For as long as I can remember there has always been a corn dolly hanging on the home mantelpiece, first as a child living with my parents and now in my own home. I can’t say I ever paid them much heed just that as with the Christmas decorations they came and went each year. I must confess that latterly they tend to say a while, purely because the art of the ‘dolly maker’ is dying out and they are hard to come by. It was only recently that a second-hand book caught my attention, it was about the tradition of the corn dolly and so I read through it. As with many customs it soon became ‘crystal’ that this one dated back to Pagan times and was linked with the harvest.
It is said that the name corn dolly comes from a corruption of ‘corn idol’ and that this straw ‘idol’ was a winter refuge for the ‘Spirit of the Harvest’. Normally the spirit lived in the growing crops but when they were cut it became homeless and so the hollow straw woven corn dolly provided a winter sanctuary. The whole concept has its roots in the pagan ‘circle’ in-so-much as everything is born, dies, and is reborn, likewise the harvest is sown, it ripens, the crop is harvested and then the spirit, represented by the corn dolly, is eventually ploughed back into the soil where it grows again. As with most traditions, along comes Christianity and mutates the tradition so that at Harvest Festival the Corn Dolly comes into the church in the guise of a Corn Cross or some other Christian symbol. Ironically, the crying the neck custom is as near to the pagan celebrations as you can get but as long as that ‘neck’ is transformed into a Christian symbol it is allowed in church. Never mind all the drinking and debauchery that it preside over at the harvest home celebrations. It appears that there were two sorts of tradition concerning the last ‘neck’, it was either taken in as it was or it was made into a corn dolly. Either way, the neck was kept until after Christmas and then on ‘Plough Monday‘ (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) was cast into the first furrow and returned to the soil, this would ensure a good harvest for the year. If the dolly was not ploughed under then the harvest was doomed to failure and the farmer had a lean winter. In some areas the neck or dolly was always the guest of honour at the ‘harvest home’ or harvest supper. Here it would be placed at the head of the table where it presided over the eating and drinking of the night. It would then be taken into the farm house where a place would be cleared over the mantelpiece and there the dolly stayed for the winter
As with most things, each county had its own variation on the corn dolly theme which meant different shapes and twists. In Devon the most traditional design was the ‘neck’, which was always made from the last sheaf of corn to be cut on any farm. Associated with this was the tradition of ‘crying the neck‘ in which great ceremony was displayed when cutting the last sheaf. Another variation on the corn dolly was the ‘harvest cross’ and in Devonshire it was said to be based on the old cross at Topsham near Exeter.
In the case of Dartmoor, the dolly was normally fashioned from either rye or wheat straw and it was said that Maris Widgeon was the best variety as it was long stemmed, hollow, and with a good gap between the first leaf and the head. These were usually made into ‘necks’ which were simple tuber-like designs with basic plaits. But not to be outdone the folks from the old corn lands of northern Dartmoor had what was known as the ‘Okehampton Mare’. This was a distinct corn dolly that was best made from rye. It looked similar to …, I don’t really know how to describe it so best – see ill. 1 here. Should you fancy making one then you will need about 200 rye straws that are 14 inches long from the ears, then;
“Tie them under the ears and pull the straws through the know to make a nice plump head. Tie again at 6 inches and 12 inches. Clean the sheath of 200 more full length rye straws, in this case merely cutting off the loose sheath. Make a hair plait with 3 groups of 10 straws. Feed in new straws and abandon the thick stems frequently to keep the plait even in size. 6 plaits are required each 18 inches long and each with a good head. Tie in all the plait ears at the core head, spacing them equally about the circumference. Draw the plaits in at the 6 inch and 12 inch levels, arrange the loops and tie off firmly. Each of the 3 waist ties are covered with Turks Head knots of small plait or a bracelet of a larger plait. The suspension loops over the ends of the stems so that the Mare hangs evenly”.
If you can make head of that lot then good luck to ‘ee, but I am informed that as long as the above method is adhered to then illustration 1 will be the result. I will confess I did have a go but it ended up looking like a raven’s nest after a gale, ie a complete mess – patience is a virtue, possess it if you can – I can’t!
Sadly for the corn dolly, progress has meant that cereal farmers now grow shorter stemmed cereal varieties and the modern harvesting methods cut the straw shorter. Both mean that it is difficult to find ears of corn with stalks long enough to make corn dollies, hence the reason that they have faded as memories into harvest lore. Having said that there are still some farmers who grow the old, long stemmed cereal varieties for thatching and also people who have retained the skills and still make the dollies. This is why at some country shows and craft fairs you occasionally see the ‘dolly maker’.