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The Corn Spirit (2) Why the Attacks on Mannhardt and Frazer Fail


In explaining why it is clear that Hutton’s approach is wrong I would firstly like to say a few words about the view that academia must be right. In some circumstances taking that view would be reasonable. In the context of science, a proposition is accepted as true when experiments, done at different times and places, have produced the same result. It is reasonable to describe such a process as proof. Likewise, if historians all agree that the battle of Hastings happened in 1066, it is likely that sound documentary evidence exists to say so. But it is a quite different matter with the kind of proposition we are considering here. The notion that, in creating the various forms of the corn spirit, our forebears were only intending a number of mundane purposes has not been established from the weight of evidence. What von Sydow and Eskeröd have produced is a mass of theorizing that provides no evidence of the central matter they needed to establish – the absence of any animistic or magical views or purposes behind the last sheaf customs, ie that all expressions of such views were a pretence or a joke. It was a conjecture by scholars who wished (a) to advance a rationalist explanation of the data in preference to the type of explanation that takes at face value evidence that our forebears believed in spirits and magic, and also (b) to deny that valid knowledge can be derived from Frazer’s method of doing anthropological research.


Von Sydow argues that Frazer was not able to judge “the life and character of the tradition by intimate personal association with European peasants”, and he also describes Mannhardt as an “unrealistic armchair scholar”, who lacked sufficient knowledge of popular thinking (von Sydow 1948, 92, 146, 163).[1] In reality, as von Sydow knew, Mannhardt carried out some remarkable fieldwork.[2] In 1865 he sent out questionnaires to 150,000 people and received 2,000 answers. The questionnaires were sent “all over Germany to priests, teachers, farmers, associations, training colleges; he had it translated in several languages and sent out in France and in Scandinavia” (Tybjerg 1993, 28-30). They were also sent out in Austria, Hungary and Switzerland. However “Mannhardt was not satisfied with this result and decided to travel about himself to obtain the desired information” (Dorson 1972, 481). The questionnaires contained about thirty questions about agrarian customs especially during harvest time. A century later the questionnaires still served as a basis for folklore research (Dundes 1999, 16-17). I see no evidence that the articles of von Sydow and Eskeröd were preceded by a similar effort by them in finding out the actual facts on the ground. Yet von Sydow and other anthropologists of his generation are praised for emphasising the importance of fieldwork, in contrast to the previous anthropologists.


In any case it is clear that Mannhardt and Frazer provide far too much direct evidence of magical and animistic thinking behind the customs for this to be explained away by the theories of von Sydow and Eskeröd. Those theories are totally inadequate to explain the great abundance and variety of the evidence from numerous European countries, as well as being completely inapplicable in the case of many customs and statements about customs. To anyone who seriously addresses the evidence it will be entirely clear that belief in spirits and magical forces really was involved here, and I have to conclude that those academics and folklorists who have supported von Sydow’s theory have not seriously addressed the evidence. It is difficult to convey the vast extent of the evidence provided, especially by Mannhardt, but I shall do my best to give an idea of this. I apologize for the length of what follows, but it is necessary to show what copious quantities of evidence von Sydow and Eskeröd chose to ignore.


Thus, for example, one might ask, why should pretence have been behind the following? “In the neighbourhood of Magdeburg it is sometimes said “It will be a good year for flax; the Flax-Mother has been seen””, and at Dinkelsbühl in Bavaria “people believed that when the crops on a particular farm compared unfavourably with those of the neighbourhood, the reason was that the Corn-Mother had punished the farmer for his sins” (Mannhardt 1884, 310;  Frazer  1912, 1: 133). In some parts of Sweden, if a stranger woman appeared on the threshing floor, she was taken to be the corn spirit who had just been expelled by the flails from the corn stalks (Mannhardt 1884, 336; Frazer 1912, 1: 149). In West Bohemia, after the crop has been reaped, “a few stalks are left standing and a garland is attached to them. “That belongs to the Wood-woman”, they say, and offer a prayer” (Frazer 1912, 1: 232). According to Highland customs a toast was drunk to the Cailleach (Old Wife) that ran: “Here’s to the one who has helped us with the harvest” or “To your health, good wife, who for harvest has come to help us, and if I live I’ll try to support you when winter comes” (Frazer 1912, 1: 141, 166).[3]


