The Art and Craft of Straw Work

Corn Dollies

Many folk stories surround the tradition of Corn Dollies. It is said that they date back 5,000 years but there is no actual evidence that this is true. We do know that the Old Testament of the Bible mentions the presentation of a specially decorated sheaf of corn to the temple, but does not mention the making of corn dollies, or special shapes. Neither is there evidence of corn dollies in the times of the Egyptian pharaoh's, although much has been written and claimed.


The belief in gods and goddesses who were thought to control the life forces predates Christianity. There are many stories of the various goddesses who protected the harvest ~ Demeter in Greece, Ceres in Italy, Isis in Egypt; the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone is believed to relate to the germination of seed. Ceremonies of celebration to mark the end of a successful harvest can be found around the world, but as to when they began to involve specific shapes is the subject of debate. It is important to understand that the celebration of harvest relates to all forms of harvest: rice, maize, peas, beans as well as wheat, oats, rye and barley.


By the 1800s, various shapes and designs are associated with specific places in Europe and stories of harvest customs in which the corn dolly plays an important part are common. However, at this time the name corn dolly did not exist. The shapes were known collectively as harvest trophies or harvest tokens and the individual shapes by local names, such as Kern maiden, Kern babby, neck, mell doll or hag. The name corn dolly did not appear until the 20th century.


In Ireland there are Saint Brigit's Crosses, which are also found in Mexico and New Mexico where they are called Ojo de Dios (God's Eyes.) There are doll shapes made of small bundles of straw, or of whole sheaves found in Russia, France and England. These dolls do not necessarily look very much like dolls at a first glance. In Scandinavia, there are crowns and straw figures such as the Julbok, the Christmas goat. There appears to be no known tradition of corn dolly making in Switzerland until about the 1970s, but now there are many makers.

Veronica Main