Ancient Grains & Harvests

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 6)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


The Georgic World and Roman Expansion

The Latin root of Ceres’ name, ker, is cognate to “cereal,” “create,” and “crescent,” while the name “Demeter” also relates to “matter” and “meter.” The latter word suggests the natural rhythms of nature less known since the industrial age, yet inexorably evident in Time’s harvest of human life. The implicit hope of death’s renewal for the new generation, therefore, was not a grim prospect to ancient peoples in spite of its subsequent medieval association with a fearsome scythe-bearing reaper. The Roman god Saturn was sometimes depicted with scythe or sickle because of his associations with agriculture, generation, and renewal, and was celebrated from December 17 to 23 in the major Roman festival Saturnalia preceding the winter solstice.

In Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) notes that “numerous grains” were raised throughout the empire which “received their names from the countries where they were first produced.” He evaluates grain by weight with the Roman average being approximately three pounds per quart, and agricultural historians calculate average yields to have been about fifteen bushels per acre. An experienced adult harvester could reap about one-half acre, or slightly less, with a sickle in a backbreaking twelve- to fourteen-hour day. This grueling regime was carried out for weeks in the scorching heat and the method remained basically unchanged until the advent of the long-handled scythe in Western Europe during the late Roman era. But the broader blade of the scythe and greater resistance from cutting wider swaths meant scything was generally, but not exclusively, the work of able-bodied adult males. Reaping up to one and one-half acres per day was considered average under favorable circumstances. But use of the more violently swung scythe resulted in the loss of up to ten percent of the precious grain as ripe, brittle stalks are subject to shattering. For these reasons, use of sickles by both men and women for harvesting high value grains like wheat and rye was widespread throughout the world until the twentieth century.

The vital, labor intensive harvesting operations in ancient times required overwhelming participation by the masses. Worker numbers are difficult to determine with precision, but historians estimate that up to one-half of the population engaged directly in the seasonal processes of reaping, binding, and carting, with perhaps forty percent more involved for longer periods in the tertiary operations of threshing, winnowing, and storage. Indeed, provisioning the populace was the preeminent task of any people and a chief preoccupation of their leaders in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and beyond. According to the Elder Pliny, Italian and Boeotian (Ukrainian) wheats rated “first rank,” followed by Sicilian and Alexandrian. “Third rank” wheats included Thebian and Syrian. Pliny also favorably rated Greek wheats from Pontia, Strangia, Draconia, and Selinusium, and noted production in Cyprus, Gaul, Chersonnesus (Crimea), Bactria (Afghanistan), and the Balearic Islands. Cereal grains contributed significantly to the ancient Roman diet which was generally high in plant protein and carbohydrates. The cultural significance of barley and wheat is evident in numerous copper, silver, and gold coins from the ancient world that depict these grains.

The Italian farro grains emmer and spelt were staples of the legionnaires who made nutritious soups from the cracked kernels and likely spread it and other Roman varieties throughout the empire. The Latin term “gladiators,” hordearii, literally means “barley eaters” since they subsisted on high energy foods like barley, oatmeal, and legumes. Roman legionaries were routinely outfitted with sickles in order to procure their livelihood throughout the far flung empire, and probably used them more often that their weapons. The helical frieze on Trajan’s Column in Rome (c. 110 AD) features a dynamic group scene (plates 291-292) of soldiers in full uniform harvesting waist-high grain with prodigious heads. (The English word “harvest” is derived from German Herbst (autumn), which descends from a root shared by Latin carp- [“to gather”] and Greek karpos [“fruit”]. “Harvest” in the sense of reaping grain and other crops came into vernacular use during the medieval era of Middle English. Likely due to the light color of a wheat kernel’s interior endosperm, the word “wheat” in many European languages meant “white,” as with Old English whete, Welsh gwenith, and German weizzi.).

Trajan’s Column Harvest Scene (c. 110 AD); Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traiansäule (Berlin, 1900)

Trajan’s Column Harvest Scene (c. 110 AD); Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traiansäule (Berlin, 1900)

Roman poet Virgil’s epic the Georgics (c. 30 BC, from a Greek term meaning “farmer” or “agriculturalist”) carries the passionate message that human culture is inextricably bound to the culture of the soil. The influence of Virgil’s 8th century BC Greek predecessors Homer and Hesiod is apparent in the poem. Hesiod’s didactic Works and Days is a masterful poetic admixture of practical farmer’s almanac with ethical maxims and superstitious sayings intended to benefit an indigent brother. The descriptions are rich with depictions of everyday country life that shed light on a vast array of ancient trivia ranging from agrarian diets (“eight-slice wheat loaf” and “barley bread made with milk”) to harvest labors (“sharpen your sickles, …exhausting summertime has come”). As with Homer and Hesiod, like most other substantial works in Greek and Latin, Virgil’s meter is dactylic hexameter but his hymn displays a perfection of image and style unprecedented in ancient literature.

