A scythe consists of a long (about 170 cm or 5' 6") wooden shaft called a snaith, snath, snathe or sned (modern versions are sometimes made from metal or plastic). The snaith may be straight, or with an "S" curve, but the more sophisticated versions are curved in three dimensions, allowing the mower to stand more upright. The snaith has either one or two short handles at right angles to it – usually one near the upper end and always another roughly in the middle. A long, curved blade (roughly 60-90 cm, approx. 24"-36") is mounted at the lower end, perpendicular to the snaith. Scythes always have the blade projecting from the left side of the snaith when in use, with the edge towards the mower. In principle a left-handed scythe could be made, but it could not be used together with right-handed scythes in a team of mowers, as the left-handed mower would be mowing in the opposite direction.
A scythe blade is made by peening the leading edge of the blade. In some uses, such as for mowing grass, the blade-edge is made almost as thin as paper. After peening, the edge is finished and subsequently maintained by very frequent honing with a whetstone or rubber (fine-grained for grass, coarser for cereal crops), and peened again as necessary to recover the fineness of the edge.
Mowing with a scythe is a skilled task, performed with relative ease by experienced mowers, but often poorly and with very great effort by beginners. Long-bladed traditional scythes with double-curved wooden snaiths are harder to use at first, but once mastered are more effective and comfortable for longer periods. Shorter-bladed or hack-scythes are easier for beginners. A skilled mower using a traditional long-bladed scythe can even cut very short grass, and this is how lawns were maintained until the invention of the lawnmower.
According to the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities of Sir William Smith, the scythe, known in Latin as the falx foenaria (as opposed to the sickle, the falx messoria), was used by the ancient Romans; for illustration, Smith shows an image of Saturn holding a scythe, from an ancient Italian cameo.
According to Jack Herer and "Flesh of The Gods" (Emboden, W.A., Jr., Praeger Press, NY, 1974.); the ancient Scythians grew hemp and harvested it with a hand reaper that we still call a scythe. Cannabis inhalation by the Scythians in funeral rituals was recorded by the Greek Historian Herodotus (circa 450 B.C.E.) in the early 5th Century B.C.E. The nomadic Scythians introduced the custom to other races such as the Thracians.
The scythe appeared in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. Initially used mostly for mowing grass, it replaced the sickle as the tool for reaping crops by the 16th century, the scythe allowing the reaper to stand rather than stoop. In about 1800 the addition of light wooden fingers above a scythe blade produced a form of scythe called the cradle which soon replaced the simple scythe for reaping grain and mowing other tall vegetation such as reeds. In the developed world, all of these have now largely been replaced by motorized lawnmowers and combine harvesters.
The Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in Sheffield, England is a museum of a scythe-making works that was in operation from the end of the 18th century until the 1930s. This was part of the former scythe-making district of north Derbyshire, which extended into Eckington. Other English scythe-making districts include that around Belbroughton.
Mowing with a scythe remained common for many years even after most mowing became mechanized, because a side-mounted finger-bar mower (whether horse or tractor drawn) cannot mow in front of itself. Scythes would therefore be used to open up a meadow – to mow the first swathes, thus letting the mechanical mower in to complete the mowing.
The scythe is still an indispensable tool for farmers in developing countries and in mountainous terrain.
In Romania, for example, in the highland landscape of the Apuseni mountains, scything is a very important annual activity, taking about 2-3 weeks to complete for a regular house. As scything is a tiring physical activity and is relatively difficult to learn, farmers help each other by forming teams. After each day's harvest, the farmers often celebrate by having a small feast where they dance, drink and eat, while being careful to keep in shape for the next day's hard work.
Among Basques scythe-mowing competitions are still a popular traditional sport, called segalaritza (from sega: scythe). The contenders compete to cut a defined section of grown grass before his rival does the same.
The Norwegian municipality of Hornindal has three scythe blades of in its coat-of-arms.
The scythe also plays an important traditional role, often appearing as weapons in the hands of mythical beings such as Cronus, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Grim Reaper (Death). This stems mainly from the Christian mythological interpretation of death as a "harvester of souls." Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Death, also used a scythe.
Scythes also were used for scythed chariots.