Friday, June 26, 2009



In his poem Junk, Richard Wilbur wrote, "The heart winces for junk and gimcrack, / for jerrybuilt things / and the men who make them / for a little money..." Wilbur prefaced his poem with a motto from the fragmentary Old English epic Waldere:
Huru Welandes
                    worc ne geswiceð
monna ænigum
                    ðara ðe Mimming can
heardne gehealdan.
This is translated by Bruce Mitchell et al., edd. Beowulf: An Edition with Relevant Shorter Texts (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998), p. 209, as "Surely the work of Weland will fail not any of those men who can hold strong Mimming." Weland was a smith, and Mimming was a sword.

I thought of Wilbur's poem and the merits of fine craftsmanship recently when I read Larry Lack, "Preserving and Reviving a Timeless Technology," The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener (Summer 2009), an article on scythes. Lack's article also started me wondering about scythes in the classical world. The article on the scythe by Solomon Reinach in Daremberg-Saglio, Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines, II.2 (Paris, 1896), pp. 968-971, s.v. falx, is available on the Internet. Indeed, all of Daremberg-Saglio is available.

The main Greek word for scythe is δρεπάνη (alt. δρέπανον). Scythes appear on the shield of Achilles (Homer, Iliad 18.550-551, tr. Richmond Lattimore):
He made on it the precinct of a king, where the labourers
were reaping, with the sharp reaping hooks in their hands.

ἐν δ᾽ ἐτίθει τέμενος βασιλήϊον· ἔνθα δ᾽ ἔριθοι
ἤμων ὀξείας δρεπάνας ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντες.
In the Odyssey (18.366-370, tr. Butcher and Lang), Odysseus challenges Eurymachus to a scything contest:
Eurymachus, would that there might be a trial of labour between us twain, in the season of spring, when the long days begin! In the deep grass might it be, and I should have a crooked scythe, and thou another like it, that we might try each the other in the matter of labour, fasting till late eventide, and grass there should be in plenty.

Εὐρύμαχ᾽, εἰ γὰρ νῶϊν ἔρις ἔργοιο γένοιτο
ὥρῃ ἐν εἰαρινῇ, ὅτε τ᾽ ἤματα μακρὰ πέλονται,
ἐν ποίῃ, δρέπανον μὲν ἐγὼν εὐκαμπὲς ἔχοιμι,
καὶ δὲ σὺ τοῖον ἔχοις, ἵνα πειρησαίμεθα ἔργου
νήστιες ἄχρι μάλα κνέφαος, ποίη δὲ παρείη.
The Latin word for scythe is falx, which is really a broad term covering many types of tools with curved blades. Cato, On Agriculture, distinguishes various types of scythes by adjectives describing what they cut, at 10.3 falces faenarias ... stramentarias ... arborarias (hay hooks ... straw hooks ... tree hooks) and 11.4 falces sirpiculas ... silvaticas ... arborarias (rush hooks ... wood hooks ... tree hooks). Cato says that the best place to buy scythes is at Cales and Minturnae (135).

Theodore Robinson, Man with Scythe

Related post: The Hoe and the Axe.

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