Saturday, 3 September 2011
The Magic of Corndollies
The making of corndollies dates back to pre-Christian Europe, when the spirit of the corn-field (wheat or grain) lived within that crop in the field. So when the last of the crop was harvested, that grain was woven into a shape for the spirit to reside the winter, the corndollies became the winter residence of the Corn-Mother. The dolly would be ploughed back into the fields the following spring - returning the spirit to the earth.
There are many different traditions relating to the making of corndollies. From whom was responsible for their making, to the actual design. Regions developed their own particular signiture designs, many of these patterns are named for their location, for example, Norfolk Lantern, Stafford Knot or Yorkshire Spiral. Each is a complex weaving of the long stems of the grain crop.
With the coming of the combine harvester, the types of crop planted became more suitable to this machine, and moved away from the traditional corndolly materials. They were pithier, as opposed to the long, hollow stems of the older grains. However, due to the demand for traditional thatch on cottages, there is still enough of the traditional grains grown for this market, for the making of corndollies to continue.
In some traditions, the art of weaving corndollies was passed from father to son, who would take the last grain harvested, create the dolly, and make a gift to the prettiest girl in the village. In others, the last grains were given to an older woman, a crone, who would weave it for the maiden to carry to the house of the squire, where the corndolly would take pride of place atop the harvest supper table.
The corndolly is a symbol of fertility and thanks, by honouring the spirit of the grain, the farmers hope to safeguard the crop for the following year - as the very suvival of the whole community is dependent on a good harvest. The traditions of elder woman weaving the dolly for the maiden, or the father passing on his weaving skills to his son, it is all symbolic of the cycle of the seasons, of ensuring one successful crop after another.
With the coming of the Church, the practise was still continued, the last of the grain woven into Christian symbols and kept in the Church over winter, to be placed back into the plough's furrow the next spring. Harvest Festival and Plough Monday became part of the Christian calendar.
With the fertility and protection of the community in mind, the corndolly was often made as a gift or favour, presented by a hopeful suitor. Alternatively, some were woven as a token for a new-born child. Others were woven into a likeness of a nature spirit, an animal or a deity, all with the desire to find favour from that spirit.
Most of the modern opinion of the corndolly is based upon the work of Sir James George Frazer, in his influential book, The Golden Bough (1890). Whatever the true reason for them may be lost to time, as the making of the dollies had died out pre World War 2. It may well be that he romanticised their use and function somewhat. The practise was revived in the fifties and sixties, and has become a fairly thriving rural craft nowadays. But whatever their original meaning, they are a beautiful and intricate token of good luck to have, and it can't be a bad idea to honour the spirit of the grain that we depend upon...you never know!
Image from Wikipedie of Cambridgeshire handbells