I was at the 2011 St. Charles Scarecrow Festival. It was filled with people who came to see all the scarecrows on display. The scarecrows that attracted the most attention were the mechanical scarecrows (like the Harry Potter duel pictured above). I have a brief video showing these crowd pleasers.
I tend to be something of a scarecrow fundamentalist. Scarecrows should follow certain rules! But so many scarecrows completely disregard scarecrow tradition. Creativity with scarecrows is great, but when is a scarecrow no longer a scarecrow? Instead of a scarecrow, we get a something like a Halloween yard decoration.
What are the rules for scarecrows?
RULE NUMBER ONE: I’d suggest that a scarecrow should represent the human figure to some extent, and should wear human clothing. The point of a scarecrow was to scare birds by fooling them into believing men were in the fields. Stuffed animals are NOT scarecrows!
RULE NUMBER TWO: Scarecrows should incorporate some of the material of the harvest. They could be filled with straw, or have a pumpkin or gourd as a head. Scarecrows made of plastic are NOT scarecrows, but mannequins!
RULE NUMBER THREE: Scarecrows are not mechanical! They do not move, sing, wave, belch or jump. Mechanical “scarecrows” are NOT scarecrows but robots and automatons!
At the side above is a picture of my favorite scarecrow at the festival. It is the most traditional. It is almost life-like and even has stuffed crows on its arm demonstrating its original purpose.
Below are examples of scarecrows that break the rules. There is a carrot monster, breaking rule number one: human appearance. There is a zombie scarecrow, which makes for a chilling Halloween lawn decoration, but it is not a scarecrow.
Below is a scarecrow that fits the traditional model, having a gourd head and stuffed with straw. It even wears a hat, which might be a fourth rule for scarecrows.
Finally, we have a scarecrow that successfully breaks the rules. We have a traditional scarecrow milking a plastic cow. Some rules can be bent!
Below is a brief video of the mechanical “scarecrows”.
Let us consider the humble scarecrow. On the surface there wouldn’t seem to be any occult meaning behind the scarecrow. It was a farmer’s tool from agrarian times, used to literally scare away crows and other birds from their crops. What more could there be, outside of an occasional literary purpose (i.e. Wizard of Oz)? Today they are decorations for Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Grim Reaper Scarecrow
Yet, maybe all is not as it appears. First, was the scarecrow really only a utilitarian object used for its stated purpose? In agrarian societies farmers lived close to their land and their natural world, unlike today’s modern corporate farms. Which is why the scarecrow would seem pointless, since it does not really scare crows! Farmers knew this.
A scarecrow can frighten birds for a brief time (maybe a week) but especially crows are very smart animals and won’t be fooled for long. The scarecrow might have some use for a short time when the crops were just planted and vunerable. But soon the crows will be perching on the scarecrow’s arms checking out the area for danger.
Today we are learning anew just how intelligent crows and ravens are. There was a study done that showed crows can recognize individual human faces, and also remember if that face is associated with dangerous behavior towards them. Here is the fascinating story: Friend or Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face, It Seems
I’d wager our farmer forefathers were aware of this. If a crow can recognize a face, for sure they won’t be fooled by a stuffed fake man suspended on a pole. With the scarecrow’s limited practical use, why would a farmer bother? There had to be additional reasons for having this effigy in their farm. Here we enter into speculation concerning the scarecrow. There is scant information so we have to make some assumptions.
A Scarecrow and Vlad the Impaler
Scarecrow posed upside down
Perhaps one possible purpose of the scarecrow was not jus to scare away birds, but to mark the land as belonging to the farmer. Or if a serf, to the land’s lord. Stay out! The idea of hanging bodies as a warning was used in the past. The ancient Romans left crucified prisoners to send a message to their population. The infamous Vlad the Impaler impaled prisoners of war as a gruesome warning. The scarecrow, impaled and crucified, could have served a similar, if less graphic, purpose. Call it a Scareman.
Farms were always subject to the whims of nature, and the farmer lived at the mercy of a capricious environment. A drought or flood could result in starvation. An infestation of pests could devastate crops, a plague destroy the livestock. The scarecrow could also have served as an effigy, a form of substitute human sacrifice. The scarecrow would be offered to the natural world in place of the living, that nature might be sated. Like the gargoyles on the gothic cathedral, the scarecrow might have been a hex to protect the farm from harm and keep evil spirits away.
A scarecrow on a cross and the Tarot's Hanged Man
The scarecrow could even be represented in the tarot. There is a tarot card called the Hanged Man, which portrays a man hanging upside down from a beam. The character is passive, accepting his fate. The card symbolizes life in a state of suspension, static and unchanging. The image of the scarecrow forever attached to his beam is very similar to this card. Both the scarecrow and the “hanged man” do not evolve and seem unaware of their sad condition. Is this only a pause before further personal evolution?
Being hanged was the Norse god Odin’s pause before his advancement. Odin had an experience similar to the Hanged Man. In Norse mythology, Odin hung upside down from the world-tree Yggdrasil in order to attain enlightenment. He had to suffer greatly for his wisdom. After nine days Odin achieved his goal and discovered the Runes, died and was reborn, freed from the tree but at the cost of one of his eyes. Suffering before spiritual growth is a theme in many religions.
To complete the circle, Odin was linked to his two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory), which travel the world giving Odin information. Here ravens represent the power of the mind as they perch on Odin’s shoulder whispering in his ears. As crows perch on the scarecrow, granting them the advantage of sight over the fields.
Flock of blackbirds in a cemetery. A bad omen?
We return to the crows. In folklore crows were considered omens of doom and death, perhaps because of their black plumage, their eerie squawk and their scavenging for carrion. Like vultures they were thought to circle the dying. Crows and ravens were viewed as mysterious beings, often associated with the trickster spirit. Some were thought to be shape-shifters and symbolized knowledge, cunning, and trickery. If crows were considered bad omens, then using a scarecrow to banish them seems to have a metaphysical as well as a practical purpose.
These symbolic supernatural attributes are a reflection of the genuine virtues of the crow. Crows are among the most intelligent of animals, a good reason they served as Odin’s thought and memory. Crows are adaptable, inquisitive, mischievous, communicate with each other and can even count up to four. Crows share with humanity a form of sentience. If nothing else the scarecrow symbolizes that fact. We don’t bother with scare-sparrows or scare-pigeons.