Next time you drive by a city hall county courthouse, or state legislative building, consider that historians trace the origins of civil government to the orderly distribution of bread in ancient Egypt. Anthropologist Clark Wissler observes that this function was the principal reason civil administration first developed, and that association of life-giving bread with spirituality has been a central tenet of western religion. 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.
And he forged a king’s estate where harvesters labored
reaping the ripe grain, swinging their whetted
Some stalks fell in line with the reapers, row on row,
and others the sheaf-binders girded round with
three binders standing over the sheaves, behind
boys gathering up the cut swaths, filling their arms,
supplying grain to the binders, endless bundles.
And there in the midst the king,
scepter in hand at the head of the reaping-rows,
stood tall in silence, rejoicing in his heart.
And off to the side, beneath a spreading oak,
the heralds were setting out the harvest feast,
they were dressing a great ox they had slaughtered,
while attendant women poured out barley,
glistening handfuls strewn for the reapers’ midday meal.
Elsewhere in Homer’s epic the imagery of sickle, reapers, and threshing floor is used for the familiar martial metaphors 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)