The Corn Spirit (1) The Arguments So Far


The second area of disagreement between Frazer and Hutton that this paper addresses concerns customs relating to spirits of the corn, and specifically of the last sheaf to be reaped. Within Frazer’s 13 volumes there is a section (a mere two volumes long) called Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild. Building on researches by the folklorist Wilhelm Mannhardt (1831-1880) Frazer details numerous, often female, folk personages in cultures across the world who were treated as presiding over the agricultural cycle – corn mothers, rice mothers, rye mothers, wheat mothers etc. (though there could also be wheat men, rye men etc.).[1]


This was the case both in far-flung parts of the world and in Europe, where such personages retained a resemblance to the corn goddesses of antiquity, such as Demeter and Ceres, though they had lost the status of goddesses and were limited to particular departments of nature. Hutton refers to Frazer giving an account of “ancient religion and its folkloric survivals” (Hutton 1996, 424). But it is important to note the language used here. Frazer refers to Mannhardt collecting “analogies” to the corn mother of Ancient Greece, and to corn spirits “answering to” Demeter and Persephone (Frazer 1912, 1: v, 132). Similarly Mannhardt uses the term “Analogien”. He also uses the term “Űbereinstimmungen”, ie correspondences (Mannhardt 1868, 33). Frazer says that the customs “are based on the same ancient mode of thought, and form parts of the same primitive heathendom, which was doubtless practised by our forefathers long before the dawn of history”, and he states that the customs deserve to rank as primitive ritual. He defines this in relation to their characteristics (Frazer 1912, 168-170). What he and Mannhardt refer to is a similar way of thinking and surviving characteristics of ritual practice, rather than the more specific concept of a custom surviving through the centuries from ancient times. Hutton assumes that they were asserting the survival of customs (as do the scholars he was following, Carl von Sydow and Albert Eskeröd, who I refer to below).[2] But I have found no instance of Mannhardt or Frazer making this claim. Further, the language of “analogies” and “correspondences” is not one that they would have used if they were claiming actual survival of customs.


By its nature the survival of customs since ancient times would be difficult to prove, and this is not the aspect that I will mainly be dealing with in this paper. For Hutton the claimed survivals of customs are a provably false idea. However he accepts that Mannhardt “proved conclusively that there was a close correspondence between the agricultural customs of the Graeco-Roman world and those of this own time” (Hutton 1996, 336). And, as I shall show, though not a provable fact, it is possible that the customs have survived from antiquity, and this possibility has not been disproved.[3]


In Europe, including Britain, local customs often gave a particular importance to the last sheaf of corn, which was given a special spiritual or magical significance, because it was there, so Mannhardt and Frazer state, that the spirit of the corn was believed to be present (or hidden or immanent) (Mannhardt 1884, 316; 1868, 21; Frazer 1912, 1: 133, 301).[4] The customs, it seemed, were based on the idea that at the harvest the corn spirit moved back from stalk to stalk till finally its power was concentrated in the last sheaf (Mannhardt 1875, 212; 1868, 2-3; 1866, 1; Frazer 1913b, 1: 12; and see von Sydow 1948, 91, 146). From there it might flee with the last sheaf to the barn (Mannhardt 1884, 333-4; Frazer 1912, 1: 301). The last sheaf could be given identities of a conscious and human kind, such as the Old Woman, the Old Man, the Old Wife, the Grandmother, the Maiden and the Bride, and many others (eg Frazer 1912, 1: 132-3; Mannhardt 1875, 196-7; 1868, 22). These figures were sometimes regarded as taking part in various activities, such as going through the corn, or having moods, such as becoming angry (Mannhardt 1884, 296; 1868, 19; Frazer 1912, 1: 132). Both Mannhardt and Frazer also dealt extensively with customs in which the corn spirit in the last sheaf was represented as various kinds of animal. The forms of animal with which the corn spirit was identified were numerous (Mannhardt 1868, 1). In Frazer’s view there was a “complete parallelism between the conceptions of the corn-spirit in human and in animal form” (Frazer 1912, 1: 303 and ch. 8).


With the cutting of the last sheaf the corn mother, or the indwelling corn spirit, might be regarded as having been caught or killed (Mannhardt 1868, 5; Frazer 1912, 1: 133, 223-4). The threatening supernatural being Baba or Boba was sometimes regarded as living in the last sheaf and could be killed by cutting it down (Mannhardt 1884, 330, 334-5). Also, magical views and fertility beliefs about the customs were held by people in the localities where they were practised.  A loaf from the last sheaf might be made into the form of a woman or girl, before being eaten (Frazer 1912, 2: 48). When eaten by ploughmen, this could bring a good harvest in the following year (Frazer 1912, 1: 301). A different type of name “the whore” or “the old whore” seems to have related to the promotion of fertility (Mannhardt 1884, 320, 322; 1868, 22).[5] On the face of it these practices and views represent, as Frazer and Mannhardt indicate, a belief that spirits and magical forces are present in the corn and crops.


