The festival of Samhain approaches and we are headed for the deep dive into winter. The harvest is in, and this is traditionally the time when livestock herds were culled to provide food for the next few months and have less animals to feed. This is a major threshold of the year and a time when our daily routines shift to center around our hearths and homes. Energy turns inward for humans and plants alike as we settle in to weather the colder months. My own earthspace is alight with brilliant shades of yellow as my woodland cathedral of poplar and oak make their curtain call before turning into their skeletal forms.
In the Celtic worldview, the landscape is decidedly feminine; the maiden of spring, the crone or the hag of winter, and so many land formations have female names like the Paps of Anu, and several wells named for Brigid. The female spirit of the divine cailleach (Gaelic for “hag”), the sacred ancient mother, lived in the harvest. 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. Some corn dollies hung above the kitchen table or in barns to offer protection to the family, the livestock, and the foodstores.
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 as a small ritual to honor the death of summer and thank her for the harvest.
History and Etymology of “Corn”
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 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.
Make Your Own Corn Dolly
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? 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. When Brigid returns in the spring, you can return your corn dolly to the earth with the hopes of putting your new intentions into practice and reaping another good harvest.
I’ve included a corn dolly in my Samhain Gathering Box along with a poem I wrote about her journey through the seasons. This year’s Samhain Gathering Box also includes a bottle of Beyond the Veil Elixir, a pair of hand-dipped rosemary Plant Spirit Candles, a jar of Hag’s Breath loose incense blend, The Keeper of the Cauldron ritual herbal bath soak, and a bottle of rosemary + yarrow hydrosol that I distilled just for this time of year. It’s everything you need to create small rituals to honor the festival of Samhain, either by yourself or with your beloveds. For more details and stories behind how these medicines are made, check out the listing in my Etsy shop.