The Grim Reaper

Hello and welcome to the latest blog from The Olivia Rose Diaries on December 10th 2022.

We had travelled back from the UK with a new addition to our armoury in the never-ending war against bracken and brambles in our field – a scythe, a full-size, double-handed tool, with a blade so sharp that it demanded respect and concentration when using it. It was also our only tool as our strimmer had finally admitted defeat earlier in the year and was now consigned to the back of the shed, beyond repair despite numerous efforts.

You might be forgiven for thinking that scything is a simple skill to pick up but it’s not and so, during our last trip back to the UK, we booked ourselves onto a scything course.

It immediately became clear that it wasn’t a case of picking up any old scythe and wading in. The scythe should be adjusted to fit your height and the blade chosen to suit the type of work you will be doing, which may necessitate having a collection of blades. There is a charming adage that states ‘You would no sooner lend someone your scythe than lend them your false teeth’, which suggests that scything is primarily the province of the older generation, but today younger men and women are showing an increasing interest in the subject.

We began our morning of instruction by picking out a handle, or a ‘snath’ to use the correct term, of the right height for each of us, attaching the grips and then the blade.

‘Hold the scythe as if you’re about to mow, upper grip in your left hand, the lower grip in your right and the blade on your floor to the right,’ said our instructor, Andi Rickard, owner of the Somerset Scythe School, demonstrating with her own scythe. ‘Your right arm will be almost straight and your left arm bent.’

I duly copied her and waited for the next instructions. There was a pause.

‘The blade should be on the floor to your right,’ she repeated, looking at me. ‘Not to your left.’

‘Oops.’ As a child I had always had a problem differentiating left from right but I thought I had mastered my confusion long ago. Obviously I was wrong.

Out in the field we began practising our technique, drawing an arc from 3 to 11 o’clock and moving slowly forward, one foot at a time.

‘This should be a relaxed, fluid movement,’ Andi explained. ‘You’re looking for the ‘sweet spot’ where the blade stays in contact with the ground at all times. Eventually you won’t need to concentrate on it, it will come naturally.’

And after a few false starts, it did indeed begin to feel natural, as if the blade were an extension of my body.

‘Well done.’ She looked surprised, no doubt wrong-footed by my initial confusion over a simple matter of left and right. ‘You picked that up quickly.’

I was surprised too, but the action of rolling onto the balls of your toes on one foot and then the other and twisting at the same time was, by pure chance, a yoga movement and so it felt like an old friend rather than something new to learn.

‘Now you’ve got an idea of how to mow, we need to look at sharpening. A blunt blade is no good to anyone and you’ll need to recognise the point where it will need honing.’

And so began another new learning curve. By lunchtime we were brain-dead, unable to take in any more information, but we were also the proud owners of our own scythe. We would share it, as we could alter the settings to fit the slight difference in our heights, which went against the advice of the old adage. We wouldn’t dream of sharing our false teeth, when and if we ever get to the point of needing them, but our budget didn’t allow for having one scythe each. Sometimes you have to break the rules.

The scythe also plays a part in myths and legends, the most infamous being the Grim Reaper, swathed in his black cloak with his scythe over his shoulder, ready to reap the souls of the dead as they journey into the afterlife. It is understandable that people have wished to put a human face on the concept of death over the ages and in earlier times that face had a far friendlier countenance. In Greek mythology a pleasant and helpful young god called Thanatos delivered the souls of the dead to Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx, from where they would enter Hades.

In Norse mythology, the Valkyries, beautiful young women, served as escorts to the souls of warriors who died on the battlefield, helping them on their way to Odin and his ‘hall of the slain’, Valhalla. Even animals can act as companions, with owls, sparrows and crows being common examples. All these different manifestations are called ‘psychopomps’, a surprisingly modern-sounding term derived from the ancient Greek word meaning ‘the guide of souls’.

It was the plague of the late 14th century that changed the tone so dramatically. Twenty five million people died in the initial outbreak, followed by millions more as the disease continued to flare up for years afterwards. This was a terrible, fearful way to die and it changed how people viewed and responded to death. This period in our history was the birthplace of death being represented as a skeleton, hideous and threatening, often portrayed holding a weapon, a dart or crossbow to start with, but then the scythe became the instrument of choice. Paintings of the time showed Death swinging his scythe through a crowd of people, mowing down souls as if they were no more substantial than a field of wheat. The scythe was a symbol that resonated with the agricultural population of the time, where the autumn harvests represented the end, and by implication the death, of another year.

As Michael and I stood in our field and took turns at swinging our own scythe, these morbid thoughts were far from our minds. Instead we were concentrating on our swing, our posture, looking for the sweet spot and silently congratulating ourselves when we found it for a precious second before the next mole hill destroyed the moment. Most of all we revelled in the peace and quiet, so different to the discordant, deafening whine of the strimmer. Now we heard nothing but the subtle swish-swish of the blade as it moved back and forth. In some symbolic way we felt that, where we had been fighting against nature with the strimmer and losing, now we were working with nature, quietly and gently, a far better solution for both of us.

Nothing grim about this reaper!

Our time here has flown by and next week we leave for a month to house-sit in the Spanish Pyrenees, looking after one collie dog, four cats, and a couple of wild kites. Interestingly this next house is also an off-grid property, although considerably larger than Le Shack and with an indoor loo, but it will be fascinating to see how they have organised everything. More details to come in the next ten days or so.

Hoping all is well with you.

MJ

10 thoughts on “The Grim Reaper

  1. I am really pleased the Scythe is being successful. Hope it is warmer with you than here? I was reminded that it dropped to minus 11 C here in December 2010, so this cold spell is nothing new!

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    1. Hi Antony. At freezing here this morning but dropping tonight, not as bad as you. Cold enough on a bike though – we’ve just come back from 15km round trip for bread and had to wrap up warm. Invigorating!
      MJ

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  2. Very enjoyable and educational read!
    As a little girl (several decades ago)I watched my grandfather using his scythe in total admiration. It looked so easy, but it’s not!!

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  3. Very enterprising and no doubt more satisfying than the strimmer. When I think that it took a team of men with scythes a day to mow a field, and now one person in a tractor does it in about an hour, no wonder rural depopulation was so marked throughout the 20th century. One of the previous owners of our house left a scythe strung up in our lean-to, but I have never tried it! Very interesting historical details about the attitude to death changing with the plague. Good luck with your next house sit.

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