A scythe (// or //) is an agricultural hand tool for mowing grass or reaping crops. It has largely been replaced by horse-drawn and then tractor machinery, but is still used in some areas of Europe and Asia. The Grim Reaper and the Greek Titan Cronus are often depicted carrying or wielding a scythe.
"Scythe" derives from Old English siðe. In Middle English and after it was usually spelt sithe or sythe. However, in the 15th century some writers began to use the sc- spelling as they thought (wrongly) the word was related to the Latin scindere (meaning "to cut"). Nevertheless, the sithe spelling lingered and notably appears in Noah Webster's dictionaries.
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A scythe consists of a wooden shaft about 170 centimetres (67 in) long called a snaith, snath, snathe or sned (modern versions are sometimes made from metal or plastic). The snath may be straight, or with an "S" curve, but the more sophisticated versions are curved in three dimensions, allowing the mower to stand more upright. The snath has either one or two short handles at right angles to it – usually one near the upper end and always another roughly in the middle. A long, curved blade about 60 to 90 centimetres (24 to 35 in)) long is mounted at the lower end, perpendicular to the snath. Scythes always have the blade projecting from the left side of the snath when in use, with the edge towards the mower. In principle a left-handed scythe could be made, but it could not be used together with right-handed scythes in a team of mowers, as the left-handed mower would be mowing in the opposite direction.
A scythe blade is maintained by peening the leading edge of the blade. In some uses, such as for mowing fine grass, the bevel is made almost as thin as paper. After peening, the edge is finished and subsequently maintained by very frequent stropping or honing with a whetstone or rubber (fine-grained for grass, coarser for cereal crops), and peened again as necessary to recover the fineness of the edge.
The "American" scythe blade is not usually peened as part of sharpening. Being forged using a harder steel than most other styles of scythe blade, many examples feature laminated construction with a hard core comprising the edge and softer sides to provide supportive toughness. The harder blade holds an edge longer and requires less frequent sharpening. Rather than being maintained through peening, the edge of the American pattern of blade is traditionally reshaped after heavy use by grinding on a large diameter grindstone. Scythe blades traditional in the United Kingdom and the Nordic nations feature similarly hard and/or laminated construction.
Using a scythe is called mowing, or often scything, to distinguish it from mowing with more complex machinery. Mowing is done by holding the top handle in the left hand and the central one in the right, with the arms straight, the blade parallel to the ground and very close to it, and the body twisted to the right. The body is then twisted steadily to the left, moving the scythe blade along its length in a long arc from right to left, ending in front of the mower, thus depositing the cut grass to the left. Mowing proceeds with a steady rhythm, stopping at frequent intervals to sharpen the blade. The correct technique has a slicing action on the grass, cutting a narrow strip with each stroke – a common beginner's error is to chop or hack at the grass, with the blade length at right angles to it, thus trying to cut too wide a strip of grass at once. This is much harder work, and is ineffective. Cutting too close to the ground can contaminate the blade with soil, rapidly blunting it. Much of the skill is in keeping the blade close to the ground and the cuts even.
Mowing is normally done cutting out of the uncut grass, the mower moving along the mowing-edge with the uncut grass to his right. The cut grass is laid in a neat row to the left, on the previously-mown land. Each strip of ground mown by a scythe is called a swathe (pronounced //: rhymes with "bathe") or swath (//: rhymes with "Goth"). Mowing may be done by a team of mowers, usually starting at the edges of a meadow then proceeding clockwise and finishing in the middle. Mowing grass is easier when it is damp, and so hay-making traditionally began at dawn and often stopped early, the heat of the day being spent raking and carting the hay cut on previous days.
Mowing with a scythe is a skilled task, performed with relative ease by experienced mowers, but often poorly and with very great effort by beginners. Long-bladed traditional scythes with double-curved wooden snaiths are harder to use at first, but once mastered are more effective and comfortable for longer periods. Shorter-bladed or hack-scythes are easier for beginners. A skilled mower using a traditional long-bladed scythe can even cut very short grass, and this is how lawns were maintained until the invention of the lawnmower.
In addition to mowing grass and reaping crops, a scythe can also be used for mowing reed or sedge, remaining effective even with the blade under water. A variant, the War scythe, has also been used in both ancient and recent history as a weapon.
According to the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquitis of Sir William Smith, the scythe, known in Latin as the falx foenaria (as opposed to the sickle, the falx messoria), was used by the ancient Romans; for illustration, Smith shows an image of Saturn holding a scythe, from an ancient Italian cameo.
According to Jack Herer and "Flesh of The Gods" (Emboden, W.A., Jr., Praeger Press, NY, 1974.); the ancient Scythians grew hemp and harvested it with a hand reaper that we still call a scythe.
The scythe was invented in about 500 BC and appeared in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. Initially used mostly for mowing grass, it replaced the sickle as the tool for reaping crops by the 16th century, the scythe allowing the reaper to stand rather than stoop. In about 1800 the addition of light wooden fingers above a scythe blade produced a form of scythe called the cradle which soon replaced the simple scythe for reaping grain and mowing other tall vegetation such as reeds. In the developed world, all of these have now largely been replaced by motorized lawnmowers and combine harvesters.
The Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in Sheffield, England is a museum of a scythe-making works that was in operation from the end of the 18th century until the 1930s. This was part of the former scythe-making district of north Derbyshire, which extended into Eckington. Other English scythe-making districts include that around Belbroughton.
Mowing with a scythe remained common for many years even after most mowing became mechanized, because a side-mounted finger-bar mower (whether horse or tractor drawn) cannot mow in front of itself. Scythes would therefore be used to open up a meadow – to mow the first swathes, thus letting the mechanical mower in to complete the mowing.
Scythes in national cultures
The scythe is still an indispensable tool for farmers in developing countries and in mountainous terrain.
In Romania, for example, in the highland landscape of the Transylvanian Apuseni mountains, scything is a very important annual activity, taking about 2–3 weeks to complete for a regular house. As scything is a tiring physical activity and is relatively difficult to learn, farmers help each other by forming teams. After each day's harvest, the farmers often celebrate by having a small feast where they dance, drink and eat, while being careful to keep in shape for the next day's hard work. In other parts of the Balkans, such as in Serbian towns, scything competitions are held where the winner takes away a small silver scythe. In small Serbian towns, scything is treasured as part of the local folklore, and the winners of friendly competitions are rewarded richly with food and drink, which they share with their competitors.
Among Basques scythe-mowing competitions are still a popular traditional sport, called segalaritza (from Spanish verb segar: to mow). Each contender competes to cut a defined section of grown grass before his rival does the same.
There is an international scything competition held at Goricko where people from Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Romania, or as far away as Asia appear to showcase their culturally unique method of reaping crops. In 2009, a Japanese gentleman showcased a wooden reaping tool with a metal edge, which he used to show how rice was cut. He was impressed with the speed of the local reapers, but said such a large scythe would never work in Japan.
The Norwegian municipality of Hornindal has three scythe blades in its coat-of-arms.
Scythes are beginning a comeback in American suburbs, since they "don't use gas, don't get hot, don't make noise, do make for exercise, and do cut grass."
A war scythe is a regular scythe that has been adapted for combat use straightening their tangs to re-attach the blade parallel to the snaith, rather than perpendicular to it, so that it looks like a bill.
Scythes in art selected works
Death and the woodcutter by Jean-François Millet, 1859
Niittomiehet (Mowers men), by Pekka Halonen, 1891
Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field' 1865'
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Scythes.|
- Scythe Network, a site dedicated to modern usage, with links to numerous equipment suppliers in North America.
- Tools and How to Use Them