Reaping asphodel

Erasmus Adagia 377 – from the section of proverbial phrases for pointless tasks.

Τὸν ἀνθέρικον θερίζειν (‘to reap Asphodel’) is said of those who take in hand an empty and profitless task.  Asphodel is a kind of herb which cannot be reaped [with a scythe] but requires being plucked by hand like linen….

Τὸν ἀνθέρικον θερίζειν, id est Anthericum metere, dicebantur, qui laborem inanem ac sterilem caperent. Anthericus, herbae genus, quod meti non possit, sed velli manibus necesse est velut et linum….

Aside from Achilles in Bk 11 of the Odyssey walking off through an asphodel meadow in the underworld (μακρὰ βιβᾶσα κατ᾽ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα) and a similar notice in Bk 24 of the same work the only other reference point I have for asphodel in classical literature is early – lines 37-41 – in Hesiod’s Works and Days where he criticizes his brother Perses’ behavior on the death of their father:

Already we had divided our inheritance but you snatched up and carried off the greater part, honoring the gift-eating (i.e. feeding on bribes) kings who are willing to judge such a case.  Fools, who do not know how much more the half is than the whole nor what great benefit there is in mallow and asphodel.

ἤδη μὲν γὰρ κλῆρον ἐδασσάμεθ᾽, ἀλλὰ τὰ πολλὰ
ἁρπάζων ἐφόρεις μέγα κυδαίνων βασιλῆας
δωροφάγους, οἳ τήνδε δίκην ἐθέλουσι δίκασσαι.
νήπιοι, οὐδὲ ἴσασιν ὅσῳ πλέον ἥμισυ παντὸς
οὐδ᾽ ὅσον ἐν μαλάχῃ τε καὶ ἀσφοδέλῳ μέγ᾽ ὄνειαρ.

The general sense in West’s commentary on Works and Days is simply that mallow and asphodel – examples of the poorest fare – are recommended under the same conscious paradox as guides ‘the half better than the whole.’  The point is the preferability of honestly obtained poor fare to dishonestly obtained luxury.  No commentaries mention Erasmus’ adage – or the harvesting experience it springs from – but it seems something of a confirming contribution to Hesiod’s point – that Asphodel as terrible food and a pain to obtain is still better than wrongly gotten luxury.

And with this thought process I myself have reaped asphodel.

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