The Georgics’ opening line makes clear one of the work’s principal themes—“What makes the grainfield smile…,” followed by a wondrous narration of forces—both natural and supernatural, that influence annual harvests. Although a hard-working farmer can contend with choking weeds, granary mice, and to some extent drought, Virgil (70-19 BC) also tells of destructive winds and rain, and plundering armies that are beyond any conscientious laborer’s control. The Georgics is no pastoral lauding the life of contemplation. Pastoralism in art, and to greater extent in Virgil’s Eclogues, is generally characterized by idealized natural settings devoid of laborers, or at most showing herders who passively oversee livestock. A rural idyll similarly expresses such experience through a short story or poem. Virgil, however, seeks through his own deep acquaintance with the countryside, crops, and convulsions of Roman Republic politics to relate the heroic virtues of diligence and frugality against the vagaries of private life and public affairs. A native of Italy’s fertile Po valley, Virgil knew first-hand the challenges of Sabine peasant life known by the region’s small landholders (colonui) as well as the realm of responsibly managed and intensively farmed villa estates.

Antoine Watteau,  Ceres  (1717/1718);   Oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches;   Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Antoine Watteau, Ceres (1717/1718); Oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Georgics relates an irrepressible conflict of mythic proportions between the peaceful bounty of Saturn’s Golden Age under siege by Jupiter’s menacing minions in a “Jovian Fall” that would revert humanity from pastoral balance to wilderness. The Augustan era’s civil wars resulting from political and military contests between Julius Caesar and Pompey left vast numbers of Romans landless through no fault of their own. The Georgics further represents an earnest call of both homecoming and longing in spite of ruthless forces conspired against such return and oblivious to the primacy of land care. The three great Roman agricultural prose writers—Cato (De Agricultura), Varro (De Re Rustica), and Columella (Res Rustica), treat farming in didactic terms while Virgil’s masterful composition is also a love song for native soil and the ordinary folk who labor upon it.

The four books of the Georgics cover a range of agricultural topics familiar to Roman farmers—field crops (I), trees and vines (II), livestock (III), and beekeeping (IV). Each functions as an essential component in an integrated, holistic approach to soil fertility and production involving cereals, fruits, and livestock. Only zealous attention to details like soil condition, preparation of the threshing floor, and regular tasks like hoeing offer some prospect of a prosperous household and foundation for civil society. The emblems of Virgilian verse—plow and wain and harvest, wonderfully relate agrarian experience as a restorative moral obligation. Prospect of the beneficial labor and contemplation they represent to foster kindness, moderation, and peace of mind in the face of life’s challenges would inspire artists and authors for generations to come.

 

(160-165)

“Now to tell

The sturdy rustics’ weapons, what they are,

Without which, neither can be sown nor reared

The fruits of harvest; first the bent plow’s share

And heavy timber, and slow-lumbering wains

Of the Eleusinian mother, threshing-sleighs….

And drags, and harrows with the crushing weight;   

Then the cheap wicker-ware of Celusius old….”

 

(313-318)

“When Spring the rain-bringer comes rushing down,

Or when the beards of harvest on the plain

Bristle already, and the milky grain

On its green stalk is swelling? Many a time,

When the farmer to his yellow fields

The reaping-hind came bringing, even in act

To lop the brittle barley stems, have I

Seen the all the windy legions clash in war….”

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 5)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


Angelic Reapers, Lord of the Harvest

Jesus himself enjoins gleaning in Mark 2:23-26 when, “One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.” Although the Pharisees condemn this act as unlawful for taking place on the Sabbath, Jesus uses their reaction to remind His followers of God’s provision: David had consumed consecrated bread for his own sustenance and that of his friends. “The Sabbath was made for man,” Jesus says, “not man for the Sabbath.” In an explanation to the Corinthians on the mystery of resurrection, Paul likens the buried dead to seeded kernels of wheat: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain” (I Corinthians 15:36-37). Life in a grain seed tangibly shows forth hope against pagan whispers of ultimate twilight.

The life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth has many associations with the symbolic and cultural significance of life-giving grain which was expressed in Old and New Testament accounts and religious observances by the Early Church. The words of the Isaiah recorded seven centuries before Christ’s birth and often quoted at Christmas time (Isaiah 9:2-6) prophesy, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given...” that would bring rejoicing “as with joy at the harvest.” Luke’s Gospel relates the familiar details of “shepherds out in the fields” at the time of Christ’s birth and Mary and Joseph’s placing the child in a manger built for hay and grain to feed livestock. Rural folk throughout the ages have identified with these humble circumstances which many believers also see as emblematic of spiritual blessing available by faith without regard to status. The story continues to inspire. A Handful of Straw, a 1958 collection of verse by Florence Hynet Willette, features the popular Catholic country poet’s All Nature Labored:

Some man in his few acres scattered seed

And scythed and flailed it as of ancient law;

And unaware how hallowed was the deed

Bedded his stable with the broken straw.

No lodgings at the inn… but here were rest

And humbler shelter; here were kine and sheep

To warm the chill about the strawy nest

Whereon the newborn Child lay hushed in sleep

 

Christ’s appearance on earth is accompanied by the Bethlehem star, “the heavenly host,” and “God in the highest.” These associations with “things that are above” represent a fundamental redirection from other ancient people’s religious preoccupation with underworlds and spiritual access through rank and priestly intermediaries. Christ’s agrarian parables introduced other important distinctions of the new faith that liken spiritual truth to grain, fields, harvest, and reapers. The Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30) left the Disciples wondering about the story’s meaning, which led to the Master’s interpretation: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are the angels” (Matthew 13:36-39).

