#FolkloreThursday: Scarecrows and The Harvest

This week’s entry doesn’t have a classification in the Motif Index but scarecrows are a well-known sight all over the world and all through history. Sometimes they’re scary, sometimes they’re sweet. Honestly, they’ve always kind of creeped me out but their history is actually interesting.

Ray Bolger as Scarecrow, 1939, The Wizard of Oz

Scarecrows have a presence going all the way back to ancient Greece, where they were meant to represent Priapus, yes, that Priapus. And, I mean, that would be a bit terrifying to see, just hanging out in the grain fields. Roman farmers eventually adopted this practice as well, through cultural drift. They were also used in Pre-Feudal Japan, where they were known as “kakashi.” These were old, dirty clothes and noisemakers mounted on sticks. They would be set on fire in the field and left to burn to scare away birds. An account from the year 712 records the story of Kuebeiko, a scarecrow god who is unable to walk but has a great awareness of the world.

John Vachon, 1938 (Library of Congress)

According to one site, children were often used in the fields of Middle Ages Britain and Europe to scare birds away but as the population dwindled due to plague, farmers began to use scarecrows, often using turnips or gourds for the head. In Germany, scarecrows were often constructed to resemble witches, which gives me absolute IDEAS about a Halloween costume.

It is believed that German immigrants are the ones who brought their concept of the scarecrow to the United States. These had a humanoid appearance and were referred to as “bootsamon” or “bogeyman,” which might explain why they tend to freak me out just a little.

The Scarecrow, DC Comics

Having said that, scarecrows have become a very well-known sight in Autumn/Fall lore and decor. It’s not a surprise, really. When the fields are full, they stand as protector to the crops. Once harvest comes, once the fields have been reaped, when everything is turning brown and decaying, the figure of the scarecrow stands in the fields alone, forever immobile (we hope!), watching over the land with hollow eyes, waiting for life to return. It feels as if we should be sad for the scarecrow, but how can we when it also feels as if, if we look at the scarecrow in just the right way, that he might look back at us?

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