Friday, October 28, 2016

Supernatural Friday: The Scarecrow Waits for You in the Cornfield-Scarecrow Myths

Scarecrows are a sign of autumn. They maybe in the farmer’s fields all summer, but most people think of them connected with corn stalks and pumpkins, with Halloween to Thanksgiving. Scarecrows link to the planting and protection of crops and the changing of the seasons. In agrarian societies, Spring was celebrated as a time of resurrection – of life reborn after the dark winter. Sacrifice is bound up in this cycle. Winter kills that which grows, and breeds, until it is reborn in Spring. A description for a scarecrow: that which frightens or is intended to frighten without doing physical harm. Literally that which - scares away crows, hence the name scarecrow.

Scarecrows fascinate us. Daniel Defoe is generally thought of as the first English novelist to use the term "scarecrow", in his 1719 novel "Robinson Crusoe." Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Feathertop" is about a scarecrow created and brought to life in seventeenth century Salem, Massachusetts by a witch in league with the devil. He is intended to be used for sinister purposes and at first believes himself to be human, but develops human feelings and deliberately cuts his own life short when he realizes what he really is. The basic framework of the story was used by American dramatist Percy MacKaye in his 1908 play The Scarecrow. After all, in the Batman comics one of his villainous adversaries is the Scarecrow! A scary scarecrow was the center monster in Supernatural Season 1, Episode 11, entitled “Scarecrow.” Sam and Dean Winchester travel to a small town in Indiana where couples have gone missing the same day each year, only to discover the local farmers are sacrificing the innocent victims in order to end a geographic blight long cursing the region, to a Pagan God who takes the form of a scarecrow.

The Scarecrow is the alter ego of the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, the smuggler-Robin-Hood hero in a series of novels written by Russell Thorndike. The first book, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, was published in 1915. The story was made into a movie (1937) and later taken up by Disney in 1963 and dramatized for its Sunday night audience as Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh starring Patrick McGoohan.
There are other scarecrows in film and TV shows. ‘The Wizard of Oz’: not a horror film, but more fantasy. This film features a talking scarecrow who sings "If I Only had a Brain". 
‘The Wickerman is a chilling 1973 horror movie in which a policeman travels to a Hebridean island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Instead he finds a neo-pagan cult who demand a sacrifice each year – someone they burn inside a giant wicker figure. There’s a remake to this cult classic.
‘Children of the Corn’ is another. A young couple stumble onto a town of creepy children and “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”.
Doctor Who has an episode “Family of Blood,” where formless aliens control an animate army of scarecrows. When the Doctor finally defeats them, he traps one of them inside the form of a scarecrow.

Back in ancient Greece, wooden statues were placed in the fields, carved to represent Priapus. Although he was the son of Aphrodite, Priapus was hideously ugly. His most prominent feature was his constant and huge erection. Birds tended to avoid fields where Priapus resided, so as Greek influence spread into Roman territory, Roman farmers adopted the practice.
Different kinds of scarecrows were used in pre-feudal Japanese rice fields. The most popular one was the kakashi. Farmers used old dirty rags and noisemakers like bells and sticks mounted on a pole in the field and lit it all on fire. The flames—and no doubt, the smell—kept birds and other animals away from the rice fields. Of course, the word kakashi meant "something stinky." Over time,  Japanese farmers began making scarecrows that looked like people in raincoats and hats. These scarecrows were equipped with weaponry to make them look even more frightening. In Kojiki, the oldest surviving book in Japan (compiled in the year 712), a scarecrow known as Kuebiko appears as a deity who cannot walk, yet knows everything about the world.

The Middle Ages in Britain and Europe had small children to scare of the crows. They would run around in the fields, clapping blocks of wood together to frighten away birds that might eat the grain. As the medieval period wound down and populations decreased due to plague, farmers discovered there was a shortage of spare children to shoo birds away. In medieval England, farmers secured animal skulls to posts in order to frighten away birds and other animals from the crops. But before long, those in Britain and Europe took to stuffing old clothes with straw, placed a turnip or gourd up on top, and mounted the figure in the fields. They soon realized these lifelike guardians did a pretty good job of keeping crows away.

The scarecrow took care of the crops. His size corresponded to the height of the cornfield and it was coated with wax from nine beehives. A witch doctor placed the eyes, which are two beans; the teeth are maize and nails made of white beans; he is dressed in “holoch” (corn husks). Each time the witch places one of these elements on the scarecrow, he calls to the four winds to protect the corn.

Scarecrows came to North America with European emigrants. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought with them the bootzamon—bogeyman—which stood guard over the fields. A female counterpart would be added to the opposite end of the field or orchard sometimes. In the southern Appalachians, another common method of scaring off crows was use of a dead crow hung upside down from a pole.

Mayan Scarecrow Myth:
The scarecrow is presented to the Sun God and given as an offering to the Rain God. Fragrant herbs and anise are burned, and the sacred fire is kept burning for about an hour. Meanwhile, the witch doctor distributes “balché” to the witnesses, which is a very intoxicating liquor, so that the humans won’t be aware when the gods come down to earth. The ceremony should take place when the sun is in the middle of the sky. At that hour, the witch doctor makes a wound on the little finger of the owner of the cornfield, then squeezes out nine drops of blood into a hole in the right hand of the scarecrow; this hole reaches to the elbow.
The witch doctor closes the hole in the scarecrow's hand and in a peremptory voice commands: "Today your life begins. This man (pointing to the owner) is your lord and master. Obedience, scarecrow, obedience ... may the gods punish you if you fail. The cornfield is yours. You must punish the intruder and the thief. Here's your weapon." At this moment he places a rock in the right hand of the scarecrow.

During the burning and the growth of the cornfield, the scarecrow is covered with guano palm, but when the fruit starts to emerge, he is uncovered.
The people say that if a thief or mischief-maker tries to steal the crops, he is stoned to death. Therefore, in the cornfields where scarecrows stand guard, nothing is ever stolen. After the harvest, a “hanincol” (meal in the cornfield) is served in honor of the scarecrow. After the ceremony, wax scarecrow is melted and the wax is used to make candles, which are burned in the pagan and Christian altars.

Next time, you drive past a field and see a scarecrow, think. Are they truly scary, or is it all bad press?


Tori SilverScorp said...

Good write.

Pamela K. Kinney said...

Thank you. :-)