Greece

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 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.