Some of the forms in which the corn mother was seen suggest a spiritual type of vision, eg if seen at night, lights or sparks might be seen around her head (Mannhardt 1884, 301-2). Some traditions treated her in a way that resembles religious devotion. In Swabia and Bavaria she was sometimes called “the holy Saint Reaper” (Mannhardt 1884, 338). Images of her, or of the last sheaf itself, were sometimes kissed, like religious images (Mannhardt 1884, 339; 1868, 26). In the canton of Zürich and Thurgau reapers would fall on their knees to pray before the last stalks, and then they were cut and the sheaf placed next to a crucifix (Mannhardt 1875, 213). In Russian and Serbian customs plaited last stalks left on the field might be called the beard of God, or of Elijah or St. John (Mannhardt 1868, 22). The objects of the reverence occasionally had identities of a less Christian kind. In Westphalia and Erfurt the corn mother was called “the Great Mother”. In the neighbourhood of Auxerre a figure made from the last sheaf was known as “the Ceres”, and there were prayers to Ceres for a fruitful year.[4]

The evidence includes a great many references to magical beliefs and practices. The magic of making a large last sheaf to make the next year’s crop large, mentioned by von Sydow and Eskeröd, is present in the customs. However, many magical beliefs and practices about the last sheaf are reported, that went well beyond that particular magic. For instance, there were beliefs that the last sheaf was a protection against fairies and witchcraft, and it was hung up “for the purpose of preventing the death of horses in spring” (Frazer 1912, 1: 142, 156, 165). In Styria it was placed in barns to keep mice away (Mannhardt 1884, 317; Frazer 1912, 1: 134). In Russia a figure was made from the last sheaf, and verses sung and a broomstick provided, to destroy animals that damage the fields (Mannhardt 1884, 332). At Breslau the sheaf was put onto a staff and handed over to the squire and his family in order to protect them (Mannhardt 1884, 325). The last sheaf might be placed, usually as a charm against witchcraft (sometimes as a blessing for the next harvest or for good luck), in a prominent position in the house of the landowner or on the roof of the barn (Mannhardt 1868 6-7, 26; 1875, 216; Frazer 1912, 1: 141, 153, 156 n. 2, 157, 297). Often it was kept there for a year till replaced by the next one (Mannhardt 1905. 213-4; 1875, 197, 203; Frazer 1912, 1: 141, 143, 157-8, 162 n. 3).


There were also magical practices of the harvest (or to increase it) that did not specifically relate to the last sheaf. For instance a belt made from three cornstalks bound around the body protected against wounds from the sickle and backache in the harvest work (Mannhardt 1875, 209-210 note). Frazer gives numerous instances of “homoeopathic magic”, used to cause plants and crops to bear fruit in due season. For instance in Thüringen a sower of flax seed carried it in a bag that swayed to and fro on his back, to cause the flax to wave in the wind. On the day that she sowed cabbages an Estonian woman would bake great pancakes in order that the cabbages would have broad leaves. In many parts of Europe dancing or leaping high in the air were approved homoeopathic modes of making the crops grow high, as was the throwing of seeds into the air. Examples are too many to cite, but for instance in some parts of Baden the hemp seed was thrown as high in the air as possible, and in Katzenthal the urchins leapt over fires in order that the hemp might grow tall. In Anhalt, when the sower had sown the flax, he leapt up and flung the seed bag high in the air, saying “Grow and turn green! You have nothing else to do”. When Macedonian farmers had done digging their fields, they threw their spades into the air, and, catching them again, exclaimed “May the crop grow as high as the spade has gone!” (Frazer 1911b, 1: 136-142).


Contrary to what von Sydow and Eskeröd say, the customs and beliefs often related to fertility, and to spirits and magic connected with it. The corn mother was regarded as having the powers to make the corn grow and to protect the sprouting corn. She was also regarded as being able to make the corn not grow or wither (Mannhardt 1868, 21; 1875, 77-9; 1884, 310-11, 314, 337-8, 350). So a little of the harvest was sometimes strewn on the fields “so that she may be as gracious next year as she has been this time” (Mannhardt 1884, 337; 1868, 22; Frazer 1912, 1: 232). In Latvia a figure was made with leaves and put into the meadow “so that the grass will grow well in the next year” (Mannhardt 1875, 208). In some parts of Silesia it was the custom to leave a few corn stalks standing “in order that the next harvest should not fail” (Frazer 1912, 1: 233). Eskeröd, perhaps inconsistently, accepts that leaving some little part of the crop on the ground to secure a good crop in the coming year was “common and widespread”, and that it was said to be an offering to Odin and various spirits (Eskeröd 1947, 359). 


