Saturday, May 05, 2007


Noctes Scatologicae: Coprophagy

My son drew my attention to the following news item, reported by Craig Mcdonald, Wife Laced Husband's Curry with Dog Dirt: Sick Stunt Ends Marriage, Glasgow Daily Record:
A wife laced her husband's curry with dog dirt after their marriage broke down.

Jill Martin, 47, burst out laughing when he began tucking into the meal, a court heard yesterday.

At first she told husband Donald, 49, that she had put arsenic in his food - but then admitted what she had really done.

Her lawyer, Terry Gallanagh, said the case was "like an episode of Desperate Housewives".

The couple had been married for 21 years but the relationship had gone "completely off the rails". Mr Gallanagh claimed his client had endured "mental abuse" for five years and things had reached an all-time low.

Mr Gallanagh added: "At that time, she believed he had started an affair, although those fears turned out to be unfounded." He added Mr Martin had started a new business venture but had kept his wife in the dark, much to her annoyance.

Paisley Sheriff Court heard Jill Martin had been drinking on the night she spiked the meal.

She appeared from custody at the court after the incident on March 13.

Yesterday, sentence was deferred for six months after she admitted assault by recklessly concealing faeces in her husband's food.

She also admitted breaching the peace.

Martin is banned from approaching her husband or the matrimonial home in Newton Mearns, Glasgow.

She has moved to live in Bishopbriggs. The couple plan to divorce.
This news item gives me an excuse to trot out (pun intended) some notes collected for the coprophagy chapter of a larger work in progress, tentatively entitled Noctes Scatologicae or Horae Scatologicae.

Certain foods that humans eat are jocularly named after, although not actually made from, excrement. H.L. Mencken, Happy Days: 1880-1892 (1936; rpt. New York: Knopf, 1968), pp. 135-136, claims to have eaten a type of pastry known as cow flops:
The humor of the young bourgeoisie males of Baltimore, in those days, was predominantly skatological, and there was no sign of the revolting sexual obsession that Freudians talk of. The favorite jocosities had to do with horse apples, O.E.A. wagons and small boys who lost control of their sphincters at parties or in Sunday school; when we began to spend our summers in the country my brother and I also learned the comic possibilities of cow flops. Even in the city a popular ginger-and-cocoanut cake, round in contour and selling for a cent, was called a cow flop, and little girls were supposed to avoid it, at least in the presence of boys.
[O.E.A. = odorless excavating apparatus, used to clean cesspools and privies.]

Mencken's cow flops remind me of another pastry with a scatological name, pets-de-nonne (in English "nun's farts"). Similarly in Thailand certain small chili peppers are humorously known as prik kii nuu ("mouse dung peppers", scientific name Capsicum annuum).

A spice used in Indian cooking is asafoetida (scientific name Ferula assafoetida). A German word for asafoetida is Teufelsdreck ("devil's dung"). Also of German origin is the type of bread known as pumpernickel, whose name comes from early New High German Pumpern = fart and Nickel = devil. From an etymological point of view, pumpernickel thus means "devil's fart".

From jocular names of foods, we pass on to foods at one remove from dung. Humans ingest with gusto the rare Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, made from coffee beans excreted by the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) after it eats coffee cherries.

Mushrooms of the genus Coprinus are also at one remove from excrement. Their scientific name comes from their habitat, which is dung (in Greek κόπρος, kopros). In English these mushrooms are generically known as ink caps. Some of the species of Coprinus are supposedly very tasty, such as Coprinus comatus, aka "shaggy mane" or "lawyer's wig". Dutch mycologist Kees Uljé explains how to "grow your own" varieties of Coprinus mushrooms:
Finally there is the cultivation method. This is of interest mainly for Ink Caps on solid dung. If we collect a cow-pat or droppings of horse, sheep or rabbit on which Ink Caps grow and place it in a covered plastic box we can sometimes cultivate fruit bodies at home – sometimes for quite a while. We can also take dung without mushrooms. Ink Caps will appear for certain. Which species will be a surprise. The only problem is that we have to prevent everything going mouldy. This always happens after some time with completely covered boxes. Last October I filled a flat, round plastic plant dish with cow dung. I put this in the attic covered with a frame of wooden slats with a transparent plastic sheet stretched over it, at a height of about 5 cm above the dung. There are openings beneath the plastic sheet through which air can circulate. At the end of March I still have six kinds of fresh Ink Caps and some other mushrooms. In this way you can study fresh mushrooms throughout the winter.
Robert Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 360, explains the taboo against eating certain animals as follows:
Another mark held against animals as food was the practice of 'eating excrement'.19 It was too common to be an absolute disqualification, but it perhaps not a coincidence that the purifiers of On the Sacred Disease told their patients to abstain from dog, pig, and goat (as well as deer), the three domestic animals that were most commonly charged with scatophagy. By consuming such animals, one becomes a vicarious 'man-eater' and 'dung-eater' oneself. Human flesh and dung were, of course, the supremely impossible foods for a man. Cannibalism is analogous to incest, while 'dung-eater' is an expression used of a man who will stop at nothing, and more loosely as one of those insults that derive, like 'temple-robber', 'murderer', and 'mother-sleeper', from the most degraded or polluting acts.

19 Epicharmus, fr. 63, cf. (mud) Philemon, fr. 79.19. The writers on fish often allude to 'mud-eating'. For scatophagous animals (and men) see J. Henderson, The Maculate Muse, Yale, 1975, 192-4.