Attributed to G. Eric Matson,  In the Field of Boaz near Bethlehem  (c. 1930);   Glass negative, 5 x 7 inches;   G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Attributed to G. Eric Matson, In the Field of Boaz near Bethlehem (c. 1930); Glass negative, 5 x 7 inches; G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With these words, Jesus ascribes apocalyptic significance to harvest as a time of fearsome judgement when the wheat (believers) shall be winnowed from the chaff (evildoers) to consummate the age. The Apocalypse of John suggests a related scene: “Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat upon the cloud, ‘Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe” (Revelation 14:14-15). Emphasis of this duality using familiar terms to relate profound spiritual concepts appealed to many first century listeners of the Christian message. Wheat and weeds, chaff and grain, and light and darkness brought new meanings about good and evil to the lives of the oppressed, and to others as well. The emergent spiritual egalitarianism empowered commoners with a sense of personal authority that had long been the realm of high priests, pharaohs, kings, and emperors.

Persecution of early Christians along with destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD led many believers to think that God’s final judgement was imminent. Repression of the new faith was widespread for at least two more centuries and Jews were dispersed throughout the empire. As Christians fled to other regions to pursue occupations other than farming, some traditional agrarian aspects of the Jewish Feast of the Harvest—Christian Pentecost, and other festivals were replaced with other ways of commemoration and sometimes at other times given seasonal variations in different places. Yet amidst relocation and acculturation, the dichotomy of good and evil in sowing grain amidst tares, winnowing seed from chaff, and consuming fire or secure barn remained a vital aspect of Christian worldview. American Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon writes of bread as the great sacrament of life made possible only through death: “Unless the seed has died there would have been no wheat; unless the wheat had been ground, no flour; …and without the finishing off of the bread by you and me, no accomplished us at all. But the crucial point is that without this whole tissue of deaths at every moment, there simply would be nothing.”

Mattias Scheits and François Halma, “Discourse of the Lord Jesus on the Heads of Wheat”;    Tableux de Vieux et Nouveau Testament    (Amsterdam, 1710);   Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Mattias Scheits and François Halma, “Discourse of the Lord Jesus on the Heads of Wheat”; Tableux de Vieux et Nouveau Testament (Amsterdam, 1710); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

In addition to providing insight into spiritual mysteries, the harvest metaphor is also invoked in the Gospels to inspire the Disciples and other converts to share their faith and explain anticipated hostile responses. Following his rejection in a Samaritan village, Luke records that Jesus commissioned the seventy-two witnesses in terms they could readily comprehend: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest. Go your way; behold I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:2-3). In James, the ill-gotten wealth of the privileged few through exploitation of the laboring masses is further phrased in terms that equate justice with the Christian message: “Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. …Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:3-5).

Considerable commentary on these and other verses with agrarian imagery is found in the writings of Tertullian (c. 155-c. 240 AD), Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), and other Early Church Fathers who saw Christian martyrdom as the ultimate sacrifice of faithful workers for the kyrios therismou (Lord of the Harvest). The letters and sermons of Augustine and others provided dynamic narrative to the secular experience of all believers and in preparation of the coming judgement when the angels would reap humanity in the End Times and winnow out the tares of heresy and unrighteousness from the good grain. Reference in these writings to the sickle as a threatening instrument of death and judgement would carry powerful connotations in western literature and art. So, too, would cares for comfort in this world, characterized by Augustine as “the anxieties of an ill-ordered life” in his sermon on Luke’s plentiful harvest: What is more miserable, than by caring for life, to lose Life? What more unhappy, than by fearing death, to fall into death? Let the thorns be rooted up, the field prepared, the seeds put in; let them grow unto the harvest, let the barns be longed for, not the fire feared.” 

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 4)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


Sacred Ways and Field Labors

Recent studies of earthenware ostracha from the fortress of Arad near the Dead Sea discovered in the 1960s date to approximately 600 BC during the reign of King Jehoiakim (II Kings 24) and reveal the prevalence of grain, flour, and bread deliveries along with wine and oil to the remotest desert reaches of the Kingdom of Judah. Written in ancient Hebrew using the Aramaic alphabet, these pottery shards served as vouchers presented to the commander to issue supplies from the fort’s storehouses. The Prophet Ezekiel served as a priest among the Jewish exiles to Babylon during this period and makes specific reference to wheat, emmer, barley, lentils, and other crops (e.g., 4:16, 5:16) in the context of early references to the “staff of bread,” which was life’s great sustainer in the ancient world. Basic units of common linear measurement owe their origin to grain; as the length of two barley kernels represented the Old Testament “finger-breadth” of three-tenths of an inch, twenty-four were an eight-inch “span,” and forty-eight a “cubit” of sixteen inches.

Anglican scholar-priest Rev. Philip Carrington (1892-1975), Metropolitan of Canada, undertook extensive study on the relationship between the first century arrangement of Mark’s gospel into a lectionary series that relates the ancient Jewish ritual year and Galilean lunar agricultural cycle to key events in the life of Christ. Carrington proposes that this sequence of Christ’s public Galilean ministry—the culmination of his life on earth, involving the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Seed-time and Harvest Parables, and other agrarian-related discourses and happenings significantly shaped the “Primitive Christian Calendar” that in turn gave rise to the Early Church’s liturgical calendar. 

