Caseg Fedi or Harvest Mare – Welsh Corn Dolly

corn dolly

The custom was known as the caseg fedi or harvest mare. When all the corn had been reaped except for the very last sheaf, it would be divided into three and plaited. The reapers would then take it in turns to throw their reaping hooks at it from a set distance and the one who succeeded in cutting it down would recite a verse:

Bore y codais hi,
Hwyr y dilyn hi,
Mi ces hi, mi ces hi!
(Early in the morning I got on her track,
late in the evening I followed her, I have had her, I have had her!)

The other reapers would then respond with:
Beth gest ti? (What did you have?)
and the reply was: Gwrach! gwrach, gwrach!
(A hag, a hag, a hag!)

It was seen as an honour in Wales to be the one to bring down the caseg fedi, and the man who did so was often rewarded. However, his task did not end with the cutting down of the sheaf; he was also expected to carry it into the house without getting it wet, past a team of women who would do all they could to throw water upon it. Often the reaper would hide the ‘mare’ under his clothes in order to get into the house past the women, and this could involve the men being disrobed as they tried to enter. If the man was successful, he would receive all the beer he could drink, or a shilling. If he did not succeed he did not receive his reward and was relegated to the foot of the table rather than the head of it.

The sheaf was often hung in the house to show that all the corn had been gathered in. It could also, in one part of Wales, be put on the cross-beam of the barn or in the fork of a tree. Sometimes, however, it was smuggled to a neighbouring farm which had not so far finished harvesting and thrown in front of the head-servant as he reaped. Often it was the fastest runner who was given this task since he would be chased and if caught was often bound hand and foot with straw and thrown in the river. Alternatively, the reaper was to get the ‘mare’ to the farmhouse without being found out. If he were successful in delivering it without it getting wet, he could demand a reward of a shilling. But if he were caught before achieving this, he would be given a forfeit.

The ‘mare’ may have represented the fertility of the harvest condensed into the final sheaf. In one part of Wales, it was recorded that seed from it was mixed with the seed at planting time ‘in order to teach it to grow’. In Ireland the last sheaf was associated with the hare, an animal who was often found sheltering in it. The story of the hag who turned herself into a hare in order to steal milk from the cow was a common Irish tale, and sometimes the sheaf was known as the hag or cailleach. It is possible that this association of the hag, as a creature known to steal food, with the cutting down of the last sheaf, represents the triumph of the human forces of agriculture against the chaotic or malevolent forces of nature in the shape of the hag. The practice in Wales of getting the sheaf into the house without it being wet by the women may also represent the saving of the harvest from chaotic nature in the shape of rain and storms, always a concern at harvest time, even today., electronic version, by Hilaire Wood.

Published in: on September 24, 2009 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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