Harvest Folklore—Mysteries from the East

In Eastern Europe, cutting the last sheaf (Russian dozhinochnym, Ukrainian didukh) was often accompanied by an elder’s petitional prayer so widows and orphans, rich and poor, would all be blessed with a plentiful harvest. (The Russian word for harvest, urozhaí, and Ukrainian zhnýva, derive from a shared root meaning “to cut.”) Fieldworkers festooned the sheaf with flowers and ribbons and honored members of the landlord’s family carried it home with bread and salt in a joyous procession accompanied by the singing of ritual harvest songs. Workers also fashioned colorful wreaths to be worn by unmarried youth. The host ceremoniously placed the sheaf on a peg in the ritual corner of the house (krásni úgol/pokuttia) which held icons, censer, and candles. A festive harvest dinner followed and the sheaf, known in some traditions as the “Grandfather Sheaf,” remained in the sacred niche until Christmas Eve. At that time some grain from the sheaf was used to make traditional kutya cereal dessert while other kernels were ritually scattered outside for the fertility of the fields and blessing upon the household.

In Slavic folklore, decrepit Baba Yagá might be a maternal effigy fashioned from straw that was also identified in some traditions with the summertime Pleiades star cluster. The constellation’s bright appearance portended favorable harvests. Baba Yagá appears ambiguously in agrarian folklore as both guardian of crops and as ogress who could withhold humanity’s bounty from the earth. For this reason the “Old Woman” existed in the fearsome twilight between nature and culture, said to dwell in the unfenced borderlands separating field and forest. Parents warned their children not to wander through the countryside or trample crops lest they be taken by Baba Yagá, though such beings existed as much as pedagogical fictions to prevent wanderers from damaging the grain.

The Russian rural landscape might also be inhabited by frightful polevoi (“field spirits”)—the rural “demons” of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fictional fourth century Lesniks. These misshapen, clumsy beings tended to appear at midday and bore the color of an area’s soil with hair of wild grass. A polevyk’s appearance usually foreshadowed misfortune. These beings were similar to the more diabolical leshii (“forest spirits”) and vodianoi (“water spirits”). Slavic millers of grain appeased the latter by regular streamside offerings of bread and salt—origin of the Russian word for hospitality.