Corn dolls or sometimes “corn mothers” are miraculous forms of straw fashioned from the last sheaf of cereals after a summer harvest. Therefore, these straw dolls are a noteworthy & supernatural part of the harvest customs of pastoral Europe.
Some pagan cultures called these mothers “vetulas” (the Latin for “Old Woman” is vetula) though, in the 7th century, Saint Eligius (born 588) instructed folk not to make “vetulas, or little deer or iotticos (eye amulets) or set tables for a house-elf…” because all these things, including corn dolls, were pagan.
In Scotland, when the last oats were cut after Hallowmas (Allhallowtide) a female figure was made of straw at the end of the day and identified as the Carlin or Carline, a character also known in Scottish folklore as Cailleach the Divine, the goddess of storms, or Beira, the queen of winter. This straw figure, symbolizing a hag, is commonly depicted in art as veiled in a wool cloak — a one-eyed giantess with white hair, dark blue skin and rust-coloured teeth.
As a personification of winter Beira, Queen of Winter herds deer, she fights-away the new spring when it emerges too early and the stick she carries will freeze the earth if she thrusts it into the ground.
The corn-dolly figure of the old hag would be tossed into a neighbouring field by a farmer who safely brought his harvest home.
The last farmer to bring the harvest home would be left with the bewitched doll…
Therefore the last farmer to bring the harvest home would be left with any number of bewitched dolls. And he and his family had responsibility for taking care of these dolls until the following year, the implication being that unless the “old hag of winter” was offered protection and hospitality, the Spring-time might never come. As you can imagine, competition was intense to avoid having to “take in” the Queen of Winter.
However, not all European corn dolls looked like witches (or any humanoid character.) Some were simple three-strand braids that had been shaped into a heart, others were shaped into crosses, others into animals such as straw dogs and straw goats.
The indigenous peoples of America fashioned their dolls out of husks of dry corn and it’s this link to Native American culture that interests the pagan revival movement. Although it is best to remember that European pilgrim settlers (Christians) also used American corn husk dolls in their Lammas celebrations (the first day of August). I visited the Lammas fields at Lammastide in my Myth & Magic show Episode 3 which aired on August 21, 2019, if you want to learn more about Lammas Tide (the loaf mass.)
American corn husk dolls are magical trinkets that are thought to bring protection to the home, to livestock, and to protect the doll-maker and his family. In this regard, they say the corn husk doll is “home” to the spirit of the harvest. The tradition touches on the idea that the harvest of every grain crop has a spirit that loses its home after the harvest is brought in. So, at that moment, the spirit is “lost” and homeless. That’s why the doll is produced with the last crop. The doll must be invited into the farmer’s house where it is protected and over-wintered by the family (cared for) before it is “lovingly” returned to the land, in early spring, to revitalise the next harvest.
You’ll know from your American folklore that the three main agricultural crops of North America are winter squash, maize (corn), and climbing beans. They colloquially call this trinity the “Three Sisters.” Humans have planted these three crops since prehistoric times, all across North America, to the present day.
What is less well known is that the indigenous peoples thought that the Spirit of the Corn — the “Corn Sister” — was so beautiful and vain that she seduced everyone she met and spent all her time admiring her own loveliness. Thus, the indigenous people rarely (ever) gave her a face. This is to protect (us) mortals from seduction and defend the Corn Sister from the “sins” of self-love and narcissism.
If you ever see a corn husk doll with a face, be afraid. Be very afraid!
Words: @neilmach August 2021 ©
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