Buried with a Sickle: Death’s Scythe or Anti-Demon Protection?

Death of the Discworld via Wikipedia

Death of the Discworld via Wikipedia

Scythes and sickles have a very clear symbolic association for modern populations. The personification of death is traditionally pictured with a scythe (full size version pictured to the right) or sickle (the handheld version), a metaphorical link between the reaping of the crops and the taking of lives. Death also goes by the name of the Grim Reaper, shower an even closer connection to his role in harvesting lives for the afterlife. My personal favorite interpretation of Death is Terry Pratchett’s version, a sympathetic and not quite so omnipotent version of the character who has a family and a horse named Binky. Throughout Pratchett’s stories of Death, the scythe plays an important role not just in the daily duties that Death must fulfill, where the scythe is used to sever the soul from the physical body, but it also plays an important symbolic role in the perceptions of death within Discworld- when a New Death comes to replace the old Death, this newer version wields a scalpel like instrument instead of a scythe, perhaps hinting at the increased medicalization of death today and loss of understanding it as a natural phenomenon.

But why would you find a scythe or sickle used in a burial? Is it evidence that the Grim Reaper claimed this individual? A method of preventing vampires from rising from the grave? Or is there some symbolic meaning relating to farming?

A new article by Polcyn and Gajda (2015) examines the presence of sickles in early modern burials in Poland. Sickles were common for farming in this region from the 10th to 13th centuries CE, and were found in archaeological contexts relating to farming, or symbolic deposition near waterways and bridges. However, these tools decreased in usage and were not found as frequently into the Middle Ages. However, five burials from the Drawsko cemetery in Poland have sickles placed at the necks of the human remains. Traditionally, these graves have been interpreted as evidence of fear- potentially of vampiric like behavior from the deceased, with the sickles used to keep the dead from rising. However, Polcyn and Gajda (2015) argue that we need to independently assess the identities of these individuals in comparison to the other burials at the cemetery and determine alternative meanings of these sickle burials.

The cemetery of Drawsko was used around the 17th century, and is organized in the Christian tradition of east to west aligned burials. Of the over 250 individuals buried there, only five had evidence of sickles placed in their graves. These five unique burials were located in different areas of the cemetery and aligned in the same manner as the other burials. None of the five individuals showed evidence of traumatic injuries, bone deformation, disease or dietary deficiencies, and overall appear to be in fairly good health. All five were buried in wooden coffins. The individuals include a male aged 30-39 years, a female aged 14-19 years, a male aged 35-44, a female aged 35-39 and a female aged 50-60 years.

Skeleton of a teenage girl with a sickle on the throat, a copper headband across the skull and a copper coin below the mandible, via Polcyn and Gajda 2015

Skeleton of a teenage girl with a sickle on the throat, a copper headband across the skull and a copper coin below the mandible, via Polcyn and Gajda 2015

Sickles are found in other cemeteries- 72 sickles were uncovered in burials dating to the seventh to tenth centuries CE in south-west Slovakia, although these were found at different locations on the body, and there have been several graves from medieval Poland and Germany where sickles were found somewhere in the burial. The reason why this was done is not clear. There are four major interpretations of sickle burials: 1) evidence that the individual was a farmer, 2) symbol of wealth and higher status, 3) used as a weapon and symbolic of individual’s role as warrior, or 4) an anti-demonic magical item that protected the dead and living.

There is little evidence for the first three interpretations at Drawsko based on the other artifacts found in the graves and the individuals themselves. However, Polcyn and Gajda (2015)  argue that “The placing of the sickle’s cutting blade across the throat of the deceased in the Drawsko burials clearly indicates a gesture of confinement of the deceased in the grave under the threat of slitting their throat. The magical and ritual meaning of this gesture seems beyond doubt.” They propose that it may have been used to hold the dead in the ground, but also aid in their transition to the afterlife. Despite the fact that they were buried in a Christian cemetery, from ethnographic evidence we know that parallel beliefs and superstitions persisted in rural areas. During periods of instability like famine, war and pestilence, these more ‘pagan’ beliefs would become increasingly apparent. Those buried with sickles may have died a ‘bad death’ during a period of instability, and the sickles were used to protect the dead and the living from demons or other negative forces.

As a clarification,Polcyn and Gajda (2015) emphasize that these are not like the ‘vampire’ burials found at this site and others in Poland. Unlike the ‘vampire’ burials, these were not re-opened, the bodies were not physically changed. Instead, these were acts done at the time of burial to aid in safe transition of the deceased into the afterlife and prevent negative forces, rather than the anti-vampire behavior which often took place after burial and in reaction to negative forces, not as a preventative.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgPolcyn, M., & Gajda, E. (2015). Buried with sickles: early modern interments from Drawsko, Poland Antiquity, 89 (348), 1373-1387 DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2015.129

8 responses to “Buried with a Sickle: Death’s Scythe or Anti-Demon Protection?

  1. I can think of a few other possible interpretations of this – perhaps a mark of membership in a particular social fraternity, or a family tradition for members of a particular family who came from a related background.

    With a 17th century cemetery, you’d think that the practice would be recent enough that some mention of it might survive in the folklore of the area. I wonder if anyone has collected folktales from that area?

  2. If you check the original article, there is ethnographic evidence that supports the different uses of a sickle and its anti-demon associations (just ran out of space here to share all that!). It’s also possible there are other reasons local to this specific group that we don’t know of. Thanks for sharing your hypotheses!

  3. Have you ever read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman? She doesn’t have a sickle, but his Death is my favorite anthropomorphic representation. Pratchett’s Death is a close second, though.

  4. I really enjoy your blog, thank you. The sickle association with Western occult and pagan tradition and death as transformer, gate to the Ancestral world etc is one of the most famous archetypical representations in the Tarot; as The Thirteenth or Death card. Interested to read more deeply on the significance of the sickle/scythe in ancient culture and how this may have survived and been translated into the tarot representations.

  5. Is it possible that the sickles were simply laid on top of the coffins at the time of burial. Decomposition of the wooden coffin would have left the sickle in that position.

    • Its unlikely since the decomposition of the wood would have been visible below the sickle and the authors would have mentioned that- also, its unlikely that would happen in that particular manner five times.

  6. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 18/12/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast·

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