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The Spirit of the Grain Fields

5 min read

Harvest is the most important time of the agricultural calendar.
Not only in past, the fortunes of farms, families, and even entire communities were tied to its outcome. And thus, unsurprisingly, harvest has developed its variety of deities, traditions, and superstitions which are found in almost every farming culture worldwide.
Ever since the first farmers planted their crops over 10,000 years ago, people have had an anxious wait for summer. Will there be enough hot weather to ripen the corn? Will an unlucky spell rot the grain in the fields? Will the yield feed the community for the coming year?
If not, it will be another year before the next opportunity comes, without another chance.

Moreover, until modern machinery redefined agriculture, corn was harvested by hand using sickles which cut through the stems and laid it in swathes for binding.
It was an action very difficult to master as, if done incorrectly the stems would simply be knocked flat.
The corn has to be cut as soon as it is ripe, or else the quality deteriorates and the grains shed from the ears, but be careful, as it must also be dry else it will quickly spoil.
And a prolonged wet spell at the critical time could (and still can) cost an entire harvest.
On fine days, work could begin at 4am and continue well into the night. Not by chance the Harvest Moon, the full moon falling closest to the Autumn equinox, that rises unusually close to sunset, is so named because it provided harvesters with valuable extra light.

Traditionally, in some European cultures, a corn doll was often used to represent the spirit of the harvested crops.
In rural England, the last sheaf of corn was always saved as this was believed to contain the corn spirit, which was gradually condensed as harvest progressed until it reached the final sheaf to be cut.
Often the sheaf was scattered on the fields in spring, returning the spirit to the fields, while in some areas it was hung up for the hungry birds to peck on New Year’s Day, and in others it was made into a corn doll.
This tradition exists across Europe and it is believed by many in the pagan tradition that this is a relic of the millennia-old belief in the Dying-and-Rising God or God of the Green, who dies in Autumn to be reborn the following Spring.
In parts of Ireland, it’s believed that burying a sheaf of corn while uttering a curse will cause your enemies to die, who will rot from the inside as the corn decays in the soil (oh my God).

However, Europe didn’t have a monopoly on this at all as, also South American countries, some communities took the largest portion of the crops, typically maize, and dressed it in clothing as an effigy.
For istance, in Peru, locals honored different spirits of the crops.
The Maize Mother was the zara mama, the spirit of quinoa was known as quinoa mama, and everything from the cocoa tree to a regular potato had a life essence.
In North America, the native tribes grew corn or maize as a staple part of their diet. Some people have stories of rebirth and regeneration and, in the southwestern part of the United States, Native Americans still perform a ceremonial dance that honors the harvesting of the maize every fall.
Some tribes planted beans, squash, and corn in an arrangement known as Three Sisters. In addition to being a self-sustaining ecosystem, in which each plant helps the others, the planting of this trio is associated with the concept of happy families, abundance, and community.
Corn also features prominently in Native American folklore: the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Apache all have tales about how corn came to be part of man’s diet, stories that usually involve an old woman presenting corn as a gift to someone young.

Also parts of Appalachia are rich in superstitions surrounding corn: some farmers believe that if you miss a row while you’re planting corn, someone in your family will die before harvest season. Likewise, if you see kernels of corn lying in the road, it means that company is on the way, but if you brush the kernels away or bury them, your visitor will be a stranger.
I’m addition, If the husks on your corn extend far beyond the ear itself, it’s a sign you’re in for a long hard winter while burning the cobs, husks, or kernels will bring about drought in the coming season.
During the westward expansion of the nineteenth century, settlers in some Midwestern areas believed that if a girl found a blood-red corn cob among the yellow ones, she was sure to marry before the year was out. And in fact forward-thinking young men occasionally planted a few random kernels of red corn strains among their crops.
In Kentucky, it’s said that blue kernels found on an otherwise red corn cob will bring the person who finds them very good luck indeed.

Also in other part of the world It’s not uncommon to find spiritual connections to agriculture.
The Malay people of Indonesia believe that rice plants, not by chance a staple crop, possess a soul or life force just as humans do. Harvesting is even done in a way that is seen as “painless” to the rice plants, so that it will not suffer.
In some parts of the Malay Peninsula, there is a big ceremony at the beginning of each harvest, in which a complex ritual is performed that identifies the mother of the rice soul in the selected sheaf.

In any case, in the 1870s harvest changed forever when the horse-drawn reaper-binder appeared.
The tractor-drawn reaper-binder followed, then in the 1930s came the combine harvester which also threshed the grain from the ears, leaving the straw in the fields and, what was once a community effort, now involved only a handful of farmworkers.
But still today there is something magical about harvest, for farmers and non-farmers alike. There is something fascinating about a combine harvester rumbling across a field amidst a billowing dust cloud.
Or in the round hay bales on a hot summer day.
Do you agree?

Images from web – Google Research

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