What exactly is a Corn Dolly?

What exactly is a Corn Dolly?

When early man ceased his nomadic existence as a hunter-gatherer and settled down to cultivate the earth and produce food, he believed that the success of his labours was highly dependent on various deities who would oversee the cycles and fruitfulness of his crops. To this end, various sacrifices and ceremonies would be held to propitiate his gods. These early beliefs are to be found in civilisations all over the world, particularly where cereal crops are concerned.

Wheat is one of the first cereals known to have been domesticated, and archaeological records suggest that this first occurred in the regions known as the Fertile Crescent in the Near East, and the Nile Delta.

Some of the more well known deities were Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest (from which we get our word ‘cereal’); Demeter (Earth Mother) the Greek goddess of the harvest, and Isis, the Egyptian Goddess of Fertility.

So wherever cereal crops were grown, the underlying legend still remained: it was thought that the Corn Spirit retreated before the oncoming reapers at harvest time, taking refuge in the last of the standing corn. These last few stalks would be fashioned into a Corn Dolly, a receptacle in which the Spirit could rest during the winter. In the spring, the Corn Dolly, together with its incumbent Corn Spirit, would be returned to the fields with the new planting. By giving the Corn Spirit a home during the dark and cold winter months, it was hoped to ensure that the forthcoming crop would be a bounteous one.

Corn Dolly

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’. 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).

an example of an Arûseh made from black eared wheat

“Arûseh”
Work of Veronica Main

Examples of old harvest trophies

Neck

a traditional neck
“Neck”
Work of Gillian Nott
              a traditional neck as found in Cornwall
“Cornish Neck”
Work of Gillian Nott

Harvest Maid or Ivy Girl

              An early form of a harvest maiden. It was named 'The Catherine Wheel Maiden
“Catherine Wheel Maiden”
Work of Gordon (surname unknown)
              
an elaborate harvest maid“Sara”
Work of Thera Fletterman
a full size Ivy Maid
Joan Hart’s full size “Ivy Maid of Kent”
a harvest maid“Harvest Maid”
Work of Ruth Wylie

Kern Baby

a kern babie

“Kern babie”
Work of Veronica Main

In this day and age, with our scientific knowledge of germination, fertilisation and crop cycles the old superstitions are but a thing of the past, but the Corn Dolly can still be regarded as an attractive symbol of the earth’s fertility. It is popular both as a reminder of our agrarian history, and a welcome gift for a marriage, handfasting, christening, housewarming or other special occasions.

Harvest Knots, Love Tokens, a Countryman’s Favour

Intricately woven, or plain and simple, these small pieces of straw work do not embody the Corn Spirit, but are small tokens exchanged as an expression of love between a young couple, the heartfelt thanks for a harvest brought in, or a display piece to demonstrate the plaiting skills of the giver.

an example of a traditional wedding favour from Ireland


Links

There are two examples of harvest trophies on this site Pictures of Harvest.

Harvest trophies at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.


Bibliography

Ronald Hutton   –  Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain(pp 141-142) Oxford University Press (1996) ISBN 0-19-288045-4.Veronica Main   –  ‘Corn Dollies: Searching for the Seed of Truth’Volume 37 1999 Folk Life – A journal of ethnological studies

Further resources

Useful knots for straw workers

The use of the correct knot will ensure that your work will look tidy. Tying a bunch of straws together = Clove Hitch Tying two straws together at right angles […]

FAQs About Straw

1. THE BASIC MATERIAL For Corn Dolly making and decorative straw work a hollow stemmed straw is required, with a good length between the head of the wheat and the […]

Thatched Roof Ornaments

There is no finer sight than to see a newly thatched roof glowing in the sunshine topped, if you are fortunate, with a stylish straw ornament that gives a flourish, […]