Heat and Lust: Hesiod’s Midsummer Festival Scene Revisited

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4. The Village of Avdemi: A Case Study in Wanton Women? [1]

… cicadas acerrimi cantus esse et mulieres libidinis avidissimas virosque in coitum pigerrimos scripsere.

… “they [sc. Hesiod and Alcaeus] have written that the cicada’s songs are sharpest and women are most lustful and men most sluggish in sexual relations.”

Pliny Natural history 22.86

’Άνδρα θέλω, τώρα τὸν θέλω.

I want a man, I want him now.

Chian proverb, said of the impatient. Originally, it would seem a charm; a woman recited this naked under a quince tree at sunrise as a cure for the prickly heat of the Dog Days.

The harvest occurs in June: hence the month’s name, θέρος (‘Harvest’). The men form loose groups (ὅμιλοι) which effectively operate as primitive “labor unions” that elect a chief negotiator, the δραγουμάνος. Himself a harvester, the δραγουμάνος approaches the various landowners of the region and after considerable haggling arranges the terms of hire. It is noteworthy that other groups compete for hire as well; thus the δραγουμάνος has to pare down his own group’s demands to a tolerable minimum, while taking care not to expose the workers to exploitation. (Curiously, the Greek for this crucial consideration is νὰ μὴν τοὺς κάψῃ, that is, ‘he mustn’t burn the workers.’) The workers determine whether the proffered amount is χάκι (‘fair’), and generally are unwilling to work for more than twenty-five days consecutively.

As the village’s fields are unsuited to the cultivation of wheat, the harvest entails large-scale movements of male workers, often as far as the Turkish hinterland. Usually, however, the reapers temporarily settle in the surrounding Thracian plains. Each band takes along three or four young boys, each responsible for a particular task. The ψωμᾶς (‘bread-boy’) fetches bread from the landowner’s house, the νερᾶς (‘water-boy’) fetches water, and two other boys are put in charge of the mules and asses of the ὅμιλος (‘group,’ ‘band’). Harvesters, as a rule, take along their animals, including their sheep and goats, in order to graze them in the outlying richer regions. Additionally, the reapers set up a regular “relay station” of errand boys who are dispatched to and from the village. These messengers often travel twice daily, bringing back clean clothes and fruit, raki, and even an occasional carnation—the traditional love-flower—from their loved ones. Cast in the form of a wife’s love missive to her husband, this song reflects the practice of sending tokens and food to the “exiled” harvesters:

Σοῦ στέλνω χαιρετίσματα,
σταπίδες καὶ κανέλλα,
ξεθέρισες, πουλάκι μου,
πάρ’ τὸ δρεπάνι σ’ κ’ ἔλα.

I send you greetings,
currants, and cinnamon,
as soon as you finish harvesting, my darling
[lit., my little bird],
grab your sickle and come back.

The month-long separation causes the wives to yearn for their husbands. As already noted, this longing informs song 1. Like many of the songs, this song is stylized in letter form and may even be sung by the women as they dispatch the errand boys with their packages. Whatever the details of the song’s performance, it remains a cipher for the women’s emotions at harvest.

I. Songs describing the loneliness and inconsolable state of the women:

Σαράντισες, πουλάκι μου, καὶ θὰ πενηνταρίσῃς,
    καμμιὰ γραφὴ δὲν μοὔστειλες νὰ μὲ παρηγορήσῃς.

     It’s been forty days, my darling [lit., my little bird], and it’ll soon be fifty
    since you sent me a letter to console me.

B Στὸ θέρο ποὺ θερίζει
   τὸ τελατίνι μου
    δὲ βγαίνει ἀπὸ τὸ νοῦ μου
   κι’ ἀπὸ τὰ χείλη μου.

   During the harvest when
   my flower reaps,
     he doesn’t leave my mind
   or lips.

C Στὸ θέρο σὲ θυμήθηκα καὶ δὲν μπορῶ νὰ κάμω,
   τὰ δυό μου χέρια σταύρωσα κὶ’ ἔπεσα νὰ πεθάνω.

   At harvest-time I remembered you and couldn’t bear it,
   I crossed my two hands and lay down to die.

