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3. The Corn-Spirit in human shape

In the agricultural practices we have treated hitherto the last sheaf is not to be considered as a sacrifice. The sheaf is the corn-spirit itself, killed or done away with if it is to be feared, caught and carefully stored up if it is friendly. But besides these practices there are in modern tradition the survivals of harvest-customs which suppose [17] quite a different conception of the corn-spirit. It is regarded as a supernatural being in human shape and it is identified with a real person at the moment of the cutting of the last sheaf. This person may be the labourer who wields the last stroke of the sickle, or the woman who binds the last sheaf, a stranger accidentally passing by, or even the landlord himself.

Sir Frazer has made a thorough study of these various forms, to which I refer the reader who wants to enter into the details 40); here he has given examples of the different ways in which this person may be treated: he may be killed as a representative of the corn-spirit or as a sacrifice to it; he may be dressed as if he were the corn-spirit itself and brought home with much fun and frolic. He may even be supposed to be married to the corn-spirit and these customs, though in modern times debased to an almost meaningless mockery, may be a late remembrance of religious rites of a sacred marriage by which a successor to the decrepit vegetation-spirit will be engendered.

In several parts of Germany where similar practices are still to be found, the corn-spirit is accordingly called the Old Man or the Old Woman 41). The Danish material which Mr. Ellekilde has kindly placed at my disposal, furnishes a series of very interesting examples. A communication from Hjörring district in Jutland tells that the people make for the last cartload of corn a balm figure in the likeness of a man; the girl that has bound the last sheaf is obliged to dance with the “stodder”, who is called her husband. In the neighbourhood of Viborg this girl is likewise married to “the Old One”; she weeps bitter tears on account of this shameful misfortune. The same custom prevails in other parts of Jutland also (districts of Aarhus and Vejle). Sometimes the unfortunate girl is called a “widow”; this name reveals to us the real meaning of this custom; the girl who was to be married to the corn-spirit, was for-[17]merly killed, this being the only way to achieve the union with this non-human spirit.

An attenuated form was the prohibition to marry in the future any mortal man; she was tabooed by virtue of her spiritual relation to the corn-demon and consequently treated as a widow. In later days people did not understand this name and then arose the queer notion that the unlucky girl should be condemned to get a widower as her future husband, or if it was a man who had cut the last corn-sheaf to marry a widow. This is a very common belief in Jutland; but the original meaning of it is revealed by the conception, that she will never marry; in the province of Ringkjøbing this is expressed by the following pretty lines:

Pigen som binder den sidste neg

skal lægges som jomfru paa baaren bleg

Den der snører den sidste neg

naar aldrig at dele med brudgommen steg.

Less cruel is the popular belief in Aarhus amt and elsewhere: she will not marry before the end of the next year, while information from Tisted amt has turned it into its opposite: the girl will become a wife before the year is out. Finally there are a couple of diverging communications which again point to the original belief: the girl will die in the course of the year (Aarhus amt), or she will get a child in the same lapse of time (Ringkjobing amt).

These various superstitions show the gradual debasement of a belief which was once filled with sense and religious feeling. Only by means of a comparative study can we glimpse the original meaning of it; as we find it now-a-days it has become obscured by misinterpretation or defective recollection, it has even been transposed into its contrary. We easily understand that popular traditions, [19] worn out in this way, lose their hold on the mind of the people; they are liable to every modification which fancy may suggest and so they become in course of time destitute of all clear meaning 42).

The student of these popular customs can not be too careful in using this material, for it may be compared with the lifeless body of the popular tale, into which a cunning magician can introduce whatever soul he likes. Another danger lies moreover in the well known fact, that the notions of popular belief generally show a very vague and hazy character. The ideas of primitive man have this in common with those of the lower classes of modern society, that they are constantly shifting in form and content, according to the circumstances; so it is often very difficult to say which is the original character of a supernatural being that manifests itself at one and the same time in very different forms, e. g. as a protecting spirit of the house (hustomt), but also as a chthonic being (underbyggarna), as a spirit of mountain, water, wood or field, as a dead ancestor, a dwarf or an elf 43). So not only a historical development, which confounded conceptions of quite different origin, may account for the bewildering complexity of popular belief, but even the vague nature of popular conceptions themselves.

4. The Corn-spirit and the spirits of the dead

These considerations of a more general order will, as I hope, not be considered out of place; they will prove useful when we now again continue our survey of the different forms which the corn-spirit may invest. In the mind of primitive man there is a close connection between the fertility of the soil and the spirits of the dead ancestors that reside in the family ground. These are the real possessors of the field and consequently of all that is grown [20] upon it; they may be called in a rather summary way “the underground people", as we already have had the opportunity to observe in Scandinavian tradition; they may be represented as well by one single ancestor, who is regarded as the most distinguished of all, the founder of the family who first took possession of the soil and who remains the very owner of the family-property. He may be called “the Old One” or “the Grandfather” 44).

