In Skeptical Inquirer, cryptozoology expert Benjamin Radford addressed the claim popular among crop circle UFO enthusiasts that a 17th Century woodcut contains just such an image.
These round riddles began appearing in the English countryside circa 1970, mostly consisting of smashed-down wheat or barley, which are the food crops that are most-easily flattened. But proponents feel that the image featured above in a 1687 woodcut suggests that the circles predate modern times.
This attempt to marry the past to newer claims is a common technique of paranormal proponents, according to Radford. He writes, “Indigenous myths and legends of spirits and figures are retroactively claimed to represent early sightings of particular mysterious creatures…including the lake monster in British Columbia and the Puerto Rican vampire el Chupacabra.” Further, Michael Goss noted in the journal Folklore that, “The contents of ‘The Mowing Devil’ seem to prove the rule that…given time, some industrious researcher is bound to turn up a historical precedent” for a contemporary mystery.
Artwork served as an early medium for stories, truthful or otherwise. These works included morality tales that instructed on the consequences of one’s conduct. Therefore, The Mowing Devil should be viewed through this folkloric lens. While the piece is usually presented out of context, the original tale can be found in a pamphlet dated from 1678. There, we learn that the woodcut illustrates the legend of an English farmer who, during a dispute with a contractor, tells him that he would rather pay the devil to cut his oat field than have the worker do it.
The storyteller makes clear that Satan’s Sickle cut the crop rather than laying it down. And the perpetrator is of known diabolical origin rather being unspecified interplanetary visitors creating a parking spot.
Crop circles only came about in the 1970s when simple renditions began appearing in the English countryside. They were made by Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, who attempted to fool people into thinking UFOs had landed and they succeeded wildly in this goal. The pranking pair inspired several imitators who engaged in an indirect competition for who could create the most complex designs. People sometime blame the devil for their doings, but Bower and Chorley have made so such assertion, citing an Australian entertainment program episode as their inspiration. And as Radford demonstrated, the 17th Century woodcut IS of the devil and there is no tie-in the modern phenomenon, much as crop circle jerks wish that there was.