In recent weeks as I’ve travelled up and down the country it’s been a common sight to see the dense swirl of dust as the combines gather in the harvest. It’s easy to forget, as you meet a giant combine harvester in a narrow country lane, that it wasn’t always like this and that for millennia the harvest was a period of backbreaking hard labour for huge numbers of rural workers. Corn dollies or corn mothers are a form of straw work made as part of harvest customs were part of that pre-mechanised world.
Before they were appropriated by Ye Olde Englishe Craft Shoppe tweeness, there was a purpose to the dollies. They formed part of a system of traditional annual customs undertaken to appease the spirits and ensure a good harvest. In pre-Christian European cultures it was believed that the spirit of the corn lived amongst the crops, and that the cutting of the harvest effectively made it homeless. By custom the last sheaf of the harvest was therefore formed into intricate hollow shapes in which the corn spirit would then spend the winter until the ‘dolly’ was ploughed back into the first furrow of the new season.
‘Dolly’ may be a corruption of idol or may have come directly from the Greek word eidolon (or apparition ie. that which represents something else).
Around Britain there were many local variants of the dolly including: the Barton Turf, Drop Dolly, Essex Terret, Hereford Lantern, Anglesey Rattle, Cambridgeshire Umbrella, Durham Chandelier, Claidheach (Scotland) Herefordshire Fan, Kincardine Maiden (Scotland), Leominster Maer (Herefordshire), Norfolk Lantern, Northamptonshire Horns, Okehampton Mare, Oxford Crown, Suffolk Bell, Suffolk Horseshoe and Whip, Teme Valley Crown (Shropshire), Welsh Border Fan, Welsh Long Fan, Worcester Crown.