Scarecrows. Ancient Egyptians hung tunics on reeds to scare quail away from crops that grew along the Nile. Wooden statues of Priapus, a well-endowed rustic fertility god, likewise frightened birds from planted fields in Greece. Even the Japanese, as early at the 8th century, had the Kuebiko to keep sparrows from the rice; in Kojiki (a Record of Ancient Matters) (circa 712), it is written that “though his legs do not walk,” Kuebiko knew everything.
Known as bootzamon to German settlers and Tattie Bogies to the Scots, scarecrows, culturally if not etymologically, have long been tied to the supernatural boogeyman, a monster of legend who is, curiously enough —like the scarecrow — often depicted in tattered clothes. To a superstitious agrarian society, it would seem that there was utility in not only frightening birds, but scaring children as well. There are strange things out there among the rows. You’d do best to avoid them.
Yet monsters need not always be evil. Many, in fact, like the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, simply want to be human.
Others believe they are human.
Take for example the title character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 short story “Feathertop.” A scarecrow brought to life by a witch seeking revenge on a judge, Feathertop appears human — and believes himself to be so — as long as he puffs on a pipe given to him by the old crone. He falls in love with the judge’s daughter Polly, only to have her recoil in horror when the couple gaze into a mirror and Polly sees Feathertop in his true form. The daughter thus made despondent, the witch has her revenge, but the cost is the despair of her creation: a “wretched simulacrum.” Aware of rejection, Feathertop dejectedly drops his pipe and falls into a lifeless heap.
“There are thousands upon thousands of coxcombs and charlatans in the world, made up of just such a jumble of wornout, forgotten, and good-for-nothing trash as he was!” reflects the witch. “Yet they live in fair repute, and never see themselves for what they are.”
Two months before the unimaginable happened on 9/11, Florida artist Win Jones created his “Patriot Scarecrow Series.” Simply meant to be a scarecrow with an American flag — painted for its color — the image became a symbol that the artist did not intend.
“I was listening to this guy talk, a young man, college age, he was telling me, look, they’re all dressed up, fit to kill,” Jones said of his scarecrow, brandishing what by then, in late 2011, was draped over every window and rising on every pole. “Oh, my God, am I thinking that? I don’t think that I am, but subconsciously like a lot of these… you react to them. But that’s where I am at now with the scarecrows, and all these ghosts that are coming in and out of space, you’re not too sure where you are.” (Win Jones, taken from FlagerLive.com, “a news source for Flager, Florida and beyond”)
Deep within our psyche, we need the scarecrow — and this need exceeds the utility of frightening birds. He is, in Jungian terms, the shadow: an archetype that is the inverse of the ego. He is supernatural.
Be it the self-aware Feathertop or the all-knowing Kuebiko, the scarecrow is at once less than and more than us.
He is Dorothy’s clumsy companion from the Wizard of Oz and the terrifying villain of the Batman’s rogues gallery — a psychiatrist who preys on our fears.
In the end, he is whatever we want him to be. He is truly a straw man: a distorted, exaggerated version of ourselves — foreign and familiar.
Dress him as you like. He will take on a life of his own.