Wheel of the Year Activities: Corn Dollies and Witches’ Ladders

by Doyenne Rowan Nightshade

I love the autumn: the clear, cold days and chill winds that blow your hair in your face; the leaves turning colors; and the “pumpkin patches” that start appearing in every vacant lot. This month, we celebrate the coming of the harvest by making corn dollies, a traditional activity that actually has nothing to do with maize, and witches ladders, a form of knot magic.

Corn Dollies

The name “corn dolly” is something of a misnomer in this day and age. They aren’t made of maize and they often don’t resemble a person at all. The word “corn” evolved from ‘kern,’ the old English word for grain, and “dolly” may have evolved from “idol,” so “grain idol” is a more accurate term. If you look for information on corn dollies nowadays, you mostly find corn-husk dolls, so “wheat weaving” is the more commonly used term now. Corn dollies were frequently in the shapes of circles, hearts, loops, and stars (sometimes even goats) and were hung prominently in the home through the fallow winter months. It’s thought the Druids believed that the corn spirit lived in the grain fields and was made homeless at harvest time. Hollow forms, the corn dollies, made from the last of the grain harvest were woven to house the spirit, until the dolly could be plowed back into the field in the spring.

There are numerous websites and books that have detailed instructions on making beautiful and elaborate corn dollies, if you’re so inclined. For our purposes, I will describe how to make a very simple, basic one.

In choosing your grain stalks, you should select long ones that are straight and slender, and measure at least 18 inches from the base of the head to the first joint on the stalk. Green stalks will never ripen to a golden color after picking, so bear that in mind as well; golden is the traditional color for corn dollies. Just before you start, you’ll need to temper the stalks by soaking them in cool water for 20 to 40 minutes. Never use hot water, as it will cause the grain to lose it’s natural shine. After soaking, wrap the stalks in a wet towel and lay them aside for about 15 minutes before use. Once they’re ready, you can continue to use them all day as long as you keep them wrapped in the damp towel, or until they get too soggy, whichever comes first.

Five stalks of grain, all the same length.
Two lengths of string or ribbon
A large, flat working surface

Getting started:
Stand the stalks on ends to line them up evenly. Fasten them with string or ribbon just below the heads, giving you five long ends below the string and a bundle of grain heads above.

Next, spread out the long ends so that they’re fanned out on the table and the heads are standing up perpendicular to the working surface.

For ease and clarity, arrange the long ends so they point directionally, relative to you. (i.e. North, South, East, and West). Point the fifth stalk East, as well. Now you should have one stalk each pointing North, West, and South, with the remaining two pointing East, one on top of the other.

Take the bottom East stalk and pass it under both the top East stalk and the North stalk.

Now rotate the entire bundle one quarter-turn clockwise, leaving you with two stalks in the East again (having moved them from North to East).

Again, pass the lower East stalk under the top East and the North stalks, then rotate again one quarter-turn clockwise.

Continue repeating this step, passing the stalk under and rotating the dolly. Soon the long ends will begin to curl up around the heads, forming a basket shape. This is good, it’s what we’re going for. Continue weaving until the basket covers the heads completely.

Gather the loose ends together and tie them off with another piece of string or ribbon.

That’s it, you’re done! You may wish to make a loop from ribbon or wire to hang it with, or even weave ribbon in with the grain stalks themselves just for fanciness. You can also use this method to make lavender bundles. Once you have the basics down, there are almost infinite variations to try.

Witches’ Ladders

Knot and cord magic is an old type of folk magic used to bind things to you. You can bind something you want, or bind protection to you to keep away things you don’t want. A witch’s ladder is just that, traditionally made from plaited hair or cord, with feathers woven or tied in. If you can make a braid you can make a witch’s ladder. Typical witches’ ladders use one black, one red, and one white ribbon (to represent the maiden-mother-crone aspects of the triple goddess) and nine feathers, though you may prefer to use colors or numbers that correspond to your working. You might choose pink and white ribbons to attract love, green and red for Yule or for prosperity, etc. You can purchase dyed feathers at craft stores in just about any color, though I, personally, like to collect found feathers and use them. You can also weave in beads or stones, or other objects, to enhance your spell, but the most important thing is to focus on your intention as you work.

Note: If you do collect “wild” feathers, I recommend washing them before use because wild birds tend to have mites.

Some color/feather correspondences are:
White: purification, spirituality, hope, protection, peace, lunar energies
Red: physical vitality, courage, good fortune, life
Blue: mental abilities, peace, protection, psychic awareness
Yellow: cheerfulness, mental alertness, prosperity, solar energies
Green: money, prosperity, growth, health, fertility
Orange: attraction, energy, success
Pink: attracting love
Grey: peace, neutrality
Brown: stability, respect, home, grounding
Brown feathers striped with black: balance between physical and spiritual life

Brown feathers banded or mixed with white: happiness, invisibility from harm
Brown and red mixed feathers: healing to animals
Black: mystical wisdom, spiritual initiation, banishing
Black iridescent feathers: mystical insight
Black and white mixed feathers: union, protection.
Black (or gray) feathers banded or mixed with white: hope, balance, harmony
Black mixed with purple: deep spirituality.
Black, white, and blue mixed feathers: change
Peacock tail feathers: protection from the “evil eye," stimulates clairvoyance
Rooster tail feathers (called sickles): God and Goddess.
The black ones resemble the horns of the Horned God and are a symbol of male virility.
The white ones resemble the sickle with which grain sacred to the Goddess is reaped.
 They also resemble the waxing and waning moon.

Once you’ve made your witch’s ladder, hang it near your door for protection, in the Feng Shui money corner of your house (southeast corner) for prosperity, or maybe next to your bed to attract love.

Happy Harvest!