In Germany, France, and England the last sheaf, a garland or doll made from it or the workers were sometimes drenched with water or thrown into a river, in order to secure plenty of rain for the next year’s crop, and to avoid the drought that not observing the custom would cause (Mannhardt 1868, 34; 1875, 214-5; 1884, 317, 323, 325-6; Frazer 1912, 1: 134, 137, 146). Similarly in Lithuania, Poland, East Prussia and Austria there were customs involving the drenching of the last sheaf, a doll or the workers (Mannhardt 1884, 330, 331;  Frazer 1912, 1: 145, 225). Likewise the Bulgarians made a doll from the last sheaf and called it the Corn-Queen. After being carried round the village it was cast into a river to secure rain and dew for the next crop, or it might be burnt and the ashes strewn on the fields (Mannhardt 1884, 332; Frazer 1912, 1: 146). In Kurland (a western region of Latvia) a bottle of pure water was buried in a field of flax, so that the flax might grow up free from weeds (Mannhardt 1875, 215). As an alternative to using water, the last sheaf might be sprinkled with wine or beer (Mannhardt 1905, 213; 1875, 215). In Upper Hungary the last sheaf was placed onto a stick and a bottle of wine hung on it, so that God would give rain in the next year (Mannhardt 1875, 216). The last sheaf could also be made unusually large and weighted with stones to increase the next year’s crop (Mannhardt 1884, 324 et seq.; Frazer 1912 1:138-9). Other forms of fertility magic were practised, or prophecies about the next harvest made, using 3 cornstalks or 3 ears of corn (Mannhardt 1875, 209-210 note).


In the North of Scotland, the Maiden was carefully preserved till Yule morning, when it was divided among the cattle “to make them thrive all the year round”. It might also be given to horses (Frazer 1912, 1: 155, 158). In farms on the Gareloch the last handful of corn, called the Maidenhead or the Head, was plaited and hung in the kitchen for a year (Frazer 1912 1:158). As noted above, for ploughmen to eat a loaf made from the last sheaf was expected to bring a good harvest in the following year. Eating such a loaf was also expected to give an increase of health and strength (Mannhardt 1875, 218). The corn mother might also cause the binder of the last sheaf to get married or become pregnant in the near future, or barren (Mannhardt 1866, 38; 1868, 29; 1884, 328-9). The fertilising power of a garland made from the last sheaf was shown by practices of mixing the seed from it among the next year’s seed corn, or scattering it among the young corn, to guarantee its success (Mannhardt 1884, 332; 1875, 213;  Frazer 1912, 1: 134-5, 168). In Styria a last sheaf garland was consecrated in church, and then the seed poured onto the hands of a seven year old girl and scattered among the young corn. At Christmas the straw of the garland was laid in a manger so that the cattle might thrive (Mannhardt 1884, 317-8; Frazer 1912, 1: 134).


Many fertility practices are also reported about the harvest, and other times of year, that did not relate specifically to the last sheaf of corn. For instance, Swedish peasants stuck a leafy branch in each furrow of their cornfields, believing that this would ensure an abundant crop. The same idea came out in the German and French custom of the Harvest-May. This was a large branch or a whole tree, decked with ears of corn and brought home from the field on the last wagon. Then it was fastened on the roof of the farmhouse or the barn, where it remained for a year. In Swabia the Harvest-May was fastened among the last stalks of corn left standing. In other places it was planted and the last sheaf cut was attached to its trunk (Mannhardt 1875, 190 et seq.; Frazer 1911, 2: 47-8). The corn could be made fruitful and fire and hail kept away by riding around the cornfield (Mannhardt 1875, 353, 357). Sometimes torches were carried about the fields for the purpose of fertilizing them. In Bohemia they flung blazing besoms into the air and said that the corn would grow as high as they were flung (Frazer 1913b 1: 113, 142, 340). In Hesse, Meiningen and other districts dried pig-ribs were inserted in the sown field or in the seed bag among the flax seed to cause the flax to grow well and tall (Frazer 1912 1:300). Sometimes the fertility of the corn spirit was enacted by oats-bride and oats-bridegroom, dancing at the harvest feast (Mannhardt 1868, 30; Frazer 1912, 1:163). In the olden days, before a Lithuanian or Prussian farmer went forth to plough for the first time in spring, he called in a wizard to perform a certain ceremony for the good of the crops (Frazer 1913b, 1:18). The corn spirit might also be represented in a picture by ears of corn plaited together, equipped with an erect phallus (Mannhardt 1868, 25).


