Thoughts, lessons, and theology from an eclectic witch from a varied background.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Herbalism: Tools of the Trade - The Sickle

I am renewing my series of posts regarding herbalism. While I am tempted to jump into discussing plants and their properties, I really wanted to take a more complete approach this time. I am starting with the most basic elements here, which could be viewed as magic or science. (I am a bit biased, however, and I will contend that science is also a form of magic.) The very first thing we are going to look at here are the tools that you would be using in your herbalism efforts.

We're all pretty familiar with the rake, shovel, and spade. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with gardening will recognize these tools on sight and intuit their use shortly there after. So, I am going to skip ahead to looking at one of my tools for harvesting herbs (and flowers, leaves, etc.). In this post, we are going to look at how to use and maintain a sickle. After I get past the practical matters, I will give you a little bit of the magical associations of this tool and some folklore.

This little beauty that I'm holding is my sickle. This particular sickle is designed for cutting herbs. There are larger versions that can be purchased at gardening stores that are for cutting grass. In both cases, the methods of keeping a sickle sharp and well cared for are essentially the same. There is some similarity between how to maintain your sickle and how to maintain a scythe. Scythes fall outside of the scope of these posts, but you can find lots of good information through the gardening sites that I've seen posted from people in Britain. (I don't know why, but most of my searches kept turning up pages and forums from people located there. It leads me to suspect that there is a larger population of people who use these tools in that region than here in the USA. I may be wrong, though. Idle speculation and such.)

The use of a sickle is very different from how to use a scythe. Scythes are fixed to long poles and are used with a sweeping motion. This video that I have linked to here gives a demonstration on how to use a scythe. As you can tell from the video, scythes are something that you need to use with great care as to not harming people around you. A sickle, on the other hand, is a tool that doesn't require as much physical space to use. The likelihood of cutting another person is dramatically lower with a sickle.

A sickle is one of the easiest tools to use in the garden, in my opinion. This video that I link to here demonstrates proper use of a sickle. As the gentleman in the video shows, the trick to proper application of this tool lies in using the correct cutting motion. Many people first approach using a sickle as a tool that is used for sawing the plant matter. I made this mistake when I first began using mine. The proper technique is to take hold of your plant that you are going to cut and pull it taught. Make sure that you leave enough space between where you will be cutting and your hand to prevent injury. Then, slice the plant matter with a single sweeping motion. As with all bladed tools, make sure that you cut away from your body to prevent accidental injury.

Ideally, you will be cutting your plant near the base of the stalk. In plants that you are collecting material from that have branches, you will be cutting close to the main stem. A sickle is best for stalks of a narrow diameter. It is also most effective on stems that are not woody. If you are collecting herbs from a plant that has a woody stem, the youngest and most tender stems are the ones that you should be cutting with your sickle. Harder stems will increase the need for greater force in cutting them, which will increase the risk of your sickle swinging wide after you've successfully made the cut. Greater force on a blow means greater risk of losing control over the motion of the tool after the cut is made.

In the video above, the gentleman speaks of peening a sickle bade. While this is ideal, if you are like me, you don't have access to the tools proper for doing so. Thus, the use of a whetstone is necessary. In my video below, I show you how to use the whetstone to sharpen your herb cutting sickle. This is similar to how the gentleman in the first video I linked sharpens his scythe. If you look carefully, you will not that he and I, both, sharpen with the blade facing away from our body and move the whetstone so that it moves away from our body, this lessens the risk of cutting ourselves if we make a mistake.

Sickles are ancient tools. They have been used since antiquity for the purpose of gardening, harvesting grain, and related purposes. Sickles have been mentioned as noteworthy elements of ancient cultures. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder recorded an account of ancient Druids harvesting mistletoe with a golden ritual sickle. The sickle is part of the iconography of fertility deities on the European continent. It is also the basis of ancient weaponry of similar design. (Interestingly, the ancient Egyptian sickle-sword, the khopesh evolved from battle axes rather than the sickle.)

The sickle is associated in modern Western iconography with the mythic figure of Death. It is also considered to be a standard in the depictions of Demeter/Ceres. Within the Filianic community, the sickle is associated with Sai Rahvë (the Janya of severity, death, and restriction). It is also associated with the Dark Mother, Deam Mysterium, by several believers. The sickle is an icon on its own that is attuned with the completion of cycles, the mysteries of death, and the clthonic aspects of the Divine for many different belief systems. It also has the potential to be upheld as a lesser version of the Moon Blade carried by the Daughter (and other lunar associated deities).

Sickles also are tools associated with political things as well. Perhaps the most famous association is that of the hammer and sickle of Russian Communism. The sickle is long associated with agrarian work. It is an implement that was among the tools carried by the lower classes when they engaged in uprising as makeshift weapons. (As a weapon, the sickle is a truly effective and frighteningly gruesome.) The sickle has a very wide range of associations and a history that is rich, complex, and ancient. It has the capacity to be used as a humble gardening tool, a powerful ritual focus, or a fearsome (albeit unconventional in the modern era) weapon. With proper care and maintenance, a sickle can be a tool that is handed down through generations with out losing its usefulness.

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