Of course this mythical forefather is supposed to be kind and helpful ; if the new crop is the result of his tender care for the family, he intends to give it up to its living members. But he may expect a token of gratitude, a sacrifice intended to recall and reward his beneficial activity. The bundle of corn-balms left on the field might accordingly be considered as such an offering to the guardian-spirit of the soil. It has been a custom, known in Germany as well as in Finland 45), to sacrifice a part of the harvest when bringing it into the barn to the mice with the intention of keeping them from eating the grain. But a sacrifice to the dead has been practised too and sometimes it seems that the offering to the mice has a close relation with an original sacrifice to the dead. Among the Swedes in Finland the following information has been noted down: at the door of the barn the peasant throws some grains of corn across the left shoulder — a very characteristic act for entering into relation with the world of the dead 46).

The influence of the cult of the dead ancestors upon the original agricultural rites has had very interesting consequences. The last sheaf which was not originally a sacrifice at all 47), was now considered to be such an offering. If at the same, time there existed the conception of a corn-spirit embodied in the last sheaf and of the last sheaf as a sacrifice to a supernatural power the result must inevitably have been that there arose the new idea of its being an offering to the corn-spirit itself. This seems to [21] be the case when in Sweden the last blades of grass are left on the field not for the horses of Othin but for the gloson; now-a-days people even do not know to which power they make the sacrifice, which nevertheless is still strictly observed 48).

At Yule-tide the dead ancestors are commemorated by different sacrifices; Yule is especially a feast of the dead. But very often the last sheaf plays a prominent part in it; in Sweden a corn-sheaf, often called “the old man of Yule” (Julgubben) is brought into the room and even twisted together so as to form the effigy of a man or a woman, elsewhere of a goat, a cock or other animal The close connection with the last sheaf brought to the farm in harvest time and these straw figures of the Yule festival is sometimes expressly stated: Celander who has given many examples of these remarkable customs 50), has been led to the conviction that in many respects the Yule feast had an agrarian significance.

It must be granted that the last sheaf plays a prominent part on several occasions of the Yule festival: in the Scandinavian countries the floor was strewn with a thick layer of straw and a communication from Uppland adds that it was customary to use the first sheaf which had been threshed. Now the first sheaf to be threshed is of course the last sheaf which has been brought into the barn at the harvest. In this case this particular sheaf was possibly chosen as the bearer of the fertility power as Celander suggests 51). In connection with the custom, which forms the subject of this paper, it is interesting to be reminded of the practice, which is found in a part of Skâne, of setling down a Yule sheaf for Noens horse 52).

There is still another curious instance to be mentioned. The Yule festal dish was a pig fattened during the autumn with special care. The bones were kept till the following spring and then together with the seed scattered on the [22] corn-field. The intention was to get an abundant crop. This was a custom in the Swedish province of Småland. Now in the Norwegian district of Setesdal the Yule goat was fattened by giving to it the goat-figure made of the last sheaf. By combining this information Celander ventures to draw the conclusion that here may have been originally a series of practices having the purpose of establishing a circulation of fertility-essence; the last sheaf contains the growing power of the harvest, by giving it to the goat it enters this animal, by mixing its bones with the seed it is. again restored to the soil.

This is of course a purely hypothetical construction which Von Sydow has rightly judged unacceptable 53). It seems to me open to serious objection to combine a Norwegian and a Swedish custom which may be only local developments. Moreover the particular practice of Setesdal appears to be the result of the rather curious fact that the same animal that is eaten at the Yule feast is represented by the last sheaf. Still the fact, that the same custom is found in other parts of Norway as, well, makes it probable that it belongs to the long series of practices by which the corn-spirit is killed in full vigour in order to prevent it from becoming weaker and losing its magical forces during the winter-time 54). But these coincidences, however accidental and fortuitous, are still a remarkable proof for the constant interrelation between the practices at Yule-tide and the fertility rites.

It has often been observed that the different customs of the Yule festival show the double character of a commemoration of the dead and a fertility ceremony 55). On the other hand when discussing agrarian rites relating to the harvest it must be borne in mind that the cult of the dead has exerted a strong influence upon them. The present form of popular rites and practices is always the result of a long development during which several influences have [23] been continually intermingling. So the same custom may have very different meanings 56). When people during Yule set aside food and drink for the supernatural powers, the idea of a sacrifice is obvious; still it makes a great difference whether it is given to the dead ancestors, to the “underbyggarna” or to the house spirit (hustomten), although even these mythical beings have many points in common. When the floor is thickly covered with fresh straw, this may be a way of adorning the room; at the same time it serves as a resting place for the family, the bedsteads being left to the spirits of the dead, who will be present during the Yule-nights. Finally if for this straw the last sheaf is to be used the custom conveys still another idea: that of bringing the fertility power into the farm. If a custom that is practised now-a-days has still any significance, then it may be connected with very different conceptions in the minds of different people; it may even have several meanings at the same time in the mind of the same person 57).

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