In commentary on Mark’s culminating New Testament message of resurrection, Carrington writes of the “mystical and symbolical way of thought which was natural to men at that time, and found expression in art and poetry and ritual and drama and religion. In the springtime life returns from the underworld in leaves and grasses and flowers; when the harvest comes, it is cut down in the shape of fruit and grain; it dies, but it will come again. Such is the destiny of man. Old Nature, who is the mother of mankind, reflects on her many-coloured drama on the destiny of her divine son. Such is the truth that underlies the old way of thought.” Carrington concludes that the culture of the disciples was connected to the old festivals, and that their memories “would tend to arrange themselves in the order of the Calendar Year; and seeing that the Lord chose to express himself in these surroundings in the terms of the old agricultural and festal mysticism. And, if so, we may ourselves enter into the tradition and gain some understanding of it, not merely by literary and critical study along these lines, but by passing through the devotional course of the Christian Year, as it has come down to us in the Church.”

Agricultural laws that guided ancient Hebrew spiritual and civil life are described in the third century AD Mishnaic collection of oral traditions and include blessings for foods and landowner obligations to provide produce for the Levites of the temple, priests, and the poor. In a medieval commentary on Jewish piety, Hokhmat ha-Nefesh, Rabbi Elezar Ben Judah of Worms (c. 1126-1238) celebrated the Hebrew agrarian ideal: “God created the world so all should live in pleasantness, that all shall be equal, that one should not lord over the other, and that all may cultivate the land.” Faith-based perspectives on creation stewardship were expressed by 16th century French theologian John Calvin: “The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that… we should take care of what remains. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly yield, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence, but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated.”

Correlation of Ancient Ritual and Agricultural Calendars with Crop Sequences,   GC: Gezer Calendar, HR: Hebrew Ritual, PC: Primitive Christian

Correlation of Ancient Ritual and Agricultural Calendars with Crop Sequences, GC: Gezer Calendar, HR: Hebrew Ritual, PC: Primitive Christian

American Country Life Movement leader Liberty Hyde Bailey elaborated on this ethic in his 1915 classic, The Holy Earth: “If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly and with care that we do not despoil it….. We are to consider it religiously: ‘Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ …I do not mean all this, for our modern world, in any vague or abstract way. If the earth is holy, then the things that grow out of the earth are also holy.” A landowner’s obligation as steward of the earth’s bounty also extended to the less fortunate. One of the earliest biblical references to gleaning (Leviticus 23:22) appears in instructions on the principal Hebrew feasts and ritual thank offering (Todah) of the first grain harvest sheaves to be waved and presented to the priests: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.” From these and related Mosaic references (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:19), Jewish laws developed that were fundamentally different than prevailing customs in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world where such rights were not extended to the poor. These customs guided the process of gleaning, a practice that still continues in some rural areas of Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East. (English “glean” is from Anglo-French glener, “to collect, gather,” a word derived from Latin glennāre which is probably of Celtic origin.)

Old Testament prohibitions of representational art influenced the rich expression of literary imagery in Hebrew literature. While Greek aesthetics were occupied with spatial unity and static forms of sculpture, the Hebrew mind understood God as the ideal so such literature often incorporates mixed metaphors for more tactile expressions of meaning, often in the context of agrarian experience that marked the seasons with times and festivals for planting, harvest, threshing, and winnowing. One of the finest examples is the c. 10th century BC story of Ruth which relates her rescue by a kinsman-redeemer, Boaz, after her travels to the land of her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the aftermath of famine in Israel. The author’s imagery is as much about Hebrew culture as theological doctrine, and forthrightly describes the women’s sojourn, fidelity, and redemption amidst opening scenes that follow the workers’ harvest: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of field belonging to Boaz...” (Ruth 2:2-3).

Crusader (Maciejowski) Bible (c. 1240s); illuminated vellum, 15 ⅓ x 11 ⅘ inches;   Left: Folio 6— An Ironic Turn of Events  (Genesis 42), with Joseph supplying his brothers with grain (top right);   Center: Folio 12— Gideon, Most Valiant of Men  (Judges 6), with Gideon threshing wheat (bottom left);   Right: Folio 17— Ruth Meets Boaz  (Ruth 2), with reapers cutting grain followed by Ruth gleaning (top right);   The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Crusader (Maciejowski) Bible (c. 1240s); illuminated vellum, 15 ⅓ x 11 ⅘ inches; Left: Folio 6—An Ironic Turn of Events (Genesis 42), with Joseph supplying his brothers with grain (top right); Center: Folio 12—Gideon, Most Valiant of Men (Judges 6), with Gideon threshing wheat (bottom left); Right: Folio 17—Ruth Meets Boaz (Ruth 2), with reapers cutting grain followed by Ruth gleaning (top right); The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Early Modern Woodcuts of Ruth and Boaz;   Left to right: Gerard de Jode (1585); Mattias Scheits and François Halma (1710);   Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Early Modern Woodcuts of Ruth and Boaz; Left to right: Gerard de Jode (1585); Mattias Scheits and François Halma (1710); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Beneath the familiar tale rests a complex doubling motif in theme and between poor and rich, women and men, and threshing and waiting. The interplay is evident throughout the narrative and poetic couplets to amplify the contrast between destitution and bounty. The famine experienced by Naomi and her family was in Bethlehem—literally “House of Bread,” but her sons perish in Moab, the land of bounty. Divine deliverance is timeless and confounds human reason. Cereal provisions were an important indication of blessing. Wheat (hittim) and barley (s’orim) breads likely made up almost half of the Hebrew diet and was served in some form at virtually every meal that also may have featured parched or boiled grains in mixtures with fruits and in gruels. The ubiquity of wholesome grains in Ruth throughout the Bible speaks of their nutritional, intellectual, and spiritual significance in Hebrew culture. Harvest time happenings, familiar to most any inhabitant of Moab or Judah, provide the context for lessons on how God provides deliverance to the ordinary faithful in a world of injustice and chaos.

