A common Harvest tradition is that of the Last Sheaf. The final sheaf of wheat, barley, oats, rye etc. would be brought inside the home over Winter so that the Land Wights or grain deity (depending on the particular tradition) might reside inside it until the following planting season. In some traditions the corn dolly was burned, in others, it was ploughed into the earth when the fields were first sewn in Spring. In some traditions, the effigy was symbolically drowned in order to end Winter and release Spring’s growing potential.
Christina Hole does a much better job explaining the Last Sheaf in her book, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs.
“As long as hand-reaping lasted, so long did the significant ceremonies of the Last Sheaf endure. Anciently, it was believed that the Last Sheaf embodied the Corn Spirit, and that the man who cut it killed her, and long after this archaic belief had been forgotten, the remains of the old fear and reverence still lingered in men’s minds. It was considered, sometimes vaguely, sometimes definitely, to be unlucky to be the cutter of the Sheaf.”
For all the subtle differences in approach to this tradition, the underlying idea remains relatively unaltered.
A similar account is given by Kathleen Herbert in her book, Looking for the Lost Gods of England. In this account, recorded in 1598, a group of German travellers came upon some locals who were celebrating Harvest.
“We were returning to our lodging-house by lucky chance we fell in with the country-folk celebrating their harvest-home. The last sheaf had been crowned with flowers and they had attached it to a magnificently robed image, which perhaps they meant to represent Ceres. [The Roman name for the goddess of the fruitful earth, especially the corn-harvest.] They carried her hither and thither with much noise; men and women were sitting together on the wagon, men-servants and maid-servants shouting through the streets until they came to the barn.”
It’s not surprising that these deities would be conflated with Roman ones, given the Renaissance’s Romanophilia. It’s obvious the German travellers understood the tradition, but didn’t possess the language to put it into native context. That, or they were just using the Latin, as it was the lingua franca of the time.
For my hearth traditions, I decided to incorporate the idea of the Last Sheaf and create an effigy of our own. While I’m not a farmer, I did go to a local farm and purchase the wheat sheaf to make our dolly, thus providing some ties to the land in this area. Hopefully by doing so, I can house a little of that local fertility and growing potential for the following year.
The first thing I needed to do, prior to making our dolly, was soak the wheat stalks overnight. They break easily when they are dry and are much easier to manipulate once they’ve been soaked.
Some of the online tutorials that I read suggested that the straw only needed to be soaked for a couple hours, but I found it was still fairly brittle, even after nearly 4 hours. I’m assuming how soon the straw is used after it’s reaped would make a difference as to how long it would need to soak.
Once the straw was adequately soaked, manipulating the wheat took some getting used to. I really wanted to attempt some interesting braided designs, but after realising I possess very little ability in that department, I opted to go with a more simplistic corn dolly. My wife said it looks like something out of the Blair Witch Project, which I feel is an apt description. Anything dealing with the ‘Other’ should evoke at least a little unease or primordial awe in the devotee, in my opinion.
Once the corn dolly was satisfactorily finished, I placed him on my wēofod (altar), where he’ll stay, perhaps acting as a home for the local land wights for the duration of the Winter months.
Once Ēastre arrives, we will probably take him to a pond and ritually ‘release’ the wights, so that they might go about their business for another growing season. Drowning seems a better route than fire or ploughing, considering I don’t have access to a place where I can do either at the moment.
Whether or not Land Wights will be flocking to take refuge in our corn dolly is really anybody’s guess. That being said, ritual action has a significance and provides us with an a-temporal means to connect to both our ancestors and our descendants.
“Any ritual whatever, as we shall see later, unfolds not only in a consecrated space (i.e., one different in essence from profane space) but also in a ‘sacred time,’ ‘once upon a time’ (in illo tempore, ab origine), that is, when the ritual was performed for the first time by a god, an ancestor, or a hero.”
–Mircea Eliade, Comos and History