30 November, 2006

The Unknown Object: Part II

. . . as I was saying, the pampered bourgeois like myself, with our overcostly educations and the guilt of privilege, have been separated from the processes of man and nature. This is why I admire a cultured man of the earth like Hank Heatly—with his keen interest in Linnaeus and Pliny the Elder—who can engage my attention on the subject of, say, tomatoes, despite my total lack of interest in tomatoes. He probably knows a lot already about winnowing; but perhaps he knows less about Homer. Either way, let us engage in some hypothetical dialogue.

The Winnowing-Fan.

The poet sang, as we have seen, that 'another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder'. The mystery of this passage was longwhiles augmented for me by my utter ignorance in the matter of winnowing-fans. What is a winnowing-fan? It took me a surprisingly long time to find out. The Greek word is αθηρηλοιγον (athereloigon)—an oracular periphrasis, literally meaning 'consumer of chaff', and attested only here. Later commentators unanimously identified the athereloigon as a ptuon, with the normal sense of 'shovel'. So now we turn to two exquisite articles by the great Jane Ellen Harrison (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1903 and 1904), in which are discussed, at great but untedious length, ancient methods of winnowing crops. This is one of the most well-known devices, still used today:

It is what the Greeks called a liknon, the Romans a vannum, the French a van, and the English a van, or later, fan. It is, in fact, the origin of our common 'fan'. It looks nothing like what we think of as a fan—but the connection is that both are used to create currents of air. The farmer puts the unsorted grain and chaff into the basket, and shakes it until the lighter chaff is propelled over the fan's lip, while the heavier grain remains inside. In a footnote, Harrison notes with relief that this process has not been lost to time:
Such fans are still in use to-day in Cambridge as baskets and are regularly imported. Mr. [Francis] Darwin's gardener. . . states that the 'fans' were in use for winnowing when he was a boy, but the art of winnowing with them is now only known to a few old men.

Darwin's gardener winnowing with a fan

Here we see the pampered bourgeois intellectuals of a century past, like us, fascinated with the lower orders as 'folk', innocent bearers of ancient truths and customs. There is a melancholy in Harrison's words—and a desperation to preserve, against the encroaching clarinets of modernity, and indeed modernism, the wisdom of Europe's rural past. For her the fan is a little fetish of this past, an object surviving all change and history, unknown, but promising knowledge, yet—an object to be a little worshipped. 'The word 'fan'', she writes, 'is a beautiful word of almost magical associations'. Nonetheless, she will fetishise the object further by re-christening it as a 'winnow-corb', so as to distinguish it from a modern fan. The OED only barely attests corb, listing it as an error for corf, meaning 'basket' in various specialised senses:
(WEBSTER 1828, followed by other Dictionaries, has Corb, either a misprint for Corf (omitted in W.), or perh. a local form in U.S. It is unknown in England.)
The OED does not cite Harrison—though perhaps we should contribute the reference. If American, it seems odd that Harrison would produce corb merely as an 'archaism'; we find the word used later in a 1922 article by the eminent Bostonian archaeologist Harriet Boyd-Hawes, clearly alluding to Harrison.

Harrison enshrines the object with its own obscure term, smelling of history; but more tellingly, her articles chiefly concern the mystical significance of the fan, conflated with a sacred cradle, as an emblem of Bacchus. (On this see also The Golden Bough, ch. 43.) And to develop on Harrison's theme we might throw stones into the Middle Ages, where the vannus would be called a capisterium, and attributed to St. Benedict as the symbol of a childhood miracle. You can see a rather crude carving of Benedict's fan on a mediaeval capital (taken from Pamela Z. Blum, 'The Saint Benedict Cycle on the Capitals of the Crypt at Saint-Denis', Gesta 1981):

The fan reappears, in a thoroughly secular form burlesquing the deus ex machina, in a story (#29) from Marguerite de Navarre's 1558 Heptameron, in which a near-caught lover is quickly stashed in a ceiling-loft, covered with a winnowing-fan (van). An 1894 illustration portrays the fan exactly in its modern form.


You've noticed something, haven't you? At the beginning of this post I noted that Homer's winnowing-fan, the athereloigon, which is really what you're interested in, was identified with the ptuon or shovel, whereas all this time I've been going on about the liknon or basket. Well spotted! But don't worry, we're getting there: Homer's fan will become more known yet.

