A staple symbol of Autumn and the upcoming harvest, the scarecrow has been around throughout history. The straw-filled fellow has appeared over and over again and not just in your garden, but in folklore and legend all over the world. And while anyone could tell you that the dummy in the cornfield is there to frighten birds away, very few know the origins of this farm field favorite.
Some believe that the Ancient Egyptians were the first to use scarecrows along the Nile River. They used them as decoys, not only to protect their wheat fields, but also to trap flocks of quail. The farmers would put up wooden framed scarecrows and then hide in their fields with nets. When the birds came to investigate the wooden dummies, the Egyptians scared the quail into nets and onto their dinner plates.
Across the Mediterranean, Ancient Greeks built repulsively ugly carvings in their fields of Priapus, the horribly disfigured son of Aphrodite. The Greeks believed no birds would dare to set down in any field where Priapus stood watch.
The Romans adopted the practice soon after, spreading the use of the scarecrow across the western world. Scarecrows also appear within the pages of the oldest surviving book of Japan as Keubiko, the ancient deity of knowledge and agriculture that knows everything about the world but cannot walk.
Many different types of scarecrows appeared in the rice fields of Pre-feudal Japan. A popular favorite, sometimes used today, was the Kakashi Scarecrow. Kakashi, means “something stinky”, and they were made of old dirty rags and noise makers like bells nailed to a pole. Rice farmers hoped to drive pests away with the smell of the old dirty rags and the loud noises. Some Kakashi Scarecrows were even lit on fire to deter the birds. Over time, farmers began to build scarecrows with more human features, dressing the rag poles with raincoats and hats. Sometimes, farmers even gave them weaponry in the hopes that they would ward off any brave and hungry fowls.
In the Americas, Native American tribes used scarecrows to protect their cornfields.Sometimes, the scarecrow would actually be a man. He would sit in the fields and shouting at the birds and chasing away any that dared to land. More of a day job than the carefree modeling gig we see with our modern day watchmen.
In the southwest, scarecrows were closer to the straw-filled, rag-dolls we know today. These scarecrows were made of grass-stuffed animal hide tied to poles in the fields. But, it wasn’t until the Europeans arrived that the scarecrow got fashionable. European immigrants brought with them the old ideas they had of stuffing old, ragged clothes with straw and fixing them in fields.
When all of these traditions began blending together in the American melting pot, the scarecrow began to take on his modern look. Before the end of World War II and the introduction of industrial pesticides, the scarecrow was enormously popular in the fields of American Farmers.
So, from Greece to America and everything in between, the scarecrow has worked its way through history and into our fields. While there is no sure answer on who exactly invented and brought the scarecrow to America, it’s safe to say that a grand mix of cultures have all contributed something along the way. Before we know it, the scarecrow might just win a Nobel Prize. That is, for being “Out-Standing” in his field!
Marissa Rodgers, WC Student