Thursday, 29 September 2016
In Celtic Britain, people believed that all animate and inanimate objects possessed an aspect of the great divine spirit which encompassed the entirety of existence.
The corn fields were especially imbued with this spirit, epitomised as the Dying-and-Rising God - he who lives, dies and is reborn in constant flux. In popular culture today, this spirit is known as John Barleycorn.
As harvest progressed, the corn spirit was condensed into an ever-decreasing area until it was contained in the final sheaf to be mown.
This sheaf was never stored in the barn and threshed with the rest of the crop. It was carefully preserved and scattered back on the fields on spring, thus returning the corn spirit to the fields. Failure to observe this ritual would result in bad luck, crop failure and famine during the coming year. This tradition was upheld into the 20th century, in countries across Europe from Britain as far as Russia. This hints at the antiquity of the custom.
Long after the original esoteric meaning of this tradition was forgotten, lost among the new rites of Christianity, the custom clung on in many forms. The sheaf was hung up on New Year's Day in Midland Britain for hungry birds to peck. Corn dollies are another offshoot of the tradition.
This is not much done now, but if you see a sheaf of corn hanging somewhere, you can bet it contains the corn spirit, waiting to be returned home.