksongs and elsewhere, were:
- It involved the sacrifice of the king as a fertility rite, to bring back light and growth at the dark time of the year. The king was murdered by his literal or metaphorical brother (the rite of tanistry, practised in Scotland into historical times), under the direction of the priestesses of the Mother Goddess. Sometimes the dead king would be brought back to life by the goddess.
- As well as a fertility rite, this also involved a pilgrimage of the king to the “other world”, mediated by the entranced priestess; he would send back information of value to his people, or would report if brought back to life.
- There are also some indications that the king and priestess were part of a breeding programme overseen by the ritual; compare the story of the origin of the Order of the Garter. Thus there would be some courtship ritual involved, which often involved riddles, or transformations (as in the song “The Two Magicians”). These transformation sequences recall those found in the Chinese story of the journey of Monkey and his companions to the West in search of scriptures.
- This aspect also explains the licenced sexual freedom allowed on certain occasions such as Midsummer Night (echoes of which are in Shakespeare’s play).
- Trees were often involved in the sacrifice – in the song “Edward”, the brother is murdered for pulling up a hazel tree – which immediately recalls the sacrifice of Balder on the ash tree Yggdrasil in Norse legend.
- This picture is confused by a conflict between the chthonic religion and a later religion of sky gods which supplanted it (as the Aryan sky-gods supplanted the indigenous earth gods in India, according to some accounts). The Welsh brothers Bran and Beli illustrate this. Bran’s bird was the wren, a ground-dwelling bird (which is ritually sacrificed in the song “The Cutty Wren”, thought to reflect actual practice), while Beli’s was the robin, which sings from the tops of trees, sticking out its fiery breast.
- In this connection, note that after his death, Bran’s head would prophesy, in the same way as the head of Orpheus in Greek myth. Note too that Orpheus was a musician, who could charm the birds out of their nests (like the priestess in “The Two Brothers”).
- Much pagan symbolism was taken over by Christianity. (Bede, in his History, records the letter from Pope Gregory to Archbishop Augustine which directs him to do this.) As well as the dying and reviving god (whose cross is often referred to as a “tree”), we have the conflict of Lucifer and Michael. This brings the additional complication that Lucifer, bringer of light, seems to be himself a sky god, deposed by another sky god.
- The Archangel Michael blends with St George, his lance being replaced by a sword. In the mummers’ play, the two brothers were St George and the Turkish Knight (who were brothers). Stewart asks how we can explain the fact that an obscure Cappadocian pork butcher became the patron saint of England without admitting that he could be assimilated to an existing religious archetype. The proclamation of his cult in England was nearly comtemporary with the origin of the Order of the Garter.
With this in mind, let us turn to “Norwegian Wood“.
First, obviously, the verses of the song are set to a monophonic modal melody of a kind typical of folk music. George Harrison’s sitar possibly recalls the lyre of Orpheus.
The song is shrouded in ambiguity. In the first line, it could be the king possessing the priestess, or it could be the other way round. When we get to the first chorus, we learn that there is no throne, so presumably we are in the temple of the priestess.
In this place, the king’s power is curtailed. The purpose of the priestess’s wine is to induce a shamanistic trance. This is not midsummer night, however; sexual free-for-all is not on offer.
The transformation sequence is rather abrupt. After the priestess announces that she has to work in the morning (presumably as a medium for the king’s messages from the other world), the king transforms into a fish, and the priestess into a bird to escape him.
In the last line of the song, things become a bit clearer. The king lights a fire, indicating that he is Lucifer; fuel for the fire is from the Norse ash-tree Yggdrasil, where he is to be sacrificed. But the revelation he brings from the other world is so ambiguous it must be phrased as a question: “Isn’t it good?”