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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Magical Monday: The Corn King

Today, 1st August is Lammas or Lughnasadh - the ancient festival of the first harvest (corn and grain). Stories and rites of this time therefore centre around sacrifice, death, rebirth and abundance. In old stories, this is the time when the Corn King (or John Barleycorn) is cut down in order to feed the people. Although there is sadness in the death of the king, everyone understands that this stage is necessary. Harvesting the corn allows more to be planted and allows the ground to regain its fertility. If the corn were left to die on the stalk, there could be no future crop either.

Corn dollies (as seen in the picture above) are related to Lammas celebrations and seem to have different meanings in different communities. To some, they celebrate the corn (symbolic of the whole harvest) and remind us of the abundance around us. To others, they are used in ritualised slayings of the Corn King or God (who sacrifices himself willingly for us). For others still, they are a kind of offering, a way of setting aside the last bit of the harvest rather than consuming it. Safeguarding the corn dolly through the year is sometimes seen as a way of protecting next year's yield, showing gratitude for the harvest and thereby proving we deserve another one. Yet another belief is that the corn dolly houses the spirit of the corn over the winter. For those following this final system, the dolly would be buried when the new crop was planted, sometimes quite elaborately, or driven into the newly-ploughed ground in the spring. Either way, this ensured that the corn spirit was never lost.

For the original version of the picture above, along with others and instructions on making one design, visit this site.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! In Cumbria, the last sheaf to be cut was called the 'luck sheaf' and it was tied up and kept with an apple until Christmas morning. At Christmas, a girl in the house got the apple, and the best cow got the corn! It's all conspicuously ancient stuff, isn't it?

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