However in 1934 a Swedish professor, Carl von Sydow (1879-1952), began a rationalist attack on the theories of Frazer and Mannhardt, see his book Selected Papers in Folklore (1948).[6] Von Sydow asserts that Mannhardt’s theories “will not stand the test of modern research”. He argues that the corn spirit, as represented in the last sheaf of corn, was a device to discourage naughty children from playing in the crop and damaging it. The adults produced “pedagogical fictions”, which they did not themselves believe in, but wanted the children to believe in. There could also, he writes, be fictions for adults, eg in Småland the ghost sow was set up as a fictitious bogy, connected with offerings by “emotive association”. Further, the corn spirit was a symbol of celebration, now that the period of hard work to gather in the harvest had ended. Von Sydow finds significant the absence of any declared ancient belief that the corn spirit was present in the sheaf. He also declares that, insofar as the traditions dealt with by Mannhardt had anything to do with belief, the beliefs were in no case animistic, though they may been “preanimistic”, ie connected with belief in “orenda”, a type of power that was, he says, sometimes supposed to fill the last of anything, and could be helpful or harmful (von Sydow 1948, 91-95).[7]


Von Sydow opines that beliefs that plants are thought to have a spirit like man are not universal but sporadic in Europe and Asia, and in the light of this “the very basis of Mannhardt’s view is destroyed”. Von Sydow also dismisses the possibility that Mannhardt’s informants and the makers of the customs had any seriously intended magical views or purposes. He accepts a magic of omens, in that making the last sheaf bigger meant that the next harvest would be a good one. However he also states that this ominal magic was “all a joke and has nothing to do with fertility cult”. Another omen was that the woman who bound the last sheaf would remain single, or have a child out of wedlock. But this also was a joke (These ideas may contradict the notion of belief in orenda). The last sheaf customs, and many others, had “nothing to do with superstition”. They were “festive ceremony purely and simply”. Von Sydow considers that corn spirit customs are not survivals from ancient paganism but “chance pranks” or “chance formations”.[8] The corn spirit was “nowhere believed in”. Apart from the possible role given to belief in orenda, von Sydow attributes all the customs to mundane purposes and beliefs (von Sydow 1948, 98-105, 159, 164).  


Von Sydow’s pupil Albert Eskeröd (1904-1987) followed him in preferring a mundane basis for the customs to a spiritual derivation. He accepted a magic of omens, in that making the last sheaf bigger meant a better crop. There were also customs of not gathering the last few straws, but this was just a special form of the type of custom that reflected the suspicion of the effect of leaving anything empty. He held that “Traditions of this kind…..have nothing at all to do with demons or gods or fertility” and “they are not and never were connected with fertility cults or vegetation demons”. Like von Sydow, Eskeröd emphasized the importance of the role played by “amusing pranks” and celebrating the completion of the harvest work. There was no belief that the last sheaf was “the embodiment of fertility power or of the corn-spirit”.


Eskeröd preferred an interpretation of the customs based on Gestalt psychology and the idea that tradition reflects the dominant interests of various economic and social groups.  He considered that “man lives in a condition of absolute subjection to the group”, avoiding comparisons between traditions (Eskeröd 1947, 357-365). This was part of a developing wider attack on Frazer’s researches, based on a notion that he lacked respect for the internal integrity of ethnographic data, “for the way they fit together as parts of a system or have meaning for the actors” (Strathern 1987, 254-5). The idea was that each custom or belief should be explained in the light of local social or economic factors or the tendencies of individuals, and not by similarity to other customs or beliefs elsewhere (though particular theories of Frazer’s were criticized too). This was expressed in the anti-spiritual doctrine of “functionalism”, which according to Peter Munz means that “A myth or a whole system of mythology means the function it has in the social system as a whole, nothing more and nothing less”. This caused Frazer’s work and reputation to receive a “fatal blow” (Munz, 1973). Many anthropologists and folklorists joined in the attack on Frazer, eg Edmund Leach and D. Alan Aycock wrote: “Most of what he himself contributed to the study of anthropology has proved worthless” (Leach and Aycock 1983, 13). Folklorist Bob Trubshaw asserts that “the whole edifice built up on Frazer’s foundations was steadily dismantled by academics” (Trubshaw 1996). 


