Reaping The Last Stalks at Lammas

Reaping The Last Stalks at Lammas
Lammas is the harvest festival that occurs on August 1. To pagans and Wiccans, it is the First Harvest, which focuses on wheat, barley, maize, and other cereal crops. Arguably the most significant part of the Lammas festival is the reaping of the last stalks in the fields, which are made into the corn dolly. Here is some background on this unusual custom.

In the old days, all the field workers spread out and systematically covered the field, reaping with their scythes and gathering the harvest. Everyone knew where everyone else stood in the field. No one blundered into anyone else’s workspace. Everyone finally converged around the last few stalks of wheat to be cut down. Often this portion of the harvest was singled out beforehand as the most perfect of all. It contained the spirit of the harvest, and many strange rituals were created to placate this spirit.

Some believed that bad luck would result if the last stalks were reaped and taken. Instead, this small portion of the harvest should be left in the field to be eaten by animals and beaten down by the weather. To do so would return it to the earth from which it sprang and appease the spirit of the harvest. Others were in a huge hurry to bring in all of the harvest. The first farmer to do so would weave an effigy or corn dolly out of his last stalks of his wheat. Then he would throw the effigy into the fields of his closest neighbor who wasn’t done harvesting yet.

The corn dolly would get transferred from field to field, eventually winding up with last farmer to get his harvest in. That unfortunate slacker would be tasked with taking the effigy home to care for it during the winter until the time came to plow it back into the fields during spring planting. Presumably the other farmers would snicker at the tardiest one now having to display evidence of his sloth in his house throughout the next year. In Irish folklore, this was a symbolic way to get stuck with the Hag of Winter as a guest at one’s hearth fire until spring time. This wasn’t exactly bad luck, but it was a weighty honor to keep her well-fed and entertained.

So what is the corn dolly made of exactly? Being an American, I had to wonder. When I’d first encountered the term many years ago, I thought that it referred to cornhusk dolls like you see in Appalachia, and it can. However, “corn” is an overall British term for cereal crops rather than a specific word for maize. Traditional British corn dollies look more like abstract art than dolls. They are intricately braided shapes made from wheat, barley, oats, or (especially in Ireland) rushes. Think of the corn dolly as an effigy that represents the spirit of the harvest. Or it could symbolize the God as John Barleycorn, or the Goddess as the Corn Mother. At the sabbat of Imbolc, a corn dolly represents the Corn Maiden. The sun-wheel known as Saint Brigid’s Cross is a corn dolly.

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