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2. Original conceptions of the corn-spirit

The harvest customs in which a sacrifice is made to a corn-spirit are of a singularly complicated nature. The supernatural being, which we may call for convenience sake by the name of the corn-spirit, proves to be of a very different kind; in fact all sorts of mythical beings may occasionally be considered as connected with the prosperity of the crops. We have mentioned already the old man of the field and the people which live beneath the earth (underjordiske, undibyggarna; in Germany the Erdmännchen or the Wichtelmann); we may add: the spirits of the dead, the e l v e s (in some parts of Denmark Ellekongen 20) and furthermore in several parts of Scandinavia, the domestic spirit or tomten 21). The corn-spirit is often represented as a female being, known in Germany by very different names such as die gute Frau, die Braut, das Holzfräulein, die Kornjungfer and many more 22). Finally its animal form is not less frequent; the usual names are those of the horse, the dog, the pig, the cat, the hare, the fox, the goat, the bull and the cock.

This variety is already bewildering enough. But besides this the singular fact strikes us, that this vegetation demon may be considered not only as a benevolent but also as a malignant spirit; supposed to reside in the last sheaf itself, it is brought to the home of the peasant in order to be made use of for the crop of the following year, [10] but people try as well to get rid of it by throwing it on to the ground of a neighbour. So in the island of Langeland 23) the labourers dress up the last sheaf as an old woman and throw it into the yard of a neighbour who has not yet finished mowing his field; it is considered to be a great dishonour to become the last owner of this sheaf. The same customs are connected not only with the cutting of the last corn-stalks but also with the threshing of the last sheaf. Even during Yule-tide, when the dead ancestors are commemorated, the last sheaf sometimes forms a prominent part of the ceremonial practices. Here the corn-spirit seems to be confused with the spirits of the dead.

So we get the strong impression, that a great many different observances have been mixed up into a series of popular customs, the real meaning of which has been lost in the course of ages. Thus it seems to be rather dangerous to connect one of the particular forms of these practices with an ancient heathen sacrifice, before we have tried to establish if the present popular custom may be considered as the direct descendant of a pagan rite.

The practices connected with the last sheaf are not only the result of a long development, but even go back to a very different origin. Without making any attempt to give them in the order, corresponding with the possible successive stages of evolution, we may notice the following conceptions.

The sheaf is left on the field, simply because it is the last one of the harvest, It seems to be a very wide spread custom not to take all the profit one can obtain 24). If the fruits of a tree are gathered, usually some are left on the branches; the reason for this custom is often quite unknown and it is done because' people are used to doing it; sometimes they are a kind of sacrifice, so in Sjælland to “nissen” 25), in Sweden even to Fröa 26). When sheep are sheared some wool remains untouched between the ears; [11] it is called, “the crown of the sheep” and the meaning is that the force by which the wool will grow again, can stay here 27). In Finland and Esthland the corn-box may never be emptied wholly; if this were done, the farm would lose its “cornluck” and gradually become impoverished 28). Likewise the Cheremiss think it necessary always to leave three unthreshed sheafs on the floor of the barn or else the guardian spirit would not stay here 29). The same idea lies at the bottom of a curious custom in Savolax: when drawing water from a well you must pour back some drops in order that the well may not be killed 30). It is evident from these examples that the part which is left untouched is considered to contain the very essence of the things people want for their every-day life; the sheaf left on the field, the grains in the corn-box, contain the vivifying power which the peasant wishes to preserve for the crops of the following year; necessarily this small portion embodies the totality, the fertilizing force is here present in a condensed form; we may express it also in this way: this last remnant is loaded with a high potency of growing power. Ears of corn, showing particular signs of abundant fertility, might be considered as the special residence of the growing power; hence the numerous practices and superstitions referring to the so called double fruit, as e.g. corn-stalks with two ears 31).

Of course people still continue these practices without knowing their purpose; the explanations they themselves try to give of them may be simply guesswork. So in Denmark it is said that there were left some corn-ears for the poor; elsewhere again for the mice or for the birds. A communication from Bornholm says that it had formerly been a sacrifice 'to the underground people, but afterwards to the birds. Likewise in the island of Fyn people did not rake too closely for there must be something left for the “usynlige”. So a custom, emptied of its original meaning, [12] is maintained in use by 'the conservatism of the peasantry, who do not like to abolish a practice inherited from their ancestors; the folklorist can not be too cautious when making use of information of this kind, for such customs are dead survivals liable to the most arbitrary, combinations.

When people leave a small part of the harvest on the field the reason may be that in this part the quintessence of the prosperity of the field is supposed to reside. But in this case it is but natural that man 'wants to” take hold of this blessing power. When the bushel of corn-stalks remains standing on the field, the birds will very soon have emptied it of its valuable contents; might it not be better to take the corn stalks' home and lay them up for the following year? So the last sheaf is no longer left on the stubblefield, but during the winter stored up in the barn.

It is to be noted, that we have no reason to consider this sheaf as the incorporation of a corn-spirit, still less as a spirit crudely personified (in human or animal form), but simply as the mystical representative of the impersonal fertilizing power residing in the corn-field. This is clearly shown by the well-known custom of keeping the sheaf till the following spring and then threshing the grains out of it and mixing them up with the seed in order to get an abundant crop in the autumn. The idea of the blessing residing in this sheaf is naively illustrated by a Danish superstition: Efforts were made to cure sick cattle by giving them a few bushels of hay containing grains of the "fok" or last sheaf.

