Heto u Sheblo: Wheat Ear Symbolism in Ancient Civilizations

You can watch the associated Suroyo TV broadcast (in Turkish) with journalist Yawsef Beth Turo and Nurgül Çelebi here.

By Nurgül Çelebi

In antiquity and before, people associated fertility with multigrain plants. For this reason, multigrain plants and fruits such as grapes, pomegranates and figs were used as motifs to symbolize fertility. The wheat ear, which is the most important indicator of the harvest period, too was most frequently used as a motif symbolizing fertility. The ears of wheat (‘sheblo’ in Syriac) also represent the law of flexibility and harmony in symbolism because spikes are resistant to all kinds of stormy weather due to their flexibility and slope strength. The fact that they always manage to stand up despite all the adverse weather conditions symbolizes resistance, strength, and flexibility. These assigned meanings gave the ear of wheat an important place among symbols in virtually all ancient societies. The fact that these societies were agricultural, naturally caused them to attach special importance to wheat (‘heto’ in Syriac). For them, farming meant life itself.

Wheat ear in ancient societies

It is not surprising that the wheat ear and its motifs take centre place in annual (harvest) spring festivals. It is possible that this symbol was used to represent the abundance and fertility of the new year in Akitu, one of the most important festivals of Assyria and Babylonia.

In ancient times, the harvest season turned into a full feast. When we examine each of these societies, we can say that the harvest period is celebrated as a very important holiday and the harvest is blessed.

Wheat ear is frequently seen in agricultural rituals and beliefs, and its variety in symbolism and motifs is high. There is a power manifested in the spike. Simple or complex rituals, shaped in various ways, aim to establish beneficial relations between mankind and the natural forces and maintain the natural balance. For example, it is very common not to mow the first or last ears of a field. The meaning of this tradition is to ensure that the true power of the harvest, its essence, is not harmed. According to belief, the power of all plants is gathered in the last wheat ear and this power is considered sacred. In many countries, the last sheaf of wheat cut is called the “bride”.

Wheat ear

The commonly used harvest symbol of the wheat ear finds its origins in the Near East, in Hittite, Greek, Roman, in the Torah and the Bible, but also in Maya traditions. It is mostly found in motifs such as wheat, field, garden, fruit, sickle, and grape bunch and used together.

According to some sources, the harvest symbolizes death, and the harvester is associated with time and Kronos or Saturn. According to legend, Kronos has a sickle which represents the setting power of the autumn sun. The sickle, often seen in the harvest symbolism, severs the wheat ear from its roots and probably represents the period of death until the next harvest.

Moreover, most of the Hittite deities and other Mesopotamian gods are depicted with a sheaf of wheat. Crops and the wheat ear are often represented in the art of people dependent on kings for their subsistence. For example, corn and wheat stand out as symbols of life in Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman art; they are depicted in the form of spikes and sheaves to symbolize the gods of agriculture.

Assyrian Relief of the Banquet of Ashurbanipal from Nineveh Gypsum N Palace. British Museum.
Caesarea, Coin of the Period of Septimius Severus.

In monotheist religions

The seeds planted in the ground grow in the earth’s field and turn into ears. In a way, they are associated with the state of incarnated souls on earth. They are expected to evolve and develop with their practices. This analogy parallels the biblical description of the world as a school. Grasses that resist growing in this school and the negative effects they produce are called “weeds”. When the right time comes, the Lord of the Universe harvests the ripening plants and separates these grasses from the wheat ears. During harvest time, weeds and wheat ears can be easily distinguished from each other.

The main importance of wheat in the Christian tradition is that it is the main ingredient of bread, and bread symbolizes the body of Jesus Christ. Being the main ingredient of bread, wheat becomes the essence of the symbol of Jesus Christ.

The bread used in eucharist.

Although it is not known for sure, it has been assumed that a period of collective natural disasters, generally expressed as “floods”, took place on the earth during or after the harvest period in ancient times. That’s why today, old people often tell stories about post-harvest distress, natural disaster, or famine. Based on this belief, it was thought that such natural disasters had a cleansing and purification function that prepared the earth for the new era. Accordingly, the period of purification usually took place after the harvest had been harvested, just before the new period began.

These calamities were thought of as minor doomsdays and symbolized rebirth so that the land could be ploughed again after having harvested. In this context, the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ as a disaster, and his resurrection after this disaster also indicate rebirth after purification.

May the abundance of the wheat ear never disappear from your life!

Nurgül Çelebi was born in 1985 in Istanbul. She holds a master’s degree from the Syriac Language and Culture Department at Mardin Artuklu University with her thesis on Sun and Moon Symbolism in Syriac literature. She continues her Ph.D. program in the history of religions at Ankara University with her thesis on “Sin-Shamash Duality and Its Reflection on Religions”. She is currently continuing her second Ph.D. in the Assyrian History doctorate program at ELTE University in Budapest.

Nurgül Çelebi works on Mesopotamian beliefs and mythologies and published papers on these subjects. In addition to academic studies, she has published three novels in Turkish: “Yarına Dokunmak“, “Aşka Dokunmak”, and “Tanrı Dağı”. Her stories have appeared in five anthologies: “Karanlıktaki Kadınlar”, “Hayalet Müzik”, “Eskilerin Şöleni”, “Dark Antoloji Birinci Kitap”, and “Dark Antoloji İkinci Kitap”.