The short four-chapter book’s timeless theme of redemption from deprivation and distress to promise of new life has inspired generations of believers, authors, and artists with styles ranging from the Baroque formalism of Barent Pietersz Fabritius to Marc Chagall’s richly flowing Surrealism. An early 14th century Jewish prayer book from Germany illustrates Ruth’s story in lush gold, red, and blue tones. Although the scene depicts the grain rakes, threshing flails, and clothing of medieval Europe, it faithfully depicts Boaz’s care and the blessing of the harvest. Thomas Rooke’s idealist 19th century interpretation shows the couple and Naomi as they might have appeared in the garb of ancient times, but other renderings like Jean-François Millet’s evocative Harvesters Resting (1850) are cast in settings of the artists’ lifetimes to suggest the ancient story’s abiding relevance.

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 3)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


Master of the Threshing Floor

The Hebrew Scriptures offer two related guiding principles for humanity’s sacred relationship to the land and its bounty: (1) The earth is holy and belongs to God (e.g., Psalm 24:1); and (2) people are to cultivate it responsibly (Genesis 2:15). The “four heads” of Eden’s rivers mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis, including the Tigris (Hiddekel), Euphrates, and Kārun (Gihon) conform to the geography of the Persian Gulf when Neolithic sea levels were significantly lower than today. University of Missouri archaeologist Juris Zarins suggests that the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden offers explicit description of its location and represents plausible explanation of agricultural origins in Mesopotamia. These vital systems provided fertile floodplains and water needed to sustain ancient cereal grains mentioned on one of Israel’s oldest inscriptions, the thirteenth century BC Gezer Calendar tablet. Reference in Isaiah (28:25) to wheat “in rows,” barley “in its proper place,” and emmer “as the border,” may imply the ordered significance of these vital grains to the Hebrew diet. Emmer’s significance lives on in its name—derived from Old Saxon, amer, or “hulled [grain],” and Hebrew Em ha Hitah, the “Mother Wheat” of Old Testament Israel. Jericho’s walls were erected in part to protect the city’s granaries which held stockpiles of primitive emmer and einkorn wheats and bearded barley.

Many of the ancient world’s earliest settlements from Egypt to the Caucasus and Central Asia arose as centers of grain storage and trade, and the colorful wheat marketplaces still found in places from Cairo and Aleppo to Bukhara and Samarkand contribute the vitality of their historic “old city” environs. On an early twentieth century collecting trip to wheat market in Basra, near the location of ancient Sumer in present Iraq, USDA plant explorer David Fairchild found a vendor of Kārun, an exceptional bread wheat said by locals to have come from the Garden of Eden. Here at Palouse Heritage we are restoring that ancient landrace grain.

Old Testament writers invoked agrarian imagery familiar to ancient readers and hearers to express spiritual truths through metaphors of grain to represent blessing (e.g., Genesis 27:28, Deuteronomy 33:28) and harvest for the abundance of the land (Genesis 26:12, Psalm 144:13). Grain was cut by sickles in armfuls and either piled for transport by cart to stacks near outdoor threshing floors (Amos 2:13), or bound into sheaves as Joseph mentioned when explaining his fateful dream to his brothers in Genesis 37. (Knowles Shaw’s popular nineteenth century hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” is derived from Psalm 126:6.) Kernels were separated by hand with a flail (Judges 6:11), trampled out by oxen (Deuteronomy 25:4), or by dragging a heavy cart, flint-studded slab of wood, or cylindrical stone (Isaiah 28:27-28). Grain was winnowed, or cleaned, by tossing the mass into the wind with a wooden fork or shovel “fan” (Jeremiah 15:7), as the heavier kernels fell into a pile and ground into meal and flour by women using small handmills.

Numerous references in both Old and New Testaments associate the threshing floor with divine judgment while winnowing signifies the process of spiritual purification. The great religious significance of these essential harvest endeavors is related by some biblical scholars to the divine command to King David (II Chronicles 21) to set up an altar and later establish the First (Solomon’s) Temple upon the threshing floor of Ornan (Arauna) the Jebusite on Mt. Moriah. The location would become Israel’s sacred Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

“Now the angel of the Lord had commanded [the prophet] Gad to say to David that David should go up and raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. So David went up at Gad’s word, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord. Now Ornan was threshing wheat. …And David said to Ornan, ‘Give me the site of the threshing floor that I may build on it an altar to the Lord—give it to me at its full price….’ Then Ornan said to David, ‘Take it, and let my lord the king do what seems good to him. See, I give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for the wood and the wheat for a grain offering; I will give it all’’ (vs. 18-20, 22-23).

Threshing floors were typically set up on high, level ground to avail laborers to open air winds for winnowing kernels from the chaff, and to better protect the threshed grain from looting. Similar locations commonly served as places of sacred altars and groves in the ancient world. Like some biblical scholars, English artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827), who was himself given to mystical visions, saw special meaning in Ornan’s beneficence at a time of the year’s most pressing obligations and his willing surrender of such valuable property. (II Chronicles 21:25 relates that David insisted on purchasing the threshing floor from Ornan for the substantial sum of 600 shekels of gold.) During his last twenty-five years, Blake sought to complete The Last Judgement, an ambitious, detailed rendering of characters from Scripture whose lives represented the journey of each soul throughout a lifetime as representative of humanity’s struggle amidst the forces of good and evil throughout history.

