2. The Harvest

Without question the most gruelling of the year's tasks, the wheat harvest is conducted fifteen days after the harvest of the barley crop, which occurs in mid-May. [1] The whole of June is devoted to reaping, and presumably for this reason the month is also called 'The Harvester' (Θεριστής). [2] The harvest schedule is rigorous, requiring the farmers and their families to rise at dawn and work in the heat for a total of nearly ten hours, until sundown. Understandably, the days are said to be πεντεπέαγα [3] —i.e., as trying as a voyage on five turbulent seas—since the reaping begins at twilight and extends until nightfall. The relevant proverbs paint a rather grim picture of the season: the farmer, plainly, must work with more than his usual vigor, for next year's bread supply is at stake: [4]
Ἄγ γιωρκᾶς μαρκαριτάριν
οὗλα πᾶν εἰς τὸ σιτάριν.

Even if you grow a pearl,
you still have to devote your
energy to wheat.

Ἄμ ὁ βασιλιᾶς ἔμ’ πίσω
ἔν’ οὗλα πίσω.

If the King [5] is bad,
everything is bad.

Ὁ βοῦς ἂδ δὲν ἁλώνεβκεν
ὁ νηὸς ἂδ δὲν ἐθέριζεν
κ’ ἡ κόρη ἂδ δὲν ἐγένναν
ποττέ τους δὲν ἐγέρναν.

If the ox didn't thresh,
if the young man didn't harvest,
and the young woman didn't give birth,
then they'd never grow old.
A few days before the actual harvest, the harvesters' wives approach the neighboring householders, who often happen to be tenants-in-common, and enlist reapers. The villagers volunteer their services in return for the promise of reciprocal help (’λληνοβούθειο). Often women harvesters (θερίστρες) are hired as an additional force and paid a bushel a day. [6] If their wheat crop is not within convenient distance of their homes, the villagers evacuate their towns en masse and move to the outlying fields. In fact, such large-scale movements are common during the harvest, with villages turned into virtual ghost towns and the countryside converted into a camping ground. These make-shift settlements are usually located near a water supply, which is crucial for the watering of animals.
The harvest itself is a family enterprise, with the husbands reaping and the wives and children following behind as a team of auxiliary reapers. Especially welcome—on the principle that white clothing augurs a clean crop—are the girls sporting white headbands (ἀσπρομάντηλα κορίτσια). The harvest begins at dawn, [7] when the stalks are still damp with dew and more easily cut. An early start will ensure a few hours of relatively comfortable work; after 10 o'clock the heat scorches. The ἔργον (ergon, or 'work') [8] of the day becomes a veritable race against time, since the farmer must accomplish much of his work before the onset of the midday heat and finish by nightfall. Many harvesters, in fact, motivate their own speedy work by racing against each other. The reapers, spaced between two and three meters (seven and ten feet) apart, advance in a horizontal row while the binders—one to each reaper—follow in suit. Careful to mow with his back to the wind while facing the stalks, [9] the harvester, as Argenti and Rose note, [10] "grasps a handful of stalks (χερόβολο) [11] in his left hand and cuts them with his sickle some three inches above the ground; the stubble (ράπη) they use for fodder. Having cut this handful, he throws it down behind him, grasps and cuts another in the same manner, and so on. At the same time, a woman or child picks up the fallen handfuls, collects ten or twelve of them into a little bundle (ἀγκαλιά, or 'armload'), and binds them. Four of these armloads are put together side by side and then bound into shocks (δεμάτια). [12] In these shocks, the ears do not always all point in the same direction; the bundles are often put in pairs with the ears pointing in opposite directions." As a rule, however, the ears point in the same direction, especially when the stalks are healthy. [13] The year's first δεμάτι is taken to the threshing-floor (ἁλώνι) as a sign of the harvest in progress. Superstition requires that a patch of the last field should be left unmown; if mown, this section, which also represents the field's own portion of the θέρος, forebodes a lean crop. At the end of the harvest the stalks are transported by ass or oxen to the western corner of the threshing-floor [14] and laid one upon another to form a heap (θεμωνιά).
Reaping, nonetheless, has more in store for the farmer than mere drudgery. Old Θεριστής proves to be an occasion for song—and communal banter and gossip and flirtation besides. The sheer physical pressures are doubtless apt to send one off singing; moreover, certain songs are performed specifically to keep the beat (πάτημα) of the sickle blows. For instance, the women reapers of Rhodes are known to sing while working:
Ἄκις καὶ πῶς θὲ νὰ γενῶ τὸ φετεινὸ τὸ χρόνο,
πού ν’ τὰ χωράφια μας πολλὰ κὶ’ ὁ ἀφέντης μου ’ναι γέρος!

