Harvest Hieroglyphics

The brief hieroglyphic interjections that accompany ancient Egyptian Ty harvest images may be the work of the artist, but may well be by other artisans. The symbols conjure thoughts of commotion and shouting more than any measured routine accompanied by clapping and music. The terms used include “beat,” “hurry,” and “drive them.” The next threshing floor scene seems chaotic as men struggle to lead separate teams of oxen and donkeys around the circle to trample out the precious grain from the mass of stalks. Coordinating the animals’ variable pace and distances, cleaning up behind them, and recurrent removal of threshed cuttings to maximize efficiency required substantial coordination and stamina. Women appear in the subsequent winnowing scene to clean the grain by tossing the threshings into the wind, while other workers scoop the kernels into bags for transport to storage silos. Most of the men are lightly clad in loincloths though some have kilt-like garments, while the women use scarves to tie up their hair and wear loincloths and transparent dresses held up by shoulder straps.

“In the Fields of Laru” Hieroglyph (c. 1250 BC) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
“In the Fields of Laru” Hieroglyph (c. 1250 BC)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The tools of harvest shown in the panels are similar to those that would be widely used throughout the world until the twentieth century—sickles, rakes, and pitchforks to reap and thresh, and sieves, brooms, and scoops to clean and store. Yet these ancient societies existed without proscribed moral obligations for the ruling class and landowners to care for the poor by permitting practices like field gleaning. To be sure, agricultural workers were valued for the essential labor they provided, but not in the Hebrew sense that, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), or from the Levitical code affirming the right to glean not only to the people of Israel, but to the “sojourner” (i. e., foreigners) as well (Leviticus 23:22).    

In a metaphoric sense, the magnificent art that decorated tombs, monuments, and public buildings in ancient Egypt bore profound cosmological significance since the primal association between human existence and agrarian experience harkens back to the dawn of civilization. Cultural patterns and religious understandings are evident in similar ways in Mesopotamia and in Greek and Roman religious traditions. Ideas about life and eternity found expression in priestly ceremonies and sacred writings like Egypt’s agricultural Coffin Texts and book The Coming Forth by Day (also known as the Book of the Dead). The implements of cultivation, tools for harvest, and means of transport variously found in tombs at places like Memphis and Thebes represent the mystical course undertaken through just living and proper burial. These stages honored since time immemorial include birth (seeding and germination), growth (hoeing and weeding), and death (reaping and threshing) to afterlife in the underworld’s flax and grain Fields of Hotep (boats to the place of “contentment”). 

Egyptian Old Kingdom Barley Relief (c. 1340 BC) Limestone block carving, 9 x 20 ⅘ inches Metropolitan Art Museum, New York; Wikimedia Commons
Egyptian Old Kingdom Barley Relief (c. 1340 BC)
Limestone block carving, 9 x 20 ⅘ inches
Metropolitan Art Museum, New York; Wikimedia Commons

Death was celebrated as the ultimate “harvest of life” symbolized in ancient times by a reaper’s sickle. At the pinnacle of the kingdom’s highly stratified society, the pharaoh represented the vital pulse of this cosmic consciousness in each generation and honored throughout the seasons in agrarian-based religious rituals. During the late Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1345 BC), Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) and Queen Nefertiti relocated the royal residence from Memphis farther south to Amarna, and instigated a revolutionary tendency away from Egypt’s traditional polytheism toward monotheistic sun worship. A dramatic shift in aesthetics flourished for a time that replaced rigid depictions of the pharaoh. Scenes of familial affection and more naturalistic backgrounds appeared like the exquisitely sculpted limestone relief of barley that seems to wave in a warm Nile breeze.

As reward for my enriching him,
With all good things of silver and gold
With harvests and produce in granaries…