History of Scarecrows

 

What is it about effigies, such as scarecrows, that provide such a sense of security against natural and supernatural threats to a community? Does it come from their position in folk culture, ancient mystery or ritual?

The scarecrow is a disposable figure/effigy made of cast-offs, as well as sacred materials, imbued through ceremony and set up on cultivated land or within an architecture to prevent the incursion of wild or unknown nature, be it real or mythical. Scarecrows are inhabitants of the periphery. They can conjure a mystery that can be experienced outside of time by stirring the imagination with unknowns.

A life force that gives the power of protection without the controls exercised by reason and fact is particularly frightening, and such creatures have been prominent from pagan to contemporary culture.

Farming has always been subject to the whims of nature, and the farmer has always lived at the mercy of a capricious environment. A sudden drought or flood could result in starvation. An infestation of pests, birds and carnivores could devastate crops and livestock; a plague could destroy everything, and more importantly, life.

Scarecrows served as effigies to prevent or raise fear in the perception of an invader, to subvert or halt infringement. Like the gargoyles on the gothic cathedral, the scarecrow could be likened to a hex to protect the farm from harm and keep evil spirits away.

The first scarecrows in recorded history were constructed along the Nile River to protect wheat fields from flocks of quail. Egyptian farmers put wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets, hid in the fields and scared the quail into them.

In the fields of ancient Greece, wooden statues were placed in the fields, carved to represent Priapus. Although he was the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, Priapus was born hideously ugly, and his most prominent feature was his constant Satyr-like erection. Vineyard keepers noticed that when Priapus played in their fields birds stayed away from the grapes and the harvest was bountiful. Other farmers began to make statues that looked like Priapus to use in their vineyards.

Pre-feudal Japan used different kinds of scarecrows in their rice fields, but the most popular one was the kakashi. Old dirty rags and noisemakers like bells and sticks were mounted on a pole in the field and then lit on fire. The flames kept birds and other animals away from the rice fields. The word kakashi meant “something stinky.”

During the Middle Ages in Britain and Europe, small children worked as crow-scarers. Their job was to run around in the fields, clapping blocks of wood together, to frighten away birds that might eat the grain. As the medieval period wound down and populations decreased due to plague, farmers discovered there was a shortage of spare children to scamper around shooing birds away. Instead, they stuffed old clothes with straw, placed a turnip or gourd up on top, and mounted the figure in the fields. In Italy skulls of animals were placed on the tops of tall poles in the fields. Farmers believed the skulls would scare away birds and protect crops from diseases. In Germany farmers made wooden witches and put them in their fields at the end of winter. They believed that witches would draw the evil spirit of winter into their bodies so spring could come.

Scarecrows are also found in First Nation cultures throughout the Americas. In some parts of what is now Virginia and the Carolinas, adult men sat on raised platforms and shouted at birds or ground animals that came near the crops. In the American Southwest, the Zunis placed cedar poles about 6 to 9 feet apart all over the cornfield. Cords made from the fiber of the yucca plants were strung from pole to pole like clotheslines. Rags, pieces of dog and coyote skins, and the shoulder blades of animals were hung from the lines. The waving and clacking of the blades kept most birds away.

The European idea of scarecrows came to the Americas as waves of emigrants left Europe. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought with them the bootzamon, or bogeyman, which stood guard over the fields. Sometimes a female counterpart was added to the opposite end of the field or orchard. During the Autumn Equinox (Mabon) the Wicca community would craft scarecrows representing the fallen god of vegetation. Eventually, the ideas of Native and European scarecrows began to intertwine and result in altered expressions more representative of the diversity of peoples.

Ecuador has a unique custom of making scarecrows and burning them at midnight. They dress up and fill the scarecrows with newspapers and pieces of wood. As midnight approaches, everyone gathers outside their home and each family burns their scarecrow. The tradition says that this destroys all the bad things that took place in the past 12 months. The scarecrow also scares bad luck. This fills their New Year with luck and happiness.

In Mexico effigies of whirling dancers were mounted in fields of maize to protect new households from returning spirits which haunted the lands and caused drought and insect infestation.

On December 7, a deeply rooted tradition takes place in Guatemala, where the streets are filled with bonfires and the sky is covered by smoke. It is the traditional burning of everyone’s hand-made effigy of the devil, which is a way to expel all the evil from people’s houses and lives.

All through the areas of Rio Negro of Brazil and Venezuela, inhabited by Arawakan peoples, is a rich history of shamanism which incorporated effigies into its rites and rituals of protection and regeneration.

The question arose, “What would be the nature of our Scarecrows?” As we go into this process and workshop we are hoping that this question, and the many more resonating from it, will be rendered and answered.

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