Many Pre-Christian Germanic customs, both ancient and modern, occur within the hearth and are an integral part of a family’s working praxis. Some of these practices remained extant for generations and quite a few have continued into the present day. One such set of traditions surrounding the hearth and home are centered around planting and harvest. Offerings are made to the spirits of the land not only to appease them but to solicit their favor in order that crops might produce a good yield the following year and to ensure the wellbeing, as well as the luck, of the home and its inhabitants.
The Feldgeister spirit of the land is one that features prominently into harvest traditions throughout Europe. It assumes familiar Germanic and Indo-European forms such as wolves, bears, goats, and dogs. Additionally, a Felgeister may take the guise of a feline or hoofed animal.
A Haferbock, or female Habergeiß, is a Feldgeister of Germanic origin who appears in the form of a goat or, on occasion, in the form of half goat and half bird. To imitate their call is said to bring about bad luck from a sentient harvest spirit which places a degree of animism and identity into the wights of the land and how they were perceived by early cultures. The Haferbock, particularly, is depicted as a corn spirit. Because of its folkloric association with the Wild Hunt, this being is most commonly represented after the last harvest has taken place, and remains throughout the winter months during the darkest part of the year.
Traditionally, it is the Feldgeister that is considered to be the spirit captured in the last harvest of grain, which resides inside of a stalk. These last remnants of harvest are turned into a corn doll which will contain the spirit until it is time to release it, usually through a rite involving burning the doll, when winter has passed and people once again return to the season of planting. As it is said to bring about bad fortune for a person to come in direct contact with a Feldgeister, the corn doll is carefully kept and stored in the hearth and home until it is time for Spring rites to take place.
It can be difficult to distinguish between hearth spirits and those spirits who, while directly influencing the hearth, are independent of it and more closely tied to particular boundaries. As is the case with the Feldgeister, the spirit of the land surrounding the hearth is contained in the corn doll which is then brought inside and stored until the time of its release. During the period of time in which the Feldgeister is present within the home, care is taken to preserve it. As hearth traditions and the good fortune of a homestead are inextricably linked, the landwights and domestic spirits are treated with respect and mindfulness. Claude Lecouteux, in his book entitled “The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices”, details the importance of maintaining the sacral nature of the home:
“A house is much more than a building. It is a microcosm, a living being with both a body and a soul. It speaks, even if its language is only creaking and cracking noises for the profane. Its wailings are evidence of an attack by hostile forces. If uncared for, it can also grow old and die and, once abandoned, it crumbles away, leaving its skeleton visible to all. Commonly used comparisons testify to its anthropomorphization. In French, we refer to a leprous or seedy house, a blind or one-eyed wall, and, conversely a decrepit old dame. The house establishes a bond between itself and its inhabitants. It becomes a family seat; a very clear trace of this sense remains when we refer to nobility by using the phrase “the house of so-and-so.” Moreover, the Medieval Latin term Domus means both “house” and “family.” The ancestors continued to live there because this (or somewhere very close by) is where they were once buried. The home is a multivalent space that encompasses notions of symbol, religion, patrimony, and law.”
Commonly, ancestors were buried on the same land whose wights were given offerings and on which either rites of propitiation or expiation were made. Therefore, it was prudent to take great care in the minding of land spirits as well as domestic ones, regardless of how they were separated. Feldgeisters whose grain spirits were contained in a form that was to be housed inside of the hearth during the winter months would have necessarily been treated with reverence so as to not bring about ill fortune upon the homestead. The traditions of burning corn dolls continue today in various pagan and heathen traditions.
Early views of agrarian traditions are often preserved in folklore. Certainly, those practices regarding planting and harvesting have made their way into tales that are still told today, like that of John Barleycorn. Festivals and celebrations are held to commemorate the traditional significances behind capturing the spirit of the land that is then held in the last of the grain. The Scandinavian Yule goat, or Julbock, is a familiar symbol crafted from straw and bound with red ribbons, signifying winters arrival and the end of the harvest season. As the last of the grain on a homestead held significant importance in the matter of making offerings the Yule goat, like the corn doll would be later burned and the spirit released. As fire remains a primary medium for ritual, a modern approach to incorporating this practice includes hearths burning corn dolls, handcrafted or ornamental Yule goats, and various other crafted products that are part of their established harvest rituals. In the Czech Republic, harvesters preserve a bundle of grain, called a boroda, which is created from the last harvest. The boroda is left on the land in hopes that the stored grain might be preserved unharmed. Additionally, they create a bundle known as a dido that is decorated with ribbons and kept on the hearth or in the home until after Yule has passed.
Ritual practice includes a wide variety of objects that are both sacred and specific to hearth rites. Appealing to the favor of the land in ways that benefit the homestead ensures that it remains prosperous and continues to be one of the most widely recognized, as well as utilized, forms of continued early traditions seen today. In the marking of time these acts that are symbolic to harvests and planting once again inform us that a time of reflection has come and that a time for sewing once again will soon approach.
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