Please welcome my dear friend and fellow herbalist Ruthie to the blog! I fell in love with her recent corn dolly craft and invited her to write a tutorial as a guest post!
As I write this here in southeastern Pennsylvania, the cicadas are singing the swan song of summer, and she is beginning to dress for autumn. The world is still mostly green, but every so often, a stiff breeze will shake loose a few golden leaves and blow them past me as a reminder that the wheel is turning. Like a true Leo, I always resist these days of waning at first, but that first cool night that creeps through my screen and into my bedroom lays an old familiar blanket on my skin and I’m comforted by her touch and her scent. It’s the scent of tired leaves and ripened seedheads and longer shadows. It’s the scent of grass cooled by the morning dew and the cedar chest from where I pulled my extra quilt. She reminds me that summers never last, but they do indeed come around again after a period of much-needed rest. After every period of expansion is a period of contraction, followed by another period of expansion, and so on. Once you recognize the pattern, you’ll find its threads woven into everything; in the seasons, in our breath, in green and growing things, in the birthing of people, planets, stars, and ideas, in living, in dying. It’s finding harmony in and engaging with this rhythm that brings me a great sense of security, connection, and enchantment.
On the Celtic wheel of the year, the festival of Mabon (which is actually a more modern name for the festival) coincides with the autumn equinox on September 22 (or somewhere thereabouts) and is the second of the three harvest festivals bookended by Lughnasadh on August 1 and Samhain on October 31. This long, decadent stretch of late summer is often called a “fifth season”; we are not in high summer anymore but not quite settled into fall yet. Things are being harvested and stores are being laid up for winter. All of our hard work is coming to fruition and summer is full in our bellies. I’m bringing in and drying herbs, making fresh tinctures, freezing elderberry and grape juice, eating the last of the tomatoes, and starting to think about what I’ll do differently in next year’s garden. There is a busy-ness about it that can be overwhelming at times, but I know that it’s all about to come into balance. That’s what an equinox is – a balance of night and day. It’s a pause between breaths, the liminal space between heartbeats. At Mabon, we are occupying the moment just before the exhale, balanced on the edge of the blade. The light is noticeably turning towards darkness, seeds are falling to the earth to go dormant, and everything is preparing to rest and going inward to build up enough energy to begin the cycle again next year.
The story of the corn mother
In pre-industrialized, pre-Christianized Europe, it was believed that the female spirit of the grain lived in the fields with the crops. Once all the crops were brought in, she no longer had a home, and so the last sheaves were reaped in ritual and used to make a corn dolly to embody and honor her spirit. She was kept warm and safe in a place of honor in the home all winter, and in the coming spring, she would be tilled into the earth to infuse the new crop with her generous spirit of fertility.
In Celtic traditions, the female spirit of the divine cailleach (Gaelic for “hag”), the sacred ancient mother, lived in the harvest. She is born anew each spring (or every hundred years in some stories) and matures with the seasons, renewing herself over and over again. Some villages made a game of her corn dolly, kind of like “hot potato”. The first farmer to get all his grains harvested would make a corn dolly from the last of his crop. He’d then toss it into a neighbor’s field who hadn’t finished his harvest yet. The corn dolly would get passed along until the last farmer to get all his crops in was stuck with her for the winter. Some villages would dress the corn dolly to resemble the cailleach and burn her to honor the death of summer and thank her for the harvest.
A bit of a history/etymology lesson on the corn dolly
When we say “corn”, we think of sweet, juicy, yellow kernels munched from a cob. Corn, or maize, as we think of it is native to Central and North America. It would not have been a major grain crop in Europe until after they began to colonize North America in the early 16th century and transatlantic trade routes opened up. The word “corn” actually comes from the same word for “grain”, so the word “corn” would have been colloquially used to refer to whatever the grain crop was in a given area. Depending on where you lived, “corn” could mean oats, barley, rye, or wheat. What we refer to as corn today originally started out as being called “Indian corn” by colonists, because it was the major crop here. The “Indian” part eventually got dropped, and thus we have “corn” as we think of it today. Original European corn dollies (or corn mothers) were made from the straws of wheat, barley, rye, or oats and were sometimes very intricately woven. There are myriad ways to get creative with crafting your own corn dolly, but I’m just going to show you how to make a very basic one from dried corn husks and you can let your imagination take it from there.
Mabon Corn Dolly Tutorial
For this, you only need corn husks, embroidery thread (I like fall colors for this), and scissors. That’s it! Well, maybe an extra finger to hold the knots down as you tie them, but it’s totally doable by yourself. So in full transparency, I have to tell you that I did not dry and press my own corn husks for this. I bought them in the ethnic food section of my grocery store (they are sold as tamale wrappers, but real corn husks nonetheless.
I’ve found that soaking the husks first for just a few minutes really helps to keep them from tearing as you work with them, and you can get everything to fit more tightly together because they are more pliable. Pull them out of the sink and lay them on a towel and pat them dry.
Choose 4-5 husks that are about the same size.
Tie a string around the narrow end. Note: for all tying of strings in this craft, I tie a square knot on one side, wrap the string around the back and tie another square knot just to make sure it’s not going anywhere. Hold the narrow end towards you and start “peeling back” the layers until they are all folded down, concealing the tied part.
Tie a string around where her neck should be. Next, select a rectangular piece of husk that is long enough to be both of her arms (you might have to cut one) and roll it up tight. Find the middle of the “skirt” part of the dolly and push the arms all the way up under the neck.
Tie another piece of thread just under the arms to give her a torso. Then, select two long, thin pieces of husk (you might have to rip them from a full piece). This will be her shawl. Wrap them in a criss-cross fashion around her shoulders and depending on how long the pieces are, you can wrap some around her waist or let the pieces hang.
While you’re holding the “shawl” pieces in place, tie another piece of string around her waist to secure them. This is where that extra knot-holding finger comes in really handy. You can either trim the ends of the string or I like to let them hang to make it look like she’s wearing a long belt. Since you soaked your corn husks in the beginning, they might mold if you don’t dry them properly and quickly. Lay your corn dolly out in the sun for a day or two, put a fan on her, or place her in your oven on the lowest setting and dry them with the oven door open.
Even if you’re not physically out harvesting crops this time of year, you can use this time and this craft to think about the things you have been cultivating within yourself and show gratitude for the fruits of your labor. It’s a time of plenty, of thanksgiving, and of sharing. The cooler air and shortened daylight hours are nudging us to spend more time inward around our tables and fires. It’s a time of reflection, of slowing down and tending your hearth. What things have run their course and need letting go? What will you do differently next season? Which practices are producing fruit? This year, there happens to be a new moon on September 20, which is prime time for reassessing and setting new intentions. Put your gratitude and intentions into the corn dolly as she takes shape, then place her on your mantle or your altar to remind you of these things. If you *really* want to keep with old traditions, you can bury her in the spring (preferably on the equinox) with the hopes of putting your new intentions into practice.
Guest Blogger Bio: Ruthie Hayes
Ruthie Hayes studies and practices the art of herbalism from her home in the wooded hills of southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s there that she tends her earthspace with her husband and two sons. Her passion is to reconnect with and integrate traditional methods of healing into our modern lives. She is the sole proprietress of Mother Hylde’s Herbal and has been studying folk and clinical herbalism since 2012. You can connect with her through motherhylde.com where you can read her writings, find her handmade remedies, and request herbal consultations. She will also be featuring these lovely corn dollies in her upcoming Mabon box!