D Ὁ Μάης φέρνει τὰ καλὰ κὶ’ ἡ θέρος τὰ φαρμάκια,
   ποὺ ξενητεύε ι τὰ παιδιὰ καὶ τὰ παλληκαράκια.

   May brings good things, but harvest-time brings poisons,
   because it sends abroad boys and young men.

E Περικαλῶ τὴν Παναγιά, στὸ θέρο ποὺ θερίζει,
   νἄχῃ καλὰ τ’ν ἀγάπη μου ὡσότου νὰ γυρίςῃ.

   I beg the Virgin Mary in the name of the month of the harvest
   to keep my love well until he returns.

F Ἔλα ἔλα ἀπὸ τὸ θέρο
   γιὰ θὰ στείλω νὰ σὲ φέρω.

   Come back, come back from harvesting,
   or I’ll dispatch someone to fetch you.

G Λάβε τὸ γραμματάκι μου μαζὶ καὶ ματζουράνα,
   σὲ περιμένω γιὰ νἀρθῇς αὐτὴ τὴν ἑβδομάδα.

   Receive my little missive along with some marjoram,
   I’m waiting for you to come back this week.

Η Ἔλα μὴν τὸ κάνῃς
   βάλτηκες νὰ μὲ πεθάνης.

   Come, don’t do this—
   you’re bent on killing me.

II. Songs in which the women wish to be metamorphosed into a particular detail of the harvest landscape:

I Πῶς νἄμνα πῶς νὰ γένουμα στάχυα νὰ μὲ θερίζῃς,
   χερόβολο νὰ μὲ κρατῇς καὶ νὰ μὲ λαχταρίζῃς·.

   If only I could become wheat stalks for you to harvest,
   you’d hold me like a handful and yearn for me.

J Πῶς νἄμνα πῶς νὰ γένουμα στὸ θέρος κρύα βρύση,
   νὰ πίνῃ ἡ ἀγάπη μου ὡς ποὺ νὰ ξεθερίςῃ.

   If only I could become a cold spring at harvest
   so that my love could drink until he finished harvesting.

K Πῶς νἄμνα πῶς νὰ γένουμα στὸ θέρο ἕνα δεδράκι
   νὰ κάμνω γήσκιο καὶ δροσγιὰ γιὰ ἕνα παλληκαράκι.

   If only I could become a tree at harvest
   so that I could provide shade and cool for a young man.

L Πῶς νἄμνα πῶς νὰ γένουμα δεξί σ’ χέρι δρεπάνι
   καὶ στὸ ζερβί σ’ παλαμαριὰ ἄλλη νὰ μὴ σὲ πάρῃ.

   If only I could become a sickle in your right hand,
   and a rope in your left to prevent another woman from taking you.

Μ Νἄξερα ἡ ἀγάπη μου σὲ ποιὸ χωράφ’ θερίζει,
   γιὰ τὸ δρεπάνι τ’ ἀκουνεῖ γιὰ μένα λαχταρίζει.

   If only I knew on what field my love is reaping,
   for the sickle which he brandishes yearns for me.

Now these songs sound innocent enough; or so they may seem at first sight: wistful, allusive, even witty. The first group calls for brief comment. Song A has a plangent tonality, achieved, one might say, by the rhyming of two prominent (and emotive) words: πενηνταρίσῃς (‘spend fifty days’), resonant with its liturgical associations, [8] and παρηγορήσῃς (‘console’), a technical funerary term in Greece. This month-long separation then becomes a metaphorical widowhood for the farmer’s impatient wife. As might be expected of a widow, she suffers from the usual flashbacks; she states this in song C:

At harvest-time Ι remembered you and couldn’t bear it.
I crossed my two hands and lay down to die.

Song H repeats this death-wish (‘you’re bent on killing me’), though here, too, it is possibly exaggerated. In this same group we may note another conventional conceit: the husband’s absence is likened to ξενητειά—absence abroad, usually on a ship. [
9] Song D explicitly states this theme. Song E reads almost like a prayer to the Virgin for the safe voyage of one’s beloved:

I beg the Virgin Mary in the name of the month of the harvest
to keep my love well until he returns.