I would say in passing that I have found it difficult to see any sensible justification for the attack on Frazer’s “comparative method”. There cannot be any adequate reason to say that making a synthesis, pointing out similarities between beliefs or customs in different places, is inherently invalid, unless the beliefs or customs are shown to serve particular social or economic purposes. It is fine to assess the social role that beliefs and customs play in particular cultures and local circumstances. But it is not reasonable to deduce from this that drawing attention to similarities between beliefs and customs in different places is inherently wrong. Different views will be taken as to the significance that should be ascribed to the similarities. But if similarities exist, it is reasonable to draw attention to them.To deny the existence of a pattern formed by similarities is not a virtue.[9] To say that is not to imply that Frazer was always justified in the comparisons he made.  But drawing attention to similarities at least gives the opportunity to research why those similarities have happened. The attack on Frazer’s comparative method seems to have served the purposes of rationalist academics who wanted to minimize the importance of magical beliefs per se in history. Incidentally, if drawing attention to widespread similarities between beliefs and customs were actually bad scholarship, major aspects of the work of famous thinkers such as Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade would have to be regarded as invalid.


Hutton’s practice is the converse of Frazer’s. He arranges his theories to accord with the disapproval of the synthesising approach. He splits up customs and beliefs into small localized phenomena without any broader significance. This happens for instance on the subject of the Mother Goddess or Earth Goddess. Frazer stated that “we may conclude that a great Mother Goddess, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature, was worshipped under different names but with a substantial similarity of myth and ritual by many peoples of Western Asia” (Frazer 1914, 1:39). Jane Harrison stated that “In origin there is no doubt that Pandora was simply the Earth-Mother, the All-Giver”(Harrison 1924, 65), and ”[Hera, Athena and Aphrodite] developed into a Trinity of Grace-Givers”, (ibid. p. 108). But Hutton denies the validity of this type of concept. He states that “Asia Minor had Great Goddesses who protected kingdoms and peoples, and sometimes gave fertility, but they were particular to specific regions: nor were they interchangeable, because they had different attributes” (Hutton 2013, 393). Hutton also sometimes splits up a custom into different varieties of it in different time periods, emphasizing the more recent manifestations. This happens in relation to mumming. Hutton says of the mummers’ play that it “proved to have developed in the eighteenth century” (Hutton 2013, 371), though mumming is provably much older.[10] Clearly Hutton’s practice in these matters is much better suited to supporting the project of interpreting history in rationalist ways than is Frazer’s.


Returning to the corn spirit issue in The Stations of the Sun, Hutton describes the positions of Mannhardt and Frazer. He then describes von Sydow’s argument, the support for it of his pupils and two folklorists, and the fact that it is “more or less completely accepted by social historians”. He states that “the Mannhardt and Frazer theory of belief in an animating corn spirit is now effectively discounted (Hutton 1996, 336-7)”. 


Later, in the context of a wider discussion of the alleged survival of pagan nature religion in the countryside, Hutton conflates Frazer’s views about the corn spirit with the views of others. These include Margaret Murray, who tried to show that, at the time of the witch trials, the prosecuted witches were practising a surviving pagan religion [11], and the “luminaries of the Folklore Society”, who are charged with having “little regard for the proper conduct of historical research”. The implication is that the writings of all these people about practices surviving from ancient paganism are a similar kind of nonsense. Hutton sees it as remarkable that folklorists should have evoked archaic rites, and thinks this requires an explanation. He writes that the question becomes plainer when Frazer’s writings (and those of the others) are treated as “not a branch of scholarship but as one of creative literature” (Hutton 1996, 424-5). So he is recommending that the copious research in, inter alia, the 13 volumes of The Golden Bough should be treated as an exercize of the imagination, like a novelist's.


How does Hutton manage to arrive at this ridiculous conclusion? His reasoning appears to go along the following lines. As part of his account of the survival of pagan religion in the customs Frazer propounded a theory of belief in an indwelling corn spirit. Academia has rejected that theory, and Hutton describes von Sydow’s explanations based on levity and mundane motivations. The views of non-academics are not considered, it seems because those who are not historians or experts in comparative religion are “less able to evaluate the evidence” (Hutton 1996, 72). Therefore Frazer’s theory is untenable and there has not been a belief in an indwelling corn spirit. Therefore the customs had nothing to do with pagan religion. Hutton then encourages the treatment of Frazer’s writings as creative literature rather than scholarship. This is as irrational as it is insulting. There is a huge amount of scholarship in the thirteen volumes of The Golden Bough,[12] and the fact that theories are there presented does not turn the work into one of creative literature. Note also that Hutton’s case is entirely an appeal to authority and he makes no attempt at all to assess the merits of the different arguments.


[1] References to Mannhardt’s works are to the original German editions. As far as I know they have not been translated into English. Frazer states that without Mannhardt’s works his own book “could scarcely have been written” (Frazer 1890, preface).

