Druid Tools – the Sickle
The sickle is another interesting Druid tool. Interesting to me anyway, in that, like so many Druid tools, its use could be either literal or up for interpretation.
Luckily, Druidry is a very particular type of spirituality that’s not so much concerned with “correct” detail. It’s more about making sure we ask the right questions.
Because it’s through these questions that we can find the relevance for the concepts within our lives today. We have nothing concrete to go on. So, interpreting from our own modern perspective then, we must make a best guess. And we can only do that based on similarities to other earth religions while at the same time feeling how true these things ring for each of us.
We can’t know for sure what the use for something like the sickle was two or three thousand years ago. Optimally and instead, we should work to understand what it means to us in the Now.
The sickle in history
For myself, I have to take a giant step back when I read about this particular tool in history. Of course, one of the only written mentions of the sickle is again, from the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. Pliny describes the Druids of Gaul cutting mistletoe hanging from oak trees with a golden sickle and catching it on a white cloth. This rite, apparently also by tradition, took place during the Winter Solstice, though he doesn’t go into detail.
Pliny provides no description at all of the sickle as he’s more focussed on describing the medicinal properties of mistletoe. Fair enough. The guy was a naturalist, so can’t fault him. You can find a decent translation in the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University of chapter 95 of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis describing this mistletoe-cutting activity if you’re in the mood. And again, it’s pretty thin on detail, verbose without telling us much.
One of my main problems with Pliny’s description is there’s no evidence he even witnessed this rite himself. Zero, actually. As far as I’ve ever studied, this description seems to be a record of information he got second-hand. Another issue I have with this record is he attributes this activity to people in Gaul by name. These would have been Druids from around France on a modern map. This suggests, this tradition belonged to the Celtic Druids of mainland Europe and not all Druids.
I also know mistletoe didn’t grow in Hibernia and Albion in the first century AD when he wrote this work. That means, this rite couldn’t have taken place in what we now call Ireland or Wales.
Interesting side note on human genetics for context…
The people of Wales are genetically similar to people in Ireland. This tells us that people from the pre-Roman world settled there making their cultures linked. And they’re distinct from the people around them. This is only important as it explains why their Druid traditions are nearly identical.
For this reason, we refer to the Druids of Wales and Ireland together and separately from Druids from mainland Europe who were Celtic Gauls (from France, Belgium, Luxemburg and parts of the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany). The Druids of Wales and Ireland were also different from those on the island of England north of Hadrian’s Wall where Scotland is today. That area was settled by a Scandinavian people, from the Netherlands, so were also Celtic Gauls like those on mainland Europe. Their genes are related to people in those noted countries, but different from people in Ireland and Wales.
I’m just full of useless info, aren’t I? You should see me at Trivial Pursuit. 😜
So what the heck does this have to do with the sickle?
I suspect Pliny’s description was obtained from someone who witnessed this Celtic Druid activity in mainland Europe. Or his sources heard it as a story from someone else who may have seen it. We don’t see this activity recounted from any other areas or by other Druids.
Out of this story, we can see that mistletoe was highly prized for its multiple curative properties. As was it growing on an Oak tree being a rarity. That alone would attach a special significance to its harvesting. You can see this in the mirrored sacredness and reverence that Druids afforded the oak trees where they believed the ancestors and the gods rested.
In that context, it would have been considered a rare gift given to man by the divine. Its curative properties would have backed that up every time it was used. And so, gold, a rare element and also highly prized, was the element of choice for the tool in that sacred harvest.
Why a golden sickle?
Why was the sickle made of gold? Other than the simplest explanation, that it was high in value and so appropriate to that sacred situation? It’s been theorised that it may have even been medicinal. Accidentally or on purpose, because gold is a non-conductive metal, using it wouldn’t spoil the harvest with bacteria that would cause this precious plant to spoil quickly. Again, we just don’t know, but given their advanced understanding of medicine it’s a logical leap. They were healers and observers of nature and adept at picking up on cause-and-effect. It’s not a stretch that someone somewhere along the way could have noticed if they used gold, the fruit wouldn’t spoil as fast.
Counter to that, Ross Nichols (Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids from 1964 to 1975) suggested that, instead, the “mistletoe cutting ritual” with the golden sickle was meant to be taken symbolically. And for a practical reason, with which I have to agree. A gold blade could never be sharpened into a usable apparatus for cutting anything never mind mistletoe.
