The Reign of the Scarecrow

Scarecrows have evolved from Ancient Greece to modern day. But why do we celebrate them in autumn?

Reader Contribution by Cindy Murphy
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They stand vigil throughout our town this time of year, and can be seen doing the same in small towns, yards, and yes, even in cornfields all across America.  The scarecrow, one of the most familiar figures in farming communities here in the United States and in many other parts of the world, is also a traditional symbol of the harvest season.

Scarecrow festivals featuring scarecrow-making demonstrations and contests crop up nearly everywhere in autumn.  I love the autumn, and I welcome all it has to offer, including those pumpkin-headed, raggedy-clad men of the field, but I’ve always thought it seems kind of odd that scarecrows are put up as autumn decorations, when now would be the time that their work for the year is done.

I’ve never read of such a ritual, but can imagine a long-ago summer solstice celebration honoring the scarecrow.  The townspeople would gather and spend the day joyously constructing these revered protectors of the crop.  At dusk, the figures would solemnly be erected as seasonal guardians over their fields, after which much feasting and celebrating would continue by firelight well into the night – for this is the time when a scarecrow’s work starts and he has a long, hard job ahead of him.  Scarecrow festivals at the start of summer make more sense to me than in autumn.  Putting up scarecrows in fall seems a backward way of doing things.

But who am I to argue with technicalities?  I like scarecrows as much as the next person.  Last October, driving home from vacationing up north, we passed through a small town that seemed to be inhabited entirely by scarecrows – every home, every business we drove by had a scarecrow keeping watch outside.  I pressed my nose up against the car window just like a kid, trying to get a glimpse of each one.

In our own town, South Haven, a Parade of Scarecrows is part of our month long Harvest Moon Festival.  The merchants downtown erect scarecrows outside their storefronts, and they are judged in different categories:  most original, scariest, judges’ choice, people’s choice, and best representation of the business which made it.  My favorite last year was The Raven, in human-sized form and dressed as Edgar Allen Poe himself.

Using a raven, cousin to the crow, to scare the crows?  Although this particular raven was far too well-dressed to get to the down and dirty job of keeping the crows out of the fields, it’s not the first bird to be used as a scarecrow, real or fictional.  The Senecas, a Native American tribe in what is now New York, fed corn soaked in a mixture of herbs to crows.  The herbal mixture was a poison that caused the crows to fly erratically through the fields, thus scaring away other birds.  In southern Appalachia, it was a common practice to hang dead crows from poles to frighten other crows.  A similar method was used in the fictional work Robinson Crusoe.  Crusoe hangs dead crows in his patch of corn in order to frighten away other birds daring to enter the area.  It worked, “…I could never see a bird near the place as long as my scarecrows hung there.”  This, though not the modern idea of a scarecrow, is thought by some to be probably the first time the word “scarecrow” appeared in literature. Robinson Crusoe was written in 1719.

Scarecrows, or whatever the term used, appeared long before 1719.  Scarecrows have been a historical figure of the crops for thousands of years.  Since the first crop was planted, man has been trying to thwart the efforts of birds and animals from destroying it.  Ancient Egyptians used net-covered wooden frames to keep quail out of their fields.  In Japan, the putrid scent of burning bamboo poles hung with rags, meat or fish bones kept birds and animals out of the rice fields; the Japanese called these scarecrows “Kakashis” which translates into “something that smells badly.”

In Ancient Greece, Priapus was a god of fertility, horticulture, and viticulture.  He was deformed by what some texts politely refer to as a grotesquely large “club,” and because GRIT is a nice, family-oriented publication, I will leave it at that. Statues honoring him were erected throughout Greece, not only in temples, but in the countryside where his large deformity served not only a symbol of the fields’ fertility, but as a method to scare the birds, animals and would-be thieves.

Ancient cultures often attributed things they did not understand to gods or spirits.  Offerings and symbols were used as a way to appease these gods.  Like the statues honoring Priapus, these symbols often were representations of the gods themselves, or had magical powers.  Farmers used these early “scarecrows” in their fields in hopes the gods would bestow upon them a good crop.  In Japanese mythology, the deity Kuebiko is a scarecrow who knows and sees everything.  In Germany during the Middle Ages, scarecrows were made in the form of witches, who would draw to them the evil spirits of winter.  Once the witch devoured winter, it was safe for spring to arrive.  Figures such as these slowly evolved into the scarecrows we are familiar with.

The medieval British used live boys as “crow scarers,” a tactic also used by Native Americans and early American settlers.  But the Plague killed half the population of Britain making “crow scarers” scarce, and as the colonies in America became more populated, the need for grain increased, and it wasn’t feasible for farmers to be out in the fields all day shooing away the birds.  Straw-stuffed sacks with gourd or turnip heads were erected on poles to take the place of live bird shooers.

The German immigrants in Pennsylvania had a nice idea.  They gave their scarecrows, which they called “blootzamon” or bogyman, a mate to keep him company during his long days out in the field – although the “bootzafrau” or bogeywife most often stood on the other side of the field.

Sometime in the mid-1800s, scarecrows began to be used not only for the utilitarian purpose of protecting crops, but also purely for decoration.  More than just a crude sack filled with straw, they became a type of folk art form.  Each with its own unique personality, these are the scarecrows of autumn festivals, such as the Parade of Scarecrows in our town.

Our downtown scarecrows were not your typical Wizard of Oz-type scarecrows.  The hardware store’s was made from a rake, tools and barbeque grill parts. A restaurant had a mannequin dressed in a 50s style waitress uniform. She was quite pretty in a quirky sort of way, but badly needed to shave her legs – she had straw-hair sticking through her stockings. The macabre was well represented.  The same boutique that did Poe’s Raven last year went with the literary Halloween-type scarecrow again this year in the form of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman.

The hair salon where I get my hair cut used a mannequin hair-stylist holding giant scissors, hovering over another mannequin sitting in a barber’s chair.  This “customer’s” head lay severed in its lap. A sign described the scene, “You said you wanted a little off the top.”  I’m thinking maybe I need to switch stylists….while I still have a head left to think.

These scarecrows are fun, but the questions still remains, “why are scarecrows used mainly as an autumn decoration?”  Modern, working scarecrows don’t even resemble that pumpkin-headed guy in the overalls.  Reflective Mylar tape, automatic air cannons, and windmills are what you see most in the fields today scaring away the birds and animals.

Perhaps the scarecrow is a harvest symbol because we are thanking him, now and in generations prior, for the hard work he’s done in keeping our harvest bounty ours and not leaving it go to the birds.  So next time you come upon one of these hard-working guardians, tip your hat, wave, and thank him for a job well done.  Even if he hasn’t scared a single crow in his life, I bet he’s made you smile.  And that deserves a bit of thanks.

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