Harrison discusses the ptuon as well. In fact, she provides more information about it than you could possibly want to know. Trust me. But she concludes, in the second of her two articles, that the ptuon looked a bit like this:

It doesn't work in the same way as the basket—the farmer strikes the mixed crops up into the air with the shovel, usually on a windy hill, and lets the wind separate the two substances for him, the chaff being blown farther away than the grain. It is this type of fan favoured by the Biblical writers of both testaments. Jeremiah 15.7: 'And I will fan them with a fan in the gates of the land', using a typically archaic reduplication—the Hebrew word is mizreh, which also appears in Isaiah 30.24, and derives from the root zrh, 'to scatter'. (Thanks to Simon, here.) The verb-form appears in Isaiah 41.16: 'Thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall carry them away'. It is obviously the ptuon that is meant here. The Greek, sadly, is not very helpful here—the LXX renders Jer 15.7, for instance, as 'diaspero autous en diaspora', 'I will scatter them in a scattering', preserving the reduplication but losing the physical object represented by mizreh. Jerome's Latin is excellent, however, rendering the object as ventilabrum ('wind-lip'), which is the usual translation of—you guessed it!—ptuon. We know this because ventilabrum is used to render ptuon in parallel passages of the New Testament, Mark 3.12 and Luke 3.17:
ου το πτύον εν τη χειρι αυτου

Cuius ventilabrum in manu sua

Whose fan is in his hand
The sense is that the wicked will be scattered in perdition like chaff blown away by the winnowing wind. From thence the winnowing-fan became a popular Christian motif, denoting the discernment of the good from the evil, a holy form of the two paths of the Pythagorical upsilon.

What of Homer, then? For Harrison, 'the prescribed planting of the oar in honour of Poseidon was a ritual replica of the planting of Demeter's shovel-fan', which can be gleaned from a passage in Theocritus:
. . . of her [Demeter], upon whose cornheap I pray I may yet again plant the great winnowing-fan [mega ptuon] while she stands smiling by with wheatsheaves and poppies in either hand.
A. D. Ure ('Boeotian Haloa', Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1949) provides a visual example of Dionysius with a ptuon instead of a liknon, from the fifth century BC:

The image is a little difficult to make out, but the god's implement can be seen extending diagonally downward from his right hand, terminating just below the pig's head to the right of the scene. Ure notes proudly that his fan is 'more oarlike' than any of the classical images in Harrison's article. A modern sculptor, Conrad Shawross, visualises the transformation in his own way:

Michael Glover, in a review for the Independent, called this piece 'perfectly delightful, perfectly useless—just as art should be'. How far we have come from Homer's world! Such a vacuous aestheticism would have been impossible, when the beauty of oar and fan derived from the harmony of form and function, and when the monumental beauty of the athereloigon derived from its sublime play with that harmony. Still, Homer's object has become increasingly less unknown to us, as we have unravelled its history.

But less unknown it shall become still. For Harrison notes another use for the ptuon—'with a very long handle it is employed for lifting bread out of an oven'—and here she footnotes—'the long-handled oven-shovel is known in English and Scotch dialect as a peel'. She remarks further that a modern folk-telling of the Odysseus story transforms the oar not into a fan but into a peel: 'the shift from the country to the town implement is very natural'. Today we best know the peel for its use in pizzerias, though only the best still use proper ovens. The object has been continually metamorphosed, thus, from the sea to the countryside to the town, remaining invariant in form—a homotopy. The ancient is present, atavistically, in the modern.

This is how we learn to cope with the unutterable and terrifying gulf of time extending ever backwards—how we make sense of a past increasingly remote, and increasingly unknown. With our objects we preserve some fragile sense that such a past was, after all, much the same as our familiar present, only rearranged a little, like our words, and like the atoms of our bodies. We retain, at the same time, the hope that we will not be lost to the future: that whatever progress the world might make, the forms of our objects and ourselves will always prevail.

Update: Hank responds, flattered and flattering. The post is well worth reading. Update #2: Languagehat links, kindly, as does Clusterflock, and John B. responds to both myself and Hank, elegantly bringing together several threads. I am honoured to have had such an impact.

Final thoughts on the unknown object here.


Raminagrobis said...

I love these mini concept-histories you do; really entertaining, and informative.

I vaguely remembered a poem by Du Bellay about a winnowing-fan so I tracked it down (it’s based on a Latin original by Navagero, in turn based on a Greek original by Bacchylides); Ronsard wrote one too. These poets clearly have in mind the second type of winnowing-fan you discuss, the wind-powered version. Strangely enough, none of them makes any connection with the obvious idea of sorting the bad from the good.

Anyway, looking up the Du Bellay poem led me back to these two stanzas from Baudelaire, certainly a man alienated from ‘the processes of man and nature’ (I’m sure he was no more familiar than you or I with the process of winnowing): for him too, the winnowing-fan seems to be associated with a a vague sense of strangeness, a forgotten memory of something. The agitation of the chaff by the wind is something the eye cannot quite resolve into any recognisable pattern: perhaps by metonymy the object itself takes on something of this sense of elemental mystery.

Et ce monde rendait une étrange musique,
Comme l'eau courante et le vent,
Ou le grain qu'un vanneur d'un mouvement rythmique
Agite et tourne dans son van.

