Scarecrows and the Need to Frighten
The familiar cornfield scarecrow has a long and storied history both in Europe and in the New World. 3,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians hung tunics on reeds to scare quail away from crops along the Nile. The ancient Greeks created wooden statues of Priapus,a fertility god, to stand in their fields to frighten birds.
As early as the 8th century, the Japanese had the Kuebiko to keep sparrows from the rice. This figure was dressed in old dirty rags and bells and would be burned in the field at the end of the agricultural season. The smoke and smell would keep the birds away. In some Native American cultures, men sat on raised platforms and shouted at birds or animals approaching crops.
In Europe, scarecrows have long been tied to the supernatural boogeyman, a monster who is often depicted in tattered clothing. To a superstitious agrarian society, not only would scarecrows keep birds away from crops, but they could also scare children away from the fields where there might be strange things hiding.
The legend of Jack-O-Lantern, which originated in Ireland in the Dark Ages, is that of a stingy trickster. In Irish and English folk tales, Jack-O-Lantern is doomed to wander between heaven and hell. He carries a light in a turnip or pumpkin and, later, that light is substituted for his head.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, small children would run through the fields clapping blocks together to scare the birds or throwing stones at them. They were the “crow-scarers”. After the plague took the lives of many children, farmers began stuffing old clothes with straw and placing a turnip or gourd at the top as a head. These figures were lifted on poles and mounted in the fields.
“Through the ages, scarecrows have been fashioned to reflect images of the occult, of customs, culture, mythology, superstitions or religion...To a farmer they may simply be a symbol of the death and resurrection of the crops.” (Lori Rotenberk)
In the 15th and 16th centuries, European ideas of scarecrows traveled to the New World. After WWII, farmers decided that they could more effectively use pesticides to keep crops safe from birds and other animals. However, many rural farming areas still use the age-old scarecrow. We also use them to decorate our homes in the fall. We see them as both creepy and cute, depending on how we are using them.
Today there are scarecrow festivals held all over the world during the autumn season. What they share is a celebration of a family and community way of life. Scarecrows are also subjects of folk art, songs as well as stories and movies created in the romantic tradition of the gothic imagination.
Hay, Man: The Curious Life and Times of Scarecrows, by Lori Rotenberk for modernfarmer.com
The Myth of the Scarecrow from thestoriedimaginarium.com