Ah, what will become of me this year,
now that our fields are many and my husband-master [or employer] is old!
Various καταλόγια [15] (katalogia) and, interestingly enough, μοιρολόγια (mirologia , or 'laments') [16] frequently accompany the harvest throughout Greece. And a harvest song common to most regions of Greece suggests that male reapers entertain romantic thoughts at work:
Γένηκαν τὰ γεννήματα, γέμ, καί
μπαίνω νὰ θερίσω,
πέρδικα νὰ σὲ φιλήσω.

The crops have ripened, ah yes,
and I'm getting ready to harvest;
my partridge, [17] I'm getting ready to kiss you.
Thracian harvesters customarily sing this refrain over their midday meal of garlic sauce and bread:
οὑ θέρους κ’ ἡ παλαμαριὰ κὶ’ τοὺ βαρὺ διρπάνι
μοῦ κάμαν τοὺ κουρμάκι μου σὰ μαύρου πουδουπάνι.
Σαράδα δράμια σίδηρου κὶ’ δεκαπέντε ξύλου
μοῦ κάμαν τοὺ κουρμάκι μου σὰ μαραμένου φύλλου.

The harvest and the rope and the heavy sickle
have turned my poor body into a black foot-rag.
Forty drams [18] of iron and fifteen drams of wood
have made my poor body [19] into a withered leaf.
From late morning onwards, the sun stings and the shadows leap against the tree trunks, tempting the reapers to rest awhile. At ten o'clock there is a brief pause. Under the shelter of trees and rock the villagers stoop in circles steadily recovering and chatting. Jokes and stories told are their pride and occupy the next hour or so. By midday they remark that the wolf has jumped into their stomachs, i.e., they are hungry (μπῆκε ὁ λύκος στ ’ ἄντερα); many talk of the heat and by one o'clock there is the customary meal (bread and piercing garlic) and siesta. The afternoon itself is a bizarre time of day when everything seems to succumb to silence—everything except the persistent cicada. Work resumes around three, to be interrupted by the heat at four, and then continued one hour later until after sundown.
The day's repeated pauses are never really idle. Often there is an excess of high spirits. The hours are then translated into bawdy anecdotes, jokes, and sarcastic rhyming couplets (δίστιχα), [20] usually exchanged among the men: Gossip becomes a flourishing genre, particularly when it concerns prospective matches for a girl (γαμπρολοήματα). Indeed, the harvest improves one's chances of meeting a potential husband or wife. It is here that a couple and their respective families can officially meet. Here, too, the young woman—under the critical eye of her future in-laws—proves her industriousness (προκοπή) and marriageability.
The end of the harvest (ἀποθέρισμα) is colorful. The reapers toss their sickles into the air, wishing each other 'May next year be just as auspicious' (καὶ τοῦ χρόνου) and 'May we enjoy it [i.e., the wheat] in cakes and rusks' (νὰ τὸ φᾶμε μὲ χαρὲς σὲ κουλλούρια καὶ παξιμάδια). As already noted, a section of the last field is left uncut, representing the field's own portion of the harvest. [21] Rhodian reapers cut three stalks from this patch while facing east, then three more facing west. [22] On this handful of stalks they lay their sickles crossed, thus marking the end of their work. Generally, the end of the harvest is a scene of reapers competing to finish. In Rhodes, for example, the first ones done taunt the others with the remark, 'We've left you holding empty water-gourds' (σᾶς ἀφήσαμε μὲ κολοκύθες). Rhodians customarily finish the great θέρος ('harvest') with the song:
Ἐμεὶς ἐποθερίσαμε κ’ ἐκάμαμεν ποθέρι,
θὰ πᾶμε πιὸ στ’ ἁλώνια μας, που᾽ ’χει καλὸν ἀέρι.

We've finished harvesting and have cut the last handful of stalks,
now we’re off to our threshing-floors which have a good breeze. [23]
In Thrace the reapers, once done, hang up their shoes prominently on stalks in their rivals' fields. The slowest workers thus accumulate an embarrassing line of shoes—and verbal ridicule. Throughout Greece the final flourish, typically, is a dance performed by younger women in a mown field.


