What is a Scythe?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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A scythe is an agricultural implement traditionally used to cut grass, grains, reeds, and sedges. Scythes were used by many ancient cultures and they continue to be utilized in some regions of the world today, sometimes in festivals which commemorate ancient farming techniques, and sometimes as legitimate farming implements. The scythe has largely been replaced by tractors and other mechanized farming devices which can accomplish cutting and harvesting tasks much more quickly and with much less physical labor.

Scythes have a long handle known as a snaith which may be curved or bent, depending on the region where the tool was made, with two handles which project outward from the snaith to provide grips to the user. A curved and extremely sharp blade is attached to the snaith. The act of using a scythe, known as mowing or scything, requires the mower to swing the blade back and forth. Some skill is needed for scything, as beginners have learned to their chagrin when they first learn to use the device.


Scything is backbreaking work. Historically, members of farming communities took turns helping each other with the harvest, so that teams would work together to harvest the fields. The simplicity of the scythe made it easy to maintain and repair, and some farmers appreciated that the scythe works underwater as well as above ground, and that it could handle tangled and dense growth with ease when it was properly sharpened and used by someone with experience. The advantages are not enough to make the scythe superior to the tractor, however, which is why most communities have adopted mechanized farming implements.

Like other bladed implements, a scythe only works effectively when it is kept properly sharpened. It also needs to be stored properly, being oiled before storage to prevent rust and kept in a cool dry place. The snaith must also be maintained properly; if it begins to crack, it should be replaced.

The scythe has cultural importance in Europe and it appears in European symbolism and folklore. It is often associated with death due to the image of Death as the “harvester of souls.” Many depictions of Death, the Grim Reaper, Chronos, or Father Time depict this figure holding a scythe as a symbol of his job. As a result, for those interested in the history of the scythe, one place to look for depictions of scythes from various regions and historical periods is in artwork depicting Death.


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Post 4

I live in Oregon, USA; and I used a scythe a lot in my youth and still use one from time to time, although I'm now a bit old to swing a scythe all day long. Tractors with cycle bar mowers work well in cultivated fields, but are useless in ditches, on rough ground, under trees, and working close to berries, grapes, and other row crops. A good sharp Austrian scythe is perfect for these tasks.

True, today most people use power string cutters for this; but I prefer personally prefer a scythe. A good scythe seems just as efficient as a string cutter, and I love the peace and quiet of using a scythe. A scythe allows one to be at one with nature and God -- and that is such a great feeling.

Post 3

@Monika - I can certainly understand the connection ancient cultures made between death and harvest. It's no wonder they depicted death holding a scythe.

However, I wonder if it isn't time for a new way to think about the personification of death. After all, the scythe isn't very widely used anymore, it seems reasonable that we should update our mental imagery too!

Post 2

The depiction of death with scythe is definitely still alive and well in our modern consciousness! In fact, one of my favorite series of all time, the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, features Death as one of his main characters.

In the Discworld books, Death is depicted as a skeleton dressed in a robe carrying a scythe. He uses it to sever the connection of the soul and body. And in one of the books he also uses it to harvest!

Post 1

The scythe was one of the most ingenious tools invented for the purpose of cutting wheat and grasses. It was used from ancient times and is still used in some areas. I don't think any other implement was invented that worked as well, until the mechanized tractors came along.

Some of my Russian students in my ESL classes told me about their experiences working with scythes on the collective farms during Soviet times. They told me it was very exhausting work. You had to be strong to endure the long working days in the field.

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