And F—’Come back, come back from harvesting/or I’ll dispatch someone to fetch you’—with emphasis on the woman’s impatience might just as easily have come from the lips of a mariner’s wife. The wife thus plays Penelope or reminiscing widow and gestures at, indeed begs for, her husband’s return from the θέρος.

Such self-expression is the rare gift indeed of demotic poetry. Her husband’s absence at the harvest prompts a symbolic widowhood for the woman, which is traditionally conveyed in song. In a serious sense, she is temporarily bereft and now entertains the thought of sex. The songs in Group II make plain this sexual longing. Her husband’s physical rigors cause the woman to offer him the comforting images of the songs in this group. At the same time, however, these images betoken more than a wife’s empathy; song I, in particular, strongly suggests the rarely spoken μαχλοσύνη of a mariner’s wife or young widow, though even here the expression is subdued in accordance with propriety.

Finally, the dimension of male-female contrast which is only implicit in the songs of Group II becomes explicit in Group III. The former songs hold out comforts for the chafing men without stating their condition. Their pitiable condition is at length described: practically sacrificial victims on the Agha’s lands (song N), the men sweat (song O) and slowly wither like the vegetation at this season (songs P, G). Thus in their own words, the women wax wanton while their men-folk “wither.”

To return to Works and Days. True to form, Hesiod gives us very few details, other than chronological ones, about the harvest. We already know from WD that the harvest was the annual ἔργον par excellence and consequently Hesiod’s chief concern, for ‘prosperity’ (ἀρετή, cf. 289, 313) [14] was reckoned principally in terms of a ‘plentiful supply’ (ἄφενος 24, or ἀφθονία, cf. 118 ἄφθονος) of wheat and barley, to last until the following year: see WD 22-24 (w. Verdenius, p. 26 on ἄφενος), 31-32 (w. Verdenius, pp. 32-33), 44 (w. Verdenius, p. 43 on ἔχειν), 117- 118 (w. Verdenius, pp. 82-83), 126 (w. Verdenius, p. 87 on πλουτοδόται), 299-301 (w. Verdenius, p. 154 on βιότου), 306-307, 312- 313, 577. [15] Although WD does not tell us directly, we may be sure that reaping was an arduous affair. Stripped to their khitones, [16] reapers performed gruelling work, which their modern counterparts have likened to the hardships of war. [17] It is equally certain that the farmer himself (cf. WD 22, 289-290, 576-577, 601-607) and his permanent male slaves (WD 573, cf. 597, 608)—and his (free-born) hired hands [18] —had to rise before dawn and hurriedly set about reaping (576-577). [19] They had to take advantage of the crucial three or so hours after daybreak, [20] when the stalks were still moist and so more pliable and the heat still bearable. Work in the morning must have been especially fruitful. It is likely that the farmer, fresh from rest and unimpaired by the heat, could at this time achieve at least one-third of a day’s output. [21] He and his crew stopped at midday, when the heat grew intense. [22] They resumed work after lunch [23] and probably a siesta and finished around sunset or even later. [24]

Alongside this fact we should also reckon with the possibility that Hesiod’s peasant farmers may have worked on distant fields, travelling some distance from, say, the hilly north or rugged south to the central Boeotian plains. It may, however, be the case that the agrarian structure to be envisaged for archaic Boeotia is scattered settlement of small populations in farmsteads or villages (κῶμαι) relatively near to abundant cultivable land. [31] If so, the example of Avdemi, though not strictly parallel, will still serve to illustrate the conceivable social and other effects wrought by the lopsided distribution of labor between the sexes at this pivotal season. For confirmation of the relative disparity between men and women—and of the men’s practical and emotional reactions to this—we may consider further comparative evidence drawn from another Thracian village. The farmers of Petrochori (in western Thrace) live within a short distance of their fields. Hourmouziades 1939. 347-413, especially 378, notes that harvesting and generally most of the heavier farming tasks fall to the men; while the men spend most nights away from home at harvest-time, the women set about the lighter, domestic chores and “only very rarely reap with a sickle, though they often pull out the sparser and shorter cereal crops.” [32] Hourmouziades also remarks that male harvesters apparently think it ill-omened to have sexual relations with their wives at this period: “… the harvesters avoided sexual relations with their wives because long-standing experience had taught them that whoever violated this rule was ‘held-up/ that is, he did not manage to finish harvesting, but left his work half-finished … they spent their nights in the fields and only rarely did they go to the village.” [33]

