Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Straw Men and the Art of Scaring Crows

Once I said to a scarecrow, 'You must be tired of standing in this lonely field,'
And he said, 'The joy of scaring is a deep and lasting one, and I never tire of it.'
Said I, after a minute of thought, 'It is true; for I too have known that joy.'
Said he, 'Only those who are stuffed with straw can know it.'
Then I left him, not knowing whether he had complimented or belittled me.
A year passed, during which the scarecrow turned philosopher.
And when I passed by him again I saw two crows building a nest under his hat.

~ The Scarecrow by Khalil Gibran

I've always wanted a scarecrow. Not that I want to scare away my Corvid friends {more the merrier I say!}, but it is probably just another symptom of my pseudo-farmerism.

Whether they actually get the job done in scaring the crows from the fields is up for debate, but they sure do tend to creep many of us human folks out! That is probably why they are often a symbol of Hallowe'en, and how it got the nick Dead Man of the Field.

Of course, you do have the odd cute and cuddly scarecrow, like the one from The Wizard of Oz and the ones people have hanging around that look like a straw version of Raggedy Anne.
After doing a little bit of poking around, I was somewhat surprised to find that the historical use of the scarecrow can be found across various cultures, including Native American tribes, Japan, and of course Europe.
In her article The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago, Juliette Wood takes a look at some of the other names given to scarecrows and their origins; titles such as 'tattie-doolie', 'mommet', and 'bogle'.

The most widely known English term for these figures is scarecrow, but other, more regional terms, such as 'bogle', 'doolie' and occasionally 'mommet'or 'mawhini' are used to describe such figures. Most of the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary date to the sixteenth century and later, but there can be little doubt that scarecrows were in use much earlier. The terminology reflects both the function and nature of these effigies.

The term ‘scarecrow’ reflects its role exactly and could be applied to a person who was employed to perform the task of keeping birds and other predators out of the fields as well as the figure. The same is true for 'doolie', if one takes this to be a variant of dole (marker). The rare Berkshire dialect word, 'hodmedod', refers to a silly person, while 'mommet' reflects the construction, something made of rags like a mop.

'Bogle' is the only term with even a suspicion of the supernatural about it. The exact origin of the word is unclear, both 'bwg' (Welsh for ghost) and German 'boggel mann' are possible suggestions. 'Bwgan' is a common word for scarecrow in Welsh(Davies 2000) as is 'bodach' in Scots Gaelic (MacFhionghuin 1951), but this does really explain why a word with apparent supernatural overtones should be applied to the field figure.
These names usual refer to the straw men image that we tend to see the scarecrow as today, although they were sometimes made from different materials.

In ancient Greece the well-endowed Priapus had the honours of having his image carved out of wood for the purpose of keeping not only birds and predators away, but also thieves and other pesky intruders {The Royal Museum at Naples by Colonel Fanin}.

According to Lafcadio Hearn in Japan, an Attempt at Interpretation, the Shinto God Sohodo-no-Kami is the protector of the fields and the lord of scarecrows. In the book Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan by Asiatic Society of Japan it is said of Sohodo-no-Kami:
Sohodo no Kami, also called Kaye-biko, is the scarecrow placed in the fields to frighten away birds and animals, and though it is a very ugly and miserable creature, the divine books says of it 'this is a god that knows everything in the empire, although his legs are unable to walk.'
As the spirits of all the gods have recourse to it, and perform wonders, it is a very dreadful deity, and therefore an image of it should be placed before the door of the shrine for the spirits of the gods who are bidden thither to rest upon.
Often scarecrows of Sohodo-no-Kami would be made from sticks and rags and placed in the rice fields.

The Zuñi people of the American southwest would make scarecrows from long cedar poles with animal furs and feathers hanging off them {Corn Raising: The Decay of the Seed}.
Some of the earliest references to scarecrows comes out of Egypt, where they weren't effigies stuffed with straw, but actual people who would guard the fields, and throw sticks and rocks at critters who trespassed.
In England, young lads who had the same job description were often called 'tattie-doolies' and 'Jack O'Kent'. They would often make noise by jingling bells, banging together sticks, or using wood clappers to scare off the crows {Country Living Gardener A Blessing of Toads: A Gardener's Guide to Living by Susan Lovejoy}.
After the black plague, straw men became a more common appearance, since so many of the children died off. Farmers would often cloth the scarecrows in rags, and put gourds or turnips on their head {perhaps the birth of the scarecrow from Sleepy Hollow?}.

A growing trend seems to be fairs featuring scarecrow making contests. Pumpkinrot is one of those people who have been making scarecrows and entering them into contests, and they are some of the most beautiful {in a skeery way!} scarecrows I have ever seen! I especially love Bog Man and Cryptzoology.
You can head on over to the webby to see galleries of the scarecrows, as well as inspiring Hallowe'en decorations.

And I now leave you a video of Bog Man




Anonymous said...

where do you find the time to do all of this research? thank you for doing it for us! thank you for sharing the scarecrows of pumpkinhollow too.

perma_culture said...

We had a scare crow when I was little and it scared the bejesus out of me! It is neat that so many cultures use them though.

nefaeria said...

Anon: That is a good question, because I pretty much feel that I never have time these day. ;) And you are most welcome. Thank you for your lovely comment! :)

Permie: Isn't it? I was actually pretty surprised to find that out. :)

Cammie said...

Interesting info!

Hertha said...

Great and interesting post as usual! I had read somewhere before that the Romans had similar practices to the Greeks with scarecrows, just like many other things. I think it Bacchus who served the same purpose.

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