Scattering Violets

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Corn Dollies: A Harvest Tradition

Since I can remember, my mom has had two small corn husk dolls. I’m not sure where or why she got them, but it was before I was born, so they’ve always been there, through all my family’s moves from city to city, country to country. Even now, they’re nestled among other knick-knacks in the enormous Bavarian schrank my parents keep in their formal living room. They are quaint, dainty little things, and they’ve always held a kind of mystery to me that, for a long time, I couldn’t quite pin down.

As an adult, I learned that corn husk dolls originated among the Iroquois, and the tradition was picked up by European settlers who had similar traditions. In some ways, corn husk dolls are the indigenous American cognate to European corn dollies, which are usually not so much “dolls” as we think of them as they are decorative objects taking a variety of shapes: hearts, handbells, lanterns, horseshoes, to name just a handful. Another difference is that corn dollies are often made of wheat, barley, or oat sheaves, not the ears of maize used to craft corn husk dolls.

Most of the time, at least in the U.S., when we hear the word “corn,” we think of maize – the sweet, large grain that grows on a cob. But, historically, corn – a Germanic word – indicated any species of grain. “Dolly,” for its part, possibly stems from the Greek word eidolon, or idol. Together, “corn dolly” essentially means grain idol.

Corn dollies are a pan-European element of old harvest traditions, from as far west as the U.K. to Scandinavia in the north and various Slavic countries in the east. Traditionally, they’re made at the end of the harvest season from the last sheaf cut from the fields. They would be kept indoors, honored at the family table during holidays, until the next spring. When spring came, the dolly was often ploughed into the first furrow.

Spirits of the Harvest

Such care was taken of these corn dollies because it was understood that the corn spirit moved into the last sheaf when all other sheaves had been harvested. This spirit, depending on the culture, is called by many names: Grandmother, Old Woman, Corn Maiden, Corn/Rye/Barley/Oat Mother, Carline or Cailleach in Scotland, Baba in Poland and Bohemia, and sometimes Old Man or Grandfather. The spirit may be old or young, masculine or feminine, benign or malignant. Whoever was the one to cut the last sheaf bound, or was bound up in, them and was paraded with them through the streets to be delivered at home. Depending on attitudes toward the corn spirit, this might be considered an honor or a burden.

Beliefs in the nature of the corn spirits vary across cultures: sometimes the spirit is viewed as a threatening, destructive force; other times, the spirit is taken to have a helpful disposition. The malignant ones were believed to destroy crops, making the act of binding the corn sheaves an apotropaic (i.e. evil-deterring) act. The benign ones were bound and brought home as a form of honoring the spirit, keeping it safe over the winter and encouraging it to return to the land in the spring and bring fertility.

As we approach the autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere and the harvest time is upon us, I think of these spirits dwelling in the sheaves of grains on local farms. Perhaps I’ll try my hand at making my own corn dolly this year, inviting the spirit that may still dwell within it to bless my home and family throughout the winter, and then bury it in the spring to dwell once again within the land.

(Image source)


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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


  • Hugh Gadarn
    Hugh Gadarn Tuesday, 26 September 2017

    Fascinating. I find corn dollies intriguing and there are examples in early Britain. On the eve of St. Bride's day girls used to make and decorate corn dollies which they took to each household in return for a payment of food or coin. (Source: Earth Rites. Janet and Colin Bird)

  • The Cunning Wīfe
    The Cunning Wīfe Thursday, 28 September 2017

    Thanks for sharing, Hugh! I love learning about the similarities and differences in corn dolly traditions across European cultures. There seems to be a connection between corn spirits and gold-giving in many cultures that hold a corn dolly tradition, probably due to the link between the earth, its cultivation, and wealth/fertility.

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