Besides this belief in an impersonal growing power there exist many others of very different origin. The corn-spirit often appears in animal form and these animals may belong partly to the domestic animals (cow, horse, pig, goat) and partly to the wild animals of the wood (wolf, fox, hare). The customs are moreover exceedingly different and it is a fruitless task to try to reconcile the numerous contradictory [13] forms and to reduce them to one single original belief. Without entering into details and repeating the examples well known from the books of Sir Frazer and Mannhardt, I may state the very important difference between corn-spirits in animal form, which are considered as propitious, and those which are dangerous and malevolent. The former are brought home with joy and reverence, the latter thrown away into the neighbour's field or even killed.

The animal-spirit of the corn may be thought obnoxious without taking the corresponding form of a savage beast. In Lesbos, according to Frazer 32) when the reapers are at work in two neighbouring fields each party tries to finish first in order to drive the hare into their neighbour's field. On the contrary in Galloway, the hare is brought home and sometimes even kept till the next harvest. Moreover in the same district the corn-spirit may take several animal forms 33); are we entitled to suppose that only one animal belongs to the original customs of a definite region and that the other coexisting forms have been introduced from elsewhere? Has each kind of crop its own special animal spirit? Does, for instance, the cock belong to rye, the goat to oats, the hare to flax? This does not seem very probable as in the same region one single animal may stand for all sorts of plants; in Esthland the peasants speak as well of the corn-wolf, as of the pea-wolf or the bean-wolf 34).

What is the reason that the corn-spirit in Mecklenburg takes the form of a wolf and of a cock, while in Sweden it takes even as many forms as those of a goat, a hare, a cat (logkatten) and a pig (gloso)? In some cases a special animal-form seems to be typical for a distinct geographical area, e.g. the bull in Prussia and on the other hand in Bavaria and the adjoining parts of Bohemia, Switzerland and France. But these are questions to which it is as yet impossible to give any definite answer; they de-[14]serve a minute investigation, taking into account all available information about these customs and confining itself to a vast territory with a rather homogeneous population.

The idea of an obnoxious animal residing in the cornfield could arise from several observations of every-day life. In former times, when the corn-fields lay in the immediate vicinity of the uncultivated woods and deserts —which is still the case in more remote districts — it naturally often happened that wolves, foxes, hares “and other wild beasts damaged the ripening harvest. When the wind passes over the corn-field, ploughing long furrows through the stalks, the Dutch peasant still says: “The rye-dog runs through the field” or “The rye-sow (roggemeuje) has let loose her pigs” 35). When after a hail-storm the corn is beaten down to the ground, it often gives the 'impression as if a drove of cattle or other animals had trampled down the stalks.

If the idea had arisen that in the corn-field there was present a spirit which had the power to damage and to destroy, the form of an obnoxious animal being hidden between the corn-halms lay very near at hand.

But how came man to imagine that the corn-spirit could be of a hostile nature? The mowing of the field is the appropriation of a crop which properly speaking belongs to the power which is supposed to reside in the soil. This spirit necessarily considers the harvesting peasant as a despoiler of its possessions as it is driven back by the ever advancing sickles into the remotest corner of its territory. The man, who has to mow the last sheaf is sure to reach the corn-spirit itself, which will now be compelled to surrender. But it may then be particularly dangerous and very often the man is clearly supposed to fight and destroy the spirit. In Lorraine it is said of the man who cuts the last corn: “He is killing the Dog of the Harvest”. [15]

A corn-spirit that has in the end to be killed can not be taken home to secure the crops of the following year. But what then is man's attitude with regard to the benevolent demon which he wants to get into his possession? It may be supposed that even this spirit will not surrender so very easily. When the last sheaf of corn is mowed' down the spirit must be captured and kept by force. Sometimes the labourers make an effigy of the animal spirit which they catch in a mock-chase and afterwards present to the farmer. Very interesting is a Dutch custom preserved in the province of Groningen when threshing the last load of cole-seed. The plants after being cut are collected in a piece of canvas and then brought together on to a huge canvas-cloth where they are immediately threshed. Now, when the last load is made ready by the bearers, a boy of about fifteen hastily gathers some grass and flowers from the edge of the ditch and plaits these into a figure which may be considered as the effigy of a hare. Then he suddenly jumps on to the canvas where his appearance causes great excitement among the labourers, who after having taken a dram to raise their courage, lift, with much apparent difficulty, this load and bring it to the threshing place where the contents are shaken out on to the huge cloth. But it betrays by its convulsive movements that a living being is hidden in it and indeed presently the boy appears out of the pile of plants completely covered with the pericarps of the cole-seed and creeps to the feet of the farmer to whom he gives the bundle of grass representing the cole-seed hare. At once the labourers begin to thresh as they say, “to beat the hare blood out of it” 36).

This custom is a very clear example of the catching of the vegetation-spirit and it is found elsewhere also in a slightly different form 37). It takes some trouble to catch, but in the end the peasant comes into possession of it, thereby securing the prosperity of the next harvest. But at [16] the same time the spirit is killed and its blood beaten out of it, this being a conception which it is hard to reconcile with the former one. This seems to me a very instructive example of the co-existence of two contrary opinions in the mind of the same people, being engaged in the same agricultural act. It would be quite wrong to imagine that these different conceptions represent the successive 'stages of a rectilinear development; they are only the result of the different attitudes of man with regard to natural phenomena that excite his highest interest 38).

The influence of originally quite foreign conceptions may also account for the dual character of the corn-spirit. The rye-mother that lives in the cornfield is sometimes a very dangerous being by which children are frightened from going into the field. The German Roggenmuhme, the Danish Rugkjælling, the Lithuanian Rugiu-boba, the Polish Rzanamatka all have the same bad reputation. This is a curious instance of such a contamination of different conceptions, for the corn-mother, has been turned into a malignant spirit by the influence of the “demon meridianus”, which about noon is supposed to wander through the fields and to cause disease and even death 39). It will be superfluous to add that a popular belief that considers mythical beings as bogeys is far from being reliable material for the student of religion.

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