These are just samples of magical practices connected with agricultural customs in nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe. Such practices went much wider in their purposes. For instance they could impart fecundity to the trees and the cattle and drive away vermin (Frazer 1913b 1:340). They might also be for the purpose of driving away demons and witches that molested cattle (Frazer 1913b 1:170). They could be for the propitiation of various creatures to prevent them from destroying the crops (Frazer 1912 2:274-80). There were many magical practices associated with seasonal fires, eg at May Day and Midsummer (Frazer 1913b 1:146-222). Even von Sydow acknowledges the numerous different types of animistic beliefs reported by Mannhardt (von Sydow 1948, 90). If you read the evidence of Mannhardt and Frazer properly you cannot but become aware how thoroughly familiar with magical thinking these rural communities across Europe were. Frazer went on to deal with crop spirit customs, with associated magical practices, in other continents.


All the above is inconsistent with the kind of mindset, free from belief in spirits and in magical practices, that was attributed to Mannhardt’s informants and the makers of the customs by von Sydow and Eskeröd. Perhaps their theory would have been tenable if there had only been a few such customs. This may be why Hutton criticizes Frazer for making a general theory of primitive religion out of a “handful of examples” of harvest customs (Hutton 1996, 341).[5] But anyone who attentively reads eg the 40 pages of detailed customs in Frazer 1912 volume 1 chapter 5 is bound to see the falsity of this claim. The examples of animistic and magical thinking Frazer cites there (and elsewhere) are numerous. And, as he states, his examples cited from Mannhardt are just “specimens” of the “great abundance” that Mannhardt collected (Frazer 1912, 1: 132). There is therefore no question of the reported customs being exceptional or rare. Further, the fact that the comparative method of anthropological research used by Mannhardt and Frazer has fallen into disfavour today cannot sensibly be used to deny the impressive weight of evidence that they produced. By contrast, the articles of von Sydow and Eskeröd are an evidence-free zone, devoted to theorizing and conjecture. I do not notice in their writings, or in those of Mannhardt and Frazer, a single reference to a person who admitted that their claims of magical beliefs had been a pretence.


Hutton himself gives details of various local British customs, that were not among those described by Mannhardt and Frazer, and in one account relating to the Hebrides “the fear of the last sheaf was palpable” (Hutton 1996, 337-341). As to the interpretation given by the critics to the material produced by Mannhardt and Frazer, it is impossible to believe that so many statements about customs and so many magical practices can have been intended in senses so different from their ostensible meanings. As Mannhardt’s researches themselves show, the figure of the corn mother was occasionally used to scare children, and he also mentions customs that have an element of humour or of celebrating the end of the harvest.[6] It may also be that there was a belief in something like orenda, that would operate without any intentional magic.[7] But it was a mistake for von Sydow and Eskeröd to assume that the whole widespread mass of customs that Mannhardt and Frazer report could be assigned to purposes not involving belief in spirits or magical practices, in the face of such abundant evidence to the contrary.


Because beliefs in spirits and magic, rather than merely mundane social causes of the nineteenth century, were clearly behind the customs, there is no reason to say that survival of the customs from ancient times must be ruled out on principle. 


