Nicola here. A couple of weeks ago I went to Herefordshire to visit a castle that is only open once a year. It’s a well-known site whose history is tied up with the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. It was also the home of very distant ancestors of mine which was why I was so keen to see it. However, there was a problem. The castle, Brampton Bryan, is open as part of a special village celebration called “Scarecrow Sunday” and I have a thing about scarecrows. I don’t like them. I find them creepy. When I was a child, I was terrified of the TV programme Worzel Gummidge even though it’s been voted one of the UK’s favourite children’s TV series of all time.
Phobias have, of course, existed long before modern studies by psychiatrists and psychologists defined the condition. The term phobia was first coined by
the Greeks. Social anxiety as a “phobia” was first described by Hippocrates as “shyness” in the early 4th century BC. I wouldn’t go so far to say that I have a phobia about scarecrows although it’s almost that bad. I have the same reaction to clowns, puppets and mimes. (Dolls and puppets have their own phobias and metamfiezomaiophobia is the fear of mimes and people in disguise generally.) A terror of scarecrows – or of people dressed as scarecrows – is called formidophobia. Apparently formido derives from the Latin for “fear” or “scare.” And, of course, scarecrows are meant to be scary, but only to birds and not people. Meanwhile, a fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. Unsurprisingly, research shows that the portrayal of killer clowns in horror films has contributed directly towards an increase in people with an intense fear or phobia of clowns. Well, duh.
(You can imagine that the combination of clown/jack in the box/scarecrow was almost too much for me but in the photo I'm attempting to tackle several phobias in one go!)
Anyway, back to the scarecrows. The first scarecrows were made by the Egyptians to protect the crops along the Nile from the predations of flocks of quail. The Ancient Greeks apparently carved wooden statues that resembled the god Priapus as he was considered ugly enough to frighten the birds away from the vineyards. This particular scarecrow had a dual function – he held a club in one hand, but a sickle in the other to ensure a good grape harvest. Priapus was in fact the god of fertility, hence the association of the word priapic with sex. The figure of Priapus as a protector of crops was portrayed with an enormous penis which was supposed to frighten away thieves! Having a statue like that in your garden must have been a talking point…
The Japanese version of the scarecrow was known as the Kakashi. A pole was set in a field and dressed in old rags and adorned with bells. When it was set on fire, the smell, flames and smoke kept birds away from the rice fields. The first written reference to scarecrow comes from a Japanese text dated AD712. Already the scarecrow was taking on supernatural powers. He could not walk yet somehow he was all-seeing and all-knowing. Meanwhile in Europe in medieval times the scarecrow figure was developing in a slightly different way, a wooden figure wearing a pointed hat and designed to look like a witch. In a superstitious agrarian society this was an effective way of scaring children out of the fields, as well as birds!
The English, however, had a different approach to bird-scaring. They used children to patrol the fields with wooden clappers and rattles. This child labour was not replaced with scarecrows until the 18th century. The terminology used to describe a scarecrow in the British Isles varied from region to region. They were called mawkins in Norfolk, mammets in the north of England, mommets in the south west, Bwbach in Wales and bogles in Scotland. William Cobbett, who was an English farmer and later MP, was employed as a child scarecrow in the 1780s. Eventually, instead of using child "crow-scarers," farmers began stuffing old clothes with straw and placing a turnip at the top as a head. These figures were lifted on poles and mounted in the fields.
The scarecrow was always something of an occult figure. To farmers they echoed the superstitions of the turning year and the death and rebirth of the crops. It was common to burn them in the autumn to return nutrients of potassium and nitrogen to the soil. Since their purpose has always been to frighten, it’s no wonder that they have developed lots of sinister overtones and now feature in horror films! Still there's always the friendly scarecrow of children's stories to redress the balance!
The Brampton Bryan scarecrows were an impressive lot. They ranged from a Rapunzel scarecrow to Elvis Presley, from the Vicar of Dibley to Tutankhamum and the Invisible Man. It was all very imaginative and fun – and only a little bit sinister! Baden's favourite was Zorro although he was a bit confused to be the same size as Zorro’s horse! Happily, I managed to run the gamut of them (and even enjoy seeing some of them) in order to visit the castle, which was amazing.
How do you feel about scarecrows, puppets and clowns? Do you have scarecrow festival near you? And do you have a phobia about anything, from clowns to spiders?