[ back ] 1. Cf. the Coan proverb, said of the barley crop addressing the farmer: δεῖξε μου τὴν ἡμέραν τοῦ Μᾶ καὶ ᾽π᾽ ὅπου θέλεις πκις με ('Show me a day in May and touch me wherever you wish')· Wheat is harvested in mid-May in Cos, Cyprus, and elsewhere, though this date is premature for most parts of Greece. WD 571-575 (quoted in ch. 6) sets the date for harvesting generally at the heliacal rising of the Pleiades, i.e., May 16: see West, pp. 255-256 ad WD 383-384. A lively ethnographic description of summer events in rural Greece is now available in Loukatos 1981; two excellent comparativist studies, which may guide archaeologists and classicists alike on the harvest and other tasks, are Halstead 1987. 77-87, and Halstead and Jones 1989. 41-55. Further on the ancient harvest (and farming in general) in Richter 1968. especially 118-123.
[ back ] 2. For a brief discussion of the demographic changes wrought by the harvest, as in the case of Cyprus, see Haralampous 1965. 198. For a description of the mass exodus of reapers and their colorful rustic settlements in Tsakonia and Rhodes, see Kostakis 1976- 1978. 101-102; Vrontes 1938-1948. especially 115-129. The migration of male harvesters will be discussed in the following section.
[ back ] 3. Or πεντεπέλαγα, a common expression of harvesters in Tsakonia, the ancient Laconia.
[ back ] 4. Cf. WD 576-577 (quoted in ch. 6). In Greece today, the harvest is not only the ἔργον par excellence, but also the reward for the year's toil. On "acute time stress" at this season, cf. Halstead and Jones 1989. especially 49, 53. Further on the all-importance of the cereal harvest in Hes. in chs. 4 and 6 below. Plutarch Life of Alexander 16.2 notes that in the month of Daisios (May/June) the kings of Macedon customarily prohibited military undertakings: cf. Hamilton 1969. 39 ad loc. With characteristic meticulousness, the Byzantine Basilica VII, 17,1 (Scheltama i.388) provided that harvesters were immune from prosecution and imprisonment during these crucial weeks.
[ back ] 5. I.e., the wheat, also known as the king of the crops.
[ back ] 6. See Walcot 1970. 37. On the degree of involvement of women in the ancient harvest, see ch. 4 below.
[ back ] 7. Cf. the farming proverb: ὅσο βοηθάει ἡ νύχτα κ᾽ ἡ αὐγα οὔτ᾽ ἀδερφὸς οὔτε ἀδερφή (‘Night and dawn help more than a brother or sister’). Cf. also WD 574-581 (quoted in ch. 6). Further on the schedule of harvesters in antiquity in ch. 4 below.
[ back ] 8. Farmers in Tsakonia resignedly dub the wheat harvest ὁ ἔργος μας, i.e., the supreme work of the year. In Epirus and Tsakonia, ἔργος, curiously, is also a technical term for the reaper’s assigned section. Finally, ἔργος can mean one’s portion of the harvest, as in the exhortation usually addressed to lingering girl reapers: Μάζου τὸν ἔργο ντι,ὅρα κιὰ ἀραμάτσε (‘Gather your portion, see where it’s fallen’). This exhortation is intended to embarrass. As a specialized usage it is related to the Homeric and Hesiodic ἔργα in the concrete sense of ‘products of farm labor, hence food’: cf. Verdenius, p. 83 on 119 ἔργα. Perhaps κάματος, as used at WD 305 in the sense of ‘product of toil’ (cf. West, Verdenius, p. 155) also preserves the nuance of ‘one’s deserved portion.’ Cf. WD 303-306:

          τῷ δὲ θεοὶ νεμεςῶσι καὶ ἀνέρες, ὅς κεν ἀεργός
          ζώῃ, κηθήνεσσι κοθούροις εἴκελος ὀργήν,
305    ὅι τε μελισσάων κάματον τρύχουσιν ἀεργοί
          ἔσθοντες, etc.

          Gods and men alive disapprove of the man who lives idly,
          resembling in temperament drones without a sting
305    that, being idle, waste the kamatos of the bee,
          by eating it up.

