Years ago, in one of my many reconnaissance trips to flea markets, I came across a booklet entitled ‘Corn Dollies ~ and how to make them, New Enlarged Edition’, published for the Hereford County Council in 1958 by the Herefordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes.
Every year, as Lughnasadh approaches, I take out this 17 page gem and sit down to study the intricate designs and quasi-impossible tasks to execute and I marvel at this craft which has largely gone forgotten amongst us Pagan folk. I set out on the quest to find fresh grain and realize that this craft is far more than the simple weaving of grain into patterns which have been handed down from generation to generation. These are solemn harvest rites which once were regarded as an essential part of the well-being and fertility of the lands, bountiful crops and survival of the clans.
From times immemorial, when mankind first discovered the secret of seed germination, religious rites and worship evolved around the Earth Goddess, her rhythms and cycles and the mysteries of agriculture. The time for harvest and seed time became times of seasonal festivals. Solemn rites to Isis, Demeter, Persephone, Ceres, and many other Earth Goddesses became intertwined with local religious beliefs and folkloric customs. The Corn Mother would be crowned in the harvest field, and corn dollies and puppets were made to mimic her form. The mysteries of birth and death, as experienced through the grain kernel, which died to itself in order to be reborn as the plant that would bear more of itself and save mankind from hunger (the Sacrificial King), were understood and taught to the populace and unveiled in the Mystery Traditions, like those around Delphi. Those of Elysius became widespread and an accepted form of worship in places far from its place of origin.
The Gods looked after the Spirit of the Corn. Every farm, in ancient Europe, had its Corn Mother and its Corn Maiden. These two entities were not worshiped but their collaboration and cooperation was requested, so that the corn would be safe. Rituals around them, my little manual printed in 1958 says, were magical and not propitiatory.
It was believed that the Corn Spirit lived in the field and that it died as the last sheaf was cut, just to be reborn as the Corn Doll or Kern Baby, the plaited straw figure or ornamental object which was made from this last corn of the harvest. In other words, the Cailleach, the Kirn Maiden, the Carley, the Mell Doll, the Hag, the Harvest Queen, the Neck, the Mare, the Old Barley Woman, etc (all different names given throughout England, Wales and Scotland as well as Europe) was the resting place of the Corn Spirit and would be kept in the house (preferably in the pantry, kitchen or hearth) until the next harvest, in order to ensure a successful crop and the survival of the people.
In his Everday Book, 1827, William Hone describes the ceremony of Crying the Neck which he witnessed in Devon. The harvest done, the men and women would stand in a circle around an old man holding a straw ornament (the Neck) made from that harvest’s best ears of corn. The old man would touch the figure to the ground and the party would chant “Wee-en Way-en” in a very mournful tone, and burst into jubilation when he raised it on high. This magical rite symbolized the lamentful grieving for the death of the Corn Spirit and the ecstatic acclamation of his rebirth in the upraised Neck. This portent of the following year’s harvest would then be carried into the house and kept safely until the following year.
To quote my little booklet, “In Frazer’s The Golden Bough there is a record of an old Phrygian custom that may have some bearing on the word Neck. If any strange was near when the last of the reaping was at hand, it was supposed that the Corn Spirit might escape into him, and, to make sure it was killed – an essential part of the ceremony – he was seized, wrapped in a sheaf of corn, his head was cut off, and he was either thrown into the river or water was poured over him, for a rain charm.”
There were very many different customs and harvest ceremonies which varied from county to county, and the booklet describes those found throughout Wales, Ireland and Scotland. In some places an effigy was made out of straw, wearing a bonnet and a dress, whilst in other areas, the sheaf was simply decorated with streamers and paper on the very harvest field. A young man would then carry the result home. He would literally race to the farmhouse with it in his arms. If he was successful in entering the house without being doused with water, by the girls who awaited him on either side of the door, it would be a sign that the following harvest would be a dry one.
In some cases a girl dressed in a white dress and yellow sash would lead home the reapers, whilst the Ivy Girl or Corn Baby made from the last sheaf, dressed in paper clothes by the female harvesters, was carried high above her on the wagon. Sometimes this was a life-sized straw figure, or Harvest Queen, carried onto the harvest field in the morning with a sickle under her arm, and taken home in the evening with music and a lot of jubilation and commotion.
In Herefordshire at the Crying of the Mare , the last blades of corn were tied into four bunches to form legs of a mare and the reapers would take part in a contest in which their sickles would be thrown at the mare to cut off the knots that held it together. The winner got a prize and would be acclaimed with good cheer, food, and drink as well as all-night revelries and dancing.
So, the corn dolly had two functions, from I what I seem to understand. To preserve the Spirit of the Corn until the following year’s harvest and as a rain charm.
There are still a few masters in the intricacies of corn weaving but many worry that their craft will go lost due to the advent of harvest machines and the general moving away of man from the fields and land. Surprisingly, the Corn Dolly is still made to decorate the tops of ricks, to commemorate important occasions (such as the Festival of the Harvest) in churches and chapels throughout Europe.
Yes, and so it came to pass that the Pagan Corn Dolly has survived in the Christian Church as the Christian symbol of the harvest. I invite you all to embrace, learn and preserve this ancient craft, which after all is integral part of our Pagan heritage. It is fun! Start this year and get your corn dolled up for the coming harvest.
Corn Dollies and How to Make Them – compiled by Lettice Sandford and Philla Davis (1958)
The Golden Bough – Sir James Frazer (1896)