Some serious disequilibrium in the respective states of the sexes must have resulted (almost literally) in the aftermath of the harvest. It is conceivable that the disparity was due to their separation for long periods during the harvest and the far more rigorous regimen imposed upon the men. By the time Sirius rises the men, we are told, are ἀφαυρότατοι, that is, extremely weak or feckless. [34] The fact that (i) the women are (or are reported to be) correspondingly μαχλόταται (‘wanton in the extreme’), and (ii) the men’s head and knees—both seats of virility and vigor in general [35] —have been parched by the sun, must suggest that ἀφαυρότατοι connotes a diminution of sexual responsiveness over and above fatigue. [36] Now the fatigue which Hesiod’s men experience during the Dog Days tallies well with the heat exhaustion bound to afflict them at the height of the harvest, ὅτε τ’ ἠέλιος χρόα κάρφει (575, ‘when the sun withers the skin’). It is as if the June fatigue carried over, by a kind of “thematic attraction,” into the description of midsummer. (As we shall note in ch. 6, the festival scene itself arguably complements the prescriptions for the harvest which immediately precede it in vv. 571-581.) But perhaps there was also an external reason for the “persistence” of this fatigue. The threshing and winnowing, which followed so soon on the harvest and had to be finished by the rising of Sirius, [37] would have tired the men out even more: threshing, it has been noted, must be done in high temperatures, and winnowing can be as tiring as reaping. [38]

Here it may be as well to suggest two possible answers, both equally alluring, of which the second may raise implications as to the composition of WD:

  1. Hesiod is fair in his description of the men but unfair as regards the women. Though hardly overdrawing the men’s exhausted state, [40] the poet misrepresents the state of their opposite numbers at home, once again betraying the misogyny so richly documented for the archaic and classical periods. We know from Xenophon that men resented the unequal allocation of labor. [41] As resentment grew with the realization that they had instituted this asymmetry themselves, the men must have rationalized it by entertaining various misogynous suspicions and fears. They feared that, left idle and unsupervised at harvest season, their wives were availing themselves of younger men in their absence. What is more, their own physical condition probably lent an element of anxiety to their reactions. After long hours of backbreaking work in blistering heat the men naturally must have felt sexually debilitated over and above their actual fatigue—backache [42] could easily have been a disincentive to sex. The statement in 586 f. is on this view little more than seasonally-inspired misogyny.
  2. Hesiod is quite fair on both scores: In reporting specifically that women are wanton, the WD may be integrating non-epic, that is, local lyric traditions comparable to the one that motivated the songs of Avdemi. These subliterate traditions would have contrasted, from the female perspective, the state of the sexes at the harvest. [43] Further, allusions to female desire—whether outright or veiled—may have been a common feature of these traditions.

Needless to say, the content of these implied traditions cannot be reconstructed except by extrapolation from demotic sources. At the same time it must be remembered that this historical “backtracking” can only suggest a probable source for the diction at WD 586-587. The actual details of the song traditions presumably assimilated into the WD will remain unknown.

Once it is acknowledged that oral poetry, ancient and modern, may consist of functionally generated traditions, this kind of comparative analysis becomes practicable. That is to say, we may account for the diction at WD 586 in terms of a set of harvest practices and song traditions very similar to those which apparently engendered the Avdemi songs. The exact content of the lyrical traditions surrounding the harvest in Hesiodic times can never be conclusively known. But the survival of harvest practices and, moreover, the existence of songs dealing with female sexuality at harvest-time are difficult to deny, particularly in a village where women represent themselves in song as waxing wanton. In the end, the demotic tradition with its unity and internal consistency must have the “last word,” and the comparison between this tradition and the Hesiodic one is valid.