[2] Von Sydow writes that “one of the greatest mistakes….has been to understand the customs concerned as survivals” (von Sydow 1934, 104). Eskeröd writes “Such customs are not of course survivals from an older cult of vegetation spirits or demons” (Eskeröd 1947 p. 358) and “According to Mannhardt and Frazer, many rites and customs may also be explained as survivals of sacrifices to the spirits of the corn” (Eskeröd 1947 p. 353). Hutton states that Mannhardt “made the first systematic collection of contemporary peasant customs, and concluded that they were survivals of pagan rites” (Hutton 1999a, 26-7). Perhaps they were influenced by Sir Edward Tylor’s definition of “survivals” as including customs “carried on by force of habit into a new state of society” (Tylor 1871, 16). But Tylor was not specifically considering corn spirit customs.


[3] Besides Mannhardt and Frazer, Tylor realized this. He wrote: “The Earth-Goddess is clear in classic religion, Demeter, Terra Mater, and perhaps the last trace of her worship among ourselves may be the leaving of the last handful of corn-ears standing in the field or the carrying it in triumph in the harvest-home” (Tylor 1871, 360).


[4] For the many personalized identities that the last sheaf could be given, both female and male, see Mannhardt 1868, 22-24.

[5] The “whore” was a large sheaf to which smaller “children” sheaves were bound.


[6] For the points below see the articles in von Sydow 1948 “The Mannhardtian Theories About the Last Sheaf and the Fertility Demons From a Modern Critical Point of View” at pp. 89-105, and “Die Begriffe des Ersten und Letzten in der Volksüberlieferung mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Erntebraüche” at pp. 146-165.


[7] The term “orenda” is an Iroquois word and seems to have been introduced in the scholarly context by J.N.B.Hewitt, see his article at Hewitt 1902.  Other native American tribes used other words for the same concept. Orenda, or “mystic potence” as Hewitt also calls it, differs from magic in that the latter implies action, though orenda is a “magic power” and magical practices seek to use orenda. A shaman is one whose orenda is great. Orenda seems to be equivalent to mana, described by Robert Henry Codrington in The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-Lore (1891). The idea of preanimism seems to have been introduced by Robert Ranulph Marett on the basis of Codrington’s research.


[8] von Sydow writes that “A study of folk tradition soon shows that this is no matter of philosophic  speculation, but of more or less chance formations” (von Sydow 1948, 95). This seems to imply that, for von Sydow, the last sheaf customs are just a particular case of a broader principle that folk traditions, being due to chance, never have a spiritual element. But how he could reconcile this with another statement of his on the previous page “It is of course correct that animistic conceptions are to be met with among all known peoples” (von Sydow 1948, 94) is difficult to understand.

[9] In justifying the comparative method Frazer wrote that “We compare things on the ground of similarity, and similarity is not affected by distance. Radium is alike on the earth and in the sun; it would be absurd to refuse to compare them on the ground that they are separated by many millions of miles” (Frazer 1927, 11).


[10] Mumming is recorded back to the thirteenth century. In its earlier form it is likely to have been, as the word “mumming” implies, a dumb-show, that involved mime, disguise and facial gestures. On the last of these see the reference to mummers in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus Act 2 scene 1.

[11] In this paper I do not deal in detail with Dr. Murray’s ideas, partly because Hutton deals with these mainly in The Triumph of the Moon (Hutton 1999b, 194-201) rather than in The Stations of the Sun (For the same reason I do not deal with the ideas of Robert Graves). In addition there are different theories to be considered here. Dr. Murray’s theory was a specific set of ideas that involved the survival of an organised pagan priesthood, the worship of a horned god descending from the god Janus but who was actually a man dressed in black, and covens of 13. But behind this was a broader kind of theory that many others have believed in and that has never been discredited, namely that after the suppression of pagan religions by Christian powers, pagan beliefs and practices flowed forwards into the medieval and later witchcraft and folklore. As examples from scholars, Mircea Eliade wrote that Dr. Murray was right that “there existed a pre-Christian fertility cult, and that specific survivals of this pagan cult were stigmatised during the Middle Ages as witchcraft” (Eliade, 1976, 58). Carlo Ginzburg wrote of Dr. Murray’s theory having a kernel of truth, which related to the witches’ sabbat representing “the deformation of an ancient fertility rite” (Ginzburg 1983, xix-xx). E. William Monter wrote that the coloured devils of the French woods might be linked to pagan deities and that local saints to whose shrines healers in Lorraine sent invalids “were often local pagan deities with a Christian veneer” (Monter 1976, 112, 175). Sir Keith Thomas wrote “Of course there were many pagan survivals – magic wells, calendar customs, fertility rites” (Thomas 1991, 616). A research into this broader type of theory might well be valuable, and there are many aspects of witchcraft that might well be traceable back to very early times, eg the use of herbs for healing, spells for healing, soothsaying and divination and the use of white magic to repel black magic. However, it is a project that would require a lot of research. It would involve seeing what evidence exists for the many individual strands of witchcraft beliefs and practices extending through the centuries from early times.


[12] I refer to the twelve volumes of the third edition plus the later volume “Aftermath”.

©2020 by Mr. Proudly created with