It’s February, and for those in the Northern hemisphere like myself, it is as far from the harvest season as it is possible to get. It’s cold, it’s muddy, and it’s grey. The world has been chilly and wet for a quarter of the year. It is the most important time of the Corn Dolly’s year.
Most people these days, even those of us with deep spiritual inclination and the understanding of the traditional ways and turnings of the seasonal wheel, do not associate February’s cold short month with the Spirit of the Harvest, with Corn Dollies.
But it is indeed time to turn to them. Time to tear apart the intricate creations made of straw, time to pull off the plump seed grain heads from the stalk, time to de-construct that which was constructed to last safely all winter. Time to make a furrow in the cold earth and replace what was taken away to its rightful spot in the field. So that the spirit of the Corn may once again leave the over-wintering Dolly and grow fecund in the fertile ground.
Those artfully braided sheaves of grain, Corn Dollies (or Kern Babies as they were once known in Britain) are an agricultural tradition that harkens back to pre-Christian times. Fashioned from the last sheaf of grain in the field, they were made to be a preserve for the spirit of the harvest, of the grain, who would otherwise have no place to dwell once the fields were bare of crops.
These days while they are widely known as Corn Dollies, the term itself is misleading—as the Dollies are not made from corn as we have come to understand that grain now; typically a Dolly would be a sheaf of wheat, oats or barley, the corn meaning the kernel, or the grain. And while it is called a Dolly, it is most certainly not a toy, or a doll. Some scholars hold that the term Dolly most likely comes to us through permutation of the word ‘idol’, that which we respectfully hold sacred. And the spirit of the grain, the force behind the very sustenance of humanity, held carefully within a last sheaf would be more sacred an idol than any that the world could know. Others, and I am more inclined this way myself, see the term Dolly to be akin to Poppet—a magickal representation of a form that controls/contains a spirit. Because the spirit which a Poppet/Dolly holds is a sacred and respected force, there is not much difference between an idol and a magical poppet in this particular instance—both theories hold the same truth: there is a spirit which must be held in highest regard here.
The artistry of the Dollies is varied, each farming locality traditionally crafting a distinct design. These designs’ complexity ranged from a simple Compass Plait design that used only four straws of wheat, braided and tucked together, seed heads down—to impossibly intricate shapes, such as the “Suffolk Horsehoe”, woven of multiple straws and ribbons resulting in fantastic arrangements that hold cascades of kernelled heads. Regardless of design, however, each Corn Dolly would be cared for all winter, would be invited to Harvest Feasts, would be preserved from drying out and moldering away and protected from uninvited nibblers. It would become, as it did every year, a very real part of the household it dwelled within.
And when the Solstice passed, and as the days grew longer, it would come time to tear it apart, knot by knot, hitch by hitch, stalk by head and in February—traditionally on the first day of the new moon (the day of the Charming of the Plow)—to plant the Corn Dolly in the cold hard ground, ensuring the rebirth of all that is green and fecund and sustaining.