Next we look at supposed examples of humans actually eating excrement. In Shakespeare's King Lear (3.4.131-144), Edgar in disguise is asked his name and introduces himself as follows:
Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipp'd from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish'd and imprison'd; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body,
            Horse to ride, and weapons to wear;
            But mice and rats, and such small deer,
            Have been Tom's food for seven long year.
Let's look at one dish in Poor Tom's diet, cow-dung for sallets, that is, cow-dung instead of salads. Josephus, Wars of the Jews 5.13.7 (tr. William Whiston) mentions the same dish, eaten by necessity:
Some persons were driven to that terrible distress as to search the common sewers and old dunghills of cattle, and to eat the dung which they got there; and what they of old could not endure so much as to see they now used for food.
In 2 Kings 6.25 we read of the dung of another animal eaten as food:
And there was a great famine in Samaria: and, behold, they besieged it, until an ass's head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of dove's dung for five pieces of silver.
Similarly in Isaiah 36.12 it is envisioned that the inhabitants of Jerusalem, under siege by Sennacherib, might be driven to extraordinary dietary measures:
But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?
On a project to recycle excrement in order to make it more palatable, see Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (visit to the Academy of Lagado):
I went into another chamber, but was ready to hasten back, being almost overcome with a horrible stink. My conductor pressed me forward, conjuring me in a whisper "to give no offence, which would be highly resented;" and therefore I durst not so much as stop my nose. The projector of this cell was the most ancient student of the academy; his face and beard were of a pale yellow; his hands and clothes daubed over with filth. When I was presented to him, he gave me a close embrace, a compliment I could well have excused. His employment, from his first coming into the academy, was an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva. He had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.
Some vehicles owned by trucking companies sport a bumper sticker asking the question "How's my driving?" and giving an 800 number to call. A wag started selling bumper stickers for ordinary vehicles that said "Don't like my driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT." That happens to be a real phone number of a real company, although the receptionist will be surprised if you call and start complaining about someone's bad driving. She was when I called.

Someone on the Internet once attempted to translate "Long-tongued Poo Eating Moonbat" into Latin as Macroglossius lunarius abundantia fectum comedo. That's not Latin. I'll give my translation of the phrase.

Let's start with "long-tongued." It should be macroglossus, from Greek μακρός (makros = long) and γλῶσσα (glossa = tongue), not macroglossius. The adjective macroglossus can be found in botanical nomenclature, e.g. Macroglossus minimus, otherwise known as the dagger-toothed flower bat.

For "poo eating," I'd suggest coprophagus, from Greek κοπροφάγος (koprohagos = eating dung), itself from κόπρος (kopros = dung) and φαγέω (phageo = eat). Liddell and Scott s.v. κοπροφάγος cite Galen 12.249, Hesychius, and the Suda S1.v. βοῦς Κύπριος. In English we have coprophagous and coprophagy.

The Latin adjective meaning "pertaining to the moon" is lunaris, not lunarius.

Finally, the ancient Latin word for "bat" is vespertilio, from vesper (evening).

Putting these all together, we get macroglossus coprophagus lunaris vespertilio for "long-tongued poo eating moonbat".

There is of course no such animal in nature as the Long-tongued Poo Eating Moonbat. But there are many of God's creatures that do eat dung. One is mentioned in Sue Hubbell, A Country Year (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 205:
Termites are social. Their eating habits make them so. Although some people call them flying ants, they are not related to ants but to cockroaches. Like some roaches, they contain within their gut microorganisms that process cellulose, transforming it into a food that they pass between one termite and another by anal feeding. This makes social organization necessary.
The parallel with the characteristic posture of another species, Homo sapiens, is obvious, as anyone who has observed the phenomenon of brown nosing in a corporate setting can tell you.

Ralph A. Lewin, in his magisterial Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Socio-Historical Coprology (New York: Random House, 1999), discusses aspects of dung eating by various animals in his chapters on Nutritional Values (pp. 79-86), Dung Beetles (pp. 87-91), and Refection, Transfection, and Dissemination (pp. 92-101).

In Aristophanes' Peace, Trygaeus is sick of the war between Athens and Sparta. He decides to fly to heaven on the back of a dung beetle, to ask Zeus why he's destroying the Greeks with war. On his flight, Trygaeus is worried that he will fall off the dung beetle (149-172, tr. Jeffrey Henderson):
(to the spectators) As for all of you, for whose sake I'm performing these labors, stop farting and shitting for a period of three days; because if this thing picks up the scent while airborne, he'll toss me off head first, and go off to pasture.

Now giddyup, Pegasus, and bon voyage;
strike up the rattle of curb chains
on your golden bit, with ears laid back.
What are you doing, what are you doing? Where
are you pointing those nostrils? Toward the alleyways?
Hurl yourself bravely away from the ground,
then spread your racing pinions
and head straight to the halls of Zeus,
averting your nose from poop
and from all mortal feeds.
Man! Man in Piraeus, the one shitting
in the whores' quarter: what are you doing?
You'll get me killed, killed! Do cover it up,
pile plenty of dirt on top,
and plant thyme over it,
and pour on pefume! Because if I fall
from here and suffer any harm, for my death
the Chian state will be fined five talents,
all because of your arsehole!

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