Throughout Britain during Harvest Festival the churches are often decorated with intricately woven straw decorations known as corn dollies. These decorations do not have their origins in the Christian religion but in beliefs and ideas that stretch back to pre-history.
The celebration of the harvest is steeped in legend and mythology. All the legends though revolve around the story of Ceres, the earth mother, goddess of all that grows out of the earth.
In some areas of Britain, end of harvest it is traditional for the farmers to leave a row of wheat standing in the fields with the belief that bad luck will befall them should they cut it. The reason for this is that because of the legends the belief is that Ceres hides in the corn.
Until the early 1900s in Northamptonshire, UK a sheaf of corn would always be left standing in the fields and whilst the sheaf stood nobody was allowed in the field. Once the sheaf was removed the women and children were allowed to enter and glean through the stubble.
In other parts of the country the last row of corn used to be beaten down to the ground by the reapers who shouted ” There she is! Hit her! Knock her into the ground! Don’t let her get away!” The reasoning behind this was that the spirit of the corn mother would be driven into the ground where she would remain until the following year.
From these beliefs it became tradition to preserve the last stalks of corn from a field and to make them into the shape of a woman that was then adorned with ribbons (usually blue ribbons). These figures would then be carried back to the farmhouse where they would be displayed on the wall during the harvest festivities.
Corn dollies were known by many different names from one part of the country to the other and in fact from one part of the world to another. Depending on where you find yourself a corn dolly could be called a corn mother, a mell baby, a corn baby, a kirn child, a kirn doll or a mell mother. Mistakenly many think that the derivation of dolly comes from the fact that the straw figure resembles a child’s doll but it is more likely to be a corruption over many centuries of the world idol.
Corn dollies have also been associated with some gruesome Harvest rituals and one of the most gruesome was practised in Central Asia Minor between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea.
Here the Phrygians, a cattle raising people, worshipped Cybele, the mother of the gods and at Harvest time they practised a ritual called crying the Nek’.
This particular ritual originates from the Phrygian custom of capturing any stranger that passed near to the cornfields during Harvest time. The Phrygians believed that the corn spirit of the earth entered into the strange and therefore the according to the dictates of legend must be returned to the earth
The hapless stranger would be placed in the centre of the last sheaves of cut corn and then his head was cut off with sickles. The blood which was spilt on the ground was believed to contain the spirit of the corn and therefore the spirit was returned to the earth ensuring grace in the eyes of the gods and a good harvest for the following year.
Up until 150 years ago in Devon, England there was a much milder version of crying the Nek practiced. This much more civilised version involved a Nek dolly being formed from the last row of wheat. The reapers would then form a circle and the dolly was held so that the ears of the wheat pointed uppermost. Each reaper would then bow to the centre of the circle and touched the ears of the wheat to the ground thus ensuring that the corn sprit remained in the earth.