[ back ] 1. This section is a reconstruction of harvest practices as recorded by Zises 1939.356-362. Both in this section and elsewhere, I adhere to the present tense, although many details are today anachronistic. The village in question was known in Byzantine times as Εὐδήμιοι (Eudemion) and was located on the shoreline of the Sea of Marmara. It was burnt down in the Fourth Crusade (1204) and entirely rebuilt on a site farther inland. Until the First Balkan War (1912) it numbered 400 Greek Orthodox families; its 1,000 inhabitants were evacuated in 1923 following the Greek defeat in Asia Minor. At the time of Zises’s article (1939), this village was reported to have abandoned the cultivation of wheat in favor of viniculture and silk-growing. Zises gives no date for this change, but simply notes local topographical names such as Ἁλῶνι (the village piazza), ‘Αλώνια (the outlying vineyards), Ἁλωνάκι (the village’s old threshing-floor), etc., and suggests that wheat-growing must have been prominent two or three generations earlier. Also, the seasonal songs of the harvest performed at Avdemi even as late as 1938 show—according to Zises—that the wheat harvest was still distinctly remembered.

[ back ] 2. Hence the Thracian proverb: θέρος, τρύγος, πόλεμος (‘wheat harvest, vine harvest, war’). According to both Zises 1939. 358 and Papathanasi-Mousiopoulou 1980. 138, the import of the proverb is that the harvest, like a war, is an urgent situation calling for physical hardship and the suspension of all other regular activities.

[ back ] 3. Cf. ch. 2 n. 17.

[ back ] 4. None are recorded by Zises.

[ back ] 5. These are rhyming distichs.

[ back ] 6. Indeed, μαραίνω (‘wither,’ ‘dry up’) and its derivatives are seasonal terms, inevitably called to the popular mind by the summer heat; see below. Villagers link the verb μαραίνω to ‘Αγία Μαρίνα ( ‘St. Marina’) whose feast is celebrated at the height of the threshing season (July 17): further, Loukatos 1981. 79-80. This paretymologia serves to reinforce the ban on threshing on St. Marina’s feast. Those who thresh on this day, μαραίνονται, i.e., are destroyed or withered.

[ back ] 7. Μαραμένος can mean anything from ‘drained, dried up, withered, spent, sterile’ to ‘aggrieved, love-sick, destroyed.’ As a sexual allusion in song, μαραμένος refers more frequently to men and represents demotic tradition at its frankest. Compare the Homeric ἀφαυρός/ἀφαυρότατος, used (with two exceptions) of men: Appendix 1, n. on 586.

Finally, we may note the equation of thirst and exhaustion with death and bereavement, respectively, in the demotic miroloi. a dead woman can speak of herself as τὸ διψασμένο (‘the thirsty one’), while ἡ μαραμένη (‘the withered one’ [feminine]) will refer to her grieving mother. For more on the thirsty dead in the MG lament, see Alexiou 1974. 202-205; on the ancient (cross-cultural) evidence, see Vermeule 1979. 57 (with n. 28).

[ back ] 8. The word itself recalls Πεντηκοστή (‘Pentecost’); no less overt is its lugubrious usage as a term denoting the fifty days since the death of a loved one. Also, σαράντισες (‘you’ve spent forty days’) connotes the fortieth-day church commemoration of a death.

[ back ] 9. 9 The theme of ξενητειά (‘absence,’ ‘exile’) is pervasive in Greek literature; cf. especially Sappho fr. 96 (LP), where the theme of Atthis’ absence in Lydia motivates what in effect becomes a love poem. Cf. also the theme of going abroad (στὰ ξένα) used in demotic wedding songs (of a daughter being married) and in the miroloi where absence abroad signifies death: see especially Saunier 1983.

[ back ] 10. On women in modem Greek society, see especially Dubisch 1986, and Loizos and Papataxiarchis 1991.

[ back ] 11. This is a widespread popular genre, which is attested in ancient Greek and Byzantine sources: cf. J. C. B. Petropoulos (forthcoming), ch. 5.

[ back ] 12. Cf. ch. 6.

[ back ] 13. Peace 1339-1340, on which see J. C. B. Pciropoulos (forthcoming), ch. 4.

[ back ] 14. See Verdenius, pp. 149-150 on 289, p. 157 on 313 ἀρετή and κῦδος.

[ back ] 15. The foregoing passages would seem to support Snodgrass’s hypothesis that the transition from pastoralism to a cereal culture had occurred by the eighth century B.C., the probable date of WD: consult Snodgrass 1980. 35-36.

