3. The Threshing

Petropoulos heat-lust chap3 figure
Threshing in Greece. (Photograph by the author.)
Threshing falls in July, giving this month the names ‘Αλωνάρης, Ἁλωνιάτης, and ‘Αλωνιστής ('Thresher'). [1] The shocks of wheat are transferred from the heap to the communal threshing-floor (ἁλώνι) [2] and planted erect in a circle, and then unbound. The work is done by a yoke of oxen, if available, but if not, by a mule or ass. [3] The beast or beasts pull the cylindrical threshing-sledge (σβάρνα, λουκάνη) on which the farmer or usually a child stands driving the team; he drives them in circles within the perimeter of the ἁλώνι. Alternatively, the team can be tied by a long rope to a wooden pole in the center and guided by the farmer across the floor. Before trampling upon the sheaves, the team is fed a few stalks, which represent their recompense for the toil that is about to begin: as the farmers say, κόπος τους εἶναι, that is 'the stalks are their toil.' Following them from behind, the farmer coaxes them with the well-known wish:
γειά σας καὶ χαρά σας
κὶ’ οὗλα τ’ ἄχερα δικά σας
κὶ’ ἡ Παναγιὰ κοντά σας.

Come now, be healthy and happy,
all the fodder will be yours,
and may the Virgin Mary be near you.
During a normal work day, the farmer alternates his threshing tasks with his wife and children; this enables him to rest every few hours under an ἀμπλῆκι nearby, which is a structure made of pine branches; the task must be done in high temperatures. [4] The thresher halts every two hours to give his team a rest and to turn the sheaves over with his fork. This continues until the husks are thoroughly broken up and converted into chaff and the grain separated.
The threshing is finished by July 20 (the feast of the Prophet Elijah, or Elias) [5] or at the latest, by July 26 (the feast of St. Paraskevi) [6] on the mainland. Generally, July 20, which also coincides with the rising of Sirius, is the deadline for threshing; after this date St. Elias is said to cause the winds to "burst" and wreak havoc for late threshers. Once finished, the farmer halts his team and points them towards the east, then unties them from the σβάρνα. The trampled sheaves are heaped in a comer of the threshing floor. The farmer must now hastily prepare to winnow, for it is bad luck to have this heap scattered by the wind. [7]
The winnowing (ξενέμισμα) that ensues is done on a windy late afternoon with a winnowing fan (θερνάκι). [8] The wind useful for this purpose is the northeast wind—the so-called μελτέμι, the Etesian winds of antiquity—before it intensifies in late July. Under favorable winds, winnowing can be completed in two or three hours. Yet, too strong a wind, or a weak wind—or no wind at all—will cancel the day's work. When there is no wind the farmer offers a fried cake (τηανιά) to St. Elias. Argenti and Rose 1949. 68 describe this task as follows: "The winnowing fan is plunged into the heap, and grain and chaff are lifted together and flung into the air; the wind catches the chaff and piles it a few meters off, while the grain, being heavier, drops nearer at hand. Sieving then follows: the farmer uses a large sieve (δρομόνι) with a metal mesh, by which the grain is separated from the pebbles and bits of wood."
Ever eager to store their grain before the onset of the late μελτέμι, the farmer and his family stow the grain and chaff in sacks. The chaff is transported to an underground facility (ἀχερώνας) and stored as winter feed for the animals. The grain is stored in the bam, at home or in an underground facility sealed with a large stone slab (πῶμα). A sack or two of grain then goes to the warden (ἀγροφύλακας) who keeps watch over the farmer's fields. Cases of grain theft are reported in the more recent ethnographic sources, and the Byzantine legal codes clearly suggest that the raiding of a neighbor's grain supply (even before storage) has long been a thriving practice for many.
Lastly, we may note the practice of offering the first bread baked of the new crop. In most regions the first bread of the year is offered to the farmer's beasts of burden on the principle that they have helped to bring about the harvest and threshing. Each family shares a second loaf, leaving a piece at the village fountain. This piece, they believe, will cause good luck to "flow" at home as plentifully as the fountain's waters. Coans deposit the first bread by the central κρήνη, or fountain, so as to ensure that their future bread supply will be as unlimited as the water supply. Another loaf is fed to the household's colts as a guarantee of good luck and a third loaf is shared by each family.
Another variant practice attracts especial attention. In Macedonia and Thrace farmers make a thin wafer-like cake from newly ground wheat which they dip into fountains and wells and distribute among passers-by; this is called a 'cicada cake' (τζιτζιροκούλουρο). The cicada, as has been noted, is the insect of this month, and his orchestra fills the afternoons with deep humming. Even as early as the June harvest, Thracian farmers impersonate this creature singing its song:
Θιρίσιτ᾽, ἁλουνίσιτι,
κὶ μὲ σπυρὶ ν’ ἀφήσιτι.

Harvest, thresh,
and leave me a morsel! [9]
Now, at the end of the harvest/threshing season, farmers offer the cicada what he has demanded since June—a portion of the wheat crop at the village fountain.


[ back ] 1. Hesiod prescribes that threshing should commence at the heliacal rising of Betelgeuse (Orion), which is about June 20: see West, p. 309 on WD 598.
[ back ] 2. The aloni is located on a windward site and is made of either dried mud or stone slabs.
[ back ] 3. Iliad 10.351-353 notes that mules are more efficient than oxen because they plow faster and cover greater expanses; but oxen are stronger and therefore probably better suited to transporting bundles of wheat. Further on the merits of beasts of burden in ch. 5 below.
[ back ] 4. Halstead and Jones 1989. 44.
[ back ] 5. On this divine regulator of heat, thunder, wind, and rain, and his "transitional" feast, consult Loukatos 1981. especially 87-90.
[ back ] 6. Loukatos 1981. 96-98.
[ back ] 7. For more on the affinities of St. Elias with the event of winnowing, see Nagy 1990b. 214.
[ back ] 8. Cf. Iliad 5.499-501; Hesiod specifically mentions winnowing: cf. WD 599, 805-808, and discussion in ch. 6.
[ back ] 9. Recorded by Kizlaris 1938-1948.405; cf. chs. 1 and 5.