Plants as Decorative Idols

Making “corn dollies” is an ancient harvest custom that died out with the advent of modern mechanized harvesting methods in the 19th century and was brought back in modified form as part of the “folk revival” of the 1960s (which extended well beyond folk music and represented a democratization and continuation of the Arts & Crafts movement that began in the 19th century). Corn dollies are by weaving dried wheat plants into anthropomorphic forms. It is often repeated that the tradition is pagan and that the figures represent “harvest gods.” The staid Answers.com surprisingly refutes this commonplace notion, dismissing it as a “discredited ‘Frazerian’ theory of corn spirits and fertility.”

Sir James George Frazer

Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) was a Scot who taught at Trinity College, Cambridge for decades and was essentially one of the inventors of cultural anthropology. His central work The Golden Bough (1890) is a classic of late Victorian academic literature, but according to Wikipedia, “His theories of totemism were superseded by Claude Lévi-Strauss and his vision of the annual sacrifice of the Year King has not been borne out by field studies.”

The Year King is generic term for a host of “life-death-rebirth” deities, with which Frazer apparently associated the corn dollies. Incidentally, in Europe all grains were once referred to collectively as “corn” and “doll” is ultimately derived from the word “idol.” Answers.com huffs that because of Frazer’s mistaken conclusion the woven figures have not been well studied.

Although they may not be well understood anthropologically, they are certainly popular as decorative objects from the late summer into the fall as grain crops are harvested. A search on the Internet using the words “corn dollies” yields an avalanche of “how-to” pages, leading the tyro through the process of making a corn dolly step-by-step with written instructions, diagrams, or both.

Suffolk corn dollies

Grain weaving is widespread throughout Europe and each region seems to have its traditional forms. I say “seems to” and “traditional” because it sometimes difficult to tease out how much of what is called “traditional” is really something that arose during the Romantic revival of supposedly pagan customs through the nineteenth century (and then again in the 1950s and early ‘60s), and how much has a real pedigree in the ancient past. It is easy to think of objects like “Christmas trees” and the “Easter bunny” that are somehow related to some distant pagan practice but whose meaning and form have most definitely drifted.

Karen Reams, writing at helium.com, recounts local traditions in England associated with the making of corn dollies. She calls the earth goddess “Ceres,” her Roman name, and of course the Romans colonized much of England. The native Celtic (the Britons were Celts) fertility goddess was known by many names, including Danu (from which the Irish band derives their name). Reams describes regional practices that acknowledge that spirit of the goddess is in the crop and that some of it should be left standing at harvest. Rather using the last stalks as food, they were woven into figures and displayed during harvest festivities.

Carole Somerville, also writing at helium.com, describes a medieval practice of either choosing a real woman as a “harvest queen” or making a “kirn-doll” and parading it through the streets on Thanksgiving Day. This brings up the revisionist sermon about how the meal shared by the “Pilgrims” and the Wampanoag in 1621 was not actually the “first Thanksgiving,” but rather Wampanoag choosing to diplomatically join their future foes in a traditional European harvest festival.

"Corn" in the background

It would be a charming fiction to introduce corn dollies to the story of the 1621 Thanksgiving and have the former East Anglians, who were supposedly out to purify the Christian faith, explain away the presence of these pagan idols. This is a cynical idea because it assumes that the Pilgrims were hypocrites, but their later actions with respect to the Wampanoag rather free us from any sympathy for them.

One could even make the tale fantasmagorical by telling it from the corn dolly’s point of view: a goddess temporarily imprisoned in a woven sheaf of corn stalks is the helpless witness to the betrayal of her fellow non-Christians. Let the weaving begin. And then the burning.

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