While gathering knowledge for yesterday’s post, I came across footage of an encounter between environmental activists and out-of-work fishermen who had been let loose on an arctic glacier to bludgeon seals. The environmentalists started filming the seal hunters going about their job, a tactic which succeeded in provoking the sealers to react with violence. I was surprised that these men, who were simple fishermen, would behave so menacingly. I can understand getting angry, but threatening harm to another person is another matter. Perhaps they felt shamed about what they were doing and wished to resist that impulse by asserting themselves in an agressive manner. It may be worth noting that they were holding tools in their hands designed to cause fatal damage to living things: Hooks and clubs. In another context maybe these could be considered weapons. But they are not weapons; they are tools for working. However, if one’s work is butchery, it might also seem like a normal and well-practiced thing to to apply them in combat.
Since we live in an age in which manual labor is a rapidly vanishing phenomenon, few of us are accustomed to using tools and implements which, though designed for productive purposes, could easily be used for injuring and maiming people. Those who do work with chainsaws, powerful construction equipment, threshing harvesters are aware of how dangerous they can be because in a single instant of inattentiveness these machines could mangle them for life. We use tools to shape and alter raw material. This cannot be done without destroying the old form somewhat to suit the new. For this reason, tools can also be dangerous.
Throughout history, in times of civil conflict or religious fanaticism, farmers have abandoned their crops and marched to war with their pitchforks, wood axes and threshing flails. A pre-industrial farmer had an entire armory available to him, because he does with the land and to his animals is every bit as vicious and destructive as pitched battle. He has knives for slaughtering pigs, whips for the horses. He plows furloughs into the earth with an iron blade. Countless times throughout history, these implements have been repurposed, with varying degrees of success, for war. When Peter the Hermit inspired great swaths of Europe’s peasantry to march on the Holy Land in the People’s Crusade, his army was reportedly so poorly outfitted that when Hungarian authorities confiscated 16 suits of armor from his ranks, it was considered a major loss to his arsenal. In 1381, Wat Tyler led a force of Essex farmers into London and seized the Tower within a day, though almost no one in his army owned a sword.
In the Illiad, because his audience is composed primarily of peaceful landowning farmers and their families, Homer employs pastoral similes to describe the battlefields of Troy and the movements of Greek armies. He compares the Argive column to a swarm of honey bees and their rushing of the field likened to winds running through a wheat crop. Champions are illustrated figuratively in the same way a Greek might describe a prized bull. The poetics of Homer bridge the gap of centuries between peace and war and enliven dull, rural life with the spectacle of great events. But inasmuch as violence and brutality are a regular component of human existence, agriculture and warfare possess a least a few common traits.