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Scarecrows: those anthropomorphic (not avian) symbols of the season

The vestiges of Halloween linger in various front yards and on the occasional porch step, but mostly by now the skeletons and witches have retreated into storage along with the gossamer spider webs, howling mummies, and detached body parts that adorned our neighborhoods so cheerfully in our annual salute to October 31. A contraction of ‘All Hallow Even’ (or ‘All Hallows Eve’), the word Halloween is associated today almost exclusively with jack-o’-lanterns, spooky creatures, the wearing of costumes, and going trick-or-treating.

At one time, however, it was more properly associated with the day that follows it, November 1, which in Western Christianity is All Saints’ Day (originally ‘All Hallows’), which itself is followed on November 2 by All Souls’ Day. It’s not unusual for religious observances to get tangled up with secular celebrations, and Halloween is certainly no exception. Because agriculture (especially spring planting and fall harvesting) has always been a dominant factor in secular festivities, it is no wonder that Halloween incorporates so much symbolism of the season—think pumpkins, apples, Indian corn, dried cornstalks, scarecrows. These are the things that survive the dismantling of Halloween and stay with us through Thanksgiving—an unbroken thread of symbolism from autumn fun to autumn feast.

I don’t care what they say, this guy wearing Daddy’s old shirt looks nothing like a crow!

The one symbol of the fall season that has always intrigued me is the scarecrow. For one thing, why is it a symbol of fall rather than spring? Isn’t it when the seeds are sown that it’s supposed to be ‘on the job’? For another thing, I had no idea what the purpose of scarecrows was when I was very, very young. I knew how to help make them from old clothes stuffed with raked autumn leaves, but I never thought they looked very scary, and I certainly didn’t think they looked like crows. Mostly I thought they just dressed like my father and smelled like falling leaves. In other words, I loved them, but I didn’t understand them.

On my way to the Emerald City . . .

The light dawned when I saw The Wizard of Oz at about age six. The Scarecrow was out in the cornfield lamenting that he couldn’t scare crows. Well, that explained a lot! So, the fact that all the scarecrows I’d ever seen looked more like humans than crows finally made sense. And the fact that they’re supposed to scare crows away from the corn . . . well, why didn’t anyone tell me that before? Stupid grownups.

A scarecrow by any other name has still got an odd name.

To be honest with you, fifty years later, I still think the word scarecrow is an odd one. I mean, would you call a ‘man-eating tiger’ an eatman? Or a ‘fire-breathing dragon’ a breathefire? Of course, if I’m that put off by the word scarecrow, I could borrow a synonymous term from Great Britain. Perhaps murmet, from southwestern England, or how about a hodmandod from the Isle of Wight? A rarer regional English term for scarecrow is moggie (or moggy), but that could be easily confused with the more common, colloquial English meaning: ‘a domestic cat’ (which might actually do a better job scaring the crows). In a British potato field, you might find a tattie bogle on watch, and in Scotland, he may go by the name bodach-rocais (literally, ‘old man of the rooks’—rook being a Eurasian crow). I could also use the Welsh bwbach, but I’m having enough trouble trying to pronounce the Scottish scarecrow.

I think I’ll have to concede that the scarecrow is safe in my hopelessly American vocabulary. Anyway, I do so love the tales of Oz by L. Frank Baum, and it just wouldn’t be the same to imagine the Yellow Brick Road being traversed by Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Hodmandod.

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