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The last sheaf of the harvest, dressed in a woman's dress or woven into an intricate shape and decked with ribbons, is regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of the crop, the spirit of the growing grain itself. The safe-keeping of this corn dolly over the winter insures fertility for the following harvest, provided that some portion of it is given to cattle and horses to eat, and some portion of it strewn in the field or mixed with the seeds for the next crop.
This practice of saving the spirit of the harvest is extensive throughout Europe.In Northumberland, the corn dolly is attached to a long pole and carried home to be set up in the barn. In some communities it goes home on the lastload. Sometimes it is fairly small. In parts of Germany, the heavier it is, the better.
On the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, the corn dolly's apron is filled with bread, cheese and a sickle. In other parts of Scotland, the reapers hold races. The man who finishes reaping first designates his last sheaf the corn maiden; the one who finishes last makes his last sheaf into a hag.
In some localities, the corn dolly is made by the first farmer who finishes his harvest and then passed from farm to farm as each farmer finishes his harvest, ending up with the farmer who finishes last. In this case, no one wants the dolly as it is a sign of procrastination.
In Wales, others try to snatch the dolly from the reaper who carries it from the field. If he gets home safe, he gets to keep it on his farm for the rest of the year.
French, Slavonic, and some Germanic regions use the last sheaf to create a Kornwolf, believed to hold a wolf-like spirit that resides in the last sheaf and provides the same life force for the next season. This is a fiercer version of the corn dolly and is sometimes used to scare children.
Today, corn dollies are seen as emblems of abundance.
Historically the word corn was applied to the the small hard grain or fruit of a plant. It was used generically to refer to the leading crop of the district. In England, corn was wheat; in Scotland, oats; in the U.S., maize.
How to make a Corn Dolly
The best part of the stem is the top length from the ear (the seed head) down to where the last leaf leaves the stem. Leaving the ear intact, strip off the dead leaves and sort the stems according to size: thick, medium, and fine.
Dry straw must be soaked flat in cold water for about 15 minutes and then stood upright to drain before plaiting.
The Five-Straw Plait is the easiest to work with for a beginner:
1. Tie 5 straws together close to the ears.
2-5. Each time the straw being folded passes over two corners, it is then left and the one at the last corner is picked up and used in its place until the round is completed.
The attractive spiral pattern grows as round succeeds round.
6. When completed, the ends are tied to the starting point below the ears, making a decorative circle.
To feed in new straws, cut the old straw off after it has passed the second straw. The thin end of the new straw is inserted in the hole, making sure of a firm fit which is hidden under the fold of the straw of the next round.
Simple corn dollies can also be made with the standard three-straw plait.
More complex corn dollies involve multiple straws, intricate braids, and sometimes the creation of a straw core shape around which the outer straw is plaited.
A Corn Dolly by any other name
England: Harvest Queen
Old woman (Cailleac)
Wales: Hag (Wrach)
Brittany: Mother Sheaf.
Germany: Kornmutter (Corn Mother)
Denmark : Rye Woman
Poland: Baba (grandmother)
capturing the spirit
Corn Dollies are made from plaited or braided straw. Hollow wheat straw is the easiest to work with.
Cornucopia: the horn of abundance of classic mythology, always filled with fruit and self-replenishing according to the wishes of its possessor. The horn is reputed to be broken from the goat Amalthes which nourished the infant Zeus or torn from Achelous by Hercules.
One of the simplest, and one of my favorite crafts, is salt dough. It is really fun. You can mold it into any shape you like, such as goddesses, gods, pentacles, etc. All is you have to do is follow the recipe below, form it into your shapes, set them on a oven tray, and bake them until hard. This depends on what sort of oven you are using. In fact, you can even bake them in the microwave. After baking them, just paint them, and let dry. Voila, you have cute little figures perfect for jewelery, ornaments, decorations, or anything else you can think of.
300 g/11 oz/3 cups plain flour
300 g/11 oz/2 cups, plus 30 ml/2 tbsp salt
30 ml/2 tbsp vegetable oil
200 ml/8 fl oz/1 cup water
Put the flour and 2 cups of the salt into the large bowl. Add the oil to the flour and salt mixture and add the remaining salt. Mix the ingredients together with the wooden spoon. Pour in the water and mix thoroughly, making sure there are no lumps. Knead the dough until it is firm. When it is ready you can use it right away or store it in an air tight container in the refrigerator.
Can be made into altar pentacles, candle holders, cesers etc.
2 Cups sand
1 Cup cornflour
2 Tspns alum (potassium aluminium sulfate, can be bought at a chemist or a supermarket)
1 1/2 Cups hot water
* Cook on Medium Low heat till thick
* Goes hard when sun dried or baked on low for 3 to 9 hours depending upon thickness
Can be made into altar pentacles, candle holders, cesers etc.
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Make your own Athame!
Some traditions call for a specific size for the Athame, though it usually is between six and twelve inches. The size of your Athame should be of whatever length is comfortable for you.
Stop by your local hardware store and ask for a piece of untempered steel that can be tempered (also known as 10/10 steel). If they dont carry this, buy a steel file that is about three inches longer than the knife you want to make. Also buy a corse steel file and a fine steel file to file your new blade into shape. Be sure to get a hacksaw and blade capable of cutting the file once you have removed the temper from it. (Yes, files have a temper, so dont make them angry!)
I know what your first question is. "Don't you need a forge to get the steel hot enough to remove the temper?"
Well, yes. Do you have a charcoal barbeque? Great! You have a forge! However, in a barbeque, it takes longer. So be patient. Even the shaping of your blade will take some time.
If you are making your blade out of a file, you have one advantage. The advantage is that you won't have to cut out the tang for your handle, as a file already comes with a tang! You have to remove the temper from the file before you can do anything else. To remove the temper, stock up a large pile of charcoal in your barbeque (large enough to bury the entire file.) Once they are fully lit, bury your file halfway deep in the pile of charcoal. Cover any exposed ends with charcoal using a pare of long handled tongs. The file will need to stay in the charcoal untill the charcoal goes out. This may take all day, so start early in the morning. BE SAFE! Don't leave the fire unattened! If you need to leave it for a short time, put the cover on your barbeque untill you get back! This should be enough to remove any temper. If the metal is still hard to work with, repeat this procedure.
You also need to do the above procedure for untempered metal, to make it soft.
If you dont have a barbeque, and no other way to do this, you can lay it on the burner of a gas or electric stove. This will take a long time, but has the advantage of being able to see the to-be-blade. Once it it becomes a dull red, it is ready. Turn off the stove and let it cool down naturally.
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