William Blake, The Last Judgement (detail, c. 1809); Ornan the Jebusite holding basket at lower far right; Pen and ink with wash over graphite on paper, 17 ¾ x 13 ⅝ inches; National Gallery of Art

William Blake, The Last Judgement (detail, c. 1809); Ornan the Jebusite holding basket at lower far right; Pen and ink with wash over graphite on paper, 17 ¾ x 13 ⅝ inches; National Gallery of Art

“The nature of visionary fancy or imagination is very little known,” wrote Blake in commentary on this master work, “and the eternal nature and permanence of its ever-existent image is considered no less permanent than things of vegetative and generative nature. …[A plant’s] eternal image and individuality never dies, but renews by seed. Just so the imaginative image returns by the seed of contemplative thought. The writings of the prophets illustrate these conceptions… by their various divine and sublime images.” To exemplify “the vanities of riches and worldly honors,” Blake included in The Last Judgement the figure of Ornan the Jebusite, master of the threshing floor, who is seen among the faithful preparing to empty out a basket of such fruit.

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 2)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


“A King’s Estate” and the Eleusian Fields

Anthropologist Clark Wissler observes that distribution of bread in ancient Egypt was the principal reason civil administration first developed, and that association of life-giving bread with spirituality has been a central tenet of western religions. Homer’s eighth century BC description of a summer harvest in the Iliad (Book 18) is remarkable not only for being the first known reference to grain harvesting in Western literature, but for aptly describing with spectacular imagery the method commonly used for cutting grain that continued well into the modern era. The account describes the magnificent shield forged by Hephaestus for Achilles that featured a microcosm of the Greek year including a recitation of cooperative summertime harvest labors.

Elsewhere in Homer’s epic the imagery of sickle, reap, and harvest is used for the familiar martial metaphor in ancient literature for weaponry, battle and death. The context of the episode is the Trojan attack led by noble Hector on Odysseus’ invading Greeks. A great shield is again featured, this time belonging to Hector, which blazed out “like the Dog Star through the clouds, all withering fire” in another allusion to harvest. The appearance of Sirius in the summer sky appeared at harvest time in the Mediterranean so was laden with great mythic significance given the prospect of abundance or disaster depending on such elemental conditions as pestilence and weather during the critically intense few weeks of harvest.

Otto Magnus von Stackelberg, Eleusian Fields on the Rharian Plain (Lithograph on paper, 9 ½ x 13 ⅗ inches), La Grèce: Vues pittoresques et topographiques (Paris, 1834)

Otto Magnus von Stackelberg, Eleusian Fields on the Rharian Plain (Lithograph on paper, 9 ½ x 13 ⅗ inches), La Grèce: Vues pittoresques et topographiques (Paris, 1834)

In Greek mythology, Demeter (literally “Grain Mother,” Roman “Ceres”) related to humanity the means to domesticate cereal crops in the Eleusian Fields on ancient Attica’s Rharian Plain near Athens, legendary home of humanity’s first harvest. Demeter’s origin is mysterious as this maternal archetype was not native to the Greece mainland, but had been adopted into the Olympian pantheon with her etiological myth explaining seasonal change. Like her nourishing grains, Demeter had come from the eastern Mediterranean to share life-giving blessings at the dawn of classical civilization. She was kindred spirit to Phoenician Cybele and Egypt’s Isis—inspiration for Walt Whitman’s celebrated 1856 “Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of Wheat.”

“Great Eleusinian Stele” of Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone (c. 440 BC). From the original Pentalic marble, 86 x 59 inches. Discovered at Eleusis in 1859, now at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens Otto Seemann, Grekernas och romanes mytologi (1881).

“Great Eleusinian Stele” of Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone (c. 440 BC). From the original Pentalic marble, 86 x 59 inches. Discovered at Eleusis in 1859, now at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens Otto Seemann, Grekernas och romanes mytologi (1881).

Demeter spurned wine at Eleusis for sacred kykeôn, the divine “mixture” of infused grain and herbs that strengthened the Iliad’s adventurers and refreshed Eleusian pilgrims at autumnal rites practiced in Athens and elsewhere from at least 800 BC to 300 AD. The ancient myths had both spiritual and terrestrial dimensions that tempered humanity’s martial tendencies. “History celebrates the battlefield wherein we meet our death,” French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre observed (1918), “but it scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive.” American Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant expressed the theme of deliverance through divine sacrifice in “Song of the Sower” (1864).

Sacred virtues of self-sacrifice bring renewal and sustain the spirit; and the practical science of tillage, seeding, and harvest sustains the body and demands the discipline of timely labor. Democratic Athens was heavily populated and reliant on trade in grain to provision its populace. Aristotle, Demosthenes, and other ancient sources contain considerable reference to state supervision of wheat and barley prices, the special status of Athenian magistrates responsible for the grain supply (sitophulakes), and recurrent priority of such matters on the Assembly’s agenda. Visual depictions of grain harvests and other farming endeavors on sculpture, vases, or other forms, however, are paradoxically rare which suggests that those who could afford such luxuries had greater decorative interest in heroic myth than in idealized or realistic country scenes.  

