A “scarecrow” is a decoy or mannequin, usually in the shape of a human. The name is first found in print in the 1500s, and is a combination of the words “scare” and “crow.” It was used figuratively, in 1590, to mean “gaunt, ridiculous person.”
The scarecrow has been around a lot longer than that, however. Greek farmers in 2500 BCE carved wooden scarecrows to look like Priapus, son of the god Dionysus and the goddess Aphrodite. Priapus supposedly was ugly enough to scare birds away from the vineyards and ensure good harvests. They painted their wooden scarecrows purple and put a club in one hand and a sickle in the other to represent the hoped-for good harvest.
Humanoid scarecrows are usually old clothes stuffed with straw and placed in open fields to discourage birds from disturbing and feeding on recently cast seed and growing crops. Scarecrows are used across the world by farmers, and are a notable symbol of farms and the countryside in popular culture.
Sometimes, reflective parts movable by the wind are attached to increase effectiveness. A scarecrow outfitted in clothes previously worn by a hunter who has fired on the flock is regarded by some as especially efficacious. A common variant is the effigy of a predator such as an owl or a snake.
The function of the scarecrow is sometimes filled by various audio devices, including recordings of the calls or sounds of predators or noisy insects. Recorded sounds of deerflies in flight, for example, are used to deter deer from young tree plantations. Automatically fired carbide cannons and other simulated gunfire are used to keep migrating geese out of cornfields.
In Kojiki, the oldest surviving book in Japan (from the year 712), a scarecrow known as Kuebiko appears as a deity who cannot walk, yet knows everything about the world.
Among many other stories about scarecrows, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Feathertop is about a scarecrow created and brought to life in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts by a witch in league with the devil. L. Frank Baum’s tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has a scarecrow as one of the main protagonists. The Scarecrow of Oz was searching for brains from the Great Wizard.
In Devon, the scarecrow is called a “murmet,” in England, a “Hay-man,” on the Isle of Wight, a “Gallybagger,” and on the Isle of Skye, a “Tattie Bogal.”
There are several scarecrow festivals or weekends in England and North America. In the valley region of Nova Scotia, the “pumpkin people” come in the fall months. They are scarecrows with pumpkin heads doing various things such as playing the fiddle or riding a wooden horse. Meaford, Ontario has celebrated the Scarecrow Invasion since 1996.
In some places, real people are still used to frighten birds from crops, just as they were thousands of years ago. As a child growing up on a homestead, one of my duties was to chase turkeys out of the vegetable garden. I complied but I didn’t like the job; it interrupted my reading of Agatha Christie mysteries.
Now, if I’d known I was a gallybagger, I might have been more amenable.