The Origin of the Scarecrow

Every scarecrow has a secret ambition to terrorize

- Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

The scarecrow, keeping its lonely vigil in the corn and wheat fields of farmers, has worked its way into the minds and hearts of its admirers. It stands both as a symbol of whimsey and horror. The funny caricature unable to keep its balance and is, of course, terrified of fire. And the horrific monster, ready to frighten its victims to death - bird or human.

The scarecrow in different cultures

As early as the 700s people in Japan used the scarecrow in their fields in the form of Kuebiko. An old deity who stood in the middle of fields, who could never move, but was the wisest of all. The term also refers to a Japanese concept: 'fatigue generated by senseless trauma' essentially a feeling of being alive, but unable to move. 

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.

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’. But what exactly were they supposed to be scaring? Despite being called scarecrows, birds would not be fooled by stationary costumes for very long, and keeping a field safe would require a more hands-on approach. 

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The Kuebiko from Japan. Often made from pots, pans or shimmering mirrors, they can be quite effective at keeping birds at bay.

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Effigies or corn dollies

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 effigies) 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 scarecrow. The tradition goes that the spirits of the cornfields resided within the fields, however after the harvest, the spirits had no home, and so the corn dollies were made. Simple designs that would 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 had a similar sort of function.

Perhaps they hosted a home for something sinister, like ghosts? Seeing as some of the terms do suggest a more spiritual origin, like the Bogal, which means ghost. They might have been burned at the end of the harvest to ensure the evil spirits, which had been drawn in during the summer, were then disbanded. Cats were also burned in old European traditions for both entertainment and to ward off evil spirits. However, in regards to the Scarecrow, this is only conjecture and guesswork, as no proof has ever been found that they were burned. However, scarecrows, despite what we might think, were not always stationary.

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Although and accepted practice today, no evidence exists to suggest that Scarecrows were ever burned.

Before the scarecrow was crucified

A scarecrow could also be children who hid in straw huts and chased the birds when they landed. One theory claims 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 effigies to frighten away the birds. How effective that was is up for debate, but scarecrows don't always need to be human-shaped figures.

 

Japan’s kakashi's (scarecrows) for example are far more functional. They are made up of shimmering string, pots, pans and other items that would more easily frighten a bird. It is very possible that this sort of device was actually used in Europe, but somewhere tradition replaced functionality with the effigy of a crucified man.

But whatever the scarecrow was once used for is moot today. There is no reason to keep them in our fields. Yet the scarecrow remains. Our own fascination with the gnarled figures and perhaps ingrained traditions keeping it safe from disappearing entirely. Its sole function is now only to stand as a symbol, its dark silhouette a place for our imagination to nestle and grow.

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