Sunday, September 17, 2006


Sponge on a Stick

Aristophanes, Frogs 479-490 (tr. with stage directions by Alan H. Sommerstein):
XANTHIAS: Hey, what's happened to you?
DIONYSUS: "The bowel is empty [ἐγκέχοδα]: call upon the god!"
XANTHIAS: Get up, won't you, quickly, you ridiculous fool, before anyone else sees you!
DIONYSUS [rising]: I feel I might faint. Give me a sponge [σφογγιάν] for my heart.
XANTHIAS [producing a sponge from the luggage-bundle and offering it to Dionysus]: Here, take it. [Dionysus lifts his clothes with his left hand; his right hand, holding the sponge, disappears behind his back.] Where is it? [Moving round behind Dionysus, and seeing that he is in fact using the sponge to wipe his bottom.] Ye golden gods! is that where you keep your heart?
DIONYSUS: Yes, it was frightened and slunk down into my lower abdomen.
XANTHIAS: You're the most cowardly god or man alive!
DIONYSUS: Me? What do you mean cowardly, when I actually asked you for a sponge? No other man would have done it!
XANTHIAS: What would he have done?
DIONYSUS: If he was really a coward, he'd have just stayed on the ground smelling his own stink. Whereas I, I stood up, and what's more, I wiped myself clean [ἀπεψησάμην].
A sponge, when used for this purpose, was sometimes attached to a stick.

The Greek word for a sponge on a stick is ξυλοσπόγγιον (xylospongion), from ξύλον (xylon = wood) and σπόγγιον (spongion = sponge). The Greek lexicon of Liddell, Scott, and Jones gives only a single citation, Hippiatr.69,100. This is a reference to vol. 1, pp. 69 and 100 of E. Oder and C. Hoppe, edd. Corpus Hippiatricorum Graecorum, 2 vols. (1924-1927), which is unavailable to me. According to Herbert Chayyim Youtie and John Garrett Winter, Papyri and Ostraca from Karanis. Second Series (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1951) = Michigan Papyri, Vol. VIII, p. 39, in these veterinary texts the word means "a sponge attached to a stick for the purpose of applying medicine to open sores." I do not find this word in the Poorly Attested Words in Ancient Greek project at the Università degli Studi di Genova.

The Romans were acquainted with the word as well as the thing. The word appears in a letter by Terentianus Claudianus preserved on papyrus (P.Mich. VIII, 471.29-30, tr. Youtie and Winter):
He paid no more attention to me than to a sponge stick, but (looked only) to his own business and his own affairs.

non magis quravit me pro xylesphongium sed su<u>m negotium et circa res suas.
The word also appears in an inscription from Ostia (L'Année Épigraphique 1941, 5):
Durum cacantes monuit ut nitant Thales //
Verbose tibi / nemo / dicit dum Priscianus /
[u]taris(?) xylosphongio nos / [a]quas(?)
I'm not sure how to translate this inscription. "Durum cacantes monuit ut nitant Thales" means "Thales [one of the Seven Sages] recommended that those who defecate with difficulty should strain," and "Verbose tibi nemo dicit" means "No one speaks to you with many words." "Utaris xylosphongio" is "you use the sponge on a stick," with "utaris" as second person singular present subjunctive of "utor", followed by the ablative. This could be subjunctive after "dum" ("provided that", "as long as"), but how does the name "Priscianus" fit in? Nominativus pro vocativo? If so, the words from "Verbose" to "xylosphongio" might mean, "No one gives you a long lecture, Priscianus, as long as you use the sponge on a stick." And what about "nos aquas"? Despite the uncertainty, it does seem clear that the sponge on a stick is used here for wiping after defecation.

Without using the word xylosphongium, Seneca (Letters to Lucilius 70.20-21, tr. Richard M. Gummere) obviously refers to a sponge on a stick in this gruesome tale of suicide in a latrine:
For example, there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself, - the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses [lignum id quod ad emundanda obscena adhaerente spongia positum], and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death! Yes, indeed; it was not a very elegant or becoming way to die; but what is more foolish than to be over-nice about dying?

What a brave fellow! He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate! How bravely he would have wielded a sword! With what courage he would have hurled himself into the depths of the sea, or down a precipice! Cut off from resources on every hand, he yet found a way to furnish himself with death, and with a weapon for death. Hence you can understand that nothing but the will need postpone death. Let each man judge the deed of this most zealous fellow as he likes, provided we agree on this point, - that the foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery.
Martial 12.48.5-8 (tr. D.R. Shackleton Bailey) also mentions a sponge on a stick as the ultimate destination of a fine dinner:
"But it's a fine dinner": very fine, I confess, but tomorrow it will be nothing, or rather today, or rather a moment from now it will be nothing; a matter for a luckless sponge on a doomed mop stick [infelix damnatae spongia virgae] or some dog or other or a crock by the roadside to take care of.
In his notes, Shackleton Bailey (on mop) says "Used for sanitary purposes" and (on dog) says "Qui ad vomitum occurrit -- Schrevelius," which leads me to wonder whether he thought the sponge on a stick was used to clean vomit rather than feces. The parallels quoted above seem to favor feces.

Nicholas Hancock wrote:
It's with the Romans we first know for sure what they wiped themselves with. It was a stick with a sponge at one end which, after use, they swirled round in salt water to clean it off for the next user.
It's not with the Romans, but with the Greeks that we first know for sure what they wiped themselves with. They used sponges or stones or possibly towels. I'm not aware of any evidence that the sponge on a stick was cleaned in salt water, although one would hope that it was cleaned somehow.

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