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 1)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


The advent of grain foods cannot be dated with precision, but archaeological evidence indicates humans in eastern Africa mixed crushed grain with water to form gruel as early as 100,000 years ago. Cooking on heated stones, with embers, and by other primitive means enabled the roasting and toasting of grains to enhance flavors, but the revolutionary advent of fire-resistant earthenware pots in the Middle East by the eighth millennium BC fostered a significant advancement in human nutrition, culture, and population growth. Grains boiled in water made possible a savory array of pottages, soups, and stews, with the softened food especially benefiting the very young and elderly. No culinary advance since the invention of earthenware has had such a salutary effect on cooking methods.

Enduring methods of gathering crops from the Neolithic past to relatively modern times involved use of sickles to cut stands of wheat, barley, and other grains that were harvested at least 10,000 years ago in the Karaca Dağ region of southern Turkey and throughout Mesopotamia. The oldest extant complete sickle, fashioned with sharpened flints about 9,000 years ago and found in the Nahal Hemar Cavenear the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley, is held by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. First made of flints embedded into animal jawbones with cypress resin and honey, cast metal sickles began to appear during the Middle Bronze Age about 2,000 BC. The advent of this revolutionary tool helped spur humanity’s agricultural revolution that gave rise to civilizations by providing reliable food supplies and facilitating city life.

Cultivation of cereal grains has been integral to humanity’s advance since time immemorial. Cereals, named for the Roman goddess of fertility, Ceres, are not only nutritious but also adaptable to a wide range of climates and soil conditions. The ancestral range of modern cereal grains stretched along the Fertile Crescent from the Anatolian slopes of southeastern Turkey—where locals believe Adam first tilled the ground, eastward across the Transcaucasus and Mesopotamia to Kashmir and south to Ethiopia. This vast region is notable for long, hot summers and mild, moist winters which was ideal for the emergence of large-seeded cereals that became the principal foods sources that fueled human expansion throughout the world. The advent of grain cultivation coincided with animal husbandry as villagers sought to prevent creatures of horn and hoof from damaging grain fields by domesticating them. These developments spurred the Neolithic Revolution in Upper Mesopotamia approximately 9000 BC and represented the key breakthrough in civilization leading to food surpluses and the rise of settled, urban populations.

By 5000 BC these primitive self-pollinating plants—capable of evolving more rapidly than any other known organism, had spread along the Mediterranean coast to the Iberian Peninsula and north of the Caucasus Mountains. Some two thousand years later wheat reached the British Isles. Dispersion of cereal grains by wind, animals, and other natural processes was inexorable if slow—perhaps a thousand yards per year on average. Successive plant selections by early farmers led to earlier maturing stands. These native landrace wheats gained a foothold in central Europe and Scandinavia by about 3000 BC via the Danube, Rhine, and Dnieper river valleys. Humanity’s original farmers were most likely women of Neolithic times who tended hearth, home, and hoe while men ranged widely to hunt diminishing herds, first selected grains for kernel size and heads that were less susceptible to normal shattering.

These prehistoric stands of grain were cut by early agriculturalists yielding bone sickles embedded with obsidian blades sharper than later serrated metal versions that date to at least 2000 BC in the Middle Bronze Age. Agricultural folklorist and artist Eric Sloan considered the crescent-shaped sickle to be “the most aesthetically designed implement to have evolved from a thousand subtle variations” over millennia. Anthropologist Loren Eiseley imagines a proto-agrarian scene—likely one of many, when immense prehistoric creatures of horn and hoof still roamed the Levantine valleys, Anatolian highlands, and beyond: “[T]he hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively. In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand.”

Novelist James Michener personifies the experience, surely rediscovered separately innumerable times throughout the prehistoric Middle East, in The Source, which opens along a Galilean wadi near the Mediterranean coast in the early tenth century BC. The Family of Ur is one of six in a clan that separates in the fall for the men’s annual boar hunt while the women remain near their makeshift fictional village of Makor. Here Ur’s wife considers their recent conversation about the wild wheat that has long supplemented their diet: “By holding back some of the harvest and keeping it dry in a pouch of deerskin, the grains could be planted purposefully in the spring and the wheat could be made to grow exactly where and when it was needed, and with this discovery the family of Ur moved close to the beginnings of a self-sufficient society. They did not know it, but if a food supply could be insured, the speed of change would be almost unbelievable: within a few thousand years cities would be feasible and civilizations too.”

Through the woman’s revolutionary experience, Michener further ponders the profound ramifications of these events for world religion, social structure, and the environment. He then turns to Ur’s apprehension of his wife’s prescient labors: “In his new apotheosis as [land]owner Ur began to bring new fields into cultivation…. Men of the Family of Ur had always possessed an intuitive sense of the land, and now it was the reluctant farmer who discovered one of the essential mysteries of the earth on which all subsequent agriculture would depend….” The family’s primitive agrarian endeavors soon lead by trial and error to awareness of the grain’s need for adequate water and fertile soil. These experiences laid the foundation of an agrarian savvy that would be carried down for several hundred generations until the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution and population expansion presented farmers with unprecedented new conditions of challenge and opportunity.