Other parallels with the sickle
Ronald Hutton‘s book Blood and Mistletoe – The History of the Druids in Britain expounds on the fact that the Druids of Britain left nearly no reliable evidence of their practices behind. Without that evidence, and as Hutton so aptly describes, that means “generations have been free to reimagine, reinterpret, and reinvent the Druids”.
It wasn’t until the Druid revival at the end of the Romantic Period we started to see “information” about Druids. Most everything we know today has its roots in that resurgence. After gentleman scholar John Aubrey began his quest in the latter half of the 1600s, he realised there were patterns to the many megalithic ruins scattered across Europe. And that they probably had meaning.
That’s where his journey began, but there were no absolutes then. He had no reference beyond about ten pages total of translated historical scraps. Certainly, no revelations rained down on him from any entity on high. He simply began asking questions. And we’re still encouraged to question today.
We know Druids were scientists as well a spiritualists. In that context, if you want to parallel the sickle with a concept, it’s the means by which we question to a point. So, in a world where we have unbending religious dogma on one side and the spiritual barrenness of hard science fact on the other, the sickle represents cutting through both. It’s where we should live, in a state of questioning, or perhaps, scientific philosophy.
While I’ve seen that offered as a suggestion, I don’t know if that sits quite right for me, personally. Although, as most truths are, I think it may be a dash of column A and a pinch of column B.
What about the sickle shape?
The shape of this tool may or may not have significance. I mean, I can find parallels to anything given enough info, though there’s a possibility there may be something to it. Basic impression to me? It’s the same shape as a scythe. The sickle shape made it a more effective tool for harvesting compared with a straight-edged blade.
However, if you want to take a leap, I would say the shape echoes the sickle moon. And that did have great significance in Druid life along with most cultures on earth. We even saw this same shape represented in the lunulae worn around the necks of important people in the Bronze Age. So, we have to think about that. Why did they wear that shape as a symbol of their revered positions? What was the significance? Why would it signify someone, and by extension, something important enough we should give it our respect?
Many cultures celebrated the moon two or three thousand years ago, that heavenly body that brought light to Bronze Age nights’ darkness. Before electricity or gaslight, they counted on it for protection and survival. The ability to see in the dark, see predators before they struck, enemies before they attacked, illuminate an otherwise terrifying blackness where all manner of dangerous things could lurk was huge. Right up there with the ability to make fire. It’s the basis for the Winter Solstice celebration, that relief in light coming back to an otherwise dark and frightening world.
In this context, the sickle symbol, rather than a full moon, represents the return of light. This would have been attributed with great significance as something to be celebrated and maybe it’s this simple. But you must decide that for yourself.
Last words on the sickle for modern Druids
For modern Druids, is it imperative you have a traditional sickle as one of your sacred tools? I would say that depends on what flavour of Druidry you practice. If you follow the tradition of the Celtic Druids, then yes, your tradition would attribute more significance to this sacred tool and at some point you’ll probably want to add it to your sacred toolkit.
Do you have to make one yourself? No. Like any other tool, you could obtain yours from an artisan and dedicate it to your purpose. In choosing a ready-made one, again, select the tool that draws you, not the one that looks the coolest. Sometimes? It’s the plain things that jump out and call for our attention the loudest, so don’t think it needs to look fancy.
As with all tools, if it has use to you, aligns with your energy and that rings true, then go with your gut. Pick up the one that draws you. If you’re lucky enough to know a blacksmith to have one made and dedicated for you specifically, that’s fantastic, though, obviously not required.
Beyond as a handtool, does the sickle moon shape itself still have significance for us in modern days? Yes, most definitely. The return of light concept has many aspects. Light conquering darkness and light coming into balance with dark represents right thinking. The sickle or crescent moon is also a symbol for life and death. Similar to the triskele, it suggests all things in balance and harmony in a cycle without end of which we’re all a part.
To a Druid, walking a path in the pursuit of knowledge, following the Awen, means questioning as we seek enlightenment. Nothing can escape its connection with anything else and something we’re very conscious of. So for us, we might also incorporate the sickle moon shape as one of the symbols we add to our staff or wand or on our crane bag or wooden boxes that hold our incense or other implements. It can be a reminder to us of the impermanence of the moment and that greater pursuit of truth that casts light over us all.
For a more colourful demonstration of some of these Druid tools in action, check out my book, The Seer. This historical sword fantasy about a Druid in the fictional realm of Edenshire in 4th-century Britain is available at Amazon!
Check out all the articles in this series on Traditional Druid Tools!