With Euphrosyne as our guide, plus a special visit this week from the Queen of Pentacles, we move deeper into the harvest and ancestor festival season. ‘Harvest’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word, ‘herfst’ meaning ‘autumn,’ the time when the harvesting of crops was coming to an end, at the time of the Autumnal Equinox.
The references to “corn” in the times prior to the Europeans’ arrival in the New World, were not what we in America think of as corn. Our American corn, Zea mays, is maize or sweet corn.
Corn is an English term dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps earlier, simply meaning cereal or grain. It commonly refers, in modern usage, to maize, but can also refer to wheat, barley, rye, oats, and so on.
So in magical and historical lore, the references we see to corn were actually barley or wheat in England, and often oats in Scotland and Ireland. Using this broader term of “corn,” we then understand how cultures and civilizations throughout the world have celebrated a Corn Goddess.
One of the most familiar harvest customs comes to us from the British Isles. During the harvest, as the crops were gathered, it was believed that the domain of the Corn Goddess shrank as each sheaf was cut. When the final stalks remained in a field corner it was believed that the Corn Goddess resided within them.
So the last sheaf was fashioned into a human form, called a corn dolly, and it represented the Divine Mother or the fertility of the Land Herself. The harvesters would place the dolly on the cart containing the last load and bear her home, accompanied by lots of singing, dancing and, no doubt, drinking. A branch of oak leaves was held over the cart – a custom from ancient times when all rites and ceremonies were conducted under the holy oak trees.
The corn dolly would preside in a place of honor over the farm workers’ Harvest Home feast. Afterwards she would be kept on a mantel or a safe place in a barn until the plowing season came again. Then, with much ceremony and celebration, she would be placed in the first furrow and plowed back into the soil to ensure the crops’ regeneration and productivity.
At the Harvest Home celebrations, to this day celebrated throughout the British countryside, there are thanksgivings, feasts, and in some cases, visits from the Morris Men, who dance their magical blessings.
Tomorrow, I’ll share some more lore about corn dollies, as you consider your own rites to celebrate the Harvest in your own Home.