[ back ] 16. Cf. WD 392 γυμνὸν δ’ ἀμάειν (‘reap without clothes’). Γυμνός· is here probably a relative term, meaning, as it does elsewhere, ‘without a himation,’ i.e., wearing only the khilon: see Dover 1968. 163 on Aristophanes Clouds 498. The folk belief that prevented one from urinating towards the sun (cf. WD 727) probably prevented farmers from harvesting stark naked. Exposure would have been insulting to the sun and dangerous to the reaper.

[ back ] 17. Cf. n. 2 above.

[ back ] 18. WD 602-603 refer to the hiring of hands (θῆτες) some time after threshing; cf. 370.

[ back ] 19. For Hesiod as a member of a category of better-off peasants who, like the Russian kulaks, could afford slave and hired labor and at least one plow, cf. Millett 1984. 89-90.

[ back ] 20. Cf. West, p. 303 on 574 ἐπ ‘ ἠῶ κοῖτον.

[ back ] 21. Cf. WD 578, discussed in ch. 2 n. 7.

[ back ] 22. Cf. WD 575.

[ back ] 23. Cf. ch. 2.

[ back ] 24. Cf. Dover 1971. 77 on Theocritus 1.15.

[ back ] 25. Cf. Odyssey 7.103-104, 20.105-110; Semonides fr. 7.59 (W).

[ back ] 26. The cases documented by West, p. 260 on 406 are all eccentric.

[ back ] 27. For the classical evidence and bibliography, see Des Bouvrie 1990. 53 n. 2.

[ back ] 28. Consult Willcock 1984. 271-272 ad loc. Iliad 5.500 cites only ἀνδρῶν λικμώντων (‘when men are winnowing’) but nothing about women in relation to winnowing.

[ back ] 29. Cf. immediately below.

[ back ] 30. Similarly West, p. 260 on WD 406.

[ back ] 31. Consider Halstead’s findings in relation to many prehistoric and classical sites: Halstead 1987. 83, et passim.

[ back ] 32. Hourmouziades 1939. 371-372.

[ back ] 33. Ibid., 378.

[ back ] 34. Cf. Appendix 1 on 586.

[ back ] 35. Presumably because the cerebro-spinal fluid of the head and the synovial fluid secreted by the knee joint were classed as sources of life: see the bibliography assembled by West on 587 (p. 305).

[ back ] 36. Cf. Appendix 1 ad loc. By contrast, Homer’s generic plowman at the end of a hard day’s work experiences weakness in his knees with no implication of sexual “impotence”: see Odyssey 13.31-34.

[ back ] 37. Cf. below.

[ back ] 38. Halstead and Jones 1989. 47.

[ back ] 39. Some of the women’s complaints may sound implausibly, even sickeningly maudlin to North American or British wives. It may be objected, not without methodological circumspection, that the songs give an ideal, or expected, version of the women’s emotions. This may or may not be correct, yet the other facts which emerge from the songs – the long separation of the sexes and the isolation and sheer fatigue of the men—cannot be seriously called into question.

[ back ] 40. But compare Athanassakis 1983. 103 on 582 f.: “Hesiod would probably be nearer the truth if he had said that the summer heat is conducive to increasing the sexual urge in both men and women …” this statement is a “way of overdramatizing the plight of men”.

[ back ] 41. Memorabilia 2.7.7-10 and Oeconomicus 7-10 treat of the resentment felt by men towards leisured ladies in particular.

[ back ] 42. So as to avert backache Rhodian reapers rub their lower back with sandy soil which has been blessed in church on Pentecost: Vrontes 1938-1948. 116. Before setting out for their fields reapers in eastern Thrace pluck a tuft of the basil plant and place it behind their ear in the homeopathic hope that their head will remain as cool as the sweet basil. Once they reach their plots they tuck the basil into their belt, this time in order to ward off backache. If backache nevertheless ensues during the harvest, they resort to a remarkable cure—they attach a tortoise together with a clove of garlic to their belts. See D. A. Petropoulos 1941-1942. 157.

[ back ] 43. Cl. Appendix 8 below.

[ back ] 44. Compare Beaton’s arguments with regard to MG work-songs: Beaton 1980. 147.