Alma Mater Bountiful Mother Grain Harvest
With thanks to ArchMatrona Georgia for inspiring this post.
(Please click on the photographs to enlarge into a slide show.)
Left: Hay Harvest at Éragny by Camille Pissarro 1901
Middle: John Linnell The Harvest Cradle
Right: My Harvest Home 1835
Corn Dolly’s Origins.
The corn dolly’s origins are ancient. Variations of it can be found all over the world.
Farmers used to believe that the spirit of th Corn remained in the last sheaf to be harvested. This had to be preserved to ensure a successful crop next year. Often the last sheaf was made into a Corn Dolly, Harvest maid or Mother of Earth to hold the spirit of the corn over the winter.
It is thought that the earliest type of corn dolly is the cornucopia or Horn
of Plenty. The Neck or traditional dolly found in Britain is a variation of this form. Over the centuries more elaborate types developed, particularly in the East of England.
“Harvest home, harvest home,
We have ploughed, we have sowed,
We have reaped, we have mowed,
We have brought home every load,
Hip, hip, hip, harvest home.”
(traditional harvesting song).
Harvest celebrations and rituals varied in different parts of the country, and even between farms in the same village. But some of these traditions existed throughout the country.
The workers would elect a Lord of the Harvest to organise the bringing in of the corn.
The last sheaf or ‘neck’ would be tied and all the workers would stand in a circle and throw their scythes at it. This meant that no one person was responsible for cutting the last sheaf, which was considered unlucky. This act was accompanied by a shout to let the neighbours know the harvesting was successful. This was known as ‘crying the neck’. The neck was often made into a corn dolly.
The harvest procession with the last load back to the farm was loud and colourful. In the evening the harvest supper took place, a great celebration of a successful harvest. A corn dolly would be present throughout.
The corn dolly was kept in the farmhouse until next year’s crop had been sown. It was then broken on the field to make sure the spirit of the corn made the next crop grow.
Although the corn dolly and harvest traditions are pagan in origin, these rituals were gradually absorbed into the Christian calendar. These celebrations are now preserved in church harvest festivals.
Making a Corn Dolly.
Modern wheat varieties have short, solid brittle stems to enable combine harvesters to work effectively. It is not possible to make corn dollies out of this straw.
The straw needs to be pliable and tough. It needs to be hollow so that a new straw can be inserted to extend the length. It also has to be specially grown and scythed by hand, as combine harvesters damage the straw.
Wheat is most often used, but corn dollies are also made from rye and oat straw.
Plaiting and braiding
Most dollies are made by plaiting the straw.
Only the top of the straw is used, between the ear and the top joint. Before use it is dampened (‘tempered’) in hot water for about an hour. This makes the straw more pliable.
To make a traditional dolly or neck about 150 straws are needed. About 80 of these are used to make a cigar-shaped core (A). A 5 straw plait is then woven around the solid core (B). This gives the dolly its familiar spiral pattern. At the end of the core the plait forms a length of briad which is bent round to form a loop (C). A number of corn heads are inserted at the opposite end to finish the dolly (D).
Most types of corn dolly are decorated with a ribbon bow.
The colours are traditional and have their own meanings.
White is for purity
Blue is the colour of the corn flower, and also stands for truth.
Red is the colour of the poppy and the blood of sacrifice.
Yellow represents the sun and ripe corn.
Green stands for fertility and new growth in spring.
“These originally represented the Goddess, as their names show – Kern Baby (from Keres), Cailleach (ancient Lady), the Maiden, etc. These were reminiscent not only of the Daughter, who refers to Herself as ‘the ear of corn that is reaped in silence’ (Mythos: 7: 19: the respect shown to the last sheaf, from which the doll was often made, reflects this image), but also of the Mother, whose continuous act of creation maintains the cycles fo life from seed to harvest.”
The Coming Age, Autumn, 1976 Issue 4.
I would also include the Great Mother as Ground of All Being, Source of All.
Top Left: Fylfot Corndoll a sun wheel or brighids cross, found in the Museum of Rural Life in Reading, Berkshire
Top Right: Corn Sun Wheel
Middle Right: Mexican Heart of Corn
Bottom Left & Right: Cornucopia of Corn
The centuries old local names for the figure created from the last precious stalks of wheat were (and still are) used, names such as Cailleach, Churn, Clyack, Corn Maiden, Hag, Harvest Maid, Ivy Girl, Kern Baby (Kirk baba), Kern Maiden, Maiden, Mell, Mare, and Neck and in other countries, Arûseh (Corn Bride) and Corazón (Heart).
The term ‘Corn Dolly’ is a relatively modern generic one, coined in the early part of the 20th Century, together with names such as Cambridge Umbrella, Stafford Knot, Suffolk Horseshoe, etc. which described the style of a Corn Dolly from a particular region. Prior to this they were known as ‘Harvest Trophies’.
My research also revealed that “Dolly” may be a corruption of the word “idol” or may have come directly from the Greek word eidolon, that which ‘represents something else’.
Ops Consiva meaning Wealth from Planting.
From her name, we derive the word opulent. Her medieval name was Habondia or Abundance.
She is both a goddess of sowing and reaping.
Worshippers invoked her by touching the ground.
August 25 Opiconsivia
A Roman harvest festival in honour of Her.
Farias, Helen, Calendar Notes, The Beltane Papers, 1992
30th July 2016 Baling on my mother family’s land Midlands
18th August 2016 wheat harvesting on my mother family’s land Midlands