Corn dolly

Corn dollies are a form of straw work associated with harvest customs. The Druids believed that the corn spirit lived amongst the crop, and the harvest made it effectively homeless. Therefore, they fashioned hollow shapes from the last sheaf of wheat or other cereal crop. The corn spirit would then spend the winter in their homes until the "corn dolly" was ploughed into the first furrow of the new season. "Dolly" is a corruption of idol.

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, chapter 45, discusses the Corn-Mother and the Corn-Maiden in Northern Europe, and the harvest rituals that were being practiced at the beginning of the 20th century:

"In the neighbourhood of Danzig the person who cuts the last ears of corn makes them into a doll, which is called the Corn-mother or the Old Woman and is brought home on the last waggon. In some parts of Holstein the last sheaf is dressed in woman’s clothes and called the Corn-mother. It is carried home on the last waggon, and then thoroughly drenched with water. The drenching with water is doubtless a rain-charm. In the district of Bruck in Styria the last sheaf, called the Corn-mother, is made up into the shape of a woman by the oldest married woman in the village, of an age from fifty to fifty-five years. The finest ears are plucked out of it and made into a wreath, which, twined with flowers, is carried on her head by the prettiest girl of the village to the farmer or squire, while the Corn-mother is laid down in the barn to keep off the mice. In other villages of the same district the Corn-mother, at the close of harvest, is carried by two lads at the top of a pole. They march behind the girl who wears the wreath to the squire’s house, and while he receives the wreath and hangs it up in the hall, the Corn-mother is placed on the top of a pile of wood, where she is the centre of the harvest supper and dance."

Many more instances are described by Frazer (see link).

The name the "Old Woman" (Latin vetula) for such "corn dolls" was in use among the Druidic pagans of Flanders in the 7th century, where St Eligius had to warn them to desist from their old practices:

""[Do not] make vetulas, (little figures of the Old Woman), little deer or iotticos or set tables [for the house-elf, compare Puck] at night or exchange New Years' gifts or supply superfluous drinks [a Yule custom]." (See entry Druidry.)

In Britain, the materials used are mainly wheat, oats, rye and barley. In Ireland, rush was used, and in the south of France, palm leaves. In Burma, the rice plant is used.

With the advent of the Combine harvester, the old-fashioned, long-stemmed and hollow-stemmed wheat varieties were replaced with knee-high, pithy varieties. However, a number of English farmers are still growing the traditional varieties, mainly because they are in demand with thatchers.

Some traditional varieties: Maris Widgeon, Squarehead Master, Elite Le Peuple.

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Image:Corn Dolly exhibition.jpg

Corn Dollies and other similar straw work can be divided into these groups:


Traditional corn dollies

  • Countryman's Favours
    • Cat's Paw
    • Lover's Knot
    • Glory Braid
  • Other designs
    • Cornucopia, or Horn of plenty
    • Bride of the Corn (called "Aruseh" in N. Africa)


  • Larnaca Fringe
  • Montenegrin Fringe
  • Lancashire Fringe

Harvest crosses

Large straw figures

These are representations of deities, made from an entire sheaf. They are known by a variety of names, depending on location and also the time of harvesting:

  • The Goddess Ceres
  • Maiden or Bride (harvest before All Saints):
    • Kirn Dolly (Roxburghshire)
    • Kirn Baby (Lothians)
    • Hare (Galloway)
    • Lame Goat, Gaelic: gobar bacah (Harris, Skye, Glenelg)
    • Straw dog - strae bikko (Shetland, Orkney)
  • Cailleach or cailleagh - corn mother or Auld Mother (harvest after All Saints)
  • There is also the Whittlesey Straw Bear, the centre of a ceremony in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, every January. Its origins are obscure.

Tied straw work

  • German Tied Straw Work
  • Scandinavian Tied Work
    • Swedish Straw Crown (Oro)
    • Straw Goat
    • Straw Tomte or Nisse

Straw marquetry

Rick finials

  • These are straw sculptures which are placed on the "rick" of the thatched roof. They are sometimes purely for decoration, but can be the "signature" of a particular thatcher. Animal shapes (birds, foxes etc.) are the most common.

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