Thursday, 23 September 2010


The history of the scarecrow is an enchanting topic. They can be downright creepy or fun and charming. Scarecrows are a traditional item in autumn decorations and their history dates back farther than most people realize. The scarecrow has been known by many names over the centuries; a few you may see are Jack in the straw, scarebird, tattybogle, bootzamon and shoy-hoy.

The oldest scarecrows were actual people and they were successfully used along the Nile river more than three thousand years ago. The ancient Egyptians used the ‘scarecrow’ to protect their wheat crops from the quail that passed through on their way south every autumn. They built wooden frames, sort of like a shed, in the fields and would hide inside until the quail showed up. The sheds themselves were covered in a fine type of net for camouflage and when the birds arrived the farmers would run out of their hiding places waving white scarves and shouting. This frightened the quail so much that many landed on the nets and were caught in the mesh. So the farmers were ‘killing two birds with one stone’ so they protected their crops and landed a nice quail dinner while they were at it.

The first scarecrows that looked like a person were wooden statues made by Greek farmers around twenty five hundred years ago. These were thought to represent Priapus, who guarded over the wheat fields and the vineyards.

According to some versions of mythology, Priapus was the unfortunately unattractive son of the goddess Aphrodite. Because of his disfigurement the goddess abandoned him on a hillside, where he was discovered by kindly vineyard keepers who took him home with them. As the boy grew older, he often played alone in the vineyards, and the local farmers began to notice that the crows and other birds stayed away from the grapes whenever Priapus was there. They figured the boy’s appearance was frightening off the birds and the farmers encouraged him to come back to the vineyards every day. As harvest rolled around, they were blessed with a bigger grape harvest than ever before.

The tales of Priapus spread all over the country and other farmers thought that perhaps statues resembling Priapus might keep the birds away from their fields of grain and the grapes as well. The wooden figures were carved to resemble the god and he typically was portrayed holding a club in one arm and a sickle, to promote a bountiful harvest, in the other. The figures were painted purple and displayed in the fields. Just as they had before, the birds stayed away and the following fall even more farmers were harvesting bigger crops than ever.

At harvest the farmers would lay sheaves of wheat and mounds of grapes at the foot of the statue to thank Priapus for his protection during the growing season. In time, as his name spread across the country and more farmers began to know of him, Priapus came to be known as the god of gardens.

The Romans copied the customs and when the Roman armies invaded France, Germany and England they brought their agricultural customs with them, including a belief in Priapus. More wooden statues appeared in the fields of those countries, and thus the earliest form of the scarecrow was born.

At around the same time as the Greeks and Romans were using statues of Priapus to protect their fields, Japanese farmers were making different kinds of scarecrows to protect the rice crops.

There are several varieties of scarecrows used in Japan. Some were the figures of people stuffed with grasses and straw and decked out in an old hat and cast off clothing. Sometimes these characters were made to look like they were about to shoot an arrow from an old bow. Other types of scarecrows were coloured streamers of fabric and shiny pieces of glass and metal tied to ropes.

No matter how they were created all of these scarecrows had to be constructed and mounted onto tall bamboo poles. As rice grows in 4 – 6” of standing water, the bamboo kept the scarecrows out of the water.

According to Japanese mythology, the god Sohodo-no-kami left his home in the mountains in the springtime, came down to the fields, and entered the scarecrows that looked human. His spirit was thought to have stayed within them all summer long. If a bird landed on them, the farmers thought that perhaps the birds were talking to the god and telling him secrets.

Once the harvest season arrived, the farmers would gather up all the scarecrows and stack them in a pile. In a ceremony called the ascent of the scarecrows, they arranged rice cakes around the stack for the god to eat during his journey back to the mountains and then the pile was lit and burned.

In old Germany the scarecrows were actually figures of witches made out of wood. The farmers carried them through the fields in winter to draw out the spirit of winter into the figure of the witch/scarecrow so that the season of spring would soon arrive. The witch then became the scarecrow and from their vantage point in the gardens and fields, they protected the newly planted crops and frightened away the foraging birds.

In medieval England the scarecrows were not made out of wood, instead they were actually hard working hard working little boys (and sometimes girls). These children were called bird scarers or bird shooers and were typically peasant children. They would patrol the wheat fields carrying bags of stones and pebbles. When the crows appeared they would wave their arms, shout and throw stones. After the plague hit, about half the population died. Landowners had to come up with other ways to protect their crops. They then began to make straw stuffed figures and mount them on a pole. They used a large turnip or a stuffed sack for a head.

As immigrants arrived in the States from Europe, they brought with them their own superstitions about crows and their own scarecrow making techniques. Thomas Jefferson apparently had three of them in his own cornfields.

The Pennsylvania Dutch built a very human looking scarecrow called the bootzamon, or boogyman. Like other American scarecrows the wooden frame was constructed in the shape of a cross, and he was dressed in old overalls, a shirt and of course a beaten up old hat. Traditionally a red bandana was tied around his neck to hide the wooden pole.

Occasionally a second scarecrow as added at the opposite end of the field, this was called a bootzfraw, a boogywife, in a dress with a bonnet. According to the folklore the bootzafraw kept the bootzamon company.

Adapted from Autumn Equinox by Ellen Dugan


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