In discussing the similarity of the peasant harvest rites with those of classical antiquity, Hutton notes that “the point of more recent scholarly discussions” is that the rites fulfilled certain obvious social needs, and that these “can be proved whereas their religious antecedents may not” (Hutton 1996, 347).[8] However the scholars were missing a simple point. If there were no ancient religious antecedents, it would not follow that all the rites were invented for fulfilling social needs, and never for magical or animistic purposes. You have to provide the necessary evidence to establish this. Further, it is clear that, in numerous contexts, our forebears sometimes believed in magic and spirits (eg charms, amulets, folk magic, witch bottles, ill-wishing, belief in fairies and ghosts). So why should one make an assumption that animistic and magical thinking would not have taken place in relation to corn spirit customs?


It is sad that arguments as weak and implausible as those of von Sydow and Eskeröd should have been used to destroy the reputation of an outstanding scholar. Frazer’s acceptance of the animistic or magical nature of many views and practices relating to the corn spirit was amply supported by evidence. Further, particularly when he deals with Frazer in such an insulting way, it was not scholarly for Hutton to deal with the issue by an appeal to authority, rather than by a proper assessment of the evidence. All that Hutton has really established is that there is a rationalist school of thought that opposes the school of thought represented by Frazer and Mannhardt. In other words we are in the territory of different types of explanation appealing to different mindsets.


I should mention, though, that Frazer had no axe to grind in reporting beliefs in spirits and magic. He was himself a rationalist, as Hutton acknowledges (Hutton 1999b, 114).[9] He thoroughly disbelieved in magic (Frazer 1911b 1:221-2). Like Mannhardt, Frazer sometimes describes such beliefs as “superstitions”, consistently with his view of human history that “the higher thought” has been from magic through religion to science (Frazer 1913b, 11: 304). Hutton implies that Frazer was involved, with others who were engaging in “creative literature”, in seeing beliefs in spirits or deities where no such beliefs existed as an act of the imagination (Hutton 1996, 425). But Frazer had no motive for doing this. In fact Hutton mentions elsewhere that Frazer especially despised paganism, so it is hardly likely that he would have been engaging in this kind of imaginative exercize (Hutton, 1995 3-15).[10] 


Incidentally, what Hutton writes about the corn spirit is difficult to reconcile with what he writes earlier in The Stations of the Sun about the Yule log. He accepts that at times the log was regarded as conferring a magical protection upon the home. He also states that in the Scottish Highlands the log was occasionally carved to represent a woman, fitting in with the local name “Carline”, meaning hag, which was applied in the region to a fearsome tutelary nature spirit (Hutton 1996, 40). Mannhardt and Frazer both refer to the Scottish female figure of the Carline, made from the last sheaf (Mannhardt 1884, 326; Frazer 1912, 1: 140, 144). One wonders why, if the Carline means a type of spirit in the context of the Yule log, it is impossible that it should do so in the context of the last sheaf of corn.


It is interesting that von Sydow accepts that Mannhardt’s assertion that the word Kornmutter (Corn Mother) is etymologically identical to the word Demeter is “probable enough” (von Sydow 1948, 103). Mannhardt (who provides many other similarities between Demeter and the Corn Mother) gives the meaning of Demeter as “Spelt Mother” (Mannhardt 1884, 348), or he derives the first syllable of Demeter from an alleged Cretan word for barley (Mannhardt 1884, 292; Frazer 1912, 1: 131). Frazer contends that Demeter is the Corn Mother on different grounds. Von Sydow argues that accepting Mannhardt’s argument proves nothing because the term “Kornmutter” might from the beginning have referred to a child scarer. Von Sydow thought that harvest customs in antiquity, like modern ones, were just chance pranks (von Sydow 1948, 103-4). However if the two words are etymologically identical this remains a remarkable coincidence. It suggests that there was a historical continuation from the goddess Demeter to the Kornmutter, somewhat changed in that, during the Christian centuries, the corn spirit could not be a deity, and that the precise identity of the corn spirit differed from locality to locality. A relation to even older matters is also possible. Frazer mentions that the corn spirit customs are similar in a number of respects to primitive rituals from pre-history (Frazer 1912, 1: 168-9).


