Sacred-texts  Neopaganism  Index  Previous  Next 

Chapter 48. The Corn-Spirit as an Animal.

Section 2. The Corn-spirit as a Wolf or a Dog.

WE begin with the corn-spirit conceived as a wolf or a dog. This conception is common in France, Germany, and Slavonic countries. Thus, when the wind sets the corn in wave-like motion the peasants often say, “The Wolf is going over, or through, the corn,” “the Rye-wolf is rushing over the field,” “the Wolf is in the corn,” “the mad Dog is in the corn,” “the big Dog is there.” When children wish to go into the corn-fields to pluck ears or gather the blue corn-flowers, they are warned not to do so, for “the big Dog sits in the corn,” or “the Wolf sits in the corn, and will tear you in pieces,” “the Wolf will eat you.” The wolf against whom the children are warned is not a common wolf, for he is often spoken of as the Corn-wolf, Rye-wolf, or the like; thus they say, “The Rye-wolf will come and eat you up, children,” “the Rye-wolf will carry you off,” and so forth. Still he has all the outward appearance of a wolf. For in the neighbourhood of Feilenhof (East Prussia), when a wolf was seen running through a field, the peasants used to watch whether he carried his tail in the air or dragged it on the ground. If he dragged it on the ground, they went after him, and thanked him for bringing them a blessing, and even set tit-bits before him. But if he carried his tail high, they cursed him and tried to kill him. Here the wolf is the corn-spirit whose fertilising power is in his tail.   1

  Both dog and wolf appear as embodiments of the corn-spirit in harvest-customs. Thus in some parts of Silesia the person who cuts or binds the last sheaf is called the Wheat-dog or the Peas-pug. But it is in the harvest-customs of the north-east of France that the idea of the Corn-dog comes out most clearly. Thus when a harvester, through sickness, weariness, or laziness, cannot or will not keep up with the reaper in front of him, they say, “The White Dog passed near him,” “he has the White Bitch,” or “the White Bitch has bitten him. In the Vosges the Harvest-May is called the “Dog of the harvest,” and the person who cuts the last handful of hay or wheat is said to “kill the Dog.” About Lons-le-Saulnier, in the Jura, the last sheaf is called the Bitch. In the neighbourhood of Verdun the regular expression for finishing the reaping is, “They are going to kill the Dog”; and at Epinal they say, according to the crop, “We will kill the Wheat-dog, or the Rye-dog, or the Potato-dog.” In Lorraine it is said of the man who cuts the last corn, “He is killing the Dog of the harvest.” At Dux, in the Tyrol, the man who gives the last stroke at threshing is said to “strike down the Dog”; and at Ahnebergen, near Stade, he is called, according to the crop, Corn-pug, Rye-pug, Wheat-pug.   2

  So with the wolf. In Silesia, when the reapers gather round the last patch of standing corn to reap it they are said to be about “to catch the Wolf.” In various parts of Mecklenburg, where the belief in the Corn-wolf is particularly prevalent, every one fears to cut the last corn, because they say that the Wolf is sitting in it; hence every reaper exerts himself to the utmost in order not to be the last, and every woman similarly fears to bind the last sheaf because “the Wolf is in it.” So both among the reapers and the binders there is a competition not to be the last to finish. And in Germany generally it appears to be a common saying that “the Wolf sits in the last sheaf.” In some places they call out to the reaper, “Beware of the Wolf”; or they say, “He is chasing the Wolf out of the corn.” In Mecklenburg the last bunch of standing corn is itself commonly called the Wolf, and the man who reaps it “has the Wolf,” the animal being described as the Rye-wolf, the Wheat-wolf, the Barley-wolf, and so on according to the particular crop. The reaper of the last corn is himself called Wolf or the Rye-wolf, if the crop is rye, and in many parts of Mecklenburg he has to support the character by pretending to bite the other harvesters or by howling like a wolf. The last sheaf of corn is also called the Wolf or the Rye-wolf or the Oats-wolf according to the crop, and of the woman who binds it they say, “The Wolf is biting her,” “She has the Wolf,” “She must fetch the Wolf” (out of the corn). Moreover, she herself is called Wolf; they cry out to her, “Thou art the Wolf,” and she has to bear the name for a whole year; sometimes, according to the crop, she is called the Rye-wolf or the Potato-wolf. In the island of Rügen not only is the woman who binds the last sheaf called Wolf, but when she comes home she bites the lady of the house and the stewardess, for which she receives a large piece of meat. Yet nobody likes to be the Wolf. The same woman may be Rye-wolf, Wheat-wolf, and Oats-wolf, if she happens to bind the last sheaf of rye, wheat, and oats. At Buir, in the district of Cologne, it was formerly the custom to give to the last sheaf the shape of a wolf. It was kept in the barn till all the corn was threshed. Then it was brought to the farmer and he had to sprinkle it with beer or brandy. At Brunshaupten in Mecklenburg the young woman who bound the last sheaf of wheat used to take a handful of stalks out of it and make “the Wheat-wolf” with them; it was the figure of a wolf about two feet long and half a foot high, the legs of the animal being represented by stiff stalks and its tail and mane by wheat-ears. This Wheat-wolf she carried back at the head of the harvesters to the village, where it was set up on a high place in the parlour of the farm and remained there for a long time. In many places the sheaf called the Wolf is made up in human form and dressed in clothes. This indicates a confusion of ideas between the corn-spirit conceived in human and in animal form. Generally the Wolf is brought home on the last waggon with joyful cries. Hence the last waggon-load itself receives the name of the Wolf.   3

  Again, the Wolf is supposed to hide himself amongst the cut corn in the granary, until he is driven out of the last bundle by the strokes of the flail. Hence at Wanzleben, near Magdeburg, after the threshing the peasants go in procession, leading by a chain a man who is enveloped in the threshed-out straw and is called the Wolf. He represents the corn-spirit who has been caught escaping from the threshed corn. In the district of Treves it is believed that the Corn-wolf is killed at threshing. The men thresh the last sheaf till it is reduced to chopped straw. In this way they think that the Corn-wolf, who was lurking in the last sheaf, has been certainly killed.   4

  In France also the Corn-wolf appears at harvest. Thus they call out to the reaper of the last corn, “You will catch the Wolf.” Near Chambéry they form a ring round the last standing corn, and cry, “The Wolf is in there.” In Finisterre, when the reaping draws near an end, the harvesters cry, “There is the Wolf; we will catch him.” Each takes a swath to reap, and he who finishes first calls out, “I’ve caught the Wolf.” In Guyenne, when the last corn has been reaped, they lead a wether all round the field. It is called “the Wolf of the field.” Its horns are decked with a wreath of flowers and corn-ears, and its neck and body are also encircled with garlands and ribbons. All the reapers march, singing, behind it. Then it is killed on the field. In this part of France the last sheaf is called the coujoulage, which, in the patois, means a wether. Hence the killing of the wether represents the death of the corn-spirit, considered as present in the last sheaf; but two different conceptions of the corn-spirit—as a wolf and as a wether—are mixed up together.   5

  Sometimes it appears to be thought that the Wolf, caught in the last corn, lives during the winter in the farmhouse, ready to renew his activity as corn-spirit in the spring. Hence at midwinter, when the lengthening days begin to herald the approach of spring, the Wolf makes his appearance once more. In Poland a man, with a wolf’s skin thrown over his head, is led about at Christmas; or a stuffed wolf is carried about by persons who collect money. There are facts which point to an old custom of leading about a man enveloped in leaves and called the Wolf, while his conductors collected money.   6