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  Orkney's Harvest Lore

The Last Sheaf

The most widespread of all the harvest traditions were those surrounding the "last sheaf" and the "last load".

A belief common across northern Europe was that the "spirit of the corn" resided within the last sheaf of a crop field. Customs relating to this crop, or corn, spirit are found throughout the British Isles, each area having its own distinct variations.

However, common to all these variations is the idea that it was extremely unlucky to be responsible for cutting the last sheaf. This act was sure to kill the spirit within, so to avoid this, assembled harvesters would throw their sickles until the sheaf was finally cut, thereby avoiding direct responsibility.

What is interesting here is that where one individual's sickle was seen to give the definitive final cut - not only killing the crop spirit but also officially finishing the harvest - he received special attention.

Sometimes this meant having the best seat at the harvest celebrations but more often some form of manhandling and a roughing-up in the field.

This treatment suggests that in considerably earlier times there may have been a living sacrifice to return the vitality of the crop spirit to the fields.

As you will see elsewhere, this is fairly similar to the treatment received by the Orcadian last man, who may have been on the end of a similar symbolic punishment, or sacrifice, due to his part in cutting the last sheaf.

The Straw Dog

Section Contents
Casting the Heuks
The Last Sheaf
The Straw Dog - "The Bikko"
Straw Figures and "Last Man" Capers
The Harvest Bannock
The "Ritual Bannock" Connection
Offerings to Nature
Harvest Home and Muckle Supper

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