Rural Intelligent Life: Sickles and Scythes
I write a regular column for the Triple Nine Society’s journal entitled “Rural Intelligent Life.” The overwhelming majority of the society lives in major cities; as such my column gives the society vignettes on what life is like in rural areas.
Rural Intelligent Life: Sickles and Scythes
Rural Intelligent Life Pro Tip: When using a scythe to mow grain, hay, or lawn grass, the best time to mow is in the morning. When the dew is still in the grass to mow, the plants are heavier. Thus, the scythe blade will cut more easily without bending the plants down.
Sickles and scythes have mostly fallen into disuse in industrialised nations that have mechanised agriculture, though much of the world still uses both for grain harvest and mowing lawns. As horse-drawn then tractor-drawn reapers appeared in the XIX Century, the sickle and scythe fell into disuse in agriculture. They fell into disuse mowing lawns with the invention of the basket push mower (the kind of lawnmower with a rotating basket of blades in front).
Sickles and scythes used for mowing lawns generally have an edge angled toward the ground, to allow closer cutting.
In North America, the two tools lasted into the middle of the XX Century, even after the invention of mechanical reapers. In agriculture now, sickles and scythes are primarily used regularly as curiosities or by certain religious communities. On some farms it is still traditional to “open the fields” using sickles and scythes to let the mechanised equipment in.
They have both seen resurgence in the XXI Century for homeowners to cut lawns: They provide exercise, do not make noise, and do not use gasoline or electricity. In many rural areas they never fell completely out of use as they can cut difficult areas such as ditches and margins of fields (even under water), mountainous or hilly terrain, or small plots a mechanical reaper cannot reach.
Sickles have been found in Jordan dating to 18,000 BCE with serrated edges. As a vast improvement over harvesting grain by hand, they rapidly spread throughout the world, varying in form in the various areas that used them. The earliest sickles were made from flint or bone. As metal-working technology advanced they were then made from bronze, then iron, finally from steel.
Sickles were and are made with both straight (smooth) edges for slicing, and serrated edges for sawing. They are generally used by grabbing a bunch of grain or grass, or using a stick to hold grass still, then sweeping across the base of the bunch to cut the grass.
The most famous depiction of the sickle in popular culture is of course the national flag of the Soviet Union, in which the sickle represents the agricultural working class.
Scythes represented an important agricultural advancement over the sickle. The scythe was invented around 500 BCE, and reached Europe by the Middle Ages. The shaped snath (long handle) of the scythe allows for longer sweeping cuts of grain without bending over. The tool, being more ergonomic and efficient than the sickle, rapidly replaced the sickle wherever it appeared.
As technology improved, so did the construction of scythes. In the XIX Century, the grain cradle was invented, an improvement for sheaving (collecting) and threshing (separating the grain from a plant with a flail or by beating). Improved grain cradles appeared throughout the XIX and XX Centuries.
Mowing grain with a grain cradle attached to the blade of a scythe causes the grain to lie in the cradle with the grain heads oriented in the same direction, instead of scattered about the ground. At the cost of some speed (due to additional weight), much time is saved as sheaving is much simpler. A grain cradle can be removed for mowing hay, as sheaving is not required to bale hay.
Modern scythe snaths are made from wood, aluminium, and even carbon-fibre material.
The most notable appearance in popular culture of the scythe is in the personification of the Grim Reaper (death).
Both the sickle and scythe have been used in warfare and uprisings throughout history. The sharp blades double as a sword, pike, or curved knife. A mediæval combat manual from Germany instructs how to use the sickle in combat.
International mowing competitions are held in many places around the world today, notably in Hungary, Serbia, the Basque Country of Spain, and the Great Plains of the United States. Such competitions require the reaper to harvest grain from a standard plot in the fastest amount of time.
The sickle and scythe will likely never disappear as long as people need to cut grain or grass. The sickle stands the test of time, having lasted over twenty thousand years.
Sources for this article include Wikipedia’s articles on agriculture, sickles, and scythes, as well as scytheconnection.com. The latter Website includes a free book on the use, care, and feeding of scythes entitled The Scythe Must Dance, and a page on sellers of scythes in many countries around the world if you desire to try your hand at this ancient method of mowing. YouTube also has several videos on mowing with sickles and scythes.
Next time: The Great American Eclipse. A total eclipse of the sun will sweep across the entire United States in a very narrow path from Oregon to South Carolina. My village is on the direct path of the eclipse. Most of the area covered will be rural areas of the United States. eclipse2017.org
(The rights to articles published in Vidya are retained by the author, not the publication. For information about the Triple Nine Society, contact me, or see triplenine.org .)