Les formes s'effaçaient et n'étaient plus qu'un rêve,
Une ébauche lente à venir,
Sur la toile oubliée, et que l'artiste achève
Seulement par le souvenir.

John B. said...

This would work as an episode of Connections. Fascinating reading, and a truly elegantly-written conclusion.

Unknown said...

The winnowing fan was in common use even a hundred years ago in the Great Basin, where it served two purposes associated with sustenance. The staple food in the basin and range province is the pine nut, or seed of two common trees, Pinus edulis and P. monophylla. Both can produce abundant nuts in the fall, and these are both nutritious and storable. The problem is how, for a people with neither pottery nor metal, to prepare them. The solution is to place them, along with hot coals from the fire, in a woven ‘basket’ of the sort called, in Shoshoni (one of the six or so indigenous languages of the basin), kappippen, and to toss the coals and nuts together, taking care not to burn up the basket, until the nuts are toasted. You then put the nuts on a flat rock, like a metate, and break the shells with another, like a mano. The kappippen then becomes a proper winnowing fan, as a little shaking and a breeze will separate the shells from the nuts. These aren’t made or used anymore, as far as I know, but were until fairly far into the last century. Their utilitarian purpose and potentially short life (because many would catch on fire) meant that they were generally made quickly and coarsely, but the last two examples below are more finely made and were perhaps for the winnowing of seeds other than pine nuts. Here is a kappippen in use; here a common utilitarian version with a nice fan shape, and here two finer examples, which I speculate were made for the tourist trade.

These are generally called winnowing baskets in English, since they use the same technology as other basketry items; in their home languages, of course, no such identification is made.

Languagehat said...

A superb and thought-provoking post. Alas, I have two deadlines tomorrow, so I cannot allow my thoughts to be blown by the winnowing wind. I must instead to the grindstone...

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gentlemen: thank you kindly, as ever. One could write about this forever, n'est-ce pas?

Unknown said...


I checked my dictionaries and realized that I had made a mistake. A kappippen is indeed a kind of basket used and named by the Shoshoni, but not a winnowing basket. The Shoshoni made two kinds of winnowing baskets: teman and yantun. A yantun is larger and more coarsely woven than a teman. I should have made it clear that these winnowers were used to prepare many kinds of wild seed foods, not just pine nuts. Sometimes they are called winnowing trays, besides baskets and fans.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Z. D.: Corf, indeed, comes straight from G. korb, which in turn (probably, though proud Germanists like kicking against the obvious) comes from the Latin corbis, 'basket'. Perhaps you're right, that German influence (and one might more readily expect this in some parts of the US than in England) has given 'corb' some dialectal life.

John Cowan said...

Corf is indeed borrowed from corbis via korb, but the true mystery is whether the formal equivalent (via the First Consonant Shift) of corbis, namely English harp, is a true cognate or a mere coincidence. Harps and baskets the same thing? Could it be so?

Alas, NID3 gives us merely curvus, plausible but unromantic. French harpe is neither here nor there, being a borrowing from English.

Anonymous said...

This anatomy of the winnowing-fan has great charm for me: the knowledge (one even longs for a little faux-knowledge slipped in); the fetish-making; and the leap to largeness at the end.

Anonymous said...

My family name is Wenner; our family history is documented to the 11th century in Crumstadt, a town which in the middle ages was sometimes in Germany, and sometimes in Switzerland. A more distant Wenner ancestor--a physician-- supposedly emigrated to Crumstadt from Sweden, where the largest lake was anciently called Lake Wenner --now lake Vanneren. But, like the Swedish lake, the Wenner surname is not pronounced with the expected initial "v"sound of German.

Our family's ancient heraldic device (NOT a coat of arms--the family were not nobility) is a stylized winnowing basket ("wenner") on a blue octagon. (Another Wenner family has the device of an upright fish, but we are not related) This "wenner" on its blue octagon field resembles a circle with two semi-circular handles, which unless you know what it is, --appears to be the silhouette of a bald man's head, with jug ears.

The heraldic winnowing basket (rendered realistically in basket-weave) can be seen in the Wenner family stained-glass window in the narthex of Our Lady of Walsingham Church in Houston Texas; the device is surrounded by stalks of growing wheat, and on a ribbon beneath, "Matthew 3:12" indicates the family motto. As the medaeval Wenners were prosperous landowners who produced several burgomeister magistrates, --the device, at once agricultural and metaphorically judicial, -- was curiously apt.

The church's website has a link to pictures of its stained glass window if you are curious to Google it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for this. (The picture is here, if anyone else is interested. The ribbon below says Luke 3:17, not Matthew 3:12--though as I have pointed out above, they are the same.) Glad to see the iconography in new ways!