Ever neglectful of the harvest, Hesiod’s ἀεργός fails to gather his own portion (like the lethargic girl reapers today), and consumes instead the ‘toil’ (κάματον) of others. Κάματος here may connote the portion rightfully due to others.
[ back ] 9. Cf. Xenophon Oeconomicus 18.1: χαλεπὸν γὰρ οἶμαι καὶ τοῖς ὄμμασι καὶ τοῖς χερσὶ γίνεται ἀντίον ἀχύρων καὶ ἀθέρων θερίζειν (Ί suppose it is hard on the eyes and hands to reap with wheatstalks and awns blowing in your face').
[ back ] 10. Argenti and Rose 1949. 67-68. I have annotated and slightly modified their description.
[ back ] 11. Known to the Byzantines by the same name (χειρόβολον); cf. Tzetzes on WD 477: μικρὸν χειρόβολον τῶν σταχύων. Also Hesychius: δράγμα ὅσον περιλαμβάνει τῇ ἀριστερᾷ χειρὶ ὁ θερίζων.
[ back ] 12. Exactly as in Il. 18.550-556 (also cited in Argenti and Rose 1949. 67):

550    … ἔνθα δ' ἔριθοι
          ἤμων ὀξείας δρεπάνας ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντες.
          δράγματα δ’ ἄλλα μετ' ὄγμον ἐπήτριμα πῖπτον ἔραζε,
          ἄλλα δ' ἀμαλλοδετῆρες ἐν ἐλλεδανοῖσι δέοντο.
          τρεῖς δ’ ἄρ' ἀμαλλοδετῆρες ἐφέστασαν· αὐτὰρ ὄπισθε
555     παῖδες δραγμεύοντες,ἐν ἀγκαλίδεσσι φέροντες, ἀσπερχὲς πάρεχον . . .

550    … Harvest hands
          were swinging whetted scythes to mow the grain,
          and stalks were falling along the swath
          while binders girded others up in sheaves
           with bands of straw—three binders, and behind them
555     children came as gleaners, proffering
          their eager armfuls …
                                              Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fitzgerald
                                              (New York, 1974, repr. 1975,1989), p. 452

Cf. the modern day ἀγκαλιά ('armload') and the Homeric ἀγκαλίς ('bent arm'). Also cf. West, immediately below.

There are slight variations to this procedure, however. On Cos and Rhodes the women actively reap throughout the day and gather the stalks in the late afternoon. Women in Thrace reap alongside the men, then pause to collect the stalks and bind them. Normally, then, women are deeply engaged in the harvest, frequently reaping and binding; cf. Walcot 1970. Loukopoulos 1938. 237, reported that in Roumeli (north-central Greece) reaping was thought to be a “woman’s job,” just as plowing was reserved for men. But compare the harvest practices of Avdemi, Thrace, discussed below.
[ back ] 13. Cf. West, p. 280 on WD 480-481.
[ back ] 14. We shall note later the current-day preoccupation with the direction of the winds at threshing. At the end of the threshing Hesiod’s farmer faces west (WD 594). Also see Appendix 2.
[ back ] 15. I.e., narrative songs whose subject matter belongs to a vaguely historical or mythical past, on which see Beaton 1980. passim. For typical harvest songs cf. Appendix 7.
[ back ] 16. On which see Alexiou 1974.
[ back ] 17. In Aristotle’s day the partridge was regarded as proverbially salacious and mischievous (Pollard, pp. 60-61). The positive associations of the bird are evidenced from the Middle or Late Byzantine period on; and the polite comparison of a bride or marriageable woman to a partridge (πέρδικα) has persisted in modern folk-songs, particularly love-songs or wedding-songs: see J.C.B. Petropoulos (forthcoming). ch. 2.
[ back ] 18. A unit of weight.
[ back ] 19. The diminutive κουρμάκι μου – ‘my dear little body’ – approximates to the affective (and possessive) force of φίλα γούνατα, WD 608.
[ back ] 20. On which see Beaton 1980.148-150.
[ back ] 21. In Rhodes, the unmown patch represents the portion for the beasts of burden.
[ back ] 22. Again, note the preoccupation with directions.
[ back ] 23. Καλὸνἀέρι ('good breeze') fetches to mind the Hesiodic χώρῳ ἐν εὐαεῖ ('in a place with a fresh wind') WD 599.