These first farmers also came to prefer “free-threshing” stands that better enabled separation of kernels from their “hooded” husks.  Among several dozen other ancient plant candidates for cultivation, these transitional grain species offered other significant benefits including flavor and nutrition, availability, storage, and portability. In these ways, wheat genotypes gradually came to grow more uniformly around early settlements from Egypt and the Jordan River Valley to Mesopotamia and across the Eurasian steppe to Manchuria. Grains grew for millennia across these landscapes amidst a mélange of irregular “off-types,” wildflowers, grasses, and other plants. Yields improved significantly following the advent of the plow about two thousand years ago, and varieties that descended from these ancient grains have come today to supply nearly one-third of humanity’s nutritional needs. Earliest examples of Sumerian cuneiform dating to c. 3000 BC at tells in Iraq show pictographs that eventually led to written language. Many of these baked clay tablets are inventories related to grain harvests, storage, and transactions. Procurement and trade in cereal grains were key factors in the growth of ancient empires and the organization of Mesopotamian and Egyptian political institutions.

The earliest pictorial expressions of harvest are from Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2100 BC) when unification of Upper and Lower Egypt led to a flowering of culture and architecture in grand monuments like the mortuary complexes at Thebes and Memphis in the fertile Nile Valley. The necropolis of Saqqara near the kingdom’s capital at Memphis contains the exceptionally well-preserved Fifth Dynasty mastaba of Ty, an official of the royal household, whose tomb contains an exquisitely decorated chapel. The room’s north wall contains ten rows of detailed paintings with accompanying hieroglyphics that depict the sequence of the harvest season (Shemu) from March to May of flax, barley, and wheat, and subsequent grain threshing, winnowing, and storage.

“Cutting and Carrying the Harvest” (Egyptian Old Kingdom Paintings, c. 2400 BC), Henri Faucher-Gudin (after a photograph by Johannes Dümichen), Gaston Maspero, History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria (London, 1903)

“Cutting and Carrying the Harvest” (Egyptian Old Kingdom Paintings, c. 2400 BC), Henri Faucher-Gudin (after a photograph by Johannes Dümichen), Gaston Maspero, History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria (London, 1903)

The spectacular images of Egyptian harvests are significant for their literal depictions of ancient Nile harvests and grain processing, and for the more profound religious meanings represented in such art. In the case of Ty’s mastaba reliefs, which show evidence in style and colors as the work of a master, viewers can appreciate the complexity of ancient farming operations that reveal various field operations and the division of labor required to bring them to completion. In the opening barley harvest panel, eight men wield broad-bladed sickles in their right hands while clasping the stems with their left, and a worker follows to gather and stack the cuttings. The next scene more clearly shows the characteristic lighter shade and shorter stalks of barley that attest to the artist’s attention to botanical authenticity. A flutist and cantor are also seen accompanying the reapers in order to provide rhythm and pace to such strenuous labor. The hieroglyph of an upright bearded grain spike appears in the next panel of workers and sheaves to indicate harvest of emmer wheat, the most valuable Egyptian crops for making bread. The next row shows men under the watchful eye of an overseer placing the stacks of sheaves into netted bags for transport to nearby threshing floors by donkey—a beast of burden widely used in the Egyptian countryside to this day.

The brief hieroglyphic interjections that accompany these images may be the work of the artist, but may well be by another artisan. The symbols conjure thoughts of commotion and shouting more than any measured routine accompanied by clapping and music. The terms used include “beat,” “hurry,” and “drive them.” The next threshing floor scene seems chaotic as men struggle to lead separate teams of oxen and donkeys around the circle to trample out the precious grain from the mass of stalks. Coordinating the animals’ variable pace and distances, cleaning up behind them, and recurrent removal of threshed cuttings to maximize efficiency required substantial coordination and stamina. Women appear in the subsequent winnowing scene to clean the grain by tossing the threshings into the wind, while other workers scoop the kernels into bags for transport to storage silos. Most of the men are lightly clad in loincloths though some have kilt-like garments, while the women use scarves to tie up their hair and wear loincloths and transparent dresses held up by shoulder straps. The tools of harvest shown in the panels are similar to those that would be widely used throughout the world until the twentieth century—sickles, rakes, and pitchforks to reap and thresh, and sieves, brooms, and scoops to clean and store.

In a metaphoric sense, such magnificent art that decorated tombs, monuments, and public buildings in ancient Egypt also bore profound cosmological significance since the primal association between human existence and agrarian experience harkens back to the dawn of civilization. Ideas about life and eternity found expression in priestly ceremonies and sacred writings like Egypt’s agricultural Coffin Texts and book The Coming Forth by Day (also known as the Book of the Dead). The implements of cultivation, tools for harvest, and means of transport variously found in tombs at places like Memphis represent the mystical course undertaken through just living and proper burial. These stages honored since time immemorial include birth (seeding and germination), growth (hoeing and weeding), and death (reaping and threshing) to afterlife in the underworld’s flax and grain Fields of Hotep (boats to the place of “contentment”).

Death was celebrated as the ultimate “harvest of life” symbolized in ancient times by a reaper’s sickle. At the pinnacle of the kingdom’s highly stratified society, the pharaoh represented the vital pulse of this cosmic consciousness in each generation and honored throughout the seasons in agrarian-based religious rituals. Cultural patterns and religious understandings are evident in similar ways in Mesopotamia and in Greek and Roman religious traditions. Yet these ancient societies existed without proscribed moral obligations for the ruling class and landowners to care for the poor by permitting practices like field gleaning. To be sure, agricultural workers were valued for the essential labor they provided, but not in the Hebrew sense that, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and the Levitical code affirming the right to glean not only to the people of Israel, but to the “sojourner” (i. e., foreigners) as well.