Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Noctes Scatologicae: Divine Flatulence

God created us in His image (Genesis 1.26-27), but there are those who think we have created God in our image. Among these was the ancient Greek poet and philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon, who wrote (fragment 15 Diels-Kranz, tr. G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven):
But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.

ἀλλ᾽ εἰ χεῖρας ἔχον βόες <ἵπποι> τ᾽ ἠὲ λέοντες
ἢ γράψαι χείρεσσι καὶ ἔργα τελεῖν ἅπερ ἄνδρες
ἵπποι μέν θ᾽ ἵπποισι βόες δέ τε βουσὶν ὁμοίας
καί <κε> θεῶν ἰδέα ἔγραφον καὶ σώματ᾽ ἐποίουν
τοαῦθ᾽ οἷόν περ αὐτοὶ δέμας εἶχον <ἕκαστοι>.
Even pious Greeks such as Pindar recognized the affinity between men and gods (Nemean Odes 6.1-7, tr. C.M. Bowra):
Single is the race, single
Of men and of gods;
From a single mother we both draw breath.
But a difference of power in everything
Keeps us apart;
For one is as nothing, but the brazen sky
Stays a fixt habitation for ever.
Yet we can in greatness of mind
Or of body be like the Immortals,
Though we know not to what goal
By day or in the nights
Fate has written that we shall run.

ἓν ἀνδρῶν, ἓν θεῶν γένος: ἐκ μιᾶς δὲ πνέομεν
ματρὸς ἀμφότεροι: διείργει δὲ πᾶσα κεκριμένα
δύναμις, ὡς τὸ μὲν οὐδέν, ὁ δὲ
  χάλκεος ἀσφαλὲς αἰὲν ἕδος
μένει οὐρανός. ἀλλά τι προσφέρομεν ἔμπαν ἢ μέγαν
νόον ἤτοι φύσιν ἀθανάτοις,
καίπερ ἐφαμερίαν οὐκ
  εἰδότες οὐδὲ μετὰ νύκτας
ἄμμε πότμος
οἵαν τιν' ἔγραψε δραμεῖν ποτὶ στάθμαν.
Human beings expel 2-3 liters of gas per day on average from their intestines, according to Ralph A. Lewin, Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Sociohistorical Coprology (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 43. If the gods are like humans except larger and more powerful, presumably that amount would be proportionally greater. But I can recall only two passages from ancient Greek and Latin literature in which gods break wind.

The first is the Homeric Hymn to Hermes 293-298 (tr. Hugh G. Evelyn-White):
So said Phoebus Apollo, and took the child [Hermes] and began to carry him. But at that moment the strong Slayer of Argus had his plan, and, while Apollo held him in his hands, sent forth an omen, a hard-worked belly-serf, a rude messenger, and sneezed directly after. And when Apollo heard it, he dropped glorious Hermes out of his hands on the ground.

ὣς ἄρ' ἔφη καὶ παῖδα λαβὼν φέρε Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων.
σὺν δ' ἄρα φρασσάμενος τότε δὴ κρατὺς Ἀργειφόντης
οἰωνὸν προέηκεν ἀειρόμενος μετὰ χερσί,
τλήμονα γαστρὸς ἔριθον, ἀτάσθαλον ἀγγελιώτην.
ἐσσυμένως δὲ μετ' αὐτὸν ἐπέπταρε: τοῖο δ' Ἀπόλλων
ἔκλυεν, ἐκ χειρῶν δὲ χαμαὶ βάλε κύδιμον Ἑρμῆν.
For a detailed discussion of "hard-worked belly-serf" see Joshua T. Katz, "Homeric Hymn to Hermes 296: τλήμονα γαστρὸς ἔριθον," Classical Quarterly n.s. 49.1 (1999) 315-319.

The second example of divine flatulence in classical literature comes from Horace, Satires 1.8.40-50. The setting of this satire is the Esquiline in Rome, which used to be a cemetery, but now was the site of beautiful gardens. Witches still frequented the Esquiline under cover of darkness, to excavate bones for use in their magical rites. A wooden statue of the god Priapus tells how he scared the witches Sagana and Canidia away (tr. H. Ruston Fairclough):
Why tell each detail--how in converse with Sagana the shades made echoes sad and shrill, how the two stealthily buried in the ground a wolf's beard and the tooth of a spotted snake, how the fire blazed higher from the image of wax, and how as a witness I shuddered at the words and deeds of the two Furies--though not unavenged? For as loud as the noise of a bursting bladder was the crack when my fig-wood buttock split. Away they ran into town. Then amid great laughter and mirth you might see Canidia's teeth and Sagana's high wig come tumbling down, and from their arms the herbs and enchanted love-knots.

singula quid memorem, quo pacto alterna loquentes
umbrae cum Sagana resonarint triste et acutum
utque lupi barbam variae cum dente colubrae
abdiderint furtim terris et imagine cerea
largior arserit ignis et ut non testis inultus
horruerim voces furiarum et facta duarum?
nam, displosa sonat quantum vesica, pepedi
diffissa nate ficus; at illae currere in urbem.
Canidiae dentis, altum Saganae caliendrum
excidere atque herbas atque incantata lacertis
vincula cum magno risuque iocoque videres.
Priapus broke wind, as the Latin (pepedi) makes clear.

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