Having said that, it is not my purpose to try to show that the customs relating to the corn spirit are survivals from pre-Christian religions. I merely note that the view that the customs have been shown to have had no connection with such religions has no justifiable basis. My point is a broader one. On the evidence produced by Mannhardt and Frazer in relation to the harvest customs, the animistic or magical nature of many practices, and statements about those practices, is entirely clear. The direct evidence of this is far too copious for there to any sensible doubt about it. If Hutton had attentively read Mannhardt’s writings on the subject  - or even Frazer’s - he would have noticed this. Therefore the arguments of all those who attribute those practices to motivations that have nothing to with spirits, or magical or fertility practices, are fallacious. This is an area that should be re-examined by scholars.[11]




[1] Von Sydow describes Mannhardt’s explanation as “eine….Konstruktion eines wirklichkeitsfremden Stubengelehrten”.


[2] In his 1934 article “The Mannhardtian Theories About the Last Sheaf and the Fertility Demons from a Modern Critical Point of View” von Sydow referred to Mannhardt’s “magnificent collection work”. So his reference, in his 1939 article, “Die Begriffe des Ersten und Letzten in der Volksüberlieferung mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Erntebräuche”, to Mannhardt as an unrealistic armchair scholar is, to say the least, difficult to understand.

[3] There were other forms of the toast, eg “I drink to her health. Since she assisted me in harvest, it is likely that it is with me she will abide during the winter”. On the numerous references to, and records of, the Corn mother in many lands see Mannhardt 1884 Kapitel V p. 296 et seq. 

[4] Mannhardt regarded this as an old custom although he thought the name “Ceres” would have been a piece of schoolmaster’s learning. For Westphalia see Frazer 1912, 1:135-6. For British examples of references to Ceres, see Frazer 1912, 1: 146. There are other examples of the association of pagan deities with fertility beliefs. Carlo Ginzburg wrote of the Benedanti, defenders of harvests and the fertility of fields from the sixteenth century on, who were connected with traditions that honoured the female deities Perchta, Holda and Diana (Ginzburg 1983, 40-47). Also see Eskeröd’s reference to offerings to Odin and various spirits (Eskeröd 1947, 359).


[5] As noted elsewhere Frazer was drawing attention to a similarity of thinking and ritual practice, but not to a literal survival of customs.

[6] Even where there was a motive of scaring children away from the fields, this was not necessarily for mundane reasons. Children could be warned away because “death sits in the corn”, ie the corn spirit would have a malign effect. The corn spirit was sometimes called “the Dead One” (Mannhardt 1875, 417-421; Frazer 1911a, 254).

[7] There are instances where the magical effects are not clearly linked either to spirits or magical actions, eg Hutton mentions an account of the Hebrides that “insisted that in some places the fear of the sheaf was palpable enough to go beyond any device to scare children” (Hutton 1996, 338). In the Scottish Highlands there was a belief that the man of a township who got the Maiden (or Cailleach) was doomed to poverty for his want of energy (Frazer 1912, 1:165). See also eg Frazer 1912 1: 140; 1936, 392.

[8] Hutton does not provide references for the scholarly discussions.

[9] One reason why Frazer could not have subscribed to any religion is that he did not believe in unchanging principles of morality. He wrote: “The old view that the principles of right and wrong are immutable and eternal is no longer tenable. The moral world is as little exempt as the physical world from the law of ceaseless change, of eternal flux” (Frazer 1911c, vi). However it has been denied that Frazer was a “plain rationalist”, see (Robert) Fraser 1990, 209. I agree. In among the expressions of rationalism Frazer wrote the perhaps visionary line “The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science” (Frazer 1913b 11: 306-7). The aspect of parapsychology called psychokinesis (mind over matter effects) may be bringing this to pass, just as animism is now recognized by some philosophers under the concept of panpsychism. Frazer also wrote that the scientific theory of the world might be superseded by some more perfect hypothesis of which “we in this generation can form no idea”, see ibid.

[10] Frazer also thought there was little chance of a pagan revival happening, (Frazer 1913b 1: ix). However he thought that “the belief in magic and demons….is likely to survive the rise and fall of other historical religions” (Frazer 1927, 324).

[11] A further important matter to be deduced from this is that the picture of modern paganism as something that came from the fantasies of Gerald Gardner and a few others in the twentieth century, with little animistic and magical thinking happening before it in the nineteenth century, is very wide of the mark. The corn spirit customs show that such thinking was widespread in rural circumstances, in Europe as well as elsewhere, at that time. Like today’s pagans and others in alternative spirituality movements, many of our forebears in the countryside believed in what Doreen Valiente called “a world of forces behind the world of form”.

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