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The rat in Mythology and Folklore

Every scarecrow has a secret ambition to terrorize

- Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

The scarecrow is both a symbol of horror and whimsey. A reminder of time immemorial, when farmers used crude techniques to scare off birds too smart to be frightened by a dummy for long. Even the word Scarecrow finds its origins

as early as the mid-13th century, when they were called shewel, a word possibly derived from the old English word shy, which translates to ‘scare’.

Their function is well-known, and self-explanatory. Effigy’s set up in the fields to frighten or scare away the wildlife, most often birds. As early as the 700’s people in Japan used the scarecrow in their fields in the form of Kuebiko. A figure of a man who could not walk, but knew everything in the world.

In the United Kingdom there are numerous names for a Scarecrow like Mummet, Hay-man Gallybagger, Tattie, Bodach-rocais which literally means old man in the rooks, and Bogal, which may come from the Welsh word bwg, meaning ghost.


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But there is some confusion as to the function of a Scarecrow. Birds, especially the crow in its namesake, are smart and would not be fooled for long by a stationary man. So, was the Scarecrow’s original function to scare away birds or was their purpose perhaps something else?

In Rome crucified bodies were often used to frighten off would be attackers or pillagers. Vlad the Impaler did the same, dead bodies were displayed in grotesque fashion as warnings. As the farmers needed to keep their lands safe, it is possible that Scarecrows (human like effigy’s) were rather used as a means to stake claims. Showing to all the world that this farm belonged to someone, and that they should think twice about trying to steal something or even set foot on the land. They are after-all made to look like crucified men.

Another possibility for the Scarecrow’s function is far more spiritual than territorial. In Europe the tradition of Corn Dollies might suggest a possible function for the Scarecrows. The tradition goes that the spirits of the corn fields resided within the fields, however after the harvest, the spirits had no home, and so the Corn Dollies were made. Simple designs to be hung around the neck or in the home of the farmers to give the spirits a home until the new fields were ready.

It is possible that the Scarecrow served a similar sort of function. Perhaps they hosted a home for something sinister, like ghosts? Seeing as some terms do suggest a more spiritual origin, like the Bogal. They might have been burned at the end of the harvest to ensure the evil spirits, which had been drawn in during the summer, where then disbanded. Cats were also burned in European times for both entertainment and to ward off evil spirits. However, in regards to the Scarecrow this is only conjecture and guess-work, as no proof has ever been found that they were burned.

However, Scarecrows, despite what we might think, were not always stationary. A scarecrow could also come in the form as children who hid in straw huts and chased the birds when they landed. One theory goes that during and after the nine-year plague of the 14th century, children were in short supply and so they started using other methods, like stationary men to frighten away the birds. Also, Scarecrows need not always be human shaped figures. Japan’s Kakashi’s (scarecrows) for example applies a more functional device. They are made up of shimmering string, pots, pans and other items that would frighten a bird. It is very possible that this sort of device used in Europe, but somewhere tradition replaced it with the effigy of a crucified man.

Whatever the Scarecrow was once used for its purpose today is moot. There is no reason to keep the strawman in our fields. Yet the scarecrow remains. Our own fascination and its own symbolism keeping it safe from disappearing entirely, its function a symbol of the time and its dark silhouette a place for our imagination to nestle and grow.


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