Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Corn dollies: icons of the harvest

It's September, which means that Autumn is about to rear its colourful head and the harvest will begin. The season held special significance to the pre-Christian peoples, particularly in Europe, as it meant the closing of a bountiful season of growth and the reaping of its rewards.

Pagan Europeans believed that the corn was imbued by a living spirit - the Corn Goddess, who would have nowhere to live once the corn had been harvested. Because of this, people commonly took the last sheaf of the season and fashioned it into a plaited dolly in order to keep the Corn Goddess safe through the dark cold winter.

Here is a wonderful extract from The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer detailing the process of driving out the corn spirit:

"The last sheaf is carried joyfully home and honoured as a divine being. It is placed in the barn, and at threshing the corn-spirit appears again. In the Hanoverian district of Hadeln the reapers stand round the last sheaf and beat it with sticks in order to drive the Corn-mother out of it. They call to each other, “There she is! hit her! Take care she doesn’t catch you!” The beating goes on till the grain is completely threshed out; then the Corn-mother is believed to be driven away."

Corn dollies come in a range of different varieties depending on their geographical location, such as the Norfolk Lantern, the Cambridge Handbell and the Yorkshire Spiral. Each is exquisite and beautiful, often found hanging in rural homes to this day.

Some variations were large, using a whole sheaf, resulting in some remarkable artefacts like the Straw dog of Orkney and the Lame goat of Skye.

There are still people who practise the craft of corn dolly making, such as The Guild of Straw Craftsmen - check the site out, it makes for an interesting read.

Nowadays, corn dollies are used as more of a fashion statement, as you can sometimes see them dangling from necklaces or used as earrings. They're also used in modern interior design to invoke that rural atmosphere to a home. You may also find that they're still given to children at Christenings or to mark a birth.

If you fancy making your own corn dolly this season then the Eden Project has a nice short tutorial for making simple ones here http://www.edenproject.com/blog/index.php/2011/09/how-to-make-a-corn-dolly/